Star Arts by Tamar: Blog en-us (C) Star Arts by Tamar (Star Arts by Tamar) Tue, 22 Nov 2022 03:33:00 GMT Tue, 22 Nov 2022 03:33:00 GMT Star Arts by Tamar: Blog 120 80 The Cheap Sunglasses Tour: Hot Springs, Part 1           As a child growing up in New York City, I heard little about places in what I envisioned as the featureless, agrarian interior of the country.  Hot Springs, Arkansas, was an exception.  I knew that name because my grandparents went there, at least once.  My grandmother sufferted from arthritis.  Like many immigrants from Europe, she believed in the curative powers of mineral springs.  When my grandmother went to Hot Springs to take the waters, in the parlance of those times, naturally my grandfather accompanied her.  This must have been in the late 1950's, as I recall mention of a sleeping compartment on a train.  I had seen pictures of such accommodations, but I had yet to travel so far as to need one.

The entrance to Hot Springs National Park, on Bathhouse Row

          Both of my mother's parents came from the Bucovina region of what was then Romania, now Ukraine.  My Grandma M. was small and very fair, with delicate features and extraordinarily blue eyes, truly cerulean.  In contrast, my Grandpa F. had an olive complexion, dark eyes, and abundant, dark, curly hair.  He was not tall, but thickly built and very strong.  His work as a banquet waiter was strenuous, and the hours were long.  During his rare leisure time, whenever the weather permitted, my grandfather delighted in going to Brighton Beach.  There, he would lie in the sunshine until his skin acquired the rich hue of mahogany.

          Everyone in our family was accustomed to my grandparents' appearance as a couple. The citizens of Hot Springs, however, were offended by the sight of the pale woman on the arm of the brown-skinned man.  Mistaken for an interracial couple, my grandparents were denied service in several restaurants.  I learned about it from overhearing my parents' amused whispers and the murmurred halves of their phone conversations.  At that time, I had no idea that anything like anti-miscegenation laws existed.  For the record, it was not until 1973 that such odious legislation was repealed in Arkansas.

          In recent years, I have contrived to celebrate my birthday out of town.  My first inclination always is to leave the country, but we had family travel booked for late November.  So it behooved me to curb my extravagance. HL and I decided that we would take a modest road trip, and finally visit Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville.  That art museum attracts tourists from all over the globe, but it is isolated in northwest Arkansas.  We had never mustered the requisite enthusiasm to drive there until we thought of combining it with a day in Hot Springs.  For that itinerary, all that I needed to pack were casual clothes, sturdy shoes, and a pair of cheap sunglasses from my defiantly extensive collection.     



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Arkansas Hot Springs Hot Springs National Park miscegenation laws road trip segregation train sleeper compartment Fri, 25 Nov 2022 03:30:00 GMT
Current Events 86: A Farewell Toast           For our final evening in Bucharest, Simona invited us to dinner at her home.  Her house was far from the city center, in a newish neighborhood where every residence had been custom-built on a private lot.  Simona's house was spacious and modern, furnished handsomely.  There were Oriental rugs on the tiled floors, and a grand piano in the main room.  There were picture windows facing the back of the property.  The long dining table was set, and the delicious aroma of baking filled the air.

           Simona exhorted us all to try the national spirit, a beverage called ţuica (pronounced tz'WEE-kah).  It is a clear plum liquor that some travelers call "Romanian White Lightning".  Romania's soil is ideal for fruit trees, and produces more plums than any other European country.  The majority of the plum harvest is used for ţuica.  As elsewhere in The Balkans, the custom was to down a shot on an empty stomach, before a meal.  It burned my throat, not unpleasantly.  In a moment, I was overcome by the stunned euphoria of someone who wakens from sleeping too long in the hot sunshine.  

                                                                                             Some of us revelers, post-ţuica 

           For a while, I remained sunken into a corner of the couch, unable to do more than grin.  We stayed at Simona's as long as possible, eating, drinking, and laughing.  We sang and danced a little, fond and nostalgic, as we tend to be at our too infrequent reunions.  Two days were too few to be with my friends.

          I was as reluctant to leave them as I was grateful for my extraordinary luck in having been able to meet them in Bucharest.  And two days were too few to be there.  I could have toured Romania happily for weeks.  Three of us would return to Israel, and four to The States.   I could not predict when I might see them again.  HL and I would leave for the airport in a matter of hours, and land in a place that had all but ceased to exist for us.  Once back, I would remind myself that Jupiter, bestower of good fortune, is the ruler of my horoscope.  Then I could begin to envision another improbable adventure. 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest cruise Romania Romanian White Lightning ţuica Fri, 18 Nov 2022 04:30:00 GMT
Current Events 85: A Rehearsal           We were rather downcast as we left the Great Snagogue museum and returned to the Choral Temple.  It was such a fine, breezy day, however, that soon we recovered our spirits.  The first yellow leaves had fallen, and the wind sent them scudding across the sidewalks.  It felt good to reenter a synagogue that still had a congregation.  G., the young man whom Simona had enlisted as our guide, was an impassionaed advocate for the Choral Temple.  And he was a member of the men's choir.  In accordance with Orthodox practice, there was no women's choir.  Female singing is deemed too distracting for men engaged in worship to hear. 

            G. could not spare us much more time, as there was a choir rehearsal in progress.  He gave me the impression that he was a person who assumed a great deal of responsibility, and, as a result, was busy almost constantly.   G. admitted us to a back room where men in kippot sat around a polished table covered with books and sheets of music.  We sank onto folding chairs and listened to them practicing.  Though I am not an aficionada of Ashkenazi Jewish liturgical music, I thought that the men sang well, perpetuating the eponymous choral tradition.  In that setting, I felt privileged to be able to hear their voices.

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Choral Temple cruise Orthodox Judaism Romania Fri, 11 Nov 2022 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 84: The Great Synagogue/Sinagoga Mare Part 2           After the Allies defeated the Nazis, over a hundred thousand Jews poured into Bucharest.  Many were survivors of the camps.  Once the Communists were in power, they closed many Jewish community agencies, and used synagogues for secular purposes.  Antisemitic Romanians blamed the "Bolshevik Jews" for the harsh Communist rule that Moscow imposed.  The Communist authorities, in turn, held the surviving Jews accountable for every failure of the government's unrealistic projects.  Jewish engineers and workers were executed for "Zionist treason" when impossible deadlines were not met.  The sole factor that seemed to unify the Romanian leftists and rightists was their hatred of Jews.  Some Jews fled to Israel in the 1950's, but not all could do so.  In the 1980's, the cash-strapped Ceaușescu regime accepted economic aid, a thinly disguised bribe, from Israel's government to allow Romanian Jews to emigrate. By then, conditions in the country were so desperate that most Jews did not hesitate to leave.

          We were allowed access to the Great Synagogue's gallery, where more exhibits were stored.  Glass cases held wooden models of synagogues outside Bucharest.  Most had been destroyed or had fallen into ruin.  Once, there had been a hundred or more synagogues outside the capital, serving Romania's Jews.  Today, very few of the surviving communities can afford to maintain the handsome edifices preserved in miniature in the displays.  


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest cruise Great Synagogue of Bucharest post-war Romanian antisemitism Romania synagogue models Thu, 03 Nov 2022 23:30:00 GMT
Current Events 83: The Great Synagogue/ Sinagoga Mare, Part 1           The Great Synagogue was doubly hidden.  Its plain plaster walls masked a sumptuous interior.  The ceiling was gorgeous, painted in elaborate symmetrical patterns by the artist Gershon Horowitz in a 1936 renovation.  The chandeliers, gilded and inset with azure, could have graced a palace.  Gold glowed everywhere.  Once, the Great Synagogue may have been even more beautiful than the Choral Temple.  It was hard to tell, as the ground floor was being used to store museum exhibits.  All of them had been on display in the even older Holy Union Synagogue/ Templul Unirea Sfântâ, then undergoing a major reconstruction.  The displays looked amateurish, mostly black and white photographs beside squares of text, mounted on poster board.  Nothing could have been more serious, of course, than what they recorded.

          A docent detached herself from a few other visitors and approached us.  She was a tall, dignified woman in a dark suit.  I could not determne her age.  Her name was Hilda.  She knew the history of Romania's Jews thoroughly, as it was the history of her family as well as the nation.  After The War, there were about 5,000 Jews left in Romania, almost all of them in Bucharest.  In the 1920's, there had been about 700,000 Jews, though the country's borders had encompassed more territory at that time.  Bucharest's Jews had been instrumental in the city's development.  Their skills and labor had helped transform the feudal settlement into a modern urban one. 

          Before The War, there had been forty synagogues in Bucharest, and nineteen Jewish schools.  Now there are only three synagogues in operation.  It is no mean feat for them to continue existing.  Scholars debate the exact figures for the genocide, but 280,000 to 380,000 Romanian Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their auxiliaries.  It is a stupefying statistic, but it does not, alas, represent the greatest number of Jews killed in any country.  That sorry distinction is one for which there have been all too many contestants.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest cruise Great Synagogue Holy Union Synagogue Romania sinagoga Mare Sinagoga Unrea Sfanta Fri, 28 Oct 2022 07:45:00 GMT
Current Events 82: Bucharest's Choral Temple/ Templul Coral, Part 2           The money and time for the synagogue's renovation were well spent, as the results were spectacular.  The ceiling and walls were painted with geometric patterns, mandalas derived from eight-pointed stars.  The dizzyingly symmetrical designs were painted in buff, coral, crimson, white, and shades of blue, accented with gold.  As in Budapest's Dohany Street Synagogue, the underside of the women's balcony was decorated to match the walls.  Bucharest's Choral Temple possessed more of the trappings of Orthodox Judaism than the larger one in Budapest.  A line of white curtains ran down the center aisle, bisecting the ground floor seating area.   The curtains served as the partition between the men's and women's sections when there were few congregants at a service.  At times of high attendance, the women were restricted to the balcony.

       Simona had arranged for us to tour the synagogue with G., a friend of her son's, a young man active in the congregation.  G.'s English was fluent and unaccented.  Knowledgeable and earnest, G. wanted us to appreciate the Choral Temple within the context of Jewish history in Romania.  G. conducted us to a museum housed temporarily in a neighboring synagogue.  Before he left the Choral Temple, G. removed his knitted kippah and stored it in a pocket of his jacket.  HL  followed G.'s example.  Advertising one's Jewish identity was, evidently, still imprudent in Bucharest.

          We walked a few blocks until we came to a building with smooth yellow walls.  It was the Great Synagogue, or Sinagoga Mare, dwarfed by the featureless concrete towers that hemmed in the street where it stood.  It had opened in 1847.  Ceaușescu had  ordered many synagogues and churches to be razed when he was redesigning the city.  It became official policy to surround those houses of worship that escaped the wrecking ball with high-rises notable for their stark Soviet monotony.  Only three synagogues remained in operation after the dictator's Systematization (sic), when he redrew the map of Bucharest to make room for monuments to his megalomania.  




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Ceausescu Choral Temple cruise Great Synagogue Romania Sinagoga Mare Systematization Fri, 21 Oct 2022 07:00:00 GMT
Current Events 81: The Choral Temple (Templul Coral), Bucharest, Part I           Our levity yielded to solemnity when we met Simona and our Israeli friends at the Choral Temple, Templul Coral in Romanian.  In front of the entrance was an imposing menorah.  We could tell at once that the dark metal menorah was a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Romania's murdered Jews.  The Communists had not permitted specific memorials for the Jewish or Roma victims of Nazi genocide.  They commemorated only those who had perished in the war against Fascism.  No one was eager to acknowledge the extent of the slaughter, or the Romanian Legionnaires' active role in the Nazis' extermination scheme.  It was not until 1991 that the monument could be erected. 

          In contrast to the visual portent of the menorah, the Choral Temple was a pastel architectural fantasy in the Neo-Moorish style.  Gazing at the stone striping of the faҫade, we were struck by the synagogue's resemblance to the larger Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest.  The model for both temples had been the Leopoldstadt Great Synagogue in Vienna.  The Leopoldstadt had been the inspiration for Prague's Spanish Synagogue as well.  Until the Nazis and their minions destroyed it on Kristallnacht in 1938, the Leopoldstadt had been the grandest synagogue in Vienna.


          Bucharest's Choral Temple was completed in 1867.  First an earthquake, and then the Second World War (the one that I am tempted to call, simply, The War) damaged it badly.  It was restored once the war ended.  More recently, it underwent eight years of renovation, funded by the post-Communist Romanian government in conjunction with international Jewish organizations.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Choral Synagogue cruise Leopoldstadt Great Synagogue Lower Danube Neo-Moorish architecture Romania Romanian Legionnaires Thu, 13 Oct 2022 06:15:00 GMT
Current Events 80: From Luxury to Whimsy            After a lengthy dinner with Simona and our friends from Israel,  Miri, Petra, HL and I took a costly taxi ride back to our tour group's Bucharest hotel.  It was the tour's final night.   We checked into a Radisson conference center with hundreds of rooms, office facilities, a large gym and an indoor pool.  The anonymous corporate style of the facility seemed more appropriate for San Francisco or Minneapolis than the outskirts of the Romanian capital.  We had scant time, however, to sample the Radisson's advertised amenities.  Having arrived late, we needed our beds and little else.  At breakfast the next morning, we bade some of our fellow travelers Adieu.  Radi was occupied elsewhere, and I missed saying Goodbye to her.  Otherwise, very few of the other tourists had paid much attention to us, so our leave-taking was perfunctory.

            Another taxi ride brought us to a completely different sort of hotel.  We had booked rooms on-line for Miri and Petra and for ourselves at the modest Hotel Otopeni.  It was situated on a side street so small that the taxi driver had trouble finding it.  We had chosen the hotel for its proximity to the airport, since our flight back to The States was scheduled to depart before dawn.  HL's and my lodgings turned out to consist of two large rooms.  Miri and Petra also had a two-room suite.  In ours, there was a sitting room with a couch, a coffee table, chairs and a desk.  The other room held a bed with tables on both sides, and a looming armoire.  The furnishings were like those in a New York City apartment in The Fifties.  The bathroom alone had been modernized.  Whoever had been responsible for the remodeling had installed a garish, turquoise fiberglass sink that had me reaching for my camera.  The sink was functional, but so incongruous as to be comic.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest cruise Otopeni Hotel Romania Fri, 07 Oct 2022 02:15:00 GMT
Current Events 79: Caru' Cu Bere             For our first dinner together, our friends and we went by taxi to Bucharest's central historic district of Lipscani.  Simona told us that we were going somewhere special, and that was obvious as soon as we entered Caru' Cu Bere.  Caru' Cu Bere is a shortened form of a Romanian expression for a beer wagon, a fitting name for the oldest brewery in Bucharest.  The spiny, neo-Gothic exterior of the restaurant somehow did not clash with its Art Nouveau interior.  The beer hall had been at its present address since 1899, though it had been established some decades earlier.  It was two stories tall, with stained glass windows and skylights.  The hall's center was open, ringed by balconies just large enough for a table or two, like boxes in an opera house.  The bar was a wooden monolith, with the brightly enamelled tops of beer taps just visible above it.  The floor tiles spelled out the name of the restaurant's founder, Nicolae Mircea, and the dates 1879 - 1924.  The Mircea family was able to reclaim the beer hall in 1999, and has since enlarged and refurbished it.  

                We waited for a table in a press of tourists and convivial local residents.  No sooner had we ordered some dishes than two pairs of dancers claimed the middle of the tiled floor.  They were young and lithe, and twirled close to our table in a modified tango.  A string quartet provided the music.  After we applauded, the prettier of the two female dancers  held her hand out to HL and invited him to the dance floor.  I did not blame her, as HL is still a handsome man, and thus a more tolerable choice than any of the other male diners.  He looked uncomfortable at first, but his reluctance dissolved as his winsome partner smiled at him.  

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Caru' Cu Bere cruise Lipscani Romania Thu, 29 Sep 2022 03:15:00 GMT
Current Events 78: The Village Museum           It was late afternoon when we arrived at one of Bucharest's premier tourist attractions, The Village Museum.  It was situated in Herastrau Park, an extensive urban green space that enclosed a lake.  Adjacent to the park was the Arcul de Triumf, modeled on the much larger memorial in Paris.  The Village Museum consisted of 272 houses, windmills, barns and other structures that had been moved there from all of Romania's nine historic regions.  The mountainous, wooded geography, sectioned by rivers, had isolated villages from one another.  As a result, distinctive local types of dwellings had developed throughout the countryside.  Wood was the main material for all of them.  Some of the wooden houses rested on first stories of native stone.  The majority of the peasants' homes had thickly thatched roofs, to insulate them somewhat from the bitter Winter weather in the Carpathian Mountains.   

   The Village Museum is a popular photographic backdrop for wedding pictures.

          The outdoor museum would have been a fine diversion, had I not been so impatient to meet our friends from Israel.  They had come to meet us and to visit Simona, who lived in Bucharest.  I knew and liked Simona, with whom I had become acquainted during Simona's visits to The States.  We had arranged to have our rendezvous at the Village Museum.  And Then We Were Eight, obstructing the entrance as we embraced and greeted one another.  




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Carpathian Mountains cruise Herastrau Park Romania Village Museum Wed, 21 Sep 2022 05:00:00 GMT
Current Events 77: The People's Palace           While everyone was questioning Egmund, the hero of the Revolution, HL took pictures of the Kretzulescu Church.  The Orthodox church was distinctive in shape as well as size.  It reminded me of a ship that had docked at the edge of the square, had ships been made of brick.  Its two towers could have been smokestacks.  We walked to the front of the church and peered inside it.  The walls and ceiling were covered in frescoes, as was the porch.  There was a lofty, gilded iconostasis, flanked by the tall, haloed figures of archangels painted on the curved walls of the apse.  The interior was a blaze of gold and vermilion on black.  It was obvious that it was being restored completetly and capably.  I was sorry that I could give the church only a cursory inspecton, but it was time for the group to reboard the bus.

          No visit to Bucharest would be complete without a stop at its most infamous place of interest, the colossal Palace of the Parliament.  As the physical manifestation of Ceaușescu's megalomania, it may have earned more opprobrium than mere architectural ugliness might inspire.  Under leaden skies, we saw the Palace's white bulk from afar.  The scale was pharaonic, magnifying the dullness of its design.  Yet I had known far more unsightly, bare modern structures to win the adulation of critics and plutocrats.  Aside from the unsightliness of its proportions, The Palace of Parliament was less of an eyesore than most corporate skyscrapers and au courant beachfront homes.

          Ceaușescu had meant his to be the ultimate palace, one glorifying The People rather than a reigning dynasty.  His name for it had been The People's House.  Some Bucharesters still may refer to it that way, but only ironically.  Ceaușescu and his wife were executed in 1989, years before the Palace was ready for occupancy.  The first person to address a cheering crowd from the Gargantuan building's central balcony was not destined to be the dictator, but the American pop star Michael Jackson.  The entertainer's knowledge of geography had left something to be desired when, in 1992, Jackson greeted the inhabitants of the city by shouting, I love Budapest! 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Ceausescu cruise Kretzulescu Church Michael Jackson's geographical error Palace of the Parliament Romania The People's Palace Thu, 15 Sep 2022 00:15:00 GMT
Current Events 76: The Romanian Revolutionary           Whatever its artistic or civic merits, the Impaled Potato was an incongruous addition to Bucharest's central plaza.  The space was defined by the Royal Palace, which had become the National Museum of Art, and the University Library, the Athenaeum, and a grand hotel.  All of these were exemplars of Parisian formality.  The square was the place where Ceaușescu
had addressed the citizenry for the last time.  Popular unrest had been spreading through the country.  The army ceased to support the dictator, who fled the capital.  Police, militias, and demonstrators had clashed in the streets, to deadly effect. 

          Romania had undergone the most violent emergence from Communism of any of the former Soviet bloc countries.  More than a thousand people had been killed in the fighting in Bucharest.  That number became more than a statistic when Radi introduced us to Egmund.  To hear his story, our group assembled at one corner of Revolution Square.   We stood behind the small, brick Kretzulescu Church, a relic from the 1720's.  Our guide referred to Egmund as a hero of the Revolution.  He was a clean-shaven, dark-haired man in his forties.  He wore a Romanian tricolor flag of blue, yellow, and red like a poncho, with a hole in the middle.  Those who had begun defying Ceaușescu had adopted this as their standard, tearing the Communist Party insignia out of the center of the flag.

          A native of Bucharest, Egmund had been a student during the December 1989 riots.  His friends and he had wanted to fight for democracy on the front lines.  The dictator sent tanks into the streets to quell the revolt.  Ceaușescu had ordered his
security forces to fire on protestors, most of them unarmed.  In the ensuing chaos, Egmund was wounded.  He rolled up his sleeve to show us the scar from a bullet.  His best friend had been killed beside him.  The flag that Egmund had draped over his shoulders was stained with the dead youth's blood.  I stood in silence for a while, contrasting Egmund's narrative with the frivolity of the North American life that I was accustomed to lead. 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest Ceaușescu cruise Impaled Potato monument Krezulescu Church Revolution Square Romania Thu, 08 Sep 2022 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 75: The Impaled Potato           Bucharest was the largest, most densely populated city on our tour, with more than two million people.  It had the fastest pace, too.  Trams lumbered alongside cars and public buses in the heavy traffic.  The sidewalks were full of pedestrians, including bejeaned young people walking in packs.  Bucharest was undergoing an economic boom, and I could sense its intense energy at once.

          Wars, earthquakes, and oppressive regimes had not disfigured Bucharest, the grande dame,  completely.  Some of the tree-lined boulevards and noble residences remained, though the palaces had been converted into banks, museums, and government offices.  And there were monuments, some fin-de-siècle equestrian bronzes as well as new ones commemorating the overthrow of the Communist dictatorship in 1989.

           The strangest of the contemporary monuments was in the heart of Bucharest, in the former Palace Square, now Revolution Square.  It was a pale concrete obelisk about 25 meters tall, skewering a dark, hollow ovoid made of intertwining steel vines.  At its base were stylized figures representing the heroes of the 1989 Revolution.  Its official name was the Monument of Rebirth, but our local guide told us that everyone called it The Impaled Potato.  I had to agree that the resemblance was inescapable, especially if one specified that the potato had been charred.  The monument was erected in 2005.  Long after the revolt toppled the hated Ceaușescu, people still mistrusted official sentiment and mocked it.  There was a splotch of red paint on the monument's shaft that made it look as if the pierced potato was bleeding.  I could not determine if the scarlet pigment was the work of an outraged art critic or just part of the statue.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bucharest cruise Monument of Rebirth Palace Square Revolution Square Romania The Impaled Potato Fri, 02 Sep 2022 00:00:00 GMT
Current Events 74: Very Little Paris             As we approached Bucharest, the countryside yielded abruptly to equipment yards, truck depots and exurban excrescences familiar to anyone who has ever taken a highway into a North American metropolis.  Before the Second World War, Bucharest had been known as Little Paris, owing to its bridges, handsome boulevards, and many buildings in French Second Empire style.  That is not the sobriquet that I should have applied to it.  Bucharest was the East European capital that had been most defaced by the Communist aesthetic.  Under Communism, utilitarian, high-rise workers' housing was erected on the outskirts of the city.  Unfortunately, the regime's architectural program was far more ambitious than that.

           Romania's postwar dictator, Ceaușescu, had admired the gigantic modern edifices that he had been showed when he toured China and North Korea.  During the 1970's, he had fine, old neighborhoods in Bucharest demolished in order to make room for his grandiose Civic Center (Centrul Civic).  The dictator's policy of Systematization replaced elegant Nineteenth Century districts in the urban core with banausic, prefabricated concrete dormitory blocks ten stories tall.  These came into view as we passed the city limits, adorned now with the distinctly non-Socialist addition of enormous advertising banners.  They touted global brands and local businesses.  These banners covered much of the upper surfaces of most buildings, and vied in ugliness with the peeling paint and cracked concrete.


Most of the 1,100 rooms of Ceaușescu's Palatul Parlamentului (Palace of Parliament) remain empty despite its housing the Romanian legislature, three museums and a conference center. 




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Balkans Bucharest Communist dictatorship cruise Little Paris Nicolae Ceausescu Palace of Parliament Romania Systematization Thu, 25 Aug 2022 03:30:00 GMT
Current Events 73: The Crossing           We reurned to Ruse for our last night aboard the M/S River Aria.  Towards the end of our farewell dinner, the chefs and their deputies emerged from the obscurity of the galley to parade around the ship's dining room.  Crowned with starched white toques, they bore aloft cakes sporting lit sparklers.  The servers filled and refilled our champagne glasses, as giddy as if they, too, had been quaffing the effervescent beverage.

          The next morning, a valedictory mood prevailed.  It was overcast and chilly.  We took our leave of the vessel that had carried us to seven ports in four countries.  Owing to the Danube River's low level. we had to enter the fifth country on our itinerary by bus.

           We crossed a steel truss bridge from Ruse, Bulgaria, to Giurgiu, Romania.  It had been built in the 1950's by Soviet engineers.  When it connected two countries behind the Iron Curtain, it was called the Friendship Bridge.  Now it was known as the Danube Bridge, and there was no sign of friendship.  The buses were halted on the Romanian side of the bridge.  The guards leafed through piles of papers, as unhurried as if they were proofreading their doctoral dissertations.  We left the confines of our idle buses until the drizzle and rising winds sent us back to our seats.  After a long while, two of our guides approached the guards' booth.  They extended some currency to a seated guard; it looked like a wad of U.S. dollars, but I was not close enough to be sure.

          Before we reached the border, Radi had reassured us that the tour company routinely budgeted for bribes to the obstructive functionaries.  Even so, we could expect a prolonged delay.  Romania's Communist dictatorship had been a brutal one, and the people were not doing well in its aftermath.  According to Radi, the current petty tyrants were as bad as their predecessors, only younger.  The culture of corruption was endemic.  In all, we cooled our heels for about an hour and a half, the same amount of time that it took to ride north to Bucharest from the crossing.  


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) border guard bribes Bulgaria cruise Danube River Friendship Bridge Giurgiu Romania Ruse Fri, 19 Aug 2022 00:45:00 GMT
Current Events 72: The Black Sea           Our final stop in Varna was at the Sunny Days resort complex, where at last I could gaze upon the Black Sea.  I looked across the water to the east, towards Georgia and Armenia.  Tall, white hotels rose from the sand, not spaced so closely as to wall off the view but still dominating the shoreline.  We were conducted to the luncheon buffet in one of the grandest of these hotels.

          The Palace Hotel was luxurious, especially by Bulgarian standards.  Most of the staff spoke at least a little English.  There were fresh flowers arranged in marble vases in the lobby.  The tables were covered in white linen and set with an unstinting assortment of glassware, most of it clean.  The food was of lesser quality than the fare on the ship, but it was plentiful and varied.  There were quite a few vegetarian dishes and, best of all, a selection of cakes worth photographing.

          The sugary banquet did not keep us from the beach for long.  We removed our shoes, rolled up our pants, and waded into the sea.  It was tepid, though the breeze and lack of sunshine made me feel cool.  I washed my face with the mildly saline water.  The Black Sea did not smell briny, owing to the high volume of fresh water that it receives from rainfall and the rivers that empty into it.  The Black Sea basin has little tidal variation, so we could have stayed in the shallows indefinitely, watching the coral-billed terns flying over the steel-colored water.  I was very happy, having attained a goal that I had not realized, until then, was so important to me: I had reached the Black Sea.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Balkans Black Sea Bulgaria Cruise Palace Hotel Sunny Days Resort Thu, 11 Aug 2022 04:15:00 GMT
Current Events 71: Rosh HaShanah in Varna            Varna's population had increased steadily in the post-Communist era, and exceeded 330,000 by the time that we arrived.  Under the Ottomans, Varna had a small Sephardic Jewish community.  After Bulgarian independence, its numbers had increased enough to support a synagogue in the Neo-Moorish style.  There were Ashkenazi Jews as well, some from Germany, but later mostly from Russia.  It was the Ashkenazi synagogue from the early Twentieth Century that still functioned as Varna's only Jewish house of worship.  Radi offered to walk with Mimi, HL and me to that synagogue while the rest of our party loitered around the Thermae.  

          Radi led us through narrow residential streets to a hybrid edifice nearby.  It had a smooth, grey faҫade, ornamented with a Star of David, in front of a glass and steel addition at least as large as the original structure.    The older part looked as if it had been refaced with unpainted concrete.  We walked up to the entrance and heard singing.  It was the second day of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, and the afternoon prayer service was in progress.  We withdrew, and stood near a tall gate of iron bars at the side of the synagogue.  Security was still, or again, an issue for Varna's remaining thousand or so Jews.

          We lingered there long enough to attract the attention of an adolescent girl clad in a lacy holiday outfit.  She was holding a girl toddler, perhaps her sister, in her arms.  The older girl was slender and barely able to support the weight of her burden.  I could imagine the toddler fussing during the service, and her older relative being dispatched to amuse her outside the sanctuary.  As we turned to go, we wished the teenager a Happy New Year, in Hebrew, but she may not have heard.  She stared after us, unsmiling.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Ashkenazi Jews in Varna Bulgaria Cruise Neo-Moorish Rosh HaShanah Sephardic Jewish community synagogue" Varna Fri, 05 Aug 2022 00:15:00 GMT
Current Events 70: Lola           Radi enticed her husband, Nenad, to come to the Thermae to meet the members of her group.  He brought their black and white, mixed breed dog, Lola, with him.  Lola was a friendly dog, so I petted her for perhaps longer than politeness would dictate.  Nenad was a tall, slim man with a shaven head.  He wore blue jeans, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, and displayed both patience and good humor in indulging his bride's fancy.  According to Radi, it was unusual for a Serb to marry a Bulgarian woman.  It was even less common for a Serbian man to move to his Bulgarian partner's country.  Radi claimed that Nenad loved Varna.  He did seem much at ease in the café adjacent to the Thermae where we made his acquaintance.  Radi was separated from her husband for weeks at a time during the five-month Danube cruising season, so she was elated by their impromptu reunion.

                                                                                             The newlyweds

                                                                                         The lovely Lola



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria cruise Danube rescue dog Lola Serbians Thermae Varna Fri, 29 Jul 2022 03:00:00 GMT
Current Events 69: The Thermae          

          In Classical times, Varna was a Greek trading colony called Odessos.  Successive empires realized the value of the Black Sea port and left their traces in its soil.  Perhaps most visible were the Thermae, the ruins of the Roman baths.  The Romans ruled Odessos for centuries, incorporating it into their province of Moesia.  Varna's Thermae were among the largest in Europe.  The Skorpil Brothers had done some of their excavating there.  The Archeological Museum admministered the site, and the admission price helped to fund the preservation of the ruins.  The cost of the tickets was money well spent, as we could pass freely from one section of the massive bathing complex to another, admiring the ancient brickwork at close range.  Parts of it formed twisted towers, like the stumps of immense teeth.  Arches supported vaulted colonnades that were more than twenty meters high.  There had been chambers for hot air and a series of pools containing water at various temperatures.  The Roman engineers had been able to channel local mineral springs into the baths.  Portions of the plumbing system lay exposed to view, as well as some of the vanished structures' foundations.  Though the sky above the ruins was cloudy, the scene was a serene rather than a melancholy one.  With modern multiple dwellings overlooking the Thermae, Varna seemed to be embracing its lengthy past. 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Black Sea port Bulgaria Classical ruins cruise Odessos Roman baths The Thermae Varna Thu, 21 Jul 2022 22:45:00 GMT
Current Events 68: The Gold of Varna           Our bus halted at Varna's Archeological Museum.  The museum was in a Neoclassical building from the 1880's that had been a girls' high school, or gymnasium.  Within a few years of the school's opening, it began its transformation into a museum, thanks to the efforts of a pair of brother polymaths, the Skorpils.  Both Herman and Karel Skorpil were amateur archaeologists.  They were Czech by birth and education.  After Ottoman rule ended in 1878, the Skorpil Brothers became teachers in Bulgaria.  They funded their own excavations all over the country, and founded Varna's archaeological society.  A bronze sculpture in front of the museum paid tribute to the brothers who had brought much of Bulgaria's buried history to light.

           The state-owned museum housed an extensive collection of artifacts, from the prehistric through the Roman, Byzantine, medieval and Ottoman periods.  Its most famous exhibit occupied three halls.  This was the Gold of Varna, the earliest trove of golden objects ever discovered.  The treasure had been in a necropolis containing graves from a Copper Age civilization that had flourished in the Fifth Millennium BCE.  It was uncovered in 1972, when the foundations for a factory were being dug in one of the city's industrial zones.

          The skeletons of dozens of men and women were recovered from the site.  Those on display had been reassembled in the poses in which they had been unearthed.  Most of the jewelry adorned only a few men, indicating an early social stratification.  The precious metal had been fashioned into disks, bracelets, beads, collars, diadems and penis sheaths.  The Chalcolithic craftsmen who made the jewelry may have been Europe's first goldsmiths.  In all, more than three hundred gold items had been removed from the necropolis.

           One of the male skeletons was likely to have been that of a king or high priest, as the precious grave goods in his burial were the richest and most numerous.  His finger bones held a rudimentary scepter, an axe handle wrapped in sheets of beaten gold.  The gold shone as brightly against the bones as it must have on the day that it was buried.   Only it had not been buried.  It was, in fact, not gold; the museum exhibited only replicas of the artifacts.  Even the bones were substitutes, made of plastic.  I did not hear about that until much later in the trip.  It did not matter.  At the time, I believed that I was peering at the Gold of Varna and was suitably awed by its antiquity.  Had the pieces been the originals, I dare say that they would have looked just the same to me.





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria Chalcolithic goldsmiths Copper Age cruise Gold of Varna Skorpil Brothers Varna archaeological Museum Wed, 13 Jul 2022 02:30:00 GMT
Current Events 67: The Martenitsa           Though there was an excellent highway from Ruse to Varna, two hundred kilometers was a long ride in a bus.  Radi's spirits were not dampened by the morning's overcast skies and cool temperatures.  She was delighted that she would be able to introduce us to her home city.  She was hoping that she could have us meet her husband, a Serbian man to whom she had been married for only a year.  And we could meet her dog, apparently the winner of Varna's canine lottery.  Radi donned a traditional Bulgarian costume for the bus ride.  It was a long red dress, embroidered with white flowers.  The costume enhanced the darkness of her eyes and the formidable whiteness of her smile.  She distributed little cellophane packets to all of the members of our group.  Each packet contained tassels made of yarn, red and white, like Radi's frock.

          Radi explained the significance of her gifts:  they were martenitsi, exchanged by Bulgarians on the first of March, a festival called Martenitsa.  One can acquire a martenitsa only as a present.  Relatives and friends give dozens of them to one another.  Bulgarians pin them to their clothes or wear them on their wrists from March first until they see a migrating stork or swallow, or a tree in bloom.  This is meant to encourage Baba Marta, a cantankerous, mythical crone who personifies the cold weather, to relent and let Spring arrive early.

           Once one has observed the first sign of Spring, he or she ties the martenitsa to the limb of a tree.  Or one can place the martenitsa beneath a stone, and wait for small creature to crawl near it.  A worm or insect might be auspicious, or a spider might signify bad luck.  Bulgarians associated white with strength and purity, and red with love, good health and fecundity.  I did not need to be an ethnographer to guess that festooning the flowering trees was a vestigial fertility rite.  Bulgaria's population did not shift from the villages to the cities until relatively late, when the Communist regime compelled many peasants to become industrial workers.  So the charming atavism of exchanging martenitsi survived.  It may have become even more entrenched with the resurgence of nationalism throughout the former Soviet bloc.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Baba Marta Bulgaria cruise fertility rites Martenitsa Varna Wed, 06 Jul 2022 22:30:00 GMT
Current Events 66: Changing Course           From Arbanassi, the bus did not return us to Nikopol, where we had breakfasted.  Instead, we went to a berth downriver, at Ruse.  Ruse is Bulgaria's major Danube port.  It was also our last stop on the river, contrary to our original itinerary.  From Ruse, we were to have cruised through the Danube delta to the black Sea port of Constanţa.  Little rain had fallen that Summer, however, and the water levels in The Danube were too low to permit safe navigation through the delta's sandbars.  Our captain, he of the unforgettable surname, had been consulting other river captains along our route.  He told us that a ship similar to the M/S River Aria had run aground, necessitating the rescue of the passengers from the middle of the river.  Our captain did not want us to share that fate.  

          When we had booked our trip, the tour company had apprised us of the possibility that the fluctuating river level could influence the choice of ports.  We would remain docked in Ruse, and the ship would be our hotel for the last two nights of the cruise.  Buses would take us to the Black Sea through Bulgaria instead of Romania, to the port of Varna.

          When I heard that, I gripped HL's hand and began to grin.  I had wanted to visit Varna ever since I first read Bram Stoker's Dracula.  The very name conjured up a port so remote and exotic that I was thrilled by the prospect of being there.  Varna was Radi's home, and she had praised its beaches and general ambiance more than once.  Meeting a native of Varna had transferred the city from my imagination to a place with an actual longitude and latitude.  When Radi spoke of Varna, I was sorry that it had not been included in our itinerary.  When it was added, it felt like a gift.

On the road from Ruse to Varna, as seen from the bus


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria Constanta Danube delta Danube River Romania Ruse Varna Thu, 30 Jun 2022 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 65: More Oddities of Arbanassi           We ended our afternoon in Arbanassi on a steep street where artisans produced jewelry, pottery, and embroidered linens for sale.  There were art and antique galleries, too, among the inevitable souvenir shops.  Prices were fairly low. Some of the ceramic wares would have made nice gifts, but I did not fancy hauling them back in my luggage.  There were few motor vehicles on the main street.  Day trippers, like bewildered time travelers, ambled slowly down the middle of the road.

          One shop window offered a glimpse of Bulgaria's pre-Christian past.  Pagan customs persisted throughout rural Europe, especially in villages isolated by mountainous, wooded terrain.  Elements of ancient tribal rites were incorporated into holiday observances sanctioned by church authorities.  Looking at these costumes, I thought of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring.  Folkways are not always quaint.  


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Arbanassi Balkan paganism Bulgaria folkways Wed, 22 Jun 2022 23:45:00 GMT
Current Events 64: Archangels in Arbanassi           Our guide, Radi, introduced the next attraction as remarkable, and advised us to have our cameras ready.  We filed into a modest church dedicated to the Archangels Michael and Gabriel.  From the outside, it could have been another merchant's manor.  Inside, the walls and the entire barrel-vaulted ceiling were covered with stunning frescoes.  On a dark background representing the heavens, the brilliantly pigmented figures of saints and angels were everywhere we turned, their golden haloes and wings glowing.  

          A young woman with close-cropped hair was our guide to the church.  She held forth in passable English on the church's origin during Arbanassi's heyday, early in the Seventeenth Century.  The Orthodox merchants had donated funds to decorate their new church as lavishly as possible.  They had hired icon painters from other parts of Bulgaria and Romania to render the holy images in the medieval style.  There was a splendid iconostasis, painstakingly restored, as were the frescoes.  The profusion of precisely colored figures was dazzling, in complete contrast to the church's rude stone walls.  To avoid risking the ire of their Muslim Turkish rulers, the Arbanassi merchants had left the church's exterior plain.

          Here I admit that I was unable to pay much attention to the guide's speech.  There were no seats in the church, and I was very tired.  My throat was sore and my chest tight.  I was about to leave in search of a bench when four monks filed in to stand in front of our group.  They began to sing.  The quartet was dressed with ecclesiastical elegance, in black cassocks with scarlet piping.  Their a cappella performance was as much chanting as singing.  The monks harmonized in a sonorous language, presumably Church Slavonic.  One of the four voices was considerably lower than the other three, a contrabass, a distinctive feature of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music.  I had a fit of coughing and had to leave the church, rather than interrupt the concert.  Radi brought me a glass of water.  She told me that the four singers were professional vocalists, not monks.   I might have guessed that, had I not been distracted by my cough.  I liked thinking that we tourists were providing some income, however modest, for Bulgarian musicians.    


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Arbanassi Bulgarian Orthodox Church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel singing monks Wed, 15 Jun 2022 22:15:00 GMT
Current Events 63: Arbanassi           Velikovo Tarnovo's population was close to 70,000.  Velikovo,  meaning "great", had been added to the name in 1908, when it was designated the capital of an independent Bulgaria.  The adjective remained part of the city's name even after the seat of government moved to Sofia, the present capital.  Velikovo Tarnovo was one of the few places in Bulgaria that was experiencing population growth.  It boasted a university, a military college, and an Old Town.  Arbanassi was much smaller.  Arbanassi was only four kilometers from Velikovo Tarnovo, but most of the distance was vertical.  There was a scattering of vacation villas and rustic hotels on the mountaisides.  It was evident that the area was developing into a resort for foreign as well as Bulgarian tourists.  There were signs in English and German advertising lodgings and gift shops.  Arbanassi turned out to be a gentrified hamlet completely dependent on tourism. 

           It had not always been so small a settlement.  In the Eighteenth Century, it had become a trading center, after a series of revolts had won Bulgarians a measure of autonomy from the faltering Ottoman Empire.  The affluent merchants in Arbanassi built grand houses in what became known as Bulgarian Revival style.   In addition, they financed the construction of five churchs and a monastery.  Arbanassi's wealth drew brigands, who raided the town repeatedly.  Outbreaks of plague further exposed the town, which was pillaged and burned.  Its inhabitants fled to Romania or Greece.  Arbanassi dwindled in importance until its current revival.  Today, there are a few hundred ipeople living there, operating guest houses, retaurants, and handicrafts shops.  Our group stopped to tour The Merchant's house Museum.  It was a structure with a fortress-like bottom story of heavily mortared  stones and recessed, slitted windows.  The upper story was more gracious, made of wood, with many windows.  

          The merchant family's quarters reflected Turkish influence, with low platforms for sitting and sleeping, covered in richly colored rugs.  Red and pine green were the dominant hues in the textiles that brightened the whitewashed rooms.  Some rooms were reserved for the household's women, most notably the birthing room and nursery.  The interior of the Merchant's House looked comfortable, even luxurious, in contrast to its rough outer defenses.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Arbanassi Bulgaria Bulgarian Revival style Merchant's House Museum Thu, 09 Jun 2022 23:30:00 GMT
Current Events 62: Velikovo Tarnovo           I was feeling ill when I awoke on the morning that we docked in Nikopol.  The Aria had sailed there from Vidin while I slept.  My throat was sore, and I had developed laryngitis.  We were not slated to tour Nikopol, another port that the Romans had fortiifed. Instead, our destination was the medieval capital of Bulgaria,  Velikovo Tarnovo.  It was about 90 kilometers south of The Danube, an hour's ride by bus on narrow, twisting roads.  The bus climbed as we rode.  The seat of the ruling dynasty of the Second Bulgarian Empire was in the Stara Planina, or Balkan Mountains, the range that gave the peninsula its name.  The Second Bulgarian Empire arose in the Twelfth Century, when its founders rebelled against their Byzantine suzerains.  That polity lasted about three hundred years, until the Ottoman Turks conquered it.  Tsarevets, the royal citadel, sat high above the Yantra River, on a series of ridges.  The Ottomans had beseiged the citadel for three months before they breached its defenses.  We could distinguish its crenellated walls and arched gates from quite far away, grey against the green hills, as the bus wound towards the fortress. 

          The Tsarevets Fortress was a combination of ruins and restorations.  A bridge over the Yantra gorge led from the fortress to the town, formerly named Tarnovo, or Tarnograd.  A stone heraldic lion resting its paw on a shield guarded the entrance to Tsarevets.  The handsome gates, bridge, and carved feline guardian had all been refurbished.  Most striking was the stern grey fortification called Baldwin's Tower.  There was a legend that Tsar Kaloyan captured the noble Flemish Crusader, Baldwin.  Baldwin had made himself the Latin King of Constantinople.  Baldwin was supposed to have died in his prison.  It was an ignominious end, as are so many in East European lore.  Remnants of palaces, churches and houses dotted the hill behind the gates.  Atop the hill was the rebuilt Patriarch's Complex, surrounding an intact church with a tall steeple.  We did not have time to walk to the summit of the hill because we had to return to the bus and proceed to Arbanassi. 




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Baldwin's Tower Patriarch's Complex Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria Tsarevets Velikovo Tarnovo Thu, 02 Jun 2022 22:30:00 GMT
Current Events 61: Roofless in Vidin              After the Jews' departure from Vidin, the vacant synagogue deteriorated.  In the 1970's, the Ministry of Culture drew up plans to restore the building for use as a center for the arts.  Work began in 1983 and was still in progress six years later, when Communism ended.  The timing could not have been worse.  Workers had just removed the roof.  There was no one to authorize replacing the roof during the chaos that followed the dissolution of the Soviet bloc.  The funds for restoration had disappeared with the commissars.  Open to the elements, the roofless synagogue became a ruin unsafe to enter.

          Despite its deplorable condition, the Vidin synagogue was still beautiful.  I was tempted to enter it, as much to stand there for a few, silent moments as to explore the littered interior.  That was not possible, as the parade of our fellow travelers already had left HL and me behind, but I knew that I would be writing about it.  And the abandoned synagogue inspired one of my New Moon paintings.  I add to this series each Rosh HaShanah , the resumption of the cycle of the Jewish year.  Unlikely as it seemed as I peered through its empty casements, the synagogue might yet be restored.  Many of the major attractions in Eastern Europe had been reconstructed from rubble since the Second World War.  If the Jews of Bulgaria could be saved, in defiance of the odds, so, too, might the Vidin Synagogue.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgarian Jews fall of Communism New Moon paintings by Tamar Vidin Synagogue Fri, 27 May 2022 23:30:00 GMT
Current Events 60: A Dubious Heroism          Radi was pleased to disclose the reason for the Bulgarian Jews' escape from the Nazis' extermination camps.  Though his country had been aligned with the Axis powers, King Boris of Bulgaria had resisted Hitler's demand to surrender 50,000 of the king''s Jewish subjects.  King Boris traveled to Germany in order to express his defiance in person.  A few weeks later, King Boris died of an apparent heart attack.  At the time, the Bulgarians, as well as some German officials,  believed that the king had been murdered with a slow-acting poison.  The Third Reich was known to employ such means to assassinate important enemies.

          It was not until I had returned to The States and done some research that I learned that Radi's account of royal heroism was, at best, an oversimplification.  King Boris became a German ally in order to reclaim territory that Bulgaria had been forced to cede to Romania and Greece after the First World War.  When the Nazis occupied those areas, they offered them to the king in exchange for his fealty.  Part of the price was the enforcement of a Bulgarian version of the Nuremberg Laws that legitimized the persecution of the Jews.  King Boris, however, was an uncooperative partner, as he was reluctant to commit his troops to fight the Soviets.  That must have irked Hitler and his high command.  King Boris' eleventh-hour refusal  to yield the Jews of Bulgaria would have guaranteed a death sentence.  The boxcars were waiting in railyards throughout Bulgaria.  And King Boris already had countenanced the deportation of 20,000 Macedonian and Romanian Jews from his reconstituted realm.  They perished in Treblinka and Majdanek.  Technically, they were not Bulgarian Jews.  King Boris was not so intent on preserving Jewish lives as he was on asserting his sovreignty.  He had not realized how dangerous that would prove to be. 

          When Vidin's Jews erected their synagogue in 1894, their community was thriving.  Bulgarian Jews had been granted civil equality and a high degree of integration into the fledgling nation's economy.  Once, the ruin had been the grandest of Vidin's five synagogues, with crystal chandeliers commissioned from Vienna.  In the 1940's, The Nazis seized and plundered it.  They used the building for storage.  After the war, the Soviets' client Communist government discouraged religious expression.  The Jews saw dim prospects for their future in the Soviet bloc.  After 1948, most Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) King Boris of Bulgaria Vidin Vidin Jewish community Thu, 19 May 2022 21:30:00 GMT
Current Events 59: The Abandoned Synagogue           As we walked from Baba Vida back towards the town center, I heard a riot of barking and growling.  Suddenly, a pack of dogs bolted down the street in pursuit of a car.  Vidin had not taken the sort of stringent measures to reduce its stray canine population that Belgrade had done.  Radi cautioned us not to approach the dogs where they stood, panting, after their automotive prey escaped.  Our guide said that the dogs were not really dangerous, though their running after cars did create a nuisance.  She disliked imparting anything that might foster a negative opinion of anything Bulgarian.  Humane societies throughout the country were addressing the problem, Radi assured us.  Her husband and she, for example, had adopted a dog from a shelter.

          The dogs had distracted me so that I had not noticed an imposing, derelict structure across the road until we had drawn abreast of it.  Behind a fence topped with barbed wire was the ruin of the Vidin synagogue.  Its image remains the single most indelible one of the entire trip.  I see it dreaming and waking, and when I am trying to fall asleep.  Once, it had been a splendid edifice, one of the largest synagogues in Bulgaria.  It was erected in 1894, in the Neo-Moorish style of the Dohanyi Synagogue in Budapest.  It had four towers and two tiers of paired, arched windows through which we could view the sky, as the synagogue had no roof.  Trees had taken root in the inner courtyard, and vines had grown over the faҫade.  Tangled foliage spilled from the lower windows, and tree limbs protruded from the upper ones.  The bricks had lost most of their covering layer of stucco.

          Convenient as it would have been to regard the Vidin Synagogue as a poignant symbol of the doom of European Jewry, that would not be accurate.  Rather, the tale of its abandonment was one of the mutability of Fortune and the ineptitude of Eastern European bureaucracy.  Franz K., do I hear you chuckling, again?  Allow me to explain, in my next post.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria Vidin Synagogue wild dogs Thu, 12 May 2022 20:45:00 GMT
Current Events 58: Baba Vida           Bulgaria had been a formidable kingdom during the early Middle Ages.  A remnant of Bulgaria's former might was the fortress of Baba Vida, Vidin's principal landmark.  According to legend, Vida was one of three daughters of a Bulgarian king.  After their father's death, each of his daughters inherited a third of the kingdom.  Both of Vida's sisters wed ill-starred noblemen who lost their wives' patrimony in wars.  Vida, however, did not marry, choosing instead to devote herself to her subjects' welfare.  Thus she became the Baba Vida, or Grandma Vida,  the mythic protectress honored in the name of the citadel.

          Baba Vida was preserved in its entirety, making it unique among Bulgaria's medieval castles.  The Turks had demolished most of the others when they occupied The Balkans.  Baba Vida's site was another of those that the Romans and, later, the Celts,  had fortified.  The bastion that we toured had four square towers and a double ring of curtain walls.  Construction began in the Tenth Century.  The stronghold was completed in the Fourteenth Century, and was the rulers' residence during the brief existence of the Tsardom of Vidin.  Baba Vida was still an effective defense six hundred years later, when the Austrians modified it to accommodate gunnery emplacements.

           In prior ages, the moat would have contained water instead of grass.  The passages between the oppressively thick stone walls would not have been silent, especially near the cells for prisoners.  As we walked through Baba Vida, we could understand how the fortress had withstood numerous sieges.  Not all of it was accessible, and some of the staircases required tight turns and sound nerves.  We climbed to the ramparts and looked out over The Danube, which angled sharply at Vidin. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Baba Vida Balkans Bulgaria Tsardom of Vidin Turks Vidin Thu, 05 May 2022 22:45:00 GMT
Current Events 57: The Faces of the Dead           The Bulgarians have a custom that I had never encountered anywhere else, and it was in Vidin that I was introduced to it.  The local people printed the pictures and names of their deceased relatives on sheets of paper, the size of computer printer paper, and posted them around town.  People pinned these Memento mori  to metal, cork-lined frameworks placed on street corners for this express purpose.  Dozens of the dead gathered in two-dimensional form, the sheets pinned so their edges aligned to form a macabre sort of wallpaper. There was not enough room on the bulletin boards for all of the funerary handbills, however, so some were affixed to lamp posts and tree trunks.  There was a standard layout, with a formula of farewell and the departed one's name on top.  Each page bore a passport-style photograph, with the relevant text in Bulgarian below the portrait, and a crucifix in the upper left corner.  We saw only one page with a Star of David in the corner, on a notice that a woman named Gittel had, presumably, been gathered to her ancestors.

          I was unabashedly fascinated by these obituary notices, known as Necrolog.  In Bulgaria, the dead are not gone.  Their visages offer all who pass the promise of love and redemption.  When people died, their families posted these notices at the graveyard, the church, and wherever else they chose.  They might mail them to distant kin.  A Necrolog might list only the dates of birth and death,  or include the cause of death.  Some Necrologs addressed the defunct loved one, often in verse.  Some who composed the Necrologs signed their names, or identified themselves simply as The Bereaved.   A Necrolog will be posted not only after someone's demise, but also forty days later, then at three-month intervals for the next year or so.  After that, the practice is to post one only once a year per decedent.  At that juncture, the Necrolog becomes very similar to the Yahrtzeit, when Jews light a candle to mark the anniversary of a relative's death.  


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria Bulgarian funerary customs Necrolog Vidin Wed, 27 Apr 2022 23:00:00 GMT
Current Events 56: A Mosque in Vidin           The mosque was not much larger than a private house.  A black-bearded man of perhaps forty ushered our group into a room that had two tiled niches set into one wall.  The windows had ceramic frames embellished with arabesques.  Otherwise, there was little ornamentation and almost no furniture, as there had to be space for the worshippers to unfurl their prayer mats.  I was at the back of the line and so missed mention of our host's title, if any.   I listened to Radi as she translated the man's replies to the inevitable queries from my earnest fellow travelers.  He described the Muslims in Vidin as native Bulgarians who differed little from the town's Christian citizenry.  They were not interested in Islamic fundamentalism, he asserted.  They were striving to prepare their progeny to earn their livelihoods in a modern society.  To hear the fellow tell it, these Muslims were busily pursuing The Bulgarian Dream.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria mosque Muslims The Bulgarian Dream Vidin Fri, 22 Apr 2022 02:30:00 GMT
Current Events 55: Vidin, Bulgaria, Part 2           Vidin had a modern central plaza with marble and bronze monuments to soldiers who had died in a plethora of wars.  Even without the civil conflagrations of the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria had been involved in half a dozen wars in the Twentieth Century alone.  On a terrace above the river was a Soviet-style sculptural tribute to The Heroes of the Resistance, shown as strapping male figures emerging from cubes of marble.  


         Once, Vidin had been an important river port.  While it still possessed a faded fin-de-siècle grace, Vidin also contained many reminders of its lengthy Ottoman past.  Domed roofs and vestigial crescents marked the locations of former mosques and bath houses.  After the First World War, many Muslims left Bulgaria for Turkey.  Our guides had arranged for us to visit one of the last mosques that served Vidin's dwindling Muslim population.  As we walked towards the mosque, we were accosted by a Roma woman and her daughters.  The woman spoke some Bulgarian, and Radi translated it.  The woman had three daughters, and the eldest of them was twelve.  The younger girls were seven and four, small-boned and quiet.  

           All three girls had purplish circles around their eyes.  They looked undernourished and none too clean.  One of the retired teachers in our group wanted to know if the children attended school.  Through Radi, the mother, with much energetic nodding, reassured the solicitous Midwesterner that the girls did, in fact, go to school.  She beamed as if proud of securing a formal education for her daughters.  It was a Sunday, so it was plausible, but I doubted that it was true. Later, Radi agreed that the woman would have said whatever she thought that the foreign tourists wanted to hear.  Several members of our group gave the Roma woman money, despite our guides' prior admonitions.            




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria mosque Muslims Ottomans Roma Vidin Thu, 14 Apr 2022 05:15:00 GMT
Current Events 54: Vidin, Bulgaria, Part 1          On the morning after our passage through the Iron Gates, the ship docked in Bulgaria.  The river port of Vidin was in the extreme northwestern part of the country, a narrow hook between Serbia and Romania.  On a map of The Balkans, the borders of the countries look as if they were drawn by a toddler who had binged on sugar prior to picking up a crayon.  Our guide, Radi, was more effervescent than ever.  Beaming, Radi said that she was proud to be showing us her beautiful native country.  All of the local guides, as well as the four who traveled with us throughout the cruise, had waxed equally rhapsodic about their nations.  To their credit, the guides maintained a professional neutrality when they discussed other cultures.  Yet each belonged to a specific geography, and did not question his or her attachment to it.  I could never know that kind of certainty or comfort.  I had been too young when I left the city of my birth, and had not dwelled anywhere else long enough for any place to feel like home.

          Bulgaria was terra incognita to me,  even more than its bellicose neighbors.  The Ottomans had vanquished and then ruled Bulgaria until 1878.  Bulgaria had been aligned with the losing sides in both World Wars.  Towards the end of the Second World War, Bulgaria changed sides and welcomed the Russians, their Slavic brothers responding to a common foe.  After the installation of a Communist government in 1944, Bulgaria became a Soviet satellite.  In the post-Soviet era, the Bulgarians were not as sentimental about The Communism as many Serbs seemed to be.  They could not fail to be conscious, however, of their loss of security in the free market (sic) economy that had replaced their highly centralized one.

           Vidin was not without charm, though it was evident that the town had seen better days.  At the quayside where we disembarked was a dirt-streaked white gazebo with the name "Vidin" inscribed on it in Cyrillic letters.  The streets were paved in a geometric red brick and pale concrete, but they were grimy and, in some places, missing bricks.  The Neoclassical faҫades of mansions, apartment blocks and hotels were cracked and in need of paint.  




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Bulgaria Cyrillic alphabet Danube River port Ottoman Empire The Balkans Vidin Thu, 07 Apr 2022 22:00:00 GMT
Current Events 53: Through the Locks         Our ship entered the first lock at noon.  Iron Gates I was the site of the first hydroelectric dam to supply power to both Serbia and Romania.  Constructing it had taken twelve years.  The lock had four chambers.  It was one of the largest in the world.  The ship began to drop as soon as the lock's gates swept shut behind it.  The mechanical sequence that propelled the ship through the lock was slow, yet fascinating to witness.  The gate that had admitted our craft soon sank beneath the water.  Overhead, the power lines hummed.  When we went to lunch in the dining room, all that was visible through the windows were the sides of the lock.  We descended through concrete strata, and I kept staring through the glass despite my incipient claustrophobia.

Iron Gates, Lock I

Dining Inside the Lock 

            Since we were spending the entire day sailing, HL and I signed up for a tour of the galley.  That revelation of the culinary choreography relieved that afternoon's sense of confinement.  The Slovakian executive chef allowed a dozen passengers at a time into his immaculate, stainless steel domain.  His minions and he demonstrated how they conjured three elaborate meals a day for two hundred people from a kitchen and pantry area smaller than a living room  in an average North American home.  The cooking crew had only nine seconds to fill and garnish each plate before a waiter carried it to the dining room.  I was impressed not only by the speed, but also the unremitting nature of the labor.  No sooner had the staff cleaned the kitchen than it was time to start preparing another meal.  The consistently high quality of the food on board ws even more laudable after I had toured the galley. 

          Towards evening, the ship entered the second lock, Iron Gates II, some 50 kilometers from the first lock.  The second dam had been built in 1984.  The Sun was low as we proceeded towards the dam, and the play of the cliffs' shadows and the light on the river's surface was hypnotic.  The ship had to be lowered about 14 meters in each lock, and traverse the same distance, 300 meters, before emerging on the river once again.  Going through the second lock was no longer a novelty, but it was still worth standing on the top deck to watch it again. 




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Danube River Iron Gates Locks I and II river cruise Romania Serbia Fri, 01 Apr 2022 00:30:00 GMT
Current Events 52: Decebalus the King           On the Romanian shore was another monument, the titanic head of the Dacian ruler, Decebalus.  Decebalus fought a series of wars against the Romans, winning some before he was defeated definitively by Trajan's army.  At forty meters high, the hero's statue was the tallest rock carving in Europe.  The part of the outcropping above the chieftain's massive countenance was shaped into a conical cap.  The sculptors had given Decebalus a severe expression.  His wide, stone eyes glared at us as the ship went past.  Anyone who has seen advertisements for European river cruises is likely to have had a glimpse of the Dacian king, scowling in the background above a gorge.   

          The Decebalus relief does not date from antiquity, as one might suppose, but from the last decade of the Twentieth Century.  A Romanian entrepreneur named Dragan commissioned the work.  The ambitious Dragan wrested his riches from the wreckage of Comunism.  His brand of romantic nationalism inspired his tribute to the Dacian hero.   For five years, a team of sculptors had dynamited the cliff, shaping it with a series of controlled explosions.  Then they had labored for at least as long again to carve the monarch's features.  Lest there be any doubt about the source of the colossal donation to Romania, the relief included a Latin inscription, legible from quite a distance.  It read Decebalus Rex -- Dragan Fecit  (Decebalus the King -- Made by Dragan).

           Another place of interest on the Romanian side was a small monastery, the reconstruction of a late medieval one that had been demolished and rebuilt repeatedly over the course of 500 years.  The latest iteration of the Mraconia Monastery dated from 1993.  Its predecessor had been inundated once the dams were completed.  Part of the monastery stood atop a concrete boathouse, and I thought about how isolated it must have been before an inland, modern road had been extended to reach it.  Only a few monks were in residence.  Wide steps led from the water's edge to the white church, one with three dark-tiled domes in the Romanian eclesiastical style.  Atop the central dome and the pair of smaller domes on the bell towers were shiny, gold-toned crucifixes.  The river lapped incessantly at the base of the picturesque compound, which resembled a toy model of a monastery even before it began to dwindle from view.  

Mraconia Monastery



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Dacians Danube Dragan Iron Gates King Decebalus monument Mraconia Monastery river cruises Romanians Wed, 23 Mar 2022 23:15:00 GMT
Current Events 51: Trajan's Tablet             The Danube River carried our ship through the deepest gorge in Europe.  Aside from a few craft sailing upriver, there were few traces of civilization.  Both Serbia and Romania had created national parks on their sides of the gorge.  I was content to commune with Nature as the river wound south.  I should not, however, call the landscape unspoiled.  It had been altered drastically by a series of dams that had made the Lower Danube navigable.  Before that, the gorge had been infamous among boatmen for its submerged rocks, rapids, and cataracts that had obstructed shipping.  The Romanians had called that stretch of the river The Cauldrons.  It was not until the 1970's that the first of a series of locks was completed, a joint Serbian-Romanian project.  The dams that tamed the river and provided hydroelectric power had flooded the gorge, raising the water level by more than 35 meters.  An entire island had been submerged.  Eventually, more than twenty thousand people were forced to relocate to higher ground.  Upriver from the first dam, all the way back to Belgrade, The Danube had become as much an enormous lake as a river.

          Our daily printed agenda had alerted us to look for the Tabula Traiana, a Roman monument carved into the rock two millennia ago.  It was on the Serbian side of the defile.  The Emperor Trajan had overseen the erection of a bridge over The Danube to link Roman roads.  It enabled the legions to conquer Dacia, the kingdom that the victors renamed Romania.  Trajan had his accomplishment commemorated on a plaque carved into the rock, so that future generations would learn of his military glory.  The lettering was incised into a rectangle about four meters wide and two meters high.  The Tabula would have been underwater if the dam's engineers had not raised it to safety in its present location.  It was an engineering feat that the ancient Romans would have appreciated.

Trajan's Tablet, a Roman Monument from the Second Century




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) ancient Roman engineering Balkan nature preserves Dacia hydroelectric dams Lower Danube Roman Emperor Trajan Romania Tabula Traiana The Cauldron Fri, 18 Mar 2022 00:30:00 GMT
Current Events 50: Approaching the Iron Gates           Next on our itinerary was a full day of sailing, which had given me pause before we booked the cruise.  I had thought that I might become anxious while restricted to the ship as it went more than 130 kilometers down The Danube.  The ship's cruising speed was rather too leisurely to suit me.  And we would have to pass through a series of locks, slowing us down considerably.  As it happened, I was glad of a day to rest, because I had a troublesome cold.  I had caught it at the beginning of the voyage, and developed a persistent cough.  I was hoarse, losing my voice for hours at a time.  Sometimes I was feverish.  HL had a milder case of the same respiratory ailment.  Many of the crew and passengers had similar symptoms, though I was unlucky enough to have a worse case than most.  The laryngitis was especially vexatious.  I remained in bed, skipping breakfast, and missed the first hours of the sailing.

Approaching the Iron Gates

          When I climbed onto the upper deck, the weather was warm.   The ship was sailing through a rocky gorge.  We approached the Iron Gates under a hazy sky.  On The Danube's southern shore rose the hills of Serbia.  To the north, we had our first sight of Romania.  Limestone cliffs rose hundreds of meters above the water, jutting from the steep, forested slopes on both sides.  The border between the two countries was in the middle of The Danube.  The scenery was a magnificent as the ship's crew had assured us that it would be.  One of the crew broadcast commentary from the wheelhouse.  The guides circulated among those on deck, augmenting the crew members' descriptions with their own remarks.  People clustered in the bow, taking pictures or simply admiring the view. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Danube gorge Danube River Iron Gates river cruise Romania Serbia Thu, 10 Mar 2022 03:00:00 GMT
Current Events 49: The Talija Troupe            On our last night docked in Belgrade, we were treated to a performance by the Talija Folklore Dance Ensemble.  I am giving the full name of the company because the dancers deserve recognition.  They presented dances from several regions of Serbia, with corresponding changes of costume.  I am fond of folk dance in general, and this group danced with an animation and grace that  delighted me.  The comely female dancers and their lithe male partners had the passengers reaching for their cameras.  The dancers' movements were so spirited that it was almost impossible to take a picture of them.  Fortunately, HL proved equal to the challenge.  There was room in the ship's lounge for only five couples to whirl and leap.  When the full company toured internationally, it consisted of as many as thirty dancers.  The Talija troupe provided the best shipboard entertainment of the cruise.  Their performance was a fine farewell to Serbia, a country that I had not anticipated would interest me quite so much. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) regional dances Serbian folk dance shipboard entertainment Talija Folklore Dance Ensemble Thu, 03 Mar 2022 00:00:00 GMT
Current Events 48: Emanuela          That night, there were two programs on the ship.  The first was a presentation by Emanuela, a young Roma woman.  The Roma, more familiar to speakers of English as Gypsies, form an impoverished underclass throughout The Balkans.  Theirs is the perennial story of a dark-skinned minority with its own language and customs.  For centuries, the Roma have inspired distrust and hatred.  They used to occupy a marginal place in the landscape, encamping near towns, mending pots, sharpening knives, playing music at weddings, and then going back on the road.  Now the Roma are no longer nomads.  Those who escaped the Nazis were forced into fixed abodes throughout the Communist bloc.  Wherever they were not herded into grim concrete apartment blocks, the Roma settled in shantytowns without running water or sanitation.                                                                                                               

         A Roma Settlement 

Roma Woman Picking through Trash in Belgrade

          Their general illiteracy and suspicion of outsiders have compounded the discrimination that the Roma face. In maintaining their tribal identity, the Roma have resisted integration into Serbian society.  They avoid enrolling their children in school and often train them to beg.  The Roma children who do attend school tend to be segregated in classes for those with intellectual disabilities.  Our guides warned us not to give alms to mendicant Roma, especially women holding infants and toddlers.  Emanuela confirmed that parents would drug their children so that they would look sweetly asleep, and increase the poignancy of the adult panhandlers' appeals.

           It is only in recent years that some young Roma women, like Emanuela, have rejected their traditional limitations and obtained educations.  I suppose that should have been encouraging.  Instead, I was disheartened by the deplorable familiarity of the narrative. It would require a titanic commitment of resources to address the poverty that spawns petty crime, domestic abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction among the Roma.  I could tell that many of my fellow passengers were moved by Emanuela's presentation.  A number of them made donations to the social service agency that employed Emanuela.  Then we filed into the dining room, where white-jacketed waiters served us a dinner with several courses, filling our wine glasses assiduously the while.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) discrimination Gypsies nomads Roma Serbia shantytowns Thu, 24 Feb 2022 23:00:00 GMT
Current Events 47: In the White City, Part 2             The middle of the promenade was practically paved with café tables,  Belgradians were sitting with friends, drinking, eating, and, of course, smoking.  It was the middle of the afternoon, and the citizenry was not at all averse to indulging in alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and flirtation. Almost everyone was well dressed and engaged in conversation, either on their phones or face to face with their confederates.  Graceful, long-limbed young men and women streamed past, the boys in narrow slacks and the girls in short skirts.  Tall women strode by in dizzyingly high heels.  HL and I ordered drinks and sat back to watch the sidewalk show.  We must be forgiven for snapping surreptitious, candid pictures of the Belgradians around us.

On Prince Michael (Knez Mihailov) Street



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade cafés Prince Michael Street Serbia The White City Thu, 17 Feb 2022 22:30:00 GMT
Current Events 46: In the White City, Part 1             After having breathed the elegaic atmosphere of the synagogue, we were ready to stroll along Knez Mihailov, or Prince Michael, Street, Belgrade's main pedestrian thoroughfare.  A handsome bronze equestrian statue of the eponymous prince dominated Republic Square, the center of the city.  Prince Michael had been the ruler when the Turks finally decamped from Serbia in the late Nineteenth Century.  The wide street had been turned into a mall, and it was lined with shops and cafés.  International brands of luxury goods were well represented on both sides.  There were also kiosks in the middle of the street, selling periodicals,  souvenirs, and refreshments.  Reading, apparently, was far from obsolete in the White City.

           We passed used booksellers' stalls and several bookstores.  The window of Plato's Bookstore displayed a variety of T-shirts printed with anti-American and anti-capitalist slogans.  Naturally, we had to go inside.  There we found more merchandise  that demonstrated that not all Serbians had been converted to soi-disant Western democracy.  T-shirts sold at the kiosks were even more emphatic.  One could choose apparel, mugs or magnets bearing the image of any one of several past dictators and current local demagogues.  I bought a postcard that denigrated Coca-Cola, not sparing the profanity, and praised slivovitz, presumably the proper beverage for Serbian patriots.  There was a T-shirt imprinted with the same sentiment on offer.  Had I been able to think of anyone who might wear such a gift, I might have bought the shirt.





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) anti-capitalism Belgrade bookstores Prince Michael Street Republic Square Serbia The White City Thu, 10 Feb 2022 22:45:00 GMT
Current Events 45: The Belgrade Synagogue, Part 2/ Sukkat Shalom           The synagogue was grey and three stories high, with a facade that was bland at first glance, but then resolved itself into a decent example of 1920's Neoclassical design.  It was nowhere near as grand as the synagogue in Novi Sad and almost as deserted.  There was a swing set in the untended courtyard, as well as some weathered stone slabs incised with Hebrew letters, piled against an outer wall of the compound.  Among them was a relief of the Ten Commandments.  We climbed the front staircase and rang the bell.  A short, brisk, middle-aged woman with dark hair showed us into the vestibule.  Though she knew fewer words of English than I did of Serbian, I was able to explain that we were Jews from The States.  The donation that we left in a tzedakah box was an aid to communication.

           The synagogue was named Sukkat Shalom, that is, Shelter of Peace, an obvious desideratum in a region of such recurrent upheaval.  A plaque beside the door identified the synagogue in Serbian, in Cyrillic letters, and in English as well.  It was not an uncommon name for an American congregation.  Since it had not acquired that appellation until 2002, American sponsors may have suggested it.  Originally, it had been known by its location, as the Kosmajska Street Synagogue.  The Nazis had not had to tax their depraved imaginations for ways to sully it when they occupied Belgrade, but at least they had not razed it as they had other synagogues in the city.  It was cleansed and rededicated after the war.  Both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Torah scrolls were housed in a fine ark ornamented with marble.  Two rows of columns ran the length of the prayer hall, which had a wooden floor inlaid in a pattern of chevrons.  The wooden seats, altar and floor gleamed with polish.  The decor was simple, not unlike that in in older North American synagogues save for a double bench in a corner to the side of the altar.  This was an elaborate version of Elijah's Chair, used during circumcision ceremonies.  It was cushioned in sumptuous blue velvet, a color so rich that even the crimson carpets near the altar looked drab by comparison.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade synagogue Thu, 03 Feb 2022 00:15:00 GMT
Current Events 44: The Belgrade Synagogue, Part 1/ Sukkat Shalom           I was doubly an outsider, a tourist who was also a Jew.  Serbia had been declared Judenfrei by the Nazis and their collaborators after the extermination of over two-thirds of the country's Jews.  Those who escaped the genocide had not fared too badly under Tito, though there were too few of them to revitalize their decimated communities.  The Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair (The Young Guard, of which I had been a member in New York), had joined forces with Tito's partisans to help establish the postwar Communist regime.  The Serbian Jews' lot worsened dramatically during the fighting in The Nineties.  International Jewish aid groups organized heroic rescues, allowing Jews from the embattled former Yugoslavia to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere.  There were no more than 2,000 Jews left in all of Serbia, and half of them resided in Belgrade.  The only functioning synagogue in the country was there, and HL and I resolved to visit it.  

          We were at liberty in central Belgrade until the evening.  HL and I walked as quickly as we could, consulting a rudimentary map.  The synagogue was not far from where the tour buses had left us.  It was not easy to find.  We had to descend a steep staircase past a construction site where extremely noisy machinery was in use.  Then we had to search along an unprepossessing street for the address.  The block seemed a likelier site for a warehouse than a house of worship.  Yet we were in the proper place, thanks to HL's unerring navigational instincts.

Sukkat Shalom Synagogue, Belgrade

           A solid steel fence surmounted with a simple Star of David surrounded the synagogue compound.  If the congregation had wished to escape notice, it had achieved its objective.  The gate was locked.  There was a small booth next to the gate that served as a gatehouse, but there was no response to our knock or raised voices.  Eventually, a uniformed guard materialized, and he communicated to us that the synagogue was closed.  We knew that there were no services scheduled, but we had the name of a caretaker who was supposed to be on the premises.  The guard opened the gate for a woman who was walking a small dog.  She must have been a tenant in one of the apartments across the courtyard from our goal.  With a nod, he guard bade us try our luck at gaining entrance to the synagogue.  Again, I felt the presence of the ghost of Franz Kafka, my steadfast, if disembodied, companion throughout Eastern Europe.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade Kafka synagogue The Young Guard Thu, 27 Jan 2022 23:30:00 GMT
Current Events 43: The Cathedral of Saint Sava/ Hram Svetog Save, Part 2        The secular creed of Communism had not eradicated Serbian Orthodoxy; rather, it was Communism that had been a temporary imposition.  There were large icons with heavily gilded backgrounds set on tables around the circumference of the ground floor, and there were people: business as usual during alterations.  Some of the icons were centuries old.  The pigments were vivid, as if even the oldest of them had been painted recently.  All of them looked valuable.  Candles burned on the tables and in niches around around the nave.  Several men and women were bowing and crossing themselves fervently and repeatedly, oblivious to the tourists and construction workers.  Two in particular caught my eye.  One was a girl clad in black jeans and a T-shirt.  Another was an older woman, dressed in more formal clothing.  Watching them surreptitiously, I became convinced that they were praying in front of the holy images for specific purposes.  There was a hint of desperation in their rapid ritual gestures.


                                                                                 The altar of Saint Sava, not yet concealed

       Our guide, Sofia, whom I judged to be in her thirties, spoke of the church as a fundamental institution in Serbian society.  There are other types of Orthodox Christianity, but Serbia's church is autonomous.  Its practices contribute to the uniqueness of Serbian identity, at least in the minds of Serbs.  In The Balkans, whatever differentiates one group from another assumes what seems, to an outsider, an exaggerated importance. 



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade Cruise icons Saint Sava Serbia Serbian Orthodox Fri, 11 Jun 2021 22:30:00 GMT
Current Events 42: The Cathedral of Saint Sava/ Hram Svetog Save, Part 1        One might have thought that Tito's memorial would be Belgrade's premier tourist attraction.  That distinction, however, belonged to the Temple of  Saint Saba, the grandest Serbian Orthodox church in The Balkans.  Saint Sava, a medieval prince, had been the first Serbian archbishop.  After canonization, he became the national saint.  His importance increased a few centuries later, when the Ottomans punished rebel Serbian Christians by disinterring the saint's remains, burning them, and scattering the ashes.  The current church was erected on the reputed site of the desecration.  Begun in 1935, the church was a magnificent edifice in the Byzantine style, with white marble walls and a copper dome.  It was situated on an elevated plaza and, according to our guide, was visible from almost everywhere in the city.  It was also unfinished.

    The Temple of Saint Sava

       Our guide told us, with palpable pride, that the church had received no government funding.  It was financed solely from the contributions of the worshippers.  The series of wars that convulsed The Balkans during the Twentieth Century had slowed construction for decades.  The Nazis, never ones to forgo a chance to add to the humiliation of the people whom they subjugated, had parked their trucks and troop carriers inside the steel skeleton of the church.  In postwar Yugoslavia, the project languished.  It was not until the final years of Communism that official permission to resume construction was granted.

       The verdigris-crowned mass of Saint Sava's rose at the end of an avenue of trees.  Our guide admonished us to hasten towards the imposing edifice so that we could hear the church bells at noon.  At twelve precisely, fifty bells rang in an exultant pealing that must have been audible all over the city.  With the sound still reverberating in our ears, we entered the shadowy interior.  It was in the process of being decorated.  Polished granite columns supported a circle of arches in the center of the church.  The recesses above the columns were bare plaster , as were most of the visible surfaces.  Scaffolding and plastic sheeting covered parts of the walls, which soared upwards for several stories.  



       Clerestory windows around the base of the central dome allowed light to reach the floor where the altar stood.  The altar was rectangular, and covered in embossed silver and gilt panels.  The altar in an Orthodox church usually is concealed behind an iconostasis, a tall, ornate screen.  It would be hidden from the congregation's sight once the services began there.  Only the priests would be permitted to go behind the iconostasis.  I think that the faithful will have to wait a minimum of years to inaugurate Saint Sava's, as most of the mosaics for the walls still were missing.  There were no pews, but there would never be any.  Worshippers in Orthodox churches do not sit unless they are infirm.  The services can last for hours.  When the church is complete, thousands of people will be able to stand within its walls.  I should have liked to see it in all its splendor, but decided that I was privileged  to be able to view the enormous church as a work in progress.  There was even something ethereal about the plastic shrouding, as if an angel had trailed a wing over the concrete blocks.  

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade Cathedral of Saint Sava Cruise iconostasis Serbian Orthodox Sat, 05 Jun 2021 00:45:00 GMT
Current Events 41: The Veterans  


 Radi, our guide,  was determined that her tour group should have contact with natives wherever we went. She had arranged for us to hear a local Serb express his feelings about Tito and “The Communism”. He met us outside Tito’s mausoleum. He was a grey-haired man in his seventies named Vasilije Kirkovič. He had spoken to groups led by Radi in the past, and was eager to do it again. Before he could do so, however, a florid, close-shaven man in a uniform, complete with a beret and a row of ribbons on his shirt, began talking to us. He was impressively inebriated, especially as it was not yet noon. Radi translated; the voluble stranger was from Slovenia. His former army comrades and he were having a reunion. They had traveled over five hundred kilometers to Belgrade together. They had come to honor Tito’s memory and, not incidentally, drink to it. He wanted us to know what a great hero Tito had been, and, with drunken persistence, ignored Radi’s attempts to thank him and move us away. When she did succeed, the veteran saluted us crisply, managing to remain vertical in the process.

Kirkovič decried the chaos that had replaced the regulated society in which he came of age. His plaint was not unlike that of blue-collar workers who had belonged to labor unions in The States, before the unions’ power waned. Without university educations, his wife and he had enjoyed job security and a decent standard of living. They had even been able to vacation abroad, owing to Tito’s canny manipulation of both Eastern and Western bloc diplomats. For Kirkovič, the advent of capitalism had fostered anxieties rather than opportunities. It did not matter to him that the workers’ paradise had been financed not only by foreign largesse, but also by loans that Yugoslavia could not repay. He missed Tito, and he was not alone.

V. Kirkovic described the glorious old days under Tito, with Radi in the background.


                                           The stranger from Slovenia insisted on giving us the benefit of his opinions.





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise Danube Serbia Tito veterans Yugoslavia Fri, 28 May 2021 01:54:54 GMT
Current Events 40: The House of Flowers           Nowhere was the Serbian nation's devotion to its former leader more evident than at Marshal Tito's tomb.  Tito was released from his earthly office in 1980.  His mausoleum was set in a sculpture garden atop a wooded, meticulously landscaped hill.  The lush greensward rose towards a rectangular edifice with glass walls.  It was two stories tall, with a partial third story.  A fountain played in the paved courtyard in front of it.  With its stark lines and many windows, the building resembled airport terminals of the same era.  Above the entrance was a black-and-white mural with a trio of soldiers on the left, holding rifles,and three more unarmed soldiers on the right.  This alluded to Tito's military prowess,  He had been a partisan commander during World War II.  He was a hero to the Serbs despite his having been born in Croatia to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother.

            The mausoleum was called The House of Flowers, Kuca Cveca in Serbian.  It was part greenhouse, part tomb, and part museum.  There was nothing gloomy about it.  Josip Broz Tito's marble gravestone lay in the middle of an indoor garden.  The floors were matching white marble.  Tito's third, much younger, wife had joined him in repose in 2013.  Her remains lay under a slab smaller than that for the great man.  The glass roof admitted enough sunlight to illuminate the merest mote of dust, but there was none.  Everything was clean and polished, and looked brand new.  The foliage was as shiny as if every leaf were wiped daily, and that might well have been the case. People queued to pay their respects and then proceeded to glass-walled rooms filled with memorabilia.  There were photographs of Tito with so many dignitaries that I wondered if any head of state, before or since, had maintained relationships with so many premiers, presidents, kings, queens and celebrities. 

          Tito's ornately carved desk was on display, as were his dress uniforms and medals.  There was an entire room for Tito's collection of batons.  These were the short staffs that relay runners would hand to their teammates in the course of a race.  Socialist countries had promoted athletic events as wholesome leisure activities for proletarian youths, and there was a race every year on Tito's birthday.  The relay winner would present his baton as a gift to Yugoslavia's leader.  It became customary to give Tito decorative batons in tribute at any audience.  Some were carved and painted wood, others pewter or silver.  Some were surmounted with a Socialist star or another figure.  There were shaped like tools or scepters, or topped with flowers, fish, or even a miniature equestrian monument.  The variety was staggering.  The batons demonstrated how the limitations of a form can spur creativity.  Yet, as I gazed at the rows of batons in their neat rows, I had the irreverent thought that they represented a joke that had gone too far. 




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) batons cruise Josip Broz mausoleum partisan Tito Yugoslavia Thu, 08 Apr 2021 23:09:02 GMT
Current Events 39: Cramped Quarters            Belgrade had the worst traffic that we had encountered.  The city's population was over a million and a half, and there seemed to be at least as many motor vehicles.  Sofia, our local guide, explained that Belgrade had buses, trams and trolleys, but no subway.  The congestion on the roads, however, was less problematic than parking.  There were simply not enough spaces for all of the cars.  Compact Skodas, Fiats, Opels and even the infamous Yugos clustered like an infestation of bright beetles on tree bark.  The tour guides, incidentally, were fond of telling Yugo jokes.  Alas, they were the same Yugo jokes that had been less than hilarious the first time that we heard them, from the ship's crew.  Here is a sample riddle:  Why does a Yugo have a rear-window defroster?  The answer is, to keep your hands warm while you push it.

Vehicles disguised as potted plants on a Belgrade street for pedestrians only

          The Belgraders had taken ingenious, if inadequate, measures to circumvent the laws of physics regarding parking.  There were iron-fenced enclosures in the middle of residential streets where cars were packed so tightly that I could not imagine maneuvering out of an assigned spot. Parking privileges were valuable and guarded zealously.  With a free space as rare as a unicorn, competition for one was a frequent source of discord among motorists.

          Sofia was candid about the prevalence of three generations sharing a family apartment.  Low wages and high unemployment prevented many young couples from establishing their own households.  Sofia, her husband and their children resided with her parents.  The grandparents cared for the children while their parents were at work.  The arrangement was stable, and typical for Belgrade. Gone was the era when the Yugoslavian Socialist Republic had guaranteed its citizens jobs, housing, schooling, medical care and social security.  

          In Serbia, the shift to private enterprise had been complicated by political strife rooted in ethnic rivalries.  There had been ruinous inflation and flagrant corruption.  Educated Serbians had become accustomed to seeking jobs abroad.  In the 1990's, the trickle of graduates leaving for Western Europe had become a flood.  Students whose grades placed them in the top third of their secondary schools did not have to pay for their university tuition.  Though they were graduated free of debt, many could not find the professional positions for which they had trained.  According to Sofia, they were reluctant to leave their homeland, but were lured away by the prospect of high incomes.  Many of Serbia's physicians had moved to Germany and The Netherlands.  This reduced the number of doctors providing state-guaranteed health care to critical levels.  And the country had lost its investment in many of its best students.  By comparison, the forty years of Tito's dictatorship actually were The Good Old Days.

Belgrade Kindergarten students on their way to the park



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade cruise economic upheaval after Yugoslavian Communism multi-generational households parking Serbia traffic Fri, 18 Oct 2019 01:45:00 GMT
Current Events 38: The City of Dogs                     Belgrade is a city of dogs.  In Kalemegdan Park, they were everywhere we went.  Some were leashed, while others trotted, unrestrained, ahead of their masters.  Almost all of the dogs that were accompanied by their owners were purebred.  I saw mostly hunting and guard dogs, with more than a few exotic breeds represented.  And there were many stray dogs, as we saw when we went further into the park.  
          We paused at the mausoleum of Damat Ali Pasha, an Ottoman general and vizier who died in the early 1700's.  The mausoleum was preserved with greater care than the Serbs tended to lavish on traces of the Turkish occupation.  Our local guide, Sofia, answered our questions about the curious stone hut.  She preferred this subject only slightly to explaining how Belgrade authorities were coping with the population explosion of stray dogs.  Several lean but glossy examples approached us, sniffing for food.  They were quite tame but did not invite petting.  Most were black with white chests, cocked ears and long legs; yes, even the dogs were tall.

          A decade of war had produced generations of homeless canines.  Some humane organizations were feeding the dogs regularly, after removing them from the streets temporarily in order to have veterinarians neuter or spay them.  A few years ago, packs of feral dogs had been such a nuisance that Belgrade's administrators had implemented a policy of exterminating the strays.  There had been an international outcry at the brutality of the killings.  Since then, private citizens had opened shelters and dog adoption centers to ease the problem.  Some of these shelters still contained hundreds of dogs. 




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade cruise dogs Ottoman mausoleum shelters strays Thu, 10 Oct 2019 23:30:00 GMT
Current Events 37: The Victor           Exploring beautiful Kalemegdan Park in its entirety would have taken all of the time that our tour had allotted for Belgrade.  In addition to the Upper and Lower Towns of the fortress, the park contained a zoo, an art gallery, a Roman well, a clock tower, medieval ruins and modern monuments.  Stone staircases connected the terraces, where shade trees lined sinuous paved paths, with fountains and sculptures around every turn.  Dominating all was the statue of The Victor, rising about fifteen meters above the Upper Town.

          The Victor, or Pobednik in Serbian, had been erected in the 1920's to commemorate the Serbs' final defeat of the Turks.  The Victor is a bronze male figure on a column.  In one hand, he holds a sword with its tip planted in the ground.  On his other hand he carries a falcon.  And he is nude, presenting his genitalia to one side of the city while displaying his muscular buttocks to a different district.  The Victor's eminent masculinity had scandalized the Belgrade bourgeoisie.  The statue was supposed to be part of a much more elaborate civic installation, one that had been too expensive for the impoverished Kingdom of Serbia to have completed between the World Wars.  Torn between patriotism and prudery, the citizenry agreed to the present conspicuous placement of the statue on its column.  Ever since, the Victor, clothed only in verdigris, has become the symbol of Belgrade. 



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade cruise Kalemegdan Pobednik Serbia The Victor Thu, 03 Oct 2019 22:45:00 GMT
Current Events 36: The Fortress of Kalemegdan, Belgrade              No one is certain how much of the Kalemegdan fortress is below ground, as the network of tunnels has not been mapped completely.  The walls and towers that do show are most impressive.  The bulwarks and cannons seemed even more massive than those at Petrovaradin.  The doors were clad in iron, affixed with symmetrical rows of crude bolts.  They added to the citadel's forbidding aspect.  Part of the fortress had been turned into a military museum.  Outside it stood a double row of tanks and howitzers from World War II.  The Serbs had resisted the Axis powers, and the Nazis had vented their spleen by having the Luftwaffe bomb Belgrade.

          Kalemegdan is a place for play as well as remembrance.  Near the tanks were several life-sized plastic models of dinosaurs to divert children taken on outings to the fortress.  There were a Triceratops and a Brontosaurus-like herbivore, as well as the Tyrannosaurus Rex that is de rigueur in any Jurassic grouping.  The models were predominantly green, not unlike the olive drab paint on the tanks and ordnance.  




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade cruise fortress Kalemegdan military museum park Thu, 26 Sep 2019 21:45:00 GMT
Current Events 35: Entering the White City              We docked at Belgrade after cruising overnight from Novi Sad.  We were in Serbia's capital for the hottest day of our journey until that point.  As it was the last day of September, we should have called it Indian Summer, before our vocabularies were purged of inaccurate terms for the Western Hemisphere's indigenes.  The crew and guides all were in buoyant moods, owing to the unusual warmth.  I asked a guide if there were a special name for the weather.  I was told that it is called Saint Michael's Summer.  As Winters in Eastern Europe are long and bitter, the brief reprise of Summer was cause for celebration.

          Belgrade began as a fortress on a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Danube and the Sava Rivers.  The rivers were broader and the ridges higher than the corresponding features in other sites on The Lower Danube that we had seen.  In order that we might appreciate Belgrade's felicitous geography, we were taken to Kalemegdan.  Kalemegdan is the Turkish fortress on the coveted hill, over a hundred meters above the water.     

The entrance to Kalemegdan

          The Celts had been forced to cede the hill fort to the Romans.  The Huns and the Avars fought for it.  It had passed through Byzantine and Hungarian hands until it was conquered by the Ottomans.  The Turks kept it for over two centuries, despite periodic Slavic insurrections.  

    Roman ruins in Kalemegdan Park

          The citadel is in extensive, terraced Kalemegdan Park, Belgrade's premier monument and recreation area.  We had a superb view of the city from the wide stone ramparts.  Its spires, office towers and riparian beaches shone in the morning light, meriting the Serbian name of Beograd, or White City.  Where the rivers met was a verdant island, named Great War Island.  As Belgrade has been the site of more than a hundred battles, one would be hard pressed to identify the island's eponymous conflict from the historical record.  Now Great War Island is a Nature preserve.  Draw hope for the future from that if you can. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Belgrade cruise Danube fortress Kalemegdan Sava River White City Fri, 20 Sep 2019 02:15:00 GMT
Current Events 34: Vegetarians at Salas 137           I suppose that HL and I could not have been the first vegetarians to dine at Salas 137, but there cannot have been many.  After our tour guide conferred with a burly, white-shirted manager, HL and I were given a grain-based dish.  It was palatable, if quite heavy.  By the time that we received our special entrees, we had partaken of the salads and other vegetable dishes that had been served to everyone.  We had little appetite for our main course.  And I was noticing that the rakiya was not burning my lips so much anymore.  Perhaps the local firewater had scarred them by then.  In fact, I was finding the rakiya increasingly agreeable.

          Salas 137's house specialty was roasted beef on skewers.  Our table companions pronounced the beef tough.  Though they devoured everything else, our fellow travelers left enough meat on the platters to feed a raiding party.  Being among the Serbs filled my mind with bellicose imagery.  There was something ferocious about them, as if the waiters' enthusiastic welcomes could change to war cries in an instant.

            Feeling the need for a modicum of postprandial exercise, we strolled through the rooms of rustic antiques.  There were tiled heating stoves in almost every corner, as well as glass-fronted china cabinets, oil lanterns, dry sinks and obsolete appliances.  In one room were shelves that held parlor radios, each the size of a piece of luggage.  The light from the old electrical fixtures was as dim and yellowish as it must have been eighty years ago.  Despite that, HL lifted his camera gamely to record some of the details of our surroundings.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) antiques cruise farmhouse Serbian cuisine vegetarians Thu, 12 Sep 2019 23:45:00 GMT
Current Events 33: Salas 137            From Novi Sad,  the tour group traveled by bus to a traditional Serbian restaurant for dinner.  During the ride, there was still adequate daylight for us to see the harvested fields and orchards.  As happened often in Eastern Europe, we drove into the past when we left the city.  When we reached Salas 137, the illusion of moving backwards in time was complete.

          We were conducted down a concrete path that led between several long, low farm buildings.  Cats, dogs and chickens ambled past us on their obscure errands, unperturbed by a few busloads of strangers.  Outmoded agricultural implements lay beside the path.  Wooden butter churns and troughs stood next to the door of the restaurant.  It was the newest structure on the property.  With its high, pitched roof and exposed beams, it resembled a barn.

          The restaurant was a family enterprise.  The owners had bought it from some farmers.  They continued to raise some of the produce and animals that they served.  The rest came from local sources.  The original farmhouse and some the outbuildings had been restored so that they looked as they might have in the 1930's.  Salas 137 was also an inn, with thirteen guest rooms, all with old-fashioned furnishings.  It was a popular place for a weekend in the countryside.  There was a stable full of handsome horses, too.  The premises could be rented for parties, meetings and receptions.  The horses could be harnessed to wooden wagons for those who fancied being photographed seated in authentically agrarian discomfort.   

          Diners from Novi Sad as well as tourists filled the spacious restaurant.   The cuisine was traditional Serbian, meaning mostly meat heaped on platters for all at the table to share.  Wine and rakiya flowed.  A band purported to be comprised of Gypsy musicians entertained us.  Serbia has a sizable Roma minority, but the musicians were no swarthier nor shorter than other Serbians.  The platinum hair of the girl vocalist may have owed more to artifice than to heredity, but she, too, was tall and robust.  I assumed that the lyrics of the folk songs told of love and longing, and battles won and lost.  For all I knew, however, the singer could have been hurling imprecations at us foreigners and our country of origin.  





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) country inn and restaurant cruise musicians Novi Sad Roma Thu, 05 Sep 2019 23:15:00 GMT
Current Events 32: Beneath Petrovaradin           After the guides from our ship gave us our tickets, they delivered us into the care of an official Petrovaradin tour guide.  We surmised that the tour company was loath to assume direct responsibility for our safety in the tunnels.  The Austrians had enlarged the conquered Ottoman stronghold so that, by the end of the Eighteenth Century, it enclosed more than a hundred hectares within its brick and stone ramparts.  There were sixteen gates and emplacements for 400 cannons.  Even more remarkable than the thickness of the walls or the size of the area within them were the intricate underground defenses. There were four levels and sixteen kilometers of tunnels beneath the citadel.

          Any force that managed to mine its way under the walls would be trapped where the Austrian soldiers could lie in wait.  Sappers would have had no easy time getting near the keep, but it had been a possibility.  We trailed close behind our guide, as grateful for his flashlight as his familiarity with our route.  Some sections could be reached only with ropes that dropped through narrow rectangular shafts.  We were restricted to those levels accessible by stairs, and that was fine.  It was enough of a challenge to to avoid a misstep on the uneven floor.  It had required months for soldiers to be trained in the intricacies of this dank brick honeycomb. We passed chambers not only for munitions but also for subterranean troop quarters, complete with kitchens.  Soldiers would be billeted there regularly.  At intervals along these passages, there were vents that admitted a little daylight and would have allowed the smoke from candles, torches and cooking fires to escape.  

          We emerged from the depths of Petrovaradin footsore and thirsty.  We had lemonade at a cafe on a broad twrrace overlooking the river.  Serbian lemonade is not sweetened, and my palate never adjusted to its sourness.  The drink did reinforce my impression that the Serbs were tough folk.  We sat at a table shaded by umbrellas to admire the view of the city.  The hazy Sun hung over the Fruska Gora Mountains and silvered the surface of the water. 







]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise Novi Sad Petrovaradin Serbia subterranean troop quarters Thu, 29 Aug 2019 23:45:00 GMT
Current Events 31: The Eyes of Petrovaradin            We were given a choice of activities in Novi Sad, and we elected to ascend the hill to Petrovaradin.  Two of the guides, Irina and Stefan, conducted those who wished to tour the fortress through a shabby section of town.  The guides said that in Novi Sad were many people who were unemployed and displaced by war.  They had crowded into the houses in a formerly decent section.  The apartments in the partitioned two- and three-story townhouses had been intended for military veterans, who paid a subsidized rent.  No one was visible on the narrow, cracked sidewalks or in the windows.  The guides hurried us through the streets to the base of the hill.

          A staircase led us to the site of the fortress.  There were few in our party.  Walking through subterranean passages is not to everyone's taste, though I had been looking forward to it ever since I had learned of Petrovaradin's existence.  The fortress had been a formidable element in the Habsburg defense on the Lower Danube.  Before the preserved fortress rose on the site, there had been a series of outposts there, including a Roman fort, a medieval monastery, and a Turkish bastion.  There was archaeological evidence that people had appreciated the strategic advantages of the location since the Neolithic era. 

          Near the entrance was a landmark clock tower, known as the Drunken Clock.  Its long hand marked the hours instead of the minutes, while the short one marked the minutes.  There are several explanations for this, all fascinating to those who advanced them.  Some claimed that the anomaly aided fishermen who had to read the clock's face from a distance.  The clock was reputed to run more slowly in cold than in warm weather.   

          Near the Drunken Clock was a surrealist installation of a giant human face, with two painted eyes suspended above a metal nose made of angled metal, lacquered bright red.  It might have been paying homage to the famous optometrist's billboard in The Great Gatsby.  Or it may have been just one of many local artworks.  Novi Sad is the cultural capital of Serbia.  Since 2000, it has attracted an international audience to the EXIT music festival, held every Summer at Petrovaradin.  The festival had its genesis in the Balkan students' protest movements.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise cultural capital of Serbia Drunken Clock fortress tour Novi Sad Petrovaradin Thu, 22 Aug 2019 21:30:00 GMT
Current Events 30: The Synagogue in Novi Sad           Thanks to our guide Radi's accurate directions, we were able to find the main synagogue in Novi Sad.  In 1905, the Jewish community erected a fine synagogue in the Secessionist style, of ocher brickwork accented with white.  Novi Sad was part of Hungary at the time.  The congregation was comprised of Hungarian-speaking, Neolog Jews.  

        There had been four earlier synagogues on the same spot on Jevrejska, or Jewish, Street.  The latest one had a central cupola and a pair of towers topped by octagonal domes flanking the entrance.  Carved above the portal was a Biblical quotation in Hebrew, which we translated as This is a house of prayer for all the nations.  To one side stood a Jewish school, and on the other an administrative building.  Both were built in the same handsome style as the synagogue.

          Until 1941, Novi Sad's 4,000 Jews had enjoyed the same rights as other Serbian citizens.  Those who were not massacred by Hungarian Fascist militia were deported to death camps when the Nazis occupied Serbia.  About 1,000 Jews survived.  As became the pattern in Eastern Europe, many of those survivors moved to Israel after 1948.

          So there are too few Jews remaining in Novi Sad to maintain the synagogue complex.  The school became a ballet academy.  The municipal government reopened the synagogue as a concert venue, after leasing it from the dwindling Jewish community.  We had hoped to look inside the building, but it was locked.  Later, I learned that it housed a congregation only on the major holidays.  The street in front of it was under construction, and the synagogue probably was being renovated.  Or there was simply no one there to admit us.  








]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise Nazi occupation Novi Sad Serbia synagogue Fri, 16 Aug 2019 02:30:00 GMT
Current Events 29: Novi Sad, Past and Future Cultural Capital           From the park we progressed to Novi Sad's historic main street.  It was closed to vehicular traffic.  The dock was at the far end of the wide street, so our guide bade us farewell, confident that we could find our way back to the ship and avoid getting stranded in Serbia.  A fin-de-siecle Roman Catholic church with a clock tower dominated the first part part of the thoroughfare.  The Name of Mary Church is a reminder of the former Austrian dominance, as most Serbs are of the Orthodox rather than Roman Catholic persuasion.

Novi Sad's Name of Mary Church, with its Zsolnay tiled roof

           There were handsome civic edifices, apartment blocks, cafes and boutiques.  Parked in front of them were candy wagons heaped with garish confections unlike any that I had seen.  Statuesque young women ushered their children past us, the women's high heels clicking on the well-swept stone pavement.  Vendors with rafts of bright Mylar balloons were doing a brisk business.  So, too, were the shops with marquees bearing the familiar names of international merchants of luxury goods, belying reports of Serbia's economic weakness.

           Whatever was not new looked as if it had been sandblasted or repainted.  Novi Sad had won a competition to be designated a European Cultural Capital.  Banners at regular intervals along the main street attested to the fact that it would assume the title in 2021. A campaign of renovation and restoration doubtless had preceded Novi Sad's entry into the contest.  





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise Novi Sad Serbia The Name of Mary Church Thu, 08 Aug 2019 22:45:00 GMT
Current Events 28: The Bridges of Novi Sad

            In Danube Park, Novi Sad

          Our guide Milena directed us through Danube Park as she explained the history of Novi Sad.  We passed smiling, tall Serbian preschoolers trailing after their tall teachers.  A Habsburg fortress had been erected on the ruins of earlier fortifications, on a hill above a narrow bend in the river.  The formidable Austrian Empress Maria Theresa had decreed that a city should be developed on the bank opposite the fortress.  It was supposed to be a garden spot, a civilized complement to the bastion.  Novi Sad means New Garden, or Park.  It became the intellectual and artistic center of the region.  Members of so many ethnic groups within the Austro-Hungarian Empire settled there that it earned the sobriquet of Europe in Miniature.  

          In 1999, NATO bombers attacked Novi Sad, ostensible to force the Serbian militias out of Kosovo.  And thereby hangs another sad and sanguinary tale, one outside the scope of this narrative.  Novi Sad was bombarded for three months.  Whole neighborhoods were destroyed, as well as oil refineries and all of the bridges across The Danube.  Families were separated.  There was no electrical power.  Water and food supplies dwindled.  The suffering was such that the cool, slightly pedantic Milena's voice trembled as she described that period.

          To date, not all of Novi Sad's bridges have been replaced.  Close to the dock, metal stanchions twisted above the water's surface, as stark as any memorial sculpture.  There was, incidentally, at least one monument to the Jewish and Serbian victims of the Hungarians Fascists who raided Novi Sad in 1942.  We passed it on our way to the Danube Park.  Even from a distance, its import was unmistakable.  The thin, dark grey metal figures of a man, a woman and a child stood on a pedestal with Hebrew as well as Serbian writing identifying the subject.

Memorial to Victims of the Sho'ah (Holocaust), Novi Sad, SerbiaMemorial to Victims of the Sho'ah (Holocaust), Novi Sad, Serbia



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise Danube Park NATO bombing 1999 Novi Sad Serbia Thu, 01 Aug 2019 05:00:00 GMT
Current Events 27: Novi Sad, Serbia           The ship sailed while we slept and we awoke in Serbia, we passengers having been spared the attentions of border control agents.  We had docked in Novi Sad, Serbia's second largest city and the capital of Vojvodina, a northern province classified as semi-autonomous.  Despite my curiosity, I refrained from delving into the intricacies of the place's political status.  Any information elicited from such inquiries is subject to rapid obsolescence in The Balkans.  No matter; the Sun was shining on The Danube and the bridges spanning it. 

The Bridges of Novi Sad

          Our guide for our morning walking tour was Milena, a tall, slender young woman.  That is a poor description, because Serbs are very tall people.  They are also intensely proud, and more than little defensive.  Serbs were cast as the villains in the Domestic War, though I believe that there was blame enough for all of the combatants to share.  The Serbs had dominated Yugoslavia, and many still regard Tito's brand of Communism as superior to any subsequent regime.  Thanks to Tito's deft diplomatic maneuvering, Yugoslavia had received copious foreign aid from both the Soviets and the Western powers.  For four decades, the people had enjoyed secure jobs, medical coverage, free university tuition and vacations abroad.  Western consumer goods had been available, too.  As in other Communist countries, ethnic and religious differences officially were subsumed under the broader identity of the Yugoslavian proletarian paradise.  Soviet troops never occupied Yugoslavia, and the Communist yoke had not weighed heavily on the Serbs' necks.  


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Communism cruise former Yugoslavia Novi Sad Serbia Tito Fri, 26 Jul 2019 00:00:00 GMT
Current Events 26: A Rally in Vukovar           The liveliest area of Vukovar was a paved strip near the Vuka River channel.  There we encountered a gaggle of several dozen young people.  The paucity of facial hair on the boys inclined me to think that they were secondary school rather than university students.  Most sat in rows of folding chairs, facing a space serving as an impromptu stage.  A banner proclaimed that the gathering had been organized by the YPGD, or Youth Peace Group (of the) Danube.  Its Croatian name also was on the banner.  Tacked to sheets of plywood propped up on the sidewalk were squares of white paper covered with bright, cartoonish images.  They might have been set decorations for the skit that a few of the youths were performing.  The theme seemed to be apocalypse, graphic projections of the consequences of failing to promote peace.

           The language barrier rendered the proceedings somewhat obscure.  One of the actors held a printed sign bearing the word Police.  The word is similar, though not the same, in Croatian.  The young activists must have intended their presentation for an international audience, via social media.  More than one of their peers was holding a cell phone aloft in order to record the skit.  We guessed that it was a protest against police brutality or some official policy.  Though the local Establishment is Croatian, there is still a sizable Serbian minority, constituting approximately a third of the population.  And there is still, alas, ethnic friction.  The youth of the town were right to be apprehensive about a repetition of the Domestic War (sic).  They are the ones who will be in the new militias if the old, obdurate hatred flares into violence again.  And their homes will be back on the front lines in bullet-riddled Vukovar.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise ethnic hatred peace rally Vukovar youth activists Thu, 18 Jul 2019 23:45:00 GMT
Current Events 25: Vukovar, its Swings and Arrows            It was early evening when HL and I decided to stroll through Vukovar.  Adjacent to the dock was a lawn where what appeared to be an array of stone windows leaned on one another to form a line.  A closer inspector revealed that it was a sculpture of gravestones.  We surmised that it was a war memorial.  A young man in a nearby souvenir stand knew enough English to confirm our guess.  Few from the ship had cared to walk around Vukovar, so the vendor had few prospective customers.  He was unperturbed by my question.  War memorials were more ordinary than fire hydrants in this part of the world.  On the other side of the lawn was some playground equipment and, beyond it, a small school.  It was hours since the pupils had been dismissed, and a boy and a girl had the swings all to themselves.  A man who was probably their father sat on a bench, smoking and watching the children play.  

            The low, aurous light was perfect for photography.  HL took pictures of forlorn hotels, the solitary tower of a pulverized edifice, and a modern concrete plaza where almost all of the windows were dark and empty, all within a few blocks of the monument.  We continued into the town, to the renovated main area.  The paint was fresh, and the glass in the shop fronts was new, but there were few pedestrians and even fewer cars.  It was so quiet that I was relieved to spot a young couple pushing a toddler in a stroller.  Vukovar was like a town in a fairy tale that had been placed under an enchantment, and all within it were just beginning to stir.  Or it could have been a city ravaged by dragons, and its inhabitants still were not certain that all of the monsters were gone. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Croatia cruise Vukovar war memorial Thu, 11 Jul 2019 22:30:00 GMT
Current Events 24: Vukovar, Croatia             


           We met our ship at Vukovar, Croatia's largest river port, where The Danube joins The Vuka.  Osijek bore signs of shelling, but Vukovar looked as if it had been deliberately scheduled for demolition by artillery.  It was in such a state of disrepair that it was hard to tell if it were being rebuilt or razed.  There were bulldozers parked behind wire fencing beside some of the ubiquitous piles of rubble.  The name of the town had become synonymous with the carnage of the Yugoslav wars.  Not only had its buildings been destroyed, but also hundreds of its citizens had been massacred after they were captured by Serbian forces.  Those who were alleged to have ordered the killings were tried for war crimes, though that was not an uncommon distinction after the drawing of uneasy new national borders.  Many a soldier in the seven countries created by the dismemberment of Yugoslavia might have inserted "war criminal" as a line in his resume.    

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) civil war Croatia cruise massacre Serbia shelling Vukovar Thu, 04 Jul 2019 21:45:00 GMT
Current Events 23: Lunch with Rejna, continued.               Seated at the head of the table, Rejna described her labors.  She was quite an industrious young woman.  Earning one's livelihood in rural Croatia requires both energy and ingenuity.  In addition to feeding tourists, Rejna worked as a caretaker for the elderly, tended a market stall, and helped her parents on their farm.  Her father was completely disabled, having been seriously wounded during the Croatian-Serbian war.  Her voice wavered and her eyes moistened as she recounted how her father had advised her not to harbor hatred against their former enemies, as her hatred would damage Rejna more than anyone else.  It was not just the brandy, or the fine local wine that complemented the food, that made Rejna's listeners teary, too.   

          Once, I might have scorned someone like Rejna, the descendant of Croatian smallholders, as a hereditary anti-Semite.  Even if her grandparents did not collaborate with the Nazis, her ancestors surely could have participated in pogroms.  In her apron, with her bland features and thickset figure, she could have been a Slavic peasant from Central Casting.  Having broken bread with her, however, I could overcome my prejudice.   I reaffirmed my resolve to encounter every stranger as an individual.  When our guide and our bus driver arrived to collect us, it did not seem that we had been with Rejna for hours, but it was true.  Our host embraced each of us when we took our leave.  HL took a picture of Rejna standing in her aromatic, aubergine-colored kitchen.  I shall not need to refer to it in order to remember Rejna. 

Rejna's neighbors waved to us as we left Bileje.




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) anti-Semitism Croatian-Serbian war cruise hospitality Fri, 28 Jun 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 22: Lunch with Rejna              The tour company touted a home-hosted (sic)  lunch as a special feature.  HL and I had been apprehensive about this lunch from the first moment that we had read about it in the itinerary.  We were reluctant to inflict our vegetarian requirements on a stranger who cooked for tourists in her home.   We had told Radi the Guide that it might be best if HL and I skipped that part of the program.  Radi assured us, however, that one of the hosts prepared meals routinely for those with special diets.  Our busload of forty was subdivided into five groups of eight.  The bus brought us into a village with a few streets of neat stucco houses, most white, others painted pale lavender, yellow, or green.  All of the houses backed onto spacious gardens, with fruit trees and grape arbors.   

            The village was name Bileje (Bi-LAY-eh), which we were told means "vegetable" in Croatian.  With Miri, Paige, and a few others of our fellow passengers, we  were deposoited at a house where a sturdy blond woman in an apron welcomed us.  She introduced herself as Rejna (RAY-nah).  I judged her to be in her thirties.  Her smooth, pale hair was cut to chin length.  She ushered us into the dining room of her spotless, modern dwelling.  While serving us homemade cherry and walnut brandies, or rakiya, she described renovating and enlarging her house with the help of her boyfriend.  Here, I must inject a word of praise for the custom of preceding a meal with a shot or two of the local equivalent of rakiya in each of the five countries that we visited during the cruise.  It is a great solvent for cultural barriers.

Rejna in her home village of Bileje, Croatia

            Everyone peppered Rejna with questions about her work and her family.  She apologized for her limited proficiency in English, but she managed to express herself fluently.  She answered all queries amiably while serving platters of food.  Single-handedly, she produced a feast.  She did so five or six times per week during the tourist season, which lasted six months at most.  She had been obliged to procure a license to operate a Bed-and-Breakfast inn in order to be a caterer, even though she did not lodge guests.  Some of her neighbors did run guest houses, patronized in the main by Croats from cities like Osijek who fancied a weekend in the country.  All of the fruits and vegetables for Rejna's dishes came from her garden, or from her relatives' nearby farms.  The meat, I assumed, was from animals raised in their pastures.  The main course was a Croatian specialty, a meat loaf made from beef, pork, and bacon.  The resourceful Rejna gave HL and me a version made with soy.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Croatian village lunch cruise homemade brandy rakiya vegetarians Fri, 21 Jun 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 21: No Lack of Monuments (After the Children's Concert in Osijek)              I was touched by the children's buoyant mood, though I should not have minded in the slightest if the stop at the school had been omitted.  The pupils and their teachers seemed happy to have had visitors from The States.  The adolescents in the upper forms maintained their sang-froid , but the younger students trailed us to the bus, waving and calling out their English phrases of farewell.  I thought it a pity that I could not tell them to look closely at me, so that they could relate to their grandchildren that they had seen a Jew.  The Nazis and the Ustase, their Croatian henchmen, had left few Jews alive in Croatia.  Almost all of the Jewish remnant and their descendants lived in distant Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. 

Memorial to Jews Murdered by the Nazis, in the Courtyard of the Franciscan Monastery outside Osijek


Franciscan Monastery, Osijek


Red Fico:  Croatian Fiat on Serbian Tank, Monument to the Domestic (Civil) War, Osijek





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Croatia Croatian-Serbian Civil War cruise Nazi genocide Osijek Red Fico Fri, 14 Jun 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 20: A Concert in Osijek             One of our destinations in Osijek was an elementary school, where the students regaled us with a concert.  The tour company's owners fund a charitable foundation that gave the school a grant, and the tykes were going to sing, and play, for their supper.  We guests filed into a low concrete building decorated with metal panels in primary colors.  There were tempera paintings on the walls.  We were conducted to rows of folding chairs in an assembly room.  Children and their teachers awaited us.  We might have been in an elementary school anywhere in The States, had not every face been pale, every outfit neat, and every back straight.  The girls and boys were as rosy as if they all had just been scrubbed.  The teachers' glances silenced a communal murmur of excitement, and then the program began.

            Almost all of my fellow passengers were grandparents, and not a few had been teachers.  Some had mentioned volunteering with organizations that benefit the young of the species.  Paige was among them, as I learned when we had introduced ourselves on our first night on board the ship.  That morning's juvenile choral and instrumental performance might have been the highlight of the trip for them.  I was not as appreciative.  I listened to some of the selections but nodded off during others.  The children sang and played adequately, and a few soloists demonstrated undeniable talent. Rising early to submit to the stare of disgruntled Hungarian border agents, plus riding on a bus, had caused my somnolence.  And I had caught a cold.  It might have been the decongestant tablet that I had taken to control my symptoms that tipped me into sleep.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Croatia cruise Osijek school concert Fri, 07 Jun 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 19: Osijek, Croatia                         We docked in Batina, a tiny river port in eastern Croatia.  Eastern Croatia is the section that does not include the Dalmatian Coast on the Adriatic Sea.  We were far inland, in a flat, agricultural area.  After breakfast on the ship, we were taken by bus to Osijek (OH-see-yek), a city on the Drava River.  As The Drava was too small a river to accommodate the ship, we would take buses to meet our craft in Vukovar, a larger Danube port, later in the day.  First, we disembarked and rode through about twenty kilometers of fields and farmhouses that bore signs of neglect, as if the timelessly bucolic landscapes of children's story books had been deserted by most of their human and animal denizens.  The decrepitude predated the Croatian-Serbian wars in The Nineties.  Farmers and agricultural laborers had been assigned to work in factories subsidized by the Yugoslavian Communist regime.   After The Communism, some of the families that had been uprooted from the land were able to reclaim it and resume farming.  Others remained in the drab workers' housing blocks near the now-shuttered industrial installations, with little income and few prospects.  

The University in Osijek        

                  Osijek, with a population of more than 100,000, has a university, museums, concert halls, a cathedral and the usual cultural accoutrements of a European city.  Osijek had been shelled in the civil war.  There was evidence of the physical damage as we reached the outskirts of the town.  I shall not attempt here to unravel the tangled skein of grievances behind the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.  I doubt that anyone could make sense of those sanguinary convulsions that beggared fledgling nations while depriving thehir citizenry of life and limb.  The Serbian minority in eastern Croatia fared so badly that some Croatian military commanders were tried as war criminals when the smoke, literally, had cleared.  The reverse happened in neighboring regions, where Serbian leaders were the ones eventually condemned for war crimes.  No one emerged unsullied from that fighting, as far as I could discern.  More than a thousand people were killed in Osijek alone.  Many more were wounded, and the uncleared minefields continue to claim an occasional victim.  There are roadside signs warning people away from fields where the lethal devices may be.  Though many undetonated mines have been removed, there are enough left to have rendered many hectares of arable land unfit for cultivation. 



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Batina Croatia Croatian-Serbian civil war cruise Drava River Osijek Fri, 31 May 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 18: Pajama Party on The Danube           I wished that we could spend another week in Budapest, but we had to return to the ship on our second night there to begin sailing south on The Danube.   The crew imparted, reluctantly, that we would have to rise from bed whenever the ship reached the Hungarian border at Mohacs.  There, Hungarian border control agents would board the ship, and check our passport pictures against our bleary countenances.  It made no sense to me, because we were leaving the country.   No one had seemed to care when HL and I had sallied forth from the Budapest airport to the taxi queue  without a nod to Customs. 

            I asked a crew member what he thought  the reason for the "face check" might be.  They want to show their power, the young man grumbled, and his colleague concurred.  Almost all of the crew members were from The Balkans,  rather than Hungary.  In fact, there were only two Hungarians in the crew, the head chef and the captain.  They were so esteemed, or so essential to the crew's welfare, that they escaped the opprobrium generated by their Magyar countrymen.  

View of the Buda side of The Danube, Budapest

            So it was that the pajama party on the M/S Aria commenced before 5 AM.  The passengers, clad in robes and slippers, shuffled to the boarding area of the ship as their hallway numbers were announced over the public address system.  The passengers were not a handsome lot by day, and their having been roused from bed did little to improve their appearance.  Yet I gave them credit for their cheerful dispositions, given the hour.  They were obedient, as North Americans tend to be in encounters with officialdom.  

            The unsmiling Hungarian border agents wore black uniforms and carried sidearms.  They gave my passport, and me, a desultory glance.  I was not inclined to make conversation.  The whole procedure seemed pointless, surreal;  there in Eastern Europe, it was impossible for me to resist calling it Kafkaesque.  I looked outside and saw the lit windows of the Mohacs inspection station on the other side of the river.  Otherwise, the night was black, with no lights in the surrounding countryside or on the waterway.  The ship was docked at Mohacs for long enough for me to fall asleep back in my cabin.  When I awoke, we were in Croatia.  



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise customs agents face check Kafkaesque Mohacs pajama party Fri, 24 May 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 17: The Alexandra Bookstore              I have to thank our guide from the boat, Radi,  for suggesting that we repair to the Alexandra Bookstore after the Opera House.  We had to ask for directions a few times, but succeeded in finding the tri-level bookstore.  It was a well-stocked, modern emporium, with books in English as well as Hungarian, on the two lowest floors.  On the third, however, was its glory: a cafe with a vaulted, painted ceiling that was a product of the same artistic sensibility as the Opera House.  It was Karolyi Lotz who executed the frescoes in 1884, for what was then the ballroom of a casino.  Lotz is famous as the artist who decorated the immense Hungarian Parliament.  There was a black-lacquered grand piano in the middle of the cafe, and the inescapable glass cases full of pastries and cakes beside the entrance.  We succumbed to temptation, adding a couple of extravagant desserts to our coffee order.  We did not mind paying rent, in the form of the prices for the sweets, to luxuriate in that lovely room. 

The treacherous pastry case


HL and I at the Alexandra Cafe, Budapest



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Alexandra Bookstore Budapest cruise frescoes Karolyi Lotz Fri, 17 May 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 16: The Hungarian State Opera House             While the guide explained the history and design of the three-tiered Opera House, he had us sit in the plush chairs in the orchestra section.  The theater's acoustics are considered to be among the best in the world.  There was a crew on the stage, busily changing the set and providing a serendipitous visual accompaniment to the guide's speech.   Afterwards, we sat on the marble steps in the foyer and listened to an abbreviated recital.  A shaven-headed baritone, clad in a black and gold uniform, performed two comic arias from Don Juan.  As he sang, he brandished a book of photographs of hundreds of women.  They were meant to represent Don Juan's amorous conquests.  He had a superlative voice, as one would expect, nay, demand in such a setting. 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) baritone Budapest cruise Don Juan Hungarian State Opera House Fri, 10 May 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 15: A Walk on Andrassy Avenue            We consulted a map before setting out for the Opera House, a landmark that we had glimpsed during the previous day's city bus tour.  We strolled on Andrassy Avenue, a wide, tree-shaded thoroughfare modeled on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees in Paris, past elegant shops, neo-Renaissance mansions, and sidewalk cafes.  Youths on skateboards slipped past chic pedestrians walking their pedigreed dogs.  The afternoon was warm, and Summer flowers still overflowed from sidewalk planters.  We window-shopped, admiring the displays, until we caught sight of the Hungarian State Opera House.  The English-language tour had just left the lobby.  We begged the ticket seller to allow us to join it, rather than wait an additional hour for the next one.  The woman agreed, and, dutifully, we followed a university student tour leader into the opulent theater.

With M. on Andrassy Avenue, Budapest

            Our solemn young guide repeated the anecdote about the Opera House that we had heard during our bus tour the previous day:  Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria had given the Budapest authorities permission to erect an opera house, provided that it was smaller than the one that he had commissioned for Vienna, the imperial capital.  When the Emperor attended the opera in Budapest for the first and only time, he is reported to have lamented that he should have stipulated, additionally, that the Opera House there not be better than the one in Vienna.  Truly, it was gorgeous, with noble oak paneling, scarlet velvet draperies, grand staircases, and gilded vaulting between Neoclassical ceiling frescoes painted by Hungary's leading Belle Epoque artists.  

The Hungarian State Opera House






]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Andrassy Avenue Budapest cruise Hungarian State Opera House Fri, 03 May 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 14: Mystery Lunch in the Jewish Quarter              We ate in a ramshackle falafel joint where we could not tell what we had ordered, owing to the girl cashier's limited English and our nearly nonexistent Hungarian.  We unfurled our bills of hundreds and thousands of forints, and matched them to the prices that we read from a chalkboard.  The cashier pantomimed that we had paid for more food than we had put on our plates.  She insisted that we take more from the buffet.  Some tourists regard using foreign currency as a nuisance, but, for me, it is one of the minor pleasures of traveling abroad.  We liked our food, which was fresh and spiced with our sense of triumph at having obtained it as well as the novelty of eating where local folks lunched.

We neglected to sample the signature delicacy.

A narrow street in the Jewish Quarter

Facade of an Art Nouveau apartment building in the Jewish Quarter 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise Jewish Quarter Fri, 26 Apr 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 13: The Synagogue on Kazinczy Street             Near the Great Synagogue on Dohany was a much smaller, Orthodox one on Kazinczy Street.  It was about a century old.  The exterior's Art Nouveau ornamentation evoked The Levant.  It occurred to me that the native Magyars' antipathy towards the Jews might have been exacerbated by the Jewish taste for  architecture in a style similar to that of the Turks, the Hungarians' erstwhile suzerains.  All throughout Budapest there was abundant evidence of the centuries of Ottoman occupation.  It was not unusual to pass a defunct bath house, or hammam, situated atop one of the city's many thermal springs. 

                                                                      Entrance, Kazinczy Street Synagogue

            Inside, the Kazinczy Synagogue was a bijou.  There were stained glass rosettes set into the ceiling.   A semicircular, stained glass window dominated the back wall opposite the bimah, the platform in front of the ark.  The ark was as colorful as an enameled dragonfly brooch, lit by a brace of chandeliers.  There were curious, five-branched electric candelabra on the railing of the women's gallery.  The Orthodox believed that only the menorah that stood in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem could be depicted with seven branches.  Miri, HL and I lingered, taking pictures,  and bade farewell to our group for the afternoon.  We wanted to explore more of the Jewish Quarter for ourselves.  

Hebrew clock, Kazinczy Street Synagogue 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise Jewish Quarter Kazinczy Synagogue Fri, 19 Apr 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 12: The Tree's Testimony          In the synagogue courtyard stands a monument to the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.  It acknowledges Wallenberg's courageous efforts to enable Jews to survive the Nazi occupation while he was the Swedish consul in Hungary.  The courtyard is named Wallenberg Memorial Park.  In it there are tributes to other heroic non-Jews, designated Righteous Among the Nations.  No one knows how many Jews they rescued.  Wallenberg alone saved tens of thousands.  The figures are at once staggering, and meaningless. 

            The numbers and letters carved on stone were stark, the legions of victims reduced to abstractions in the sunlit courtyard.  Instead, my eyes sought the gleaming, chromed steel sculpture of a weeping willow tree.  The Hungarian sculptor, Imre Varga, finished the massive piece in 1991.  The tree has seven branches, like a menorah.  Incised on the surface of each lanceolate metal leaf is the name of one of those Jews who perished in the ghetto.  The Tree of Life is common in Jewish iconography, but I have not seen a more arresting treatment of it. 









]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise memorial Righteous Gentile Wallenberg weeping willow metal sculpture Fri, 12 Apr 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 11: Cries from the Stones           The most unusual feature of the Dohany was not the pipe organ nor the cathedral-like construction, but its graveyard.  Synagogues, unlike churches, do not have cemeteries adjacent to them.  Nor are the illustrious dead buried under the floor, as in a cathedral.  The explanation for the Dohany's cemetery begins with a doleful roll of statistics.  The Nazis imprisoned over 70,000 Jews inside the Budapest ghetto, prior to deporting them to extermination camps.  Of those, 2,000 died in the ghetto, and had to be buried there.  Jews were not permitted to leave the ghetto in order to inter the deceased in one of the cemeteries on the outskirts of Budapest.  Some of the bodies have since been taken elsewhere, but the graveyard remains as a memorial.  That is in addition to the commemorative sculptures and plaques on the premises. 

            Much work, much later, was required to identify those buried at the Dohany.  Before the war was over, the Nazis had killed close to 500,000 Hungarian Jews.  Perhaps the Second World War seems as if it just concluded in Eastern Europe because the bulk of the post-war restorations, especially those of houses of worship, have been completed only since the Iron Curtain lifted.  Or it may be that the blood of my ancestors, like that of Abel slain by Cain, cries out to me from the earth.  That would not have sounded melodramatic when I was in Budapest.

Boxes of pebbles represent those names are known, but whose remains have not been recovered.


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cemetery cruise Hungary memorials Nazis Fri, 05 Apr 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 10: The Phoenix           The Great Synagogue of Budapest opened in 1859, during a period of official toleration.  The Moorish style was in vogue among synagogue builders of that time. We have many photographs of the interior, painted lavishly with symmetrical designs reminiscent of Spain's Alhambra.  The walls and ceilings, and even the undersides of the two levels of women's galleries, are covered in the same intricate geometric pattern based on the Star of David.  Whatever is not painted is gilded, sculpted, or inlaid.

            We had to pass through a secure checkpoint in order to gain admittance to the Dohany complex.  The guards at the gate took their job seriously.  We took seats on the main, that is, the men's floor, and listened to our guide's explanation of the synagogue's features.  Our guide and her family belonged to the Dohany.  The synagogue seats almost 3,000 but it might hold twice that number during the High Holy Days.  The Torah ark was housed  at the end of the central nave where an imposing, church-like altar stood under a dome.  It was flanked by the pipes of a huge organ.  The pipe organ was an anomaly, as there was no instrumental music in traditional European synagogues.  Liszt and Saint-Saens were among the notable performers who had played the original organ in the Dohany's glory days.  The organ had been replaced in the 1990's,  after the end of what our guides persisted in calling "the Communism".

            There were few other tour groups in the vast sanctuary.  In seats near ours were some Jews who were obviously from The States, shepherded by a rabbi from their home congregation.  Otherwise, people entered singly or in pairs.  Even more impressive than the opulent decoration and the size of the edifice was the fact that all of it had been restored.  It was marvelous that it had been built the first time.  That it had been reared from its wreckage, Phoenix-like, seemed nothing short of miraculous.  I was to experience a similar awe throughout Eastern Europe, where bridges and entire districts demolished by bombings have been restored to their former magnificence.

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cruise pipe organ synagogue restoration Fri, 29 Mar 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 9: The Great Synagogue on Dohany Street           The tour of the Jewish Quarter was an optional one, that is, available for an additional fee.  There was no question that HL, Miri and I would pay it to see the second largest synagogue in the world.  Paige had purchased a ticket, but elected to walk around Budapest by herself that morning.  Half of the other passengers went to the Jewish Quarter, though there was only a handful of Jews on the cruise.  Our two buses parked as near as was practicable to the restored Dohany Synagogue.  The streets in the old neighborhood were too cramped for such unwieldy vehicles.  

          Before the Second World War, Budapest's prosperous Jewish community supported more than twenty synagogues, Jewish schools, newspapers, hospitals, and other institutions.  Though it was decimated by the Nazis and the local fascist militia, the Jewish population of Budapest is between 80,000 and 100,000 today.  Hungary has by far the largest number of Jews in Eastern Europe, and they are concentrated in the capital.  The majority of Budapest's pre-war Jews, like their peers in Vienna and Berlin, were progressive.  Most had abandoned Orthodox Judaism in favor of the more liberal Neolog denomination.  The magnificent Dohany Synagogue has a Neolog congregation.  Even the Neolog practices are much stricter than those of Reform or Conservative Jews in North America, as women are segregated from men during Neolog services.

            The synagogues in Budapest are known by the names of their streets instead of their congregations.  We were led from the bus by our local guide, a petite, well-groomed woman of middle age who trotted ahead of us in her patent leather pumps.  East European women of all ages love their fancy shoes.  During the Communist era, sporting frivolous footwear was a symbolic act of resistance against drab Soviet uniformity.  

          The Great Synagogue, as it is known, was in the former ghetto.  Once a thriving, populous district, the ghetto full of apartment houses and shops remained deserted until very recently.  Young entrepreneurs have opened bars and nightclubs in the derelict spaces, and furnished them with discarded items.  These underground establishments, known as "ruin bars", are patronized mostly by Jews, who do not reside near these clubs.  Dohany Street was so narrow and crowded with tourists that we could not back up far enough to get a full view of its Moorish facade, striped in white and terracotta, and crowned with two towers that resembled minarets. 









]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise Dohany Street ghetto Jews Neolog ruin bars synagogue Fri, 22 Mar 2019 02:45:00 GMT
Current Events 8: Between Buda and Pest by Night             My second night aboard ship provided me with my first unique cruising memory, Budapest by Night.  At the beginning of the nocturnal excursion, HL and I stood on the M/S Aria's upper deck.  The ship moved away from its dock in the heart of the city, so smoothly that we remained balanced on our feet.  It sailed under the nearby Chain Bridge, where the road bed and cables blazed with lights.  Then it passed the domed Hungarian Parliament Building that is featured in every panorama of Budapest.  The Parliament was blocks long, and seemed to float in an amber glow.  Plumes of birds  circled the lights trained on the sandcastle-like façade, spiraling high above the towers into the sable sky.  I asked several people what kind of birds they were, but no one, not even the guides, seemed to know.  I assumed that the birds were related to nighthawks.  The tour guides referred to them as Parliament Bats.  Later research, admittedly sketchy, failed to yield a more satisfactory answer.  Please write to enlighten me if you are in possession of this scrap of information. 

The Parliament of Hungary, on the Pest bank of The Danube

The Chain Bridge at the Buda side of The Danube, in front of the old Royal Palace.  Now  the castle complex houses the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest Museum of History.

(Top two photographs by H.J. Levy)

We sat in the lounge, at a picture window, as the ship made its way back to the dock.

(Photograph by M. Wolf)




]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise Hungarian Parliament Thu, 21 Jun 2018 10:00:00 GMT
Current Events 7: Budapest's Great Market Hall           The guides procured tram tickets for us so that we could explore some of Budapest on our own, and HL and I were among those who went to the Great Market Hall.  The three-story structure was another fin-de-siècle ornament to the city. Its roof was decorated with Zsolnay tiles in a green and orange diamond pattern.  Inside, the ground floor was filled with rows of stalls selling Tokay and Egri Bikaver, or Bull's Blood, wine, as well as palinka, an incendiary fruit brandy, meats, cheeses, produce, and the inevitable paprika in all its varieties.  The food vendors were quite unfriendly.  One woman ignored me even after I had selected some of her wares, so I left her stall without buying anything and moved to another stall with similar offerings.  I do not require effusiveness from a merchant, but indifference tinged with hostility does not loosen my purse strings. 


          Local residents, not just tourists, were shopping.  The vast market hall was almost empty on that Monday afternoon.  Some of the stalls were closing as HL and I ascended an iron staircase to the second floor, which is the first floor by European count, in search of souvenirs.  I purchased a small porcelain doll in Hungarian folk costume for our granddaughter, from a young man who actually smiled at me.  He was kind enough to encase the doll in bubble wrap.  I was able to buy postcards, too.  I can never have too many postcards.


          Adjacent to the Market Hall is the Art Nouveau-style Liberty Bridge.  It, too, was constructed for the 1896 Millennium World Exhibit.  It rests on two massive pillars, and was designed to look like a chain suspension bridge even though it is a steel-trussed cantilever span.  It is topped by two pairs of eagle-like Turul birds.  The Turul is the ancestor of the seven tribes who settled on the Hungarian plain, according to Magyar mythology.  The bridge's iron girders are painted green.  I thought it the handsomest of the bridges linking Buda to Pest.  Like the others, it was destroyed by Allied bombing, and was reconstructed after World War II. 

Photography by H.J. Levy






]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) art nouveau budapest cruise liberty bridge market palinka paprika shopping turul bird zsolnay tiles Thu, 14 Jun 2018 09:00:00 GMT
Current Events 6: Iron Shoes  

         Our ship was docked very close to Budapest's most original memorial sculpture, Shoes on the Danube Promenade. After a sumptuous lunch on the ship, HL and I walked along the quayside with Miri and Paige to see the monument.  Just beyond it loomed the Hungarian Parliament building.  A Hungarian film director, Can Togay, is credited with the concept for Shoes.  He had the sculptor Gyula Pauer cast sixty pair of iron shoes in men's and women's styles that would have been worn in the mid-1940's.  It was then that the Hungarian militia, the Iron Arrow, had massacred Jews on the bank.  The Jews, who had eluded earlier deportations to concentration camps, were forced to remove their shoes before the militiamen shot them and let their bodies topple backwards into the river.  The sculptor chose iron as his material because it will rust.  Togay and Pauer had hoped that the memorial, as well as the kind of hatred that had led to the Jews' murders, would disappear within a century.  It is safe to say that at least the shoes could be gone.

Rummaging for our Cameras

A Memorial Designed to Rust

Steps Halted on the Promenade


          It was odd to look at the monument in full sunshine, on a golden day of unseasonable warmth.  The weather was hotter than usual for the duration of our sojourn, raising the spirits of the guides and crew members.  Irina, one of the Romanian guides, informed me that such a spell was called Saint Michael's Summer in the Balkans.  That would be the equivalent of our Indian Summer, if it is still permissible to use that term for a week or so of October heat.  People strolled by in shorts and sundresses, snapping pictures of the sad metal shoes.  The worn oxfords and pumps had been rendered so realistically that one could envision them on the feet of their slaughtered owners.  Though I respect the intention of its creators,  I am not sorry that Shoes may endure in images dispersed through cyberspace. 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) budapest cruise holocaust memorial hungary Wed, 06 Jun 2018 23:20:46 GMT
The Grey Swan  

In his bestselling book analyzing the 2008 financial crisis, N.N. Taleb designated cataclysmic, unpredictable events as Black Swans.  The evocative term has since passed into the language.  I think that K.’s leukemia qualifies as a Black Swan, for me as well as for her.  A few days ago, I may have encountered what I shall call a Grey Swan, that is, something unexpected and potentially crucial for our family, though lacking in global import.  It happened in the office of K.’s oncologist.  Dr. M. spoke at length about the course of K.’s future treatment, and offered her a choice that we had not known existed.  

Black Swan at Cesis Castle, Latvia

For the first time, the oncologist described a bone marrow transplant in some detail.  Were K. to receive one to cure her leukemia, she would need to be hospitalized for a month.  That would be only after a compatible marrow donor had been found, no simple matter.  And her body would have to accept the donor’s marrow.  K. would have to recuperate for months after her release from the hospital.  That would entail her ingesting numerous medications daily and seeing the doctor at least three times per week.  The danger of infection would be constant, and isolating. 

            There was an alternative, available to K. based on her particular genetic profile.  Dr. M. had discovered that she had several “favorable trisomes”.  These made K. a good candidate for maintenance on oral medications, after an additional fifth round of chemotherapy in the weeks to come.  The survival rate was the same, he asserted, for patients who had undergone the less drastic therapy as for those who had been given marrow transplants.  The oncologist seemed to be addressing HL and me, her parents, rather than K., who was sitting on a treatment table behind him.  Perhaps he realized that we should be the ones to explain this new option to her once we left the office.  At first, I had some difficulty comprehending what he had said.  The idea that K. might be spared the misery of the transplant process made the light in the room go dim, and then brighten almost unbearably.  I must have been holding my breath as I listened to Dr. M. 

            I gathered my wits enough to ask Dr. M. which of the two treatments he would recommend.  He replied that he would abide by the patient’s choice in such cases, since the odds for success were the same.  It took mere moments for K. to decide that she would prefer additional chemotherapy, and would avoid a transplant if possible.   

            Today is the Vernal Equinox, the end of a hard Winter.  Between now and the end of K.’s treatment, there could be many revisions to the medical protocol.  I understand that there are many variables, and few certainties. Swans of any color may appear.  It is conceivable that some could bear bright plumage.   


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) bone leukemia marrow transplant Tue, 20 Mar 2018 19:47:12 GMT
The Other Anomaly         I think that I know why there was an initial delay in obtaining K.'s diagnosis.  At first, it seemed inexplicable.  Sick as K. was when she was when she was hospitalized in December, she was fully conscious.  She was able to answer questions about her medical history, repeatedly.  Multiple scrub-clad Myrmidons recorded that K. had been treated for leukemia between the ages of two and five.  There was no attempt at obfuscation.  In fact, K. was quite clear about the nature of her childhood affliction.  Yet the oncologists were loath to say that K. was suffering a relapse.  It was as if they had placed an outside limit on the amount of time for that, and it was a small fraction of forty years.

        It was two days before the doctors reached a consensus about the results of the battery of blood and bone marrow tests that K. underwent upon admission.  They decided that she did have ALL, Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, after all.  If that qualifies as a pun, consider it intentional, as well as representative of the current tenor of my humor.  K.'s principal oncologist opined that her illness was a new case of the same, or a very similar, type of leukemia as before.  The convolutions of medical taxonomy would do credit to a medieval theologian attempting to measure a pinhead's angel-holding capacity.   

My sketch of K., two years old, in her hospital crib

        The forty year gap that bewildered and excited K.'s doctors may be unprecedented.  At the very least, she could be the subject of an article in a medical journal.  Were I a physician, K. would look to me like a monograph on two legs.   If any of you enterprising readers has discovered another case like hers, please write to me about it.  True human anomalies are rare, so K. is unlikely  be alone in confronting this oddly serial misfortune.  It is I, not K., whose fate could be unique.  Has any other parent had to care for a child with juvenile leukemia and then do it again when her daughter is middle-aged? 

        While I do not equate my sufferings with hers, I am the one who remembers K.'s first course of treatment, the diminutive girl limp in bed, hooked to an I.V., or struggling in vain with nurses and doctors to escape another puncture of her flesh.  Now the images that had almost ceased to haunt me are as vivid as the harshly lit corridors of another hospital in another city, in another century.  I am poised between past and present, in a way that no one else may have been before me.  I can assure you that this is a distinction that I have not sought. 



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) leukemia medical anomaly Fri, 09 Feb 2018 00:07:52 GMT
Current Events 5: The Humanitarian         Fisherman's Bastion is a Neo-Gothic terrace affording views of The Danube.  Its turrets and archways are ideal backdrops for wedding pictures as well as tourist snapshots.  HL photographed its reflection in the façade of what had been a modern Hilton Hotelopened in 1976.  This Hilton had been the sole Western-style hotel  in Budapest during the Communist regime, the only place where foreign travelers might count on a supply of hot water almost as reliable as the ubiquity of surveillance.  

Fisherman's Bastion, BudapestFisherman's Bastion, Budapest Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest

       Once everyone had returned from buying marzipan at a shop opposite Fisherman's Bastion, our bus driver stopped near Heroes' Square.  Everyone dismounted from the bus to listen to a bewhiskered man in a suit.  Radi introduced him as Tamas Lederer, a professor who had organized his own relief efforts to aid the Syrian, and other, refugees who streamed through Hungary in 2015.  Though most were en route to Germany, where asylum and, presumably, jobs awaited them, some had been stranded in Hungary.  These were the infirm, plus those who had fallen ill or been injured or robbed, so that they found themselves destitute in a strange country.  Professor Lederer had encountered one hapless family and given its members food.  They could communicate their plight because Lederer and they spoke English.  Hungarian is unrelated to other European and Levantine languages, and is impenetrable to all but native speakers and the most dedicated of students. 

        Later, Lederer and his friends had provided blankets and medicine for the transients.  Neither the Hungarian government nor the Red Cross had recognized the refugees encamped in train stations, under bridges, and on the streets.  They were ineligible for any of the very few beds available in official aid centers.  At the height of the crisis, Lederer and his cohorts were helping seven thousand Middle Eastern refugees taking shelter in a single Budapest train station. 

Professor Tamas LedererProfessor Tamas Lederer

Professor Tamas Lederer

        Professor Lederer did not regard his activities as heroic.  He was quite modest, as people whose compassionate acts arise from their innate decency tend to be.  Not all Hungarians are xenophobic.  Yet the country had balked at accepting thirteen hundred refugees, the number that the European Union had decreed that Hungary could absorb.  The right-wing regime in power had filed suit against the European Union, condemning the policy of resettling migrants.  Repeatedly, Prime Minister Orban had rallied Hungarians to protect their Christian culture against Muslim inundation. And his popularity is not waning.  Indeed, it seems to be increasing, darkening the current political scene with the shadows of Hungary's past persecutions of its minorities.

        While Professor Lederer answered questions from our group, HL walked around, shooting pictures.  At a little remove from the bus, HL glimpsed a homeless man, prostrate on the ground under a soiled blanket.  Later that day, we observed a few men with battered suitcases on the riverbank, below the Liberty Bridge, on the steps leading down to The Danube.  The smell of burning wood had attracted my attention.  The men had ignited some broken tree limbs to make a campfire.  Budapest had quite a few people who were not, it seemed, benefiting notably from the end of Communism.

Dreaming of the New EconomyDreaming of the New Economy

Dreaming of the New Economy

Living Rough in BudapestLiving Rough in Budapest Living Rough in Budapest


Photography by H.J. Levy









]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) budapest cruise fisherman's bastion hotel humanitarian hungary refugees xenophobia Tue, 30 Jan 2018 23:30:00 GMT
Current Events 4: Castle Hill, Budapest        There were other tourists milling around the royal palace enclosure, but not masses of them.  Much of Buda Castle now houses the Hungarian National Gallery.  I had hoped to see the works of Hungarian painters, mostly unknown outside Mitteleuropa, but shall have to acquaint myself with them on my next visit to Budapest.  The Secessionist style of Vienna had a nationalistic expression in Nineteenth Century Hungarian painting, after the Habsburgs established the Dual Monarchy in 1867.  The Hungarians have not forgotten that they had shared the hegemony of the Austrian Empire before its defeat in the First World War.  

       With its tall, bone-white spire like the spine of some Gothic leviathan, Saint Matyas Church dominates Castle Hill.  The church has been restored and rebuilt numerous times, and boasts a glorious roof of emerald, turquoise, ochre, and bittersweet orange tiles.  The Zsolnay porcelain tiles are pyrogranitic, produced by a unique process.  The vibrant eosin glazes were invented by the manufacturer.  Zsolnay Ceramics became one of Hungary's largest companies during the last century.  Its tiles crown many of Budapest's public edifices.  

Saint Matyas (Matthias) ChurchSaint Matyas (Matthias) Church

       Saint Matyas (Matthias) Church

The Spire of Saint MatyasThe Spire of Saint Matyas The Spire of Saint Matyas

Zsolnay Roof TilesZsolnay Roof Tiles

Zsolnay Roof Tiles





]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) budapest castle hill cruise hungary st. matthias church tiles zsolnay Thu, 25 Jan 2018 12:30:00 GMT
Current Events 3: Captain and Crew        Peter, the ship's captain, was a Hungarian who looked younger than his years, despite the weight of responsibility for the Aria and all aboard her that he bore.  The Danube is a major shipping channel, crowded with barges as well as pleasure craft.  It has natural hazards, too, so the pilot's duties are constant once the ship is moving.  Though English was only his fourth or fifth language, the captain was aware that his surname, Titz, made Anglophones chuckle.  Hearing it, Miri and I looked at one another and turned away quickly, lest we provoked one another to giggles.  Captain Peter was wise to have mentioned it himself during his first address to the passengers, all of whom came from The States.

Captain Peter of the Amusing SurnameCaptain Peter of the Amusing Surname

Captain Peter of the Amusing Surname

       My fellow passengers failed to pique my interest as much as did the crew.  We had little contact with the sailors and navigators, but soon were acquainted with the rollicking Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians and Romanians who tended our rooms and served our meals.  They were personable and vivacious, trim in their uniforms.  It was obvious that they had been selected for employment on the basis of personality as well as any professional criteria.  Whether or not it was feigned, their enthusiasm was charming.  My later observations of Eastern European countries confirmed my initial impression that the crew members valued their jobs, which paid more than most positions in their home countries.  They toiled together with few breaks for the five months of the tourist season, and had developed a palpable camaraderie. 

Some Members of the Aria's CrewSome Members of the Aria's Crew

Some Members of the Crew

       My fellow passengers failed to pique my interest as much as did the crew.  We had little contact with the sailors and navigators, but soon were acquainted with the rollicking Serbians, Croatians, Bulgarians and Romanians who tended our rooms and served our meals.  They were personable and vivacious, trim in their uniforms.  It was obvious that they had been selected for employment on the basis of personality as well as any professional criteria.  Whether or not it was feigned, their enthusiasm was charming.  My later observations of Eastern European countries confirmed my initial impression that the crew members valued their jobs, which paid more than most positions in their home countries.  They toiled together with few breaks for the five months of the tourist season, and had developed a palpable camaraderie. 

       In Budapest, Miri and her cycling companion, Paige, reached the ship only slightly before HL and I did.  On our first night aboard, the passengers were divided into four groups of forty, each with its own tour guide who would travel with us on the buses as well as the ship.  Ours was the Green group, organized by a photogenic young woman from Bulgaria, Radostina.  Eventually, you will see quite a few photographs of her, as she became one of HL's favorite models.  Radi, as she encouraged us to call her, had introduced herself to us via E-mail a few weeks before our departure from The States.  She was twenty-nine, and had been married for about a year.  She was a native of Varna who had wed a Serbian man nicknamed Miki.  The couple had no children as yet, and had adopted a dog of no discernible breed that they called Lola.  Lola had some pit bull in her ancestry, I decided towards the end of the trip, when Miki brought their dog to his meeting with his wife, but I am getting ahead of myself.  

Radi, Our Intrepid GuideRadi, Our Intrepid Guide

Radi, Our Intrepid Leader

     In her initial address to her group of forty, Radi divulged that she was exactly a year older than her only sibling, a sister.  She was born in mid-December, and had the Sagittarian enthusiasm and stamina that one would expect.  She needed every iota of both qualities in order to maintain her schedule.  When Radi was not on the ship for two weeks at a time, she operated her own travel agency in Varna.  She had resigned from her Grand Circle Tours job after her marriage, but she had missed the intense interaction that being a tour guide entailed.  So Radi had resumed her career after only a few months at home.  She had studied tourism and foreign languages at her Bulgarian university, and had five years of experience with Grand Circle.  Two of her fellow guides, Irina and Stefan, were Romanian, and the other one, Bojana, was Serbian.  I overheard Radi speaking to each in his or her own language.  When all four were together, they used English as their lingua franca, if you will pardon the expression.







]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) aria cruise danube gct m/s river aria river cruise Thu, 25 Jan 2018 05:18:43 GMT
Current Events 2: The Ship        It was in Budapest that HL and I met our ship, the M/S River Aria.  HL had arranged in advance for a cab to convey us from the airport to the dock on the Danube, which bisects the city into Buda and Pest.  The Aria was anchored below the hilly, Buda side, where the palace and its cathedral are situated.  All of the cities along The Danube seem to have begun as defensible fortresses on the available riparian heights.  Pest developed later, and the Chain Bridge did not join the genteel Buda to the more bourgeois, bustling town on the flat side of the river until 1849.

The Chain Bridge, Budapest, HungaryThe Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary

 The Chain Bridge, Budapest

       I am still dreaming about the ship.  I had been concerned that our cabin would induce claustrophobia, but HL and I adjusted to its confines with alacrity.  It was, however, odd for us to sleep in narrow twin beds separated by a table supported by a cylindrical, brass-clad leg.  Though the table's edges were rounded, each of us bumped our legs on it occasionally when we rose, groggily, during the nights.  The ship's lounge, upper deck, and dining room were spacious, by contrast, and immaculate.  Railings and woodwork gleamed, polished by the indefatigable crew.  The windows in the lounge and dining room reached almost from floor to ceiling, affording us views of The Danube throughout the cruise.  In Budapest, the river was green.  Evidently, Strauss was somewhere else along The Danube when he named his famous waltz.  

The Upper Deck of the M/S Aria, with the Chain Bridge in the backgroundThe Upper Deck of the M/S Aria, with the Chain Bridge in the background

Here I am on the Upper Deck of the M/S Aria, with the Chain Bridge in the background.

Photography by H.J. Levy









]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Budapest cruise current events danube river hungary the chain bridge Fri, 19 Jan 2018 09:30:00 GMT
Clapping for Tinkerbell          I was a small girl in New York when my mother took me to a children's matinee performance of Peter Pan.  It was my first time in a theater.  I was enthralled by the actors on the stage, their costumes, their voices, and their general magnificence.  One of the principal characters, however, appeared only as a moving light and a pealing of bells.  That was the fairy, Tinkerbell.

         At one point in the story, Tinkerbell rescued her comrades but was hurt badly in the process.  The circle of light that was the fairy dimmed, and Peter Pan turned to the audience in desperation. Tinkerbell was so weak that, unless all of us helped her, she would die.  We might save her if we clapped to show how much we cared about her.  All of the children complied readily, as did some of the adults.  Yet the applause was insufficient.  Peter Pan admonished us to clap harder.  The fairy's light was a mere glow by then, and we clapped with all our might.  Even the parents who had been aloof at first added their efforts.  Finally, the light brightened, and a bell chimed faintly; Tinkerbell would live.  Throughout the theater, programs fluttered from the collective sigh of relief.  

        My daughter K. was introduced to Barrie's classic opus in its Disney version, as is true of most children in my generation and subsequent ones.  Petite, blond K. had enough of a resemblance to Tinkerbell in the Disney animation to inspire her to dress as the spiteful fairy on more than one Hallowe'en.  Now my daughter has leukemia, incredibly, again.  She survived it as a very young child.  Her forty-third birthday is near, and the disease has dimmed her light.  Clap for Tinkerbell, please, as loudly as you can;  her mother thanks you in advance.



This is one of the pictures that I took in the hospital.  There are more like this, but one will suffice here.

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) fairy hospital leukemia peter pan tinkerbell Thu, 18 Jan 2018 03:30:00 GMT
Current Events: My Cruise on the Lower Danube River  

        I made my first trip to Europe with Miri, when she and I were still in our teens.  We worked and wheedled to get the funds and, even more crucially, the freedom to wander through Western Europe for an entire Summer.   It was not until fifty years later that Miri and I could travel together again on the Continent. By then, she was a veteran of several river cruises.  I was willing to try one, especially if it were a bargain.  The itinerary that appealed most to my mate, HL, as well as to me, was for a cruise on the Lower Danube leaving late in September 2016.   

                                              The Danube River in Budapest, with the Parliament of Hungary

The Danube River in Budapest, flowing past the Hungarian Parliament 

       Some of our friends were appalled when HL and I told them where we planned to tour.  There had been no need for them to remind us that the Jews of Eastern Europe had been all but annihilated.  Those who escaped the Nazis were persecuted by the Communist regimes that succeeded them.  At best, they were merely forbidden to practice Judaism, owing to the Soviet ban on all religion.  Yet I felt drawn to that part of the world where my ancestors had originated.  I was not just a tourist, but living proof that the Jewish people persisted and prospered.  That felt like a triumph to me.   

Memorial to Victims of the Sho'ah (Holocaust), Novi Sad, SerbiaMemorial to Victims of the Sho'ah (Holocaust), Novi Sad, Serbia

Memorial to Victims of the Sho'ah (Holocaust), Novi Sad, Serbia 


Photography by H.J. Levy








]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) budapest cruise current events danube danube river europe fisherman's bastion gct grand circle travel holocaust hungarian parliament hungary novi sad parliament river cruise shoah Wed, 17 Jan 2018 03:12:22 GMT
The Nightmare Chair         After forty years, I am back in the Nightmare Chair.  My first time was in Long Island Jewish Hospital in August, 1977, when my two-year-old daughter K. was diagnosed with leukemia.  After an initial bout of chemotherapy, her disease went into remission.  The treatment continued for three years, and K. became one of the success stories in the pediatric unit's annals. 

        Four decades passed.  During that time, I could almost forget about my helpless vigils in the Children's Ward.  I was going to write about that period in detail, but I balked at evoking the experience as it retreated into the past.  K. attended school, was graduated from college, married, and gave birth to her own daughter, my only grandchild, now nine.  K. moved from New York to Florida, to Arizona and Texas.  Then, four weeks ago, she sought medical attention for a persistent sinus infection.  Only it was not a sinus infection.  It was leukemia, presumably a relapse of the juvenile form or one much like it.

        That is how I came to be sitting at my daughter's bedside once more, this time on the eleventh floor of a hospital in Dallas.  When they learned of her history, K.'s doctors were incredulous, almost affronted.  When people who have recovered from childhood leukemia suffer a relapse, it is most likely to be in in adolescence, or young adulthood.  No member of K.'s team of veteran oncologists was familiar with a case like hers.  The facile association is with the forty years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness.  And the beginning of K.'s third week in the hospital coincided with the Shabbat when the Torah portion Shemot, or Exodus, is read.   

        K. is stronger than she was when she was admitted to the hospital.   She was discharged a few days ago, well enough to leave but slated to return soon for more chemotherapy.  The wilderness stretching before us is not an uncharted one, but the crossing will not be swift. 


               Some of the photographs are mine, and the credit for the good ones goes to H.J. Levy. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) chemotherapy exodus hospital leukemia relapse Wed, 17 Jan 2018 03:06:27 GMT
The Dinosaur at The Kremlin         I had a double purpose in drawing this year's Hanukkah dinosaur.  It was to accompany my best wishes for the holiday, as well as announce my intention to write a travelogue about our trip to Russia.  Before I begin that, account, I shall regale you with my completed travelogue about The Balkans.  You can find it as a serial here over the next few weeks.  

        My Kremlinosaurus regards the eponymous fortress, its distinctive swallowtail battlements transformed into candle holders for the Festival of Lights.  Now it is between Hanukkah and the New Year of 2018, and I had intended to maintain the festive mood.  I was very excited about publishing my Balkan adventures, illustrated with HL's photographs.  Yet the days turned very dark for me just before the Winter Solstice.  And I am debating with myself about disclosing the source of my grief. 

        I had imagined that I might adopt a jaunty tone in this blog, referring to people by their initials in the manner of a French epistolary novel, describing my impressions of the passing cavalcade in addition to my own foibles.  Now I am reconsidering, wondering if there is any validity in the adage that sharing a sorrow lessens it.  Please help me to illuminate the somber precincts of my mind by sending whatever Light you can to me;  more anon...

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) balkans cartoon dinosaur hanukkah kremlin moscow russia swallowtail battlements travelogue winter solstice Sun, 31 Dec 2017 03:08:32 GMT
The Roller Coaster        There is only one roller coaster left on The Strip in Las Vegas.  It stands atop the New York, New York hotel-casino.  There used to be one at The Stratosphere, but it has been replaced by several contraptions designed to dangle one over the edge of the roof.   We stayed at New York, New York in late November.  We had never lodged there before, though my daughter and I had ridden the roller coaster together on a previous visit to Las Vegas.  We decided to recreate the experience which we first had in the last millennium.  I do enjoy writing that, a statement as factual as it is outrageous…

       We queued to be strapped into a car and began our ascent.  Suddenly I remembered more than the desire to rise and hurtle down through the bright air.  Then the speed and the suspension, the drops and loops, were all that I knew until time resumed.  I do not know why anybody screamed.  

       And now the facile metaphor suggests itself as Hanukkah nears, the Winter Solstice already some hours past.  The candle lighting lifts spirits that plunge down as darkness gathers once again.  We ride the roller coaster of our moods for more than eight nights.  Then the days lengthen and the descent is over.   

       You may ask why the dinosaurs appear.  I admit to having developed a fondness for my peripatetic reptiles.  I should have missed them at the holiday.  They are always ready for a celebration, as extinction is less than entertaining.  It seems that I am ready, too:  Happy Hanukkah, and enjoy the ride. 






                 21 December 2016

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) cartoon chanukah dinosaurs hanukkah las vegas moods roller coaster winter solstice Thu, 22 Dec 2016 02:06:37 GMT
The Eastern Wall             There was no mizrach in my childhood home or, more properly, in any of the three New York apartments that my parents rented during my first sixteen years. We hung no special decoration on whichever wall was closest to Jerusalem.  We needed nothing to indicate the direction to face when we prayed, because we did not pray. We were secular Jews whose identity was not based on any form of worship.  Instead of the Torah, we revered the history and culture that our ancestors’ religion had engendered.  I was an adult before I set eyes on a Mizrach.  Now I paint my own, and just finished a mizrach in which I have, in fact, set an eye.


            A mizrach can be an elaborate piece of calligraphy or a simple sheet of paper with an appropriate Biblical verse. In Europe, as in The Americas, Jerusalem lies to the east, so references to sunrise are traditional choices.   “From the rising of the Sun to its setting”, from Psalm 113, is common.   Some include the entire psalm, with the Hebrew lettered to form a seven-branched candelabrum or another significant pattern.  Jewish scribal arts flourished during the centuries when representational art did not, discouraged by the Torah’s prohibition of depicting either animals or people. 


I have incorporated a hamsa, meaning “five”, into my latest mizrach. (Scroll down to see the Hamsa Mizrach. For others, see my East to Jerusalem gallery on this site.)  The protective hand amulet is ubiquitous in the Middle East, and hand prints adorn the earliest human habitations.  

Once, Orthodox Jews and collectors of Judaica were the only ones familiar with the mizrach.  Now, I reinterpret it as a celebration of the daily solar reappearance as well as a reminder of the site where the Holy Temple stood.  Its symbolic power does not come from architectural remains, but from the turning toward the Light.



]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Tue, 05 Jul 2016 20:58:28 GMT
The Persistence of Pluto              Despite my surfeit of stamps, I ordered more first-class domestic postage last month. Views of Our Planets was a series that I could not resist.  In my opinion, the set of eight images is an exemplar of philatelic art.   The eight digitally enhanced planetary portraits fit neatly into a block of stamps.   So it might appear that the postal service did not enter the lists on either side of the controversy about Pluto’s status. 

             The USPS sidestepped the issue of whether or not Pluto is a planet by issuing a separate set of four stamps, two pairs to a sheet, headed Pluto – Explored!  They depict the New Horizons spacecraft and the orb of Pluto.  The latter image brings to mind some of the marbles that I owned when I was a child.  Ostensibly, it is the scientific achievement of exploring beyond the bounds of the Solar System that the stamps celebrate.


                 When astronomers demoted Pluto to a dwarf planet, or planetoid, in 2006, I was miffed.  As Pluto rules Scorpio, my Sign, the judgment felt personal.  Doubtless Mars, Scorpio’s co-regent, inspired that perception.  Worse than affronting those born under the Sign of the Scorpion, the revision denigrated the chthonian elements in Nature and in our psyches.  It was an official obeisance to shallowness and complacency, as far as I was concerned.

                 In retrospect, the alteration in nomenclature was characteristic of the heedless boom time that was to end with a resounding crash.  Now the darkness has reentered minds and hearts, and there is widespread dread of the future. The transforming force of The Lord of the Underworld cannot be gainsaid.  Astrologers, of course, did not misjudge or mislabel Pluto.  Without the Shadow, our vision is partial at best.  As New Horizons flies into the blackness between the stars, Pluto remains the ninth planet, distant and more obscure than our inner depths. 

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Thu, 23 Jun 2016 20:09:33 GMT
Black Fire The Torah is written in black fire on white fire.

--  Midrash Tanhuma, Genesis 1

           The Jewish holiday of Shavuot just ended.  There is little debate about its origin as an agricultural festival.  One of its names is The Feast of First Fruits.  It is also The Feast of Weeks, starting the count of seven weeks at Passover.  It is another of the holiday’s names, however, that my painting illustrates: The Giving of the Law (Torah).  There is a vivid verbal description of the event in the Book of Exodus.  I based Revelation at Sinai on the text, and lettered the relevant verses as lava flowing from the space between the tablets that Moses brought from the mountaintop.  (It is the first picture in The Art of the Kabbalah gallery)


No gift was ever bestowed with more fanfare. Storm, earthquake and volcanic eruption combined with a violence that set the standard for all future spectacles.  Mount Sinai quaked and smoked.  Flames spurted from its summit, and trumpets blared.  The sacred words were in the thunder, and, simultaneously, in a whisper within the ear of every person present.    


I chose to paint on black paper, forming the Hebrew characters in white.  If you look towards the upper edges of the scene, you can discern the plumes of black fire shining beyond the pale curls of smoke.  And the trailing strands beneath the purplish bulk of the mountain are its roots. I envisioned Mount Sinai levitating from the desert floor, making space for all the words to descend.  


Revelation at Sinai

                                                                                            Revelation at Sinai

                                                                  Photograph by H.J. Levy, Star Arts Photography

]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Tue, 14 Jun 2016 18:06:11 GMT
Retrieving Wonder: On Being a Tourist in Town              I have wearied my friends with my complaints about my current environment, and for that I apologize.   Those unacquainted with my reasons for relocating to such an uncongenial place need not read about them here.  They may not even be relevant any longer, as I have been at my current address for several years.  What has not changed is the benighted sociopolitical climate or the violence of the weather in North Texas.   The most recent series of storms, the same one that is causing horrendous floods in the Brazos River basin, threatened to keep us indoors for much of our guests’ sojourn last week.  Not for the first time, I rejoiced in the inaccuracy of the forecast.  We were spared daily deluges, so my usual co-conspirator and I were able to acquit ourselves decently as hosts.

Showing Dallas’ attractions to our visitors reminded me of the cultural advantages that the city has to offer.  Within a period of ten days, I attended a concert by Itzhak Perlman and Emanuel Ax in the Winspear Opera House and viewed new exhibits in two museums in the Arts District.  On display at the Crow Collection of Asian Art were wooden Tibetan book covers, centuries old, carved, lacquered and gilded.



 This is part of the permanent jade collection, with a side view of the fountain near The Crow’s entrance.


At The Dallas Museum of Art was the Irving Penn retrospective, Beyond Beauty.   Many of the images were memorable, including "The Tarot Reader", shot in 1949. 


              In an isolated corner in front of the DMA’s conservation department stands The Wittgenstein Vitrine.  Once, it graced the parlor of a Viennese industrialist, the father of one of my favorite philosophers.  First shown in 1908, the vitrine is an extravagant example of the Viennese Workshop (Weiner Werkstatte) style.  It had fallen into disrepair before the DMA acquired it and restored its former luster as well as a missing pane of curved glass.  A guard informed us that the vitrine was going to be moved.  It merits a more prominent placement, which I hope that it receives.




I have always stood in awe of the camera.

  I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.

--    Irving  Penn


Photographs by H.J. Levy , Star Arts Photography 


]]> (Star Arts by Tamar) Tue, 07 Jun 2016 20:16:38 GMT