“A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard” by Jill Culliner— Jewish Life in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe

Culiner, Jill. “A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard”,Claret Press, 2021.

Jewish Life in Nineteenth-Century Eastern Europe

Amos Lassen

We really know very little about what Jewish life was like in “the Old Country”. What we do know has come to us in stories and what we have suspected is that it was community driven. There is the possibility that this is simply myth.

We have read that nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Mitnagdim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. We have been told that secular books were forbidden and those with independent thoughts “were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution, and expulsion.”

During the Haskalah or Jewish Enlightenment, there were those who were determined to create “a modern Jew” and begin schools where children could learn science, geography, languages, and history. Here is where we meet Velvel Zbarzher, a rebel who sang his poems to poor workers and craftsmen. Because he condemned the religious stronghold he was banished from his community and became itinerant. By the time he died in Constantinople in 1883, the Haskalah had triumphed and there was the modern Jew. However, modernization and assimilation did not end to anti-Semitism.

Writer Jill Culiner  decided to research Velvel and she searched for him in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania, looking for the houses where he lived, and the bars where he sang. She was also looking for a d way of life in Austria, Turkey, and Canada that was no more. She gives us a look at the times and places of Velvel that is a romantic mystery and a trip through time. We see the shtetl as a vibrant place of life through the eyes of

the unjustly forgotten Hebrew poet and Yiddish melodrama author, Velvel Zbarzher. Beautifully written and a tribute to a man who seems lost to history, I was mesmerized by what I read. Being a rebel is not easy and facing exile makes it that much more difficult. I cannot help but wonder how many others suffered the same fate and are lost to us.

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