Interview with Mizrachi Feminist and Litvak Dr. Smadar Lavie

Visiting lecturer Dr. Smadar Lavie recently returned to Vilnius and agreed to a short interview for

I came here for my father’s posthumous degree. They had a big ceremony. I said I didn’t grow up as a Litvak, I grew up as a shvartze, because my mother is Yemeni, and Israel has lots of racism by the Ashkenazi Jews towards the Mizrachi Jews. So now that you’re talking to me, almost all of my classmates were Ashkenazi, children of survivors, and they didn’t have grandparents. They were very envious that I had a Yemeni grandmother. My grandmother was very nice to my friends because they didn’t have grandparents. I didn’t know why. It was just … over there. We use to call it “over there.”

So where did you study then?

I grew up in Holon, it’s a suburb of Tel Aviv, and I went to Bialik elementary school. I did my BA at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and my PhD is from University of California, Berkeley.

And then you stayed there?

I not only stayed… I am one of the leaders of Mizrachi feminism. Mizrachim are Jews who came to Palestine and then to Israel from the other world, the Muslim world, and the European margins of the Ottoman Empire, such as Bulgaria, former Yugoslavia, Greece, southern Italy, and then also Inner Asian, such as Kazakhstan, Dagestan, etc. Israel has a racial order. Mizrachim are 50% of the citizens, but they don’t even have corrective legislation, “affirmative action” in the United States. Ashkenazim are 30% but they are the dominant… they run the country in a sense, even though now it is changing, and 20% are Palestinians who are the remainders of a much larger population which Israel expelled in 1948. There were 900,000 Palestinians and they expelled 750,000 Palestinians, which created the refugee problem, and that was in order to make room for a Jewish state.
Tell us more about yourself.

As for myself, I didn’t know much about my Ashkenazi side. When I was born the midwives looked at me, my mother was Yemeni, she was an actress at Israel’s National Theater–

What about your father?

My father was an economist.

Was he Ashkenazi?

He was Litvak. My father was from Šiauliai. My grandfather was born in Vilnius, my great-grandfather was born in Vilnius, my grandmother was born in Kretinga. I got all the documents now, but I didn’t know this–

You could be a member of the Lithuanian Jewish Community…

I am a member.

You are?

When I went to Šiauliai yesterday they called me their lost daughter. But I didn’t know about it, because, you see, Israel has racism between Jews, and now when I’m in Lithuania, I understand where it’s coming from, because some of the people who orchestrated the racist ideology and the racist policies against Mizrachi Jews are from Vilnius, and on the whole Lithuanians are very xenophobic, they’re very much—


No, I wouldn’t even say racist, it’s just anything which is not familiar to them they are very suspicious of.

But that’s true of everybody in the world, if you are different, they don’t–

No, no. I come from San Francisco. The largest ethnic group is Latinos or Chicanos, the second largest is Asians, South East Asians, and only third come whites. So San Francisco is very diverse, that’s why I’m there. At any rate, my father fell in love with my mother. She was beautiful. She was an actress at the National Theater. Her name was Shoshana and he used to bring her roses so she would like him. Also, I didn’t know about this, Holocaust survivors were discriminated against in Israel. The sabra mentality was that you need to be like these Lithuanian mythical figures. I know now where it came from, after I visited here. I was here 40 days and now I’ve been a month. I understand these kind of mythical macho figures. The sabra was the Israeli-born. The sabra was blond. Not dark, not Semitic, but blond curls. The sabra had square jaws, which is like goyim-kind of aesthetics, and the sabra were very muscular. The sabra was concocted here in Vilnius, actually, because the ideologues of Zionism, the aparatchiks, the people who moved stuff… Ben-Gurion, they came from Poland, but the ideologues…


No, Herzl was completely looney-tunes. His children committed suicide, he sent them to Catholic school, he didn’t circumcise his son. This is not the place to talk about Herzl. At any rate my father fell in love with my mother, eventually she loved him back. They got married, and when I came out into the world, the midwives looked at me, and they said: “She doesn’t look like a Levinson.” They were also thinking about me, Smadar Leah–I was named Leah after Lena, my grandmother who died in the Holocaust… In Israel you don’t have middle names. So Smadar Leah is not sabra enough. They recommended that my parents change the name, so I became Smadar Lavie, which is a very sterile name. Sabra names are about bushes and mountains and acts of bravery, not Jewish names like Sarah, Leah. Also Lavie is a hybridization of Levinson and Lavie is the biblical lion or symbol of Judah. And I think my parents also thought, because they lived mainly in an Ashkenazi neighborhood, that the people would see me as a little dark Yemeni girl named Levinson, and they would bully me. So when I grew up, indeed, my mother was sheyna shvartze, because I grew up in an Ashkenazi middle-class neighborhood, and I was sheyna l’shvartzele, and actually I didn’t know anything better so I thought it was a compliment to be a shvartze [black]. Often times racism is based on phenotype, so in order to defend me, I guess, my father was very political and very conscientious. So I was raised as a Middle Eastern person, not as Ashkenazi, not as Litvak. I was raised as part of the Middle East. I only knew my father was Ashkenazi. He had this kind of dark blond hair, he wasn’t very Semitic, he had these kind of green-brown eyes.

Do you know about the kidnapping of the Yemeni babies? The Zionists believed that a good-sized family was two children, maximum three. Mizrachi families were large. So what they did during the yeshuv, or priest state, they took light-colored Mizrachi babies, mainly Yemenis, and they told the parents the babies died, and they sold them for adoption. In the mass migration of the ’50s it was Mizrachi, Yemeni and Balkan babies, about 30,000 of them, half were Yemeni… The thing was you needed to have a light complexion. They told the parents the babies were dead. They never even gave them a grave. Sometimes if a mother insisted they gave her a bunch of stuff, and one mother opened it and she just saw rags, you know, cleaning rags. All the issues started blowing up because in Israel when you are 17 they send an order to your parents’ house to go enlist in the army. So the parents, the Yemeni parents who had been told their babies were dead received the army enlistment [papers] because it was before computers. Even nowadays it’s an open wound in Israeli society. So when I was a kid if my mother and father weren’t with me people looked at me as if they thought maybe I was one of those kidnapped Yemeni babies. My father was very light-complexioned, and I’m a shvartze.

I’ll show you a picture on my public page. They have on my public page a picture of me, one of my friends also, her parents survived Auschwitz and Birkenau, and another one who is the child of Polish survivors. We were in the army together. You’ll see how dark I am compared to them. I get really dark in the summer.

So I grew up with a feminist-of-color consciousness, not with white feminist consciousness.

So you were in Auschwitz a few years ago?

No, I still can’t go to Auschwitz. I went to Stutthof in March, 2013. In 2013 I won one of Israel’s highest alternative awards for social justice for my life work to empower Mizrachi and Palestinian women, mainly Mizrachi women and children and mothers. So I remember I sat on the veranda with my uncle and my uncle started talking about the Holocaust to his grandchildren, not his children. In Israel you have to do a bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah roots project. So my cousin told me her daughter, the age of my son, told her one day: “Do you know that your father was in the camps?” She was shocked. “Do you know that he’s a survivor?” She then had more time to learn about it. I had a crash course. I sat with him in 2013 in Hamat Gan after I won the prize and everyone was very proud of me, even though it’s a Mizrachi prize. He told me, even he couldn’t talk about it. I’m an anthropologist and I know how to take people’s biographies. It came as fragments because it’s a traumatic memory and traumatic memory comes in pieces. Every once in a while he had to catch his breath. My father died when he was 59 from a heart attack, I was 25. So after so many years he’s telling this to me. He was the head of the Lithuanian Jews in Israel, Egudietz e Lite, the organization for Litvaks.

At any rate it got me interested and at that point I always had invitations to go to Poland. Not because of the Shoah, but I study comparative feminisms of color and there is a very important Chicana feminist by the name of Gloria Anzuldúa, and one of the most famous Anzuldúa scholars in Europe is at Łodz University and she does American Studies and Critical Race Studies. She always told me “You have to come to Poland.” She’s of Lithuanian origin and she looks very Slavic. I told her, “No! There are too many dead Jews in the ground. That’s why the ground is fertile. I don’t know. I’m afraid.” I wasn’t very interested. After my uncle talked to me about it, I wrote to her and then I met her at a conference in Austin, Texas, and I told her I want to come to Poland. She asked “Are you sure?” And I told her my family history. And I said, “Oh Smadar, I’ll be darned, I’m from Lithuania, too!” So her mother immigrated after the war to Poland because her mother is a film scholar, so she went to Łodz because Łodz has a good film school.

I remember I flew from Amsterdam, from Schiphol, because I was invited to give lectures in the Netherlands. I was so afraid to go to Poland, because of two things. First is the Shoah, and second, there are so many Polish Jewish jokes in Israel and we have this image of the Pole, and the Poles don’t like the Mizrachim. I didn’t know that this racism, this kind of deep racism was invented in Vilna by Litvaks. All I knew was Ben-Gurion was from Poland, Begin…. Begin was actually loved by Mizrachim. People even said he probably had some Moroccan roots because he…

At any rate, I came to Poland, I was in Łodz, I was in Warsaw, I was in Białystok, and the people who hosted me are basically people who study racism in America. At any rate, I wrote to my colleagues here, because after that, I was invited to Jagiellonian [University] to teach for a month, to give an endowed class, or master class, and I said, well, Europe is so small. I was very lucky to be introduced to Vytis Silius of the Asian and Trans-Cultural Studies Institute [at Vilnius University]. Not only is he a brilliant scholar, he’s a wonderful, promising young man. So I came here last year… No, when I was in Poland before, I went to Stutthof. Again, I couldn’t go [to Auschwitz]. Everyone in Cracow told me, you pay 90 złoty, you go to Auschwitz, it’s lunch included. I couldn’t go. I enjoyed Cracow. I couldn’t make the trip, even though they told me you get a sandwich, lunch is included. I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. I went to POLIN Museum because one of my mentors, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the museum is her idea.

So I went to Stutthof. I got a very, very informative and warm welcome who just finished, a Polish historian who just finished–she made an exhibit about Lithuanian women at Stutthof–and she just finished a doctorate on women in Stutthof. She’s Polish. She took me to the archives, she found documents. I gave her all of my relatives’ names. They didn’t find my granny. They did find two great aunts of mine, they went to South Africa, and that’s an amazing story. They lived in Klaipėda, on Magazine Street. I actually went, it’s near the Amber Museum, that’s where their house was. Near the market place. They had to leave Memel in 1938 when things got tough and they went to Kaunas, to Kovna.

What are you doing now in Vilnius?

I have to tell you first about what I did last year. I rented a car and I went all over Lithuania and Latvia. I went to the archives here. Lonely Planet is very Holocaust-denying. You can get practical [information on how to drive from] here to there from Lonely Planet. There are only two paragraphs about the Jews. I wrote them a letter of complaint actually. How can you write a guidebook about the Baltics without the Jews? Only two paragraphs!

So I had the documents from the archives here. I knew where they came from. I found second cousins of mine through facebook when I was at Stutthof! I looked for them and wow! I sent them the photos. This is your mother, this is uncle David, he was from Šilutė. You are in the archive of a concentration camp. You’re there with your facebook. You see documents. You know the name of your relatives and you take pictures. This is your mom. They’re from Klaipėda and they went to Kaunas. One of them was in the Children’s Aktion from Kaunas to Estonia [?], and then they met in Stutthof because they didn’t know where they had taken their sister. Both of them survived this, you know how there were death marches? They had a death swim. They survived the death swims. Here I’m seeing their documents. Uncle David who came to visit us in Israel. I just knew he had a number. I didn’t ask questions and no one told me. [Now] I see he and his son and wife who both died were shipped to Auschwitz and they write there are too many men, we don’t need so many men in Stutthof, we need women. And wham! I send them the pictures. And wham! we start talking. The technology is amazing!

So I knew details from them. I went to Šilutė, I went to Dimitravas, I went to Gargždai, I went to Kretinga, I went to Skuodas, I went to Liepāja, I went to Riga to find my family.

And what do you do now, are you just lecturing?

No. So that was my first year. I said, this is not enough. Like many people here, they come ten days, Americans, they do a roots trip, wham! they found it. I’m an anthropologist. It’s like a painful detective story to me. It’s like when you’re an adopted child and you don’t have your adoptions papers. I need to know my father’s history. So I said I’ll come back. So I came here last year, I stayed here, officially I gave three lectures about my work on Mizrachi feminism for the Asian and Trans-Cultural Studies Institute at the university. It was packed. The first lecture had 70 people. The second had 30. The third lecture was more theoretical and had 35. They told me for Vilnius University it was amazing. At the first lecture there was no place to sit. So I wrote to professor Silius [director of the Asian and Trans-Cultural Studies Institute], I told him, “Vytis, I want to come again. This is my fatherland.” He’s also from Šiauliai. I found out my family moved from Vilnius to Liepāja, and then from Liepāja–they had there, the Germans had a boycott of Jewish businesses–so in 1924 when my father was two years old they moved to Šiauliai. Then my father went to the university there and when [Operation] Barbarossa started he was expelled to the ghetto in Šiauliai. Last year again there are activists who are not Jewish in Šiauliai who make great efforts so that the memory of the Shoah is not forgotten. I went last year to Šiauliai, I saw… My father’s house is no longer there, but I found the rental documents. My uncle, for example, didn’t remember that my granny had a book store. I found it in the city records, all of the Jewish businesses. I found their house in the ghetto…

What will you do with all this material? Write a book?

No, not yet. If I’m still alive of course I’ll write a book.

Are you planning a trip next year?

Next year I’m already booked, but I do want to come back. This time I came to get my father’s honorary degree. Vilnius University has a beautiful initiative to grant posthumous degrees.

Do you know what happened yesterday?

They went to Israel now.

Yes, I wrote about Esther Klebonaitė-Grobman and the degree they presented her in Israel…

Anyway, I came here to get my father’s degree. I’ll show you the ceremony. It got over 100 likes…

So I arrived at night, Vytis came to get me, I went to sleep. The next morning, I have nothing, so I go to the café, and there’s this American Litvak kid. He tells me, “You’re the Israeli who’s coming to speak against Israel on campus! I saw it and I’m going to come and ask you hard questions!” I told him, calm down! I’m a social scientist. I don’t speak against anyone. I just talk about the research. Scientists are critical. We need to have a critical mind. Then he said, “Yeah, but you did this, that and the other! You’re a dissident!” So I said yes, perhaps I’m a dissident, I’m not an ideologue. I’m a scientist. So he calmed down when we started talking about places we both know, what brought him here, why he likes Vilnius. This was my first morning in Lithuania. And then I tell him that my father went to Vilnius University, I didn’t know about it because of the Shoah, I had just learned of it and came to find out more. And he said “Oh! They’re going to have ceremonies for posthumous degrees, you should go there.” I said, sure. He sent me the link and I filled out the forms, but there was a bug. I fill it out again, and I’m a techno-dumbo, I’m a computer idiot. So I wrote them when I was here, and I told them the program had a bug. I came here to look for documents, maybe you can help me because we did find documents at the National Archive that my father was at the university. [They] said, well, you missed this year’s ceremony, but let’s make inquires and come next year. So I told Vytis, I want to come.

Interview by Ilona Rūkienė