Saturday, June 22, 2013
Staying at relatively-upscale hotels abroad, you can depend on having CNN International and BBC International for something broadcast in English. Even though you can't find a Mets score if your life depended on it, I still turn these channels on for a strangely-accented touch of home. As a result, my scant knowledge of the latest cavortings of Hollywood starlets and New York fashion models is at an even lower ebb than usual. These channels seem to have more interest in a Kosovan than a Kardashian. Therefore, I'm hearing a lot of international stuff, even about countries which have few good restaurants in New York. This has led me to recognize that the Russians are the Republicans of international politics. We know that Vladimir Putin grew up in the KGB, mastering deception, intrigue and dishonesty. Possibly, disguise was another subject that the KGB taught him, which leads me to ask, "Has anyone ever seen Vladimir Putin and John Boehner together at the same time?"
We returned to the Sofia's grand synagogue for Saturday morning services. In spite of the bright picture yesterday from a leader of the community, we found only a dozen adult Jewish men, two above a quorum (minyan), at prayer. The grand sanctuary was not used, but instead we were in a small prayer room, about 20' by 30', with a section for the women curtained off. In fact there were almost as many local women as men, but, of course, they don't count or, slightly more politely expressed, they are not counted.
I was at a great disadvantage throughout the service, although its contours were familiar to me. The prayer book was entirely in Hebrew, with no prompts, transliterations, translations or footnotes in English. The prayers and all spoken commentary were in Hebrew with a tiny smattering of Bulgarian. There were no interjections of psychological insights or contemporary analogies. I spent the time flipping through the pages of the prayer book looking for the familiar words of the Kaddish, the prayer of mourning, which I continue to recite for my mother, sure to occur somewhere during the service. I found several versions, and, to insure that I used the hometown favorite version when the right time came, I piously poked the man sitting next to me, pointed to a page and asked "Is this your Kaddish?" In only mildly-accented English, he replied, "I don't know; I don't read Hebrew." I finally found a usable version of the Kaddish, but the rapid chanting rate of the conversant congregants left me far behind when the time to recite arrived.
My greatest disadvantage at this service, as my fellow West End Synagogue members will appreciate, was the absence of room to roam, since I am a devoted shul walker. That is, I spend most of a Saturday service perambulating, schmoozing, joshing, carping and often simply annoying the more observant attendees. The small space of the prayer room, filled with tables, chairs and a podium, would not allow for such wandering, and, even if I could circulate, the only people I could target I had just seen at breakfast and would see again for hours at a time for the next 10 days or so. It's not the same as catching up with friends and acquaintances whom I might have missed for weeks, or might miss for weeks to come.
The rest of the day, America's Favorite Epidemiologist and I separated from the group and spent most of the time in the company of Nikolay V., his wife and 5-year old daughter, Sofia residents. I first met Nikolay in the mid-1990s, when he was the graduate school roommate of a young friend of mine. After graduation, which I attended as the honorary older relative for both young men, Nikolay worked in New York, London and Tokyo before returning to Bulgaria to serve in high government posts. A few years ago, he rejoined the private sector.
First, he took me to the family dentist to glue my tooth back in for the second time. The young lady dentist was very careful, shaped things a little for a better fit and charged me some amount that one day I will see translated into dollars on a credit card statement. The young Greek male dentist did not charge me, but we saw what the results were. I thanked her and bid goodbye in several languages that had no relationship to Bulgarian, before Nikolay and I retrieved my young bride from the hotel and drove off to meet his wife and daughter at Sofia's newest and largest indoor shopping mall. With the hot temperature, this was a practical choice for spending some time.
Later, we went to dinner at the Panorama, atop the Kempinski Hotel, one of the finest and most luxurious restaurants in the country. Don't miss it if someone else is paying.
Monday, June 24, 2013
We had a busy and tiring couple of days, with a lot of time spent on the bus seeing far more of Bulgarian countryside than most of us had bargained for. However, in the town of Samokov, nearly due south of Sofia, we visited the beautifully-restored 19th-century mansion of a Jewish merchant family, actually the smallest of three that they owned. The government restored the property as a national legacy without any religious bent. In dramatic contrast, immediately adjoining the mansion was a deserted synagogue, built at about the same time as the mansion. The synagogue fell into disuse at the end of WW II, when the Communists came to power, and, while Bulgarian Jews mostly survived though living under a Nazi ally, they left for Israel and points west by the thousands soon after the war. Samokov also holds a lovely mosque, now operating as a simple museum and performance space.
We went to Sofia's central cemetery, which has sections for each major religion. Because of the overall integrated character of the cemetery, the Jewish section was mostly spared anti-Semitic vandalism during the unfriendly decades under Fascist and Communist rule. The cemetery only dates back to the late 19th-century, which also meant that it was generally orderly and the tombstones were not weathered beyond comprehension. The inscriptions in a variety of languages, our Bulgarian-Jewish guide is multi-lingustic, and symbols carved into the stone, told fascinating stories. Not only the Jewish section offered interesting sights. Several newer graves in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic sections used modern photo-engraving techniques on the tombstones. I saw portrayals of a youngish man standing in front of his van, and at least two showing the decedent sitting at a table with booze and a cigarette in hand. A bottle of Johnny Walker was clearly reproduced on one of stones.
We drove high onto the mountains southwest of Sofia to visit the monastery at Rila, an enormous complex which contains the single most-decorated church I have ever seen. I must pause to apologize for the absence of any visual evidence of our explorations. I took some pictures along the way with my smartyphone, but some subtle interplay of hardware and software between my phone and the computers I have been using to record these observations has left me wordy and pictureless.
Today, we drove to the extreme northern edge of Bulgaria, to Vidin, on the banks of the Danube, directly across from Roumania. The town has examples of Roman, Bulgarian, Turkish, Communist and modern architecture, a microcosm of Bulgarian history. Notable was the ruins of a Jewish synagogue, once grand and now rubble-filled with scant hope for resurrection to any purpose.
Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Bye-bye Bulgaria, hello Macedonia. After about four hours on the bus and an uneventful border crossing, we got to Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. In a strange way, Macedonia reminds me of Israel in the very denials of its existence by some of its neighbors, particularly Greece and Bulgaria. Both claim that even the name of the country is inappropriate, because whatever or wherever Macedonia was, it was theirs. Greek maps label this land as FYROM, Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia.
Allow me to backtrack a moment. While the border crossing and the bus ride were uneventful for everyone else, drinking a Coke Zero (more common that a Coke Light in these parts) at a rest stop near the border was sufficient to make my Bulgarian-glued tooth fall out, lasting about four times longer than its Greek-glued predecessor.
Our luxurious hotel is plopped down in the middle of the Turkish (Muslim) quarter, surrounded by twisting alleyways full of cafes and jewelry shops. Several minarets are easily seen from our room's window, and the amplified call to prayer is heard throughout the day. The genuiness of the neighborhood is more than offset by the regime's aggressive development of the city center, at the Stone Bridge. In just the last few years, and continuing, the most improbable statues and buildings are going up, in this poor country. Obviously to counter the antagonism of its neighbors Macedonia, at least the entrenched political elite, has been inflating its history to grandiose scale. Huge statues of Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great and Alexander's mother (in four poses) are placed in the middle of a large plaza, each surrounded by dancing waters illuminated by colored lights at dusk. But, it doesn't stop there. Near the Stone Bridge itself is a seemingly-exact replica of the Charles Bridge in Prague. Around the corner is a copy of the Arc de Triomphe. It's worse than Las Vegas. Buildings evoking other great edifices are under construction.
On the other hand, the government (actually the left-wing predecessor to the current regime) built a credible Holocaust Museum just a few feet from the Kitsch Parade. That's significant because Macedonia lost almost all (98%) of its Jews. However, instead of simply moving on, as other countries have done, Macedonia recovered stolen Jewish property and used the funds (maybe not all) to create the museum and sponsor related Jewish activities. Now, here's where it gets interesting. Bulgaria proudly proclaims (and we heard it repeated a couple of days ago) that it saved "its" Jews. That's true. But, in 1941, Hitler turned over Macedonia and Thrace to Bulgaria, its fascist ally. In 1943, Bulgarian police and army units rounded up all the Jews in Macedonia and Thrace, packed them into cattle cars and sent them to Treblinka for extermination. Over 7,000 Macedonian Jews and 4,000 Thracian Jews died. This distinction between "us" and "them", our Jews and their Jews, my people and the others, seems to be characteristic of the Balkan mindset. One modern, young, educated Bulgarian woman that we met explained that her grandparents were born in Hungary, her parents were born in Hungary and she was born in Hungary, but they all are and were Bulgarian. In Madedonia, we met two young men, one identifying as Jewish, the other as Muslim, both though proclaiming that they were "ethnic Albanians." This nationalism was rife; I heard it in each of the three countries that we have visited. No one spoke of a neighboring country with an ounce of admiration or affection. Last year at this time, we were in Jordan and Israel, where we heard people saying a few nice things about their neighbors. I don't underestimate the divisions between those particular Arabs and Israelis, but, at least, they chose not to piss on each other in public.
Friday, June 28, 2013
Another long bus ride and border crossing yesterday brought us to Ioannina, Greece, the spiritual center of this trip. Ioannina, a city of about 120,000 in northwest Greece has a beautiful natural setting, on a large lake with mountains behind it. Our hotel room provides us a great view of this. Again, though, it was Jewish stuff, not the landscape that brought us here, but I'm running out of steam, and you likely patience, so I'll pick up the thread later.
I've not seen a tangible copy of the New York Times or the International Herald Tribune so far on this trip. However, whenever I'm able to get to a hotel's computer, or the rarer moments when the alchemy allows my smartyphone to link to anything, I read NYTimes.com. So, I was sad to read the following obituary. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/23/arts/sam-most-who-helped-bring-the-flute-into-the-jazz-mainstream-dies-at-82.html?hpw
I knew Sam Most briefly at CCNY, when I staged a coup and took over as president of the college's Modern Jazz Society. I was assisted by a weird guy named Arnie, who looked like a young Lou Jacobi, not Derek Jacobi, and had a beautiful Negro wife (the most polite description at the time). Arnie was friendly with Sam and other jazz musicians, and the three of us discussed holding a concert at the college featuring Sam. As an interesting aside, I should point out that Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs got his start promoting events at City College more than 30 years later, even though he was not a student. Most notoriously, he advertised a celebrity charity basketball on December 28, 1991 that drew thousands of fans, who pushed into a small lobby and down a small staircase, resulting in the death of nine people, and injuries to 29 others. According to the New York Times afterwards, "Questions were raised about how City College could have approved the event, whether the promoters were adequately prepared, and whether the Police Department moved quickly enough to stop the disturbance." The ensuing law suits did not inhibit the growth of Mr. Combs's career in music, fashion, on Broadway and almost anywhere where flash substitutes for talent. By contrast, we never held the Sam Most concert and my career as an impressario morphing into an icon never got started.
What I recall about my conversations with Sam, who was acknowledged as the first notable jazz flutist, was the muted bitterness that he felt towards Herbie Mann, the then far better-known jazz flutist, who achieved great success playing Latin jazz, an opportunity that Sam claimed had first been presented to him. At this time, Sam was living in a rundown SRO (single room occupancy) building somewhere between City College and Columbia University, a short distance in geography only. In the following decades, Mann continued as a popular figure in jazz, leading different groups and turning out many recordings, while Sam retreated to working as a sideman in Hollywood and Las Vegas. R.I.P. Sam.