A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard is about an investigative search into 19th century European Jewish communities. It’s set at a time when traditional customs were being challenged by younger generations who wanted to include the modern world in their lives, and thus create modern Jewish concepts.
Author Jill Culiner travels through Eastern Europe on the trail of Velvel Zbarzher, a bard who left the strict lifestyle and tried to teach people that those old ways were restricting Jewish people. He did this through song and verse.
Culiner tries desperately to find the places that Velvel visited, but much of Eastern Europe has been ravaged by wars and persecution of the Jewish communities. Very little is left standing and few people have any stories about Velvel.
I found the history of the period interesting to a point, but I know very little about Jewish religion, so some of the details in the book were less appealing to me. In fact, I’m probably not the target audience for this. I did, however, enjoy some of the cultural lessons.
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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 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.