In the aftermath of World War II, small Jewish communities came to life again in Eastern Europe. The Jews who rebuilt them had survived the Holocaust by using aliases, escaping concentration camps, or fleeing to Russia. According to ethnographic researcher Yale Strom, those known as "partisans" lived in the forests and put up at night whatever resistance against the Nazi occupation they could muster. They survived in bunkers. They stole food from neighboring communities and hunted wild animals. They had to be careful of Nazi soldiers and of the local populace.
In 1981, before Steven Spielberg did research for Schindler's List, Strom traveled to the Ukraine, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and other Eastern European countries to document resurgent Jewish life. Although the communist governments made no official objections to his trip, he says, "Border authorities were often suspicious of me. In the off-season for travel, I would be the only American on a train and they would see the tape recorder and many rolls of film I had. So I was arrested twice and spent one day in jail."
At night Strom rolled out his sleeping bag in fields and train stations or on the floors of people's homes. He recounts his adventures in A Wandering Feast: A Journey Through the Jewish Culture of Eastern Europe. Strom's wife Elizabeth Schwartz coauthored the work, whose distinguishing feature is the attention it gives to klezmer music. Strom describes klezmer as "Yiddish instrumental folk and dance music." Musicians who play it use the violin, bass, clarinet, accordion, and percussion instruments. They are fond of the hammered dulcimer, too. Strom says the instrument "resembles the inside of a piano" and maintains that it is the piano's precursor.
On Sunday, November 21, at Dor Hadash congregation in Kearny Mesa, Strom and Schwartz will talk about their book, play klezmer music, and provide food from Eastern European Jewish recipes. Strom, a graduate of Crawford High School in San Diego, now living in Manhattan, will play violin and Schwartz will sing Jewish folk songs.
Both Yiddish and klezmer began in the Alsace-Lorraine region between modern France and Germany in the 11th Century, says Strom. They later spread to Eastern Europe, where klezmer gained its widest popularity. During his 1981 trip Strom says he learned about klezmer from Gypsies in Moldova, the surrounding Carpathian Mountains, and other regions. Only a few Gypsies are Jews, but their lives on the edges of mainstream society gave the two communities similarities, says Strom.
People think of the Jews of Eastern Europe as Hasidim, who use dance and music in an attempt to get closer to God. But most Hasidic Jews, according to Strom, have moved to Israel or Brooklyn since the end of World War II. He portrayed their lives in his 1993 book The Hasidim of Brooklyn. "I did discover in Hungary a Hasidic melody previously unknown in the outside world," says Strom.
Elizabeth Schwartz met her husband after a career in blues and rock-and-roll singing. She became a movie-studio executive in Hollywood, "complete with the button-down suits." She and Strom have been married for seven and a half years. "I came to klezmer late," she says. "At first I knew only a few swear words in Yiddish. But I have become an artist again after meeting Yale."
Schwartz sings Jewish folk songs in Yiddish and Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews. She has performed throughout the U.S. and in most Eastern European countries mentioned in A Wandering Feast. "One thing I wanted to do was learn the recipes for the Jewish food Yale had eaten on his first trip," says Schwartz.
After singing at Dor Hadash, Schwartz will serve such dishes as a Romanian almond macaroon that is "crunchy and sweet almost to the point of being candy." Romanian dishes sometimes have in them an Ottoman Turkish influence, according to Schwartz. "I have two opposite Polish recipes, too," she says. "The first is a sweet spread called kutia. The second is sour pickle soup. It is full of kosher dills, yet mellow, creamy, and garlicky."
One dish Schwartz will not serve at Dor Hadash is the Hungarian dessert flodni. "It takes two or three days to prepare," she says. Flodni is made of sweet dough and sweet wine. It has three layers: one poppy seed, one apple, and one walnut. Schwartz searched the U.S. a long time before finding a flodni recipe. "But when I went to Budapest, I found good ones in almost every kosher bakery," she says.
-- Joe Deegan
A Wandering Feast, with Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz
Sunday, November 21
3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Congregation Dor Hadash
4858 Ronson Court
Cost: $20, $5 for children
Info: 858-268-3674 or www.dorhadash.org