‘Jerusalem 1000 – 1400; Every People Under Heaven’

This beautifully-produced combination of a coffee-table book and exhibition catalogue was produced in conjunction with the exhibition of that title held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2016. It has been edited by Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb (both curators at the museum). For the exhibition hundreds of precious, beautiful and fascinating artefacts produced in and concerning Jerusalem in the Middle Ages were amassed from a wide range of sources all over the world. The book is a work of art in itself, with first-rate illustrations of the exhibits on each of its over three hundred pages of 150 gsm Perigord paper, typeset in Agmena and Dava Pro fonts, as the extensive and comprehensive final acknowledgements section tells us.

How I would have loved to be able to wander through the exhibition for several days, as it must have been a veritable wonderland of objects, manuscripts, reliquaries and jewellery created in mediaeval times, inspired by the city and concept of Jerusalem. For Jerusalem was not solely a physical but also a spiritual entity, a site of worship of all three principal religions, as well as a battleground where each one vied for supremacy.

One of the book’s opening paragraphs reads: “In about the year 1000 an extraordinary convergence of circumstances brought new attention to the medieval city, which continued unabated for the next four centuries. These included natural disasters, political turmoil, intense religious fervor, and a notable uptick in world travel.”

Thus, in the 1020s the Fatimid caliph of Egypt made agreements with Italian merchants and the Byzantine emperor to join him in rebuilding the city after a series of earthquakes, and the Karaites, a community of Babylonian Jews, proclaimed the need to move to Jerusalem. In 1099 European Christians achieved their dream, by means of the Crusade, of conquering Jerusalem. By 1187 Saladin, founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, had retaken the city for Islam, to be succeeded by the Mamluk sultans who governed from Egypt. Each ruling power built and rebuilt monuments and centres of worship and study, in accordance with their beliefs, and in many cases destroyed those of their predecessors.

Improved conditions of travel by sea and land in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries enabled pilgrims and travelers to reach Jerusalem, and some, such as Jacques de Vitry, bishop of Acre, an Anglo-Saxon monk known as Saewulf, and the Spanish Jewish poet Judah Halevi, inter alia, left accounts of their travels, the storms they encountered at sea, and the wonders of Jerusalem.

On arrival in Jerusalem visitors were often as astounded by its markets as by its holy sites, with vaulted bazaars, areas devoted to specialized artisans, and a wide variety of goods on offer, as well as plentiful food. A visitor from Italy, marveled at the variety of foodstuffs available, another at the wide selection of meats and the abundance of kitchens, while a third noted ‘the citron, the almond, the date, the nut, the fig, the banana, milk in plenty, as well as grapes, honey and sugar.’

In both Hebron and Jerusalem, which were among the foremost pilgrimage sites for all three religions, as well as Nazareth and Bethlehem for Christians, food and religion were interconnected, mixed with commerce and motivated by the large numbers of visitors. For Christians, Jews, and Moslems a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an important feature of religious worship, so that the city served as a lodestone for people from all over the world. Trade was also an important reason for travel, and commercial activity served to foster relations and interaction between the various communities.

The artefacts in the exhibition display the amazing skill and resourcefulness of the artists and artisans of the period, with each religion and community presenting its own special achievements and trends, whether in objects or manuscripts, some of them including beautiful, colorful illustrations. The period appears to have been characterized by immense creativity as well as intellectual and political activity, not to mention the armed combat that took place in and around the region.

All three main religions and the myriad communities comprising each one combined to produce a colourful array of objects, paintings, and artefacts that still today inspire us with wonder and enable the contemporary observer to enter, albeit partially, into the world and mindset of the people who inhabited and formed that fascinating period in human history.

Lockdown Lessons

It’s just a year since the Coronavirus alighted upon us, upsetting our way of life and causing us to abandon most of what we used to call ‘normal life.’

But what was ‘normal life’? For everyone it was something different, and hence for some people the restrictions and boundaries that were imposed on us were harder than they were for others.

Obviously, for parents of young children who were suddenly deprived of the school or nursery framework to which they had become accustomed the situation was far harder than it was for seniors like myself, and especially so if they were living in small, crowded apartments. During lockdown periods children were not even allowed to go outside to play, and that must have been dreadful for all concerned. And for the parents involved missing the stimulation provided by being in the work environment must have added to an already-heavy burden.

Older children, teenagers, and young people in general must also have had a very hard time. I remember my teenage years, when interacting with other people my age was all-important, whether it was in the classroom, the youth movement, at university, or in other social settings. The reflection of oneself that one finds in being in the company of other youngsters is what helps to define who and what we are, and being deprived of that inevitably leaves an immense gap in our social, intellectual and individual development.

For seniors like myself, however, the lockdown hasn’t really made too much difference. I’m lucky in living in a roomy house with a small garden, and have my OH with me. For much of my working life as a free-lance translator-editor I worked from home, and saw no hardship in that. In fact, when I started working in a major financial institution at a later stage in my life I found it quite hard to get used to. When I told my boss that I felt like a bird in a cage, he told me to go and walk or sit in the nearby park in my lunch hour, which I duly did. It certainly helped, and eventually I got used to going to an office and staying in it all day, and even enjoyed the company of my colleagues.

It has been a period in which we have turned in on ourselves, cutting down on outside activities and interaction with other people. I have divided my day into mornings for writing and afternoons for reading, with activities such as painting, gardening, playing the piano, as well as eating, cooking, baking, and watching TV and/or Netflix in between. OH has used the time to undertake various DIY jobs in and around the house, and I have certainly benefited from that.

There are few things I really miss in lockdown, and like most people, I have managed to get used to this. Not being able to go shopping myself no longer bothers me. On the contrary, I almost resent having to be in a situation where mingling with other people is unavoidable, and I try to time whatever excursion I find unavoidable to times when as few other people as possible are around.

We have managed to see some family members, including grandchildren, from time to time, whether outside in the garden or inside, weaking masks and keeping far apart. Until we had our second injection we did not indulge in hugging or kissing them, but since then we do (in moderation, of course). Being able to continue attending classes and meetings via Zoom is a boon, though something is nevertheless lacking, and I resent the tendency I see in every such setting for one or two people to dominate the meeting, no matter how hard the moderator or teacher tries to restrain them. But that’s human nature, I suppose, and that happens in every setting.

What I do miss most are concerts. I hear classical music on the radio all day, but there’s nothing like getting dressed to go to a concert, then sitting with like-minded people as we watch and listen to the orchestra giving of its best to perform wonderful music. Each time it’s a unique and matchless experience, and that is something that cannot be replicated with recorded music or even music performed live and broadcast.

So, roll on the easing of the restrictions on live performances of every kind! I’ll be the first in line to buy tickets.

Outrageous!

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 800px-wedding_rings.jpg

When I heard that the man, currently in police custody, accused of attempting to murder his wife (and who very nearly succeeded, inflicting horrendous injuries on her), was refusing to grant her a divorce, it made my blood boil. Since then I have learned that one of the rabbis in the court in charge of the matter put pressure on the husband to grant the divorce I breathed a sigh of relief..

Here we have a man who will, hopefully, spend most of the rest of his life behind bars, still vindictively and viciously attempting to reach out from his incarceration to impose a ban on any hope of future married happiness on the woman he has already indelibly harmed. Fortunately, it took just one enlightened rabbi to get him to change his mind, but that does not mean that all rabbis are so broad-minded.

The fact of the matter is that the ever-more frequent instances of a husband killing or maiming his wife are almost a staple of the nightly news programmes on Israel’s television, and we are not even aware of the number of husbands who refuse to ‘grant’ their wives a divorce.

What it comes down to, when all’s said and done, is that far from being a modern, forward-looking society, Israel is still stuck in a set of hide-bound laws, rules and regulations that hark back to a primeval society in which the female of the species is no more than a thing, a chattel, to be handed over from one male custodian, her father, to another male custodian, her husband, at the traditional marriage ceremony.

I won’t even give this arrangement the compliment of according it the epithet ‘mediaeval,’ as is often done to denote an archaic, antediluvian arrangement such as this. Mediaeval society, for all its faults, was not totally mired in primitive ancient attitudes. In the Middle Ages some women engaged in commerce or owned hospitality establishments, while certain high-born ladies were even able to rule countries and empires. Both European and English history display many examples of this.

The arrangement established at the time the State of Israel was founded gave the rabbinical courts authority over family law, and this has remained the situation till now. However, a growing proportion of Israelis resent having to kowtow to ancient beliefs and procedures, starting with the requirement that a bride must undergo ritual immersion before her wedding ceremony. That was all well and good at a time when there was no indoor plumbing or public sewage systems, but what is the point of it in this day and age? Absolutely none, other than to preserve unnecessary and ridiculous control over the individual’s private life.

Then there is the traditional marriage ceremony, which harks back to ancient practices that have no relevance in this day and age. There are those who see some beauty in maintaining ancient traditions, and I wish them every happiness, but there is no reason why everyone who gets married in Israel in the twenty-first century has to abide by them. And so an increasing number of Israelis choose to go abroad to get married in a civil ceremony which, because of the rabbinical veto, is non-existent in Israel.

The bottom line is that under Jewish and Israeli law a man who bullies, abuses, beats and even tries to murder his wife can still exert control over her by refusing to ‘grant’ her a divorce. In this day and age it is high time the law in Israel was changed to allow a women to divorce her husband, if that is her wish.

The time has come to put an end to the arbitrary hold a man in Israel has over his wife, and introduce legislation that enables full equality between the sexes in family law. It is high time the power of the rabbis and their courts was curtailed, allowing Israel’s population – whether male, female or other – to enjoy the basic freedom that is the right of every individual in the modern world.

Since I’m not familiar with Moslem law, this article does not refer to that community, which doubtless has issues of its own in this respect.

Image: wedding ring –Wikimedia Commons

‘Capital’ by John Lanchester

This book (which has also been made into a BBC TV drama) consists of a great many short chapters, each one describing the inhabitants of one of the houses in Pepys Road, South London. The houses were originally built for lower-income families, but the boom in property prices in London has made it more attractive for higher-income families, although some of the original residents have remained in place. Consequently, anyone owning a house there is rich, either before moving there or afterwards, if they remained there long enough.

The descriptions of the various families and individuals who live in the road starts in December 2007, when eighty-two-year-old Petunia Howe, the only resident to have lived there all her life, is looking out of her window waiting for a Tesco delivery van. This has been organized by her daughter, Mary, who lives in Essex, to save her elderly mother having to go shopping.

The Yount family lives in the house opposite. Roger Yount works in a bank in the City and is paid a handsome salary, with occasional bonuses. His wife, Arabella, enjoys the standard of living that her husband’s salary provides, employing nannies for their two small boys, engaging in extensive renovations of their house (and their house in the country), and indulging in expensive shopping and lunching sprees with friends. Nonetheless, she resents the fact that her husband works long hours and does not help with the children, so she has arranged to go away with a friend to a spa for Christmas, leaving Roger to handle the situation on his own.

Other residents of the road include the Pakistani family which owns the corner newsagents and general store, and live above it. We also meet the Polish builder Zbigniev, known as Bogdan by Arabella, for whom he does occasional building jobs in the house, and Smitty, the seemingly mysterious installation artist who is Petunia’s grandson.

As we get to know the various families and individuals, we are treated to a detailed account of Roger Yount’s job in the City, which involves a great deal of information about the intricacies of currency and stock-market trading, as well as interpersonal rivalries within the bank. We learn, too, about the life of a newsagent, with the daily grind starting well before dawn when the first newspapers are delivered and have to be unpacked, shelves have to be stacked and the till and the shop have to be tended. The life of a Pakistani family evolves before the reader’s eyes in all its English ordinariness as husband and wife try to balance work and home life while attending to the needs of the shop, their children and the father’s two adult brothers.

All in all, the detailed accounts of the very different lives of the various families offer an intriguing insight into situations and individuals in contemporary Britain which I found both fascinating and entertaining. The story covers the course of a year and ends in November 2008, during which, naturally, things happen. Arabella goes on holiday leaving a nasty note for her husband, who hires a new nanny. This turns out to be an attractive young Hungarian woman, but the expected love affair does not take the course the reader has anticipated, although Roger’s lascivious thoughts do.

Mysterious postcards are sent to the various houses, the police are brought into the picture, and eventually all is made clear, although only after one of the members of the Pakistani family has been erroneously arrested and interrogated, Roger Yount’s life has undergone a radical transformation and Petunia Howe has suffered a serious illness.

I don’t want to give too much of the story away, as there are all kinds of twists and turns, but suffice it to say that the book provides a well-written and enjoyable picture of the human kaleidoscope that constitutes contemporary London.

Cover design by Faber Cover images

Kudos/Hal Shinnie

From the UK National Archives

By chance, I was put in touch with England’s National Archives (https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/#inbox/FMfcgxwKkblddKmnbHCXpXLcScwfxJNs) and found myself receiving emails on a regular basis about various aspects of British history, whether more recent or really ancient. These included, for example, an item on ‘The strange case of the Scottish aristocrat killed on the Midland Railway,’ and another on ‘Good will to all: Henry VI’s Christmas pardon of 1470-71,’ to name but a few.

To my surprise, the latest missive I received from them concerned the Holocaust. Today, the 27th of January, marks international Holocaust Memorial Day, the date when Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet soldiers in 1945. Each year the day has a theme, and this year it is ‘how can life go on?’

It’s a big question, and though so many lives were destroyed, and many millions of others tragically ravaged forever, the fact is that people did carry on with their lives, got married, had children, and rebuilt what they could. In fact, from 1946 to 1947 there was a Jewish ‘baby boom’ in DP (Displaced Persons) camps in occupied Germany.

Under the heading ‘The situation in immediate post-war Europe’ the text describes how life did in fact go on in that period, as millions of people liberated from camps and ghettos across Nazi-occupied Europe refused to return to their countries of origin and were placed in hastily-created DP camps. The challenges facing the Allies were enormous, the most immediate being how to save the sick and dying. The initial estimate given by the 32nd Casualty Clearing Station, one of the first units to enter Bergen-Belsen upon its liberation on 15th April 1945, was that 80 percent of the former 60,000 inmates required hospitalization.

The need to accommodate the many displaced persons was immense, and because of the limitations of resources many former concentration camp inmates found that their first months, and sometimes years, of liberation were spent on territory where they had suffered at the hands of their Nazi captors, and where their family members had been murdered.

The Allies and the United Nations did what they could to repatriate DPs and return them to a sense of normality, as well as providing them with clothes, food and medical services. They were offered education and vocational training, nurseries and creches, as well as being provided with generous weekly rations of cigarettes and a vast array of entertainment, including dances, concerts and films.

However, repatriation and resettlement of DPs and refugees was a more difficult task than originally imagined. The representatives of the Jewish Congress met at Belsen in November 1945 on behalf of all former Jewish inmates of concentration camps in protest against the restrictions on entering Palestine, the preferred destination for Jews. While limiting the numbers entering Palestine, by 1947the British government had accepted some 300,000 persons into the UK.

The report concludes by stating that the British government’s policy of accepting many thousands of refugees and DPs enabled many of them to remain on a permanent basis, get married, have children and make a new life for themselves. And this, essentially, was the best way to counteract the attempts of the Nazis to wipe out their friends, families, neighbours and religion. The report concludes by stating: ‘The lives of those remaining survivors, unlike so many millions of others, fortunately could and did go on.”\’

Like so many others, my family and I will always be grateful to Britain for providing us with a haven and a home at that perilous time.

Image: DP_class_at_Schauenstein_camp, Wikiwand

Musical Associations

Of late I have been spending rather a lot (too much) of my time in dentists’ surgeries. Some of the time I have been too frazzled and stupefied (stupid?) to say anything, and have passively committed myself, body and soul, to the expert care of the professional in charge of first anaesthetizing then torturing me.

But now, after many months of supine acceptance, I have managed to gather up some courage, and on my latest visit to the dentist who is dealing with the latter stages of my treatment I actually asked him to change the channel playing the awful popular music that was in the background while I underwent a lengthy procedure. I must admit that I have never managed to be so bold while at the hairdresser, but that is another matter altogether.

Like me, this dentist is originally from England, though from a different (younger) generation. He told me that he, too, has to have some kind of music in the background while working, mainly to distract him from the noise of the drills he uses. I suggested that his assistant turn the dial on the radio to Israel’s classical music programme, and was even able to give her its exact location. For some unknown reason, she was unable to find it (I told her it was FM), but what she did find was Classic FM, straight from Blighty.

Relaxed and happy, I reclined in the patient’s seat as the strains of the second movement of Dvorak’s symphony no.9, ‘From the New World,’ wafted over me.

“This always reminds me of the Hovis advertisement,” the dentist said.

Hovis? Admittedly, Dvorak incorporated the strains of the spiritual ‘Going Home’ in that symphony, but luckily for me, I left the UK long before some bright advertising executive established that particular connection with industrialised bread, thereby ruining that particular piece of music forever for millions of people.

Or am I being too purist? Instead of regarding the music as something abstract and pristine in and of itself, perhaps using Dvorak’s music in a commercial has made it part and parcel of the British heritage, along with fish and chips and ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’.

And then it dawned on me that this has always been the case. Because my parents took my sisters and myself to see the Walt Disney film, ‘Fantasia’ at the Classic Cinema in Baker Street in the 1950s, whenever I hear Beethoven’s symphony no.6, known as the ‘Pastoral’ symphony, I have visions of little winged centaurs cavorting in a magical countryside, sheltering from the rain and the storm, and delighting in the rising sun at the end. The same goes for Ducas’s ‘Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’ who was, of course, Mickey Mouse himself.

There is a segment of the music Tchaikovsky wrote for the ‘Nutcracker’ ballet that was used in a TV commercial for margarine many years ago, when I still lived in England. And although I have attended several performances of the ballet, I can never get the words ‘Treat yourself to bread and Magic/After all, you do deserve the best’ out of my head when I hear it.

There was also an advertisement for fish paste which used the March of the Toreadors from Bizet’s ‘Carmen.’ Was it sacrilege or benevolence? I still can’t decide.

To this day, whenever I hear Verdi’s Requiem, whether in live performance or on the radio, I cannot fail to remember the precise point at which the first side of the first LP had to be turned over on the record-player we had in my parents’ home, and to which my father liked to listen every Sunday while he worked at his desk in the next room. I can’t remember if the full set consisted of three or four records, but I do know that it was my job to ensure that the full recording was played to the end.

Who knows? Maybe those bright sparks devising TV commercials have done more to popularise classical music than they realise.

Infiltration (Hitganvut Yehidim) by Joshua Kenaz

The death a few months ago of Israeli author, Joshua Kenaz, led to renewed interest in his work, and impelled me to read this book (published by Am Oved in 1986). For me, reading a novel in Hebrew involves embarking on an enterprise that I know in advance will tax my patience and ability to persevere, especially as in this case the book comprises some six hundred pages of closely-printed Hebrew text. However, I decided to stick the course and acquaint myself with the writing of someone who is considered to be a bulwark of contemporary Israeli literature.

I was not disappointed. The book describes the lives and characters of a group of young conscripts, newly recruited to the Israeli army (IDF), the interaction between them, their conflicts, friendships and animosities, as well as the rigorous training regime they are obliged to undergo. In fact, the group of some thirty eighteen-year-old youngsters is a microcosm of Israeli society in the mid-1950s, the period in which the book is set, and reflects the various socio-political values and tensions that prevailed at the time (and in some respects still do).

At first I found it difficult to distinguish between the various individuals, whose differing mental and physical characteristics come to the fore only in the course of their time together as they undergo military training and the harassment, abuse and bullying they are forced to endure from one another and their officers. Gradually we become acquainted with two main groups: youngsters from established, Ashkenazi homes, some of them from Jerusalem though there is also one from a kibbutz in the north, and youngsters whose parents or they themselves have immigrated from one of the countries of North Africa and who are based in temporary housing designated for new immigrants. The efforts of each group to assert its cultural identity lead to clashes on an individual and collective basis, sometimes even deteriorating to violence.

But gradually ‘exceptions’ emerge, individuals who either by accident or design manage to bridge the gap between the two groups, forming alliances with one sub-group or another, whether on the basis of a love of classical music or an act of friendship or bravery during the training process. In some cases the reader gets a glimpse of the home environment and inner mental processes of certain individuals, while with regard to others the description is more remote (the ‘omniscient narrator’ device). At times this can be confusing, and because there is not always a typographical or textual indication of the switch from internal to external narration, I sometimes had to go back and reread a paragraph or two to get my bearing. The author also descends (ascends?) to a certain amount of general philosophizing in the course of the book, which I personally found unnecessary and less interesting. However, at various points in the book I found myself wondering whether my own children and/or grandchildren have had to endure similar experiences, and feeling pity and chagrin in case they had.

But apart from the frequent shifts in the narrative flow of the book, I found it interesting, insightful and illuminating. Kenaz has a keen ear for the speech patterns of young Israelis, whether newcomers or Sabras, and conveys them – grammatical errors and all —  in a convincing manner. I think the book would have benefited from having an editor to weed out unnecessary wordiness, but all in all I recommend it for the way it presents a portrait of Israeli society, its younger generation, their hopes and dreams, similarities and differences, while presaging the future development of that society.

Incidentally, after finishing the book, I found that it has been translated into English (by Dalia Bilu), which I’m sure was no easy task. Nevertheless, I’m glad I made the effort to read the Hebrew original, and think that it would be a good idea for all young Israelis to read it.

Unhinged

The sight of a crowd of people ascending the steps in front of the building and forcibly entering the American House of Representatives, as happened yesterday and was beamed live all around the world, must have sent shudders down the spine of every freedom-loving individual everywhere.

These things happen in less civilized parts of the world, in countries where democracy is not as deeply entrenched as it is – or purported to be – in the USA, such as countries of Latin America, Africa, and even Asia.

But the worst thing of all is that it was encouraged, if not actually instigated, by the person at the top, the person whose task it is to defend the American Constitution and uphold its institutions – the President of the USA.

Since well before the election was held, Donald Trump has been saying quite openly that if the election turned out not to be in his favor then it would evidently have been rigged by his opponents– the Democratic Party. For months, if not years, he has fabricated, cultivated, and sponsored a conspiracy theory regarding the blatant falsification of the election results. And of course, when the actual results came in, he pursued that line with renewed vigor.

Anyone with any acquaintance with modern history cannot fail to make the comparison with the – ultimately successful – attempt to overthrow democracy in Germany of the 1930s. Far be it from me to equate Trump with Hitler, but there can be no doubt that the level of demagoguery and lying is as blatant.

The strength of American democracy is being put to the test and so far it has held up powerfully. Representatives on both sides of the aisles have condemned the barefaced attempt to undermine and overthrow the democratic process. The tragedy is that large numbers of ordinary American citizens seem only too ready to pursue that line of thought and follow it through with action. It goes against the grain to give those people any credit for being loyal American citizens, and it is painful to realize that only a hair’s breadth stood between the current situation and their victory in the polls. Has half of the American nation become as unhinged as its president?

The analogy with Germany of the 1930s stops at this point, thankfully, because the representatives of the nation stood firm and pushed back at this deliberate attempt to overthrow the democratic process. Considering the value Americans attach to their Constitution, their democratic tradition, and the process by which this is achieved, it is hard to believe that people will so lightly toss all that aside.

Unless, of course, they have been fed a diet of racist lies and delusion, leading to a kind of mass madness that is akin to what happened in Germany.

My greatest fear is that others, particularly in Israel, will regard this unfortunate turn of events as an example to be followed.

File:Donald Trump August 19, 2015 …wikimedia

commons.wikimedia.org

Education for Girls

My grandchildren, who have grown up in a secular environment in Israel, find it odd that I, their (hopefully) broad-minded grandmother, should have gone to a secondary school for girls. In Israel it is only those segments of the population which adhere to ancient tenets of gender identification that maintain gender-segregated schools for their offspring. In England, where I grew up, the situation was similar but the ideas behind it were different.

Those were different times when I began attending school, back in the 1940s and 1950s. England was recovering from the war and struggling to maintain its place in the world. To my generation of children it seemed the most natural thing in the world to take the eleven-plus exam and be sent according to one’s result to either a grammar school or a secondary-modern (comprehensive) school. Naturally, the aspiration of my refugee parents was that I should be accepted by one of the grammar schools, and that was what indeed happened. I passed the exam and was given a place at a nearby grammar school for girls, the Brondesbury and Kilhurn High School. Secondary-modern schools were mostly co-educational and were considered inferior.

Secondary education for girls had not been widely available for as long as it had been for boys. Even in secular England, for hundreds of years education had been considered suitable only for boys. If a girl could read and write that was fine, but more important was her ability to maintain a home, sew, cook, embroider and fulfil the requirements of the male-dominated society. That was the way society was run, and there were no religious associations involved, to the best of my knowledge.

After all, women were considered inferior intellectually and were not given the vote until 1918 in England, with most European countries following suit soon afterwards. Early in the twentieth century exceptional Englishwomen such as Henrietta Barnett and Philippa Fawcett campaigned for secondary education to be extended to girls, organized financial and moral support and established the first high schools for girls in London and elsewhere. They may have been influenced by the system prevailing in the USA, but they were certainly pioneers in the context of Britain.

Since Israel’s foundation – and even beforehand — the concept of segregation of the sexes was rejected, and most of the country’s institutions, including schools, were based on the principle of gender equality. Thus, the age-cohort that parallels mine took it quite for granted that secondary education should be co-educational. After all, the basic principle underlying society as a whole was that of equality, and only the educational institutions allied with the orthodox Jewish population maintained separation of the sexes. In the 1960s the British education system was radically overhauled, and many of the single-sex secondary schools were dissolved or converted into mixed-gender schools

The question remains whether either of the two systems yields better academic results and psychological benefits. Studies have shown that girls tend to perform better academically in single-sex schools, though it’s not clear what effect co-education has on boys.

Teenage years are difficult enough at the best of times, but it seems to me that restricting youngsters to an environment that bears no correspondence with general society deprives them of the ability to learn to cope with real life. So probably the sooner youngsters learn that the world consists of both boys and girls the healthier it is for all concerned.

‘The Kukotsky Enigma’ by Ludmilla Ulitskaya

In the grand tradition of Russian literature, this book (which has been translated from the Russian by Diane Nemec Ignashev) describes what befalls several generations of a Russian family under the shadow of political events and the sweep of history. It shows the ominousness of towering developments, the minutiae of daily life at different social levels, and the sll-pervading magnificence of the Russian soul.

Pavel Alekseevich Kukotsky is a talented physician, the scion of a long line of physicians, whose ancestors had come from Germany to settle in Peter the Great’s Russia. The period of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, caused massive disruption to Russian society. Pavel was already a medical student when his father was killed while serving as a physician in the Russian army.

Pavel’s medical career as a specialist in obstetrics and gynaecology leads to his professional concern with treating women suffering from the after-effects of illegal abortions, his determination to legalise this procedure, and his marriage to Elena, one of his patients. Elena comes together with her two-year-old daughter, Tanya (Tanechka), and her devoted family servant, Vasilisa. These four individuals form the basic family unit, albeit united more by association than by blood, on which the entire narrative rests. Various friends, professional associates, neighbours and colleagues also people the pages of the book, and it is through their connections with one another, the vicissitudes of their lives, and the tides of political developments, that we see how events that occur on a larger stage affect the lives of individuals. Throughout the narrative the perils as well as the benefits of pregnancy and childbirth are in evidence.

Pavel Alekseevich is made vaguely aware of Stalin’s intention to discredit and murder Russia’s Jewish doctors and, as the reader may know, because of Stalin’s sudden demise this plan did not come to fruition. Through the characters in the book we are able to experience the general upheaval caused by Stalin’s death and the confusion surrounding the subsequent lying-in-state and funeral. However, life in Moscow for Kukotsky, an esteemed physician, is not disrupted, and the family is even granted a dacha where they can spend summers.

The book contains a middle section which deviates from the narrative flow, and seems to describe some philosophical-transcendental-symbolic process of birth-life-death. Among the figures encountered in this strange, surreal landscape is one known as ‘the Judean,’ which I take to symbolize the eternal Jew. The other figures are equally symbolic and confusing. I must say that I found this part extremely tedious and annoying, even pretentious, and after reading several pages I did something I very rarely do – I skipped it.

Subsequently, the book resumes its chronological course, introducing the reader to a wide range of interesting characters, among them a Jewish intellectual, a colleague of Pavel Kukotsky, whose theorizing about Russian society and its ethnological development gets him into trouble with the authorities, and he is sent yet again to Siberia for a period of exile. His twin sons also play a role in the life of the Kukotsky family, and of Tanya is particular, as does a whole gallery of strange and interesting characters, who wander in and out of the narrative.

The author is evidently familiar with the scientific subjects she describes, and reading the book constitutes an induction of a kind into a wide range of medical terminology and processes. The writing (and the translation) is dense and rich, and apart from one or two typos and malapropisms it reads well. When I finished the book I felt that I had been given a better idea of what it must have been like to live through that period of immense change and turmoil in Russia, and to come through it, if not unscathed, then at least still living, breathing, and kicking.