Saturday, May 26, 2007

Crimea's Tatars: Yevaptoria and Bachiksaray

In Yevaptoria we visited the Tatar Mosque. The Crimean Tatars are a turkic people descended from the Turkic speaking muslim Tatar groups that formed the main troops of the Golden Horde. For centuries they were independant, and during medieval times the Tatars were knwn as great slave traders, raiding for slavic christian slaves to be sold into sugar plantation slavery in Sicily and Cyprus, a trade that came to an end with the discovery of the Americas. So from the very beginning, the Russians were never very keen on the Tatars. Absorbed into the Ottoman Empire in 1475, the Crimea was annexed by Russia after the Russo-Turkish wars ended in 1783. For the next 150 years, Tatars began emigrating into a diaspora, moving to Anatolian Turkey (especially around Eskisehir, near Ankara) Romania, Bulgaria, and beyond. Those that remained were forcibly deported by Stalin during WWII, and sent to Central Asia. For almost fifty years the Crimea was devoid of its original inhabitants. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tatars have been coming home to squat wherever they find empty land. Today, more than 250,000 Crimean Tatars are living in the Crimea and another 250,000 are still in exile in Central Asia.
The Imam of the Yevaptoria mosque was happy to recieve dozens of unexpected Jewish guests. Most Tatars are bilingual Russian speakers, and many of the younger Tatars speak only Russian, but using my incredibly bad Turkish I was able to manage a basic conversation with the Imam and his assistants, who, it turned out, had taken some of their religious training in Istanbul. Tatar is not very different from Anatolian Turkish... about the same relationship as Portuguese and Spanish. I've always had a soft spot for Tatars, coming across communities of Tatars in Romania and Bulgaria I have always felt welcomed wherever my bad command of Turkish finds me. In Istanbul Tatars would walk up to Fumie and say "Look! You have eyes just like ours!" and offer us tea. History flung communities of Tatars far and wide - military settlements of Tatars were hired by Polish and Lithuanian Dukes to patrol as far away as Gdansk and Helsinki, where Tatar communities remain to this day. One friend of mine, a Polish Tatar, explained that the Tatars in Poland were enobled in the 18th century, and thus they are considered as noble Poles who "are not Catholic" - which is to say they are Muslim in an otherwise monolithic definition of Poles as Catholics. One of the first Mosques in New York City was founded by Polish Tatars in the 1870s. And the late actor Charles Bronson - born Charles Buchinsky - was a Polish Lipka Tatar.Bakhchisaray was the capitol of the Tatar Khanate, and is the location of the Great Palace of the Tatar Khans, the Hansaray. Preserved in no small part because of a fountain that inspired a poem by Pushkin, the building was a beautiful example of Ottoman architecture.We started to get a bit impatient with our guided tour - in Russia, you don't just wander around museums. No. There is a defined set way to experience a museum, and your tour guide will explain this to you. You will spend twenty minutes in this room. You will regard the ornaments on the wall, you will not wander off, you will not sit down. So we escaped, and found that the entire municipality of Bachiksaray was celebrating Soviet Victory day in the courtyard of the palace.And what is Soviet Victory Day without the March of the Much Decorated Veterans! When you ask to take one's photograph, they will pose with grace and pride - and usually offer to tell you then and there what they did to earn these decorations, even if you speak no Russian at all... And among them, the Afghantsi, the hardened veterans of the USSR's own war in Afghanistan. But all around - smiles and flowers for the foriegn visitors lucky enough to visit on such a proud holiday. We were treated like rock stars by the schoolchildren eager to practice their English on us. Being with a guided tour, we couldn't spend as much time as we would have liked in Bachiksaray... but if I had to choose a place to return to, this would be it.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Sebastopol, Crimea, Karaites....

After leaving Kherson, our cruise crossed the Black Sea and in the morning we pulled into the port of Sebastopol in the Crimean penninsula. Sebastopol is the home port of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which was divided between Russia and the Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet union, but Russia still mantains its fleet here by agreement, and Sebastopol was closed to foreign visitors until 1996, mainly because they didn't want people like ourselves strolling into Balaclava Bay taking photos of the Russian submarine fleet in dry dock... as seen below.
If anybody were to tell me that someday I would be pointing my cameras at the Soviet sub fleet in Sebastopol, and snapping the kind of Man-From-U.N.C.L.E pictures that would normally get you sent to Siberia for a long, cold vacation, I wouldn't have believed them. Nobody even tried to stop me. Heck, I'm not even allowed to take photographs in Newark Airport... sheesh, things have changed. Sebastopol was a beautiful port city, built in classical old style, which is amazing since it was almost entirely destroyed by the Nazis in WWII - only ten buildings in Sebastopol remained undamaged after WWII. Our arrival on May 7th coincided with the beginnings of Soviet Victory Day celebrations, and there were naval cadets at the Victory Monument at the center of town. Veterans were walking around proudly wearing their medals, and we met one old sailor who spoke to us in rapid fire Russian that I could not understand, except for the words "Khruschev," "Kennedy," and "Cuba." He had been in the Cuban missile crisis, which I remebered as a kid because we had to evacuate New York and, as I remember, I was only allowed to take one toy with me... I chose my Tonka Dump Truck. So this was the guy that scared the poop out of us! But in the end he shook our hands and called out after us "Mir!" Peace indeed.
Our big trip was to the rather down at the heels town of Yevaptoria, where our delegation was to help in the dedication ceremony of new Torak scrolls at the Synagogue, which is undergoing rennovations. The congregation seemed to be a mixture of Ashkenazim as well as some local Krimchak Jews - who speak a Jewish version of the local Tatar language.
After lunch at the synagogue we moved on to visit some of the other communities in Yevaptoria, including the Tatar Mosque (more on that later) and the unique Karaite Kenesa, the central house of worship of the Crimean Karaites. Karaites are an offshoot sect of Judaism that broke off in the period during which the Talmud was being writted in Mesopotamia, and adhered to a fundamentalist reading tof the Torah. Karaite communities existed in the Crimea with offshoots still surviving today in Lithuania, Poland (to a small extent) as well as in the United States and Israel (present home to the Egyptian Karaite communities.) Turkic speaking Karaites (in the Crimean Tatar languagee, Qaraylar) have lived in Crimea for centuries. Their origin is a matter of great controversy. Some regard them as descendants of Karaite Jews who settled in Crimea and adopted a form of the Kypchak tongue. Others view them as descendants of Khazar or Kipchak converts to Karaite Judaism. Today Crimean Karaites deny their Israelite origins and consider themselves to be descendants of the Khazars. Modern Karaims seek to distance themselves from being identified as Jews, emphasizing what they view as their Turkic heritage and claiming that they are Turkic practitioners of a "Mosaic religion" separate and distinct from Judaism. On the other hand, many scholars state that the phenomenon of claiming a distinct identity apart from the Jewish people appears to be no older than the nineteenth century, when it appeared under the influence of such leaders as Avraham Firkovich.The Karaites are a people who are situated at, perhaps, the most sad and noisesome covergence of the debate on Jewish identity. I used to be on a Karaite mailing list - it was the most nasty and contemntious email communication I have ever experienced and put me off of email lists forever. Essentially, the Karaites claim, as our guide told us, to be "practicsing Judaism, but not Jews." Which is pretty weird for people who are incredibly kosher, keep the Jewish calender, and were slaughtered in the Holocaust. But in the mid 19th century, as Russian Jews were developing a written secular literature and its corresponding pursuit of history, the Karaites gave us Avraham Firkovich, a true piece of work, who played to Russian concepts of antisemitism, and while he was a respected scholar and Karaite leader in close touch with Russian Yiddishists such as Harkavy, was not above forging documents and even gravestones in his single minded pursuit of presenting the Karaites as non-semitic as possible. Firkovich was the first Jewish scholar to work on the discovery of the Cairo Geniza (which is mostly known through the work of Solomon Schechter.) In Firkovich's later years, however, he became obsessed with "proving" that Crimean Karaites were not Judean in descent, but rather Khazar; to this end Firkovich resorted to forgeries of tombstones and documents. Because of this, any document that passed through Firkovich's hands is considered academically suspect. His theories, caught on in the Russian imperial court, and the Karaites were excluded from the restrictive measures against other Jews.The saddest pshat of the story... was related by Prof. Orenstein... just before the Holocaust, the Nazis consulted with three of the most respected Jewish scholars alive in Europe. The Nazis asked whether or not the Karaites were Jews. Knowing the fate of the Karaites if they answered correctly, all three scholars answered that the Karaites were most certainly not Jews. This bought time, but not much. The majority of the Karaites were murdered alongside the rest of the Crimean Jews, but to this day they maintain the ancient forgery-based fiction that somehow they are not Jews... As we say, if you were there with Moses at Mt. Sinai... you have dos pintele yid... the spark of all the Jewish souls that will ever be. And yes, the Karaites were there. They have the spark.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Market Day in Kherson, Ukraine

Kherson is a charming, if somewhat down-at-the-heels port town in the southern Ukraine Dneiper delta region, which obviously is off the tourist circuit. Historically, this is the region of "Agric Settlements" - when the Russian Tsars finally wrested control of this region from the Tatars of the Golden Horde, it was settled by farmers lured by the offer of land free from the yoke of serfdom. Large communities of Mennonites from Friesia setted here, from where they eventually emigrated to Canada and the United States. Jews also formed such settlements in a Zionist back-to-the-land movement which intended to make husky proletarian farmhands out of ghetto shoemakers and yeshiva buchers.
We found the central market in Kherson, and as we snapped photos, people didn't react adversely to us at all... in fact, they mugged for the camera.
The novelty of meeting "turisti" here overcame everybody's reticence.
Our first encounter with the more hillbilly side of dried fish... there was a pile of raw minows here with a little cup for you to spit the bones into after a taste. Even Fumie couldn't bring herself to try, and she is about as adventurous as human beings can get when it comes to raw fish. When I go fishing I have to watch that she doesn't start snacking out of the bait bucket.
Smoked whole catfish. Apparently, there is a whole cuisine involving dried or smoked fish and beer, condiered as a whole set meal in itself. You pick bits off of dried fish and swig beer, the fish playing a role sort of like chips... Old men would stand around piles of dried fish arguing the merits of one or the other. I bought a packet of pre-stripped dried fish. The stench was incredible, and no, I couldn't get more than two bits down the gullet before tossing the whole thing away.
The old Comintern Cinema seems to have seen better days...
Take out lunch from a supermarket: one US dollar gets you ten stuffed cabbage golubsi.

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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Kiev and the Triumph of Dolginism.

A few first impressions from our arrival in Kiev. Now remember - until mid April I had no idea we would be spending two weeks cruising down the Dnieper River from Kiev to Odessa on a boat load of Klezmer musicians led by the irrepressible Josh Dolgin, AKA DJ Socalled. Jamming in the lounge on the first night, Alex Kontorovich and Eric Stein ran through some of the late German Goldenshteyn's horas. Alex - who was born in Russia and speaks Russian fluently - spent several years apprenticed to German, and if anybody represents the continuity between the old and new generations in modern klezmer it is he. When he wasn't playing he was locked up in his room doing advanced computer mathematics. This is Eric's first stab at playing his new cimbalom... after discarding the metal legs Akos had designed for it. Akos, an acoustic perfectionist, wasn't that good at designing cimbalom legs, so Eric used a keyboard stand and rigged a bicycle brake wire for the pedal.In the morning we took a stroll, and thus bumped into the Ukrainian communist Party rally on May Day. As you can see, the Communist Party still attacts a wide variety of support in the Ukraine. I mean... they still adddress each other as "Comrade." Along the way we ran into Comrades Aisling and Andre from the Canadian film crew who were making a documentary about Josh and the cruise... marching in triumphant solidarity with workers of the world. Just down the street was the famously overpriced Bessarabian Market, the place the mafia go to buy imported fish and radishes at inflated prices. This was as close as I got to my roots on this tour, since me and Fumie seemed to be the only ones on the boat with no family connection to the Ukraine...
Ukrainians eat a lot of fish - mostly smoked or dried. There were about six different cures for smoked sturgeon and salmon, lots of smoked mackerel, eels, and of course, caviar.
Below are the Ur-pickles of the New York Jewish palate, the grandmothers of Essex Street's pickles... wonderful tart crunchy pickles.
And of course, pastrami. Yes, this is the ancestor of pastrami, here known as bastirma. It is eaten in thin slices as an appetizer, and it is quite slaty and paprika-spicey. Basically smoked meat covered in spices.
This pastrami is closer to the Turkish forms of pastirma than to the deli meat we eat at Katz's. Also on the cruise was Barry Lazar, Canadian food journalist and film maker whose film Chez Schwartz about Montreal's smoked meat shrine Schwartz's was shown on board. A real food maven, Barry was a load of fun - the man would eat anything. I almost bought him a dried, salted whole pike, but my better judgement prevailed. I bet he would have eaten it.
The central synagogue in Kiev. It seemed mainly families of Chabad Lubavitch in attendance, although there were a lot of ortho Litvaks as well, if the size of their black hats is any indicator. Lubbies go for flat caps and Borsolino fedoras. Litvaks like huge wide brimmed fedoras, sort of like Hasidic cowboy hats.
This is how Josh Dolgin reacts to the captain of the ship ordering a life-preserver rehearsal. Wander around, snap pictures, turn back to Captain.
I'm slowly putting some of my shakey videos up on my Youtube page... but here is Alex and Eric playing German Goldenshteyn's hora.
Here's a bit of the late night party in the ship's bar on the first night. Helene Domergue of Nimes, France was along teaching Klezmer dance. Here she leads a freylakhs dance to the old Barry Sister's chestnut "Hopkele"
Helene - whose Yiddish is fluent and rich in old time polish Yiddish idioms - is quite a singer, as well as a regular party animator. Here she leads the song "Sha, Shtil."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Back from the Ukraine...

I have been back in Budapest for a few hours, still reeling from the experience of being on the Vast Dolgin Empire's Klezmer Heritage Tour of the Ukraine. For almost two weeks I have been a passenger on the Dneiper Princess cruise ship traveling from Kiev down the Dneiper river through the Ukraine to Odessa, stopping along the way to visit historic Jewish towns, many associated with the developement of the DNA that contributed to the mad genius of Josh Dolgin, the young Jewish musician known as DJ Socalled (although Yankl Falk calls him "Neo" after the guy on the film Matrix... You are the one, Neo... You will save us!) Although Josh has a serious Moyshe Oysher fixation, his roots are in the town of Zaporozhie, and one of the big themes of the trip were to meet with Arkady Gendler, the 84 year old Yiddish singer from Zaporozhie who may well be the finest living Yiddish singer of rare folk songs alive in the former Soviet Union today. The whole was being filmed for a documentary by a Canadian film crew - perhaps some of the most engaging folks on the cruise. (Click on the link for lots more - and better - videos of the trip...) If you need to know more about this menace to consonant music, I am willing to trade informations for food. I firmly believe Josh is a genius... and like many geniuses, such as Lex Luthor... he needs to be made into a comic book epic. And so for the next few blog entries, as I go though the hundreds of pictures I took in the Ukraine, I will attempt to prove to you the real menace of the Dolgin threat. With information from former Soviet sources... Dolgin will be revealed as the Mad Klezmer Genius that he is... Josh is a Mad Genius... backed by a family of less mad geniuses, and his parents - wonderful folks - managed to organize a huge Jewish Heritage cruise through the heart of the eastern Ukraine. Above is one such cruiser standing in Sebastopol harbor in front of the noble Dneiper Princess on Soviet Victory Day... more on Sebastopol later...
Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. When you are on Atkins you eat it. A lot. I did. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht. Borscht....
A typical cabin meal... when we didn't eat in the ship's restaurant... or even when we did, we managed to eat in our room. The ship food was bland and insipid, and ... not very Atkins friendly... so we made do. In the former Soviet Union, everybody has a way of making do. So we see here a fine meal of schmaltz herring, salad, horseradish, and vodka.

It. Does. Not. Get. Better. than. This.
Michael Alpert, possibly the finest of the younger (???) generation of Yiddish singers and fiddlers in the Jewish music world and a dear, dear friend and brother-in-klez, points out the relationship between the Ukrainian horilka (vodka) and the glass to a passing stranger in my shipboard room. Michael speaks fluent Russian and Ukrainian, and was our embilical cord to the heart of Russian culture while staggering between Uzbek Kebab-and-Karaoke shacks in Odessa.
We'll get into the fantastic amounts of music experienced on this cruise, but much respect goes to David Krakauer and Alex Kontorovich for holding down the primas roles as lead clarinetists and musical maestros.
And last, but not least, the Ukraine. Amazing. Of course, it is independant, but maintains strong ties to its Russian/Soviet past. On May 1 we took our first stroll into Kiev... right smack into the Communist Party nostalgia rally. Does it ever get more nostalgic than this?