Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Jewish Cemetery in Pest.

For all the recent talk about Holocaust memorials being dedicated in Hungary, probably no better memorial to the Jewish victims of WWII can be found than at the Izraelita Temető (Israelite Cemetery) located out at the end of the 37 tram line (which leaves from Blaha Lujza ter in Pest. the 28 takes a similar route but only goes as far as the Kozma utca General Cemetery, which is about a kilometer away from the entrance to the Jewish cemetery. The Jewish Cemetery closes at 3 pm daily.) I was doing some research and decided to take the tram to the end stop: although I have seen dozens of old Jewish cemeteries in East Europe, I had never been to the main Jewish cemetery in Pest before.The grand families traditionally had mausoleums erected to house the earthly remains of the family. What stands out is the cozy Hungarianess of the place: many of the grave stones are inscribed in familiar, affectionate remembrances: "To Our Mama" "My Dear Life: Little Gyuszika." One stone identified the resting place of a musician. I've seen a lot of these: in Iasi the grave of Iosif Sava, a popular klezmer, composer and father of Romanian TV personality Gheorghe Sava had a harp marking the grave. In Cluj there is an entire marble piano carved to mark the grave of one popular composer. Violin shaped stones are not rare. I wonder if the stonemasons would be able to make a decent grave marker featuring a Moldavian bagpipe?
But one stark fact emerges as you walk down the well kept rows of old stones: the sheer number of graves marked by deaths from 1944-1945, the year the Hungarian Arrow Cross and German SS colluded to destroy the Jewish community of Budapest, which had survived until then under the relatively tolerant Hungarian rule of the Regent Admiral Horthy.The piles of stones are a Jewish custom: instead of flowers we place stones on graves, to signify permanence. The cemetery is marked by several major monuments to local Jewish communities destroyed during the War, as well as graves symbolically marked for those who never returned from the concentration camps, such as the monument below, dedicated to "Our Grandparents who were killed in Auschwitz, and their children..."The main memorial to the victioms of the Shoah is a stark, empty memorial, incorporating walls on which thousands of names of those killed in the camps and deportations are etched in stone.Huge columns display the names of the slaughtered: from Bergen Belsen, Auschwitz, massacre sites in occupied Yugoslavia, the Forced Labor camps. The sheer number of names displayed here, in the cemetery, has an effect of remembrance which, I feel, is far more moving than many memorials built in the last decade. Here you feel you are among the victims, they are right below your feet, thousands of them. Present and never forgotten. So many of the victims were identified only after the war, as information trickled in, that the walls have become a kind of ongoing meta-project, as surviving family members add names by hand, notating dates and personal information about their loved ones.And finally, a testament to the bitterness felt by many of those who survived the destruction, only to return to a world without relatives, family, to return to di khurbes, the destruction... The inscription reads "As long as people live on the Earth, Let the Germans be cursed! Amen!"

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

R.I. P. Richie Shulberg and Bob Giuda: The World Suddenly Got Quieter

Sad news came my way this month. Two of the New York City folk music scene's loudest and funniest personalities passed away, Richie Shulberg and Bob Giuda. Both were old buddies of mine from the Old Time music scene that used to congeal around the Eagle Taven jam sessions South Street Seaport Museum concert series back in the 1970s and 80s, when lower Manhattan had yet to gentrify and CBGB's still booked Appalachian string bands and blues acts.Richie Shulberg finally left the boundaries of New York City on 14 March 2009 of a heart attack, aged 61. Richie was the epitome of the New York Jewish bluegrass musician, a manic combination of Lenny Bruce and uncle Dave Macon wrapped in a New York Cantonese Egg Roll skin and deep fried until the result was beyond recognition as anything other than pure Brooklyn. Known to much of the world as Citizen Kafka, the persona he adopted while broadcasting his dadaist radio show on WBAI in New York, Richie was a man of too many doubtful skills: broadcaster, opal miner, Theremin player, junk dealer, music archivist, art collector, bookseller, and musician. Above all else, he was a great Old Time fiddler, the de facto leader of the bluegrass band "The Wretched Refuse String Band. Possbly known best for their blugrass adaption of the Danny Kaye hit "Thumbelina" sung in broad, Brooklyn Jewish accents, the Wretched Refuse under Richie's "direction" were a uniquly unemployable icon of New York musical expression:The band's name came from the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your wretched refuse yearning to breath free." Which, Ritchie once told me, was the more acceptable band name than "The Coney Island Whitefish" (you have to be from Brooklyn to appreciate that one.) Richie's stage presence was that of the ranting new York Jewish poetic genius riffing on sounds that clogged his brain from being raised in the late 1950s and 60s: sort of a Firesign theater Meets Allen Ginsburg at a Knish stand in West Virginia. As one commentor on his memorial Facebook page said: Shulberg never met a social convention he wasn’t compelled to violate. The more tightly wound the promoter or client, the greater was the potential for comic riot (Margaret Dumont syndrome). His radio show on WBAI included fiddler Kenny Kosek and a Missouri newcomer named John Goodman who would go on to make himself a bit better known in Hollywood as one of the Coen Brother's favorite character actors.Although we all played Appalachian music, the Wretched Refuse String Band were one of the first bands that dabbled in reviving klezmer music. Andy Statman played mandolin with them, and it was fiddler Alan Kaufmann who first gave me cassettes of Jewish wedding music from Brooklyn in trade for tapes of Transylvanian fiddle music from the Palatka Band that I had brought home from Hungary. The Wretched Refuse were The String Band in New York's folk scene. Like many of New York's folk bands, the members were mostly Jewish or Italian, and not the easily assimilated, suburban type of ethnoid that America feels comfy with, but crazed, cross pollenated, ranting and raving Judeo-Wops with a penchant for singing archaic Black Sanctified Church music on period vintage guitars bought for pennies in Brooklyn junk shops. Which meant we all ate Chinese food, all the time. Richie was famous in Chinatown - he was a true gourmand of the now archaic classic American Cantonese cuisine, and he knew all the waiters by name, and all the Chinese waiters knew him by name: Litchie! After a gig it was always Ritchie who chose the after party venue (Wo Hop) as well as the menu (orange flavored beef). Richie had been suffering from a variety of ailments over the last decade, and the annual “Thank God the Citizen is Still Alive” concert is still going booked, as the Wretcheds would say, with or without him, at Brooklyn’s Jalopy venue on 9 May 2009. The Here's a taste of Wretched Madness from their regular gigs at the Jalopy in Brooklyn last year.Another pillar of the New York Folk Scene was Bob Giuda, the massive (400 pound) Brooklyn mortician and Blues guitarist who formed one half of the semi-fictional Otis Brothers alongside Pat Conte. Bob passed on on March 11, 2009, while setting up a gig at a library, holding his favorite fender bass guitar. Probably just as he would have wished to go.Bob and Pat performed as the Otis Brothers, and like a lot of the best traditional acts in the US, they were virtually unknown outside of New York, their recordings virtual collectors items of music that reaches into genuine American folk and popular traditions that just never crossed into the territory of hit music. They didn't care one bit. Bob and Pat were (and in the case of Pat, is) true Brooklyn originals. Both were huge, hefty men who enjoyed eating in a world dominated by skinniness. Bob and Pat used to go into a Brooklyn diner for lunch, scarf down the all you can eat special and then split an entire chocolate cake for dessert.Bob was famous as one of the loudest acoustic singers to ever vibrate a vocal chord. I last saw him around 1988, singing blues with an electric guitar cranked up, outdoors, with no mike and no need for one. Once, at a private reception, a woman came up to him and asked if he could possibly turn his mike volume down a bit. Bob stared at her and answered "I'm sorry, Lady, but there is no mike."That's Bob Giuda, Pat Conte, and Richie Shulberg at a gig last year. Pat and Richie used to share the amazing radio show "The Secret Museum of the Air" on WFMU playing only rare 78 rpm gramophone recordings from their collections. The Otis Brothers were, in a sense, the live performance version of the Secret Museum. Pat Conte still records and gigs around New York - I saw him last year with John Cohen and Peter Stampfel on the lower East Side, after having not seen him in about 25 years. After the gig he said to me "Man it's good to see you. I never thought I would see you alive again." Pat: keep a lid on the extra servings of ravioli. I want to see you next time I'm in New York.To Richie and Bob: keep the vintage 1950s tube amps in Heaven warm for us. And save me some chocolate cake and egg rolls.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Warsaw: The One Day Tour.

Been sparse with blog posts lately, for many reasons (or, if you will, excuses.) One was massive computer problems in February, causing me to have to backup a lot of files and reinstall my Windows system. To everyone who says “Get a Mac” I should set up a paypal account so that you can all get me a mac. And if I had a Mac I am pretty sure Fumie would take it over for her graphics work and I would never get near it. Besides, I almost enjoy wrestling with Mr. Gate’s foul monstrosities. So it’s XP for the time being (I have Vista on the Acer I got as a gift… which reminds me of the joke: What would you get if Microsoft made vacume cleaners? A product that does not suck.) Second: a bit of unexpected travel.Last week saw me spend a day in Warsaw. A film crew (I won’t go into details) who had interviewed me a year ago wanted some more interviews, so they flew me up to Warsaw for the day. That's right: the day. Up at dawn, I was on the flight and in Warsaw at 9 am, and flew home at 8 that evening. Rather abrupt, but after the morning interview, I had the day free. My base was at the Warsaw Jewish museum.
Warsaw isn’t the most graceful city in Poland. Most of Warsaw was stematically destroyed by the German Army in 1944 in the aftermath of the Warsaw uprising. Which left Warsaw looking like this.Postwar rebuilding focused on making the city habitable, and historical reconstruction has been ongoing for over 60 years. Much of the history of the city has been obliterated, but people have not forgotten the majestic Warsaw of pre-war years, and memorial plaques can be found all over the downtown, pointing out locations of former glory. Poland has a population of almost 38 million: they don't have time to worry about a cute capitol city.The building in which the Jewish museum is housed used to be the Jewish library next to the Great Synagogue. Many of the exhibits are documents and art from the library and the Jewish records offices that were secretly buried in metal milk barrels beneath the library, and dug up after the war from the rubble.Across the street from the Jewish museum is a small park behind a nondescript office block and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. This is where the gate to the Jewish Ghetto was located during the war. Much of the Jewish Ghetto now lies where the gigantic Palace of Culture now stands, and as Warsaw is continually rebuilding itself and healing the scars of WWII, there is little to remind anyone that this was once the seat of Polish Jewish culture.But there is a neat new downtown mall… And what would a trip to Poland be without pierogis? Having eaten pierogis in Russia, the Ukraine, and all over the lower east side of New York, I am completely taken by the Polish version. Oh, litttle dough sack of meat and mushroom, I am yours completely...And Zurek? Ahhh… sour rye bran soup with a nice sausage. It isn’t kosher, but it sure works for me on a cold windy day.