Comments on A Contrary Journey by Jill Culiner
Traveling in the footsteps of the mid-19th century troubadour, Velvel Zbarzher, who sang and wrote poetry in both Hebrew and Yiddish, Jill Culiner has produced an intense, powerful, yet breezy narrative that is extremely unusual in that it is at once a work of history, biography, and memoir. On her long and often difficult research journey through the old Pale of Settlement (Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, parts of northern Ukraine, Latvia and Russia), Culiner’s first-rate eye allows her to render the world of the shtetl, past and present, with more intimacy, complexity and telling detail than anything else I have read. Zbarzher, considered a heretic by the religious Jewish community, fled to Romania in 1845 and spent the last twenty-five years there singing, writing poems, and carousing. It is the measure of the strength of Culiner’s work that her own journey is as fascinating as that of her subject.
Robert A Rosenstone, Emeritus Professor of History, California Institute of Technology
The lucky reader of A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard makes the acquaintance of two great iconoclasts: Velvel Zbarzher and Jill Culiner, the author herself. 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
Jill Culiner’s A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard, is a captivating romance, a thrilling mystery, a fascinating walking/train 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 nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Mitnagdim, 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 modernJew, 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 a loyal audience 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 modernization and assimilation hadn’t brought an end to anti-Semitism.
Armed with a useless nineteenth-century map, a warm lumpy coat, and a healthy dose of curiosity Jill Culiner trudged through the snow in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania searching for Velvel, the houses where he lived, and the bars where he sang. But she was also on the lookout for a vanished way of life in Austria, Turkey, and Canada.
To hear the introduction and first chapter of A Contrary Journey, go here:
About: A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard
A frustrated child, I longed for worlds I would never see. I wanted the treacherous deep woods found in fairy tales, castles where princesses lived, or the corrupt London described by Dickens. Later, Balzac, Fielding, Smollett, and Maupassant stirred my imagination. Then, thanks to Mendele Mocher Sforim and Sholem Aleichem, I encountered the Old Country’s cranky characters and twisted streets.
I even had people around me who could give me first-hand information about that unknown Old Country: my grandparents.
“Tell me about what life was like back then,” I begged them. “Tell me what things looked like.”
They only shrugged: “That won’t interest you.”
Their refusal fired my curiosity. I wanted to see the shtetlech, the Jewish sections of towns and villages. I wanted to stand in dusty main squares or chaotic markets, to frequent local inns; I craved unknown sounds and odours. But time passed.
Thirty years later, communism ended. I could travel in Eastern Europe, live there, see what was left of the past, and even find the former family inn. I could discover what life had really been like; for, until twenty years ago, we were fed a romanticized version of the shtetl. Heritage tour patter still keeps up the illusion, yet, despite myth, those shtetlech weren’t ideal cosy communities where solidarity, kindness, love, and pious warmth reigned. They were like villages everywhere.
Life in each shtetl was woven into that of the next by marriages, market days, trade fairs, and by those who travelled between them: musicians, predicators, the badkhonim or wedding jesters, merchants, weavers, shoemakers, water carriers, drovers, roofers, sawyers, farmers, wagon drivers, wainwrights, blacksmiths, peddlers, and hawkers.
The shtetlech were small enough for people to be known by both their name and an often-brutal nickname: Clubfoot Yankel, No Underwear Schwarz, Stinking Avru, or Old Maid Chantzah. Some residents were friendly, some were kindly, some were awful, some were horribly poor, others were wealthy with high status. Those at the bottom of the Jewish social barrel—water carriers, or unmarried girls from poor families—were constantly reminded of their inferior status by vicious comments, mockery, and cruelties.
Close to this low social grade were the so-called illiterates—the workers and craftsmen who, as adolescents, had been apprenticed or sent off to labour in factories. They didn’t attend Talmudic schools; they were less steeped in religious knowledge; they mixed with Christians in the working world. Discriminated against in religious ritual, they were only allowed to participate in additional readings after the Torah service.
Learned men stayed home studying, or they gathered in study halls and back street prayer houses. Women ran family businesses—inns, or small shops selling cloth, aprons, scarves, ribbons, tar, and resin. Only a tiny minority of girls attended a few years of cheder, the traditional elementary school. Most remained home, acquiring business skills, helping with household duties, raising younger brothers and sisters, learning the Tekhines, the Yiddish supplications, prayers, and religious obligations.
Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Mitnagdim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. Secular books were forbidden; independent thinkers were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution, and expulsion. Yet, in the big wide world, the nineteenth century was a time of great change, of cultural wealth, questioning, experimentation, and discovery. It was a time in which old social orders were being overthrown. In the Jewish world, the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, begun in Germany a century earlier, was now challenging the religious stranglehold in Galicia, Romania, and the Russian Pale.
The maskilim, proponents of the Enlightenment, were determined to create a modern Jew, to open the door to secular education, to found schools where children were free to learn science, geography, languages, history, and philosophy. They were demanding freedom of thought and movement, the right to read and write modern literature, to create plays and act in them, to question belief, or refuse it altogether. But life was not easy for such rebels. Rejected by their families, banished from their villages, they gathered in cities such as Brody, Lvov, Vienna, Warsaw, and Odessa, and knew the exile’s misery. But they did have one thing in common: they were starting anew, abandoning frustration.
Velvel Zbarzher (Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz) was born in 1826 in the shtetl of Zbarazh, now Ukraine, then Austrian Galicia. A maskil poet, he was considered heretical by the local Jewish community and forced into exile. He spent the rest of his life singing his Hebrew and Yiddish poems to a loyal audience of poor workers and craftsmen throughout Galicia, Romania, in Vienna, and Odessa. In 1880, he went to Constantinople and married Malkele the Beautiful, the woman he had loved for many long years. Three years later, he died.
I first discovered Velvel in Sol Liptzin’s History of Yiddish Literature, and it was this one sentence that particularly snagged my interest:
Zbarzher…might well have attained the pinnacle of fame…if he had not squandered his talent in disreputable Rumanian inns and Turkish coffeehouses.
I longed to squander my own talent in disreputable nineteenth-century inns, to find that vanished world. I craved villages where there was a silence we don’t know today; I wanted hawkers, blacksmiths, and pot menders; I needed to hear the sort of music that has now vanished. Above all, I dreamed of meeting Velvel, finding the houses where he’d lived, the towns he’d passed through, and of lurking in those fusty inns where he’d sung.
How about you? Aren’t you curious? Don’t you want to travel back to the mid-1800s in Eastern Europe? Do come and join me. We’ll take to the road together, and I’ll show you what can be found.
Photos from A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard