The Czech 10 Stars project — my article and links

Interior of restored synagogue in Brandys nad Labem, CZ.

I have an article in The Forward on the  Czech 10 Stars project of revitalizing Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, an ambitious project that I have been following for the past few years. I’ve posted a lot about this project on the Jewish Heritage Europe web site, including Photo Galleries of seven of the 10 Stars sites.

Uniting Jewish Heritage Sites Across Czech Republic

Ten Points of the Jewish Star

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

NOVA CEREKEV, CZECH REPUBLIC — No Jews have lived in this nondescript little town 80 miles southeast of Prague since the Holocaust, but driving in, you can’t miss the synagogue.

Rose-pink and ochre, with fanciful arched windows and a central peaked roof flanked by two squat towers, it rises dramatically over the rooftops, dominating the otherwise drab surroundings.

Inside, chandeliers glow above cream-colored walls and graceful arched galleries.

Though built in the 1850s, the synagogue looks brand-new — and in some ways it is. Derelict for decades, it has been painstakingly restored, inside and out, over the past few years.

This summer it was opened to the public as part of one of the most ambitious Jewish heritage revitalization projects in Europe — the Czech 10 Stars.

Carried out by the Federation of Czech Jewish Communities and financed by an approximately $14 million grant from the European Union, with further funding from the Czech Culture Ministry, the 10 Stars project links newly restored historic synagogues and other Jewish buildings in 10 towns, cities and villages widely scattered over all parts of the country.

Each site hosts a permanent exhibit focusing on one specific aspect of Jewish history, culture, religious life or traditions. There is space for concerts and other cultural events, and in several places Jewish cemeteries dating back centuries (and even a couple of mikvehs) lie within an easy walk.

Continue readinghttp://forward.com/articles/203640/uniting-jewish-heritage-sites-across-czech-republi/?p=all#ixzz3A6qWEYA0

 

 

Remembering Jiri Fiedler

 

This past week the terrible news came that Jiri Fiedler, a pioneer in Jewish heritage research in the Czech Republic,  had been found murdered, along with his wife, in their Prague apartment. Apparently they were killed around the end of January, but not found until a couple of weeks later. Police are investigating, but as of today, few details have emerged.

Jiri was one of my first guides when I began exploring Jewish heritage issues nearly 25 years ago, and he served as a guide and mentor to many others. His 1991 book “Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia,” was a milestone in the post-communist rediscovery of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic, and he continued his work as a director of research at the Prague Jewish Museum, contributing to a growing online database of Jewish heritage.

The news left the Jewish heritage world in shock. I wrote a tribute to him in Tablet Magazine:

[…] I first met Fiedler in 1990, when I was just embarking on the research that led to my first book, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Central and Eastern Europe. I had been given his name (and the name of another Czech researcher, Arno Pařik) to look up in Prague as I sent out on my own exploration.

Fiedler and Pařik sat me down and told me exactly where to go. Somewhere in my files I still have the handwritten notes, diagrams, and lists from our first meetings—just as I have saved the emails he wrote to me over the years in his charmingly fractured “Czenglish.”

Fiedler was finally able to publish his own work in a book, Jewish Sights of Bohemia and Moravia, in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution. He went on to compile and analyze material at the Jewish Museum, and his work has since been digitized as part of a regularly updated electronic encyclopedia of Jewish heritage in the Czech Republic.

“At a time of destruction, Jiří Fiedler did what specialist institutions should have devoted their time to,” the Jewish Museum statement said. “At a time when the Jewish cultural heritage in Bohemia and Moravia was treated with utter contempt, he produced a trove of work that can be drawn on by future generations of researchers in the area of Jewish topography.”

Fiedler’s death was reported by the writer Helen Epstein, who also met him in 1990, when she was researching her memoir, Where She Came From. Epstein remembered Fiedler in a lovely piece titled “Eulogy for a Source,” published Sunday in the New York Times.

Epstein’s eulogy is a sensitive and very moving tribute, but its headline, I believe, sells Fiedler short. Jiři Fiedler was much more than a source. He was a guide, a mentor, and an inspiration. A modest man with an impish sense of humor, he was also a mensch. May their souls be bound up in the bond of life; may their memory be for a blessing.

Read full article here 

 

 

 

 

Pete Seeger and Czech Bluegrass

Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

I’ve written  about this before, but, with Pete Seeger’s death on Monday at the age of 94, I wrote a little piece for Tablet Magazine on the impact of Seeger’s 1964 concerts in communist Czechoslovakia on the development of the Czech bluegrass scene — the Czech Republic probably boasts more banjo-players and bluegrass bands per capita than any other country — the new documentary film Banjo Romantika, in which I appear as a “talking head,” goes into this phenomenon.

My Tablet piece was pegged not just to Seeger’s death, but to the fact that over the weekend I took part in the launch of a new CD by the Czech bluegrass-fusion band The Malina Brothers — banjoist Lubos, guitarist Pavel, fiddler Pepa and non-brother bassist Pavel Peroutka, all of whom are veterans of the scene and play in other major groups. Lubos, Pavel and Pepa visited me in Italy last year and gave a house concert to enthralled neighbors.

Back in September, I helped out in the studio in Prague with the band’s English language singing.

On Sunday night, at a sold-out concert in the brothers’ home town of Nachod, in northern Bohemia, they brought me up on stage for the “krest” — christening — to toast the new release with sparkling wine.

I wrote in Tablet:

It was almost exactly 50 years ago that Seeger performed a series of concerts in the then-communist Czechoslovakia in March 1964. For the first time, people saw a five-string banjo being played, an instrument whose distinctive twang they’d heard while listening clandestinely to the American Forces radio broadcast from across the Iron Curtain. Seeger’s performance electrified music fans, who ended up launching a Czech bluegrass scene. (The first Czech five-strings were made from photos of Seeger’s; today, Czech banjo-makers export their instruments worldwide.)

 

Marko Cermak, who half a century ago built a five-string banjo based on photos of Pete Seeger’s. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

 

Seeger’s 1964 tour was booked by the official Czechoslovak concert agency. Pete’s longtime friend Gene Deitch, a Chicago-born, Academy Award-winning animator and illustrator who has lived in Prague since the 1950s, organized the Prague concert. Deitch, now 89, also recorded it and it was later issued as a CD.

Seeger, Deitch recalled in the CD notes, was—as far as the Czech authorities were concerned—”an example of a ‘progressive’ American performer, singing for the rights of the ‘oppressed American masses,’” and “all those living in the darkness of [the] ‘imperialist’ American society.”

Deitch has posted the entire recording on his web site—among the songs Seeger performed that night was the Israeli folk song “Tzena Tzena,” which he sang in Hebrew.

Seeger’s influence in the Czech music scene stretches well beyond bluegrass. The Malina Brothers CD launch was my second in the country in recent weeks. In December, I helped pop the bubbly in Prague for the launch of a CD of Ladino tunes called “Songs from the Sephardic Tradition” by the new band Kon Sira, another project with which Lubos Malina, the award-winning banjoist of the Malina Brothers, is involved.

Malina, who turned 55 the day Pete Seeger died, was only a boy when Seeger played Prague in 1964, but he first heard bluegrass and banjo music from the generation of Czech musicians that Seeger had directly influenced. In a way, this makes the Kon Sira Sephardic project, too, a direct legacy of Pete’s performance half a century ago.

Read the full article

In the Czech Republic, the launch of a CD is called a “křest” or “Christening.” Kon Sira’s leader, the Ladino scholar and singer Katerina Garcia, thought this would not be good form for a CD of Jewish music — so in the video below you can see her explaining this in Czech to the audience at the launch, and then me reciting the Shehehiyanu prayer.

Banjo Romantika is about to premiere!

Banjo Romanitka, the documentary about Czech bluegrass that I helped out on is about to launch!

Produced and directed by Lee Bidgood and Shara K. Lange, it will have screenings in the Czech Republic in June.

Here’s the schedule:

1) Screening and lecture, American Center at the American Embassy, Prague  – 20.06.2013 – 17:30 – 19:00

Americké centrum, Tržiště 13, Praha 1 – Malá Strana  http://www.americkecentrum.cz/

2) Screening, Banjo Jamboree Festival, Cáslav – 21-22.6.2013 (time tbd)

www.banjojamboree.cz/

x) Closed screening and lecture, Jerome College of Prague – Monday 24.6.2013

3) Screening and lecture, Moravian Library, Brno – Thursday 27.6.2013 18:30-20:00

Conference hall of the Moravian Library, Kounicova 65a Brno

http://www.mzk.cz/sluzby/akce/prednaska-mississipske-blues-promitani-dokumentarniho-filmu-banjo-romantika

4) Screening, White Stork Festival, Luka nad Jihlavou – Friday – Saturday 28-29.6.2013

 

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