Romania: Culture, Some Cyber-, Some Jewish

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12 Mar 2002

A very eventful last few days.

How many of you knew that Friday was International Women's Day? Not much celebrated in the US or UK, but a big deal here, a combination of Mothers' Day, Secretaries' Day, and International Women's Day. Apparently a lot of businesses (especially those where the women are mostly in clerical capacities) give their female staff the day off. In our office it was a half-hour break in the afternoon where everyone regardless of gender had some home-made wine, chocolates, cookies (that's sweet biscuits to the Brits). The women did get served first, and everyone drank a toast to them. Probably this scaled-down version is a consequence of the fact that the women in this office, while fewer in number than the men, certainly hold equally responsible jobs.

Joe Mabel with Adrian MihalacheFriday evening, my friend Adrian Mihalache had the launch party for his new book, Navi-Gând-Ind subtitled, effectively, "An Introduction to Cyberculture" [the title is something of a play on words, between "naviga" - navigate - and "gând" / gand - thought, imagination, mind]. (You can find plenty by and about Adrian on the web, in several languages: just Google his name. He's a high tech type and very much a web culture person, as you might guess from the subtitle of his book. As for the book, if you use Microsoft e-books and you read Romanian, you can download the entire book for free 🔗.) The launch took place at the Fulbright center here (Adrian was a Fulbright scholar). Because he is also involved in theater (mainly as a critic) it was not your average book launch. It began with a 20-minute modern dance performance by three talented dancers, all in their last year in what I understand to be a roughly university-level dance program, then came the obligatory short speeches, thank yous, etc., then, rather than an author's reading we were treated to an actress's dramatic presentation of the (somewhat fantastical) last chapter of the book (if Archangels had web sites, just what would they be like? Wouldn't it be nice to reproduce a Van Gogh painting in 3D so there was finally a reproduction that would approximate the "unreproducible" original? And why stop there: could a computer show you the world through his eyes? Etc.).

Have I mentioned that the apartment next to mine - the one with the magnificent view of the park - is currently home to a group of British (or, in one case, Irish) agricultural experts? Nice people, nice to have Anglophone neighbors. Anyway, Saturday morning, after having coffee with with Lynne, the only one of them who wasn't working that morning (and she was headed in later - they had a report behind schedule), I headed off again to the Jewish Theater (which has the enormous virtue of doing performances at 11 in the morning on weekends, hence my frequent visits). This time it was a Romanian-language performance of Israel Horowitz's Park Your Car in Harvard Yard (Parcheaza maşina [masina] la Harvard doesn't quite have the same ring to it, does it?). Once again, a very good production. Basically a 2-character play (notwithstandang radio announcer voices acd a dog), and both (Constantin Dinulescu and Maia Morgenstern) were very strong, for anyone who cares. (Maia Morgenstern, a local theatrical star, is in repertory plays in at least four different theaters, including the Dietrich role in The Blue Angel (Îngerul [Ingerul] Albastru here), which I've not yet had a chance to see. They must all have to schedule around her).

There is a lot of good theater in this town, but I imagine most of you would be bored by a continual series of reviews of productions you will never see - so, more to the immediate point, Adrian and his girlfriend Monica were there, along with some other friends of theirs, and we ended up spending the day together.

Some of you will remember that after the other play where I ran into Adrian (de Ghelderode's Christopher Columbus), Adrian and I drank vin fiert in the cavernous basement bar of the Writer's Museum. Now, in warm weather (which unfortunately has since turned cold again), we headed for the terasa of the same establishment for tuica (plum brandy), beer, and sausages. By utter coincidence I was carrying a (pretty decent) vegetarian salami I had bought on the way to the theater, so I even was able to join in the sausage-eating (sort of). I guess all I can really report about the food at the Museum Cafe serves is that the bread is fine and the mustard is good and my friends liked the sausages.

We then headed to a book fair at the History Museum, for the official launch of a CD-ROM that is part of a rather interesting publishing project here. Remus Cernea of Noesis 🔗 has been editing and publishing a series of CD-ROM based anthologies, each of which contains 50 books (or graphic works of similar dimensions to a book) and sells for 200,000 lei, about US$6. They use Microsoft e-book format and the topics in one volume may range from sociology and politics to theater criticism to a few poetry books and play scripts to a cyber-artist's portfolio.

Adrian's book forms part of the latest volume, hence the connection. The launch was equal parts celebration and cerebration, a lot of discussion over whether e-books are just a new way of distributing books or are a fundamentally new medium, over authors' and publishers' rights, over the difficulties of enforcing copyright in the electronic world, etc. To me, the rights question is plenty interesting, but I'm more intrigued by just what it means to appropriately edit a textual work for a second medium.

The Noesis series is neither a breakthrough nor a disaster with respect to this issue of utilizing the medium to best advantage. Editor Remus Cernea happens to believe the goal is to approximate on a computer the experience of reading a book, not the worst of goals, but not the most exciting either. One of the most interesting things on the disk is the most blatant exception to this: short filmed talks by each author, some of them very inventively filmed. I found myself thinking a lot about how I'd do this differently (hierarchical table of contents, some equivalent of jacket blurbs - after all, most people will buy this for one or two of the works and know nothing about the others, links to websites, etc.). Probably when I'm back to the US, I'd like to look into what is going on with similar ideas in the US and whether I'd have something to contribute to it.

In any event, I do believe that what Noesis is doing is very commendable, and remarkable for a country with a near-third-world economy. Does anyone know if there are any of comparable efforts (CD-ROM-based general-interest anthologies) in the English-speaking world?

Adrian & Monica came back to my place afterwards. We finished off a bottle of sweet Romanian red wine, the kind you definitely cut with water, and some Japanese snacks I'd brought from Seattle, then they headed home and I went to the movies: two films at a French-sponsored women's film festival.

The Sala Elvire Popescu, at the French Institute, a couple of kilometers from where I am living, is a very nice roughly 200-seat movie theater. Unsurprisingly, it shows mostly French films; oddly, films tend to be subtitled in English, mainly because they show things obscure enough that there are no prints with Romanian subtitles. The two films I saw were Doris Doerrie's 🔗 Men a great film that I had seen when it came out in the mid-Eighties, but hadn't seen since, and Brigitte Rouan's somewhat disappointing (at least to me) Post Coitum Animal Triste.

Both films are about bourgeois marriages in which the wife has an affair with a non-bourgeois man. The former is played largely for comedy, the latter for pathos. Certainly the latter is far more explicit about the sexual passion that is supposed to drive both affairs. Brigitte Rouan, more known as an actress than a director, plays her own female lead and is very nervy about filming herself in a sexual context, especially so because she is no longer starlet material: she was already past 50 when she made this film, although her character is slightly younger. Also, the device of having the husband be a lawyer engaged in defending a murderess who killed in rather similar circumstances to the ones with which he himself is presented is a very good one. However, frankly, I could do without long scenes of Brigitte Rouan, or anyone, rolling around on a bed mauling the pillow cursing the world after the breakup of her affair (but I guess the French eat up this sort of thing), and while the younger man who is the subject of her passion is beautiful, his character seems very ordinary, and we have to take it on faith that he is a brilliant engineer who has devoted himself to doing good works in the Third World.

Men, on the other hand, is a wry serio-comic masterpiece. The husband, himself obviously often and casually unfaithful, is thrown into a tizzy by his wife's unfaithfulness. He moves out, adopts a more Bohemian identity, and manages to ingratiate himself with the wife's semi-dropout boyfriend and move in as the boyfriend's roommate. Then he starts to spur said boyfriend's worldly ambition, slowly turning him into a bourgeois striver like himself, so that the wife will become bored with him for the same reasons she was originally bored with the husband. Needless to say, there is much more than that: a gorilla mask, a fast car or two, a few "accidental" injuries to the boyfriend, lovely shots of Munich, and one of my visually favorite closing scenes of all times, about which I will only say that it involves the strangest elevator I've ever seen.

(By the way, Doris Doerrie's films Enlightenment Guaranteed and Happy Birthday, Turk are also very worthwhile, and I'd love to see some of her other 20 or so.)

Sunday I went to the Jewish Museum here. Located in a rather lovely former synagogue that, remarkably, survived both Nazizeit and the Ceausescus unscathed, the Jewish Museum is one of the few places in Bucharest other than a currency exchange office where anyone wants to see your passport. They don't just want to see it: they want to hold it the whole time you are in the museum. This is apparently because of an incident a few years back where some anti-Semitic thugs 🔗 came in smashing things and demanding to see the "human soap".

I liked this museum a lot. It is not the usual collection of ritual objects, indifferent portraits of rich men and their families, paeans to Zionism, and an uninspired Holocaust memorial, nor is it the history-as-triumphant-pageant approach favored by, say, the Jewish Museum in Camden, London or most ethnic museums in America. Instead, this is very much a museum of the history of the Jews in Romania: an enormous collection of books written, published, illustrated, or translated by Romanian Jews; a serious archive of the history of Romanian Jewry; a collection of paintings of and by Romananian Jews that, while relatively small, consists of works of a calibre worthy of a major art museum (many of the same artists' works hang in the National Gallery); memorabilia from Jewish theaters; a medium-sized display devoted to Zionism; a small but pointed display of anti-Semitic posters and tracts; two rooms off to a side, one dealing with the Nazi era from a historical point of view, the other a Holocaust memorial; discussion of both favorable and unfavorable treatment of the Jews by various of Romania's historic rulers; in short, a museum devoted to looking seriously at the history of a particular ethnic group within a society. In contrast to its Hungarian equivalent in Budapest, this is not a museum that sees the exodus of the majority of the country's surviving Jews to Israel as a culmination: this museum is focused more on what that means for those who have stayed, what is the continuing contribution of Jews to Romanian culture, what has been, what is, and what will be the role of Jews in Romania.

So here comes the pitch: they've got a computer, and they've got a digital camera, and they've been photographing material for a digital archive, but they run on a shoestring and they haven't even got an Internet connection let alone a website. I know at least one person who is receiving this email had a specific interest in investigating her own family's Romanian Jewish roots. I don't have a precise proposal together yet, but a (slow) web connect is roughly the same cost here as in the States (which is to say, not much) and there ought to be someone somewhere with a spare gigabyte to host a good web site for them. (In other words, host it offsite, give them ftp access to put up content.) Hell, at Romanian pay scales, we could probably get a student intern to work on this 20 hours a week for a year for a total of US$1000, and that person would (correctly) consider him- or herself well paid (although there may be a roughly equal amount to pay in taxes: I'm not yet sure how this stuff works here). Right now, I'm soliciting ideas and suggestions more than contributions, but if anyone wants to pledge the latter conditioned upon my developing a clear plan, I'm all ears. [November 2003: I never got around to this, but if anyone wants to pursue the project, I'm still interested.]

I have some illustrations on line to go with this page; I believe they are good enough that most of you will want to see them, but they are big enough that they may be annoying to those of you with slow connections [2021 note: Wow. Another era.]; hence I have placed them on a separate page.

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Originally written: March 12, 2002

Last modified: 24 February 2021

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