Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Seymour Wittek: Hero of New York

It feels good when the New York Times takes a moment to remember some of the unsung heroes of the city. During World War Two the US Coast Guard had the job of protecting New York Harbor. Seymour Wittek is one of the last of the men who risked their lives during the little known El Estero incident in 1943, and in doing so he helped divert a disaster that would have, literally, torn New York City apart.The New York times has a story today about the El Estero incident in New York harbor during World War Two. My sister's father in law, Seymour Wittek, served in the US Coast Guard in New York harbor during the second World War and is one of the last survivors of the team that, literally, saved the city of New York from the danger of an exploding ammunition transport ship. Seymour is standing second from the left (wearing the grey jacket), next to his son, Dr. Alec Wittek, my Uncle Eli Cohen, and my father Jack Cohen (this photo was taken on the final day of sitting Shiva for the late Anne Wittek - hence the black mourning ribbons. She was a wonderful woman and a living treasure chest of Yiddish folk songs!) Writes the NY Times: "For Seymour Wittek... there have been other significant days over his 87 years... One October day last year, death claimed Anne Wittek, his wife of 64 years. That was a most important day. But for altering his life, April 24, 1943, stands out. [photos of US Coast Guard supervising the loading of bombs onto transport ships during World War Two.]"That was the day in World War II when a fire aboard an ammunition ship in New York Harbor threatened to cause a gigantic explosion that could have cost thousands of lives and destroyed swaths of Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the New Jersey ports of Jersey City and Bayonne."

"That April day, his detail had just finished stowing roughly 1,400 tons of explosives on El Estero, a freighter of Panamanian registry docked at an Army loading pier. Other ships with the same type of cargo were tied up nearby. On the pier sat railroad cars similarly loaded. In all, an estimated 5,000 tons of bombs, depth charges and small-arms ammunition were concentrated there. As evening approached, the Estero caught fire. Oil had leaked into bilges under the boiler room and ignited. The fire threatened to blow up the freighter and then, in a chain reaction, the adjacent ships and railroad cars. Not far away, fuel storage tanks in Bayonne and on Staten Island were in jeopardy as well"An officer announced that he needed volunteers to board the burning ship and man fire hoses. The freighter’s deck and its holds were becoming perilously hot. “Nobody looked left,” Mr. Wittek recalled. “Nobody looked right. Nobody looked backwards. The men that volunteered all stepped forward — immediately... Standing on the ship’s decks, Seaman Wittek could feel the heat through the soles of his shoes. The fire was beyond control... In a race against time, tugboats towed the Estero to deep waters in Upper New York Bay. Coast Guard and New York City fireboats pumped water into the cargo holds. Not quite four hours after catching fire, the Estero sank to the bottom."The danger can be estimated by comparison with the Halifax Explosion on Thursday, December 6, 1917, when the City of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, was devastated by the huge detonation of a French cargo ship, fully loaded with wartime explosives, that had accidentally collided with a Norwegian ship in "The Narrows" section of the Halifax Harbour. Approximately 2,000 people (mostly Canadians) were killed by debris, fires, or collapsed buildings, and it is estimated that over 9,000 people were injured. This was the largest man-made explosion until the first atomic bomb test explosion in 1945 and is still one of the world's largest man-made, conventional explosions to date. A picture of the Halifax mushroom cloud can be seen below.The generation that fought in WWII are becoming fewer and fewer, and these lesser known actions that make up the heroic whole deserve to be acknowledged. Seymour: Abi gezunt!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Fröhlich Cukrászda: Kosher Pastry and Flodni-gate

I may love the Auguszt Cukrászda for their cream cakes, but deep down, when my yiddishe kishkes craves heavier pastry only a flodni will do, so I head for the Fröhlich Cukrászda on Dob utca 22 in the heart of Budapest's Jewish Ghetto in the seveth district. The Fröhlich is the last of a breed: the kosher pastry cafe.There used to be dozens of kosher cafes in Budapest, but today only the tiny Fröhlich Cukrászda, founded in 1953, remains. Unlike most Jewish pastry bakeries, Fröhlich specializes in kosher versions of real humanoid tasty pastries. Mention Jewish and pastry in the same sentence in New York and you will get all kinds of heavy weaponry: rugelach, babkas, hamentashen. If you shop at the glatt kosher bakery in Boro Park owned by Yiddish speaking Puerto Rican brothers who serve mainly Hungarian Satmar and Vizhnitzer hasids, you can try the ever popular "cocosh torte" which is what kakas torta morphed into on its trip to Brooklyn. In short, you get heavy pastries reflecting a predominantly Galicianer culinary tradition. At Fröhlich you get exceptionally good, light Hungarian pastry in a kosher version. No lard in the flour, for one thing, and often prepared without milk or eggs so that the result is pareve and can be eaten with any meal. Behold: plum tart and fresh croissant! And no, you can't get a ham and cheese croissant here.Fröhlich is exceptional because all of its goods are made daily on site, not trucked in from a central confectionary depot (although I am all for anything trucked in from the Perity bakeries, anywhere, any time. The cakes at the Muvesz Coffehouse on Andrassy? All delivered from Perity. And it is pronounced peritch as in yum.) Every now and then the baker, an elderly gent, emerges from the back room, covered head to toe in flour, to kibbitz a bit with the patrons until he is shooed back into the kitchen by his wife. On a good day, nursing a cup of coffee and reading through the stack of Jewish magazines available for browsing, one can meet nearly everybody in the local Jewish scene - rabbis, writers, musicians, artists, tourists, old hasids visiting from Bnei Brak or Williamsburg. Not everybody comes because Fröhlich Cukrászda is kosher. Most come because Fröhlich is the social hub of the neighborhood. And also the home of the world's best flodni.Flodni is considered the emblematic Hungarian Jewish cake: a triple sandwich of nuts, poppy seeds, and apple in a pite dough cover. You don't find flodni outside of Budapest very much, although flodni from Fröhlich's is de rigeur at any Budapest Jewish reception or wedding banquet. Flodni was at the center of last year's contentious argument between the established Hungarian Jewish community office at Sip utca and the upstart independant alternativo young Hebes who congregate at Siraly and other watering holes along Kiraly utca. "Flodni-Gate" as it came to be known, started when the Sip utca Jewish community office disinvited Hungarian President László Sólyom to their chanukah dinner, claiming offense because Sólyom had not publicly denounced the emerging Hungarian Guard (annoyingly fascistoid costumed historical re-creators of the pro-Nazi WWII Hungarian Arrow Cross) - something which Solyom has since done, resoundingly. President Sólyom responded by saying "That's a pity, because I really love the flodni.Stepping up to the challenge, local group blog Judapest offered to send the President a flodni, or at least a virtual flodni as a sign of respect to his office. [Update: They sent him a real flodni and he brought the leftovers home to his wife. Thanks Bruno!] The official monolithic and none-too-reformed-since-Communist-times Jewish Mazsihisz community office at Sip utca saw this as breaking ranks - democratic process is still kind of a distant idea among the Hungarian Jewish administrative bureaucracy, and the president of the Jewish community attacked Judapest.org for being an illegitimate representative of the Hungarian Jewish community. "If they were legitimate, they would be funded by us. And then we could de-fund them!" Um... yes. What was it that a rabbi I know once said? "I love Jews. It's their community organizations that I hate."Now, I'm not the world's biggest fan of kosher food - it isn't that I like eating birds of prey or anything, but most kosherei is handled as fuel, not food. It fills you up so you can wait a few days until you find another kosher food outlet. I travel all around Europe with an orthodox kosher klezmer clarinet player, and the stuff that keeps him going can sometimes give me the willies. Being in a Hungarian klezmer band has some strange benefits: we once packed into a mini bus on tour supplied with one carton of kosher salamis from Budapest's best kosher butcher for Yankl:and one big carboard box of extremely fresh Transylvanian bacon and kolbasz that came from this little feller, hand raised by Toni Árpád, the last of the great Transylvanian cimbalom virtuosos who still plays a repertoire of older Jewish music (he plays with Muzsikás on this CD.)Árpi bacsi never travels anywhere without his own home made bacon, and Yankl never travels anywhere without his kosher goose kolbász. The problem started when Uncle Árpi discovered the box of kosher smoked goose sausage: it was like discovering meat crack. He couldn't help himself. Yankl, on the other hand, would never be able to dig into those delicious Berkshire hog goodies - he's a good frummer yid. I'm sure we are not the first Klezmer band to experience this problem. I'd love to know what these guys ate:Sometimes you just gotta eat what the Angels eat. For my forint... I'd go for flodni.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Auguszt Cukrászdá

Say you are slogging about downtown Budapest on a busy afternoon, and the caffeine and cream cake urge hits you. Now, this being Budapest, there ought to be some kind of Hapbsburg-centric old fashioned coffee house nearby waiting to serve up espressos and little cakes in a historic setting full of stuffed chairs and newspaper stands. One small problem: such places are pretty much gone. The city is full of cafes, but most are simply... bars... The old kavéhazák - coffee houses - so often touted in the tour books, didn't weather the changes of the early 90s well. Most closed, or were turned into snobbier, pricier Disney-Monster coffee houses. The Mother of All Neo-Nostalgic Kitsch coffee houses is the famed, and recently re-opened New York Kavéház, located near Blaha Lujza square. Laughably elitist, and priced to match, the New York is worth nothing more than a peek inside and a hasty retreat. In a brazen attempt to win the Bad Taste Hungarian Tourist Trap Culinary Award the New York actually serves something called paprika coffee (chili oil floating on a cup of coffee... at least the waitress had the mercy and good taste to tell Fumie not to even try it.) The Lukás coffee house - on Andrássy - is actually located inside a bank, and no, nobody actually goes to this bank for a cake and then walks out and tells about it. The Hauer? Oh, let's not even start on the Hauer's legal battles - imagine if the leadership of North Korea suddenly wanted to get involved in the Hungarian pastry business! Perhaps the last old, honest coffee house in Pest is the Auguszt Cukrászdá, located in a courtyard behind a non-descript entrance near the Pushkin Movie Theater in downtown Pest at Kossuth Lajos u. 14-16 (open weekdays only, 10 am - 6 pm.) The Auguszt, in operation since 1970, is almost an anachronistic anomoly, the place to go if you want really fine traditional cakes at normal prices. Your other option for these is the Perity bakery on Vaci ut near the West End City Center, but there you have to stand up and fork your cakes down standing in the corner facing the wall, as if you had done something bad in class and Teacher was punishing you during cake time. After a busy, noisy, maddening day in the unholy, smoggy mess that is downtown, the Auguszt is an island of quiet in which to rest for a spell.
All the cakes are excellent here, but if you need to know, the Auguszt is the last bastion of the classic Hungarian pastry known as the krémes. Krémes are simply vanilla cream cakes encased in flakey pastry with a dusting of powdered sugar on top. Something so simple, however, is prone to bastardization, and most of the krémes you find around Budapest use some kind of gelatin in their cream. Not so the Auguszt. This is the same krémes that my grandparents knew. And it is so good, that if you go there after two in the afternoon, like we did, you are not likely to find any.
It's not like that is any great tragedy. Everything here is about two Euros... and fresh. But really, go early and whatever else you do, get the krémes. If you are in New York, go to Katz' Deli for the pastrami sandwich. If you are in Budapest, go to Auguszt for the krémes. Now, here's a dirty little secret about Budapest pastry houses: whatever you eat there can count as a healthy meal. Just eat two or three cakes. Every day thousands of elderly Budapest grandma types in fancy purple hats devour multiple cakes and call it a well balanced lunch. And if you really need some kind of lunch excuse, go for this: flakey puff pastry stuffed with cheese, ham, mushroom, and spinach.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

János Zerkula, Gyimes Fiddler. 1927-2008.

The great blind fiddler of Gyimes, János Zerkula, passed away last week at the age of 81, and tomorrow, May 9, he will be buried in the cemetery of his home village of Gyimesközéplok (Lunca de Jos) in the Gyimes Pass region of Harghita County, Romania. His passing is a loss to the heritage of traditional music in Europe, but on a less somber note, Zerkula was one of those old time traditional folk musicians who managed to pass on his art as a vibrant and living heritage in an time when so many musical heritages are lost in the modern blare of radios and CD players. Zerkula may be gone, but his music – infused with his friendly and infectious character – will live on in the hands of the dozens of younger musicians who sat at his feet as rapt students. [Photo by Fumie Suzuki]Zerkula was one of the last generation of old style Transylvanian Hungarian Gypsy folk fiddlers whose archaic style and repetoire helped young musicians from Hungary revive their folk music during the “Dance House” movement of the 1970s, alongside another Gyimes fiddler, the late Mihály Halmágyi. These two musicians were among the last generation of professional blind village musicians whose life spanned a period during which the stubborn mountain culture of the Szekely Hungarians of Gyimes (usually called Gyimes Csángos) struggled to maintain their distinctive local identity as the world changed rapidly around them. The distinctive music of the Gyimes Pass was one of the strongest expressions of their unigue geritage, and it was fortunate that folklorists like György Martin and Zoltan Kallos recorded them during the 1960s. By the time they were “rediscovered” in the 1970s and later, Zerkula and Halmagyi became enthusiastic teachers of their rough and difficult fiddle style to a new generation of musicians. Thanks to the work of people like folk dance researcher Ferenc Sára over the last decade, a lot of local children from Gyimes had been learning from Zerkula, ensuring that the tradition lives on. [Photo by Bela Kasa]With the passing of the older generation of folk musicians we hear a lot about “the last of the line” “end of the traditional” and I would have to say that is simply not true. Yet, at least. In Gyimes – a string of mountain settlements strung along several steep valleys in the high Carpathians between Moldavia and Transylvanian plains – there are still a living tradition of village fiddlers. Zoltán „Finánc” Antal is still playing, probably the last of the old blind fiddlers in Gyimes, and there are some others, neither blind nor old nor Gypsy. [Photo by Fumie Suzuki]The music of Gyimes is always played as a duet – a fiddler playing lead with his wife accompanying him on the gardon, a string percussion instrument carved from a wood in the rough shape of a cello. The gardon is hit with a stick, while the one outside string is plucked – essentially it is a drum and plays the role that the large davul or tapan would play in Balkan and Turkish zurla music. The style is unique to the area – besides Gyimes, only a few Romanian villages near the Bekas Pass use the gardon.To be honest, Gyimes music is not exactly my cup of tea. It used to be some of my favorite music, and back around 1990 it was the in thing among fiddlers learning from Csaba Ökrös, and you gotta admit – it is hard to conceive of a style of fiddle more attractive to somebody who really wants to get a wild rocking sound out of an east European fiddle style. I wound up spending several years learning as an apprentice to a fiddler from the Transylvanian lowlands around Cluj, however – the late Ferenc Arus from Méra – who taught me a lot about the aesthetics of his style of Transylvanian fiddle band music. Basically, that is what you learn if you apprentice to a Gypsy primás - folk aesthetics - their system of what is "good" and what is not, and it isn't something that they take to be a relative value. The old primás of Szék, Adam "Icsán" István used to say "What's good is good" Ami jó az jó. Simple. [Photo of Arus Béla and Arus Ferenc by Bela Kasa]Whenever Feribacsi would be at some dance house or folk festival in Budapest and hear Gyimes music, he would simply lose it. “How can they call that music!” he would fume… “Some guy sawing on a fiddle and his fat wife whacking on a log… and they call that music?” It was, however, my job to agree with everything Feribacsi said, and eventually the prejudice against whacking musical logs stuck with me. I lost my ear for the stuff. To this day I tend to go out for a drink when the dance cycle switches to music from Gyimes. But then, I don’t exactly have much patience for the music of Szék, either. Most Hungarian fiddlers wouldn’t share my enthusiasm for the rough hewn Romanian mountain fiddle style of Maramureş, either. Heck… to each his own. But nonetheless, I’ll miss Zerkula. Good, honest fiddling is simply irresistable to me, even if it requires whacking on a log. While a lot of Hungarian revival fiddlers tend to play Gyimes style as an expression of unbridled fiddle wildness – “look how loud I can play this thing!” Uncle János always kept his playing within the strict bounds of taste – careful fingering, expert bowing, dances played at the proper tempos, nothing just for show-off. The man was a class act. [Photo by Fumie Suzuki]Uncle Janos was a great character, always happy to chat about fiddling, and unlike a lot of fiddlers, never too pushy about asking for a few forints tip. He lived a tough life – lost his sight at the age of twenty, and trying to make a living as a blind fiddler in one of the poorer mountain regions of Romania is no picnic. "Nem kell látni, érezni kell!” - “You don’t need to see… you need to feel it!” he used to say. He managed and built up a decent farm and was one of the few rural Transylvanian musicians who was capable of adapting to a new role as a teacher of folk fiddle and festival performer later in life. They won’t be making many more like him. Here is a clip of Zerkula and Gizi néni (the gardon player Pulika Gizella) playing last year at the Budapest Palace of Artists.