Read an Excerpt
A Wandering Feast
By Yale Strom
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7879-7188-X
I sat on my backpack in the narrow, hot, stinky, clamorous, smoke-filled corridor of the train, trying to get some sleep while other passengers walked into and over me en route to the bathroom and dining car. People had crammed themselves in every nook and cranny available-in the hallways, in the dining car, outside between the cars, even in the bathrooms.
It was June 1981. I was twenty-three years old and traveling from Vienna to Zagreb, Yugoslavia-the first stop in my yearlong journey through Eastern Europe in search of klezmer and of Jewish music, culture, stories, and life under communist rule. I would learn many things in the following year-both about myself and the people and places I visited-and I had just learned a very important and practical travel tip: in addition to the train ticket, you must buy a seat ticket if you want to sit on something other than your luggage.
It had never occurred to me that buying a train ticket in the Eastern bloc would not automatically guarantee me a seat. I was soon to learn that it was not uncommon for a railroad company to sell many more tickets than they had seats. What did they care? They wanted the revenue. Anyone from the West traveling from one country to another had to pay in U.S. dollars or German marks-usually at a much higher price than the locals paid. Most locals didn't have cars, so they were obliged to use public transportation, and the train was much quicker than a bus and cheaper than an airplane-in other words, the railroad company knew they could take advantage of the situation, and they did.
The upside: by the end of my trek, I had mastered the art of sleeping in a train hallway ... standing up.
I resigned myself to a difficult journey and took out my banjoline. I had bought it for $20 from an old hunched-over man in a flea market during my four-hour train layover in Budapest earlier that day.
Banjolines were commonly played in 1920s dance bands, and now I used my droll new instrument to compose a klezmer tune called "Maestral Hora and Bulgar." The hora was originally a popular Romanian Jewish dance, played in a hobbling 3/8 gait; it was often followed by an upbeat bulgar in 8/8. Similar to a freylekhs (an upbeat dance, generally in 2/4 time), a bulgar was danced as either a circle or line dance; it was popular in Bessarabia and South Ukraine in the nineteenth century through the eve of World War II. The name probably refers to the Bulgarian minority in Bessarabia. I had fun playing counter-rhythm to the rhythm of the train over the tracks.
My train arrived in Zagreb at 8:30 p.m. Exhausted, I gathered my gear and walked to the only address I had, 55 Bukovacka Cesta, the Jewish Home for the Aged. The home had been built in 1957 with funds from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and from Jewish Material Claims against Germany. I had learned of the home (and other Jewish places I would seek out over the course of my journey) in The Jewish Travel Guide, published by the Jewish Chronicle of London. I was on a strict budget and hoped that I could get a free room in exchange for entertaining the residents with some Jewish music-I figured that Jewish music, like young Jews, was scarce and would be much appreciated. So I began the two-mile walk.
Although it was cloudy and drizzling, it was still excruciatingly hot and humid. Among all the negative things people kept telling me about the Eastern bloc before I left on my trip-that I was wasting my time searching for anything connected to klezmer, there were only a few Jews left and those who remained were all old, the communists forbade any kind of religious or Jewish cultural expression, food was scarce and one had to wait in long lines when it arrived in the stores-I remembered being told that it was either damp or cold most of the time. Well, unless the Berlin Wall provided enough shade, it promised to be a hot, steamy summer.
Though overcast, it wasn't completely dark yet. The drizzle didn't bother me too much, because the poplars along the street provided a thick canopy. Most of the shops were closed and looked rather nondescript, except for the usual portrait of Premier Josip Tito hanging in each window. I hadn't eaten since lunch, but I was reluctant to go into any of the smoke-filled cafes. I was trying to detox my lungs from all of the cigarette smoke I had inhaled for eight hours, but more, I felt a bit uneasy. I didn't see any other tourists or backpackers like myself strolling the evening streets. I felt conspicuous and I sensed a lot of stares, especially from the young men who were just hanging out, drinking beer and smoking. I knew enough before I embarked on my trek not to display my being a foreigner any more than I had to. No flags, no buttons on my backpack, and just regular clothes except for the occasional T-shirt with a running-race logo. My Adidas running shoes even matched those of many of the guys hanging out.
Maybe my imagination was a bit overactive, but when I glanced at them they seemed to turn to each other with their roguish smiles to talk about me. Perhaps I was an easy target for someone to rob for a few dollars-currency that went a long way in the Eastern bloc. At five foot ten inches and 135 pounds (soaking wet), and carrying just about as much as I weighed, I was not an imposing figure. As it turned out, during my entire trip the only trouble I was to encounter would come from the police and border guards in each country.
A Place to Stay
Three or four wrong turns later, I arrived at the Jewish Home for the Aged. The three-story building stood two hundred feet back from the street in a lush, tree-filled garden. A wrought-iron fence surrounded the compound. I was tired, famished, wet, and eager to get inside. Though it was past 9:30 p.m., I hoped someone would still be up to open the gate. I pushed and pushed the doorbell as the drizzle turned into a driving rain. Finally, an old man dressed in striped pajamas, bathrobe, and slippers shuffled down the path toward me. You can imagine the look on his face when he saw me. He unlocked the gate and opened it just enough to gape at me in utter amazement. He said something in Croatian, which I didn't quite understand, but the gist of it was "I am sorry we are closed and your grandmother is sleeping."
I answered him in Yiddish (my Croatian nearly nonexistent at that time), explaining that I was wet, hungry, and had no place to stay that night-and I was Jewish. Again he answered me, only this time, as he spoke, I gently pushed him to the side and walked into the yard. If nothing else, I hoped to sleep in my sleeping bag on the floor somewhere where it was dry. After a few seconds the old man scurried past me to get to the front door before I did. When he got there he yelled to me in German, "Wait, wait!" He then went inside, closing the door firmly behind him.
As I stood there waiting, I began to laugh at myself. I could just see trying to pull the same stunt at the Jewish Home for the Aged in San Diego. Needless to say, the police back home would have obliged me with a place to sleep, but here in Yugoslavia I was acting the same way I didn't want to be perceived: as the arrogant American. I realized I should not have assumed that I could stay there, but it was raining, late, I hadn't slept in over twenty-four hours, and I was desperate.
Four elderly women opened the door; three of them were wide awake, the other half asleep. They stood there for a moment in their nightclothes, dumbfounded by my presence. Then they all began speaking to each other at once. Finally one of them-a slender lady with an alabaster face, wearing a purple silk bathrobe and sleeping bonnet-pushed herself forward, shushed the others to be quiet, and said to me in perfect English with no trace of an accent, "Are you here to visit your grandmother?"
"Well not exactly. I'm here to-"
"Did you come to see your grandfather?"
"I'm sorry to be bothering you but I have no relatives here and I need a place to sleep for the night.... I am Jewish."
"As you can see, this is not a hotel."
"I'm from the United States and I'm researching Jewish folk music."
"We are all Jewish and some of us know some Jewish songs, but it is rather late for us."
"No, I don't mean to record you tonight. I just arrived from Budapest and I need a place to sleep just for the night. See my sleeping bag? I just need some floor space."
With a delicate smile, she gently pushed the women out of the way and closed the door on me. From the other side of the door I could hear her speaking to the other ladies, which prompted them to again all begin speaking at once. A minute went by, then the door reopened and the slender lady said:
"This is highly unusual, but since you have no place to stay tonight and you seem like a nice young man we have decided to let you sleep here. Please, what is your name?"
"My name is Yale."
"And I am Olga."
I walked in and followed Olga down a corridor that smelled of mothballs. There was room after room off of the corridor. We turned right, then Olga opened a door and showed me inside. The room was fully furnished with a bed, toilet, and bathtub.
"I hope you find this comfortable. There are towels in the cupboard and breakfast is at eight a.m."
"Thank you so much, Olga, I-"
"Please do come and join me at my table tomorrow. We will see what sort of Jewish music we might find for you."
I quickly got out of my dirty, sweaty clothes and took an enjoyable hot bath with the European-style flexible shower nozzle, washed some clothes, and dove into the cold, freshly laundered sheets. As my head sank into the soft goose down pillow, I remembered that I wanted to write in my diary religiously every night about that day's events. Not tonight, I thought, as my eyelids closed and I drifted off into a deep slumber.
Songs and Stories from the Past
The next morning I found myself eating breakfast with some eighty residents, mostly women, whose average age was probably around seventy-seven. The home was intended only for elderly Jews but there were seven non-Jewish residents; as they had been married to Jews, they were allowed to live there as well.
As a vegetarian, I appreciated the delicious food on the menu so much that I had double portions: plain white bread with apricot preserves, a kind of hot farina, fresh tomatoes, leeks, red peppers from their own garden, pickled hot peppers, brinze cheese (like feta, only drier and sharper), tea, and thick strong Turkish coffee.
I sat with Olga (who I could not believe was ninety-one); Moises, eighty-three; and Rut (Ruth), seventy-nine. I spoke English with Olga and some Yiddish and German with Moises; Olga translated our conversation into Serbo-Croatian for Rut.
I would soon learn that although there were Ashkenazim in Yugoslavia, a good portion of them had assimilated during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus had abandoned many of their cultural traditions-like speaking Yiddish as their mother tongue and playing klezmer music-in favor of adopting their host cultures. There was also a sizable Sephardic population in Yugoslavia, and their traditions, particularly their musical traditions, were very different from those of their Ashkenazim counterparts. So I was probably more likely to hear Sephardic folk music in Yugoslavia than Ashkenazic klezmer. Well, I shrugged to myself, I was here, I already had planned to visit a few other cities before traveling to Hungary, and there were some Ashkenazim living in Yugoslavia. I'd just have to work a little harder to find them.
As it turned out, I didn't have to look too far. Rut was Ashkenaz, from the small town of Senta near the Hungarian border. She remembered going to her cousin's wedding in Szeged, Hungary, at which Rom (Gypsy) musicians played both Hungarian and Jewish melodies. Rut actually remembered a Jewish waltz she and her father had danced to. She began to sing it, but I told her to wait just a moment, I wanted to record it. I ran back to my room, grabbed my tape recorder and microphone, and quickly set it up on the dining table. Wow! She sang a klezmer tune she remembered from seventy years ago. What better place than a Jewish home for the aged?
Rut had a pleasant voice and seemed quite proud to be singing for me. It was probably the first time in her life someone had recorded her singing. I asked her to sing it three times so that when it came time to transcribe the tune I would have enough examples of Rut's exact musical nuances. The melody seemed to have a Hungarian flavor that made perfect sense: when Rut had danced with her father at that Jewish wedding, she was living in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
By the third rendition of the song, a group of twenty residents had gathered around the table to listen intently as Rut's voice rose in volume and confidence (as any good performer's would). After she finished singing, several other residents pushed forward, volunteering to sing me some Jewish songs. I decided to take their names and room numbers so I could visit them individually and ask them a few questions about each tune and themselves. The fidelity would also be much better without the extraneous sounds from the others standing around watching.
Olga had become my surrogate grandmother, while I became the surrogate grandson for many of the residents. Olga (her Jewish name was Blumele) was born in Cepin near Osijek. She lived there with her first husband, a doctor. Then she moved to Demasuhara (today part of Romania), where she learned to speak Hungarian. She divorced and was remarried, to another doctor. Together they moved to Palestine in 1930. She was a strong Zionist and they lived at first in Jerusalem, but her husband couldn't make a living -too few patients-so after ten months they moved to Rabat, Morocco.
Olga loved Rabat, but life got harder for all the Jews in Morocco when Italy took control of the country. Finally, in 1943, Olga and her husband moved to New York City. There she designed and sold costume jewelry for Macy's. She got a second divorce (in Nevada) and remained in New York for six years. Then she went to Kalmar, Sweden, to visit her only child, her son from her first marriage. He wanted Olga to move to Sweden, but she was afraid she wouldn't be able to learn the language. Eventually she moved back to Zagreb. Olga was now a great-grandmother.
Olga so impressed me with her great health-no hearing aids, false teeth, or glasses-that I said, "To one hundred twenty you should live!"
"Anything too much is not good," she replied. "While I feel young everything is all right. When I will feel old then I will be ready to go and see my husbands."
Unfortunately, few residents were as cheerful and healthy as Olga. A sense of stark loneliness pervaded the home. There were elderly Jews who lived there because they'd never had children, or their spouses had died, or they had never married, and they needed some physical assistance in doing many of the mundane things of everyday life. Then there were other residents who could take care of themselves but wanted to live among their Jewish brethren. These people had lived their entire lives in small towns or even villages where the Jewish community had gradually disappeared from migration and death. This is what happened to Rut, who'd lived her entire life in Senta.
Though Rut and her husband, Ferenc, were the last Jews in the town by 1971, they chose to stay because they had a successful toy store. Rut had a cousin on her mother's side who had immigrated to the United States before World War II, but she lost contact with her, and the rest of her family perished in the Holocaust. Her husband was also the sole survivor from his family, except for a nephew who lived in Belgrade. Then in 1977, Ferenc died suddenly from a heart attack and Rut wasn't able to operate the store by herself. She sold it and moved to the Jewish Home for the Aged as soon as space became available. Rut only had to wait two years before she could move in; some other residents had had to wait as long as five years before being admitted.
Excerpted from A Wandering Feast by Yale Strom Excerpted by permission.
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