Lent can be a trying time for Catholics. So I understand why Catholics would invent a Carnival holiday featuring foods forbidden during Lent. In Vilnius, Lithuania where Carnival is called Uzgavenes, it also features a Halloween like atmosphere where people dressed up as and mock Jews and Gypsies.
Yes, the very people who participated in the Nazi extermination of Jews and Roma find mocking their victims a fun way to let off steam after Lent. People also dress up as devils, goats, and monsters, though, regardless of what costume you wear, wearing one at all is called “eiti zydukais,” which means “going as Jews.”
Reducing Jews and Roma to demons, monsters and animals is bad enough. Doing so in a city and a country that murdered most of its Jewish and Roma populations is frightening.
Lithuanians, however, find it fun.
Now, before I get on my high horse and condemn these fun loving Jew and Gypsy murdering folks for wanting a little joy in their lives, let me say that we Jews too have our version of Carnival. It’s called Purim. And we too dress up; most often as characters from the story of Queen Esther. The difference is that we don’t identify, stereotype, and demonize a people in the process. (We have the Bible for that.)
Imagine opening your door to Halloween candy seekers to find a gaggle of kids dressed up in costumes that reflected stereotypes of African Americans or Native Americans. You would be shocked and offended. Or at least I hope you would.
On the other hand, we Americans continue to use Native American names and stereotypes for our sports teams, and this is similar to what happens to Jews and Roma during Uzgavenes.
Europeans almost exterminated Native Americans the way Nazis and their collaborators almost exterminated Jews and Gypsies. Having reduced these peoples to a fraction of their numbers it is easy to promote and then appropriate for other uses a mythic, stereotypical image of them.
In the case of the Native Americans it is the myth of the Warrior that attracts sports teams to Native Americans. We call our teams Chiefs or Braves in the unconscious hope that we will magically appropriate the courage and nobility we assigned to the Amerindian after their slaughter. In the case of the Jews and Roma in Lithuania it is a magical attempt to ward off the feared Other who still haunts their dreams, nightmares, and political fantasies even after murdering millions of them.
What are the Jews of Lithuania doing about this practice? Nothing. They smile weakly and wait for Uzgavenes to pass. Why? Because they know first hand that it is a short step from mockery to murder, and they would rather put up with the former than provide a catalyst for the latter.
How about all of us giving up demonizing people for Lent? And then continue it for the rest of our lives as well? There’s a holiday I could get behind.