This distinction between 2 geographical, ideological, linguistic and
gustatory Jewish groups has a long and bitter history.
Maybe my gloss on this history betrays my own prejudices but I will give it
none the less.
First, the Litvak area is in the region formerly controlled by the Kingdom
Of Lithuania, much larger than it's present size. So, people whose parents
were in what might today be called Poland or Belarus were under the
influence of the old Lithuania. The area called Galicia is further south
and encompasses today's Austria, Hungary, Romania, etc.
Second, the center of Jewish learning and scholarship in the old days, say
1650 onwards, was in Vilna, the Jerusalem of Europe. This center radiated
its influence to the entire Lithuanian kingdom and empahsized learning,
piety, strict observance of halakha, etc. Thus, in time, these properties
characterized Litvaks. Along with these wonderful qualities came a scorn
for the untutored masses, many of whom lived inside Lithuania but more of
whom lived far >from the center of learning, in Galicia.
Third. Around 1750 emerged the mystical, populist Baal Shem Tov (Master of
the Good Name) who started the Hassidic movement. This movement emphasized
that piety was accessible to the untutored, that personal, emotional
identification with God was the real goal of Jewish living. It wasn't quite
a New Age Judaism because it used the traditional texts and prayers to
achieve this goal. It also created many new prayers (like L'kha Dodi, sung
Friday nights) which are today incorporated in our prayer books. Naturally,
this movement attracted most of its followers in Galicia, although there
were plenty of Hassidim in Lithuania.
Fourth. The rabbinic leadership in Vilna reacted against the upstarts and
they and their followers were called "Mitnagdim", i.e. opponents.
Fifth. So the Litvaks and the Mitnagdim bacame one group and the Hassidim
and the Galicianers became another group. So serious was the schism that
intermarriage between the 2 groups was forbidden.
Sixth. Nowadays the 2 groups exist uneasily side by side while most Jews
have lost their strong pietistic allegiances. However, the pronunciations,
the style of cooking, etc have been projected thru the mothers onto
succeeding generations so that even today one can tell a Litvak >from a
Galicianer by their pronunciation of certain words.
Seventh. The rest of the Jewish world was influenced by this major struggle
going on in Eastern Europe, but not as strenuously. There were many who did
not ally themselves with either side. As usual, individuals don't make a
mark on history unless lots of other people are affected so these
unaffiliated were much more easily drawn into the non-religious,
enlightenment movements such as Zionism and Socialism that swept Eastern
Europe in the 1800s.
Gene and Ellen Sucov in Pittsburgh and Jerusalem
MODERATOR NOTE: This is a very interesting subject and
we are sure it is going to generate many responses. Since
the topic is only marginally genealogical, we ask that you
keep all your responses well within the main topic of this
Forum: *genealogy*. Perhaps someone could post a reference
to a good article or book on the question.