Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas in New York: Puerto Ricans, Jews and Chinese food.

"Saludos, saludos, vengo a saludar!" If you are a native New Yorker, that is what a Christmas carol sounds like. A real Christmas carol is sung in Puerto Rican Spanish, accompanied by pandereta drums - jingleless tamborines. This is plena, a style that originated in Ponce, Puerto Rico but has deep roots in Africa and is a crucial element in the New York Puerto Rican musical scene that eventually fused these local music traditions with Cuban son and rumba to create salsa. But at Christmas and New Year, bands of Pleneros still appear on the streets of El Barrio - East Harlem - to serenade local businesses serving the Boriqueno community. New York has dozens of ethnic communities who maintain their traditional music, and those from the many Latin American communities have settled in to become regular new York traditions. As always, we were tipped off by my buddy Bob Godfried - the reigning cultural ambassador of the Bronx - to the annual parranda procession by Los Pleneros de la 21, in East Harlem, and we were soon being serenaded by some of the best pleneros in New York.
Puerto Rico has gotten a bad deal this year: their economic crisis was topped off by a devastating hurricane and a venal American President. Even now, months later, half the island has no power or phone service. We all watched that turd-eating assclown Trump on TV throwing paper towels at people in dire need, and taking twitter shots at the Mayor of San Juan. But the real venom of Trumps hatred of Puerto Ricans - which has deep roots in his background as a New York real estate developer - came out with his new tax law. It redefines Puerto Rico as a foreign country for tax purposes, essentially driving out any American businesses based on the island. The result will be more misery on the storm battered island and a growth in Puerto Rican emigration to the mainland - mostly to Florida, where they may easily tip the voter base to make the Cuban emigre supported republicans lose their majority on the swing state that brought us the last two Republican presidents.

Mike Winograd, Dave Likht, Dan Blacksburg, Zillen Biret, Stu Brotman. 
Taking the #6 subway from 116th street in East Harlem we popped out at 14th Street, a few blocks away from the opening dance of the Yiddish New York Festival. when the legendary Klez Kamp event shuttered its doors in the Catskills, some of its most enthusiastic alumni - including clarinetist Mike Winograd, vocalist Sarah Gordon, and folklorist Peter Rushevsky - decided to organize a week of Yiddish culture taking advantage of New York City as a venue and using the magic trick that had floated Klez Kamp: Jews will always be looking for an event between Christmas and New Year. And thus one of the best teaching and jamming workshops happens in those grey days when little keeps us Yehudis busy besides ordering Chinese food and going to movies. This year the opening dance also celebrated the betrothal announcement of my Brother Nazaroff Dan Kahn and his bride to be Eva Lapsker.

A Nazaroff in lib.
Serious followers of this blog (are there serious followers of this blog) will have already learned that I like Chinese food, Jewish food, anything Balkan, and cheeseburgers, pretty much in that order. Most of that I can not get in my home base city of Budapest, so while I am in NY I take advantage as much as possible. Christmas was, of course, Chinese take out, and Fumie and I have already been poking about in the Cantonese places that have been popping up east of Broadway, but more about that later.

It has been a couple of years since I stopped in at White Manna Hamburgers in Hackensack NJ. Its located just across the street from the Giant Market - the huge Mexican/Korean bulk grocery where I buy my veggies while in Jersey, but it is usually packed with people ordering 30 burger lunches for the entire office. On Christmas Eve, however, its was quiet, and since the present owner is an Israeli guy, rather welcoming to visit.

The real thing for Hanukkah!
These are the tiny burgers that recall the great depression, when a tiny bit of meat was stretched with a mountain of caramelized onions and tossed on a soft potato roll to provide a cheap lunch. Today they sell for a whopping $1.60 for a single cheeseburger, up from $1.05 when I first wrote about them in 2006. This is the reason I don't do gourmet hamburgers. This is good, honest food. This is the taste of home. Thank you, New Jersey.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

My No-Collusion Trip to Moscow

I grew up in the USA during the cold war era. As a kid back in the 1960s, my impression of "Russia" was that it was a scary place inhabited by something called "communists" who operated out of a fortress called "the Kremlin" in someplace identified as 'Moscow.' It was not a place any child of the Cold War ever imagined visiting. Russia terrified us: it was Lex Luthor, the Joker, Khruschev banging his shoe at the UN, Red submarines lurking around Cuba. It represented everything that Superman and Batman and all the other superheros stood against. My family tradition was not much help. My Grandfather had left Bessarabia (today's Republic of Moldova) after serving in the Tsar's army in World War One, and his story of emigrating to the USA began with a series of bloody pogroms in his youth and ended with him fleeing the Ukraine by soaking his overcoat in the freezing waters of the River Bug and using his frozen coat as a sled to skid across the ice into Romania. Whenever my Grandfather mentioned "Russia" it was generally accompanied by ritualistic spitting. My Mom was from Hungary - not much of am improvement in public relations from her or from the refugee 1956ers living in our basement apartment in the Bronx. No, I was not raised to imagine ever visiting Moscow. Which is why I was delighted to step off an Aeroflot plane last week and find myself in... Moscow!

No collusion... absolutely no collusion at all!
The Balassi Institute - which represents Hungarian culture worldwide - brought Di Naye Kapelye over to perform a concert as part of a series of Yiddish culture hosted by Moscow's Eshkolot Center, a major Jewish educational initiative in Moscow. Moscow has over 100,000 Jews living in it - not bad, considering that the city was outside the traditional Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to settle, and as such Jewish presence there is a 20th century phenomenon, reflecting roots in other parts of the empire and a gradual loosening of traditional life ways, such as musical traditions and Yiddish language. In response, Moscow (And St. Pete'sburg, to be fair) has a lot of enthusiastic young people learning Yiddish and taking a very active interest in the roots of Ashkenazic culture. Which is to say the concert went very well - the crowd knew what we were doing, and took me for my word when I told them that a DNK concert is not a music museum - they got up and danced. We had brought my small cimbalom as cabin baggage on the plane - there are actually no cimbaloms for rent or lending in all of Moscow. Which was interesting because there were about a dozen Hasids on our flight, and one of them had a fiddle, and we ended up talking in Yiddish at the end of the flight. they had been to Dej in Romania for a Hasidic pilgrimage gathering, and were off to Hashem-knows-where in Russia for another.

Di Naye Kapelye at full blast.
Moscow itself is overwhelming, even to a New Yorker like myself. It is huge - the scale of the city is mind boggling. It had twice the population of New York city, and since it is not confined to a series of islands, it gives a sense of infinite urban growth. Moscow doesn't fade off into suburbs - its all tall buildings. The downtown area seems endless, and the city was originally designed to impress visitor's with - serially - the Tsar's greatness, the Soviet's Greatness, and eventually, the Oligarchy's Greatness.

Window of GUM dept store.
I can now completely understand why Donald Trump would be so impressed by this city: it is built by, and for, supernaturally wealthy billionaires, full of shiny luxury shops, humongous ministry buildings, and eight lane boulevards. To use a New York frame of description, imagine Park Avenue mixed with Washington DC and maintained by the people who do the lights for Disneyland.

The GUM  department store and outdoor Christmas market in Red Square.
We didn't have much free time to sight-see - such is the gigging musicians' life - but on the way to our concert Sasha from the Balassi Institute had our van driver detour so we could experience Red Square. There it was: the Kremlin in all its red revolutionary glory, the Church of St. Basil, and best of all: Lenin's tomb. It was too late to get into see the century old pickled remains of the mastermind of the Communist Revolution. So I did what any self respecting left-leaning American-Hungarian Yiddishist would do one hundred years after the October Revolution: I took a selfie.
Do not wake up Lenin!
Moscow is also expensive: very very expensive. You need to visit an ATM machine merely to walk into a McDonald's. Sorry, but no food porn, no close ups of twenty varieties of dumplings or tips on where to get the best blinis. We stopped in a supermarket, I bought some Russian black bread and ate a salami I brought from home for the weekend. You gotta remember: we musicians do gigs to make money, not spend it in one of the world's most expensive cities. The Balassi people were good enough to take us to an upscale cafeteria on the night of the concert, so we did not go hungry...

The Workers demand blintzes! 
I put edin and edin together and got dva: blini is the equivalent to blintze. Man, this place was getting way to close to home. And almost as quickly as we had come, we were gone: back to Budapest! It is Karacsony time in Hungary: two days in Moscow, a three hour flight and bingo! And today in Hungary  is Santa Claus Day - Mikulas - for all of you waiting for a Jolly fellow with gifts. We went to the big Holiday market downtown and caught a set of fine gaida music from Bulgaria played by a young group from the village of Kalofer. Gaida is my joint.... nothing says Xmas like sheepskin bagpipes.

And within one week I will be gone yet again: flying to New York (OK... Newark) next week for a month and a half. Chances are the next post on the blog will have either Shake Shack or Japanese food waving in your faces. Check in on the Yiddish New York festival: there will be a lunchtime showing of the film "Soul Exodus" as part of the video program. And afterwards, maybe we can grab a slice of pizza... or a blintz!