The Old Country? How did it smell? Sound? Was it as unified and cosy as the proponents of Heritage Travel would have us believe? Was there really a strong sense of community? Did Chagall’s phantom figures tap their toes to the familiar tunes of Fiddler on the Roof? Or was it another place altogether.
In nineteenth century Eastern Europe, Jewish life was ruled by Hasidic rebbes or the traditional Mitnagdim, and religious law dictated every aspect of daily life. Secular books were forbidden; independent thinkers were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution, expulsion and excommunication. 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.
Born in 1826 in Zbarazh, Galicia (now Ukraine), Benjamin Wolf Ehrenkranz received a traditional Jewish education, and all expected he would become an important rabbi. However, after obtaining forbidden Haskalah literature, he hid under the synagogue steps, pursued secular studies in secret. Sensing a change in his son, Velvel’s father decided to arrange a marriage: a wife and children would surely tie this wayward son to home and duty. But only a few days after the wedding, Ehrenkranz abandoned his bride, his home, and headed for Romania.
Now an exile, he changed his name to Velvel Zbarzher, began writing politically incorrect poems, singing them in bars and wine cellars, gaining a vast, loyal audience of workers, craftsmen and intellectuals. Hard-drinking, outspoken, he shared what he earned with the poor, but his direct attacks on the Hasidim and the anti-Semitic Romanian government 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 modernization and assimilation hadn’t brought an end to anti-Semitism. New movements to promote social equality appeared—Zionism, Anarchism, Bundism—and they travelled to the New World along with a love of Yiddish literature and theatre.
A Contrary Journey with Velvel Zbarzher, Bard
will be published by Claret Press in October, 2021