A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard
by Jill Culiner
The lucky reader of A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard makes the acquaintance of two great iconoclasts: Velvel Zbarzher and Jill Culiner, the author herself. Culiner’s intrepid pursuitof the elusive troubadour and the lost world from which he emerged enriches us with a double depiction of the turbulent times and places of the bard’s era and the galloping commercialization of our own. Like a chef who manages to document great recipes before they disappear, Culinerserves us an utterly delicious feast of avours we do not want to lose.
Robin Roger, writer, reviewer, Associate Publisher, New Jewish Press 2016-18
Jill Culiner’s A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard, is a captivating romance, a thrilling mystery, a fascinating walking/train tour back and forward in time, and so much more. Culiner takes us out of the contemporary fast-paced, digital society and superbly redraws the varied contours of the shtetls of Eastern European countries of yore via one remarkable itinerant Jewish existence. The book brilliantly brings back to life the unjustly forgotten Hebrew poetand Yiddish melodrama author, Velvel Zbarzher, a signi cant precursor of Yiddish theatre that moved from Galicia to Romania, the Russian Pale of Settlement, Austria, and nally Turkey. A breathtaking read!
Dana Mihailescu, Associate Professor of American Studies, University of Bucharest
What a beautiful book! The writing is clear and direct, the subject matter is interesting and important, and the characters are lively and realistically portrayed. In short, it’s a good piece of reporting, and was entirely successful in wafting me to another time and place.
Barrington James, former foreign correspondent for the Herald Tribune and UPI, author ofThe Musical World of Marie Antoinette
Will be available in print and ebook.
The Old Country, how did it smell? Sound? Was village life as cosy as popular myth would have us believe? Was there really a strong sense of community? Perhaps it was another place altogether.
In nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Mitnagdim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. Secular books were forbidden; independent thinkers were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution, and expulsion. But the Maskilim, proponents of the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, were determined to create a modern Jew, to found schools where children could learn science, geography, languages, and history.
Velvel Zbarzher, rebel and glittering star of fusty inns, spent his life singing his poems to a loyal audience of poor workers and craftsmen, and his attacks condemning the religious stronghold resulted in banishment and itinerancy. By the time Velvel died in Constantinople in 1883, the Haskalah had triumphed and the modern Jew had been created. But modernization and assimilation hadn’t brought an end to anti-Semitism.
Armed with a useless nineteenth-century map, a warm lumpy coat, and a healthy dose of curiosity Jill Culiner trudged through the snow in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania searching for Velvel, the houses where he lived, and the bars where he sang. But she was also on the lookout for a vanished way of life in Austria, Turkey, and Canada.