13 November 2012

A Rigid Itinerary

It's been a while since I've written here, and my big adventure is coming to an end.  In 2 weeks, I return to Toronto upon the conclusion of my visa. 

With my time in Europe (at least on this journey) coming to an end, I wanted to get to Amsterdam to visit friends, some of whom I hadn't seen in over 3 years, since the last time I was there.

So, I booked my train tickets and got ready for a weekend of friend-seeing in Amsterdam.  Except I did a bone-headed thing and mistook my departure date when I booked the (non-refundable) tickets.  Only realizing this fact after the train had left without me on Thursday, I scrambled to find another way to get to Amsterdam on Friday. 

Thanks to the mitfahrgelegenheit.de website, I found a guy who seemed decent that was heading to Amsterdam and only asking for 35 Euros for the trip.  He drives frequently to Holland for business and had been using mitfahrgelegenheit for about a year and a half.  Now, for the uninitiated, mitfahrgelegenheit literally means "drive-with opportunity" and is a common way for Germans to travel in between cities cheaper than going by rail or plane. 

On Friday morning, I met M.* at the rendez-vous point at the appointed time and we met in person.  I was told that we were waiting for a Polish girl and we'd be on our way.  Unfortunately (as we would discover), this wasn't to be our day, and Polish Girl couldn't be reached by phone, and apparently, her boyfriend wasn't much help when he was reached either.  After thirty minutes, we left without her and proceeded out of town.  M. made a bone-head move of his own and took the wrong direction on the ring around the city and ended up heading south towards Munich instead of west.  After about 30 km or so, he realized this, and got off the Autobahn, turned around and burned rubber like hell to make up the lost time.

Now, I've been driven on German Autobahns.  They say that there's no speed limit, and that's true in some sense.  In some areas, there are indeed speed limits, and where there aren't, they recommend driving at 130km/h.  Well, M. (driving a nice Mercedes C class) was not interested in "recommended" speed limits and drove, at some points, as fast as 220 km/h.  Strangely, it honestly didn't seem that fast, given that people were driving very fast around us. 

Finally, we got on the right highway and M. kept booking along at high speeds wherever possible as we bolted for the Dutch border.  As we reached and crossed the border, M. noticed that a police car had pulled in front of us, turned on it's flashing light and had a "Police - Follow" sign in the rear window.  M. followed and pulled off the highway to a stop.

The two cops came out and asked for our IDs and asked why we were going to the Netherlands.  Apparently, it seemed like a random stop of travelers over the border.  They ran our names through their computer and apparently, there was a problem.  As I mentioned, there were 2 officers, one was Dutch and one was German.  Originally, they seemed very nice and calm, but the German guy came over to the driver's window and began to speak very forcefully. 

Basically, he told M. that he had outstanding speeding tickets in the Netherlands and he had to pay.  M. didn't have the money.  They asked if I did.  I controlled my urge to burst out laughing.  If M. couldn't pay, they had to lead us to the police station and figure out a way to pay.  We followed.

First of all, I have to say that M. was very adamant that they shouldn't be asking me for any money.  He could have tried to stick me with the bill, but he was definitely not trying to screw me over.  When we reached the station in Enschede, they sat us down (they still had our IDs, including my passport) and brought out the paperwork.  M. owed 616.90 Euros for 13 outstanding speeding tickets dating back to 2008.  Apparently, the system is much like photo radar -- they have officers taking photos or radar readings and chalking the bill up to the license plate of the car.  The driver isn't stopped.  The Dutch officer read off dates and by how much M. had been caught speeding by 4, 5, 7, 9 km/h over the speed limit.  Hardly what I could have told them about how fast he was driving in Germany!  Basically, he was caught speeding and fined, without being pulled over, for exceeding the speed limit by amounts that wouldn't even cause a cop in Ontario to put down his cup of Timmy's.

Unfortunately for M., he just didn't have the money and had to figure out a way to get it by 8pm or else they would tow the car (another 230 Euros) and because it was Friday, it would be impounded until Monday, costing him an additional 60 Euros.  Eventually, he got a hold of his son, who lived in Western Germany, and would have the money in 2 hours. 

I spoke to the officer, got my passport back and asked them to call a cab for me.  I ended up cabbing it into town, getting on a train for Amsterdam and finally reaching my friend's apartment at about 9:30pm (after leaving at 9:30am to get to the rendez-vous with M.).

It was a long and weird day.


* As you'll see if you keep reading, I think that it's wise that I decided to not reveal my driver's name. 

10 September 2012

KlezFactor videos

Today, I finally got down to getting a couple of new KlezFactor concert videos up on YouTube (see below for links).  Trying out basic video editing software (Microsoft's Movie Maker), the videos taken from my crappy little point and shoot camera came out all right.

Most importantly, I think they really capture the energy that the band has playing in front of fantastic audiences in Germany.

These videos were taken on Thursday, September 6 in our concert at Shakespeare and Sons bookstore (Raumerstrasse 36 in Prenzlauer Berg-Berlin).

First of all, the bookstore is the best English bookstore in Berlin.  Their selection is great, but most importantly, there's a warm, welcoming vibe in the store due to the owners/operators Roman and Laurel Kratochvila.  Also, they serve coffee, tea, and homemade cakes and cookies that are absolutely delicious.

The store has also been hosting events like readings and concerts and serves as a great intimate venue.  We've played there twice now, and haven't had to use microphones for either Dea (on violin) or me (sax/clarinet).*

For the second time, we played to a pretty packed house (although there's not so much room in the store), but the crowd was also very lively, which made it a great time for the band as well as the audience!

So, without further ado, here are the videos:  A special thanks go to Roman and Laurel Kratochvila at Shakespeare and Sons, Manuel Miethe for shooting the video, and finally to Ilya Shneyveys for joining us in "Bapolyer Freylekhs/Freylekhs in Zibn."

Asakh Noten

Bapolyer Freylekhs/Freylekhs in Zibn


* This also shows how sensitive the three other musicians are - Florian von Frieling on electric guitar, Alex Bayer on electric bass, and Daniel Prätzlich on drums.

18 August 2012

The Mishpucha

Now that I'm back in Berlin, I can write about the rest of my stay in Israel....

It was a really great trip, and the real highlights were getting the chance to see family members that I hadn't seen in as many as 22 years.

I was asked by several people how I had so much family in Israel in the first place.  Here is the very short version.

All four of my grandparents were Polish Jews.  3 of the 4 managed to get to the Soviet Union before things got really bad in Poland.  My mother's father (Zaida Boris), only 19 at the outbreak of the war, headed east with his older brother who had gotten back from the defeated Polish Army and rode out the war in Russian labour camps.  When he returned to Poland and reuinted with his brother, they learned that they were the only two survivors of what was a large family in Krakow before the war.  My grandfather married my grandmother and moved to Canada, where she already had family.  My great-uncle (Dod Henek) moved to Israel.

I saw Dod Henek's part of the family on Wednesday night (Dod Henek passed away about 15 years ago).  Dod Henek's son Aron and his wife Regina, Aron's two "kids" Doobie* and Chana (and her husband), and their kids.  Chana has two daughter's in their early 20s, and Doobie has 3 young kids, 2 of whom were there.

It's basically been 22 years since I've seen any of this family, the last time being during the summer my family spent there after my bar-mitzvah.  Chana's 2 daughters were just little kids at the time, and Chana told me how she remembered meeting me for the first time when I was about 3 or 4 on her visit to Canada.  I told her kids that I remembered them from when they were 3 and 1/2 years old (respectively).

I stayed with Yossi and Shoshi.  Shoshi's father was one of Zaida Boris's cousins who also survived the war.  With only one close family member surviving, my grandfather made every effort to stay close with all of the more distant relatives he could find, and Shoshi's father was one of them.**

On Tuesday night, Shoshi's brother, Menachem (a conductor and teacher at Israel's top high school for the arts) came over for dinner with his wife and son (a budding bass player).  It was another lovely evening with conversation about Israeli politics (as much as I could figure out because most of that conversation was in Hebrew), as well as great "shop talk" with Menachem!

Finally, on Friday night, we had dinner at a really cool restaurant by the sea on Tel Aviv's board walk with Shoshi and Yossi, and their kids (and their kids spouses).  Again, i probably hadn't seen their kids since around my sister's bat-mitzvah (when Shoshi and Yossi were living in Ann Arbor Michigan and drove up for the weekend).  It was great to reconnect with them and meet their significant others!

I also saw several friends while in Israel, including the Ramzailech*** boys, Gal and Amit.  They came down and picked me up on Thursday for an evening at a bar to catch up.  We had met up in Berlin in March, and Amit noticed that it was our 3rd meeting, each one on a different continent (first at Klezkanada in North America, second in Berlin -- Europe, and third in Israel -- Asia, technically).

As you can see, after I finished my article and submitted it, I still had a busy week.  Sometimes I was a little lazy during the day (mostly because I didn't want to venture out in the heat), other times i walked around Tel Aviv, but for the most part, the week in Tel Aviv was about visiting family.  I know my grandparents (especially Zaida Boris, who just passed away in November) would have wanted it that way.  For all of that generation, the idea of keeping your family close was the most important thing.  They lost so many of their nearest and dearest in the Holocaust and made every effort to stay in touch with everyone that they found.

* It doesn't mean the same thing in Hebrew.

** Our closeness with our cousins in New York is also due to the my grandfather made large efforts to stay close with any family members he could find.

*** www.ramzailech.com

14 August 2012

Holy Crap He's Writing A Lot About Israel

So, before I move on to writing about my impressions of Tel Aviv, I thought I'd post a few pictures, mainly from the bus tour we did in the Galilee (pictures of Tsfat aren't on my computer yet).


Circassian Mosque


So.  Tel Aviv.  It's been good to see family that I haven't seen in a long time.  As mentioned before, I'm staying with Shoshi and Yossi in Ramat Aviv, cousins on my mother's side.  I did see them in 2006 when they were living in the Washington D.C. area for a year and I was in town to do some research at the Library of Congress.

I also saw my friend Eli, a trumpet player who I met in Weimar a couple of years ago.  We went to a jazz concert and had a really good dinner downtown. 

I had a brief visit with my father's cousin Miriam -- we managed to squeeze in a visit before she jets off to New York for 10 days. 

Yesterday I walked around Tel Aviv and realized that the city is becoming very American, rather than European.  Air conditioning is a must (especially at night, when the temperature doesn't seem to get any cooler).  However, the city itself has some fairly run down areas (as can be seen in this picture), but it appears that there's a lot of construction in that area, so that building may get torn down soon.
Otherwise, Tel Aviv is pretty small (compared to Berlin), and people seem friendly and welcoming (although I'm not really meeting strangers).  The service hasn't been as rude as expected, and I'm feeling pretty comfortable.

There is some anxiety about Bibi Netanyahu who is making noise about a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.  Most people think he's gone way out on a limb, and that he's pretty much talking nonsense, but they're afraid that he will follow through and that reprisals from the Iranians would target the cities.

Aside from that, my Hebrew is coming back, and I'm able to survive in most situations without reverting to English.  But language is a funny thing.  German is totally getting in the way of Hebrew, and certain words in Hebrew have totally avoided any attempt to recall them from the darkest recesses of my brain.  Of course, because most of the signage is in Hebrew, it takes forever to read, but I have been able to make out menus in Hebrew, bus schedules in Hebrew, etc. etc. 

So, the rest of my week will be filled with seeing family and friends, perhaps touring Tel Aviv (once I'm finished revisions on this article I'm writing), and generally taking it easy!

13 August 2012

More Israel (photos coming soon)

I'm now in Tel Aviv, sitting in a cafe/restaurant with nice, free wi-fi.  After walking around for a couple of hours down Allenby and around the beach, I've decided that I haven't seen the "pretty" part of Tel Aviv yet.  I haven't really had time to see much yet -- I've spent most of the day working on my article (to be submitted for publication on Wednesday) at Yossi and Shosi's beautiful, air-conditioned apartment.  I didn't go to the beach because a) I didn't have sandals -- walking on that sand would have been suicide, and b) I didn't have a towel.

The rest of the conference in Tsfat was really interesting.  We took a walking tour of Tsfat with a guide who, while I'm sure he had our best interests at heart, I'm convinced was making stuff up.  He was very friendly and wanted to relate everything remotely international to a member of our very international group.  However, he would play songs from an mp3 player through a speaker clipped to his belt, which became problematic as Shabbat approached in that very religious city.  He also was telling the group incorrect things about Sephardic Jews and music in the presence of our Sephardic music expert.  He also insisted that the epitomy of Ashkenazic music was "If I were a Rich Man."  Oy.

The next day, we had a bus tour of the Galilee, highlighting the diverse communities there.  We visited a Circassian town, much to the delight of the 2 Russian-Circassian scholars there.  It's a fascinating history of a people, expelled from Russia in the 19th century, who have settled in a north-south column through the former Ottoman Empire reaching from Turkey down to Israel. Following that, we visited an Christian-Arab village, hearing "George" play his string instruments and giving us a little tour of the town.  We had a great Arabic lunch there, and then headed towards a Druze town where we learned about the basic tenets of the Druze religion and culture. 

We then returned to Tsfat and hung around until after Shabbat and had a nice dinner amidst the craziness of post-shabbat traffic and Frummie-ness.

More thoughts on Tsfat:

While a beautiful city in the mountains, I feel like Tsfat has "gone to seed."  There's garbage everywhere, and (I'm assuming it's a summer thing), it's dusty and sandy all over the place.  The city is getting more and more run down (see my last post about how there's no money).  While a home for mystics and the ultra-religious, I can't really see anyone else living there permanently, and I don't think many people want to.  It feels like the Haredim are driving everyone else out, and while the town population most likely swells for Shabbat (people go for a "shabbat experience" like the Australian girl who sat next to me on the bus back to Tel Aviv), it appears that the continued deterioration of conditions may keep tourists away in the future, further wrecking the city's economy. 

But the Galilee remains my favourite part of Israel.  The rugged natural beauty is lovely.  I seem to have a thing for mountains.  Maybe it's because there aren't any in Toronto.

10 August 2012


I'm currently in Israel for about a week and a half, taking advantage of a general lull in life in Berlin, as well as the Symposium of the Music and Minorities Study Group of the International Council for Traditional Music.  This year (the symposium is held every other year), the conference is happening in Tzfat, Israel.

I haven't been in Israel in over 9 years, and never on my own as a solo traveler.  The first interesting thing I encountered happened before I even left Berlin.  At the airport, when I was checking in, I met a very nice young woman who was also traveling (on Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish company) to Tel Aviv via Istanbul.  When we got to Istanbul and our 3 hour layover, we also met up with an Israeli (living in Berlin) who was heading home to visit his children.  There was already a greater kinship amongst travelers heading to Israel than I have experienced traveling anywhere else.

I think that you'll notice through my discussions of Israel today that it's not going to be the typical "love letter" to the country that many people express after visiting.  I'm seeing Israel as a (dis)functional country with inherent problems beyond the much-mentioned problems between Israel and Palestine. 

My first reaction to the public Israel was a rest-stop on the highway on the way up to Haifa.  The small store and cafe was overrun with religious families stopping along the way.  It was hot (working its way up to 40 degrees celsius), and crowded with people ignoring many of the cultural niceties that I'm used to coming from Canada and having lived in Germany. 

Upon arriving in Tzfat, I did manage to find my way from the bus station to the main street (Jerusalem St.) and even managed to get an Israeli SIM card for my phone.  Walking along the circular street that had most of the city's shops, I was again surrounded by religious families.  Tzfat is a "mecca" for the Jewish mystics who follow the Kabbalah, and has become a very important place in Israel for religious Jews to live.  Unfortunately, the city itself is very poorly off, due to the fact that many of these Haredim do not work, and thus, do not pay taxes, draining the city of potential revenue. 

The drivers here are generally poor and impatient, with traffic snarling the ancient streets.  The sounds of Hebrew and English conversations are mingled with car horns as drivers try to get by people who have parked in the most inconvenient places. 

In many ways, while the landscape is beautiful in the mountains,* I find myself bristling at the way in which the ultra-orthodox Jews have seemingly overtaken the city.  I've heard stories, both in the news and from secular Israelis (some of whom have moved to Berlin), about ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem trying to impose their customs and laws on the entire country.

While I can't speak to Jerusalem, if Tzfat is indicative of the direction the country is going (large ultra-orthodox families who do not work or contribute to the country's economy), not only will secular Jews leave Israel for countries whose politics are more in line with their own, but Israel's economy will collapse under the weight of supporting so many non-working religious Jews.  Now, this should be taken with a grain a salt, seeing as that I have pretty much only been in Tzfat so far.

I'll definitely write more than these initial reactions when I return to a more "civilized" city on Sunday!

* Israel is going through a huge heat wave and is very dry.  Almost all the grasses are brown, and as my friend Assaf told me, Israel is usually only green in the winter, unlike the northern countries that I'm used to.

6 August 2012

KlezFactor at B-flat

On Saturday night, KlezFactor played our biggest show in Berlin to date, at the B-flat Jazz Club.  This is a club that is well known to host both local and international jazz bands in a variety of eclectic styles.  The club is also home to a well attended (free) jazz jam on Wednesday nights, hosted by Canadian expatriate, bassist Robin Draganic. 

As you may be able to tell from the photos, B-flat is almost antithetical to Berlin bar aesthetics and is a very nice place!  It's also a fairly large performance space which allows the band to "rock out" a bit more than in some other venues.

As is par for the course, our musicians are busy people, so we had to bring in a substitute to play bass with us.  Fortunately, my old friend, Markus Müller from Nürnberg, was available and came up to Berlin to play with us, with his 5-string fretless electric bass in tow.

People I speak to often are amazed at how little rehearsal the band is able to get away with (without sounding like we haven't rehearsed).  Before our concert in Bayreuth, we rehearsed only once with drummer Fin Panter, and for B-flat, we only had about a 1 1/2 hour sound check to all play together.  What this proves is that with great musicians who put in some work on their own to learn the music, things become very easy to put together!

One thing that never ceases to amaze me about German audiences is how attentive they are.  At B-flat, when the house music was turned off, everyone immediately began to pay attention to the stage as we came up through the audience.  While we tuned and prepared to play, there was very little noise from the audience.  In Canada, audiences would continue to talk until (and even after) we start to play.  This allowed us to start very quietly, with me playing a Nign in the lowest register of the clarinet.  Following this tune, in which we built to a crescendo with everyone playing, we played some of our more "jazzy" repertoire - "Negev" and "The Golem of Bathurst Manor" from our first album.  We then started to bring the audience along as we introduced more of our raucous and obnoxious ("Raucnoxious?") repertoire.*  Fortunately, the audience followed us where we went, and, by the time we finished (nearing 1am), we felt very grateful to have played for such a warm and enthusiastic audience.

And so, we have one more concert booked for Berlin at this time -- A return to Shakespeare and Sons bookstore on September 6th.  If you're around, please join us!


*This included a completely unrehearsed rendition of "Miserlou" that featured Markus Müller's wonderful Yiddish singing, and a very strange, free-ish version of "Fun Tashlich" somewhat akin to our recorded version from The Golem of Bathurst Manor 

Photos by Marc Stephan