Books That Have Influenced Me

Anyone who has been reading my blog in the last few months may have noticed that it contains more book reviews than there used to be. For the sake of those of my offspring who find that subject boring I have tried to vary the subject-matter, but they can blame the isolation imposed by the coronavirus pandemic. Books have been my main consolation during this time but I have always been an avid reader, and my idea of purgatory is not having anything to read. In fact, since my childhood books have been my constant (and sometimes my only) companion. I am grateful to the public libraries in London which enabled me to satisfy my need to always have something to read.

And so, when a recent zoom meeting of the only group in which I still participate set as a subject for discussion ‘A Book That Has Influenced Me,’ I had no hesitation in choosing J.G. Frazer’s study of comparative religions, anthropology, history and sociology entitled ‘The Golden Bough; a Study in Magic and Religion.’ The paperback copy I bought in 1962, when I was a university student, numbered almost 1,000 pages and was touted as the ’abridged edition in one volume.’

Abridged or not, what I read was a true eye-opener. The author’s vast knowledge of classical literature and mythology, sheds light upon the similarities between many ancient religions and myths, encompassing the rites and rituals, totems and taboos, analogies and parallels in the beliefs of primeval humankind. The Golden Bough of the title refers to the Priest-King of the Grove of Diana, according to Vergil’s account, awaiting his own murderer under the sacred oaks. The death of the central figure is echoed in many religions, and it does not require much prior knowledge to extend the parallel to other faiths. The breadth and depth of knowledge displayed in this book served to make me stop and think about my own religion, Judaism, and the many parallels between it and other ancient myths and beliefs.

Many other books have influenced me, whether in my youth or more recently. Leon Uris’s ‘Exodus,’ which I also read when I was a student, helped me to see the importance of Israel in the life of every Jew, so that I determined to make it my home. Of course, there were other factors at work to impel me to leave England, but that was indubitably one of them. Uris’s vivid portrayal of the struggle of Jews in post-Holocaust Europe to reach Israel and establish it as a Jewish state gave a voice to the millions of Jews who perished in the gas chambers as well as to the survivors who emerged from the wretchedness of the concentration camps.

Another writer who had an effect on my thinking was Arthur Koestler. I had read his novels ‘Thieves in the Night’ and ‘Darkness at Noon,’ but in 1964 was alerted to his new book ‘The Act of Creation’ by a review of it in the ‘Observer.’ I still have my much-thumbed hardback copy of it. One of the basic premises of the book focuses on the important role played by the subconscious (or unconscious?) in artistic and scientific development. I learned a lot about the history and sociology of science from reading this book, but Koestler’s main talent was in bringing many different threads together into a coherent whole, pointing out the role of humour, language, art, travel, hierarchies and of course society, to name but a few, in the development of human thought.

There have been many other books that I have enjoyed, and I cannot end this effort at summing up my intellectual formation without mentioning the writing of Virginia Woolf, whose lucid prose, whether in her novels or her essays, never fails to fill me with envy and inspiration. And last but not least, I feel I must mention in passing the inimitable P.G.Wodehouse, whose fanciful and well-written accounts of the life of the British upper-classes never fails to have me in fits of laughter. And that is, after all, what we need to lighten our mood in these gloomy times.

 

‘Messiah: the Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece’ by Jonathan Keates

Attending an annual performance of Handel’s oratorio Messiah has been part of my life since childhood, and I have tried to pass this tradition on to my own children and grandchildren whenever and wherever possible.

Over the centuries since its first performance in Ireland in 1741 many legends and myths have developed around the oratorio, and this small book (only 150 pages) seeks to put the record straight about how, when and why Handel wrote it, and what happened to it after his death.

George Frederic Handel was born in Halle, Saxony in 1685, studied composition with various teachers, and also briefly attended Halle University as a law student. In 1703 he moved to Hamburg, where he joined the opera house orchestra as a violinist and keyboard player. It was there in 1705 that his first opera, Almira, was performed. In 1706 he travelled to Italy, visiting Venice and Florence before reaching Rome. He composed his first oratorio, Il trionfo del tempo e del disinganno there in 1707, and in the next two years composed and performed in various cities in Italy.

In 1709 he returned to Germany and was appointed Kappelmeister to Georg Ludwig, Elector of Hanover, who was crowned King of England in 1714. Handel followed him to London that year, providing music for various royal events and serving as music teacher to the king’s children. Handel composed and performed operas and oratorios based on dramatic events or characters described in the Bible. The texts for these were generally provided by his friend and collaborator, Charles Jennens, and were performed in London and throughout England to general acclaim. 
                                                                                                                                                     
Jennens, who compiled the biblical verses which comprise the text of Messiah, was a devout Christian, and an active member of the Anglican church. In fact, it was Jennens who devised the original concept of Messiah, and sent his outline for it to Handel. Messiah was distinguished from previous oratorios by being devoid of a dramatic narrative line. It is divided into three parts, the first one portraying biblical prophecies regarding the coming of a future redeemer, the second the events around the birth and death of Jesus, and the third the message of redemption that is the essence of Christianity.

Parts of the book are fairly technical with regard to the scoring and performances of the oratorio, but on the whole the author provides a clear and erudite account of his subject, which is clearly one for which he feels great affection. The book concludes with Jennens’s outline of the content of Messiah, a bibliography, and a timeline giving the main dates and events in Handel’s life.

However inspired the texts selected by Jennens might be, the music written for them by Handel is something that is sublimely uplifting, taking the listener to spiritual heights that transcend any and every denomination or religion. This would seem in part to account for the widespread and enduring popularity that Messiah has enjoyed for hundreds of years. However, its popularity did not come immediately after its first performance in Dublin. It was only a decade later, when it was performed in London to benefit the recently established orphanage in Bloomsbury known as the Foundling Hospital, that it gained wide recognition. In the course of that decade Handel made adjustments to the music and the orchestral scoring to better suit the instruments and soloists at his disposal for its performance in various venues, as was customary at that time.

Thus, the original score of Messiah was destined for a much smaller orchestra and choir than is generally used in contemporary performances unless an attempt is made to reconstruct the more intimate ensemble used in Handel’s day. Nowadays performances tend to stress the stately and almost overpowering nature of the music, especially in the choral sections, rather than cherishing its more intimate, sincere and transcendent aspects.

Be that as it may, a performance of Messiah gives the listener an opportunity to commune with humanity’s better aspects, to transcend everyday life and ascend to the spiritual heights that only great art and inspired artists can provide.

 

So Near and Yet So Far

 

“You are invited to watch the ceremony to mark the graduation of the soldiers who have completed the Officers’ Training Course.” That was the text of the official invitation emailed to me and other family members by one of our granddaughters, whose sister was one of the soldiers concerned. We were informed that we would be able to watch the ceremony live, as filmed by the IDF’s official photographer, on the official IDF site on the internet.

 I’ve attended such occasions in person in the past, both for my own children and for some of my grandchildren, and usually these are very dignified and moving events, filling the assembled relatives with pride and joy, and maybe even a tiny bit of trepidation. The IDF does its best to make the soldiers’ relatives – including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and even cousins – welcome in the base where these courses are held somewhere in Israel.

 But this was a totally new experience for me (and I expect for many others involved). First, of all, it involved making sure we were sitting in front of our computers on the appointed day at the requisite time, and that we had the link that gave access to the live telecast. Once the inevitable initial technical difficulties had been overcome, we settled down to watch.

 I’ll admit, it was a shock to see all our lovely young soldiers standing on the parade ground in serried ranks – all wearing face masks. My heart bled for the poor youngsters standing in the heat, all maintaining appropriate distance from one another, and all with their mouths and noses covered. I tend to get teary at the best of times on such occasions, but this time my tears flowed freely as I sat there in my comfortable study watching the ceremony proceed in the customary fashion, but with such a great difference (my eyes are damp even now as I write this).

 The IDF’s Attorney in Chief, Colonel Inbal de-Paz, who was accompanied by the commander of the base, reviewed the graduating class and gave an impressive speech equating the contribution made by the IDF to helping the general population during the current Coronavirus crisis to its contribution some seventy years earlier. Then, at the urging of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, the IDF rallied to help the new immigrants whose accommodation was not suited to the inclement winter weather. I was especially touched to hear him congratulate the relatives of the soldiers watching from their homes as well as the soldiers on the parade ground.

 Officers’ insignia were awarded first to the outstanding cadets and then to all the soldiers. The IDF military band played stirring music, and the ceremony came to an end.

 This, too, was unlike the conclusion of any previous ceremony I have seen. No hats were thrown up in the air. No rousing cheers were heard. As admonished by their commander, there were no mutual congratulatory hugs and kisses among the young people or from excited relatives. I felt sad to see this thrilling moment damped down in such a low-key fashion, but I’m sure that all those involved were happy that their achievement had been acknowledged.

 And my husband and I went and had a celebratory drink to our granddaughter’s health.

‘The Second Worst Restaurant in France’ by Alexander McCall Smith

 

An easy read for a change, and this book provides a light-hearted view of life in France, focusing primarily on culinary issues. Paul, a writer specializing in subjects connected with food, is trying to write a book about ‘The Philosophy of Food,’ but his concentration is disturbed by the two Siamese cats belonging to his girlfriend, who is also his editor.

As everyone knows, cats do what they want, when and where they want and how they want, and so Paul finds it impossible to work. On one of her occasional visits to Edinburgh, where Paul lives, his ‘Remarkable Cousin Chloe’ offers him the use of her vacant flat somewhere else in the city, but that turns out to have noisy student neighbours. Finally, Chloe invites Paul to stay in the house she has rented in France for the summer.

So Paul goes to France, but the quiet village in which the house is situated turns out to be inhabited by a host of odd but likeable characters, such as Claude, the inept chef-manager of the local restaurant, his devoted nephew Hugo, the twin middle-aged ladies who own the house Chloe is renting, the dour baker, and Audette, the hapless pregnant young woman, whom the twins take under their wing.

And above all, there is his eccentric cousin, Chloe, who may or may not have had five husbands and who seems to be able to overcome every crisis by dint of her unfailing kindness and generosity. A woman of means, she extends a helping hand in the restaurant when it seems to be on the verge of going under, and even recruits Paul to tutor first Claude and then Hugo in the preparation of meals so that they are cooked in accordance with traditional French cuisine, avoiding the pitfalls that caused him to have food-poisoning when he first ate there.

Cousin Chloe comes and goes, Audette has her baby and is threatened by Bleu, the putative father of the baby (who is called Aramis but at one point – evidently due to an editing or proofreading failure – is suddenly called Artemis), and the caravan in which Bleu and his lady companion are staying is mysteriously blown up (without anyone being injured).

Paul decides to abandon the ‘Philosophy of Food’ project, focusing instead, with the encouragement of his girlfriend-cum-editor back in Edinburgh, on a putative TV programme plus accompanying book about the restaurant, which could previously have qualified as ‘the second worst restaurant in France,’ but is now well on its way to becoming one of the best (hopefully).

The book abounds in descriptions of French village life, with visits to local markets, sipping coffee in cafés, and general approvation of the beauty and laid-back way of life of rural France. It is, in effect a paeon of praise for life in France, and ends with a sentence consisting of just one word: ‘France,’

Between Hunkering Down and Resurgence

After the initial influx in February of the Coronavirusl, followed by the massive and rapid lockdown and attendant social and economic damage, in early June matters were gradually being restored to some semblance of normality here in Israel. Small groups were allowed to meet, some schools were able to function partially in what was known as ‘capsules’ and there was a general relaxation of the lockdown restrictions.

After receiving financial compensation for their losses, whether in full or partially, businesses and even restaurants, cafés and bars were able to open provided certain restrictions were met. The unemployment rate fell, synagogues were reopened, people returned to the open spaces and beaches, and finally schools were allowed to function fully.

Those involved in the performing arts – actors, musicians, stand-up artists, etc. – were indignant at being left out of the general return to normality. Protests and demonstrations were held, and eventually the government gave in and performances were permitted provided the audience did not exceed 250 people, or fifty percent of the auditorium’s capacity. This was met with scorn, as no theatre could be economically viable at that level, but eventually it was accepted, and plans went ahead to hold as many performances as possible in the open air (where the risk of infection is presumed to be lower). Buses and eventually also trains were allowed to function, albeit to a limited extent. And at last, promises were made to ‘reopen the skies’ and allow Israelis desperate for holidays abroad to depart for specified countries (Cyprus, Greece, Iceland), where infection rates were considered to be sufficiently low.

At first there were some rays of light here and there amidst all the doom and gloom. A large advertisement taken out in one of the national daily newspapers expressed the gratitude of ‘the theatres, the orchestras, the dance, the museums, the opera, the cinematheques, and the other cultural and artistic institutions, as well as of the thousands of artists, actors and workers who are returning to work’ to the support and cooperation extended by the Minister of Culture and Sport, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Health, and their staffs and the various institutions of culture. Gratitude was also expressed to several philanthropic institutions. That certainly warmed the cockles of any culture vulture’s heart, but what it actually meant in practice never came to fruition.

The euphoria lasted exactly two weeks. As June progressed the general rejoicing and premature self-congratulation on the part of the government came to an abrupt stop. The dreaded second wave had arrived.

The curve which had been flattened reared its ugly head again, and alarm bells started ringing as the number of infections rose drastically. The idea of returning to the theatre and the concert hall vanished like the proverbial mirage. Admittedly, orchestras and theatres have been putting on performances of one kind or another via the medium of Zoom, but that is not going to put much money in their coffers or provide audiences with the thrill of seeing and hearing performances by living, breathing human beings.

For a while the government dithered between re-imposing a full or partial lockdown or letting matters sort themselves out somehow. Not even our all-knowing and all-powerful Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to know what line take, swinging between threatening a return to full lockdown, trying to cajole people into following the guidelines and advocating stricter policing of public behavior. Suddenly his regular evening TV appearances to say how well we were doing came to an abrupt stop. No more nightly Bibi on our screens. Various ministers are given the task of haranguing the public. Only when there is something positive to say does the Prime Minister put in an appearance. And for the moment there is no such thing.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gave a gala performance gratis via Zoom which was introduced by Dame Helen Mirren. But there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of a live performance by the Phil. taking place any time soon. Especially considering that the average age of its audience is well over seventy-.

The idea of life ever returning to anything like normality seems to be more like a will-o-the-wisp that is constantly disappearing over the next hill.

‘Le livre de ma mere (My Mother’s Book)’ by Albert Cohen

 

Albert Cohen wrote (or at least published) this book when he was about sixty years old. I don’t know when his mother died, but – as its title implies – the book is about his late mother and her devotion to him, embellished by his evidently deep-rooted sense of guilt at not having been as kind to her as he felt should have been in her lifetime.

Near the beginning the book we read about the burial of the author’s mother, with a graphic description of the scene at the cemetery, focusing primarily on the coffin and the hole in the ground into which it is lowered.

Chapter by chapter the author gradually unveils his mother’s character, appearance and habits. He describes the way his mother would prepare the house and herself for the Sabbath, wait to greet her husband and son as they returned from synagogue on Friday night and focus her whole being on seeing to the welfare of the two men who comprised her entire universe. The family lived in Marseille, where his father was a not-very-successful businessman and his mother tended to be isolated from the society of other people, largely because of her own feelings of inadequacy.

Scenes from the author’s childhood describe the utter devotion with which his mother attended to him, cared for him, depended on his happiness, and altogether appeared to be totally absorbed in making him the centre of her world.

A large part of the book recounts over and over again that the author was living in Geneva, first as a student and then as a member of the diplomatic corps, and from time to time (approximately once a year) his mother would come to stay with him for a few weeks. He describes in exquisite detail the image of his mother descending from the train, a somewhat pathetic and dishevelled figure, her clothes crumpled and her hat slightly askew, and how her eyes would light up when she espied him waiting for her on the platform. He describes her embarrassed little laugh when he pointed out some grammatical mistake she had made, and her complete desolation when he chided her for phoning one of his lady friends at four in the morning to ascertain that no harm had befallen him. He chides himself repeatedly for his behaviour towards her.

The reader is given several detailed accounts of those and other scenes, which evidently continued to haunt the writer. He describes the battered suitcase from which his mother would extract the various treats she had prepared for him in Marseille, many of which had been beloved by him in his childhood, and how she delighted in his joy upon receiving what she had brought him.

Above all, however, the author reiterates his guilt at not having shown sufficient appreciation for his mother’s love and devotion to him, and the indifference he had occasionally displayed towards her, to the extent that on one occasion he had even been three hours late for a meeting with her somewhere in Geneva. It is with painful honesty that he describes his youthful preoccupation with a certain young lady that caused him to keep his mother waiting for him for hours.

Towards the end of the book the author’s grief (or guilt) becomes virtually unbearable, and at the end of every sentence describing his mother we find the refrain ‘She is dead.’ The sense of overpowering anguish seems to transcend everything, extinguishing all other emotions. In one of the last few paragraphs the author acknowledges that we are all destined to end the same way, all bound to lie in a dark hole in the ground as our bodies decay and decompose.

As the book comes to an end the author admonishes young people everywhere, rebuking them for not appreciating their mothers enough, for not showing them that they love them, for neglecting to pay them the attention they deserve. Somehow, this becomes a homily, likening all mothers to saints, and even to the mother of Jesus.

I hope that by writing this memoir the author managed to assuage his conscience and allay his guilt. Without going into too much psychological analysis, the association with Oedipus cannot be dismissed out of hand. For me, however, it has been clear for a long time that it is guilt rather than love that makes the world go round. And it would certainly appear to be guilt that impelled Albert Cohen to write this book.

Having a Laugh

Back in the day, when my children were young, I would sometimes join them when they watched certain programmes on Children’s TV. One of these was ‘Zehu-Zeh’ (That’s It), which tried to amuse, entertain and educate by means of little skits, songs and quizzes. Let’s face it, most of the programmes on Children’s TV were noisy, gaudy American imports, with little or no educational content, though of course Sesame Street was the exception that proved the rule.

Now that we’re undergoing a period when there are few programmes anywhere – whether for adults or children – that are not noisy, gaudy as well as being full of violence, tension, murder and mayhem, it has become increasingly difficult to find anything on TV that is enjoyable to watch (if you are over sixty and slightly out-of-step with current trends).

So it was with a sense of curiosity mixed with hope that I started watching the current revival of the erstwhile children’s programme, Zehu-Zeh. It was brought back in order to raise general morale at this difficult time of Coronavirus lockdown. It is broadcast in the evening, which means that it is certainly not intended for children. The actors participating in the modern version were also involved in the original one, though they are now understably somewhat older and less agile but still recognizably themselves and still able to hold a tune and even sing in harmony, thank goodness. As they did then, even now they still seem to have a penchant for cross-dressing, which they do very well, adding an extra touch of humour to the show.

This time round, though, the focus is less on education and more on entertainment, and to be more specific, humour. Sometimes the script is better and sometimes worse, but the five main participants are still consummate actors and know how to deliver their lines to maximum effect. In a recent episode there were some excellent examples of what can only be described as biting political satire that had me laughing out loud and hastening to repeat the gems I had witnessed to my nearest and dearest.

The various much-hyped films and TV series involving tension, high-speed car chases, action and violence are not my cup of tea, and I continue to resist all enticements aimed at getting me to watch them. At a time when the whole world seems grim, grey and dark such fare is not what I need to lighten my mood.

And so, with disaster lurking around every corner, my only consolation is laughter, and I salute all those who are endeavouring to bring us some joy and relief from the grim reality of life.

Keep up the good work, chaps, and more power to you in continuing to keep the laughter flowing.

‘Orlando’ Revisited

I read ‘Orlando’ originally many years ago, when I first ‘discovered’ Virginia Woolf and the fascinating world of the Bloomsbury Group – the coterie of artists, writers and intellectuals that coalesced around her and her husband, Leonard Woolf (who was Jewish). I eagerly swallowed every word she had ever written, as well as her diaries, collected letters and  the many works about her and the other members of the group. She and many of them lived in the Bloomsbury area of London, in those heady interwar years, hence the name. ‘Orlando’ was one of Virginia Woolf’s books that I read at the time, and I remember not being greatly taken with it, although, as always with her, the prose was rich and impressive. I simply didn’t feel that the book had the kind of narrative impact that I had come to expect.

As the result of some words of high praise written by a friend, I decided to reread the book, and found that my initial impression was not too far wrong. This time round I paid more attention to the writing (even to the highly idiosyncratic punctuation) than I had in the past, and found myself being irritated time and again by the knowing tone adopted by the narrator, the constant asides, parentheses, notes in the imaginary margin and the altogether overbearing and patronising tone in which the tale of the individual known as Orlando is told.

In fact, the story of the imaginary character, who is at first male, then female and lives through several centuries of British and European history, is the hook on which the book is predicated, but is not really the crux of the book, even though he/she constitutes the title. The book is rather an opportunity for the author to take the reader on an intellectual journey through British history, British literary fads and fashions, and British manners and mannerisms, especially those of the aristocracy and upper classes, while displaying her encyclopaedic knowledge of those and other subjects. For good measure she throws in musings about philosophy, gender identity and the nature of artistic rivalry which is all well and good but doesn’t do much to stimulate the reader’s interest.

To be quite honest, I found the entire tone of the book tedious, and because it also had a soporific effect on me it took me far longer than usual to get to the end, as I was constantly overcome by an insurmountable urge to sleep (maybe this should be recommended as bed-time reading, even though I read it in daytime). What I found particularly annoying was the constant ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ attitude of the narrator which takes the form of comments, asides and playful forays into some kind of false intimacy between reader and author.

Virginia Woolf dedicated the book to her friend, fellow-writer and possible lover, Lady Ottoline Morell, and it is a possibility that the tone of the book is in some way an echo of that writer’s style, and may even be some kind of love-letter addressed to her. There are also in-jokes and oblique references to contemporary (and possibly rival) writers and thinkers, among those I managed to identify were D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Maynard Keynes’s wife and the Hogarth Press set up by Leonard Woolf. On the brighter side, I found a scene set in the Marshall and Snelgrove department store in Oxford Street particularly evocative, though various parts of London at different times in its history are described with great vivacity.

The book may have been considered revolutionary at the time it was published, in 1928, but its general tone today strikes this particular reader as laboured, pettifogging, pretentious, patronizing, pedantic and priggish.

 

TOTAL BALONEY (Quatsch mit Sosse) (Shtuyot Bemitz in Hebrew)

The CD with the title (in German and Hebrew) ‘Total Baloney’ was given to me some time ago by the Association of Former Residents of Central Europe, and when I finally got round to watching it I found myself taken back to the kitchen of my mother and other ‘Yekke’ relatives, back to the enchanted land of nostalgia, to the tastes and aromas of yesteryear, and to a time of innocence and memories (though not always fond).

The short film contains interviews with people of Yekke origin and demonstrations by them of the food that was cooked and the meals that were eaten in the homes of Jews originally from Germany and the surrounding countries who now live in Israel. Their manners and mannerisms, the way certain foods were prepared, the importance of how the table was set, the focus on minding one’s table manners as well as various other aspects of cooking, baking and eating were treated, at times seriously, at others with humour, but always with affection. Some people proudly displayed the handwritten recipe books their mothers or grandmothers had used. That reminded me that a few years ago my sisters and I took our late mother’s handwritten recipe book and published it for the whole family, translating her German recipes into Hebrew and English for the benefit of her descendants in Israel and abroad.

It was heartwarming to see elderly ladies (and some gentlemen) donning sturdy aprons and rolling their sleeves up to cook traditional dishes such as the red cabbage so beloved of many Yekke families, or sharing memories of the hated spinach many were forced to eat in childhood because it was considered healthy. Many other likes and dislikes also came to mind. Among the latter was the prevalence of apples in every possible kind of dish, whether savoury or sweet. That was also a bane of my own life as a child, since my mother – who was a consummate cook – found it necessary to accompany every main course with apple sauce (the apfelmus I dreaded finding on my plate at every Friday night dinner).

 

Cakes and pastries were also an important component of the Yekke diet, and one particular segment shows the various stages involved in the preparation of the legendary Black Forest Cake, with something I had never encountered before – an ingenious wire device for slicing the cake into two equal halves. Many Yekkes shared their fond memory of whipped cream (schlagsahne) as an accompaniment to cake. Another fond memory that arose in several interviews was the ceremonial way birthdays were celebrated, with a humorous procession, a birthday table laden with gifts, and a general air of merriment and rejoicing.

An additional touch which served to reinforce my enjoyment of the film was its accompaniment by various Schubert lieder, which were of course beloved by all (or almost all) Yekkes. The songs chosen seemed to fit exactly to the spirit of the speakers as they demonstrated the preparation and consumption of food in an atmosphere of tranquillity and harmony, and always with a touch of dry, Yekke humour.

One person reminisced fondly about the paucity of spices and condiments used in typical Yekke cooking, and which she claimed did not usually exceed five. There seemed to be a general consensus that no self-respecting Yekke housewife would contemplate using garlic in the food she prepared for her family, considering that salt and pepper, onions and parsley provided all the flavouring necessary for a tasty meal. The idea of introducing coriander (whether cooked or raw) or any other ‘exotic’ flavour to a dish was anathema to the Yekke palate.

Potatoes also occupied a prominent position in the Yekke kitchen, doubtless due to their prevalence in Germany, and the general reluctance to embark on getting involved in the slightly more complicated process of preparing rice. Thus, potatoes in one form or another, whether as salad or in their boiled or fried incarnation, accompanied almost every meal.

If you’re curious to see what caused me to enthuse about the traditional Yekke kitchen, the film is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9dn6J8x_5U

Go ahead and take a look. You’ll enjoy it, I guarantee.

Them and Us

 

There has always been a certain divide between rulers and ruled. That is the way of the world, whether in ancient Mesopotamia, the ancient Land of Israel, ancient Greece and Rome, the various nations of Europe and all over the world. The relatively recent attempt (in historical terms) to introduce an element of fairness into the system has had its successes and its failures, whether in the shape of democracy or some form of socialism, but there is no getting away from the fact that countries have to be governed, and some people seem to feel the urge to govern them.

Modern western societies have sought to elect the people who govern them by means of a system that is considered equitable and fair, namely democracy. Representatives of segments of the population or of specific regions are elected by ballots cast on a universal basis, supposedly guaranteeing equal representation for all, with rule by the majority being generally accepted as the best solution.

So in theory, as the American Declaration of Independence states, all men (and women by now) are considered equal. We’ll disregard the fact that at the time that Declaration was made neither women nor black people had equal rights, and it has been a long, hard struggle to achieve that. But the principle remains that essentially every individual is considered to be equally valuable to society, and each person’s voice has the right to be heard.

In Israel today, so the theory goes, there is no entrenched ruling class, such as there once was in England, France, and other European countries. Even in those countries it is considered appropriate today for the government to comprise representatives who have been democratically elected. When Israel’s founding fathers established its ruling institutions the emphasis was on the equal distribution of wealth, the absence of class distinctions, and the need for society to care for the weak and the needy (thus following traditional Jewish values). In fact, in the early days of the State of Israel very few people were wealthy, most of the political leaders lived in modest circumstances, and several remained (or later became) members of a kibbutz (where the principle of the equal distribution of goods was paramount).

During the course of its existence the ethos underlying Israel’s social fabric has shifted away from the principle of equality. Today it is considered acceptable, albeit not entirely desirable, to have a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and despite the attempts to provide for the economically disadvantaged, this divide seems to be becoming ever more firmly entrenched.

Another overriding principle underlying most modern societies – Israel included – is that of justice, the concept of equality before the law, that no one can be considered above the law. And this brings us to painful recent events which have further deepened the existing rift within Israel.

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted societies all over the world, causing lockdowns and economic hardship for many. The U.K. has recently been riven by a scandal over the unsanctioned cross-country drive (supposedly to obtain care for his child) by a senior government advisor, thereby breaking the lockdown rule which the rest of the country has been obliged to obey. The Prime Minister has refused to condemn that act, and so the concept of equality before the law is destroyed.

The President of the USA has openly declared that he will not wear a mask, even though this is the medically recommended way of avoiding transmission of the disease. He, too, seems to consider himself above the rules which ordinary folk are required to follow.

England and the USA are not alone in having political figures who flout the rules which the general public is supposed to observe. At the recent Pesach (Passover) festival, at which it is customary for families to eat the festive meal together (the Seder), for the first time in Israel’s history families were forbidden to congregate, and many people were forced to sit alone or communicate with their relatives by electronic means (Zoom, etc.).

It did not take long, however, for the news media to publish photos of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, enjoying the Seder with his son who does not live under the same roof as him. To make matters worse, the President of Israel, Ruby Rivlin, was also shown in the company of his grandchildren, who do not share his home.

Israelis expressed outrage at this blatant demonstration of hypocrisy by the very leaders who had called on them to observe the strictest terms of social isolation. However, instead of calling for their resignation, the public seems to have shrugged its shoulders and simply carried on. At least the strict lockdown restrictions were eased soon afterwards, whether prematurely or not time will tell.

But the most flagrant example of spurning the principle of equality before the law is being provided by the current Prime Minister. After evading justice for years by a series of legal and political ploys, Benjamin Netanyahu was finally brought before a court of law on charges of corruption, bribery and misappropriation of funds. Any other politician so charged would have resigned (or at least committed suicide) long since, but not Mr. Teflon. After his long fight against being brought to justice, just before he entered the courtroom he managed to bring additional shame on Israel’s political structure by launching an unbridled attack on the police, the media, the judicial system (comprised of judges appointed by his government) and the Attorney General.

In a normal country he would feel obliged to resign at this point, but he shows no intention of doing so, and will continue to sling mud in every possible direction until, so it seems, he has succeeded in undermining all the institutions that have been put in place to protect our society from the ravages of demagogues who seek to remain in power at all costs.

Democracy is still maintained, at least in theory. The only problem lies in the inability of the electorate to see through politicians’ lies and chicanery; and to realise that there’s one law for them and another for us.