The Schmooze

How to Lose Yourself in Jewish Lithuania

The Summer Literary Seminars are about “getting lost in a findable context,” said the program’s founder and director, Mikhail Iossel, somewhat oxymoronically.

“It’s about losing yourself on a journey with others with a shared interest in literature and creative writing,” he went on to explain about the seminars that have been taking place since 1998 in St. Petersburg, Montreal, Nairobi and Vilnius.

Participants in the programs participate in intensive creative writing and literary workshops, and meet with local historians, journalists and writers. The Vilnius program, which begins this year on July 31, has a special “Jewish Lithuania” track for those interested in delving deeply into Vilna’s rich and deep Jewish past.

“We make a point of not holding these seminars at some idyllic, secluded site in Upstate New York. We want writers to temporarily put their lives in a different context, to see life through the eyes of their peers who live in these other places,” Iossel said. Or, as the SLS website puts it: “We believe… that writers, the ones that take their craft seriously, from time to time should make an effort to change the basic context of their writing lives, and the more drastically so the better.”

Iossel, an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, was an active member of the literary samizdat movement in Leningrad. After emigrating from the Soviet Union to the U.S. in 1986, he began writing in English in 1988, and is the author of a collection of stories titled “Every Hunter Wants to Know,” the first published work of English fiction by a Soviet émigré.

“I was always drawn to Lithuania, fascinated by its Jewish history, but not only that,” Iossel said. He was inspired to add the Jewish track to the program after reading Dovid Katz’s “Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish.” The percentage of Jews in Lithuania’s population was the highest anywhere in Europe before World War II, and Lithuanian Jews were almost entirely annihilated. “Mainly by the Lithuanians themselves,” Iossel pointed out. These facts, coupled with the country’s push since joining the European Union for a reevaluation of it history, made the need for the track even clearer.

This year’s Jewish Lithuania program, titled “Litvak Experiences,” will explore the rich history of the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” as Vilna was once known. Iossel was quick to point out that although the 45 participants in the regular SLS Lithuania are mainly young creative writing students and professional writers, the 15 people on the Litvak Experiences program will span a large age range and need not have any professional or academic background . “It’s not workshop-based, it’s open to anyone,” Iossel stressed. He cautioned, however, that there is a lot of reading involved.

This year, SLS Lithuania also launched an “East-European Roots: New Writing on the Old World” non-fiction writing contest in affiliation with Tablet Magazine, judged by Phillip Lopate. First through third place winners won scholarships to this summer’s SLS Lithuania.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Iossel is looking to expand the “findable context” to Georgia, Estonia and Israel in the not-too-distant future.

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How to Lose Yourself in Jewish Lithuania

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