A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard by Jill Culiner Genre: Nonfiction Biography, History, Travel
Culiner's intrepid pursuit of the elusive troubadour and the lost world from which he emerged enriches us with a double depiction of the turbulent times and places of the bard's era and the galloping commercialization of our own. Like a chef who manages to document great recipes before they disappear, Culiner serves us an utterly delicious feast of flavours we do not want to lose. Robin Roger, writer, reviewer, Associate Publisher, New Jewish Press 2016-18
Invited by Culiner to join her travels to find Velvel was a gift in isolated pandemic times. Part history, part biography and part literature, the writing poetically transfixed. Train rides, villages, and Velvel's life move between magical realism and extraordinary insights into Jewish history generally missing in heritage tourism. Daniel J Walkowitz, Professor of History Emeritus, Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis Emeritus New York University, author of The Remembered and Forgotten Jewish World
A captivating romance, a thrilling mystery, a fascinating tour back and forward in time, and so much more. Culiner takes us out of the contemporary fast-paced, digital society and superbly redraws the varied contours of the shtetls of Eastern European countries of yore via one remarkable itinerant Jewish existence. The book brilliantly brings back to life the unjustly forgotten Hebrew poet and Yiddish melodrama author, Velvel Zbarzher, a significant precursor of Yiddish theatre that moved from Galicia to Romania, the Russian Pale of Settlement, Austria, and finally Turkey. A breathtaking read! Dana Mihailescu, Associate Professor of American Studies, University of Bucharest
What a beautiful book! The writing is clear and direct, the subject matter is interesting and important, and the characters are lively and realistically portrayed. In short, it's a good piece of reporting, and was entirely successful in wafting me to another time and place. Barrington James, former foreign correspondent for the Herald Tribune and UPI, author of The Musical World of Marie Antoinette
The Old Country, how did it smell? Sound? Was village life as cosy as popular myth would have us believe? Was there really a strong sense of community? Perhaps it was another place altogether.
In 19thc Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Misnagedim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. Secular books were forbidden; independent thinkers were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution and expulsion. But the Maskilim, proponents of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, were determined to create a modern Jew, to found schools where children could learn science, geography, languages and history.
Velvel Zbarzher, rebel and glittering star of fusty inns, spent his life singing his poems to loyal audiences of poor workers and craftsmen, and his attacks condemning the religious stronghold resulted in banishment and itinerancy. By the time Velvel died in Constantinople in 1883, the Haskalah had triumphed and the modern Jew had been created. But modernisation and assimilation hadn't brought an end to anti-Semitism.
Armed with a useless nineteenth-century map, a lumpy second-hand coat, and an unhealthy dose of curiosity Jill Culiner trudged through the snow in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania searching for Velvel. But she was also on the lookout for a vanished way of life in Austria, Turkey and Canada.
This book, chronicling a forgotten part of Jewish history, follows the life of one extraordinary Jewish bard, and it is told with wry humour by award-winning Canadian writer Jill Culiner.
Falling snow obscures all. Surely no one will travel in such a blizzard. Even huge, snow-covered stray dogs curl desperately against the walls and doors of the central bus station. Take a look at the rusty mini-buses with threadbare tires in the station yard: those motorized tin cans will never risk ice-covered, potholed roads.
I’m wrong, of course. I’ve spent too much time in places where people are easily upset by weather. This is Ukraine; snow is normal. The unheated can I board joins other cans, cars, horse-drawn carts, and off we go, gliding along as if nothing unusual is going on. Even the driver is not in the least troubled by high drifts. As we slalom merrily, left, right, centre, left, half-spin, centre again, he chats amiably to the woman sitting just behind him. Further obscuring the view, a special metal attachment just above the windscreen allows for his impressive collection of good luck tchotchkele: toy animals—two bears, a bunny, a puppy—a bouncing crucifix, an icon, several splendid sprays of plastic flowers.
Svyniukhy (Svinich) is now called Privetnoye, and it’s some thirty kilometres away. On these bad roads, the trip there will easily take three or four hours, although I’m not certain about much of anything since I’ve also lost my modern road map and I can’t understand anyone anyway. Outside, white hills swell gently, and despite the snowstorm, a heavy mist makes time inconsequential. Perhaps it’s a curtain of sorts, one through which I must pass in search of the past. Yes, the countryside does resemble that of Michigan or Ontario—my grandmother said it would. Still, there’s something else out there, something quite unlike the New Country. Although Stalin ordered the collectivisation of smallholdings and the ploughing up of boundary brush, the traces of long strips, as narrow as the medieval past, are still stamped into the black earth by those long-gone serfs’ toil. Old mud roads are here too, just wide enough for carts and horses, heading toward villages hidden by hills and coppices. And, everywhere you look, those peasant women are there again, drab, bulky, lumbering homeward.
People climb into and out of the tin can at strange places, without dwellings, signs, or indications of any sort. Sometimes we pause in tiny villages with today’s usual jumble: ruined old houses with tin roofs; beautiful wooden terraces ruined by polyvinyl chloride siding; ugly new shops in cement; brick bungalows lacking style and charm but with effective heating; beautifully tended old houses of adobe with small double windows and, sometimes, a sculpted wooden entry. What I wouldn’t give to be invited into a few of those for a gawk.
The driver, exasperated that I speak no Ukrainian, lets me know it, turning, looking at me pointedly, sneering, making snide comments to smirking fellow passengers, all of them flat-faced, blue-eyed folk. Let him have his fun, I don’t mind in the least. I’m taking in the sight of the men and women trudging through the snow with straw baskets containing flapping chickens or heavy sacks. These tree-lined roads, carts and horses, unpaved mud streets, are visions from another time: yes, I have reached the other side of the curtain. What will I find in Svinich? Will I see the inn? Is there still a bench out in front? What about the river?
Born in New York, raised in Toronto, Jill Culiner has lived in England, Holland, Greece, Turkey, Germany and Hungary, keeping body and soul together by delivering newspapers, belly dancing, translating, tour guiding and a great many other tedious jobs. She presently resides in a small French village, similar to the not very pleasant one presented in her mystery, Slanderous Tongue.
For her non-fiction work, Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers, she crossed Romania on foot tracing the path of immigrants bound for North America at the end of the 19th century. The book won the Tannenbaum Prize for Canadian Jewish History in 2005 and was short-listed for the ForeWord magazine prize.
As a photographer, her exhibition concerning the First and Second World Wars, La Mémoire Effacée, has toured France, Canada and Hungary under the auspices of UNESCO and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an artist/creator of social critical objects, her work has been exhibited throughout France and Germany, in Spain, England, Switzerland and Poland. It now fills La Boule d’Or, a former café/hotel transformed into a peculiar mini museum open to the public. Its wild garden (much to the distress of close neighbours) is a reserve for birds, butterflies, insects and reptiles.
She has spoken to genealogical and historical groups throughout the United States and Canada, has worked as a broadcaster for Radio France. An amateur musician (flute, piccolo, oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn) she plays in several orchestras and chamber groups.
In Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, inns and taverns were the hub of life. They were islands of capitalistic activity in a feudal environment; they were open windows to the world. Here people met: Christians, Jews, the religious, and the rebels. Travellers brought tales of faraway places. Business deals were conducted in inns; gossip, that preferred human activity, was passed on; marriages were arranged, politics discussed, and friendships cemented. In such places, musicians, actors, and storytellers performed, and everyone mixed with the innkeepers—many were women—and told them their secrets.
An inn was home, was home away from home, it was the place you could escape to. It was also the happy hunting ground of missionaries and prostitutes; and after weddings or funerals, all came to the inn to celebrate or drown sorrows.
An inn was where travellers would gather at night, and keep safe from brigands and thieves. The poorest slept on the inn floors, or even on the tables; others would itch and scratch away on the barn’s straw-covered floor, curled together with dogs, cats, farm animals, and vermin.
Those old inns are gone now, replaced by impersonal hotels and bars. But, as I criss-cross Eastern Europe, I’m still on the lookout for them, those colourful places we can hardly imagine today.
Excerpt from A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard:
In all the towns and villages through which I’ve passed, I’ve sought those bygone murky places where sour cabbage ponged in barrels, and the stench of alcohol mixed with sweat and the smoke from clay pipes. I want to sit in an old tavern with walls of glazed mud, occupy a rickety chair at a lame table, watch the drink-sodden hack furniture to bits, and smash crockery. I want to join those drinking endless glasses of tea, schnapps, beer, or wine; I want to relish the innkeeper’s bagels, boiled eggs, dried fish, cooked liver, sour black bread, herring, homemade buns, doughnuts, and cheese. What I wouldn’t give to be watching the lively show, rubbing elbows with peddlers, brigands, tattered cranks with paint box and crayons in hand, and itinerant poets. I want to see provocative women smacking their lips over glasses of acidic red wine, rascals with fingers as knotty as a hawk’s claws, with eyes that are small, hard, and savage. I want to sit in doubtful taverns where the owner is grimy and unshaven, and clients are ragged, mottled, ugly, talkative, mirthless, hook-nosed, solitary or ruminative. I want to hear loud discussions in disparate languages, the clatter of dice and dominoes. I’ll wait for the blind musician, a gaunt hatless fellow with shaggy black locks, who will sing sorrowful tunes of yearning, play his fiddle, move, trance-like, from side to side. At two in the morning, he’ll receive his collection, depart, and the innkeeper will close the shutters. And in the morning, we will begin the day with dominoes and dice.
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