Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dnieper Shleppers

I still haven't completely absorbed the arrival home from the Ukrainian trip - the next slew of blog posts wil try and sort through some of the experiences and the slew of photos I took. As I said, being on a cruise ship is a new travel sensation for me - no rural Romanian train stations, no deportations, no hitch hiking in Bulgaria, none of the things I am accustomed to. Still, one could come to like this mode of transport. For one thing, there is breakfast. And not just any crawlouttabed and cramsumtindownmygullet breakfast, but a real hotel style brekkie... sitting next to, lets say, Prof. Dovid Katz who runs the Vilnius Summer Program in Yiddish, self proclaimed "only Litvak born in Boro Park" and a man who knows enough to bring his own yoghurt. Another unique experience was to be on board a ship in which not only was the Yiddish language and culture the subject of the cruise, but Yiddish was also the living language and culture of a great many of the folks on board. And I'm not talking the Hungarian Satmar and Vizhnitzer Hasid-based Yiddish that I have been working with for the last ... well... since sobieski's zayt... no, these were mostly folks who had roots in the Ukraine or Poland, a lot like the people I grew up around back in the Bronx as a kid. A great many came from Montreal, where the Jewish community still maintains a Yiddish language High School, due to the peculiarities of the French-based Quebec school system. The result is that you have a large population in Montreal that speaks Yiddish without being Hasidic - which has a strong and positive effect on the status of Yiddish in the Canadian Askenazic Jewish identity. They spoke a Yiddish that still made jokes, still had songs about falling in love or getting a bit tipsy, still had words for food with something in it that tasted good. The Hungarian Hasids simply don't care about that stuff. A shame, but heck, glorifying Hashem and describing the taste of garlic varnishkes will never share the same episode of Eprah Vinfrei... Here's a good example of what we did on the boat. There might be a jam session with the world's best Klezmer musicians, or maybe a lecture with somebody like Prof. Eugene Orenstein from McGill University's Jewish Studies Program on topics like Jewish Culture in Odessa or Agricultural Setlemnts in the Dnieper Delta region. Some might chose to join Dolgini's Yiddish Choir, or maybe Hélène Domergue-Zilberberg's Yiddish dance sessions. But the best moments were entirely impromtu, like this amazing session of Yiddish Joke telling by the elderly Abe Bartel of Paris, France, translated by Prof. Orenstein (with as straight a face as possible) - you just do not find experiences like this very often in the 21st century...

Afterewards there was usually a session of late night singing and playing in the top-deck bar of the Dnieper Princess. Instead of a dry ethnographic approximation of a Yiddishe party, this was always the real thing. Along the way we picked up Arkady Gendler, the 84 year old Yiddish singer who now lives in Zaporozhye, Ukraine. Arkady came to the attention of Yiddish researchers some years ago and eventually made a CD which reflected his repetoire of rare or less well known Yiddish songs. He is one of the last really great Yiddish singers who picked up his repetoire before the second World War, and had once been an actor in amateur Yiddish theater - which shows. Here is a session he did one evening in the bar lounge - you can see he is more than a simple folk singer - this is a master at work among friends and chaverim.

Interestingly, the melody to this tune "Nokh a Gleyzele Vayn " (Another Glass of Wine) is identical to a solo men's dance played in Transylvania among Hungarians... ethnic connection begats enthic connection... and it all comes down to a tune. Arkady comes from Zaporozhye, which was one of the towns closed to foreigners until 1996, due to the fact that it was a center for weapons and rocket science. This is the town that made the stuff that scared the poop out of me when I was six years old. (Anybody around who can remember Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium at the UN and screaming "WE WILL CRUSH YOU!" ... I do. The man knew how to make an impression.) Since then, the city has opened up and is home to one of the Ukraine's largest and healthiest Jewish communities. It is also home to the largest hydroelectric dam in the Europe. No more famous rapids. And therefore no more Zaporozhye Cossacks. Don't forget the Cossacks. They like to jump on horses. Neat. Cool. Yee-haa!
I'll be posting more anbout Arkady soon, and more information about this fascinating man's life. But on the meantme, visit the blog page set up by the film crew doing a documentary about Josh and the cruise, and enjoy somethng of a rehearsal for one of the concerts, in which we musicians, out of rehearsal induced frustration, play something we like, instead of something we are actually going to play in concert (The Klezmer Konnundrum. Discuss among yourselves. Via Mark Rubin - a man who knows about Klezmer) Dave Krakauer, Josh Dolgin, and Guy Schalom recreate Dave Tarras' classic 1940s trio sound.

1 comment:

barmaljova said...

oy what a mekhaye watching and reading all this! keep posting!!!