WHY I HAD TO WRITE ‘TIME OUT OF JOINT: THE FATE OF A FAMILY’

ToJ cover

“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite

That ever I was born to set it right.”

(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5)

Hamlet expresses so succinctly and poetically what many of us feel as members of the Second Generation when we think about the rise of Nazism, the Second World War and the conflagration that encompassed most of the world in the middle of the twentieth century.

The signs were there for those who were prepared to read them. These included Winston Churchill amongst others, and my father’s cousin, who refused to return to her home in Germany from a skiing holiday in Switzerland when she heard that Hitler had been elected to the Reichstag. She sent her husband home to pack up their house, and they eventually made their home in the USA.

Unfortunately, my father and his parents were not so prescient, and by the time they realised that it would be advisable to get out of Germany the doors of most countries were closed to them. I know that they tried to get out. I have the letters that prove it. It’s a banal story, and one experienced by so many others, but in this particular case there is a happier ending, although not an entirely happy one. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing this, would I?

After Kristallnacht, the Pogrom Night of 9th November 1938, when the well-planned and coordinated destruction of synagogues and the widespread arrest of Jewish men all over Germany was carried out by the S.S. and its supporters, my grandmother sent a cable from Hamburg to her relatives in London with just three words: ‘Save my son.’

It had the desired effect, and the relatives set about arranging for my father, then a young man of twenty-two, to gain entry into England, in the hope that he would be able to find work and eventually bring his mother over. He got out but was unable to bring his mother out, and she perished eventually in Theresienstadt.

There were stringent restrictions on what Jews leaving Germany were allowed to take with them, and these included valuables and money of any kind other than the sum of ten marks. Into the one suitcase permitted to my father my grandmother put the things that she probably thought would serve as a reminder of his home: files of family documents and correspondence, photograph albums and the piano music her husband used to play. I sometimes wonder whether she knew that she was creating a treasure trove for her future granddaughter, i.e., me.

Those objects remained in my father’s possession, tucked away in a filing cabinet in my parents’ house, first in London and later in Jerusalem. When my father retired from his job in England he and my mother came to live in Israel, to join me and my two sisters, all of us married and with children.

While helping my parents settle into their new home I came across the files of letters and the other material. My father told me what they were and my curiosity was aroused. I was unable to read German at the time, so enlisted the help of a friend to translate the letters my father’s brother had written from Kentucky in 1928 to his family in Hamburg describing his experiences as an apprentice in a tobacco firm. My uncle died tragically in Shanghai in 1929, and the book of his letters in English that we published in 2003 was entitled ‘The Tobacco Road; Hamburg, Kentucky, Shanghai.’ It serves as a memorial to a talented young man who came to an untimely end (I will gladly send anyone interested a copy).

The letters my grandmother wrote to my father and his sister also serve as a monument, this time to the fortitude and faith of an elderly woman left to cope on her own with the venality of the Nazi regime. A book containing her letters and describing developments as they affected the Jewish community of Hamburg in those years was published in German by the Hamburg state authorities in 2005.

But the fate of my father’s family continued to haunt me. The letters in the files contained many fascinating accounts of what it was like to be living in Germany and other parts of Europe in those fateful years. I decided to study German, found a private teacher and eventually was able to read and understand the correspondence and documents. It seemed to me that each of the individuals I had never met had a distinctive voice and character, and should not be permitted to sink unacknowledged into the depths of forgetfulness.

Gradually those people came to life in my mind. Anecdotes and memories my father had told me connected up with the voices in the letters, and after several years in which I heard these people talking to me I decided to put metaphorical pen to paper and tell their story in the only way I knew how – in the form of a novel.

The historical currents sweeping through Europe in that period also played a part in the lives of the individuals I describe, and these have also been incorporated into the novel. I have chosen to begin the story with an account of the funeral rite performed by the members of the Hamburg Hevra Kadisha, the Burial Society, of which my grandparents were both members. I have researched this ritual, and hope I have not done too great an injustice to a Jewish tradition that has endured for thousands of years.

The beautiful and rebellious daughter of the family leaves Germany long before Hitler’s rise to power, and goes to live and work abroad, first in Amsterdam and Paris and eventually in the south of France. She and her bohemian friends become involved in the political movements of the time, and her lover is killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War. She eventually finds happiness in the arms of a white Russian émigré in a village in the south of France. Their son, who is my cousin, lives there to this day, and his birth and early childhood at a time when France was under German occupation is also described in the book.

Apart from the conversations and thoughts, which are the product of my imagination, the novel is based almost entirely on factual events, and I have endeavoured to describe how they affected each individual. Thus, we accompany the young man who crosses the Atlantic by liner to spend a year in Kentucky in order to learn about the tobacco trade. A year later, flushed with success, he returns to his family in Hamburg, on his way to his next assignment. After travelling by train and boat across Europe and Russia, he reaches Shanghai, where he comes to a tragic end.

Some years later the father of the family is struck by a neighbour who complains of the noise made by his musical evenings. The father sues him in the Hamburg civil court, demanding an apology; although his claim is upheld, he dies soon afterwards. The youngest child, by now a young man, is saved by his widowed mother’s intervention on his behalf after Kristallnacht.  But the mother herself is unable to leave Germany and is sent to her death in a concentration camp. This, too, is described, based on her letters as well as on considerable research.

The conclusion of the book takes place in London, in a hostel for Jewish children who were able to leave Germany under the Kindertransport scheme, The life of one such child and one such hostel is depicted in considerable detail. This, too, is based on the personal experiences of my parents.

A brief epilogue set in 1992 describes what became of the two babies born in 1940 and 1942, one in France (my cousin) and the other in England (me), to two of the principal characters, as well as the fate of the troubled young boy who is one of the residents of the hostel.

For more information, visit the author’s website: www.Shefer-Vanson.com

or the book’s website:

http://www.amazon.com/Dorothea-Shefer-Vanson/e/B00GA5SGA0

Digital Detox

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 I saw the article in one of the glossy weekend supplements that comes with the French newspaper ‘Le Figaro’ which I try to read while I’m on vacation in France. The photography is beautiful, the articles intelligent, and it’s good for my French (I read it with the aid of a dictionary). As the house we are staying in has no TV this is our principal way of keeping up with what’s happening in the world outside (don’t tell me to listen to the news on the radio. French radio newsreaders and reporters gabble away unintelligibly, scarcely pausing for breath even between paragraphs, let alone sentences and words).

The picture at the top of the article (shown above) portrays a demure young lady sitting on a hotel bed. The balloon over her head shows that she is thinking: ‘Vichy by night, without a TV or a smartphone. I’m going to write about this on Facebook!’ The article describes in detail the agonies the poor dear went through in order to write an article about her experiences during a weekend of ‘digital detox’ prescribed for her to overcome her addiction to the various electronic means of communication. Some books were provided, but the rest of the time she was thrown back on her own resources for passing the time (spa, swimming pool, dining room, etc.), poor thing.

I felt a passing pang of pity for the unfortunate journalist, never fearing that I would soon be sharing her fate, although without the luxury hotel.

Being away from home and family at a time when there is a full-scale war on is an unsettling experience. One doesn’t want to belabour the point, but maintaining contact with one’s loved ones and learning about what’s going on assumes paramount importance, and so one finds oneself checking emails, news sites, Facebook, etc. with almost insane intensity and frequency.

And then, for a variety of technical reasons, we suddenly found ourselves without internet or phone connection. We have learned to live with the occasional electricity cuts occasioned by thunderstorms, which are quite frequent in this part of France. But those cuts usually last a few seconds, minutes, or even hours. They never go on for several days.

Suddenly, without warning, we were cut off from the outside world. No internet. No Mako. No Facebook. Not even Amazon. And no phone line either, because the phone goes via the internet provider. We, too, were thrown back on our own resources, and found ourselves paying closer attention to the French-language news broadcasts and in the interim consoling ourselves with books, or venturing to the next village in order to pick up the internet connection in the local café. The only small corner of redemption was provided by our iphones, which allowed us minimal contact with the world outside.

When we phoned to find out what was happening we were told that the problem would be solved within a week at the most. ‘A whole week!’ I screamed at the nice (English-speaking) lady at the other end of the phone line. ‘That is very hard for us.’ I didn’t go into all the details as to why this was so, but I begged her to do whatever she could to expedite matters. She said there was very little she could do, but she would add a note to our file.

In my desperation I had resorted to watching half an hour or so of a DVD I had brought along with me (a beautiful old film, ‘Stavisky,’ directed by Alain Resnais) every evening. And so, after supper on the fourth evening, which also happened to be the evening of the day on which I had spoken to the nice lady at the information section of the internet provider, when I had just settled down to watch my evening ration of ‘Stavisky’ (based on a true story, incidentally) the cry went up from the other room, ‘We have internet!’

Was it a coincidence or had my pleas helped? Worse still, what is one to do in such cases? Drop everything and fly back into the (metaphorical) arms of email, Facebook, Mako and co. or continue watching ‘Stavisky’? I made a half-hearted attempt to watch Stav. while simultaneously looking at my emails. As anyone could have guessed, that didn’t work.

But after a briefer than usual episode of Stav. I allowed myself to indulge in a cup of (decaffeinated) coffee and then devote myself to catching up with all my old friends until well past midnight.

So much for digital detox. I hope it worked better for the poor lady journalist than it did for me. But at least she got her byline on her two-page article in ‘Figaro.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time Out

  France 2014 tartelettes

It’s an occupational hazard of living in Israel. You live your life, make vacation plans, and then there is a crisis. At first you don’t know how long it will continue and what shape or form it will assume. So you carry on as usual, as best you can, and when the date for your departure arrives you go to the airport to catch your flight, assuming – or rather hoping – that the current crisis will soon die down, as has happened so many times in the past.

But while you are on your way to your destination the crisis grows and grows, so that you find yourself on holiday reading newspapers in a language you barely understand, listening to news broadcasts in the hope of catching one tenth of their meaning, and spending ever-increasing amounts of time on the internet and Facebook, gleaning what you can.

 For any Israeli, but especially one with family members in the fighting forces, being away from home at times like these is especially hard. How are you supposed to relax and enjoy yourself when you’re worried about how your loved ones – as well as everyone else – are faring? You identify with everyone undergoing rocket attacks, with every soldier on the ground, at sea, or in the air, and weep at every fallen hero, those smiling young faces which will never smile again, and whose untimely deaths have plunged their families into endless grief.

You also are concerned about the massive loss of innocent lives in Gaza. Yes, it’s their own fault for submitting to the cruel rule of the Hamas (as if they had a choice), and for their rulers’ obstinacy in continuing to fire rockets at our own innocent civilians, for building tunnels of destruction and mayhem instead of shelters and hospitals, and for refusing to accept a ceasefire. But still, no one rejoices when children suffer, wherever they may be and whichever nation they belong to.

 And so there you are, in an island of tranquility in a foreign country that last experienced conflict seventy years ago. The food is good, the weather clement, the atmosphere pleasant, you meet charming people and enjoy everything that life has to offer. But that is constantly overshadowed by your concern for what is happening at home.

 Somehow, you persuade yourself to get the most out of these weeks away from the conflict and the tension, and you almost succeed.

 But then, without warning, the foreign radio station which is constantly on because it is officially the one that broadcasts classical music (even though that is not always the case) plays the full kitsch Broadway version of Shalom Aleichem’s Yiddish classic, ‘Tevye the Milkman,’ and you break down in tears.

 This is something that would never happen if I were back in Israel, and can only be explained by my feelings of guilt and anguish at being far away from home at this sensitive time.

 Even the most hardened cynic, such as I like to consider myself to be, must be allowed a moment of soppy sentimentalism at a time like this, I suppose.

 

Pogrom Night 1938: A Memorial to the Destroyed Synagogues of Germany; Synagogue Memorial, Beit Ashkenaz, Jerusalem, Israel

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Pogrom Night cover

 I literally trembled with emotion when I held the two volumes of this monumental work in my hands. Together they comprise over seven hundred pages which are packed with information about the more than one thousand synagogues and prayer rooms that existed in pre-WWII Germany and were burned, destroyed, pillaged or plundered on the night of November 9th 1938 which was given the derisive designation of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, by its Nazi perpetrators.

 The book contains concise texts giving the history, dates and vital statistics of each synagogue and community, and in many cases these are accompanied by photographs of the way the place looked before and sometimes after November 9, 1938. The work is, in fact, an encyclopaedic account of the life and times of the many Jewish communities that once existed in Germany, as it was defined by its 1937 borders. On a personal note, my heart lifted when I saw that what was once the small town of Sprottau in Silesia, the birthplace of my mother and today known as Szprotawa in Poland, is included.

 The inside cover of the book shows a map of Germany on that fateful day. The map is in gray and is studded with tiny dots of white, giving the impression of innumerable spots of light. These denote the places where synagogues or prayer rooms existed and were destroyed or attacked that night. In one startling and concise graphic image the reader grasps the full extent of the tragedy of the Jews of Germany.

 Forewords have been written by Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German Ambassador and now Global Head of Germany’s Allianz Group, and Malcolm Hoenline, Vice-Pesident of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, both of whom contributed funds to support the project. But the main contribution and acknowledgement belongs to Professor Meir Schwartz, who instigated the project and has brought it to its final realization over the course of the last twenty years.

 Professor Schwarz, who was born in Nuremberg in 1926, was sent on his own to what was then Palestine at the age of nine. In his professional career, becoming a world-renowned expert on hydroponics, Professor Schwarz helped to make the desert bloom, both in Israel and elsewhere, thus providing sustenance to many millions.

 In his foreword to the book, Professor Schwarz relates that when he visited the town of his birth he found that the memory of the former Jewish community had been all-but erased. This was in 1988, when he happened to be in Germany attending an international biology conference. The local officials he spoke to had no knowledge of the synagogue that had once existed there, although Professor Schwarz remembered being present as a child and seeing it with his own eyes as it burned.

 Thus it was that in 1988 he determined to set the record straight and create a memorial for all the synagogues that had once existed, forming the focal point of the Jewish communities that had once flourished throughout Germany. In the larger towns there were generally more than one synagogue, and these are all commemorated, as are even the tiny steiblach and prayer rooms that existed in the smaller, rural communities. Contrary to general belief, there were many Jews who lived in far-flung towns and villages in Germany, in Jewish communities that often consisted of just a handful of families.

 Volume 1 also contains an extensive illustrated introduction relating the history of the Jewish community of Germany in considerable detail, with particular emphasis on that of Cologne.

 Many people helped to bring this immense project to fruition, and the undersigned is proud to note her own small contribution as author of some of the texts. However, without Professor Schwarz’s guiding hand and powerful vision the book would never have come into existence. Having worked in the past as the editor and translator of publications put out by Israel’s central bank, I can appreciate how much care, time and effort has been put into the production of this complex, comprehensive and above all beautiful work.

 These two volumes constitute a treasure-trove of information and will undoubtedly stand as a resounding achievement as well as a lasting memorial to the once-glorious Jewish communities of Germany.

 

The Situation

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P_dove_peace[1] 

 

One hesitates to write anything about what has been happening in Israel over the last few weeks, and what is still happening. The situation is volatile, in every sense of the word, and what is true at one moment may not be the next.

 But things have happened, and perhaps it is legitimate to comment on them and try to get some kind of perspective on them. The kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli teenagers was an atrocious deed, whichever way you look at it. If the same fate was meted out to the Arab teenager, that is equally atrocious. All criminals must be punished and that includes the perpetrators of both those crimes.

 But whether crimes committed in the name of one nationality or another justifies mass demonstrations, rioting and a general rampage of violence is another matter. When a mob runs amok, calling for revenge, causing damage to property and endangering the life and limb of innocent members of the public one has to ask oneself what values have been inculcated into these people?

 Some Jews, and Israelis among them, like to consider themselves morally superior to others who do not adhere to their values. After all, they contend, it is Jews who were the first to adopt a monotheistic religion and introduce a code of law. According to the historical and archaeological evidence, this is not entirely true, but the nations with whom these ideas originated (Sumerians, ancient Egyptians) are no longer around to stake their claim. The Jews and their texts have survived.

 So who are the people comprising the mobs? On the one hand there are the Arabs living under Israeli rule. The general view is that one expects no better of them; they adhere to a creed that preaches violence, their religion is a mongrel offshoot of others, and their culture is one of vengeance. That, too, is not entirely true, but it is the popular idea, and one cannot deny that the internecine violence currently being unleashed in the various countries of the Middle East bears this out – at least to some extent.

 On the other side there are strident voices among Jews calling for vengeance, both on the various social media and in mobs that were hastily formed and shouted slogans that echoed the most primitive and violent ones yelled by the Arabs. Essentially, that puts us all on the same footing, with each side being equally misguided and unable to act responsibly.

 The family of the murdered Israeli boys displayed admirable restraint and high moral integrity throughout, and one of them even condemned the murder of the young Palestinian. But certain elements in Israel seem to be intent on stirring up sentiments that clash with the basic values of Judaism – tolerance, forbearance and acceptance of the other (remember the commandment to love thy neighbor as thyself?).

 In the present state of affairs no one is any better than anyone else, and encouraging people to behave like Neanderthals spells disaster for us all.

 

The Eleventh Plague

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 The-Brain,-WikiMedia-Commons[1]

 

Our memory is one of our most precious and valued faculties. I’m always full of admiration for people who remember dates, phone numbers, addresses, how to get to places, and above all people’s names, without having to write everything down.

When I was younger I think I had quite a good memory. I could memorize poems and all kinds of useful quotes, I managed to pass various exams, and could find my way around London and other cities quite easily.

Now that I’m over seventy that faculty is definitely deteriorating. I won’t say that my memory loss is more acute than anyone else’s, but when I found myself in town without my handbag (purse in American parlance) on one recent occasion, and having left my smart-phone at home on another, I began to worry.

The affliction of dementia or Alzheimer’s seems to be affecting an ever-growing number of people, some of them comparatively young. I see the suffering of their families and cannot fail to be struck by the devotion and love they display. But the thought that I might end up like that terrifies me, even though I know that losing one’s short-term memory isn’t the only indication, and that some kind of personality change is sometimes also part of the disease.

Apart from trying to keep one’s brain active by always trying to learn something new, the adage ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’ is pivotal in ensuring that one doesn’t waste hours looking for keys or reading-glasses. But what are you supposed to do if you’ve forgotten what that place is?

As chance, or luck, or possibly even fate, would have it, someone posted on Facebook the link to a series of tests for memory loss. Known as SAGE, or Self Administered Gerocognitive Examination, they are provided by the Ohio State University (http://sagetest.osu.edu) and can very easily be printed out so that the individual can test herself in the comfort of her own home.

So I printed the pages out and eventually even summoned up the courage to tackle the tests. To my surprise, I found that they involved recognizing and naming quite familiar objects, giving the names of twelve items in a category such as fruits or vegetables, and doing some simple mental arithmetic akin to calculating the correct change from five dollars if one spends a given sum.

Well, all that’s easy enough, I thought. Ergo, I don’t have Alzheimer’s. Or do I? To my shame, yesterday I forgot to indicate whether the dishwasher was clean or dirty just one day after accusing my husband of committing the same crime. Trying to tell some friends an amusing anecdote I forgot the name of the person about whom I was talking, couldn’t remember the title of a book I wanted to recommend, misremembered the title of a book I myself had written, etc., etc. That’s really scary.

Is it just my imagination, or is there more and more of it around? Is it something in the water we drink or the polluted air we breathe? It is all around us, and it seems to be spreading to an ever-growing number of people, just like one of the plagues in ancient Egypt.

At what point does acceptable weakening of one’s memory become Alzheimer’s? How will I know when I’ve got it? Those SAGE tests are not very difficult. Am I to take it that it’s only when I won’t be able to identify a drawing of a volcano, name twelve animals, and work out how much change I’ll get from five dollars that I should start worrying?

Or will it be too late by then?

 

 

The Road to Hell…

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Islam[1] 

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, so the saying goes, and that certainly seems to be the case in the Middle East, where once again (or is it still?) it, seems to be well on its way to hell due to the actions of people who think that they are acting for the greater good of something or other.

 All around us countries, which had managed to survive – albeit under dictatorships — for several decades since being abandoned by their colonial masters, are breaking up in a series of bloodbaths that are enough to make anyone’s blood run cold, helped along by intervention from well-intentioned individuals at the head of the USA. Although we all acknowledge that dictatorships are a Bad Thing, it would seem that without them countries like Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Iran and possibly others disintegrate in the most violent manner imaginable.

 Here in Israel, apart from the occasional Palestinian violence, as evinced by the recent kidnapping of three teenagers and outbreaks of stone-throwing, we can delude ourselves that we’re living in a bubble of peace and quiet as all around us huge masses of refugees stream across borders in search of a place where their lives are not in peril. The refugee camps that have been set up in the countries surrounding us provide less than minimal conditions for living, and the sight of these unfortunates is enough to soften even the stoniest heart.

 Behind these violent eruptions lie tribal and sectarian differences within the local populations. Which ordinary man-or-woman-in-the-street can fathom the depths of hatred that cause Muslims belonging to different streams of that faith to mercilessly slaughter one another? Shias? Sunnis? What’s the difference? Who cares? And of course their mutual hatred is only a partial palliative for the hatred those extremists bear for anyone who is not a Muslim, i.e., Jews and Christians. In what seems to be a classic case of fear of and hatred for ‘the other,’ these radicals seek to impose their beliefs and way of life on everyone, and if that doesn’t work, to bump those people off. Irrespective of the more odious aspects of their religion (violence towards all and sundry, repression of women, discrimination against minorities), their attitude constitutes the antithesis of progress and enlightenment, whatever they may contend to the contrary.

 The prospect is frightening. Once the radical Muslims have sated their thirst for blood on one another they are going to turn to the rest of us. Israel’s defence forces will have a tough job keeping them at bay along borders that are too long and too close for comfort. The Muslim countries that are our neighbours are not going to form a bulwark against the radicals unless some major international effort is made to stop them.

 But that seems unlikely. America is disinclined to intervene, and this is understandable in view of their experiences of such action in recent memory. Who’s left? China? Russia? Why should they bother? They are probably rubbing their hands in glee as they watch the Middle East erupt in mutually assured destruction.

 Perhaps we can console ourselves by looking back over time. Europe has undergone innumerable wars and is now more or less at peace. And we Jews emerged from the Holocaust, the darkest period in our history (and there have been many very dark periods), and summoned up the strength to establish our own country, ward off the forces who sought to destroy us, and reach unimagined heights of prosperity and success.

 If mankind has managed to surmount all those hurdles in the past, we must take heart and not let ourselves be discouraged now. The future has looked bleaker in the past and yet we have endured. So I suppose there’s nothing for it but to remain optimistic and hope that one of these days reason will prevail.

 

 

Disgusting!

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As occasionally happens, one day last week I found myself trailing behind my husband as he undertook several missions involving the purchase of equipment connected with repairs to the house and improvements in the garden.

 Thus it was that I found myself looking around in an admittedly bored fashion as my OH (Other Half) interested himself in what to him is the fascinating world of garden tools, insecticides, and drain cleaners.

 It was then that the above picture caught my eye, and while I apologise for the poor quality of the photograph, which was taken in a state of acute agitation on my part, I think the message it conveys is clear enough.

 For non-Hebrew readers I’ll give the gist of the text accompanying the very graphic picture of a young woman with tape stuck over her mouth.

 On the part that covers her mouth it says: ‘When you have to block something immediately!’ Next to it, in bigger letters, we read: ‘Rescue Tape; A Silicon Tape for Immediate Emergency Sealing!’ Additional slogans read: ‘Essential in every house and car!’ and the additional – and much smaller pictures – show where the tape might be used in less dramatic circumstances.

 In as moderate terms as I could muster I pointed out to the owner of the shop that this was a highly inappropriate image to be displaying in his store. He replied with some mealy-mouthed explanation about the company providing the stand for displaying their wares, which comes complete with said image. I whipped out my iphone and took the photo, then walked out without saying another word for fear of embarrassing myself and annoying my OH, but my anger and resentment found full expression when we were alone in the car.

 As for the company concerned, Rescue Tape, I for one will NEVER use that product, and I hope that anyone who reads this or comes across that vile image will follow suit.

 We live in a society where incidents of husbands murdering their womenfolk, are not uncommon. The full extent of domestic violence in Israel is not known, but the places of refuge for battered women are full to overflowing. Male violence vis-à-vis women is commonplace throughout the Middle East, and not only there.

 Proudly displaying images such as these is tantamount to incitement to violence and should be made a criminal offence.

 

 

 

 

Inventions Galore!

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lagomorph[1] For two days in June dozens of inventors, both young and old, descended on the Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem for what was called the Mini Maker Faire. This enabled them to display their inventions as well as giving hundreds of youngsters and their parents (and grandparents) the opportunity to touch, hold, operate and experiment with the various devices.

 I was there in my capacity as the proud mother of one of the exhibitors, Eitan Shefer, whose invention displayed his many and varied talents as a designer, musician and computer whiz. His amazing device, the Lagomorph, is a hand-held musical instrument with emphasis on expression and ergonomics. The part that is held in the hand consists of a device that is reminiscent of a joystick with keys that can be pressed to create sounds. In addition, by moving the instrument in the air the nature of the sounds can be altered. A screen displays gauges which indicate the intensity of the movement (and hence of the sound) as well as keys similar to those of a piano which respond to the manipulation of the instrument. Thus, the person playing the instrument is getting both visual and audial feedback. Further development of this feature is being undertaken.

 Israel’s Maker movement consists of people who think outside the box and are willing to present their work to audiences of all ages. At the Faire dozens of Makers showed their surprising and unusual creations. Among these was a bathroom chronometer, developed by Hanan Cohen, which measures how much time is spent in the Museum bathrooms. A ‘traffic light’ indicates whether it is ‘safe’ to enter or whether you should wait a bit longer, depending on the length of time spent by the previous occupant.

 Also on display were three-dimensional printing methods, produced by Tech Factory Plus, easy3 and Shlomo Hanasi. These printers, which are at the forefront of creativity, provided an opportunity for visitors to watch them work and examine their output.

 Another interesting exhibit was the musical salad, concocted by Arnon Gourny, which created a musical work, using kitchen utensils, while a salad was being prepared. This certainly provided a unique culinary and musical experience.

 Considerable entertainment was provided by the repeating parrot, developed by Arnon Gourny, in which a group of digital parrots made up a panel that responded to remarks from passersby. It was obvious that a great many people – both children and adults – were having a lot of fun with this item.

 Another fascinating exhibit was provided by the Arduino construction kits, displayed by Gil Wismonski, which provided kits for self assembly, thus making it possible to build a remote-controlled car.

 And many, many more, too numerous to mention.

 On the day I visited the Museum every inch seemed to be occupied by children of all ages and sized admiring and operating the various exhibits. The inventors seemed to be only too happy to show the youngsters how to deploy their creations, as well as to admire one another’s work and share experiences and enthusiasm.

 It looked to me as if a good time was had by all.

 

 

 

 

 

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Snakes Alive!

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CaravaggioSerpent[1]

 

The setting was a club for retired people in one of Jerusalem’s more prosperous and prestigious neighbourhoods. Most of its members are ladies of a certain age or more, well-dressed, well-coiffed and well-preserved, with a sprinkling of elderly gents. They spend their spare time engaging in activities which help to cultivate the mind and the body (learning languages, making ceramic vases, painting, exercising), and attend a weekly lecture on a subject of general interest.

 This particular weekly lecture (one of a series of four) was on ‘The Origins of Civilisation in the Ancient Near East.’ After devoting some time (illustrated copiously with slides) to the development of prehistoric man, the lecturer began to expound on man’s progression from hunter-gatherer to cultivator of crops and animals.

 This brought him to talk about the change this had wrought in the prehistoric way of life and it was at this point that he turned to the audience and asked: “Which was the first animal to be domesticated by man?”

 Before anyone could formulate a reply, one dear old biddie shouted out “the snake!”

 The lecturer gave a polite shake of his head and turned to the next person who had raised her hand, and eventually someone came up with the correct answer, the dog, man’s best—and first—friend.

 I was there because of my connection with the lecturer, though I suppose as far as age (though not my area of residence) is concerned I could be considered eligible to belong. When the lady in the row in the front row shouted out ‘the snake!’ I was at first stunned, then bemused and finally amused. In fact, I had to devote the next half-hour to maintaining my composure and preventing myself from laughing out loud. Heaven forfend that I should offend a single one of those old dears!

 Later, I began to wonder why the snake should have been the first creature to spring to anyone’s mind. Of course, it is the first creature mentioned in the Bible, where it is called the serpent, and is even given the gift of speech. I wonder what happened to that attribute of snakes. And then I began to wonder about the other attributes of snakes.

 Snakes seem to have had a hypnotic effect on mankind since time immemorial. This is probably connected with our subconscious, as the snake is easily recognizable as a phallic symbol. In fact, Freud pointed this out in his ‘Interpretation of Dreams,’ while Jung regarded dreaming of snakes as representing some kind of inner conflict.

 The snake wound round a stick is universally recognized as a symbol of medicine, and may still be seen to this day to denote the location of pharmacies in many countries. This goes back to the ancient Greeks, who regarded snakes as sacred and used them in healing rituals. Snake venom was thought to be remedial, and the fact that snakes shed their skin was seen as a symbol of rebirth and renewal.

 A snake wound round a rod was the emblem of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing in the ancient Greek religion. In fact, the original temples of healing were known as aclepeieion and were to be found on the Island of Kos. Non-venomous snakes were allowed to crawl around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. Kos was also the home of Hippocrates, the legendary ‘father of medicine’ and originator of the Hippocratic oath that is still in use today in the graduation ceremony of medical students, and the original Hippocratic oath began with the invocation ‘I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods…’

 Today, however, snakes are generally despised and feared. Caravaggio’s painting of ‘Madonna and Child with Saint Anna’ (the grandmother) shows the (uncircumcised) infant Jesus and his mother treading on—and presumably killing—the snake which in this context represents evil and possibly also original sin (remember the phallic symbol?).

 It is a natural human reaction to recoil from something that appears at first sight to be ugly, evil and even disgusting (though many snakes have a beauty of their own), and it seems that this particular picture attributes all those characteristics to the snake. This very human reaction goes back a long way in time, and may even be some atavistic memory that has remained imprinted on the human brain.

 So, while the lady in the audience was wrong to think that snakes were ever domesticated, they certainly have been accompanying mankind since time immemorial.

 

 

 

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