A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard

by Jill Culiner

Coming Autumn 2021

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.

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