Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Bronx: Voodoo Like You Do.

"If you grow up in the South Bronx today you quickly come to understand that you have been set apart and that there's no will in this society to bring you back into the mainstream."
Jonathan Kozol

"I don't need bodyguards. I'm from the South Bronx."
Al Pacino

"The Bronx? No Thonx!"
Ogden Nash, 1931

The beauty of the forgotten borough.
I grew up in the Bronx. at the Westchester Square end of East Tremont Ave, a neighborhood that was predominantly Italian with a sprinkling of Irish, Greek, Ukrainian, and old time New York German residents. Spanish meant Puerto Rican back then. Went to P.S. 71. After leaving the NYPD my Dad operated the first "multiracial" owned business in the Bronx, an Esso Gas and Service station on Webster Ave with a Puertoriqueño named Carlos. The Bronx is in my blood. Indelible. The Bronx is home to a million and a half New Yorkers, and remain the last borough to resist gentrification. The Hipsters do not colonize the Bronx as they have in Brooklyn and Queens. Not enough white people speaking English to make the Bronx feel comfortably hip. The Bronx does not appear in any tourist guide to New York. If it does at all, it is because of the Bronx zoo. We love zoos. We especially love great big green forests in the middle of the Bronx. It is the tail end of summer and we were set to enjoy it, even with the $15 entrance fees and the $5 add ons to get into the major enclosures. Go on Wednesday - known as "Ghetto Day" - if you want to get in for free and experience the crowds of low income Bronx families desperate for nature and fresh air.

"You paid how much to see me?"
The Zoo brought us back to the Bronx, or more accurately, Bob Godfried brought us to the Zoo. Bob, now a retired new York City shop teacher and New York's most knowledgeable accordion and free reed repairman,is my friend and guide to the intricacies of New York's ethnic music scenes. Bob was born and raised in and never left the Bronx when the great "white flight" to the suburbs happened in the 1960s, when the South and Central Bronx became the center for emigres from Puerto Rico, and later Dominicans, Cubans, Mexicans, and even Garifuna - Black Caribs, Native American Afro-Indians - from Central America. The influence of Afro-Caribbean religious traditions such as Lucumi, Santeria, and Vodun remains strong in Bronx communities, which led us to the Original Botanica, New York's oldest and largest botanica shop.

All your occult hoodoo and Santeria needs since 1959
A Botanica is usually a tiny shop that sells the materials necessary to conduct, santeria or vodun ceremonies. New York is still full of them, in every borough, but Original is the biggest in NYThere is even a full service botanica nearby on Main Street in Hackensack NJ. These serve their communities the way mental health clinics do, but instead of paying thousands of dollars in co-pay to a shrink you go to a bruja and pay about $50 for some herbs and oils, and all your problems are fixed and you feel better.  Plus they probably speak Spanish or Haitian Creole. Santeria or Candomble followers are visible to other by the colored beads identifying the wearer as a follower of one of the many orishas, or Yoruba deities who personify forces of nature. 

The Yoruba were one of the last African nations to be sucked into the slave trade: just as the British were beginning their campaign to intercept shps carrying slaves off the coast of West Africa, the Kingdom of Oyo fell in 1817 to Fulani jihadis coming from the north. the resulting waves of refugee Oyo Yoruba were taken as slaves by neighboring Dahomey - speakers of the Fon language and former vassal of Oyo - and sold to Spanish and Brazilian slavers. Yoruba often arrived in the new world fully literate. In Brasil and Cuba they formed communities to continue their social and religious traditions - called candomble in Brasil and Santeria in Cuba. 

Elegua "Opens the Road"
Yoruba also maintained their language, which became known in Cuba as Lucumi, from the Yoruba words oluku mi - "my friend." The divination sytem at the heart of Yoruba religion is Ifa, which is the name of the orisha of knowledge and fate. In classic Yoruba divination a babalawo or Ifa priest uses cowrie shells ( or coconut shells in some New World Santeria communities) tossed into the air and onto a tray to assess a patient's problem: Ifa himself arranges the cowries in mid air so that the babalawo can read their pattern, which serves as a sort of ID code to a verse of Yoruba poetry called the Odu Ifa. The first orisha that each ceremony has to deal with is Eshu, also known as Elegua, the gate keeper who negotiates communications between the spirit world and ours. He is a handsome man, half white and half black. In Yoruba Eshu "opens the road."

Elegua, known as Eshu in Yoruba, Baron Samedi in Haiti, and in Louisiana, Papa LaBas.
The essence of Yoruba religion is a deep understanding of humanity: both its positive and its negative aspects. Humans are flawed: it is a reflection of the flaws in creation. The flaws in Creation were repaired, so how can we repair our flaws? By giving and getting. You want something from the spirit world, you better be ready to give in return. 

Like buying a candle and maybe perfuming some water in a scent deemed pleasing to the orisha being petitioned. But the intricate rituals of the Yoruba are not he only traditions practiced in the New World. At Original Botanica you can buy the nganga: iron kettles needed to prepare shrines from the Cuban Palo Mayombe tradition. 

Just add some black cat bone and expect instant results.
Mayomberos are sometimes considered dangerous: they are reputed to be expert on revenge curses and manipulative magic. Palo Mayombe reflects an older African tradition in the New World dating to the earlier years of African slave trade when millions of slaves were taken from the Bantu-speaking Congo regions to Cuba and the American South. These religious traditions transformed into the Petro side of the Haitian Vodoun Religion, the Voodoo of Louisiana, and in fully creolized form, into the Hoodoo tradition of the Black American South. 

Trouble is often caused by untidy bathrooms. Don't get caught by the law because of dirty toilets!
Hoodoo has always been present in American Black communities, but following emancipation the existence of African religion found strong resistance from the nascent Black churches and began to rebrand itself as a folk belief best known from old blues song lyrics. 

Muddy Waters sang "I got the black cat bone, got John the conqueroo, I'm gonna mess with you" High John the Conquerer was said to be an African Prince carried into slavery: a dried plant root carries his power. 

You can use some soap if you don't want to prepare the root. Ọr just cover all your bases with all-purpose Jinx Removal soap. Got problems in gambling? Black Cat Bone is what you need. Zora Neale Hurston, the anthroplogist/writer/ active during the Harlem Renaissance wrote about Hoodoo in her books "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and "The Sanctified Church" before falling into poverty and obscurity in the 1930s. Urban Black intellectuals weren't  comfortable around Zora, who was an initiated Voodoo priestess from the tiny town of Palatka, Florida. Yes, you read that right.
Palatka, Florida

And if you have problems with the ladies, try lighting a candle: there are ladies'candles as well, in all races and sizes. There is something primal about magical solutions to daily problems. 
My boyfriend is a such a dick. What to do?
Maybe that is why people continue to be attracted to them. There were coyote skins for sale, Ifa divining plates, dried chameleons, herbs for cleansing ritual baths, ritual charms to help women get pregnant, herbs to defeat lawyers, to find a good job, to ensure safe travel, even to bring good luck specifically to Venezuelans (I am not making that one up, I swear.) 

Syncretism - a brokh!. 
The owners of the Original Botanica since 1959 are a family of Sephardic Jews, which makes fine business sense if you wanted to stay  in business in the Bronx all that time. They aren't followers of Santeria but respect the local need to keep a supply of... well, dried chameleons and stuff. Even during the most lawless "Fort Apache" days of the Bronx' decline in the 1970s, nobody, but nobody was going to fuck with a shop that serves the local Voodoo priests. I really doubt that this had any influence on me finding a set of mogen david stars on a series of votive candles. Bob, who is an authority on stuff like this, says that the design of the candles has become a lot simpler and less ornate that they used to be. They have also become more ecumenical. Basically, any path to god's ear is worth trying. 

When all else fails...

The candles you buy here are available at any botanica in the city. Visit Van Cortland Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn on any day celebrating an important Saint in the Santeria or Vodoun pantheon and you will find candles burning at crossroads or at the base of certain sacred trees. New York is not a spiritual wasteland, It is the home of thousands of people whose faith is inherited from centuries of slavery and resistance, of which Santeria,Vodoun, and Hoodoo are a part. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Loeser's Deli: An Old Time Deli in the Bronx. And also White Manna.

Nakhes fun kinder. Its true. Children are a source of joy, but unlike many other sources of joy they also need to be fed, and at the age of 21 they need to be fed a lot. Heck, you could feed a small army for the same amount that a 21 year boy old can eat. I planned my arrival in the USA to coincide with the last week of my son Aron's visit, and we had made plans to revisit some of the eateries that define Aron, ethnically, as a New Yorker. One of those things is pastrami. Aron loves Jewish food, deli and pastrami in particular. also, in no particular order, Jersey burgers, White Castle sliders, clams on the halfshell, and most Chinese food. Very New Yorker.

Sure, you can get pastrami in "delis" and diners all over the country, but New York pastrami is special, especially when it is cured and smoked in house. Simple advice: do not ever order a pastrami sandwich in a diner, especially in New Jersey. Just don't. Trust my advice on this. That packaged cold cut of salty, pink hammy stuff covered in peppercorns is not even close to pastrami. When in doubt in a diner always order the cheeseburger or the patty melt. I had read David Saxe's book (and blog) Save the Deli about the gradual disappearance and partial resurrection of the Jewish deli tradition, and there was still one deli I had overlooked: Loeser's in the Bronx.

Freddy Loeser: A real old school Deli Man.
Half a century ago, way up in the Bronx, a young man of just 17 named Freddy Loeser used some of his bar mitzvah savings to open up a kosher delicatessen. Back then, there were still hundreds of Jewish delis all over the Bronx, Today there are only two: Liebmann's and Loeser's. when I was growing up delis were everywhere, but that everywhere disappeared during the 1960s. In the 1940s New York Public Works commissioner Robert Fucking Moses ran the Cross Bronx expressway straight through the tight knit neighborhoods of the South Bronx, destroying the political power of the ward bosses and the sense of community that held people together. My grandparents lived in Parkchester, a neighborhood that still had Yiddish street signs into the 1960s, and I remember the delicious square potato knishes my Mom would buy for us kids when we went shopping. A knish with yellow mustard was my dream of "eating out." (Although the "Hamburger Express" diner on Westchester Square ran a model train system that delivered your burger to your table by toy train. That kind of thing sticks in your brain forever.)

Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish. Knish
Loeser's is located on a busy street just across a bridege from Manhatten and has the atmosphere of a real old time deli - which it is. Wooden walls. Formica tables.  My Dad - still chipper at 88 - ran my Son Aron and myself down for an exploration. One thing about Loeser's Deli: it doesn't depend on the tourist trade to stay in Business. Dad declared it a "real deli" and chatted with Freddy Loeser as Freddy came to our table to take orders. "Have I met you before?" Freddy asked my Dad, an ex-NYC cop and detective. "How many years have you been here?" my Dad replies. Freddy says "54 years." "Nah." says my Dad "You're too young.
Retired from the NYPD but can still kick my butt. Likes corned beef. 
Freddy disappeared behind the counter and returned with a plate of pickles and a bowl of Loeser's home made cole slaw, prepared fresh daily. I know cole slaw is supposed to be a side, but anybody who eats regularly at delis knows it is actually the appetizer. You shovel the stuff down while waiting for your sandwich or main course, by which point it is gone. Freddy knows this and offers to refill your dish of slaw. And they don't bother with ceramic plates. Paper takes up less space and labor, and since nobody who eats at Loeser's is a tourist, you don't complain. 

Loeser's Happy Meal!
Loeser's seems to survive on a knish and a prayer, but the NY Daily News declared their pastrami the best in town. Nobody argues with the Daily News. Is it actually the best in town? Hard to say. Loeser's is a classic, machine sliced sandwich, smaller than the gargantuan overstuffed mutants served at Carnegie  Deli or the hand cut piles of meat at Katz's (You think you will be hungry? Order the hand cut french fries. That's what they are for!). For one thing, it is a heck of a lot cheaper than any other deli in the NYC area, because they still serve a diverse Bronx customer base seeking out an affordable, filling, non-Dominican lunch. You can easily get there from Northern Manhatten by hopping on the #7 bus going north on Broadway and getting off at 231th Street soon after the bus crosses the small bridge from Manhattan. Or take the #1 subway from Manhattan and get off at 231st St. stop and walk a half a block. (Loeser's Deli. 214 West 231st St. Bronx.)

Aron with Grandpa. Standing on ancestral land: the Bronx.
Plus there is nothing nicer than dining out with Grandpa and grandson. Three generations of deli fressers passing on the knowledge of what makes a good deli sandwich. The french have wine, the British my know cheese, but we New Yorkers have the deli. We know its nuances, we can describe its aromas and flavors with a subtlety akin to poetry. Pastrami brine flows in our veins, and kasha stuffs the varnishkes of our souls. We New Yorkers are blessed with our delis, and it is our duty to patronize the remaining ones lest they go the way of the buffalo... and egg cream. We also have a few things that more recent emigrants have gifted us with, not the least of which is the Japanese Bakery in Fort Lee. Grandma loves Japanese bakeries. And Grandpa does too.

Grandma likes the strawberry Shortcake.
And then again, when raising a son to be a in a foreign, non-Jersey place, there is The White Manna. I haven't written about White Manna in a while. its nearby, I tend to take it for granted because when in the USA I do most of my market shopping at the amazing Giant Farmer's Market across the street, and the place has been around since as long as my clan has inhabited this part of Jersey, but White Manna has an honored place in the foodie saga of The Garden State. I only wish it could have been kosher so my kosher buddies could try it. But it ain't. All those cheeseburgers? They are mine!

This is our life.
This time we chose my brother Ron to act as accompanying DNA specimen. Uncle Ron is a master of Jersey foods. Hell, with my own naked eyeballs I have seen him eat an entire Subway sandwich and survive, so White manna is definitely a step up for him. He has his own set of boundary issues with food: he likes all food to be pasta. He likes salad to be pasta. Soup made from pasta. He eats meat but often encased in pasta, like Chinese dumplings. He makes a significant exception by eating burgers to broaden his dietary intake of vegetables.

Uncle Ron. He used to be such a cute little boy. Then the radioactive spider incident...
The prices at White Manna have risen slightly since I took these photos, but you get the idea. You order burgers in multiples: two is a snack, a light meal is three, and since this version of "fast food" is prepared as you watch, order four since it will take at least ten minutes to get another one if you change your mind. The tiny-bit-of-meat and large stack of steamed onions is a tradition that goes back to the Great Depression (the 1930s, for those of you who have already forgotten.) Burger shacks needed to find a way to stretch a small amount of meat into a meal, and onion was it. Oklahoma has a similar crushed onion burger tradtion, and the Mississippi slugburger follows in their burger extender vein.

You want this. Admit it. Even though they will kill you. 
They are good, they are cheap, they are filling, and no, they are not gourmet. those little "sliders" you see advertised on menus at bistros in Brooklyn? I won;t order them, they are not "sliders" they are tiny hamburgers in Yuppie restaurants. A slider has a potato bun, like at White Manna. A slider is slow steamed on top of a stack of onions. A slider has government welfare commodity cheese melted on it. It does not contain jalapeno, unless it is from White Castle (where it is allowed.) Also, a slider is cheap.

Photo taken around 2008. Double Cheeseburger is now 30 cents more expensive..
The White Manna is tiny and at lunchtime it fills up and gets crowded with people queuing up for take out (orders of "give me twenty hamburgers, fifteen cheeseburgers, and twelve double cheeseburgers" are not uncommon.) If dining at lunch time on a weekday you get a definite vibe of Clowns in a Volkswagen, but heck, it is not Peter Luger's Steakhouse we are tawkin' about, right? It is White Manna, ferchrissakes, and it is part of the Cohen Family Tradition of Eating in New Jersey.

Friday, September 12, 2014

KlezKanada 2014: Marching Backwards towards Di Yene Velt

KlezKanada is not a festival. It is not a summer camp. It is not an academic seminar. It is not a Yiddish version of Burning Man.  KlezKanada, however, is all of those things at once and more. It is a festival some times, a summer camp at others, and remarkably, a lot like a Yiddish version of Burning Man (der farbrent mentsh?) albeit with more Jewish grandmothers and Klezmer trombonists in attendance and almost no naked people wearing welding goggles to speak of. 

Dan Blacksberg's all-trombone band, with Rachel Lemish and other trombones. Note: no goggles!
Most importantly, KlezKanada is the focus of a movement to revitalize the use of Yiddish language and culture, to re-purpose Yiddish as a powerful tool in modern Jewish life (and not as some half forgotten source of punchlines to old Jewish jokes.) This was the first year I attended KlezKanada (I have never been to Klez Kamp either.) KlezKanada was founded by the dynamic couple of Hy and Sandy Goldman in 1996 to teach, nurture and present the best of Jewish and particularly Yiddish arts and culture. Frank London does the honors of artistic director: no finer choice could be made. Besides having monster chops and perfect pitch, Frank and I have known each other for something like 40 years, way back to our long haired hippie days in Allston Massachusetts, jamming in pickup salsa bands on Lincoln Street and hanging with the early Klezmer crowd. (Shout out to Samm Bennett in Tokyo, y'all!)

Artistic Director Frank London in a moment of rare calm.
Held at a Jewish summer camp in the Laurentian region north of Montreal, the setting of many of Mordechair Richler's novels and somewhat equivalent to the "Borscht Belt" of Canada. Montreal's Jews have a strong sense of community (held together by their superior bagels, no doubt) and have managed to coexist among many of the nastier differences that weaken American Jewish unity: Zionists vs. Religion, Hebraists vs. Yiddishists, Left vs. Right. They are Canadians, after all, they know how to reach a concensus in crisis. When faced by a strong antisemitic sentiments from the old Parti Quebecois during the 1970s political crisis, the Jews of Montreal stuck together. Yiddish used to be the third most widely spoken language in Montreal after French and English. With the adoption of laws giving French preferential status in Quebec, a lot of English speakers packed up and moved to Toronto. The 100,000 Jews that remained in Montreal? They continue to speak Yiddish, English, and when you least expect it, French as well. 

Many Montreal Jews fled to Ontario in response to French language laws in Quebec.
Many of Montreal's Jews descend from refugees who emigrated to Canada immediately after World War Two, so the use of the Yiddish language is in somewhat better condition there than in the USA. Due to the peculiarities of Quebec's language laws, while English is restricted in education and official use, minority languages in Quebec are encouraged. Italian is widely spoken in Quebec, as is Lebanese Arabic, and I always enjoy speaking Haitian Creole to Montreal cab drivers. 
Gravestone carver in downtown Montreal
Montreal is home to the combined Talmud Torah and Herzliah School, which includes Yiddish language instruction which continues to provide a pool of younger, contemporary speakers of Yiddish who often go on to teach language and participate as artists enriching and "seeding" Yiddish language around the world. (Nearby the Mohawk Indians at nearby Kahnawake have made fluency in Mohawk language a requirement for graduation. Quebec's language laws have produced unexpectedly positive results for endangered language communities.) Without a doubt, this "seeding" of Yiddish among secular, non-hasidic Jews is the most effective method thus tried to keep Yiddish a living language. While Yiddish is spoken - and indeed growing - as a living language among Orthodox Hasidic groups, their communities tend to avoid interaction with secular Yiddish groups. In order to create more contexts for language use, "language nests" like that created at KlezKanada are needed. 

Children are the key to Yiddish culture's survival. Sruli Dresdener and Lisa Mayer's Kids band.
This year's theme at KlezKanada was "Yiddish: Di Yene Velt" which led to a lot of playful "rising from the dead" vampire and spooky house imagery as people celebrated the fact that for this temporary community on a Quebec lake, Yiddish was not dead at all. It doesn't even smell bad. 

Frank and Tine: where is Cousin It?
In fact, given the playfully goofy atmosphere that comes naturally to adults at summer camp, and the number of avant-garde theater folks attending, the evening dances in the Gym were hilarious: check out music director Frank London accompanying his wife, artist Tine Kindermann on musical saw in Adams Family getup, Jake Shulman-Ment' and Sergiu Popa leading the Romanian Vampire Lautar Orchestra, dance leader Steve Weintraub dressed up in ghoulish hasidic garb, and Jenny Romanie's Haunted Sukke took the prize for eerie and weird but wonderful. 

Jake and Rebbe Weinstein
The programs offered included klezmer music instruction at all levels from absolutely the best living masters of the music, language classes and  discussions in Yiddish language, arts and theater programs, poetry readings and workshops, film showings, and a wide variety of programs for children, since many families make the trip to Lake Lantier an annual summer pilgrimage. I taught a class in Jewish fiddle styles with Sankt Petersburg fiddler Mitsia Khramtsov from the bands Opa! and Dobranotch

Get your Fried Chicken song right here!
I had only met Mitsia through Facebook chat before this, but we took a shine to each other and had a great time teaching: me, Transylvanian Jewish processional pieces, while Mitsia ran the class through several rare Ukrainian and Russian Jewish tunes and the Odessa standard "The Fried Chicken Song." Most of our students were from North America, and it was a relief to teach them by ear. For some reason, Europeans who sign up for my teaching workshops can not, or have never tried, to learn music by ear, the way most folk musicians do. Both Canada and the USA have active fiddle traditions, so maybe that explains their enthusiasm for putting aside the music notation and hearing the styles by instinct. 

Friday Evening Nigunnim with Sruli Dresdener.
There really is no distinction between performers, teachers, and audience at KlezKanada. When not teaching I might wander into a class on liturgical synagogue music, or a discussion on Yiddish led by Michael Wex, or a read-through of Rokhl Kafrissen's new play, or just drop by the Rec Centre for coffee and donuts and chance shmooze with some lovely people. Like guests at a wedding, everybody at KlezKanada is mishpocha. The evening concerts were both fun and serious: you had some of the best players in the Klezmer business playing alongside rank beginners, while the audience consists of your peers and other top rate musicians. 

The Kids: Jake Shulman-Ment, Richie Barshay, Josh Dolgin, Dan Blacksberg.
Some of the best contemporary Klezmer artists got their start at Klezkanada back when they were Kids, such as Josh Dolgin "Dj Socalled" and Mike Winograd. Winograd was at KlezKanada this year with his Sandaraa project, which consists of Winograd leading an ace band of musicians from Brooklyn's klezmer scene fronted by vocalist Zebunnisa Bangash, which plays an older form of Pakistani urban music with roots and history surprisingly similar to what Klezmer experienced (urban folk music uprooted by refugee experience finds itself alienated from the religious community that gave birth to it.... heard that story before?) 

Hankus Netsky, Mike Winograd, Dan Blacksberg, Jordan Hirsch, Frank London, Richie Barshay, and Yuval on bass. 
Mike led his other recent effort at KlezKanada: the amazing Tarras Project, playing in the spirit of the great clarinetist Dave Tarras.KlezKanada has spawned a few traditions of its own, the most striking of which is the Erev Shabbes Backwards March. the backwards march has its origins in the shtetls of East Europe. in some communities the musicians would welcome the sabbath by leading a march to the synagogue while walking backwards, in order to face the setting sun and thus welcome the "Queen" - the sabbath is always revered as the Queen of Days. 

Anthony Mordechai Tzvi Russell greeting the Queen
The tradition was reinstated at KlezKanada with the backwards march from the shore of Lake Luger up the hill to the Mess Hall for the sabbath dinner. First of all, I have never heard so many klezmer musicians playing in one place, and I have been in klezmer parades and festivals all over the world. Most moving, for me, was  memorial service to violinist and music educator Yaela Hertz, who passed on this year. Yaela was a mentor for many of the string students at KlezKanada and a personal teacher of klezmer violinist Deborah Strauss, who led the amassed musicians in a simple, yet profound acoustic tribute to Yaela: a simple scale in the ket of G played purely and cleanly over a Canadian lake shore. It was beautiful and moving. At the conclusion Deborah and not a few of the violinists were moved to tears as the Backwards March melody began. 
The march itself took about twenty minutes. At the conclusion, in a break from tradition, the Brothers Nazaroff broke into a rousing rendition of "A Mazeldiker Yid" by Nathan "Prince" Nazaroff, joined in by a few dozen hale and hungry klezmorim. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. Also one of the most anarchic. Accordions and fiddles were flying around me in a dangerous vortex, trumpets blatted in my delicate ears, as Russians danced complete balagan moves in my proximity. To see that moment, well, folks... you will just have to wait and see the movie! (Coming soon, like next year. Yes, a movie! About Nazaroff and all things Nazarovian. Nazarovye!)

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The Brothers Nazaroff Deli Report: Summer 2014

"I went to work in a delicatessen
For dreysik dollar and plenty to fresn
The balebos promised me a real gedila
instead of a gedila I catched me a kila

Sixteen tons of hot salami,
corned beef, rolled beef, and hot pastrami,
I hock arayn everything git tsu esn
I owe my neshomah to the delicatessen

Sixteen tons all kinds smoked fishes
Latkes, blintzes, un heyse knishes,
O Lordy nem es shnell to the promised land
A fayer afn boss zol er veln farbrent"
                 Micky Katz, "Sixteen Tons" (see bottom of post.)

I thought I would be able to maintain my strict dieting regime while on tour in the US and Canada with the noble Brothers Nazaroff, but that was not to be. Performing Yiddish music at Klezkanada and in Montreal, Toronto, and New York put us near of some of the best Jewish delicatessens around. On my first free half day in Montreal I was breaking my fast on the King of Meats: Schwartz's smoked meat sandwich.

Schwartz's Smoked Meat
 All spring I had fasted on vegetable juices and tee-totaled goodbye to demon rum in expectation of this day. On this day I marched up Boulevard Sainte Laurent at 11 AM to make it to Schwartz's Delicatessen before the eternal line of tourists begins snaking out the door and down the street. I had waited through months of vegan misery for this moment. I even ate salads for a week at Klezkanada.Today was the day I would introduce my beloved Fumie to the magical world of Montreal smoked meat, a world that I had spoken so much about since my last trip to Montreal.

She calls it "steak sashimi" and rates it better than Katz's.
I have posted about Schwartz's here before. Simply put, in the world of Jewish cured meats, the argument always comes down to Schwartz's versus Katz's Deli in New York. Montrealers tell me that Schwartz's isn't the only great smoked meat sandwich in town (there is the Main, and Lester's and Smoked Meat Pete among others) but for Fumie, on her first trip to Montreal, a pilgrimage to Schwartz's was obligatory. She bloats up on bread, so she went for the small plate of smoked meat (fatty, of course) which comes with a stack of rye bread on the side should one wish to construct sandwiches. 

This is the small plate. The large plate... haunts my dreams...
Kind of like cured beef sashimi if you approach it right. My sandwich was small - as most deli sandwiches are outside of the tourist belt of Manhattan - and although perfect in every way, I eventually used Fumie's rye bread and leftovers to increase my dosage by another half sandwich. Smoked meat is a bit different than pastrami: its is made from the brisket, the lower part of the beef stomach flap, not deckel, the breast flap as is used in US made pastrami, and the spicing is a bit heavier on coriander, but risking charges of heresy I may actually say it is better than Katz's, at least until I sink my molars into one of Katz's ridiculously expensive (but great) $18 pastrami sandwiches before I head back to Budapest. 

After the nationalist Parti Quebecois came to power in the 1970s, a lot of Montreal's English speaking population, including a large percentage of its Jews, migrated to Toronto. Toronto's Jews brought a nostalgia for smoked meat that led Zane Caplansky to start smoking his own variation in a local bar, which proved so successful that he soon opened Caplansky's Deli nearby, experimenting and tweaking the recipes until he had created one of North America's best pastrami/smoked meat hybrids.

Jake, before the vicious knife attack that left him a scarred shell of a mentsh.
We arrived to meet with Michael Wex, author of the bestselling book about the Yiddish language Born to Kvetch, and Canadian singer songwriter Geoff Berner - known as the "Whiskey Rabbi" - who has also recently penned the hilarious novel Festival Man. Wex is the heart and soul of Canadian Jewish wit, and Berner, well... Geoff is fast becoming a lesion on its liver. Geoff and his band traveled with me to Romania about ten years ago to look for Jewish fiddlers in Tranylvania and Moldavia, He still sings about that trip.

Berner and Wex, the Judeo-Canadian Literary establishment, nu?
After filming some enlightening interviews, including Wex declaring that by singing in the Yiddish Language the Brothers Nazaroff are voluntarily choosing to commit commercial suicide, we ordered lunch (on somebody else's budget, Thank you very much!) Unfortunately, Geoff Berner accidentally beaned Jake Shulman-Ment on the head with a knife while trying to dismember an errant hornet, but in truth the gash was minor and didn't bleed much and was at least a wide half inch from Jake's cornea and Jake is a fiddler and doesn't really need his eyes all that much to make a living anyway because blind musicians have always been a part of traditional music and he has already seen so much that he doesn't really need those eyes and he would have had one left over anyway. 

Geoff Berner plans his next move as a bandaged Jake contemplates lawsuits and sandwiches.
And Geoff felt really bad about it, the throwing a knife at a new acquaintance's face thing... it was so un-Canadian, really. So... Geoff! You never know what he will be up to next. Touring Norway with his band or stabbing fiddlers in the face... such a character! And thus our sandwiches arrived. 

Caplansky's Smoked Meat. 
My previous experiences with Caplansky's sandwiches were at the Ashkenaz festival a few years back, and I wasn't blown away, but obviously the recipes have been perfected and this baby was a close contender for Top Ten deli masterworks of the world.  We also split a "What Hank Eats" special, which was a classic old school deli sandwich of griddled Kosher salami, red onions, and chopped liver. The chopped liver... too creamy. I understand why catering halls started making chopped liver in machine blenders, but I used to make three kilos by hand chopping liver, onions, and eggs together every afternoon when cooking for a Budapest bistro and there can be no better texture than chunky chopped liver. We sold it out by 8 pm every day. Hand choppingg the liver while warm is the secret to good chopped liver.

"What Hank Eats" Grilled kosher salami, chopped liver, onions. 
I also opted for a small smoked meat poutine, but since that is a purely Canadian concoction I will leave it to provide fodder for the full poutine rant in a later post. Other than Caplansky's and the Ashkenaz Festival, I should mention that Toronto has a really great Brazilian bakery, a Chinatown, and a big tower. Onward to New York! When we talk about New York, we usually talk about Katz's, and yes, I will talk about Katz's very soon but not right now... I want to talk about my home province, the Bronx. 

Liebmann's: The only Deli in New York in a place where you can find parking.
Working with a film crew in tow is tiring for a band, and one works up a hunger, or as Dan Kahn calls it when he sees me getting grouchy and nasty around noon "Uh-oh! Bob is getting hangry." Lucky for us we were near Liebman's Deli. Located in the Kingsbridge section, near Riverdale, Liebman's is one of the last two delis in the Bronx, where there were once well over a hundred delis. And Liebman's is still serving a local clientele, unlike the delis in Manhattan which can only survive as tourist attractions due to the high rents and rising costs of making an artisanal deli meat product in house. 

Liebman's Deli. Herring, I tell you! Herring!
We showed up at Liebmans at lunch hour - somewhat unfortunate time since we had a full film crew in tow and there were already lots of people waiting for tables for lunch, but the management of the place were patient and smoothed out all our difficulties. So here we are, the egg creme de la monde klezmer, all seated around a kosher deli table, and what do we order? Pastrami, my good man, and plenty of it. 

The Borthers Nazaroff: Meyshke Nazaroff, Yankl Nazaroff,Danik Nazaroff, Pasha Nazaroff, Zaelic Nazaroff, with director Csaba Bereczky at Liebmans Deli n the Bronx. 
Liebmans is one of the few places in New York that still cures its pastrami in house. They also cut it thin, on a machine slicer, which is actually how most of the old delis in New York used to serve it. Hand cutting pastrami or corned beef, the way it is done at Katz's or Schwartz's, produces a huge amount of wasted bits of meat produced by the cutting. 

Pastrami or corned beef are one of the most fragile of things you can eat: from the moment it comes out of the steamer and gets sliced it begins cooling. By the time it reachers your table it is in prime condition but as it cools it begins to dry out, slowly deteriorating in quality even as you eat it. By the time you bit into the second half of the sandwich the difference is usually noticeable, and by the time you finish the texture and flavor of the sandwich has changed considerably from what you began with. Nobody really wants to take home leftover pastrami... 

Gabila's knish. Potato. Accept no substitutes.
This is a genuine New York knish. A fried potato knish (pronounced ka-nish) to be exact, produced by the Gabila Family factory out in Long Island. For a century, this was the knish New Yorkers bought on the street and in delis, the cheap, hot, filling meal of the working classses that transcended race, religion, and ethnicity to become the stuff that filled New York's stomach in times of no money. A jacket of dough that covers a mixture of mashed potato, onions, and pepper, knish were also made at home and sold on the street by itinerant knish men, and each family had their own style and recipes. Home made knish tended to be bulbous things often filled with kasha (buckwheat groats) and mushrooms. The Gabila family originally came from Niš, in Serbia, and were Sephardic Jews who adapted their potato burek filling to the hardier New York market. About four years ago the Gabila factory burned down and for years the newspapers reported a knish shortage in the city and eventually lamented the disappearance of New York's iconic square knish, as bulging vegetarian baked knishes attempted to fill the void left by the fried potato squares. Gabila's have rebuilt and now they are back and promoting themselves as a healthy vegetarian meal, which, if you take a lot of drugs and are very, very old, kind of makes sense. 

The Brothers Nazaroff: Unimaginably Nazarovian!

And as with all things... after lunch we have to get to the gig. At the Eldridge St. synagogue and Museum in Chinatown. Nazarovye!