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. Like a chef who manages to document great recipes before they disappear, Culiner serves us an utterly delicious feast of flavours we do not want to lose.
Invited by Culiner to join her travels to find Velvel was a gift in isolated pandemic times. Part history, part biography and part literature, the writing poetically transfixed. Train rides, villages, and Velvel’s life move between magical realism and extraordinary insights into Jewish history generally missing in heritage tourism.
Daniel J Walkowitz, Professor of History Emeritus, Professor of Social & Cultural Analysis Emeritus New York University, author of The Remembered and Forgotten Jewish World
A captivating romance, a thrilling mystery, a fascinating 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 poet and Yiddish melodrama author, Velvel Zbarzher, a significant 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
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
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 19thc Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Misnagedim, 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 loyal audiences 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 modernisation and assimilation hadn’t brought an end to anti-Semitism.
Armed with a useless nineteenth-century map, a lumpy second-hand coat, and an unhealthy dose of curiosity Jill Culiner trudged through the snow in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania searching for Velvel. But she was also on the lookout for a vanished way of life in Austria, Turkey and Canada.
This book, chronicling a forgotten part of Jewish history, follows the life of one extraordinary Jewish bard, and it is told with wry humour by award-winning Canadian writer Jill Culiner.
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Born in New York, raised in Toronto, Jill Culiner has lived in England, Holland, Greece, Turkey, Germany and Hungary, keeping body and soul together by delivering newspapers, belly dancing, translating, tour guiding and a great many other tedious jobs. She presently resides in a small French village, similar to the not very pleasant one presented in her mystery, Slanderous Tongue.
For her non-fiction work, Finding Home in the Footsteps of the Jewish Fusgeyers, she crossed Romania on foot tracing the path of immigrants bound for North America at the end of the 19th century. The book won the Tannenbaum Prize for Canadian Jewish History in 2005 and was short-listed for the ForeWord magazine prize.
As a photographer, her exhibition concerning the First and Second World Wars, La Mémoire Effacée, has toured France, Canada and Hungary under the auspices of UNESCO and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As an artist/creator of social critical objects, her work has been exhibited throughout France and Germany, in Spain, England, Switzerland and Poland. It now fills La Boule d’Or, a former café/hotel transformed into a peculiar mini museum open to the public. Its wild garden (much to the distress of close neighbours) is a reserve for birds, butterflies, insects and reptiles.
She has spoken to genealogical and historical groups throughout the United States and Canada, has worked as a broadcaster for Radio France. An amateur musician (flute, piccolo, oboe, oboe d’amore, English horn) she plays in several orchestras and chamber groups.
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