The Rye Bread Marriage – a book about an enduring bond thanks to rye bread

Among the many challenges in making marriages work is understanding and appreciating the differences between those in the marriage, particularly cultural and ethnic differences. What might seem normal to one culture may seem incomprehensible to another. Much like any other culture, Latvians have their own quirks and peculiarities, and for the many Latvians that experienced war and being displaced persons, there is also a good deal of trauma.

However, unexpected connections can be found to strengthen a marriage. One particular marriage’s bond has endured thanks to, of all things, rye bread. That is the story of Michaele Weissman’s memoir The Rye Bread Marriage, published by Algonquin Books in 2023. Subtitled “How I Found Happiness with a Partner I’ll Never Understand”, it is the story of her marriage to Latvian American John (Jānis) Melngailis, and how this particular kind of bread helped develop a particularly strong bond between them.

Melngailis is the founder of Black Rooster Food (Black Rooster being the literal translation of Melngailis) and has found success in selling the Latvian style rye bread (or rupjmaize) in the United States, but the path to this achievement was an arduous and difficult one.

Besides being a story of a rye bread entrepreneur, it is also the story of a marriage, an often unflinching, raw portrait, with both euphoric highs and discouraging lows. Weissman married Melngailis in 1982, a time when the expectation was still that Latvians in the United States would marry other Latvians, so the marriage of Melgailis to Weissman (who is Jewish) was not looked upon favorably by some in the community.

There are numerous struggles in the marriage, and Weissman writes openly about John’s mental health struggles, and her own difficulties. However, John, like many Latvians, is enamored with, even perhaps obsessed with, rye bread. Turns out two of Weissman’s grandfathers were Litvak Jews from Eastern Europe who also ate a lot of rye bread. This unlikely link brings the two closer together.

The book, in its brief 266 pages, is many things – a memoir, a biography of Melngailis, a history of rye bread, as well as an analysis of the trauma many Latvian refugees experienced after the war, where rye bread was a potent reminder of home, a home that many were convinced they would never see again. Weissman has a direct, sometimes even abrupt style (the book has 126 chapters, many of which are only a few sentences in length). Weissman weaves all these many threads together in an engrossing and absorbing read. The book is full of poignant moments (John’s return to the town of his birth – Lielvārde – to meet with his friend, the baker and oven maker Aivars Grīnbergs),  but still does have the occasional humorous story (the disappointment of going to the Open Air Ethnographic Museum to celebrate a traditional Jāņi, only to encounter a reggae band singing the decidely untraditional refrain ‘Jāņi, Jāņi, āfrikāņi’).

As the story of a marriage to a rye bread-obsessed Latvian, Michaele Weissman’s The Rye Bread Marriage is at times moving, other times humorous, and, is often an unflinching and, occasionally, uncomfortable read, due to its very intimate nature. Besides the trauma of the Latvian refugees, Weissman also touches on the pain and horror of the Holocaust in Latvia. The Rye Bread Marriage is a fascinating story of how two people of very different cultural and ethnic backgrounds overcame adversity to create an enduring and successful marriage.

For further information, please visit  Michaele Weissman’s website.

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Youthfully energetic Laimas muzykanti perform diverse arrangements of Latvian folksongs on new CD

For nearly thirty years, Latvian folk ensemble Laimas muzykanti have been active and energetic performers and interpreters of Latvian folk songs. Founded in Daugavpils in 1995 by multi-instrumentalist Artūrs Uškāns, the group perform songs in Latvian and Latgallian both in a traditional style, as well as with modern instruments and arrangements. Their latest album – Turu buru ­– was released in 2023.

Laimas muzykanti have always stood out with their unusual and interesting arrangements, and, according to Uškāns, in recording Turu buru, many of the ensemble members participated in arranging the music, resulting in even more diverse sounds – hard rock, Latin, bluegrass, as well as traditional elements can be heard in the songs on the album.

The arrangements on the album span the full spectrum from traditional to modern. More traditional and sparser arrangements can be found in songs like “Kokle”, which, unsurprisingly, features the Latvian kokle as the lead instrument. The tender, heartbreaking song is about a girl who falls into a river, but whose soul can be found in the wood of a linden tree which is then used to make a kokle that has a beautiful sound, and the tragedy in the folk texts is enhanced by the enthralling vocals by Baiba Ērgle.

Laimas muzykanti have an eclectic repertoire as well as unusual arrangements, and one example on the album is ‘Viejeņš pyute’, which begins as a harsh, discordant waltz, then includes traditional elements, and then concludes with hard rock elements.

A Celtic atmosphere is created on ‘Lakstīgala’, a song about a nightingale that sings so beautifully, that a young man spills his wine glass (resulting in the hostess calling him a drunk). The song also features a lovely musical interlude between guitarist Armands Varslavāns and mandolinist Ilze Fārte.

More hard rock elements can be heard in ‘Jūras māte’, an appropriately stormy song about a quarrel between the Sea Mother and the Wind Mother.

The group is joined by Latvian singer Ieva Akurātere and Etnozoom to create the atmospheric, trance-like ‘Putni’. Akuratere’s expressive and soaring vocals are joined with electronic music to create an immersive performance.

Well into their third decade of performance, Laimas muzykanti have not lost the youthful and boisterous energy that have been a hallmark of their recordings. Turu buru continues their melding of Latvian folk songs with more modern elements in unique, distinctive arrangements, resulting in another satisfying collection of songs.

For further information, please visit the Laimas muzykanti Facebook page.

Turu buru

Laimas muzykanti


Track listing:

  1. Bandenieka rudzi
  2. Cauri guoju
  3. Lakstīgala
  4. Viejeņš Pyute
  5. Kaņepītes
  6. Laiva
  7. Kokle
  8. Vasariņa
  9. Meitas Mala
  10. Dzaltoneite
  11. Jūras Māte
  12. Putni – feat. Ieva Akuratere feat. EtnoZoom

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.

Double CD features organist Aigars Reinis’ rendition of music by Alfrēds Kalniņš

Early 20th century Latvian composer Alfrēds Kalniņš (1879–1951) was one of the founding fathers of Latvian classical music. He is the composer of Baņuta, considered to be the first Latvian opera, as well as several choral songs and solo songs.

Kalniņš was also a proficient organist and was quite possibly the most famous concert organist in Latvia during his time. Such was his talent and renown that he had the opportunity to spend many years in the late 1920s and early 1930s in New York City, where he also worked and performed.

Consequently, among Kalniņš’ many contributions to Latvian classical music are his broad and extensive list of compositions for the organ. Recognizing his contribution to this field, the Latvian national record label Skani release a 2 CD collection of Kalniņš’ organ music in 2023, simply entitled Ērģeļmūzika (Organ Music), performed by distinguished Latvian organist Aigars Reinis on the world famous Rīga Cathedral organ.

The opera Baņuta is Kalniņš’ magnum opus, and this collection includes the author’s organ transcriptions of two pieces from the opera – “Svinīgs ievads” (The Stately Overture) and “Sēru maršs” (Funeral March). The overture is resplendent and celebratory, while the march is tragic and somber, and Reinis adeptly moves between these sharply contrasting moods, bringing forth the needed emotional weight in his performance.

Kalniņš time in New York City was a particularly enriching experience and the many artists he met and collaborated with there (including virtuoso organist Samuel Baldwin) inspired several compositions. The CD booklet includes a humorous note about how Kalniņš would take a portable table to Central Park and compose there. Among the works composed there were “Introduzione et Allegro”, a dramatic and lyrical work that concludes in a flurry of activity, perhaps influenced by the constant motion of the city. This contrasts with another work of that time, “Klostera idille” (Cloister Idyll), a work with a sacred mood, contemplative and reflective.

Among Kalniņš’ contemporaries was perhaps the most significant composer of the era of Latvia’s first independence – Jāzeps Vītols. During World War II, Vītols went into exile in Germany, while Kalniņš remained in Latvia during the Soviet occupation and became the rector of the Latvian State Conservatory. As one of his final compositions, Kalniņš composed a series of variations on a theme by Jāzeps Vītols. As musicologist Arnolds Klotiņš explains in the CD booklet, this was an especially provocative move by Kalniņš, as not only was Vītols considered to be persona non grata by the Soviet authorities, Kalniņš took it a step further by using a sacred theme by Vītols – “Jēzu, saule mana” (Jesus, my Sun) – a pointed message to the atheistic communist regime. This defiant gesture at the close of his career and life reinforced Kalniņš’ reputation as a truly Latvian composer. The variations, full of reverence for his colleague, have a celebratory and joyful mood about them, and organist Reinis skillfully uses the expansive sounds of the organ of the Riga Cathedral to imbue the performance with a rich resonance.

Over these two CDs of organ music, the listener will appreciate not just Alfrēds Kalniņš’ compositional skill, but also his significant contribution to the development of the Latvian organ music repertoire. Kalniņš wove together the traditions of the 19th century (and earlier) with the more modern approaches of the early 20th century to create a collection of works that provided a solid foundation for Latvian music in the decades beyond. Organist Aigars Reinis, using the full capabilities and sonic range of the organ of the Riga Cathedral, provides lush and resonant performances of these works, reaffirming Kalniņš’ place as one of the great Latvian composers.

For further information, please visit the Skani website.

Alfrēds Kalniņš – Ērģeļmūzika

Aigars Reinis, organ

LMIC/SKANI 149, 2023

Track listing:

CD 1

1. Fantāzija

2. Pastorāle nr. 1

3. Introduzione et Allegro

4. Cloister Idyll

5. Scherzo

6. Christmas Lullaby

7. Kāzu maršs

8. Procesija

9. Variācijas par Jāņa Kalniņa tēmu

CD 2

1. Agitato

2. Svētvakars

3. Svinīgs ievads no operas Baņuta

4. Sēru maršs no operas Baņuta

5. Prelūdija

6. Pastorāle nr. 2

7. Variācijas par Jāzepa Vītola tēmu

8. Himna manai dzimtajai zemei

Egils Kaljo is an American-born Latvian from the New York area . Kaljo began listening to Latvian music as soon as he was able to put a record on a record player, and still has old Bellacord 78 rpm records lying around somewhere.