Troubled thoughts on a trip to Trenchin Slovakia, July 2007

(Note: I wrote this essay 3 years ago but have hesitated to publish it, until now. Why, I have no idea? I had written quite a bit about my trip to rural Slovakia on this very blog here and here. From reading those postings, you could never imagine the kind of conflict the experience awoke in me. Over 3 years later, I'm still sorting through it.)

This week finds me headed to the Slovakia to perform with Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All Stars. We’re slated to perform at the “ethno” music stage of the massive Pohoda music festival along with Boban and Marko Markovic’s amazing brass orchestra. The concept of this stage show is based around a joint recording project we made a few years ago called the “Brotherhood of Brass,” exploring the legion similarities between the Jewish and Rroma musical traditions and the ability of music making to create connection beyond any cultural boundaries. The resulting CD was a minor hit on the World Music scene in Europe, which unlike the States they actually have a World Music scene supported by a eager fan base and media infrastructure. We have toured this show for several summers and working and traveling with these amazing bandsmen has been the experience of a lifetime, let me tell you. From the highest peaks in musical performance and camaraderie to the deepest depths of witnessing anti-Gypsy racism. Quite a ride at any rate, and I always look forward to playing with these cats one more time.

It’s nearly 40 degrees Celsius (well over 100 Fahrenheit) when the taxi driver drops me off at the hotel in Trencin, fully an hour and a half’s drive from the Bratislava airport. I’m feeling ill from lack of sleep and probably the gamey tuna salad served on the Czech Airways flight over, and I actually utilized the airsickness bag provided in the seat pockets for the first time in my life. Now at the “Sport Hotel ostrov Zamarovce” I’m shown my room, which for Eastern standards is quite all right, with a recently renovated and thus fully operative bathroom. But like most of Europe there is no air conditioning like we are quite used to in Texas. The heat is familiar, and with the hotel facing the gently flowing River Van, there are quite a few mosquitoes as well to remind me of summer at home. I make plans to take a short nap and then head into the city center in search of a table fan so that I will be able to sleep in this heat.
After walking for what seems like hours, I locate a supermarket on a major road on the outskirts of town, purchase a nice fan and then head back to the hotel, making note to cut through the old city center to see what I can see. So I’m walking along the central pedestrian zone when I spy one of those handy-for-the-tourists sign posts that says things like “” and "Synogoga>"  Hmmm. Well, by golly, it is Friday evening, shabbes, and all. How cool would it be to daven with the locals in little ol’ Trencin Slovakia?
It has been a long-standing custom of mine that when time in the touring schedule allows, I’ll seek out the local schul and at least get inside it and look around. On the odd occasion, and depending on the Jewish calendar, I have actually been able to daven (pray) with the local Yidn. Like the time in Utrecht Holland where the rabbi there knows my local own Chababd rebbe well and even lived at the Chabad House in Austin for a time. Every now and again I have in fact been the 10th man required for a minyan (a religious quorum,) like at the amazing Sephardic temple in downtown Bordeaux France. Such an occurrence is quite an honor among my tribe, and at the very least you’ll be sure to meet some interesting new folks.

No doubt my Rebbe back home will chuckle aloud when he reads this, as getting me into his services usually require a bribe of paying gig or some such, but even he will know what I mean when I say that I am often more at home with strangers, especially when they are Jewish strangers. Moreover it our collective practice of Jewish ness is all that is required to bind us together. My feeling is that my job after all, out on the road as a traveling Jewish musician from Texas, is to represent Jewish culture and I came quite a long way to do so. The very least I can do is at least behave like a Jew while I’m doing it. Thus, I trot off in the direction of the helpful sign, hoping in my mind they have a siddur (Jewish prayer book) I can make sense of.

Quickly I locate a large white Moorish building at the end of the small triangular public square. From it’s position and layout in relation to the square one can imagine that was the center for the Jewish district of this little provincial town. Viewed from a distance, it is beautiful; but there is no indication that this is a Jewish house of worship. No stars of David, no menorah, no nothing really. There is one little spot high up where you can see the outline of the traditional tablets of the Ten Commandments, and there is a lovely Tree of Life bas relief above one door way. But you get the feeling that there was once so much more adornment. It appears to have had a fresh if slap dash white wash in recent years, but the doors are all shut and looking in, it seems to be completely empty. Some of the windows are broken as well. All I can find is a Soviet era looking block letter plaque attached to the wall that from my clumsy translations refers to the “White Synagogue of Trencin” and notes simply its “historic oriental architecture.”

There indeed is a fine synagogue in Trencin, but there will be no shabbes here. There are no Jews here. The stark, sudden and complete realization that though this building may still stand and from the outside is beautiful and all, there are no Jews here to pray with. Not tonight, and probably never again I imagine. A wave of depression and sadness flushes over me. I mean what was I thinking? Jews must have prospered here, I mean why else would you have such a grand house of worship? Sure, as if after all the pogroms, the harassment by fascists from within and without, and then the gentle graces of the Soviets and their labor camps that there would be anyone left? These are the kind of things I see every time I head into the Eastern parts of Europe and this is just the sort of internal conversation I have with myself nearly every time. Much like a child finding out over and over again that there is no Santa Claus, I have to tell myself yet again; “Jews used to live here.”

Where many of them have gone was laid out perfectly clearly for me in a confirmation class years ago at Temple Emmanuel in Oklahoma City. In our Bar Mitzvah year our teachers decided that by then we were old enough to be introduced to the grim business of Holocaust studies. We started with the notorious documentary “Night and Fog,” a French collection of Nazi state archive footage of the Final Solution in vivid action. As I stare up at the plaque bolted to the side of this abandoned schul, situated just yards away from a strip of lively cafes filled with noisy patrons all safe and secure in their surroundings, all I can think of are the flickering grainy images of open pits filled with naked, lifeless bodies presented to me in that small darkened class room. It was hard not to actually. Just today on the plane to Bratislava I read in the English language newspaper the Prague Post that the new Jewish cemetery there has once again been abused and vandalized. “Authorities are considering installing video cameras and other security measures” it reports. No Jews left around to kick it seems, so a tombstone will have to suffice I guess. On my walk back to my hotel I make special note of the “White Power” spray painted on the side of the dilapidated, but still utilized, old Soviet era soccer stadium. It’s written in English, in my guess so that foreign travelers like myself will be perfectly clear of the message. “Just so you know, you (insert gypsy, Jew, any brown skinned person, ect..) are still not welcome. Have a nice day!”

It’s strolling the rustic cobblestones of these streets I think about Native Americans and Israel strangely enough. I mean as a young Okie Jew it was mighty hard to wrap your head around the concept of people locked in a seemingly never ending death grip, even taking to killing each other over a lousy strip of land actually smaller than the entire county I grew up in. A window to my perspective: Every Sunday we’d load up the car and the family would make the 100 mile trek down I-35 from Stillwater to OKC so I could get at least a modicum of Jewish education at the conservative schul there. The temples in Tulsa were a much a shorter distance, but as the old Jewish joke about the man stranded on a desert island that built two synagogues: one to pray in and one I wouldn’t set foot in, my dad insisted we make the longer car ride south every week. Truthfully I was never fully integrated into this community either, these “big city” Jews (only the start of a long, seemingly never ending pattern of outsider status for me as it turns out) as I was singled early out as the country bumpkin who spoke with a drawl and didn’t show up for Hebrew School on Tuesdays after regular school like everybody else. Thus, my Hebrew is still appalling and I still don’t feel too comfortable around city folk.

Passing by to the right of the windshield of the old VW van were mile after mile of gently rolling open Oklahoma country side, famed for it’s deep rich soil that produced corn, wheat, alfalfa and all manner of fresh foods. As well as vast areas open to grazing for sheep and cattle. It was hard to reconcile the experience of my weekly journey through great patches of open farmland with the instruction in my Sunday school noting the small Israeli Army’s taking of relatively tiny patches of arid desert like the Gaza Strip as great victories for the Jewish People. A Jewish People which as was made very clear meant me too.
But here’s another window of perspective: all that prime land that I admired from my car seat was actually at one time a reservation for the Iowa, Sac and Fox, Pottawatomie, and Shawnee peoples, “Civilized” Tribes who were given their “Indian Territory” in perpetuity by the Bureau of Indian Affairs after they had renounced violence, abandoned their native religions, acquiesced to the introduction of enforced Christianity and “proper” western morals and education, sending their children off to “Indian Schools” where any semblance of their culture was systematically and quite literally beaten out of them. 

But even after playing ball to such indignities from1889 to1906 the US government decided to rip up their contracts with the locals (again.) It was easy work to kick out the last remnants of a beaten down brown people now entirely debilitated by cheap whisky and small pox infected blankets, and then gleefully give out their land free to whatever freebooting white person decided to “stake his claim.” “Boomer Sooner” is the battle cry of the University of Oklahoma I was taught in college in homage of these “settlers.” But take some time to look it up and see just what kind of person these “Sooners” (creeps who snuck across the borders early to steal claims) and "Boomers" (big money financiers of poorer, soon-to-be-indentured white folks) actually were. And then consider carefully about how much honor we should bestow to such ilk. The history books trumpet this event as the “Great Land Run of Oklahoma,” but it looks like yet another wildly successful round of ethnic cleansing to me, no matter how rosy the victors wish to paint it.

I was raised in up close proximity to the decedents of this extra-special and long running New World Holocaust (1690 to present.) And thus I had been witness to the myriad levels of degradation and devastation that these actions had wrought. And how tragically and heart achingly they manifest themselves even today. To my pre-adolescent way of thinking, Jews and Native peoples seemed to have quite a bit in common; disempowered underdogs who only ever wanted to left alone to live in peaceful co-existence and who are still around despite everyone’s attempts to destroy us utterly simply for being unlike them. It was the very image that Israel worked to present to the world when I was a kid as well. This became one of the cornerstones of my personal Jewish identity in many ways.

While writing all this down, I recall the experience of being dis-invited from a youth exchange program when I was 14. My father had wrangled hard for me a chance to spend a semester in South Africa with a family from his Rotary Club sister city. But I was yanked out of the running during the lengthy interview process; I’m pretty sure, all because I proffered the opinion that it was a terrible idea to have an oppressive and authoritarian White minority rule over so many un-empowered native people. And that I wasn’t interested in changing my opinion, no matter how fun an overseas journey might be. Mandela was still imprisoned and the nightly news showed scenes of the savage beating of protestors who only simply wanted a voice in their own affairs. It all looked too much like Kristalnacht to me, and I readily identified with the folks on the business end of the Police truncheon, rather than the well-fed white man clad in black riot gear. “You here can’t possibly understand the situation, it’s so much more complex as you imagine, I mean, the blacks are in no position to rule today.” I remember the young Afrikaner-Rotarian saying quite clearly in his genuinely honest attempts to dissuade me of such notions. “Yes, I’m not there and I can’t possibly know all the details.” I recall telling my advisor “But Apartheid is wrong. Period. It’s just wrong.” Needless to say, some less politically informed son of an Oklahoman Rotarian had a blissful few months outside Johannesburg away from his family, tucked in a safe white enclave far from the troublesome Blacks. Meanwhile, I stayed put and went noodling for Catfish with my Boy Scout troop in Lake Thunderbird instead.

It was much later that I came to a very troublesome juncture in my though process about identity both personal and collective. When people wanted to debate things Israeli, and boy do American Jews like talking about Israel, I slowly began to realize that I as a Jew had more in common with a displaced and disempowered Palestinian than with an Israeli. You know, the un-empowered and disenfranchised folks, the people getting their doors kicked in and pulled out into the street at gunpoint. I could not, and can not, cotton the idea that a Jew could ever be the one in the riot gear, wielding a truncheon or leveling a weapon at a kid throwing rocks. And this, friends, is a very strange and uncomfortable place to be. (I take no joy in sharing the notion, though it will most likely outrage a great many folks I know. I only pray they will be able to see the situation from the filter of my own experience.)
Those who know me well understand that I have my whole life struggled greatly with the romantic notion of a “Jewish State” contrasted with the messy realities that the living, breathing, politically and socially complex place like what Israel has become. I was raised in a fairly Israel centric household for an Okie. Long ago, my mother had been a kibbutznik, picking oranges and working on her tan for a summer before she even met my father and often said she had the time of her life even though she wasn’t herself Jewish. As the Hillel director at the University of Oklahoma my father was a 24/7-full time Israel booster, a professional Zionist if you will, and seriously considered an Aliyah (the act of returning to the ancestral homeland) with the whole family in fact, though the constant threat of everyday violence in the Holy Land eventually nixed it the notion.

But the dichotomy of political realities of Nationhood mixed with the practice of a particular religion is a tough road to hoe as we say on the farm. And it’s made all the more complex when framed by the horrors of the Holocaust and the entire world’s collective shame in allowing such to happen, by golly, it all makes for a often sordid and mostly confusing conversation. It’s not a conversation many people, Jews especially, like to be open about in fact. Through my experience and and over time I have formed an opinion that the mostly assimilated Jews of America have in many ways made the idea of Israel their new "Temple," and by extension the repository of their own Jewish identity. Any conversation that includes an unfavorable review of that country’s day to day political policies then can be read as an attack against the core of one’s faith, rather than say, a respectful interest in world affairs and the struggle of Human Rights worldwide. It’s especially troubling when those policies seem from a distance appear to run contrary with the very practice of Judaism that someone like myself was raised with.

Trust me on this one non-Jewish readers, it’s a very prickly path to tread upon. I learned this the hard way once. In a lively post performance conversation on a long country drive with a completely assimilated, non- identified Jewish fiddler colleague of mine, I tried to debate as the devil’s advocate by criticizing a particularly churlish internal Israeli policy that I had read in the paper that day involving the bulldozing of Palestinian suicide bomber’s family homes, which sounded like an awful idea to me no matter how you sliced it. So upset by this stance of “betrayal” of “our people” they actually haven’t spoken a word to me this day. In an ironic twist that illustrates I think the complexity often involved with Jewish identity today, this very musician recently even changed her professional last name to be more palatable to the goyische market (and to be gentlemanly I won’t out them here.) To me this is a sign of ashamedness of not only personal family history but a clear signifier of the deepest level of Jewish self-loathing. But should you hold something other than the party line on absolute correctness the Jewish State and suddenly you’re “against us.” In the question that is Israel, even the conflicted and deeply self-loathing can magically answer as a Jew.
Ok, I must add that it’s all fine and well for a thoroughly assimilated Galutnik like me, make that an unreconstructed, tattooed, married goyische, happy-as-the-proverbial-Pig-in-a-Slop-trough Galutnik in fact, to sit in my air conditioned central Texas home and come up with my comfortable notions about what is and what should be is mighty easy, if not cowardly. But neighbors, let me tell you that a night walking the hot streets of Trencin Slovakia gave me yet a new perspective on what it really means to be Jewish in place where you are very much not welcome and makes me deeply reconsider a lot of the notions I have formed for myself up to this point.

I live in Texas and I truly believe that its been Gan Eden for me. It’s a wide-open land where anything has been possible. That there among these goyim, my culture and creed have never stood in the way, long enough albeit, of any opportunity that I ever desired. Bare in mind that last sentence was written by a man born into Payne County, Oklahoma: the shinny silver Rodeo buckle of the Southern Baptist Bible belt. I had been refused entrance into a public swimming pool on one occasion, black balled unceremoniously from a popular Fraternity (DeMolay,) and subjected to direct proselytizing nearly daily in the course of my public school education, all simply because I was a Jew, and maybe even more threateningly, quite comfortable in owning up to it. I have run the barbed gauntlet of small town, dumb as dirt and proud of it, cracker-dom my whole life (Toby Keith lived right up the road from me to give only one obvious example.) But I did it so effectively I might add that today I am faintly nostalgic for the attention it brought. That in a strange sort of Stockholm Syndrome, I am completely protective of my bygone hillbilly tormentors and will defend them, quite loudly, and speak to the nobler aspects of their (and to a great extent my own) culture of family, God, honor, respect, good fiddling, proper BBQ, hot biscuits, ect., against my Jewish Yankee buddies who would dare disparage my beloved South.

What I realize quite depressingly in my walk tonight is that I’ll bet there was a guy just like me right here in Trencin who said pretty much the same thing about his little hick hometown. Like me, I’ll reckon he couldn’t even conceive of living anywhere else, so rooted to his happy life surrounded the goyim who for the most part left him alone. “Sure, they don’t let us in all the way, and true enough sometimes around Easter some of the lummoxes will get hopped up on Jesus and vodka and beat somebody up” he would tell his buds in some other village ‘But business is good here, and we make a good life.” But almost imperceptibly one fine day, his situation started a downhill slide. The beatings got a bit more regular and a bit more vicious; the public indignities began to pile up, and the business not so good anymore. But it was better than someplace else, he kept telling himself. Much like a frog that is set into a pot of water doesn’t jump out, you can keep adding fire to the pot little by little until the water is completely boiling and the frog is then dead, completely unaware of its impending doom. So on one not so fine day, the trucks rolled in, the locals pointed out his apartment and that was that. He’s not around anymore to defend the positive aspects of Slovakian country living; of its jaunty brass bands, the beer halls filled with fine Pilsners, and of the rugged country folk who were his neighbors. Jews used to live here.
Israel, I note on a map, is a whole lot closer to Trencin than Texas. And with all its issues and complexities I reckon it would have looked like Gan Eden from that cat’s perspective. 

“History” as a wise man once said, “is a bitch.”

So here I am now, playing with a Gypsy brass band from Serbia in conjunction with a Jewish ensemble from NYC at a music festival held on the grounds of an old Soviet era airfield. Not without being painfully aware the irony, for the last few years the only paying work I have had a musician has been over here, in those places where we used to live. The only way I’ve been able to explain why so called “klezmer” music is so marketable to Europeans, and even East Europeans in fact, is to think of myself like an act in Bill Cody’s touring Wild West Show. I actually have to visualize myself as a musical Sitting Bull if you will, propped up in my native finery and prancing across the concert stage singing my Sacred Chants for a public that is only fascinated by the appearance of the proverbial “ones that got away”. I like to call it the “hospitality of the return ticket,” you can be nice just about anybody if you’re certain they aren’t here to stay. The vibe on the street is Happy, dancing Jews onstage, fine and dandy. But less than happy Jews coming back and asking for their families’ apartment and business, not so much.

Germany, which until recently was the biggest market for this music, never ever had this music there in the first place. But the collective guilt of the butcher’s children and grand children has brow beaten a public acceptance of, even a demand for, Jewish music such to the point where most performers there today aren’t even Jewish. (This is a whole other conversation actually, which gets it’s own muddled essay later.)

But here, like Krakow and Budapest and Beograd, I am now presented much like my Cherokee and Seminole classmates as the “noble savage” that can be accepted now up to a point simply because I no longer pose any threat. Lucky for the local toughs, they still have gypsies here that they can safely kick around, so finally the heat is off us Jews for once.

I’m chatting about these various observations with my good friend Brighton based clarinetist Merlin Shepherd who is on the bandstand with me tonight. Beating the heat, we stroll into the city square and find a seat at a pleasant café under the shadow of the great Orthodox Church. Speaking maybe a little too loudly in English, and being the only men with any facial hair that we have seen anywhere in town, we are certainly not from around here. Our young waitress brings us our coffee and inquires in her best English if we were here for the big festival. We said yes and that in fact we were performers, which seemed to excite her a great deal. “What do you play”” she inquires. Merlin responds matter-of-factly “Jewish and Gypsy Music.” To which our waitress literally recoils, whipping her hand over her mouth to cover her obvious shock. I can’t make this stuff up. “Is that a bad thing?” Merlin asks. “Oh no…” she says as she hurriedly shuffles away. “Was it the Jew thing or the Gypsy thing that got her?” I asked Merlin. We agree. It doesn’t really matter, does it?
Jews used to live here.