Tag Archives: Poland

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Riz Ahmed, Immigration, Suketu Mehta and me, Identity Politics, and Varun and Sidharth’s “shining future”

21 Sep

riz-ahmedRiz Ahmed is the first man of Asian descent to win an acting Emmy Getty Images

Suketu Mehta’ conclusions in “This Land is Their Land” (see: Suketu Mehta in Foreign Policy addendum, whole text) echo some of my points on immigration in Greece, Britain, U.S. and everywhere (see: It’s immigration, “stupid”: the United States’ best-kept secret…streams of thought on a hot Sunday afternoon).

Me:

“It’s when immigrant/migrants/refugees are leaving that you should worry.

“My often-stated opinion that the West has both the resources and the historical obligation to take in every-body that needs and wants to come still holds.  That the European Union’s migration agreement with Turkey marked people fleeing a country in the condition of Afghanistan’s as “economic migrants” was a scandal.  But when you’ve got a problem with Poles — whit-er, better-educated, harder-working, more Christian, cuter, better-mannered and less binge-drinking than you — then you really do have a problem…

polish-scum

“America’s best-kept secret, despite what trailer trash Donald Trump and his crew tell you, is that immigrants are a self-selecting group of already highly motivated people who are connected and aware enough to have heard that things are better where you are.  And they’re not coming to take that from you; they’re coming to improve it.  They’re the A-list crew that crashes your party because they’ve heard your parties are the ones to crash and in the process makes them even more of the hottest ticket in town.  It’s a self-fufilling, auto-re-perpetuating process.

“New York, in other words.”

“Olympian Zeus, king of the gods, will tear your head off if you’re unwelcoming to the stranger — or worse, for a Greek, make you ugly — so you better watch out. He comes in disguise to test you. Like the angels to Abraham.”

“So…wooops…there they are. Here they come! They’ve arrived. And they’ve instantly made Greece a more interesting place. And interesting is strong. And strength is freedom.”

And Mehta:

“Countries that accept immigrants, like Canada, are doing better than countries that don’t, like Japan. But whether Trump or May or Orban likes it or not, immigrants will keep coming, to pursue happiness and a better life for their children. To the people who voted for them: Do not fear the newcomers. Many are young and will pay the pensions for the elderly, who are living longer than ever before. They will bring energy with them, for no one has more enterprise than someone who has left their distant home to make the difficult journey here, whether they’ve come legally or not. And given basic opportunities, they will be better behaved than the youth in the lands they move to, because immigrants in most countries have lower crime rates than the native-born. They will create jobs. They will cook and dance and write in new and exciting ways. They will make their new countries richer, in all senses of the word. The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.[My emphases]

Was that one of the subtexts or even the skeletal structure of “The Night of…”, the brilliant mini-series and incredible ethnographic essay on New York from HBO for which Ahmed won his Emmy: good, criminally uninclined, son of hard-working Pakistani immigrant parents from Jackson Heights, with …a shining shining future
Sadda bright si (see full video at bottom), gets led to his doom by decadent white girl? or is he a good Muslim boy led astray by Hindu seductress disguised as lawyer who then screws herself in the process?  (I have to admit that the sexual scratch-marks on the back of Ahmed’s character, Naz, that come to light in one courtroom scene put me in mind of the Gita Govinda.)  Or more misogynist than that even: that women — period. — are trouble?

‘The Lovers Radha and Krishna in a Palm Grove’; miniature painting from the ‘Tehri Garhwal’ <i>Gita ­Govinda</i> (Song of the Cowherds), Punjab Hills, kingdom of Kangra or Guler, circa 1775–1780

Some of the frustrating contradictions of identity politics in the Washington Post‘s Riz Ahmed makes history as the first South Asian man to win an Emmy acting award.  If Riz Ahmed wants to not be type-cast as a Muslim or South Asian man every time he gets a role, but to eventually just play a character called “Dave”, then he’s going to need his fans’ help and have them not get apoplectically happy because he’s the first “Asian” (whatever that means) to win an Emmy, but because he’s a great actor who won an Emmy.

In the meantime, tabrik.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Correction…”: See, nobody knows when Tishabuv is.

31 Jul

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Sorry; I couldn’t resist.  I wrote a few posts about the observation of Tisha B’av (or Tishabuv) a few years ago during the Romney campaign, which I’m reposting below, and the initial date confusion here seemed to confirm my, upon rereading, slightly snarky take on the observance.

I know I offended the website Jewish London (see below) when I wrote those posts, the writer of which felt personally attacked.  I certainly hope I haven’t offended the folks at Kehila Kedosha, the shul of the Jewish community of Jiannena, my mother’s hometown, to which I feel intimately connected (see an old Purim post, also below).

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Tisha B’Av?

Sorry, but it’s pretty funny that Romney’s trip has made of Tisha B’Av such a central metaphor for contemporary Israeli politics and the problematics of Jewish conscience (see previous post).  In old Ashkenazi humour — at least as I know it from Brooklyn — Tisha B’Av, Ti-shabuv in Yiddish pronunciation, is used ironically because it’s such an obscure holiday that no one ever knows when it is.

“When is he gonna finally paint the kitchen?  Who knows?  At Tishabuv…”

“If you’re waiting for the perfect girl to come along, you’ll be waiting till Tishabuv…”

And the like…

But Beinart’s piece, Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism to Support Israel and Buttress His Own Campaign, is truly beautiful, expressing the best tradition of Jewish moral self-reflection, which time and again has saved them and saved us too, in ways too complex to get into here:

“Sorry, but that largely misses the point. Tisha B’Av is less about steeling Jewish resolve against our enemies than fostering self-reflection about the Jewish misdeeds that allowed those enemies to prevail. The Talmud says that God allowed the Babylonians to destroy the First Temple because the Jews committed idolatry, bloodshed, and sexual sins. Similarly, the Romans are bit players in the Talmud’s intricate explanation of the chain of Jewish sins that led to the Second Temple being destroyed. Among those sins—none of which easily lends itself to a GOP stump speech—are “baseless hatred” among Jews and a concern for ritual stringency so obsessive that it trumps concern for human life. [my emphases]”

What other people, even if they lapse so often and so often tragically, are so honest and clear-eyed about their faults?

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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A reader writes: “Tishabuv?”

(Sorry…only now getting a chance to respond to some of these)

The Arch of Titus in Rome, built to commemorate the Roman suppression of the first Jewish revolt in 70 A.D. (click)

In reference to Jadde posts: “Romney in Israel: How High To Jump?“and “Tisha B’av?,”  “Jewish London” writes:

“it seems appropriate that he should visit on Tisha B’Av, a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people”

Oooooofffff…  This is like teaching…when you’ve spent hours researching and preparing, and then another half hour conducting, a brilliantly detailed and structured, thrillingly executed lesson on participial phrases, only to have one student, while you’re catching your breath right after, ask a question that proves none of the class has understood shit the entire time you were lecturing.

My point was simply that there’s a genre of Ashkenazi jokes, among the many, based on “When is Tishabuv?”  Beinart’s point, “Mitt Romney Misuses Judaism…” is that in the long tradition of Rabbinic and Talmudic learning, Tishabuv has been a time to reflect on why a certain tragedy has struck Jews and not just commemorate that tragedy in a victimized and ad nauseum form.

Yes, brother, “terrible calamities befell the Jewish people” on Tishabuv.  The Second Temple, the One and Only House of God in the One and Only Holy City, was levelled.  Jews were slaughtered in unbelievable numbers.  In trying to figure out whether these events happened as part of the Roman response to the Jewish rebellion of 70 A.D. or that of 135 A.D. — which has never been clear to me — I learned that there’s a trend of Jewish mystical thought that fascinatingly believes all Jewish tragedies occurred, occur and will occur on Tishabuv: the selling of Joseph into slavery; Moses’ shattering of the first tablets at seeing the Jews revert to idolatry; the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian captivity; the destruction of the Second Temple; the first massacre of European Jews at the beginning of the Crusades; the issuing of the Edict of Expulsion from Spain in 1492; the day the first train left for Auschwitz – all become mystically assimilated into Tishabuv.  That’s a tragic and moving idea.  However, I do know that the Roman suppression of the revolt of 135 A.D. was so brutal in its massacre and expulsion of Jews that it’s easy to say that it officially marks the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Tishabuv is also intimately related to Jewish messianic thought.  The revolts themselves were partly inspired by messianic expectations.  And the crushing of those hopes by the greatest cluster of disasters to befall Jews before the Holocaust made Rabbinic thought retreat into the sharpest of all cautions against any such expectations.  This, I suspect, is what marked the final rupture between Christian Jews and the rest of Jewry.  It’s not that Jews didn’t succumb to the temptation again.  Kabbalism is a mystic desire to correct the world that is a barely concealed messianic impulse.  And there was the great fever of messianic ecstasy that swept the Jewish world in the seventeenth century, when Sabbatai Zevi, a rabbi from Smyrna, started declaring himself the Messiah – one of the most fascinating and, in the end, sadly absurdist, episodes in Jewish history.  Zevi, either a con artist or a psychotic, had raised Jewish expectations to such a frenzied pitch, that when he ended up converting to Islam and becoming a ward of the Sultan, it sent shockwaves of psychological distress, not only through Ottoman Jewry, but throughout the entire Jewish world; in fact, due to renewed persecution and massacres at the time in Eastern Europe, the effects on Ashkenazi Jewry may have been even greater than on Sephardim.  The crisis sent the Eastern European Jewish universe careening into two different directions: on the one hand a trend that reemphasized Rabbinical textualism and that eventually responded to the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, the movement out of Germany that attempted to bring European Jewry into the modern world; and on the other, a retreat into the most introverted mysticism, out of which Hasidism, and an even greater immersion in Kabbalistic thought, grew.  To some extent, this split is one that old New York Jews still codedly refer to, whether they know it or not, as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers” (explanation in subsequent post).  See Michal Waszynski’s 1937 film version of S. Ansky’s Dybbuk.  I think there’s no greater primary text of Jewish spiritual impulses and its conflicts.

Lili Liana as Lea, the bride who becomes possessed by the spirit of her wronged beloved on her wedding day to another man, in Waszynski’s 1937 Yiddish film, the Dybbuk. (click)

(Two interesting notes that I’d like to make here.  One is that the Jewish revolts of the early first millennium were partially led by political groups whom we, today, wouldn’t hesitate to compare to, not only the first New England Puritans, but even the Taliban, and who engaged in certain tactics, like the surprise slaughter of masses of innocent civilians that we like to associate with Palestinian “terrorism” – or that of…errrr….Irgun, Haganah, the Stern Gang, Mssrs. Ben Gurion and Begin and all the rest.  The other is that maybe the real basis of Tishabuv jokes is still unconsciously based in messianic expectations, the way older Greek women who, say, have missed a bus, will mumble: “Oy, now we’ll be waiting till the Second Coming.”)

But if “Jewish London” is to understand my point, he needs to better understand the transformation that Tishabuv has undergone in Israel since its founding, because I suspect that, not living among the most vibrant Diaspora communities in the world, Israel is his model.  Obviously, Zionism didn’t need to worry about the Messiah, since it had solved the “Jewish Question,” as must be obvious to anyone who throws even a cursory glance at the Middle East today and sees the peace and happiness in which Jews there live can attest to, and no Messiahs need apply anymore.  Tishabuv had been forgotten by the Jewish Diaspora, reduced to such an obscure holiday that it was the object of humour; I’ve lived most of my life in a city, and worked for a great part of it in an environment, where, believe me, it was impossible to not know that a great, or even just important, Jewish feast was being celebrated or was coming up, and Tishabuv wasn’t one of them.  In Israel, however, the “secular” Jewish state raised Tishabuv to new, official status as a holiday-fast day.  But not as a day of introspection; but as a day to remember, as “Jewish London” puts it, “a day when great calamities befell the Jewish people.”  This is because “calamities” are Israel’s justification for being; it was Israel’s down-payment and it’s still how it pays its mortgage; it’s the currency in which it trades.  And the ignorant Romney’s visit to the Western Wall with Netanyahu or whoever on that day, was just another slimy exchange in that same currency — and, in fact, a dishonour to centuries of Jewish suffering.

But back to the Diaspora, and a time when Judaism hadn’t locked itself into a barricaded nation-state.  More than just self-reflection and introspection, the repeated, century-after-century dashing of Jewish hopes may have generated an even more important element in the Jewish psyche: doubt.  The great Christopher Hitchens, quotes the equally great Rebecca West in his introduction of her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, and her own ruminations about the origins of anti-Semitism:

“West reflects on the virus of anti-Semitism, shrewdly locating one of its causes in the fact that ‘many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews.  They knew only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.’”

That’s why on Easter night, the night of the Resurrection, I always remember to have one, only one, glass of wine that’s offered to the suspicion – the same one born out of the fact that Elijah never actually walks through that open door at Passover — that this whole idea is bullshit.

So what is Tishabuv for (when we know when it is)?  Introspection, moral responsibility, skepticism, doubt and the saving beauty of being eternally able to convert suffering into humour and irony – these last may be the most important — a pretty whole summation of what Jews have given us, given me, at least.

When “Jewish London” can tell me what Israel has given us, he should let us know.  These Days of Awe might be the perfect time to think about that.

 

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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It’s Purim tonight! — something like a letter to my mother…

 

Nicolas_Poussin_E_before_Assuerus_c.1640Esther before Assuereus, Nicolas Poussin, circa 1640 (click)

For Purim this year I’m posting this poem by Greek Jewish poet Joseph Eliya, who was from my mother’s hometown of Jiannena in the northwestern Greek region of Epiros.  (See the tab box on the right for the hundred references to Jiannena and Epiros on the Jadde).

The Jews of Jiannena were Greek-speaking Romaniotes, descendants of the Jewish communities of Greece, the Balkans and Asia Minor that existed since Hellenistic times and that held out culturally against the flood of Spanish-speaking Sephardim that found refuge in the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.  They were called Romaniotes because Romania (the kingdom of the Romans) was what the Byzantines called their polity and what we too – till the early twentieth century – also called ourselves: “Romans” – which it always aggravates me to have to explain.  But it is one of the rich ironies of history that the only inhabitants of Greek lands that stayed faithful to their true name for themselves were Jews, while we sold our souls to the West for the promises and prestige we thought the re-excavated neologism “Hellene” would curry us from the Frangoi.

So Eliya’s native language was Greek, and though he wrote some of the most beautiful translations of Jewish Biblical texts into Modern Greek, particularly one of the Song of Songs and a series of love poems to Rebecca, in a rich, florid, archaic idiom, he also wrote homelier poems in a folksier Jianniotiko style like this one, “something like a letter to his mother” on the occasion of the feast of Purim.

For those who don’t know, Purim is the day that the Esther, the Queen Consort to the Persian King Ahasureus, and her uncle Mordechai, foiled the plans of the king’s evil minister Haman, to have the Jews of the kingdom massacred.  It’s generally celebrated by listening to the book of Esther in synagogue, the Megilla, sending food and giving charity to the poor and dressing up in costume, an aspect of the celebration that may be an interborrowing due to the fact that it tends to fall around Christian Carnival.

Eliya was a poor schoolteacher who died at the young age of thirty, and I believe this poem was written when he was away from his beloved Jiannena, and his beloved mother, on a teaching post in the Macedonian city of Kolkush.  It’s a sad, therefore — and very Epirotiko in that sense and in tone — poem, that’s in sharp contrast to the happiness of the holiday.

This poem also has an added emotional subtext for me.  My mother’s best friend when she was in elementary school was a Jewish girl, Esther — Esther Cohen.  “Astro” they called her, in the Epirotiko diminutive; “Tero” is also another form for the same name.   And as a little girl from a peasant family recently moved to Jiannena from their village in the mountains just to the south, I could tell that her stories about her friendship with Astro were her first lessons in tolerance and difference, whether she would’ve called them that or not (we certainly wouldn’t in our day…I’ll leave them for another post).  And she may have known it even less, but her friendship with Astro may have prepared her for life in New York in ways she was probably never conscious of.  And what she may have been even less conscious of — though maybe I should give her some credit: I do know for sure that my mother’s stories of her friendship with Astro served as my first lessons in decency and openness to those different from you.  Of that there’s no doubt.  So this post is something like a letter to my mother too.

Always they ended in a kind of distracted silence, for she never knew what had happened to her friend during the war: “Τι νά’χει γίνει η Άστρω;” she would mumble.  “What can have happened to Astro?”  And what was strange was that she could’ve found out; there were surviving Jews in Jiannena that she knew and there were even Jewish Jianniotes in New York she could have asked.  But it was like she didn’t want to know.  Even odder, I’ve had several opportunities to find out as well; Kehila Kedosha Jiannena, the Jianniotiko shul in New York on Broome Street has records on the whole community.  But it’s been almost as if I don’t want to know either.

Here is Eliya’s original Greek, with my free verse translation below.

Purim

Purim

(Something like a letter to my mother)

It’s Purim tonight!  The thrill and joy of the great feast!

Light in our souls, and a smile on the lips of all.

And I, my orphaned mother, the refuse of exile*

Waste away in a chill joyless corner.

It’s Purim tonight!  And the synagogues open their arms wide to the faithful children of my ancient people.

And they read again with wonder, from the white parchment, the triumphs of Mordechai and Esther through the ages.

It’s Purim tonight!  Young and old gather at home, at hearth, to hear the Megilla’s** tale.

And I mother – with the burning lament of exile – tearily thumb through my Bible in a lonely corner.

Your son won’t be bringing you candles or flowers from shul*** tonight, mother.  And if your crying is bitter, don’t lament too deeply.  My Fate has been decided, and poverty — poverty, mammele**** – has no feel for sympathy.

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Notes on my translation:

*”Exile” here does not imply political banishment or anything of the sort.  It’s the word “ξενητιά” as Eliya spells it, that’s so central to understanding the Greek and — it probably goes without saying — the Jewish soul, but is so devilishly difficult to translate precisely.  It means absence — absence from the place where one should be, from one’s heart’s homeland.  Through and because of emigration and poverty most often but not always; it’s often something one feels without having had to leave.  The Turkish “kurbet” is the word closest in meaning that I know from another language.

**Not to be disrespectful, but the Megilla, the Book of Esther, is quite long, and is proverbial, in at least Ashkenazi humor, for being tedious and monotonous to listen to — but one bears it.  It’s exactly the same as the Greek term “εξάψαλμος,” the Hexapsalm, a selection of six psalms that is always read at the beginning of Matins and I’m not sure if during other offices, and would be beautiful if correctly and carefully recited according to the rules of Orthodox recitation.  Unfortunately, it’s usually read in an incomprehensible blur of mumbled boredom by the lector or cantor, which actually makes it even more tedious and irritating to sit through.  It’s usually a good time to go out for a cigarette.  I just always thought the similarity was funny.  “Ωχ, τώρα θα’κούσουμε τον εξάψαλμο,” a Greek will say with dread when faced with a berating lecture or kvetch session or someone’s tiring complaint that’s so repetitive you just tune it out, just like a Jewish New Yorker will say: “I really can’t listen to his whole Megilla right now…”

***In the second verse, Eliya uses the Greek word for synagogues and I translated it as such.  In this last verse, he uses a homier, Epirotiko form whose intimacy I felt was better conveyed by “shul.”

****And last but not least, we run into the painful translation issues that are generated by the fact that English is almost completely lacking in a system of diminutive terms of affection, especially compared with the highly elaborate diminutive terminologies of Slavic languages or Yiddish (or I assume Ladino) or even Greek.  At no point in the poem does Eliya refer to his mother as “mother” but rather “my little mother” — “μανούλα’μ” — “manoula’m.”  This is a term of affection used often by Greeks and especially Epirotes to refer to anyone, not just one’s mother, not even necessarily a female (Athenian idiots making fun will darken or double up the “l” to make it sound more northern and Slavic and hickish; for me it’s just more beautiful…); one will say to a young boy or even a friend: “Come here, manoula mou… What’s wrong, manoula mou?”  Just like “mammele” is used in Yiddish.  But I felt that using “mammele” throughout would have sounded too Yiddishy and cute, and so I saved it for that last, most intimate verse, and used mother elsewhere.  After all, this is a poem that above all is an expression of the most Jewish kind of mother-son bond.  But Yiddish and its many beauties is cursed now, by its sudden, dramatic extinction in Europe, and its shadow survival only in American entertainment, with the danger of always lapsing into a default comic tone.  It’s sad.  The translation from the Greek of the last line of the poem, for example: “poverty has no feel for sympathy…” would literally be: “…but poverty doesn’t know from sympathy.”  But then I’d be writing Larry David dialogue.

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FINALLY, I’d like to thank Marcia Haddad Ikonomopoulos for the scan of the Greek text of the poem.  I’m in Athens now, away from my library and couldn’t find it anywhere online.  I wrote to her and within five minutes she had written back to me with both “Purim” and “Esther,” another of Eliya’s poems about the biblical heroine.  She suggested that “Esther” is a poem more appropriate to the happiness of Purim than the melancholy of “Purim.”  Unfortunately, it’s written in a much more difficult, semi-biblical, archaic language that I didn’t have the time to translate.  I promise her however, that as soon as I get a chance I will work on it and post it on the Jadde — out of gratitude to her helping me out for this, and out of gratitude to the one-woman pillar of the Kehila Kadosha Janina community that she is.  I’d also like to thank the whole congregation there for always making me feel so welcome when I attend on Erev Simchas Torah; the rabbi and his stentorian voice, the three young men who lead prayer and are perhaps the community’s most precious resource — let’s see if I remember correctly: Seth, the rabbi’s son, and the brothers Andrew and Ethan, who though they’re from a Sephardic family from Berroia, devote their shabbes and yontif time to energizing this tiny community in need of outside help.  The warmth of the community has always moved me and I’m grateful for both the odd need for Jewishness in my life and the link to my mother and her childhood that they unknowingly provide.  Thank you.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

“Χριστός Ανέστη” — Christ Has Risen — and I’m so damn PROUD…

25 Jan

I swear to God those were the first words — the two most totemic in the Greek language — that instinctively leapt out of my mouth when a very loved cousin of mine in Athens answered her mobile today.

Anastasis_fresco_(Chora_Church)The Resurrection fresco in the church of the Chora in Constantinople (click)

I don’t know what will happen.  Tomorrow, me…and Greeks all over the world will wake up sober — or hungover — and have to figure out how this thing is actually going to work.

But one thing all of us need to understand is the power of language and discourse.  By “discourse” I mean the idea and interpretations that people give and ascribe to the phenomena in the world around them; that discourse is “poetic” and a process of “poiesis”— not poetic like Byron or Baudelaire — but poetic in the original Greek sense of “making” or “creating.”  What that means is that DISCOURSE: what people say about things, how people talk about and interpret reality, the opinions and analyses of that reality, are not an either accurate or inaccurate view of that reality but a code and a language that create that reality.  This is simple stuff.  Intro to Deconstruction.  Foucault 101.  And nowhere is it truer than in the “game of chicken” played in the arena of political economics.

So, like I said in GREEK ELECTIONS,” if a critical mass believes a hypothesis is true — or just possible — then it becomes true; then actions and gestures on the ground, and praxeis in the “real,” physical world will create that reality, poetically.  And if we continue to bolster — worse, think we deserve — the Troika’s Neo-Liberal discourse of exploitation, then it will continue.  If we support a discourse, if we believe that an alternative to that reality is possible, then it will emerge.  It only took some workers in a Gdańsk shipyard to say: “I’m not gonna pretend that I believe this shit anymore”; it only took a heroic Gorbachev to say: “This isn’t working”, for the most horrific political economic system that has ever been inflicted on humanity, and that seemed as eternal and as immoveable as Everest, to come crashing down like a house of cards from one day to the next.

This will work, if we let it.  They’ll feed us a language of fear, which if we swallow, will ruin us.  If we simply keep in mind: “That’s what you think — and want us to think — but we won’t,” change will come.

ALSO, we, as ROMANS, should be immensely proud that so many other left-leaning, anti-austerity parties from the rest of the European periphery: Spain, Portugal — and even from Prussia itself and other parts of Merkelstan — came to be part of these elections.  If it gives them only a tiny drop of optimism, if it makes them feel like: “Yes, we can say ‘No!’ too”, it will be a by far greater gift to them than anything else we supposedly gave the West in the past.

YESSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia…

31 Aug

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Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters (click)

See this story from the Times: Putin Urges Talks on Greater Autonomy for Eastern Ukraine,” which I’m pretty sure was his objective to begin with: force a crisis to get so bad and then negotiate for autonomy.  What repercussions that will have for Ukraine’s future or what patterns it’ll set for other areas (like the Baltic countries — Putin’s most vociferous critics — or Central Asia) of the former Soviet/Russian sphere that contain large Russian minorities has to be seen.

Belgravia Dispatch had an excellent and frighteningly prescient opinion piece on the escalating Ukrainian crisis back in March:  What To Do–And Not Do–About Ukraine — which, unfortunately, the whole world ignored and whose worse case scenarios have now come true, including the annexation of Crimea and what I think it is now safe to call a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces and not just a rebel movement of local Russian separatists.

One important point from me, first and up front: the West can rush to get tough on Russia if it wants to; I can guarantee you that Russians are tougher.  This is a point that Gregory Djerejian on Belgravia makes and one that has certainly manifested itself in exactly the way he predicted.  We need to remember that this generation of Russians that has come of age since the momentous changes of the nineties are the first generation in that people’s history, perhaps, to not have been dragged to hell and back at least once in their lifetime.  They’re proud — rightfully, I feel — of their capacity for survival.  This isn’t an expression of support on my part for Putin’s cheap machismo: my loathing for him and his posturing, his whole persona and everything he represents — including the craven adulation of him that is Russians at their most infantile — is something I’ve written on endlessly.  It’s just stating a fact that the West should be aware of: they’re not going to be pushed around.  Think hard before you put them in a position where they have to prove that to you…because they will.  So treating Russia like a pariah will only play into Putin’s hand.  That’s, in fact, what has happened; the whole country has fallen in line behind him and anything like the РОССИЯ БЕЗ ПУТИНА — “Russia without Putin” — protests of two years ago would be considered, in a spontaneous act of socially unanimous censoring, pure treason these days with no one even daring to publicly air such opinions in the current heady climate of nationalist excitement.

The other point is one that Belgravia makes right off the top of his post with the following quotes:

Yet, Kievan Russia, like the golden days of childhood, was never dimmed in the memory of the Russian nation. In the pure fountain of her literary works anyone who wills can quench his religious thirst; in her venerable authors he can find his guide through the complexities of the modern world. Kievan Christianity has the same value for the Russian religious mind as Pushkin for the artistic sense: that of a standard, a golden measure, a royal way.”

–Georgy Fedotov

“The problem of the origin of the first Russian state, that of Kiev, is exceedingly complex and controversial.”

–Nicholas Riasanovksy

“Without Ukraine, Russia can remain an empire, but it cannot remain Russia.”

–Title of a recent article in Russkoye Obozreniye, a Russian periodical.

This was one of the first things you would’ve realized if you were on the ground in Russia this July and August like I was (but despite my suggestions to several industry friends and acquaintances, no Western journalists seemed to think that the “story” was not just in Donetsk or Luhansk, but in living rooms and at kitchen tables in Moscow and Petersburg and countless other places): that is that Russians simply don’t consider Ukraine a foreign country or foreign culture.  I’m not making a judgement call on whether that’s right or wrong or imperialist on their part or not; judging such sentiments “ethically” or putting them through the political-correctness grinder is pointless and counter-productive.  It’s just that their historical experiences have led Russians — and arguably, till a certain point, had led most of the people who now call themselves Ukrainians — to think that way: that they were both intimately and inseparably related, and there’s as much point in calling those feelings “wrong” as there would be in your therapist telling you that your neuroses are “wrong.”  And so Russians were/are, in fact, in shock that the rest of the world thinks it has no role to play in Ukraine or no vital interests in political developments there.  The reason that this doesn’t seem to register in Western consciousness is a result of the fact that the West is so immersed in thinking along an ethnicity-based nation-state model of discrete national units with clear, essentialized, historical trajectories, that it is incapable of seeing nationalism as a construct: flexible, malleable, unclear, even “made-up-as-you-go-along” if you will — so that Russians, and the new Ukrainian nationalists, can have radically opposing views on what their relationship is, without either of them being “wrong.”  As brilliant a historian as Timothy Snyder, author of the devastating Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin is capable of writing in The New Republic this past May, in an article called: The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything  the following:

“Ukraine does of course have a history. The territory of today’s Ukraine can very easily be placed within every major epoch of the European past. Kiev’s history of east Slavic statehood begins in Kiev a millennium ago. Its encounter with Moscow came after centuries of rule from places like Vilnius and Warsaw, and the incorporation of Ukrainian lands into the Soviet Union came only after military and political struggles convinced the Bolsheviks themselves that Ukraine had to be treated as a distinct political unit. After Kiev was occupied a dozen times, the Red Army was victorious, and a Soviet Ukraine was established as part of the new Soviet Union in 1922.”

Snyder’s history — “of course” — with its suggestion of a straight, uninterrupted historical lineage of “Ukrainian-ness” from Kievan Rus’ to modern Ukraine is just patent bullsh*t, and is one that simply chooses, in the glossing-over-of-breaks-and-ruptures fashion and in the fabricating of false unities that nationalist narratives always engage in, to ignore several fundamental, historical realities: one, the fact that the Russian principalities that rose up in the northern forests of what we now consider the Russian heartland after Kiev’s demise at the hands of the Mongol-Tatars — Vladimir, Pskov, Novgorod and later Moscow and its unifying power — were more highly conscious of their political descent from early mediaeval Kiev and were, in fundamental ways, far more its true political and cultural and spiritual heirs than any “Ukrainian” polity could even try to claim to be until the twentieth century; two, that most of what is now Ukraine had already been part of Russia for more than two centuries before the Bolshevik revolution; and that, three, before that, the western quarter of it, maybe, was Polish and then Austrian, while much of the rest — through “every major epoch of the European past…” — was just a frontier no-man’s-land, a coming-and-going corridor for nomadic peoples either conquering or fleeing someone else.  (You can find a place for each and every corner of the world in “every major epoch of the European past” if you want to; that doesn’t mean it was central or even remotely important to that past.)  Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia, while Snyder’s quote taken on its own makes it sound like an eternal Ukraine, populated by a people who had always thought of themselves as solidly and eternally Ukrainian, was just subjugated by the Soviet Union in the twenties.*  So it ignores all the ways that “Ukrainian-ness,” a term that did not even come into common usage until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the product of a complex negotiation and mixture of different sub-identities converging from different directions in those fertile flatlands and has always, in that sense, been bound up in a million intricate ways with the history of its larger kin-nation to the north.  But we’re making the same mistake I believe we made in Yugoslavia: seeing the “nation” as something essential and essentialized, first and foremost; and secondly, assuming that the nationalism of the powerful player — in this case Russia, in the Yugoslav case, the Serbs — is pathological, inherently oppressive and dangerous, while ignoring the fact that the nationalism of the “little” — in these cases, Ukraine, and in Yugoslavia, that poor, powerless victim, Croatia — can not only be just as venomous and illiberal and murderous, but is often more so because it has a point to prove or a chip on its shoulder.  But the West is so in love with what by now should be the completely discredited Wilsonian idea of “self-determination” (while simultaneously supporting the “inviolability” of national borders**) that it fails to see that dark truth.  I’ll probably need to get into greater historical detail in another post in order to clarify a bit better.

(And now I’m ready for the barrage of accusations that all I ever do is knee-jerk defend my Orthodox brethren, but that’s cool; it’s just par for the course.)

History, climate, geography have always conspired to isolate Russia.  And, in a sense, the pathos that drives Russian history and is the force behind her brilliant civilizational achievements (and, yes, her imperialism too), is  that of a constant, heroic struggle to break out of that isolation and find her place in the larger world.  Yacking on, like Snyder, about how Ukraine is somehow “essential” and central to the very idea of Europe (when, ironically, it’s very name means “the edge”…the edge of what? of Russia/Poland…the EDGE of Europe…what an elevation of status Snyder grants Podunk…), while treating Russia as dispensable or as a dangerous threat that needs to be hemmed around and contained — isolated again — is criminally unfair to Russians (if not to Putin and his cronies) and will end up backfiring on the West in ways it hasn’t even begun to anticipate.  Russia is not dispensable.  Nor is she to be ignored or patronized.  We think of her in those terms and the results will just get uglier and messier.

bloodlandsweb

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* There’s even a subtle subtext to the narrative of the Revolution and subsequent Civil War that Snyder gives us, which suggests some kind of identity between Ukrainian-ness and White Russian resistance to the Bolsheviks, when, in fact, I think that if the White Russian movement can be said to have had an ethnic or regional “base,” it was among the Russians of eastern Ukraine (the grandfathers of these very separatists of today? I wouldn’t know…) and the neighboring parts of southeastern Russia that stretch to the Caucasus.  The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)

** The contradiction between the ideas of self-determination for peoples and the inviolability of borders — a contradiction that can’t be avoided if we keep thinking in terms of the EBNS (ethnicity-based nation-state) — has plagued do-gooder Western policies in all parts of the non-Western world from Wilson and Paris till Helsinki and still does.  And this despite the fact that its randomness and practical inapplicability has been made so obviously clear on so many occasions: if Croatia can secede from Yugoslavia, why can’t Krajina Serbs secede from Croatia?  If Ukraine deserves — has an inalienable right — to be a country independent of Russia, then why doesn’t its overwhelmingly Russian eastern parts have an inalienable right to be independent of Ukraine?

As for where it all started, Crimea, I hate to report to outraged Western observers that of all parts of Ukraine, Crimea was always the area with a practically non-existent Ukrainian element in its population.  Not that the March “referendum” was not a total farce.  But if any people have a right to Crimea and to feeling displaced and dispossessed it’s Crimean Tatars — not Ukrainians.  Hell, just to play Devil’s advocate…the millenia of Greek presence on the northern shores of the Black Sea, and the numerous Greek mercantile communities that existed in Crimea and around the Sea of Azov until the twentieth century (Chekhov attended a Greek elementary school in Taganrog), even give us a technically greater ethnic claim to Crimea than it does to Ukrainians.

In any event, I knew as far back as the early nineties, that sooner or later Russia would find a way to take Crimea back and am actually surprised it took so long.  The drang nach süden impulse that drove Russian imperial policy for hundreds of years — the equivalent of American “Manifest Destiny” — south into Ukraine and on to the Black Sea, with the ultimate objective of a re-Orthodoxed Constantinople and Russia as a Mediterranean and world super-power with access to India and the East, was not a desire for the rich soils of the Dnieper valley.  It was a need for access to warm weather ports.  Crimea thus became a crucial site for the base and deployment of Russian and then Soviet naval power and there was no way that it was just going to be handed over so casually.  Ask the United States to just hand over Camp Pendleton and Twenty-Nine Palms, the naval bases at Coronado and Loma Catalina, along with the whole San Diego metropolitan area, to Mexico.  Or just grant Hawaii its independence.  Or give it to Japan.  Or try, even, just to get the U.S. to close its base in Okinawa!  It’s the same thing.  Is this an apology for imperialism?  No.  It’s just a statement of a historical and political reality that can’t be ignored.  Or one that it’s necessarily the West’s business to “fix.”

Note: The Ukrainian national case or argument may have one key point that is rarely discussed and is surprising to me in that sense.  I’m not certain of it, but it may be that eastern Ukraine acquired its overwhelming Russian ethnic character because it was the region hardest hit and left most depopulated by Lenin and Stalin’s murderous collectivization disaster, and that many Russians were settled there afterwards when the region was turned into one of the industrial heartlands of the Soviet Union.  This is seriously guessing on my part and someone with greater knowledge should be sought out for a definitive answer.

A corollary to that is the hypocrisy of western Ukrainians, the most fanatical nationalists and perhaps the most extreme element on the Ukrainian political stage today (whom Putin uses, of course, to paint all Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and Nazi collaborators), who did not suffer any of the horrors of collectivization and famine because they were under Polish rule at the time — not always so benign either — and only became part of the Soviet Union in 1945.  Yet, they use those events as some of the main tools in their anti-Russian arsenal.  Furthermore, just as many Russians suffered during those violent socioeconomic processes and it’s a slightly cheap appropriation to call them a purely Ukrainian set of humanitarian disasters.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Litvaks and Galizianers

12 Oct

Back in a previous post/response to “Jewish London‘s” comment on “Tishabuv” I made a reference to the difference or self-categorization among Eastern European Jews as “Litvaks” and “Galizianers.”  Here’s a map of Europe in 1648.

(have to click)

Between the beginning of the Crusades and the end of the religious wars in the German states in around 1648, a giant wave of the majority of the world’s Jews moved eastwards from German-speaking lands to Eastern Europe, preserving their form of late medieval German (Yiddish, which just means “Jewish”) in their new countries, like Spanish Jewry preserved late medieval Castillian (Ladino, but which Sephardim themselves usually refer to as “Kastelyano”) throughout the Ottoman sphere and general Mediterranean area after being expelled from Spain in 1492.  What I’d like to illustrate with the maps above and below is that no Jew ever actually migrated and settled in Russia.  The vast majority of Central European Jewry moved to the united Kingdom-Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, because Poland was perhaps the most progressive and open and tolerant state in Europe at the time and welcomed them gladly.  Jews later ended up in Russia and Austria when Poland was finally partitioned between those two empires and Prussia in the eighteenth century.  Otherwise, what Jew in his right mind would have gone to live in Russia?

(click)

The term “Litvak” refers to those Jews who lived in those territories of northeastern Poland centered around Vilna, Minsk, Bialystok and eventually Warsaw — regions more advanced or somehow “modern” than the rest of the Polish kingdom.  “Galizianer” refers to those Jews who lived in the southeastern areas of Poland — and after Partition — Austria and Russian Ukraine.

“Litvak” refers to Lithuania obviously, but mostly derived its prestige as an appellation from the central role of Vilna* in rabbinical and Jewish scholarship; as a reverse honour-indication of that role, Salonika was known as the Sephardic Vilna.  Galicia, what’s now southeastern Poland and Western Ukraine, roughly round the twin urban poles of Cracow and Lwow became, and remained into the twentieth century, one of the most overpopulated and impoverished parts of Europe — so much for enlightened Austrian rule.

One can take it from there in obvious ways: Litvak was more modern and sophisticated; Galizianer was more backwards and isolated; Litvak was more open to the modernizing influences of the German Jewish Enlightenment; the Galiizianer was more closed and isolated in his shtetl life; the tragically aborted explosion of Yiddish-language literature and theater and cinema in the early twentieth century was Litvak — with its center now moved to Warsaw; many of its themes, however, were the tales and mysticism and Hasidic other-worldliness of the Galizian south.  Opposites but complimentary.  Sholem Aleichem was a Litvak who wrote about Galizianer themes.  Renaissance and Enlightenment Jewish scholarship was Litvak; klezmer and Der Dybuk and Fiddler on the Roof are Galizia.  Helen, the receptionist for take-out orders at my dad’s coffee shop in the 70’s used to say she wouldn’t eat the store’s pastrami and corned beef because they were delivered by a “dirty Galizianer,” but she and an insurance salesman who used to have lunch there — and kinda used to hit on her — used to kid about he would never trust a “sneaky Litvak” like her; by that time, both of them were joking.

The differences mean even less today, except for that, due to New York Hasidim, Galizianer Yiddish is the most alive form of the language.  But even young New York Jewish kids know what the two words imply.  For what that was worth…

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*Lithuanians — yes, I get hits from Lithuania — please do not write me and tell me the name of the city is Vilnius.  For Jewish purposes it’s Vilna; for Polish, Wilno.  See: Names: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Note: Roumanian Jews and “Bessarabtsy” (Moldavian) Jews were kind of a separate category, though I suspect that linguistically and culturally they were pretty similar to Galizianers, aside from a reputation for being especially humourous and quick-witted and high-livers and partiers, and for introducing pastrami to New York, a linguistic and culinary kin to pastirma, one of the many ways that Roumania has always been a bridge between Ottoman and Eastern-European-Russian worlds.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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