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A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard

Culiner’s first-rate eye allows her to render the world of the shtetl, past and present, with more intimacy, complexity and telling detail than anything else I have read.

Robert A Rosenstone, Emeritus Professor of History, California Institute of Technology

The book brilliantly brings back to life the unjustly forgotten Hebrew poet and 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 finally Turkey. A breathtaking read!

Dana Mihailescu, Associate Professor of American Studies, University of Bucharest

Culiner’s intrepid pursuit of 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. 

Robin Roger, writer, reviewer, Associate Publisher, New Jewish Press 2016-18

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 of The Musical World of Marie Antoinette

A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard


Print ISBN:

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Print Length:

282 Pages





Available in paperback and ebook

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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.

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