In nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, religious law dictated every aspect of Jewish life. Secular books were forbidden; independent thinkers were threatened with moral rebuke, magical retribution, and excommunication. But the Maskilim, proponents of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, were determined to create a modern Jew, to found schools where children could learn science, geography, languages, and history.
Velvel Zbarzher, proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment, rebel, glittering star of fusty inns spent his life traveling through Romania and Ukraine, singing to poor workers and craftsmen. By the time he died in Istanbul in 1883, the Haskalah was over, but modernization hadn’t brought an end to anti-Semitism, but new movements to promote social equality—Zionism, Anarchism, Bundism — had begun.
Armed with a useless nineteenth-century map, a warm but lumpy coat, and a good dose of curiosity Jill Culiner trudged through the snow in former Galicia, the Russian Pale, and Romania looking for Velvel, the houses where he lived, and the bars where he sang. But she was also on the lookout for a vanished way of life in Austria, Turkey, and Canada.