Sunday, January 28, 2007

Home Again!

We've been back in Budapest for over a week now, and I am just getting over the worst case of jet lag ever experienced - I can fall asleep at one in the afternoon while sitting in a chair writing emails. Getting back into the swing of Budapest life has been easy - maybe too easy. No more glitzy gourmet supermarkets with their aisles of balsamic vinegars and fake Thai foods. Yesterday we went back to the Bosznyak ter piac for the Saturday market. Had to have breakfast first, so we went to the langos stand.
Fumie ordered lekvaros langos - fresh, chewy, hot, fried potato dough slathered with home made apricot jam, dusted with confectioner's sugar. US 50 cents. I think these are illegal in New Jersey.
The supermarket offerings are a bit different here, as well. Back in the US, I could never walk into a supermarket and walk out with the makings for kocsonya, which is a swine jelly made from boiling pig's ears, feet, and skin and then letting it all solidify in the fridge. In Hungary, it all comes prepackaged, ready for the boil. That's one happy pig there on the label ... "boil me into a gristly cold pig jelly! Yeah! I can take it! Ahhh... it has been months since I had bread. Or, at least, something like real bread. Good, crusty bread was a rarity in the states, outside of a few good bakeries in New York City I was not impressed by the offerings. Now, Hungarian bread has gone way down in standards since 1990 - really, let's face it, Commie bread was better. But it beats the soft flaccid stuff sold as Italian bread or French bread in the US.
Thursday night we went to Almassy ter for the dance house. Most of the Tukros band was there, and it was like we had never been gone at all. Loud Transylvanian fiddle music, fast csardas, strong palinka... we're home, baby!There had to be over 600 people out at the dance house. The Almassy ter dance house is run by the bar staff, charges no entrance fee, and stays open until at least three in the morning. Gyongyi runs the show these days - she used to work over at the Castro Bistro on Raday before the Castro moved. There is always at least two bands and dances going on simultaneously. In the big hall there is always some Moldavian or Gyimes Csango music. Robi Kerenyi was leading the Gyimes set when we got in. Two flutes accompanied by a gardon, which is essentially a wooden pig trough carved into the rough shape of a cello and strung with three heavy gut strings - tuned in unison to D - which are hit with a stick, and a smaller nylon string which is plucked. Yes, the music is strong and vibrant, but in a decidely Szekely-Australopithecene way... this is only a step up from smashing two mammoth bones together... I know, everybody has their own tastes... well, let's just say that I really used to love Gyimes music. We stayed out way past our bedtimes... which probably had a lot to do with curing the jet lag syndrome once and for all.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Heading Home

It's travel day - I'm heading back to Budapest. My bags are packed, I have sandwiches as a first line of defense against the worst that Lufthansa can throw at me, a history of the Fourth Crusade to read... I'm outta here. I will miss all my Noo Yawk friends, and it was great being with my family here, but I am likely to be back in October for some concerts, so... it's time to turn my canoe back across the big water. Hungary here I come!

Friday, January 19, 2007

Last Fling on the Lower East Side

I'm leaving New York tomorrow, heading back home to Budapest... which I guess is what I call home these decades... I had to have one last walkabout on the Lower East Side of Manhatten. I needed to pay my respects to the ruins of the First Roumanian-American Congregation, Shaarey Shamoyim, one of America's most history laden shuls... Cantor Yosele Rosenblatt used to hold sabbath services here.Earlier this year the city inspectors decided that the building was dangerously beyond repair and called the demolition experts. All that remains is this doorway.The population of the Lower East Side is mainly Hispanic and Chinese these days, but there are still a lot of reminders of the time when it was the center of New York's immigrant Jewish community. Shapiro's Incredibly Horrid Sweet Kosher wine has now moved its undrinkable product to a stall inside the nearby Essex St. Market, but their old sign is still outside.Just around the corner is the Kehila Kedoshe Janina Synagogue, the last bastion on earth of the Romaniote Greek language, which is down to maybe four or five elderly speakers. Romaniotes are Greek Jews, which is to say they pre-date Sephardic or Ashkenazic identity, having arrived in Greece after the destruction of the second Temple. According to tradition, the Roman emperor Titus, after capturing Jerusalem in A.D. 70, was transporting Jews to Rome as slaves when his ship was driven by a storm onto the Albanian coast. He allowed the Jews to disembark and thus began a long history that was almost entiurely terminated by the Holocaust. One of the largest Romaniote communities was in Ioanina in Macedonian Greece. Today, this is probably the largest Romaniote institution still in use.Of course, if you still have any questions at all, the answers are still out here...The Lower East Side is still one of the neighborhoods with the most character in Manhatten, which is rapidly becoming one huge island of homogenous glass and granite. This is where we used to come on Sundays (yes, Sundays... it was the Jewish shopping day) to get clothes and draperies when I was a kid.Anybody need any shirts from Mr. Cauliflower and Sons? Just up Ludlow St. I had to say my farewell to my beloved Katz's Deli. Corned beef, juicy, on Rye. With pickles and a Root Beer. I am going to miss this place. But I'll be back...Then up second Avenue to have a pint at McSorley's Ale House, the oldest continuing bar in New York. They've cleaned it up a bit - which is saying a lot since they used to have a tradition of never cleaning it up, and the dust hung down in stalactites from the ceiling dating from Boss Tweed's times. It was also the last bar in NY to admit women. Still one of the great bars of New York.A few hours of last minute shopping - Nyquil is very big in Hungary - to work off the corned beef, and I traipsed back to Chinatown for dinner. Transcendant "special beef pho" (with two different cuts of beef and tripe) from Bo Ky Vietnamese Reesaturant on Mulberry Street. $5.00.And just as I was getting out, I noticed the sign on another eatery, and being forever a fourteen-year-old at heart... I started giggling incontrollably. This is when I really should not be near a blog, but heck...Needless to say, once I get my maturity level down far enough, anything will set me off...

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Unspeakable Karmic Revenge of Shellfish

I'm getting ready to head back to Budapest after two months in New York, and I can't say I'm looking forward to the late winter produce that will usually be available in the local markets. February in Hungary means a diet of potatoes, pork, and cabbage. I am going to miss a lot of things, but probably none more than shellfish. Winter is the best time of year for shellfish, especially if you roam around New York's Chinatown fish markets where the crabs and clams move fast and are fresh and cheap. I'll be making one more gluttonous trip to Chinatown before I leave though... I need more Shangahi soup dumplings. These are steamed dumplings filled with pork or crab in broth... but with the the broth inside the dumpling. You nibble the dumpling skin, slurp up the hot broth trapped inside, and then go to work on the dumpling. I usually order some of these and then move on - I can hit two or three Chinatown eateries in a row on a good day, trying different things out. Wandering around Chinatown on an empty stomache is a poor man's five star vacation trip. I need some more vietnamese pho molecules inside me, and maybe some sticky rice jong packets... Of course, I usually pick something up to take home to cook up... octopus, for example. Stinks like an old shoe when you cook it at home, but for these prices, let it stink! Octopus mean New Year's for me, after last years excessive cephalopod feast on the island of Dvernik in Croatia. Bigger octopus are best grilled.
If you are visiting New York, a bit of advice: New York is located near some of the world's best clam beds. Clams from Long Island, New Jersey, and New England in the winter are possibly the single closest thing to a fresh taste that screams local New York! and isn't shaped like a pizza. Order them in a restaurant and you can get set back a big piece of change. Buy them at a fish market, take them home, and enjoy. While traveling abroad - as in outside of landlocked Hungary - I often find some kind of clamlike shellfish at the local market and take them back to my hotel for a late night feast. The hotel management might not like it, but it's not as bad as trashing your room, and tastes better. All I need to prepare them is a knife and a towel to protect my hand as I hold the clam and ... slice it open. I prefer the larger cherrystone sized clams to the more delicate littleneck clams. I like to see them squiggle a little as I cut the aductor muscles... the fact that the clam is alive is a sure sign of freshness. Americans are generally thought of as squeamish eaters, which hold true until you get to clams. Clams are the only food that Americans eat while it is still alive. You don't get much more unkosher and un-Buddhist than that. Clams on the halfshell, like oysters, have to be alive when eaten. Sure, it sets you back a few karmic reincarnations, but heck... it tastes good. I was introduced to clams by my father when I was about thirteen years old. It was something of a rite of passage for non-religious New York Jews. Eating Italian pork sausages or Chinese food wasn't really considered unkosher enough to shock anyone. Taking your son out for clams on City Island in the Bronx was the best way to insure that nobody in your family was going to return to the hasidism that took so many generations to get out of in the first place. The ability to eat clams on the halfshell were a gift from my Pop to me. And he still gobbles them down, oblivious to the karmic implications...
One final bit of local flavor I will dearly miss: Popeye's Fried Chicken. Popeye's is a commercial fast food fried chicken chain that is - as the say in the deeply racist but happily euphemistic vocabulary of American merchandising - an "Urban Franchise." Meaning it is marketed to Black people in Black neighborhoods. The same goes for Church's Fried Chicken - also good. White folks, supposedly, eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. In America, social segregation applies to fried chicken as well as people. Needless to say, Popeye's is better, cheaper, less greasy, crsipier, and offers sides like jalapeno peppers, Louisiana dirty rice, red beans and rice, and great biscuits. Sometimes, sitting in a cafe in Budapest, I can suddenly smell the aroma of Popeye's drifting out of nowhere. But, heck... I've got gigs in NY next October... I'll be back for seconds!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Yiddish is Alive - And Dancing - in NYC.

Maybe it is just becase I have been more aware of it of late, or maybe because I have been spending more time in Brooklyn and with the younger generation of Yiddish activists, but in New York I am made aware daily of the presence of Yiddish language. In Europe Yiddish is generally considered a dying tongue , confined to pockets of elderly speakers, hasids in Antwerp, and linguistics departments at German universities. OK, and the eastern half of Paris... but in New York? In Brooklyn children still dream in Yiddish. A lot of my initial interest in the state of the Yiddish language is related to work I did as a linguist working with Native American languages and African languages spoken in the New World. One got accustomed to language communities that had very few speakers, or were teetering on the brink of linguistic morbidity. The general attitude towards Yiddish in Eastern Europe was that it was a dead language. Well, Yiddish ain't dead by a long shot. To paraphrase Frank Zappa... Yiddish isn't dead. It just smells bad. Or as I.B Singer said, Yiddish is taking a very long time to die. Take Yiddish theater... although the Yiddish theater has seen better days, the revived National Yiddish Theatre - the original Folksbiene - recently gave a performance of the Pirates of Penzance in Yiddish, not to mention Fyvush Finkel and Theo Bikel performing in "The Sunshine Boys" recently...You can still catch a bus in Yiddish in Brooklyn...Or buy a subway pass in Yiddish...Or just learn to behave properly. This signboard was found upstairs at the headquarters of the Arbeiter Ring, the Workman's Circle building which houses the weekely Forward newspaper, which comes out in both Yiddish and English. I think that this room may be used for one of the Yiddish children's classes... but essentially, this is a sane and practical basic guide to non-Jewish behavior...Now, if you want to learn how to move in Yiddish, well.... you would be well advised to check out the Tants Hoys. The word means "dance house" and the idea is that yiddish dance should be taught in a lively atmosphere to live music in order to make a sense of community. Not just "right foot, left foot, one - two-three" to some recorded music. Last night it was dancing at the Manhatten Jewish Community Center with dancing led by Dr. Zev Feldman, who has been at the forefront of research into early Klezmer music since the 1970s. Zev focused on Moldavian Jewish dancing, since those traditions have survived best into the recent era. Zev has basically reconstructed an aesthetic of Yiddish dancing based on his extensive contact with elderly yiddish speakers and his own family traditions. One interesting point was that while much of south/central Moldavian Jewish dancing is lively and fast, the northern style of dancing (as around Edinets, where Zev's family comes from) tends to be stately and slower, with a lot of grand arm posturing in place of fancy footwork. The band was perfect for the occaision, consisting of musicians who learned extensively with the late Bessarabian klezmer clarinetist German Goldenshteyn.Here we see clarinetists Michael Winograd and Christian Dawid of Berlin in a rare moment of not falling over each other laughing at some raunchy musicians joke. In the background is the legendary Pete Rushevsky - mere mention of him sends my blog statistics into a huge readership spike. The man has fans. Pete has singlehandedly turned an obsolete and famously unweildy folk instrument - the Jewish tsimbl - into the sex symbol of klezmer music. Welcome to my sexy party!Next to Pete is Jacob Shulman-Ment, the great vays hope of klezmer fidl. I met Jake in Budapest where he spent a year learning the Hungarian language and violin styles, and now he is - bazd meg! - my favorite person to speak Hungarian with in New York. Kiboszottan jol beszel a nyelvet! (Continuing apologies for lack of diacritic marks...) Jake has been playing with Romashka and recently released a truly tasty bit of traditional style Klezmer with Art Bailey's Orchestra Popilar, Branch from the Tree, which presents the music of klezmer cimbalom player Josef Moskowitz in a new and lively light. Definately my number one klezmer CD pick of 2007, since it made my Dad dance all around the kitchen, no mean feat for an 80 year old Moldavian Jewish ex-cop...Jake traveled around Romania last summer and made visits to many of the Maramures fiddlers with whom I did research, for example, Nicolae Covaci, who still plays quite a bit of Jewish music he learned from local Jewish musicians before World War Two. Jake is the kind of musician who doesn't just learn tunes... he learns the moves as well. The fourth Tantshoyz of the season will be on Tuesday, March 13 7:00PM - 9:30PM at the JCC ( 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St.) with dance instruction by Michael Alpert! For more info about the event email Pete R. at klezbanjo AT And to top it all off, mayn shvester un shvoger had a good time at the tantshoys as well!

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Zlatne Uste Golden Festival

Last night was the annual Golden Festival, hosted by the Zlatne Uste Brass Band, New York's oldest ongoing balkan brass band. Zlatne Uste get around a lot and make a lot of friends in most of New York's balkan and east European communities, and for years their winter Golden Festival has been the annual big bash for whoever is cooking up some musical goodie in the NY ethnic music scene. From A (Albanians) to Z (Zurli bands.) The party starts at 6 pm and goes all night long on three stages in a school building. If that's not enough there is jamming in every nook and cranny (Bulgarians above, Bulgarians below. Bulgarians damn near everywhere.) I did a set of Moldavian Jewish klezmer tunes dancing early in the evening with Pete Rushevsky, Jacob Shulman-Ment, Christian Dawid, and Raoul Rothenblatt, with dances led by Dr. Zev Feldman. Of course, I couldn't take picture of that - I was playing sekund fiddle - so I will try again tonight when I go to the Yiddish "tants hoys" at the Manhatten JCC. Armenians were playing for dancing in the basement. New York - and Newark, New Jersey - has always had a vibrant middle eastern music scene centered around the Armenian community. Oud, clarinet, and some duduk music for Anatolian style dancing.Since I will be on the road back to Budapest next weekend, the festival was a good day to meet up with lots of friends from lots of music scenes. Harris Wolfson, Sarah Alden, and Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin (who just returned from a six month exile in Budapest with Inna Barmash of Romashka) did a hot set of Transylvanian style fusionoid music as "World on a String."The hardcore Transylvanian style music was played by Eletfa, America's reigning Hungarian fok music band. Led by Kalman Magyar - an amazing fiddler - Eletfa is about playing with real guts and authenticity - and they had the crowd dancing right off with a set of western hungarian tunes led by dancer Aron Szekely, whose father, Levente Szekely, is a great Transylvanian fiddler himself when not working as a diplomat in Hungary's foreign service in the US. Raoul Rothenblatt plays bass with Eletfa. Raoul used to be one of the regulars in Budapest's old Tilos az A bar scene back in the days when he was paying his dues at the Ferenc Liszt Music academy. Jozsef Gartai - we know him as Heki - plays the kontra, the three stringed viola I mentioned in the last post. I knew Heki from the wild Budapest "dance house" days back when I first moved to Hungary. As soon as he could, he moved to the US. Essentially we traded places. Below, you can see the classic position for holding the kontra viola - verticle, played by a heavy, hand-carved bow. the three strings are tuned GdA, forming tightly harmonized chords, which is facilitated by a flat brige for the strings.It was great meeting up with Eletfa since I had been stuck with a bagful of Hungarian candy bars from my local CBA shop that nobody else wanted. Everybody got Sport Szelet and Balaton Bars - deep Budapest nostalgia flavors - and even the infamous candies called "Negro" were accepted totally without irony. Alas, no such event is complete without the indelible imprint of Grand Master Godfried... appearing here with cajun band The Bosco Stompers. How a band like this can limit themselves to a twenty minute set is beyond comprehension. Honking great accordion and fiddle, it simply made the dance floor explode.
Of course there were souvenirs to take home. All of Fumie's friends know these little kilim patterned coin bags. I saw them for sale at a Union Square Christmas market for $15 each in December. Here they are a reasonable $8.50 each. In Istanbul, however, you can pick them up for 50 cents each at the bookseller's bazaar in Beyazit. Long live the free market economy.

Pardon the lack of Hungarian diacritic marks - I am new to this computer, and we have yet to work out a few keyboad kinks...