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