Spaghetti (& Meatballs) Cowboys

This is a cross post from my blog sauerkrautcowboys.blogspot.com

In late October I spent an afternoon at a country western festival in Bologna, Italy. It was the very last day of the two weekends that the festival took place, and I was eager to see what it was like: though I have been to wild west and country festivals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France and the Czech Republic, I have only been to a couple of them in Italy.

This one, called “Festival Country,” took place at the Bologna Fairgrounds, and it shared space in a cavernous hall with a sort of “October Fest” beer festival (featuring what was presented as German food). In a separate cavernous hall there was a so-called “Irish Festival:” vaguely Celtic music, and stalls that mainly seemed to sell “Lord of the Rings” type clothing…..

The path to all three led through the grim industrial landscape of the Fair buildings…..

Once there, what did I find?

The scene — at least on the day I was there — was a sort of distillation of all the most common stereotypes associated with “the west,” “the frontier,” “country-western,” and, in a certain way, “America.”  It was almost “paint-by-numbers”– but refreshingly, in contrast to festivals in other countries, I only saw one Confederate flag.

bologna-country-fest-192

I was hit by a fist of sound as soon as a entered — from a band (whose name I didn’t get) playing on a stage in the middle of the hall: playing so loud that that the sound was utterly distorted, with only the bass and the beat discernable.

The web site promised shows, concerts, food and drink, “pioneers and westerns”, Indian traditions, games, and handicrafts.

At the entrance to the cavernous hall stood a manikin of a Native American, posed outside a tepee as if to pounce.

Or of course pose for pictures.

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Nearby, there were basic-type mock ups of a Saloon, a bank, and a corral — which is where, I believe, shows were staged.

All around the edges there were stands selling cowboy boots, cowboy hats, T-shirts, “western attire” and the usual type of wild west tschotsches — most of which I rather assume were made in China or somewhere. Unlike at some other festivals I’ve been so, there was not much of the participatory or performative dress-up.

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There was a dance floor for line-dancing (increasingly popular in Italy) in front of the band-stand.

And beyond this were  lots of tables where people could eat — the “western” fare included a variety of (mainly) meats, giant hamburgers and other dishes that to me seemed pretty unappetizing (I ate fish & chips in the Irish festival). This being Italy there was also pasta — but thanks to the Americanness of it all, it was the first time I have ever seen “spaghetti and meatballs” in Italy.

One thing that was different from some of the festivals I’ve gone to elsewhere was a series of lectures given on “western” topics, such as western movies. I dropped into one of them — where an Italian from an organization called Sentiero Rosso (Red Trail) that supports Native American rights was talking about how his group brings aid to Native American families.

 

I was planning to stay at the festival until evening (the last train back to Florence was at something like 9:30 p.m.), but in fact, I only lasted a few hours….I’m sad to say that was it all so empty,  stereotyped, and  superficial — and that, despite the razzle dazzle and noise, there was such a lack of energy — that it wasn’t really fun.

Article on “Roots” travel quotes me

Me outside the ruined synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania, the town from which by great-grandparents emigrated to the US around 1880

Me outside the ruined synagogue in Kalvarija, Lithuania, the town from which by great-grandparents emigrated to the US around 1880

A long article on Jewish roots travel by Hilary Danailova in New York Jewish Week quotes me at length about changes in the Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage travel scene over the past quarter century.

Wed, 06/17/2015
 
 
Travel Writer
 

After a career traveling widely and often, Marshall Katz retired from the U.S. Air Force and a series of high-level government posts — and embarked on a new odyssey of sorts: researching the lost Jewish heritage of Sub-Carpathia, his ancestral homeland. Katz now makes regular trips between Pennsylvania, where his father was a kosher butcher near the West Virginia border, and Eastern Europe, where the Katz family’s forbearers had lived in what is today part of Hungary.

Undaunted by language barriers and unfazed by “atrocious” roads, Katz has since logged trip reports — along with practical travel advice, cemetery photos and recovered Jewish history — for hundreds of villages throughout Hungary, Western Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He posts them on the website JewishGen.org, an encyclopedic Jewish-genealogy resource with a half-million registered users worldwide.

“I’m trying to make a contribution,” Katz said recently by phone from Ukraine. In addition to cataloguing copious amounts of data for the Sub-Carpathian Special Interest Group site, which he founded on JewishGen, Katz communicates personally with many of his fellow heritage seekers — searching out a family’s tombstones or vital records in a particular village he plans to visit, for instance, or advising travelers on everything from hiring a car service to reliable tour guides.

A few decades ago, Katz’s travels would have been virtually impossible, or at least extremely difficult. But Jewish travelers today have access to myriad online resources — and a global community of fellow genealogy enthusiasts — that have transformed heritage travel. Whereas a “roots” trip might once have been an informative but generic organized tour of Jewish districts, major cemeteries and Holocaust sites in Poland or the Baltics, today’s travelers are going online to zero in on a great-grandparents’ shtetl, family tombstones and the very streets where the European Jews of yesteryear prayed and shopped.

“People today want to be more specific,” said Avraham Groll, director of business operations for JewishGen. “They want to know where their grandfather was actually from.”

Numerous factors have converged to make that possible. “Travel is so easy these days,” noted Ruth Ellen Gruber, the renowned journalist and coordinator of the web portal Jewish Heritage Europe, who also writes the Jewish Heritage Travel blog and has explored Jewish sites across the Continent for decades. “When I started out, nobody knew what was there. Nobody knew where these places are.”

Gruber pointed out that most ancestral Jewish homes were located behind the Iron Curtain — so prior to the early 1990s, travel would have been difficult or outright impossible, and archives were sealed under Communist rule. Today Americans not only travel freely within Eastern Europe; they frequently do so without the need for visas or even border checks. Infrastructure is also vastly improved (though Katz has horror stories about Ukrainian roads), with discount airlines making it cheap and convenient to hop between cities. A generation ago, Americans would have struggled with a near-insurmountable language barrier — but today, many Europeans speak English, so it’s far easier to hire a driver or query locals about Jewish sites.

And most obviously, the Internet has opened up a world of information that was previously inaccessible. Everything from vital records and historical data to detailed maps and trip-planning services is literally a click away.

JewishGen — which was launched in the 1980s and is now affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City — remains an invaluable resource for travelers. The website organizes the research of more than 80,000 volunteers worldwide; online archives (some 22 million records and counting) help families find relatives, ancestral hometowns and each other. JewishGen also has a Holocaust database of victims and survivors, including ghetto records and census lists; special area groups, like Katz’s Sub-Carpathian site, with maps, photographs and local travel links; and a portal called KehilaLinks, with a detailed website for each community — kehila in Hebrew — where Jewish members’ families once lived.

Beyond this, travelers have more sophisticated tools at their disposal than ever before. Unsure of how a family name or town was spelled? Special phonetic-matching technology can match surnames or places by sound. Not even sure of the town’s name? “Let’s say you don’t know exactly where the town was, but it was within a day’s horse ride from a major town,” said Groll. “If you look at the right side of our page for a city, we list every nearby Jewish community.”

Not even sure which part of Europe you come from? Those with questions about their origins may start — or complement their research — with DNA testing services such as 23andMe or Family Tree DNA. For a fee typically in the low three figures, these online companies analyze saliva samples to determine national and ethnic origin. Jewish users can confirm ties to particular countries or Ashkenazic roots, then take advantage of online community resources to connect with others from similar backgrounds.

All of which points to new dimension in heritage travel: modern sojourners seek to connect not only with their ancestors, but also with each other. On sites like Tracing the Tribe — a popular genealogy blog that recently relocated to Facebook — virtual communities have formed; distant relatives or descendants of neighbors find each other, Europe-bound travelers recommend custom tour guides for far-flung shtetls, and returning heritage pilgrims get help translating tombstones.

“People make recommendations and write about their own experiences,” said Gruber, who advises that such networks are the key to lining up reliable services overseas. “There’s a tremendous amount of research, and people who can help you.”

A lot of that research has been done by Gruber herself for Jewish Heritage Europe, arguably the most comprehensive web portal for guidance on Jewish destinations, historical sites and cultural events throughout the Continent. The site — a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe — is constantly updated with country-specific information, links and news from Lisbon to Minsk.

For the many American Jews with roots in modern-day Poland, there’s also the Virtual Shtetl. The bilingual Polish-English website is the online community-and-research extension of the recently opened POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, which has quickly become one of Europe’s scholarly hubs for Jewish heritage.

An up-and-coming resource is World Jewish Heritage, an organization launched four years ago that describes itself as “a cross between UNESCO, Wikipedia and Fotopedia” connected by Jewish heritage and culture. WJH is in the process of launching a smartphone travel app that allows users to locate sites of Jewish interest in major cities around the world; a new series of eBooks and online articles highlighting topics such as Israel’s top 10 restaurants or Jewish historical sites throughout Spain. As with other travel portals, WJH hopes to draw on user input as it grows.

Online resources are, of course, too numerous to mention here — and as technology expands, so does human connection. That connection, concludes Gruber, is what remains at the heart of Jewish roots travel: “It’s a very emotional adventure.”

 

Country Roads — in phonetic transliteration

This is a cross-post from my Sauerkraut Cowboys blog. I love it!

 

Received from Roman Ac

A Slovak bluegrass friend, Roman Ac, posted this picture on Facebook — it’s wonderful, and I just have to post it here.  It’s the lyrics of John Denver’s 1971 mega-hit “Take Me Home, Country Roads” spelled out in Czech (or Slovak) phonetic transliteration.

I’ve posted here in the past about how in Europe “Country Roads” is probably the most popular (and most covered) country-style song by local singers.

Denver, born Henry John Deutschendorf, Jr. in 1943, died in a plane crash in 1997. “Country Roads” lives on; it’s omnipresent, everywhere.

Here it is in Slovenian:

“My first country song which I heard was ‘Almost Heaven, West Virginia,'” a German truck driver told me in 2004. “… Henry John Deutschendorf… it was fantastic, yeah? And so I fell in love with country music. […] He gives us beautiful songs. John Denver. His grandfather was German, and he was one of the best. But he died too early.”

I’ve heard the song (which is NOT one of my favorites) sung in a variety of languages — and a variety of accented English. Here’s an English cover by a young Italian trio:

In then-Czechoslovakia, the definitive Czech version was recorded in 1975 by the late, great Pavel Bobek as “Veď mě dál, cesto má” — it became one of his signature songs. Bobek passed away just one year ago.

The Czech translation was quite a bit far, geographically, from West Virginia — this YouTube video is of Bobek singing in Czech, with a re-translation of the Czech lyrics back into English.

I find “Take Me Home Country Roads” almost unbearable sappy; sugary sweet and bland at the same time.

But audiences in Europe love the song — they invariably sing along, swaying and smiling. The idea of “home” translates into a sense that we (they) are all at home in America — or the America of dreams, where is here. Other songs popular in the European country scene also play on this sense of the universal “home” somewhere in the mythical West (or South) — “Sweet Home Alabama,” for example.

Here’s another video I posted before — of John Denver himself, singing “It’s Good to Be Back Home Again” — at a concert in Germany, land of his ancestors. It’s about a truck driver coming home.

Welcome!

Featured

As an American journalist, author, editor and researcher, I’ve published and lectured widely and won awards for my work on Jewish heritage and contemporary Jewish issues in Europe, as well as my work on the European fascination — and embrace — of the American Wild West, its mythology and its music.

I’ve chronicled European Jewish issues for more than 25 years — I  coined the term “Virtually Jewish” to describe the way the so-called “Jewish space” in Europe is often filled by non-Jews — and am Coordinator of the web site www.jewish-heritage-europe.euan online resource for Jewish heritage issues that is a project of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. I had a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on my project “Sauerkraut Cowboys, Indian Dreams: Imaginary Wild Wests in Contemporary Europe.” 

Among my other awards is Poland’s  Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit, one of the highest awards that Poland grants to foreign citizens. And I was the Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston, SC, for Spring Semester 2015.

 

Story of a Sardinian folksinger murdered in Rome’s Ardeatine Caves

Gavino De Lunas, and files. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

How did a Sardinian folksinger by the name of Gavino De Lunas end up murdered by the Nazis in Rome’s Ardeatine Caves 70 years ago — the most notorious Nazi atrocity in WW2 Italy?

Here’s my March 21, 2014 story about it in Tablet Magazine.

 

70 Years Later, Memory of Nazi Massacre Still Divides Some Italians—and Unites Others

The victims of the Ardeatine Caves murders included partisans, Jews, and a Sardinian folk star named Gavino De Lunas

[…]

In December, I visited a woman named Barbara Cole, who lives part-time near the small town of Todi, in central Italy. Over lunch, she told stories about her family and especially about her grandfather, a colorful Sardinian folk hero whose life history she has been piecing together from family documents and other sources.

Cole’s father was a British airman who met her mother, a local beauty queen, while he was stationed in Sardinia after World War II. Cole herself was raised in England and has only begun exploring her Sardinian heritage in recent years.

Her mother’s father, she told me, had been a well-known Sardinian poet and folk singer named Gavino Luna, who had gone by the stage name Gavino De Lunas. Though little-known outside Sardinia, he was famous on the island, especially in his hometown of Padria. Gavino cut records, played guitar, was photographed wearing traditional Sardinian folk costume—complete with tasseled hat—and published his lyrics in print.

As a day job, he worked for the Italian postal service, based in post offices in Cagliari, L’Aquila, and Rome. He was wounded fighting for Italy in World War I, and during World War II he worked in Rome for the underground anti-Fascist resistance. In early 1944, Gavino was employed at the main post office in Rome, but he also secretly helped carry out acts of sabotage—such as cutting phone lines and laying explosives. “He had great passion and hated that the Germans were taking over his country,” Cole told me.

Read full story

 

 

 

 

 

My article in the Forward reflecting on this year’s Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

Steve Weintraub with pictures of Jewish figurines, Krakow, July 2013. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

I’ve been writing about the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow for about 20 years, maybe even longer…so I have some historical perspective and memory in its regard.

Here’s my latest piece, a first-personer published in The Forward. People who also have long experience with the Festival and with the Jewish development of Krakow praised it for presenting a nuanced view….other people, predictably, didn’t get what I was getting at…

Onward and Upward with Matisyahu in Krakow

Arts Fest Shows Transformation in Poland’s Reputation

 

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

July 19, 2013

KRAKOW — In the sultry darkness of a summer night, a tall, skinny figure with close-cropped hair and a purple T-shirt threaded through a beer garden during Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival, the annual nine-day extravaganza of performance, exhibition, debate and intensive interaction that for a quarter of a century now has been a catalyst of Krakow’s Jewish cultural revival.

Bridging the open space between the city’s lively Jewish community center, which hosted dozens of festival events, and the grandiose Tempel Synagogue, venue for many of the concerts, the garden served as an informal salon where public and performers, Jews and non-Jews alike, could shmooze.

Whispers trailed in the newcomer’s wake: “Matisyahu’s here!”

The American singer, much less recognizable since he shed his Hasidic garb, blended with the dozens of other folks sipping their drinks as he made his way through the slatted wooden tables and sat down with a group that included Jonathan Ornstein, director of Krakow’s Jewish community center, and Janusz Makuch, the bearded, non-Jewish Pole who co-founded the festival in 1988 and is still both its director and its main driving force.

Matisyahu wasn’t on the program, though he has performed here in the past.

This time, en route to a gig in northern Poland, he had simply dropped in to hang with the festival crowd in Kazimierz, Krakow’s historic Jewish district.

Over the past two decades, Kazimierz has famously been transformed from a rundown slum, the quintessential Jewish graveyard, into a major tourist attraction: a burgeoning hub of revitalized Jewish culture, life, consciousness and commercial kitsch — as well as the city’s liveliest center of clubs, pubs and other late-night venues.

“We must have been out till 5 in the morning,” Ornstein told me the next day.

I’ve been writing about Kazimierz since 1990 and about the festival itself for nearly that long, returning each summer, at least for a few festival days, to monitor changes in the place, the program and the issues that swirl around both of them.

To me, Matisyahu’s under-the-radar appearance brought home one of the most striking of these changes. Clearly for him — and for the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other Jewish tourists who now flock here — the long post-Holocaust taboo on visiting Poland for pleasure has been broken.

This is no mean feat and has taken years to come about. Auschwitz is just an hour’s drive from Krakow, and the new attitude is by no means universal. But I heard it echoed clearly by a Canadian woman staying in my hotel.

“There’s no downside to Krakow,” the woman told me over breakfast. “As for the festival, it’s great. I’m doing as many activities as I can, and I’m already planning to come back with friends in two years.”

One of the factors in this change has been the increasingly high profile of the JCC, which opened five years ago as a neutral Jewish space accessible to all streams and forms of Jewishness and Jewish expression, normative or not.

Now one of the hubs of the festival, the JCC is, importantly, recognized as a “Jewish” Jewish space, in contrast to most of the city’s other Jewish-oriented venues and institutions. Its involvement has changed radically the dynamics of an event that long was viewed as a Jewish festival produced by non-Jews for a non-Jewish audience. Non-Jewish Poles still make up the vast majority of the festival’s attendees.

Among the JCC’s annual festival offerings is a kosher Sabbath dinner. This year, hosted in the 17th-century Izaak Synagogue, the dinner drew nearly 400 people.

“Visitors to Krakow now understand that they are not coming to a museum, but rather to a place with a small but increasingly active Jewish community,” Ornstein told me. “Understanding that fact puts the festival in a different context from a Jewish point of view. It is not only connecting Poles to Jewish culture, but helping create an environment in which the local Jewish community feels welcome and can thrive. This festival can make a claim that few others can: It is helping to rebuild a Jewish community long thought by many to be without a future.”

This year, the concepts of “Jewish” and “Jewishness” — and the ways they are defined, perceived, described and enacted — formed one of the main themes confronted in the many festival lectures, workshops and discussions.

I took part in a public conversation at the JCC, called “Jewish. Jewish? ‘Jewish’ Jewish!” It addressed shifting definitions, particularly in Kazimierz, where the transformations have created a complex of new Jewish authenticities that are quite different from the Krakow Jewish world that was destroyed in the Holocaust but are still real components of today’s living city.

After all, few if any of the young Poles and visitors who now throng the district’s many new cafes or volunteer at the JCC have any direct memories of Kazimierz before the festival began drawing crowds, when no modern Jewish museums and culture centers offered their programs, and no Jewish (or Jewish-style) commercial venues plied their trade.

“The resonance of the festival has become larger than the festival itself. And maybe this is the important thing,” the noted Yiddish singer Michael Alpert commented backstage during the festival’s traditional marathon open-air final concert on Kazimierz’s main square, Szeroka Street. “There’s ‘normalization,’” Alpert said, “and if it’s normal, it’s not as exotic.”

Nonetheless, he said, the festival’s main museum exhibition demonstrated an unsettling deep-seated sense of the “weird” that still surrounds Jewish issues.

This provocative show confronted the perception of what is understood as Jewish or “Jewish.” Titled “Souvenir, Talisman, Toy” and curated by Concordia University anthropologist Erica Lehrer, it explored the history, meaning and symbolism of the ubiquitous carved wooden figurines of Jews, frequently seen at Polish souvenir stalls and which often perpetuate sometimes toxicstereotypes.

The exhibit placed these figures in the context of both folk art and folk fantasy. In doing so, particularly against the pervasive good vibes of the festival, it served to highlight — and confront — the contradictory ways that “Jews” and “Jewishness” are perceived and represented in contemporary Poland.

One particular focus was on the myriad “Jewish” figures that clutch money and are used as “good luck” charms said to bring purchasers prosperity. Some observers actually view such “penny Jews” as embodying “positive” stereotypes, without ill intention. In exhibition video interviews, vendors and purchasers alike spoke openly about the magical properties of such figures, some of which are so abstract that, though bought, sold and recognized as “Jews,” they look more like aliens than human beings.

“As a Jewish dancer, people look at my physicality as a Jew,” said Steve Weintraub, the festival’s Jewish dance teacher, with whom I visited the exhibit. “What does this mean about how people are seeing me?”

That, of course, was the question. Or one of the questions. Only days after the festival’s conclusion, the lower house of Poland’s parliament voted down a bill that would have allowed Jewish (and Muslim) ritual animal slaughter.

It’s not for nothing that the exhibition advertisement featured the grotesque head of a wooden Jew, all staring eyes, fur hat and flaring peyes, or sidelocks. From posters and banners it glared proudly — even defiantly — out at the manifold new realities of Jewish Kazimierz with an expression of amazement, inquiry and possibly apprehension.

Read full article at: http://forward.com/articles/180634/onward-and-upward-with-matisyahu-in-krakow/?p=all#ixzz2ZaSVeCa9

Wild West town in Poland

I just found out about a wild west theme park in Poland called Twin Pigs — it seems to be some punning reference to “Twin Peaks” — that opened last summer in the little Silesian town of Zory, near the Czech border and between Katowice and Wisla.

In the promotional video it still looks brand new!

It seems to have the usual “real imaginary” look of a wild west town, with rides, country music, rodeo, Tex Mex and other attractions.

 

 

 

Interviewed on Czech Radio (in English!)

Czech Radio’s English language service recently interview me, along with banjoist-multi-instrumentalist Lubos Malina, about the great “Czechgrass” band Druha Trava’s new double live CD.

You can access the interview by CLICKING HERE — and you can either stream the half hour interview or download it as an mp3.

We talk about the new CD set — one CD was recorded during the annual summer festival in the beautiful town of Telc, and the other is a compilation of performances last year with guests Peter Rowan, Charlie McCoy and Katia Garcia.

We also spoke about my role in DT’s previous CD, Shuttle to Bethlehem, which mainly features my English language translations of DT singer-songwriter-frontman Robert Krestan’s songs.

After the interview, Lubos and I stopped to visit the new museum devoted to pioneering Czech animator Karel Zeman, en route to a concert by Kris Kristofferson.

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New publication on Polish Jewish Heritage

 

I’m delighted to announce the publication of “Preserving Jewish Heritage in Poland,” an illustrated book marking the 10th anniversary of the Foundation for the Preservation of Jewish Heritage in Poland — in which I have a sort of introductory essay.

The entire text of the book can be downloaded here — http://fodz.pl/download/album_fodz_www.pdf