Not Getting Any Younger

 

Although in my mind I’m still the eager, naïve 22 year-old who came to Israel to work and study (and get away from the depressing climate and weedy men of the UK), I have to face the fact that time has not passed me by. I’m constantly getting messages from my body telling me ‘that’s enough,’ ‘time to sit down for a while,’ ‘don’t overdo things,’ and especially from my back, which is taking its revenge on me for having neglected it for all these years.

While at school I avoided gym and physical exertion of any kind, in my forties I started exercising and have continued to do so on an almost daily basis ever since. It may have helped as I still have the use of my arms and legs, which is something to be thankful for at my advanced age (76), but the messages from my body keep coming thick and fast.

I do what I can to assuage my miserable muscles. When I start an intensive cooking session, e.g., on a Friday afternoon when my entire family (15 in all) is coming for dinner I enclose myself in a special back support belt (I always think of Abraham ‘girding his loins’ when I put it on). I have a special high chair in the kitchen so that I can sit at the sink when I peel and cut vegetables. I saw it at a friend’s house and immediately demanded one for myself. This entailed my other half taking a trip to a part of Israel which we had never visited before, but he came back with the precious object, and it has served me faithfully ever since. And in order to follow the instructions of the physiotherapist whom I consulted about my back pain I rest for twenty minutes in between half hour cooking sessions. Approximately.

If that were all, I could consider myself fortunate, but I’m afraid that my mind seems to be developing a mind of its own. It has taken to deciding what is important and what is not. Hence, I managed to find myself on holiday abroad without such basic essentials as toothbrush and sunscreen. But I console myself with the thought that those things can easily be bought at the nearest pharmacy, which is not the case with regard to prescription medicines and a disk-on-key with essential material, which has been known to happen.

There was a time when going on a journey overseas was a hazardous affair, involving tearful departures and the possibility of untoward events. Today, however, most people seem to think there’s nothing to it. They hop on a plane and fly off to all kinds of exotic and unfamiliar destinations without batting an eyelid. For me, however, it involves getting out my packing list and checking it time and again. And still I forget things. I have worked out the reason why this happens (too many things to think about), but that is no consolation. My mind as well as my body is showing signs of wear and tear. I’m beginning to wonder whether it isn’t perhaps time to just give up, stay at home, put my feet up and take up knitting.

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‘The Journey Back From Hell; Conversations with Concentration Camp Survivors’ by Anton Gill

Although published thirty years ago, this book is at least as relevant today as it was when it first appeared. As the survivors of concentration camps grow old and die it is more important than ever today to have their memories and first-hand accounts on record.

These in-depth conversations were held with individuals who experienced one or more of the Nazis’ concentration camps. Although the author is not a trained psychologist,. he has managed to gain the survivors’ confidence and elicited from them detailed accounts of the mental and physical ordeals they underwent, giving them in their own words, without unnecessary embellishment or analysis. As we read these accounts we feel that we are hearing their genuine voices as they speak openly and honestly about their experiences in the camps. These accounts are often preceded by descriptions of life in the ghettos or in hiding before capture and transport ‘east.’ In many cases the concentration camp experience is rounded off with a forced march, the infamous ‘death march’ (of which there were many) to another camp or undefined destination, as the Germans sought to escape the advancing Allied forces.

The first third of the book comprises a detailed historical account of the circumstances around the establishment of the concentration camps, the way they were built, and the method of their functioning, in all their horrific and inhuman detail. The research that has obviously gone into this section of the book is impressive in its attention to the specifics of the running of the camps as well as the results of psychological studies of survivors.

Several hundred individuals were interviewed, mainly in the UK, the USA and Israel, and each and every one had a unique tale to tell, even though certain elements of their ordeal remained consistent between them. All in all, it makes one wonder at the capacity of the human being to endure suffering, both physical and psychological, and adapt to the most monstrous conditions.

Almost all the survivors attribute their survival to sheer luck – having been in the right place at the right time, or not having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many, if not all of them, saw close relatives being taken away or abused, and then comes the laconic phrase “I never saw them again.” In only one case is an interviewee reported as having burst into tears. The brutality and dehumanizing processes endemic in the camps, with senseless forced labour as well as work on behalf of the German war effort, beatings, endless roll-calls and systematic starvation meant that in many cases people were unable to grieve or express any emotion at the time. Some people said that they were able to grieve only after liberation, and one person says how pleased he was to find himself crying at a funeral some time afterwards. Another described being amazed to the point of laughing at the sight of a funeral for a single person, with a casket, flowers and somber music, after having seen piles of bodies cast aside like so much trash.

Not all the interviewees were Jews. Members of the French, Polish and even Italian resistance movements who had been incarcerated in camps were also asked to share their memories. Their experiences may have been slightly less horrendous than those of the Jews, but they were still subjected to forced labour and starvation diets. They were less likely to be sent to the gas chambers, however. Nonetheless, they did not escape the emotional and physical scars of their time in the concentration camps.

Family ties or those of friendship often helped people to endure and to simply stay alive in the camps rather than just giving up, becoming a ‘mussulman,’ and losing the will to live. In many cases the association with others from similar backgrounds or who came from the same country and shared the same language formed a bond of fellowship, which helped them survive the ordeal. The sense of a shared past has also caused many after the war to seek out the companionship of others who have undergone the camps, attesting to their sense of alienation from anyone who ‘wasn’t there.’

Some survivors found religion, while others rejected it. In the final event, what seems to have got them through the terrible ordeal was a combination of chance, physical and mental fortitude and small lapses in the efficiency of the Germans’ dreaded killing machine.

All or Nothing

It pains me to write this, but there seems to be a straight line between the rejection of the UN Partition Plan by the Arab countries in 1947 and the Palestinian Authority’s current refusal to attend the Bahrein workshop arranged by the USA in an attempt to move towards a solution of the ‘Palestinian problem.’

At the time of the Partition Plan there was no Palestinian Authority, or even a Palestinian entity, yet the intransigence that was displayed then has become an integral part of any interaction with anyone seeking to resolve the issue. I know that David Ben-Gurion and the leaders of the Yishuv were not at all happy with the compromise solution proposed by the UN in 1947 but were prepared to accept the offer simply in order to attain some form of a Jewish homeland. The Arab states attacked the nascent State of Israel but were rebuffed, and the result was that the Jews had their state, Israel, and the Arabs (or Palestinians) did not.

The line continues, with steady ‘progress’ through the Arab states’ ‘three nos’ of Khartoum after the Six-Day War of 1967, when Israel offered them peace: ‘No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it’ was their motto, and that was the stand taken by the members of the Arab League during the decades which followed.

Since then some movement has been made towards peace, but by comparison with what might have been it is pitifully small. Yes, now there are peace treaties between Israel and Egypt, after the painful lesson of the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and also between Israel and Jordan, following the rapprochement between Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan in 1994. In both cases the agreements were achieved with the active involvement of the USA, under Jimmy Carter in the first case and Bill Clinton in the second.

Along the way, and as a result of these agreements and the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995, the Palestine Liberation Organisation morphed into the officially recognised Palestinian Authority, with institutions of orderly government, some degree of self-rule, and even a modicum of cooperation with the Israeli authorities.

Efforts were made at later stages to get the Palestinians to sit down with the Israelis to negotiate a peace settlement, when Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert each served as prime minister, and with American backing,. Under both these leaders generous settlements were offered to enable the creation of an independent Palestinian State, but in both instances the Palestinian leadership (headed by Yasser Arafat) rejected them.

Since then there have been shifts within Israeli society, with the right-wing parties assuming prominence and the electorate choosing to elect the Likud and follow a path which does not augur well for the eventual creation of a Palestinian State. On the contrary, the intransigence of right-wing politicians has become even more pronounced, with an ominous bent towards messianic and bible-based views.

If the Arab countries had accepted the UN Partition Plan in 1947 the Palestinians would have their state today, and the world might have been a better and friendlier place. And if the members of the Arab League who gathered in Khartoum in 1967 had accepted Israel’s outstretched hand, there might be peace in the region today. Furthermore, it seems highly unlikely, given the attitude of the disunited Palestinian leadership today, that anything positive will result from the ‘Deal of the Century’ being offered to them today by Donald Trump.

There’s no point dwelling on what might have been. But it all goes to show that those who insist on getting everything and are not prepared to countenance compromise tend to end up with…nothing.

Digital Poker Table: The Next Generation of Poker Technology by Robbie Strazynski

Today I’m hosting a guest blogger, Robbie Strazynski, who has written an excellent article about a new product that is going to take the world by storm. So here goes:

Last year, while walking through the hallowed hallways at the Rio during the World Series of Poker, I noticed a vendor with an interesting product I had never seen before, a Digital Poker Table. The vendor, Ariel Shefer, told me all about his product and how proud he was that it’s American-made and manufactured. Based in Las Vegas, Shefer decided to rent some space at the WSOP “as a trial” to see if it was something players might be interested in, and that if so he had plans to expand next year. I found our conversation particularly enjoyable as it took place in Hebrew, Ariel’s native tongue, and of course I’m a big fan of Israeli creativity and ingenuity as I myself have been living in the Holy Land for the past 20+ years.

Well, fast forward 12 months and it’s indeed now “next year.” Once again, while wandering the halls of the Rio, I spotted Ariel and his Digital Poker Table. With thousands of poker players passing by his spot each day, many of them are taking interest, so I felt it was time to take a closer look at what his product is all about.

Digital Poker Table: A Description

Imagine running your poker home game with no need for a dealer, chips, or cards. Picture yourself and your group of poker friends playing at a state-of-the-art digital table, with more hands dealt per hour and no hassle or controversy over split pots or misdeals.

Digital Poker Table, from Galshan Digital, makes all of this come true. Bringing together the best elements of live and electronic poker, Digital Poker Table provides an entirely automated poker experience.

 

With an easy-to-use, intuitive interface and multiple poker variants available to play in either cash game or tournament format, Digital Poker Table represents the next generation of poker technology. No setup is required; you just sit down and start playing. The Digital Poker Table does all of the dealing and chip counting!

Best of Both Worlds

Digital Poker Table combines the fast action, automatic chip counting and flawless dealing of online poker with the personal experience of live poker.

An ideal, cutting edge solution for poker home games and small businesses, Digital Poker Table deals every hand with a computer-generated, random deal, along with perfect chip counts and pot splitting. As players who grind games like Omaha Hi-Lo know all too well, pot splitting can become a complicated and sometimes controversial matter. Not with this product.

Game variants available include Hold’em, Omaha, Omaha Hi-Lo, and Tahoe, and each of these games can be played with No-Limit, Pot Limit, or Fixed Limit betting structures.

Whether you want to operate your poker game as a cash game or a single table sit-and-go tournament, Digital Poker Table provides all of these game options. The table can also run all of these variants in a mixed-game format for that true WSOP-like experience!

The action in your poker game will also speed up considerably, as Digital Poker Table deals 45-50 hands per hour, versus the average of 25-35 hands per hour with a live dealer. Spend less time setting up, dealing and counting chips, and spend more time playing poker. Plus, players save loads of money in tips, since it’s an electronic, rather than human, dealer. That’s money that stays in the game, on the table.

Moreover, cheating by way of marked cards, “going south” with chips, string betting, and other forms of angle-shooting are instantly eliminated from your game with Digital Poker Table, as the product ensures a fair deal and an ethically-run game every time.

The Future is Here

Ariel believes that, much like slot machines, digital technology represents the future of poker.

When digital slots were first introduced to the market 20 years ago, some casino operators doubted that digital versions of slot machines could ever replace traditional slots, and that customers wouldn’t enjoy the games without the mechanical wheels and coins dropping.

The vast majority of slots on a casino floor in 2019, however, are digital. As such Digital Poker Table represents that same evolution when it comes to poker.

Online poker players already enjoy the benefits of faster action, easy-to-read, accurate chip counting, and effortless splitting of pots. Digital Poker Table takes all of those elements and incorporates them into a one-of-a-kind, live poker experience.

Moreover, due to the product’s digital nature, improvements based on customer feedback can be (and already have been) quickly and seamlessly integrated. For example, some who bought the table weren’t too fond of the electronic-sounding voice, so both male and female voice-overs to call the action were added into the table’s software as additional options.

On Display at the 2019 WSOP

To get an up-close, in-person look at both the 10-person and 4-person versions of the Digital Poker Table, just walk through the halls of the Rio Convention Center at the WSOP, like I did, and you’ll find them on display in the main corridor, adjacent to the Brasilia Room.

Bruce Liebowitz is an avid poker player who stopped by for a demo and purchased Digital Poker Table last year, at the 2018 WSOP.

“I love the table,” Liebowitz said. “I run a home game every week, and I was at a point where there were just so many arguments over splitting the pot. When you don’t have a professional dealer, there’s just a lot of controversy in a home game. Particularly if you’re playing a pot-bet game, where everyone just splashes the pot. No more arguments over chopping the pot, no more arguments over how much can I bet. It’s like having floor and a dealer at your table, all the time.”

As the operator of weekly home game, the product has been, quite literally, a game changer.

“I was considering buying a table with a spot for a dealer, then hiring the dealer,” Liebowitz said. “I was literally in discussions with a guy about building two different tabletops; one for when I had a dealer and one for when I didn’t. Then I went to the WSOP and I saw Digital Poker Table.”

Liebowitz is not just a customer; he’s recently joined Galshan Digital as an investor. “I love and believe in the product and decided to become part of the team,” Liebowitz said.

Special pricing is available throughout the WSOP, and Ariel will be on hand at the Digital Poker Table display each day if to answer any questions and demonstrate the product. If you decide to stop by and try out the table, be sure to tell him that Cardplayer Lifestyle sent you!

website: WWW.DIGITALPOKERTABLE.COM

About Robbie Strazynski

Robbie founded the Cardplayer Lifestyle poker blog in 2009.

Having quite literally learned how to play poker around the kitchen table as a child, “living a Cardplayer Lifestyle” is something that he’s always aspired to. After having worked as a copywriter and marketing professional in the online gaming industry for a number of years, Robbie transitioned to become self-employed in the poker media industry in March 2017.

Robbie translated Pulling The Trigger: The Autobiography of Poker Pro Eli Elezra, from Hebrew into English.

Robbie is also the host of the Red Chip Poker Podcast, co-host of PokerNews’ Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast and creator of the Poker Notes Live mobile app.

Connect with Robbie on Twitter @cardplayerlife, or via email: robbie@cardplayerlifestyle.com.

 

The Way to Whinge

One of the Facebook groups I belong to is called ‘Brits Whingeing in Israel’ (motto: ‘Lose some, whinge some’), having split off from ‘Brits Laughing in Israel,’ which in turn split off from ‘Brits Living in Israel.’ The politics behind the various groups and sub-groups is not clear to me, but I definitely benefit from all of them. The best thing about whingeing is that it gives people like me the opportunity to moan a bit about things that annoy us about life in this wonderful country, which we all love.

The etymology of the word ‘whinge’ is an enigma in itself. I never heard it used in my youth in England (which admittedly I left in 1964), though I do recall the word ‘whine’ being used, probably with reference to my childhood self. I first encountered the word when it was used by Margaret Thatcher, and it seems to have belonged to the upper class vocabulary she liked to adopt, becoming widespread currency subsequently. My own edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, published in 1964, does not have an entry for it. But that’s the nature of language, it’s constantly changing. And that’s a subject for a whinge of its own.

The ‘Brits Laughing in Israel’ Facebook group has one or two stars, who seem to consider it their mission in life to invent or discover puns or jokes on a daily basis. This enables me to start my day at the computer, iPhone or iPad by bursting into hearty laughter, or sometimes just a mild smile. But heck, there can be worse ways of starting one’s day.

Most of the posts I’ve seen on the whingeing group are about the inability of the average Israeli (some members call them ‘natives,’ but I find that a trifle condescending) to form an orderly queue, politely say ‘sorry,’ please’ and ‘thankyou’ when appropriate, and of course, there are always plentiful opportunities to moan about bureaucracy, postal deliveries and drivers. Fortunately, politics are off-limits, otherwise there would be no end to the whingeing.

Following a recent experience, I posted my own whinge, which went as follows: “At the opera in Tel Aviv the other night. Despite written and broadcast reminders to turn phones off, in the middle of the first act (Cosi fan Tutte) the phone of the lady in the seat next but one to me rang. After the interval, as the announcement to turn phones off was being broadcast again, I asked her if she’d heard it. She attacked me verbally for having the nerve to remind her. So much for culture in Israel.”

Not surprisingly, this prompted a veritable deluge of similar posts (or whinges, if you prefer). Phones ringing in cinemas and theatres, and more often than not, people actually answering, not caring about disturbing all the other people around them. One wonders sometimes why people ever leave their homes to go to a cultural event if all they’re going to do is talk on the phone, but who can fathom the complexities of the Israeli mind?

And that brings me to the peak of my whinge-worthy events of the past week. As is the tradition in these parts, twice a year a choral music festival is held in the nearby village of Abu Gosh. The concerts are held mainly in the beautiful St. Joseph’s Church with its wonderful acoustics, which invariably enhance one’s enjoyment of the music.

We had bought tickets in one of the three front rows for a performance of Bach’s St John Passion. Personally I prefer his St. Matthew Passion, but Bach is Bach, so we took the less-loved work. Still, the music is wonderful. In the performance we heard the excellent Barrocade Ensemble was conducted by Michael Shani, the soloists – mainly talented Israeli artists — were wonderful, and the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir performed with unexpected authority and grace.

Everything was proceeding as it should, and the sublime music was taking us on the well-worn path to the ultimate tragedy, when a ring-tone rang out through the church, augmented of course by the wonderful acoustics. This occurred not once, not twice, but three times, though presumably not always from the same phone, and fortunately not within close range from where I was sitting.

But that was not the highest – or, rather, lowest – point. At one of the most delicate points of the piece, when the counter-tenor was singing about Jesus’s moving poignant acceptance of his fate, someone in our row dropped a GLASS BOTTLE, which rolled noisily along the marble floor between the seats. Although the singer did not stop, I could see his face and he was visibly shaken, and the performance continued unabated. I was more than shaken, I can tell you. Luckily for whoever the bottle belonged to, I was not sitting in close proximity to him or her.

It is beyond me to understand why anyone should bring a glass bottle (was it beer? wine? water?) into a concert. The only reason I can think of is that the person thought they were attending a pop concert in the open air. But tickets for the concerts in Abu Gosh are not cheap, (neither are they for pop concerts, I know) so I would have to rule out that possibility. I hadn’t thought of this before, but perhaps it was deliberate sabotage by someone who disapproves of Jews enjoying church music.

The concert ended, everyone applauded and filed out in an orderly fashion. I wonder, though, was I the only one who felt cheated out of the transcendent experience of being able to listen to magnificent music in an inspiring atmosphere?

 

‘La délicatesse’ by David Foenkinos

The book, which I’m proud to say I read in the original French, begins with a semi-humourous description of Nathalie, the main character, with allusions to fanciful generalizations about anyone bearing that name as well as specific descriptions of the pretty young woman who is the Nathalie of the story. Nathalie meets Francois by chance in the street, he speaks to her even though they have not met before, and soon they become lovers, and then a married couple. We learn about Francois’ character and thoughts, his hobbies and habits, at least as much as we learn about Nathalie’s, and we witness the pleasant weekly routine of the young couple.

Nathalie finds employment in a financial company, and Charles, the boss of the organization, is so taken with her photo on her application form that he insists on interviewing her himself. She is given a responsible position, and for five years she and Francois are happy and doing well, but suddenly everything changes when Francois is run over and killed while out running one Sunday morning.

In between the various segments of the book the author places comments, quotes, stage directions, statistical facts, or incidental comments that often bear little relation to the flow of the narrative, and in fact serve to distract the reader from the story and the characters we are reading about. Even the title of the book, ‘La delicatesse,’ is discussed in an abstract way and its dictionary definition examined. We are given to understand that the word can also be used to describe Nathalie.

Naturally, it takes a long time for Nathalie to get over the loss of her husband and return to work. Her colleagues do their best to treat her with sympathy and understanding, though the knowledge that the beautiful young woman who works with them is now unattached arouses their curiosity and interest. Charles, who is married but is in love with Nathalie, invites her out to dinner. She accepts, but rejects his amourous advances, causing Charles to become confused, depressed and bewildered.

One day, one of Nathalie’s colleagues, a young man called Markus who is a member of the team she heads, enters her office to discuss some aspect of their work, and is taken aback when she suddenly kisses him. This causes him considerable dismay and confusion, and some time later, after careful consideration, he decides to march into her office and kiss her in the same manner. Their relationship develops. They dine together one evening and although he is not very attractive she find his company entertaining. Their colleagues gossip about their relationship, and the rumour reaches Charles, who tries to ascertain what attracts Nathalie to the unassuming young man, even inviting him to an embarrassing and unsuccessful dinner one evening.

Charles’ jealousy drives him to arrange for Markus to be transferred to a branch of the firm in Sweden. When Nathalie learns of this she is furious, abandons her post and takes a train into the country. Markus is told by Charles about his transfer and immediately resigns. Nathalie sends Markus a text message telling him where she is. He takes the next train to join her, and together they drive in the rain to visit her grandmother, Madeleine, in her house in the country.

Markus and Nathalie spend the night together in Madeleine’s house, and their relationship seems to be developing into a romantic attachment. Throughout their time together, Nathalie and Markus have been engaged in a delicate dance of finding a connection with one another, albeit in a very different way from the approach adopted by either Francois or Charles.

Charles goes home to his wife and tries to make an effort to renew their relationship. Markus and Nathalie play hide-and-seek in the garden of Madeleine’s house, just as Nathalie once did with her cousins in her childhood. The two appear to be destined to have a happy and loving relationship.

It’s all very French.

Elections. Again.

 

Oh botheration. ‘Ere we go again, as the earwig said as it fell off the rim of the jar. The midnight hour struck last night and no fairy godmother appeared to turn the pumpkin into a carriage. So we poor benighted citizens of Israel face another two-and-a-half months of electioneering, jockeying for attention, inane political ads, mind-numbing propaganda, and general brow-beating and misery. As if life isn’t tough enough as it is, what with the excessive summer heat, constant fires set by nasty neighbours across the border (and even some within it), and the general sense of unease caused by growing political tension in the region and global warming.

Israel’s election system, which is based on proportional representation (rather than the ‘first past the post’ system prevalent in the UK and most western democracies), means that no one party has ever yet managed to form a government without having recourse to the need for a coalition. In most cases in the past this has worked relatively well, with compromises and common interests generally forming the basis for a workable government. Matters of principle are all well and good, it would seem, but when the prospect of a ministerial post and its attendant perks and influence are dangled in front of a faction or candidate, the temptation is usually irresistible.

But now the situation has changed. Intransigence is the order of the day. And whereas in any normal country the party that finds itself unable to form a government hands the mandate back to the President so that another party can be given the opportunity, this has not happened here. Why is this? I hear you ask. Oh, it’s nothing serious, really, just a ploy to stop the opposition getting into power at all costs as well as to prevent the current Prime Minister from being faced with the possibility of standing trial for various cases of corruption and abuse of power.

About twenty years ago a similar situation confronted then MK Tzippi Livni, who was head of the party which had gained the most seats at the election. When the composition of the parties elected to the Knesset as a result of the general election prevented her from forming a viable coalition, she nobly and responsibly handed the mandate back to the President, and the then opposition leader(who was Benjamin Netanyahu)was given the task of forming a government.

But nobility of character is not a feature that distinguishes our current Prime Minister. True, he has considerable ability, is an excellent rhetorician in two languages, as well as not being above resorting to demagoguery when matters come down to the wire and the result of the election is at stake. But sensing that his back is against the wall, both personally and politically, he is pulling out all the stops in his attempt to prevent anyone else gaining the upper hand. This time, too, he finds himself unable to reconcile the two outlying factions – the head of the Israel Our Home party, which seeks to impose some form of partial military duty on the ‘scholars’ who spend their days poring over tomes in religious seminaries, on the one hand, and the ultra-orthodox parties, who flatly refuse to perform military service of any kind, on the other.

So it’s us poor suckers, the man and woman in the street, who have to pay the price for all the above. Worst of all is the prospect that very little will change by the time the next election is held, in another few months, so that we may find ourselves on an endless merry-go-round of repeated elections and costly concessions to persuade parties to come on board.

Welcome to Ground Hog Day.

My Ex-Step-Mother-in-Law

 

Actually, the one-woman show that I saw last week has very little to do with the subject of the title, namely, mothers-in-law. I am one such, and even an ex-one in one case, but not a step one, or not yet, at least (and I hope never).

The play was recommended to me by my son and his wife, and so I was sure it would be about the mother-in-law issue and relationship problems. I soon found that I was greatly mistaken. What we were treated to was a highly original portrayal of the history, emotions, reactions and experiences of a member of the generation of our parents and grandparents in Europe before and after WWII. This was done in such a delicate and oblique way that one had to be on one’s toes and wait for the end of the evening before realizing what the subject of the play really was.

The sold-out performance was held in a small space in one of Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods. The solo actress, Naomi Yoeli, moved about the stage, at times representing her own persona and at others the ex-step-mother-in-law as well as other members of that family living in a small town in pre-war Hungary.

The main character’s family of origin is described by means of a letter from her mother, written shortly before Hungary was invaded by the Germans. In the letter, the happy mother announces the forthcoming marriage of her daughter, Agi, to the scion of a very wealthy family (also Jewish). Although she is careful to preserve the proprieties of good behaviour and social mores, the letter contains accounts of the apparent wealth of her daughter’s future family, to her evident satisfaction.

The almost bare stage contained an elegant round table into which drawers were built. From time to time a random member of the audience would be invited to sit at the table, open one of the drawers and extract its contents. In one instance this was a set of miniature wooden items of furniture typical of a bourgeois European home, in another it was a porcelain plate and bowl, and so on. Each set of items served as a trigger for Naomi, who now assumed the persona of Agi, speaking with a light Hungarian accent, to recount some aspect of her life, sometimes in a rambling highly imaginative way, sometimes evoking the time and place of her youth. In one particularly enchanting moment, she waxes lyrical about a particular Hungarian pastry she loved, whereupon trays of that pastry were handed out to the audience. It was delicious.

Thus, not necessarily in consecutive order, we learn about Agi’s childhood and youth, the attempt, together with her husband, Latz, to avoid deportation, the release from the concentration camp and her efforts to find surviving members of her family. There are also accounts of encounters with Russian, French and American soldiers of the Allied Army. No mention is made of the horrors of the camp, which we later learn was Auschwitz. We learn, too, that just prior to the establishment of the State of Israel she and Latz moved there, and that she was not very impressed with the place.

Towards the end of the evening, Agi suddenly becomes more assertive, abandoning the refined, cultured Hungarian lady we have come to know, and in firm tones she repeatedly declares that she refuses to speak about ‘it.’

However, upon hearing a final, apparently innocuous, incident, we learn that Agi and Latz, now a retired professor, were strolling in Haifa with a visiting academic and his wife. The latter asks Agi what it was like in Auschwitz, and upon hearing her noncommittal, evasive reply, which ends the play and could be described as the ‘understatement of the century,’ the stunned, audience breaks into appreciative applause.

The relationship between Agi and Naomi appears to have been a good one, with daily phone calls and regular meetings in a café. We do not learn how Agi attained the ‘ex’ and ‘step’ status that might have been the subject of the play. What has happened, however, is that in the course of the evening we have, almost unwittingly, gained an insight into the psyche of someone who endured Auschwitz and was able to rise above it and live life on her own terms.

‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel

 

I picked up this book (greatly reduced in price) probably because I was intrigued by the title, and found when I started reading it that it consisted of eleven rather long short stories, set in various parts of the world, but mainly in contemporary England. Some years ago I read Mantel’s two books about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the Eighth, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies,’ and I remember thinking at the time that they were not very well-written, though interesting. I was very surprised to learn that both (I think) won the Man-Booker Prize.

I find that in her short stories, too, Hilary Mantel’s style is as ragged, jagged and unclear as it was in her previous books. To cut a long story short (pun intended), I find her style irritating and confusing. What is worse, I find the subject-matter of her stories equally annoying. Some of them don’t seem to have much point or to go anywhere, which is hardly what a short story is supposed to achieve. In some cases they are vignettes of a certain time or place or situation, but in my view that is not enough for the medium of a short story.

One of the stories describes the author’s encounter with an Indian businessman when she is living in Jeddah, where her husband is working for an oil company. The author feels awkward about having to entertain the unwelcome guest for tea, and even attend a dinner party he has organised. But beyond the feeling of unease, and relief when she finally manages to shake him off, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the episode. Another story describes a childhood encounter with a girl from a less privileged socio-economic environment, but beyond that there is little to grab the reader’s interest. Yes, the children’s conversation is convincingly conveyed, as is the atmosphere of noseyness and latent aggression, but that is all. An account of the relationships between the staff of a doctor’s clinic reveals an unexpected lesbian alliance, and that perhaps is one of the better stories.

The story of the title is the last and longest in the book and describes what might perhaps have happened had the plumber whom the narrator had been expecting turned out to be an assassin bent on shooting Margaret Thatcher. The erstwhile prime minister, who is apparently universally hated, had been undergoing minor eye surgery in the suburban house next door which had been converted into a clinic. The encounter between the lady of the house and the assassin, who is a member of the IRA, is described in very low-key, almost casual, terms, with no-one getting particularly excited or upset about anything much. Detachedness is all. Of course, there is the period of waiting, with the conventional cup of tea, which winds up becoming something more alcoholic, but there are no accelerated heartbeats, sweating or swearing, and not even any raised voices. Everything proceeds with the utmost calm and, in a strange turn of events, the lady of the house even conspires with the would-be assassin to show him a secret escape route. Not very convincing, to say the least.

Several of the stories have previously been published in such august journals as ‘The London Review of Books’ and the ‘Guardian,’ which only leaves me wondering what has become of the British literary scene.

An Opera About Auschwitz!?

 

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I was one of the brave souls who attended a performance of the opera, ‘The Passenger,’ by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. I did so mainly because a friend of ours was the revival director of the production by the Israel Opera, and not because I’m a ‘glutton for punishment,’ as I have been accused of being (due to my inordinate consumption of Holocaust literature).

However, I’m not sorry I went. The subject is undoubtedly difficult, if not well-nigh impossible to convey in any meaningful artistic way, yet the performance left me with a heightened sense of awareness of and identification with the experience of life in a concentration camp. The combined impact of Weinberg’s music, the text (based on a novel by a non-Jewish Polish woman who was in Auschwitz herself), and the ingenious set, staging, costumes and scenery was greater than the sum of the individual parts. The soloists—a mix of imported and local talent—acted and sang with feeling and skill. It cannot have been easy for Israelis to evoke the experience of being prisoners in a concentration camp or members of the SS.

The author, Zofia Posmysz, wrote the novel originally as a radio script after having heard, while on a visit to Paris, what she thought was the voice of the German woman who had been her supervisor in Auschwitz. Posmysz was imprisoned there as a young woman for the ‘crime’ of reading and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. The idea was taken up by the Polish-Jewish composer Weinberg, and the libretto was written by Alexander Medevdev. Weinberg had managed to reach Soviet Russia before the Germans invaded Poland, but his entire family was murdered by them.

The action of the opera is set in two different places and two different points in time: on board an ocean liner in 1958 and in Auschwitz in 1943. The first staged performance took place in Bregenz in 2010, directed by David Pountney, a British and Polish theatre and opera director. The set, which shows both locations, involves large sections of scenery which move together with the singers, constitutes a combination of imaginative reconstruction and engineering ingenuity. The railway tracks at the front of the stage serve as a constant reminder of Auschwitz.

The prisoners who form the focus of the opera are a mix of women from the various countries conquered by the Germans and each one performs in her own language. As we watch them move and sing, wearing the striped concentration-camp garb, their heads shaven, we are exposed to their touching stories and relationships, to their individual humanity and the comfort they find in their friendships.

Some scenes also expose the mental processes of the SS, managing to convey their diabolical combination of brutality and efficiency—as well as stupidity in some cases. The impossible love between two of the prisoners is shown in a way that is touching without being unduly sentimental, and the moment when the tones of Bach’s chaconne are played in defiance of the commandant’s request for a schmaltzy waltz is unbearably moving.

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Artistic licence notwithstanding, it seems odd that the presence of Jews is barely mentioned, and when it is (by the woman from Salonika, who points to her yellow star as ‘the mark of death’), it is misrepresented, as she sings in Yiddish. The Jews of Salonika, who fled Spain in 1492, continued to speak their Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino.

Weinberg’s music is not inaccessible to the untrained ear, and in many instances it sounds as if it could have been written to accompany a film, which is in fact what Weinberg did for a living in Russia. He was a friend of Shostakovich’s, and it is possible to discern some similarities between the music of the two.

Over and beyond the dramatic impact of the opera, the fact that it exists at all, and can—and hopefully will—continue to be performed for generations to come plays an important role in the task of never forgetting what happened or allowing the Holocaust deniers to prevail. ‘The Passenger’ stands as an eternal reminder of the depths to which mankind sank in order to perpetrate unspeakable horrors against other human beings, as well as the heights which the human spirit can attain in overcoming adversity.

There is no happy end to this opera, which concludes with a lone voice ringing out to assert that we must never forget or forgive.

Amen to that.