Thursday, November 30, 2006
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Stevie Wonder, 1972
I am back in the place of my birth, the largest village in the world, Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk. A small island nation located off the east coast of the United States of America. Things are... different here. Yes, you can find certain reminders of the fact that an entity called the United States exists somewhere to the east and north of us. Even the south of us. Many of the inhabitants speak English as a native language, making it easy to ask for directions. Of course, it takes some time to get used to some of the food.
But where else does a portrait of Chou En-lai grace a bank machine (located in the Pearl River department store on lower Broadway in Chinatown. Pearl River is a Chinese state enterprise. Who says the Commies don't have a sense of humor? At least in New York....) And just like in Budapest, one can find Chinese underwear everywhere! I hadn't really planned to be in New York, but my siblings conspired to fly me over from Bpest. Am spus, dece nu? Daca sint Dumneazul... The Big News is that we get to meet our newest family member, Ron's wife Roong, who is from Bangkok and tracks cargo for a major international shipping company. The Cohen family is slowly - and happily - filling up with Buddhists, who at least are forcing us to take showers at far more regular intervals than we have ever experienced and teaching us proper manners that our other ancestors (like the Ribnitzer dynasty of Moldavian Hasidic rabbis) conveniently forgot about.My family is what we call "Old" New York - we immigrated here from Hungary and Moldavia, not from Minnesota or after Art School. My pop was a gold shield cop, everybody in the family speaks Yiddish and Spanish, and "normal food" means Chinese (Cantonese) food. I hadn't even realized, until I got on the plane (Lufthansa. Not happy. Motto: We used to serve food!) that I was going to be in the US for Thanksgiving. Apparently, the date for this holiday has been changed to accomodate better marketing for the shopping season. I never celebrated Thanksgiving - I used to work with an American Indian radio program in New England, and my colleagues were Abnakis and Wampanoags whose ancestors were not at all nostalgic about the circumstances of the Pilgrims arrival. For the descendants of the tribes that met the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a day of fasting. They used to go to Plymouth Bay every year and stand on a hillside overlooking the Pilgrim ceremonies with their backs facing the proceedings, singing war songs, while I manned the radio show for them back in Boston. No matter. In Amereekah, everyone celebrates Thanksgiving. We had a turkey. We had stuffing. We had cranberry sauce. We had history on a plate. My Mom preserves recipes learned during the 1960s, such as baked sweet mashed potato balls stuffed with a marshmallow and rolled in cornflakes. Just like the Pilgrims ate!One thing about Da City, you can eat well cheap. Although New York was recently rated one of the most expensivce restaurant cities in the world after Tokyo and London, at least here you can get good chow cheap. If you know where to look. But my brother, Chef Ron, who is in New York even more rarely than me, is determined to stuff damn near every New York local specialty into his gaping maw before two weeks is up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, priority Number One on arrival in New York is a trip to Katz's Deli down on East Houston Street. Most American citizens only need to have a stamp in their passport to get in the US. New Yorkers have to eat at Katz's. I will take some time later to do full justice to Kat'z's in another post. My brother and I ate there last night. For a native Old-School New Yorker, the pilgrimage to Katz's (now that Second Avenue Deli has closed) is the symbol that one has come home to Turtle Island, arrived in the Center of the World, balanced the Enemy Way, made the broken halves whole, repaired the kelipoth. And smeared mustard all over it too. Best. Frigging. Corned Beef. And. Pastrami. In. The. Universe.
Monday, November 20, 2006
A Jewish dwarf circus? The idea was so deliciously absurd that we went to Sighet to try and find any records - playbills, posters, newspaper reviews - but couldn't. When the Hungarian Army left Maramures in 1945 all the official archives of the province were deliberately burned before the retreat. We were left only with questions - were they the same band as the Shugareni? But about a year later, after our second CD came out using music we had learned from Ioannei, we were contacted by the Israeli writers Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, who had published a In Our Hearts We Were Giants , the story of the Ovitz family, also known as the Lilliput Theater Troupe. Their story was anything but absurd - it was one of the most gripping narratives of family survival to come out of the Holocaust. There is an extensive wikipedia entry on the Ovitz Family. On arrival, the family members were selected by Dr. Jozef Mengele for genetic experiments. Thus it was that the Ovitz family, which in May 1944 arrived in Auschwitz together - seven dwarfs and the rest of their normal-sized family members - many of whom might have been murdered immediately had they arrived on their own, were not only spared the gas chambers, but were accorded special conditions which helped facilitate their survival. What's more, they were able to convince the Nazis that their trusted family assistant and coachman Shimon Slomowitz, his wife and six children, as well as two additional neighbors from Rozavlea with no special connections to the family, were also relatives, and as such were allowed to join the Ovitz group. Incredibaly, the Ovitz' were one of the only families to enter Auschwitz and survive intact, along with most of the other Maramures Jews whom they falsely claimed as relatives - thus attracting the protective umbrella of Mengele's expermientation.
Friday, November 17, 2006
Maramures used to be home to one of the most concentrated Jewish populations in east Europe, and - as a territory held directly by the Hapsburg Treasury - the Jews here held rights, such as the right to own farmland, that were unique in East Europe. The Jews here were mainly farming Jews, strictly Hasidic orthodox but living in a healthy coexistence with their Romanian, Hungarian, and Hutsul (Ukrainian Catholic Ruthene) neighbors. Today there are about 75 older Jews, mostly living in the main town, Sighet. I go to Maramures a couple of times a year to hear and collect music in the local fiddle style, especially from older fiddlers who still remember the repetoire of the Jewish instrumental music. There used to be a lot more such fiddlers but these days it isn't that easy to find somebody who played for Jewish weddings - there haven't been many since the 1960s. in fact, it was my band that played at the last Jewish wedding in Sighet in 2001. I don't usually call this "klezmer" music, because Maramures Jewish music lacks a lot of the rythyms and scales we associate with the Moldavian/New York Jewish music we generally call klezmer. The Jewish music up here was much more Hasidic in nature, and nobody ever touched a clarinet. It was fiddle music, and the style of playing was closer to the local rural Romanian/Transylvanian string band style than to the semi-classical and Turkish-influenced Jewish fiddle styles that became associated with Galician and Moldavian Klezmer. Above are Gheorghe lui Grigore Covaci "Ionnu" and Ion Pop playing fiddle at Pop's home in Hoteni. Ionnu is one of the few remaining Gypsy fiddlers who remembers any of the Jewish repetoire first hand. (They both worked with British ethnomusicologist Lucy Castle when she lived in Romania, with Ion eventually going on to form Popeluc with Lucy. Lucy has published a new book about Maramures Music called Not the Maramures Tunebook available on her web site) I'll go more in depth about Maramures Jewish music in a future post, but one cultural thread linked all the nationalities of Maramures - they love fiddle music, and they love to drink plum brandy. The local home brewed plum brandy, known as Tsuica in Romanian and Pálinka in Hungarian, but the good stuff, twice distilled and always well over 50% pure alcohol, and absolutely pure plum brandy is called horinca. Inspiring stuff. Named my blog after it.Plum brandy starts out with... err... plums. The plums are placed into barrels, usually made of blue plastic, and covered to sit for a few weeks to ferment. Quite honestly, you don't want to peek inside the barrels at this time. Not only does the fermentation produce alcohol, it produces fruit flies and their wormy little larvae. No matter, it all goes into the still. I think the worms are part of the saveur... a fine larval aftertaste that I think is something Scottish single malts and many Cognacs lack. The plum mash gets distilled through a still into huge vats of tsuica, which gets a second distillation to become horinca. This still was in the village of Rozavlea. A liter of horinca was about 5 Euro, sold in various plastic soda pop bottles. If it is in an old fanta bottle, it has to be good. Good horinca is like fine quality vodka - so pure that even after drinking vast Maramures-like quantities of it one can wake up in the morning without any hangover, ready to hitch the horse to a plow and do a few acres of ploughing or sheep castrating after, of course, the obligatory shot of horinca with breakfast.
The cuisne of Maramures is simple and seasonal - people eat meat when they kill animals, which is around Christmas time and again around Easter when they cull the lambs. At other times of the year the villagers are virtually vegetarians who eat large amounts of cheese. On weekends everybody cooks up huge batches of sarmale - stuffed cabbage filled with rice, onions and root vegtables. There are no butcher shops in the villages - if an animal is killed, somebody heads into the center of the village and yells that there is meat for sale. The shops do not stock anything except nasty salami and frozen chicken, which nobody buys since everybody has dozens of chickens in their yard already.
Maramures has a well developed agrotourism infrastucture. I usually call ahead direct to the home owner when I book a room, and your host will usually feed you. In the village of Ieud, however, we always stay with Nitsa Dancus. Nitsa is an amazing woman, the source of much Maramures folkore and music, and a great cook. Well, she is if if you like the traditional meal of a black iron kettle of mamaliga cu brinza (corn meal porridge with sheep cheese) and a bottle of horinca. Mamaliga is like polenta, but with balls. A coarser ground of corn meal than Italian polenta, more flavor, and the cheese is usally very rich with sheep fat, which cook out during the baking process. People eat this day in, day out for their whole lives in Maramures, and they are still stronger than almost any group of people I've ever seen. With a bottle of pure full strength horinca... the Maramures Happy Meal!
Next: The Jewish Dwarf Theater of Maramures.
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Sunday, November 05, 2006
Somos was in the big hall playing for Moldavian Csángo dancing. Somos' regular dance house at Márczibányi tér was closed this season for reconstruction, and Szabolcs tells me everybody is much happier at Álmassy tér - it's more central in downtown Pest, and there is no entrance fee. Last night was a big treat - the Tecsö Band was at the Fonó in Buda. They are Gypsy musicians from the Hutsul region of Karpato-Ukraine, from the village of Tjaciv (Tetch, in yiddish) just across the Tisza river from Maramures in Romania, and near the border of Hungary. The band consists of the Csernovics brothers - Joska on accordion, Yura on drum, and Mishka on small tsymbaly (cimbalom) with Ivan Popovics on fiddle. They are one of the last real traditional bands to maintain any active Jewish repetoire (alongtside the Ruthenian, Hungarian, and Romanian tunes that are their bread and butter) and they played with me as guests when I recorded our new CD last spring. Mishka, the cimbalom player wasn't with them on this trip due to illness, but I sat in for some tunes, and Adam Good - who was playing the Fonó that evening with the amazingly tasteful Nikitov - sat in on bass. That's Yura in the foreground with the drum - he is probably the most accomplished master of Carpathian drumming alive today. Yura actually went to Romania to buy the drum belonging to the Petreus Brothers' band when Ion Petreus died. That's a two day trip. He also plays plonka - a strip of film held in the mouth which produces a sound somewhat between a screaming miniture clarinet and somebody pinching the air out of a small balloon. CD with samples here.