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A Contrary Journey by Jill Culiner

Lost Places, Lost Love

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.

Martin Buber

I fell in love with Velvel Zbarzher one hundred and thirty years after his death. Sol Liptzin introduced us. In his History of Yiddish Literature, Sol wrote that Velvel (Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz) was born in 1826 in Zbarazh, Galicia; that he wrote scoffing Hebrew and Yiddish verse; that he was considered heretical by the conservative Jewish community; that he fled to Romania in 1845 and spent the next twenty- five years singing, writing poems, and carousing (a magic word that conjures up all manner of romantic excess). Then, in his fifties, he married his great love, Malkele the Beautiful, in Constantinople and died three years later. 

What turned mere acquaintance into love? One dazzling sentence:

Zbarzher...might well have attained the pinnacle of fame...if he had not squandered his talent in disreputable Rumanian inns and Turkish coffeehouses.

Doesn’t that make imagination reel? Wake up longing? (Love often begins with more banal catalysts: ‘Would you like a beer?’ ‘What a beautiful dog!’ ‘Do you know the time?’)

I began making plans—let’s not tackle Malkele the Beautiful yet: just push her aside like any cumbersome mate in an illicit affair. Together, Velvel and I will flee Galicia and wander along Romania’s pitted lanes; together, we’ll idle and squander in low bars. I’ll cheer him on, poke his ribs with a jocular elbow when his mood slides into its recurrent gloom; or pinching his ear between thumb and forefinger, I’ll tweak him back to joy.

Unless I’m inventing a cheerier me. What will happen when the romance of the highway wears thin? Will I evolve into a harridan, thin-lipped and sour? The sort who chastises a brilliant love for his drunken bouts, for his loose-fingered relationship to cash that leaves our couple ever dependent upon charity? How will we know if we don’t give it a whirl?


My grandmother Machla had a large painting, one she took with her no matter how often she moved. It was (to me) a banal rural scene: a lush meadow and, deep in the scrabble of a copse, the suggestion of a wooden hut. That picture reminded her of a particular place near the townlet where she was born—Poritsk, in the former Russian Pale. It was one of the few things she ever told me about the Old Country, the only hint that something had been lost or traded in. Further questioning only met with, ‘That won’t interest you.’ But she was wrong. It would have. Even back then, I was on the lookout for the old days, for images from a world just out of sight. And I wanted to know how she got from there, that remote secretive place, to here, a flat Ontario landscape.

By the end of the nineteenth century, Jewish women in the Old Country were being nourished on the new secular literature, on tales of true love and equality. The most courageous had begun refusing arranged marriages to pious men. How was I to know my grandmother had once been a firebrand, an anarchist, one of the radical women of her time? Only a few years ago did Helen, an old family friend, mention the hard-headed debates, the demands for social justice, the passionate activism out at the Workmen’s Circle Colony in Pickering, Ontario.

By the time I knew her, Machla had given up the fight. The Workmen’s Colony had evolved into a comfortable family cottage world where, during those yellow heat-soaked summer days, retired folks tended to vegetable gardens and prepared pickles. Dry and caustic, Machla expected conformity from her four sons and her grandchildren: we were to do well in school, be popular, successful, meet suitable mates, live in big houses, wear gold, and have clever children—the usual. To me, such goals seemed dull. With a liberating disregard for rules, I planned to meet malcontents, iconoclasts, people who didn’t fit in, those who had escaped familial, social, and religious pressure. And I dreamt of far-away places.

I started wandering late at night. By the time I was fourteen, I was climbing through my bedroom window and shinnying down the drainpipe. Sticking to the shadows, learning to be invisible, I lurked in backyards all over the city, peeked into windows, saw how others lived. There wasn’t much of interest: people watched TV or, perfectly immobile, stared at nothing. Sometimes they talked or sat until late with friends. But out in the cold dark, or up in the branches of a tree (to see the higher floors), I experienced the secret thrill that gives voyeurs and peepers their raison d’être.

Dreamy, secretive, a poor student ever ready to lie, I had a freedom other, more obedient children didn’t. I travelled alone, learned every bus and streetcar route in Toronto, every far-flung corner of the city. The back-and-forth rides through the paltry twelve stations of the subway gave me a special kick. By seventeen, I was gone for good, slipping over the American border and heading for New York with a precious five-dollar bill safe in my pocket. There was a whole exciting world to be discovered.


How places and sounds have vanished, taken uniqueness with them. I’ve seen it happen. As a social critical artist and teller of tales in modest settings—front rooms, back kitchens, open fields, public halls, and many low bars—I’ve always chosen itinerancy over comfort and security. I’ve been shifting across the earth’s surface for well over half a century now and doing it on the cheap: no soulless or chic hotels, no tourist venues for me. Just sleeping in open fields, or cars, or crumbling castles, or down-at-heel inns; crossing much of Europe on foot; lurking in unsavoury places; tasting life in French, German, English, Dutch, Hungarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Greek, and Turkish villages.

And believe me, we’ve lost a lot: virtuoso spoon players in English miner’s pubs; Bulgarian store-front bars where women sang in high-pitched traditional tones while their moustachioed lovers watched with cynical eyes; grim Hungarian back rooms where proud Gypsy musicians played cimbaloms, violins, violas, bass fiddles while garlic fried on a hot plate; German villages where roads were unpaved, the sun heated sweet straw, and ruddy folk squeezed accordions; Austrian country inns where stranger-hating men tickled zithers; dusty French towns undisturbed by tourism where house façades were neglected and hurdy-gurdies whined of fallow fields; wooden cottages on shore-lapping North American lakes where men sawed at violins and bears snuffled around the vegetable patch; seaside villages where frame houses sagged and wind-pushed screen doors made music of another kind.

Those spoon players, the fine moustachioed men, the singers with their high-pitched tones, and the hurdy-gurdies have all vanished. Lakes are churned by speeding boats. European towns are bland and tidy, housing developments have spread like relentless fungi, and traditional musicians have been humiliated out by youths screaming, ‘Get modern.’

Today’s cultural references demand a break with the past, and little has survived the onslaught of commercial noise, mass entertainment, bling, cement, and polyvinyl chloride. Reason and observation have been replaced by canned laughter, binge-watching, must-have products, and the star or victim of the moment. Gone are sounds, smells, and feelings. In their place are ‘historical’ reconstructions, touchy-feely interactive museums, atmosphere candles, world music, sound and light shows—all as authentic as any Disney creation. We didn’t value what we had, we didn’t cherish or preserve it, and we’ll never get it back, despite designer determination.

I’m just another silver-haired crock tilting backward? Certainly not. A critical sense should be the essence of the present-day spirit; change, ever vaunted as progress, must be weighed before acceptance.


Travelling into the past means abandoning preconceived ideas. Did the cosy, welcoming shtetl ever truly exist? It’s the one promoted to tradition-thirsty heritage travellers and a sitcom-nurtured society: a family-friendly fantasy world where solidarity, kindness, love, and pious warmth reigned. But doesn’t such unity depend upon conformity and obedience? On submitting to the rules, on biting your tongue and accepting values not yours? It means tolerating superstition and fearing gossip; it means mistaking duty for love; it means terror of the big wide world just outside your door. It’s refusing to take the road less trodden.

The nineteenth century. What a time of violence and change, of cultural wealth, questioning, experimentation, and discovery. It was a century of brilliance in art, music, science, literature, and architecture. It was a time during which old social orders were challenged and overthrown, when it seemed that observation and reason might triumph over obscurantism. When some found the courage to defy society, accept banishment, risk imprisonment and death.

In Eastern Europe, the nineteenth century saw the end of serfdom. A peasantry, heretofore ignorant and subjugated, could now demand schooling and justice; and a handful of aristocrats, those able to rise to the challenge of a new order, could—and did—help usher in progressive change. In the Jewish world, the Enlightenment, the Haskalah, begun in Germany a century earlier, was challenging the religious stranglehold in Galicia, Romania, and the Russian Pale, and opening the door to secular education.

Despite popular belief, not all Jews who abandoned their villages were economic exiles. There were others, iconoclasts like Velvel Zbarzher, who rejected the status quo and sought freedom of thought and movement, the right to read and create modern literature, to play and enjoy music, to create and analyse art, to question belief or refuse it altogether. Most gathered in cities, although that choice usually meant poverty and factory slog; others changed continents and helped build railways, searched for gold and silver, carved out homesteads in deep forests, started pioneering farms, or opened new schools. Not a few became actors, musicians, teachers, and writers, and were responsible for a great outpouring of symphonies, novels, short stories, poems, essays, and plays. All knew the exile’s misery. But they did have one thing in common: they were starting anew, abandoning frustration.


But enough! Time to step back two centuries, find my dearest Velvel and begin our glorious romance. I want to learn the colour of his eyes and the fineness of his hair (tell me: is Malkele the Beautiful really so beautiful? Really? How beautiful?). With Velvel, my life will again change. I’ll escape modern sterility, video clips, flat-screen televisions, cell phones, thump noise, Ski-doos, Sea-doos, quad bikes, telephone hawkers, and speedways.

With Velvel, I will slip out of community grasp, head for the border, journey into the Old Country and see what remains of another century. I will, once again, become a thrilled peeper, observing unseen, sniffing out shadows.

I need no tour guide with a pre-selected venue for I’ll be shepherded by the first-hand experience of Velvel’s letters from Galicia, Romania, and Turkey, by the men who knew him: Professor Doktor Meir Weissberg, Doktor Moses Fried, David Yeshaya Silberbusch; and by others who lived through and wrote about that time: Joseph Margoshes, Yekhezkel Kotik, Echiel Levin Benzion, Karl Emil Franzos, S. Ansky, Joseph David Yeshaya, even my grandfather Harry.

Let all who want a glimpse into the past join me. We’ll take to the road, bump along with Velvel and the other rebels.

A Contrary Journey is available in paperback and ebook

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