Virginia Woolf by Alexandra Harris

 

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Who needs yet another biography of Virginia Woolf? Not I certainly, who have been a VW aficionado for dozens of years, possibly ever since the day somewhere in the 1960s when I first came across one of the five volumes of Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, borrowed from the British Council Library in Jerusalem, in the days when it was still situated in Jerusalem’s wonderful Terra Sancta building.

That book led me to my obsession with Virginia Woolf, Leonard’s wife and one of the leading writers of the twentieth century. As ever more volumes about her came out, whether other people’s memoirs about her, her own collected letters, diaries, and essays, and the monumental biography and literary analysis by Hermione Lee, pretty much the entire English reading public was swept away by the conglomeration of artists, writers and intellectuals who constituted what came to be known as the Bloomsbury Group, because of the area of London where many of them lived. By now I have several bookshelves containing her books as well as other people’s books about her and the group of friends that coalesced around her and Leonard.

But it’s been some time now since I immersed myself in Bloomsburyana and eagerly consumed everything I could about Virginia, so that this relatively slim volume (only 187 pages), which I received as a gift, comes as a succinct and well-written reminder of all the things that so fascinated me in the past.

First of all, Virginia’s life in and of itself is fascinating. Born into an intellectual and relatively wealthy family in London, she and her siblings were subjected to the rigours of a Victorian household, with the manners and mores that pertained to their standing. While her brothers went to public school and Oxford university, Virginia and her sister Vanessa were kept at home, where they were taught by private tutors and their father, the writer Lesley Stephen, and were given the run of their parents’ extensive library. This obviously rankled with Virginia, whose book-length essay, A Room of One’s Own, written many years later, criticizes the discrimination against women implicit – and often explicit – in so many British institutions. The situation has changed since then, it’s true, but reading those lines today still stirs feelings of resentment at the many injustices inherent in the system of education and administration.

For most of her life Virginia was periodically afflicted by some kind of mental illness which has been post-factum defined as mania-depression. Whether or not this was indeed the case, the fact of the matter is that she suffered bouts of terrible depression when she was unable to function normally, let alone write. But it was writing that was her raison d’être, and had it not been for Leonard’s careful and caring stewardship it is not clear whether Virginia would ever have managed to overcome them. Thus, despite the crippling bouts of despair, she managed to produce a large body of work, each of her ten novels was a ground-breaking contribution to contemporary English literature, and her non-fiction reveals an active and brilliant mind combining insights and understanding with a polished literary style.

So it is good to have this new and comprehensive little book, written with clarity and understanding and also containing copious illustrations – photographs of people and places, and of Virginia in particular, as well as paintings and illustrations produced by her sister, Vanessa, who was a talented artist.

Fearing both the recurrence of her mental illness and the consequences of a possible German invasion of Britain, Virginia Woolf took her own life in 1941 at the age of 60. Admittedly, her end was tragic, but her life was full and creative, and that is her legacy to future generations.

A Dangerous Profession

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In order to spare the feelings of anyone who might happen to read this I am not posting a photo of my face. I look like something out of a horror movie. The sight would be too horrifying for most people. Especially anyone who knows what I look like normally. But just to give you a general idea – think of Charles Laughton in the classic film The Hunchback of Notre Dame. OK, I’ll grant the dentist this: he didn’t give me a hump on my back. But what has happened to my face is, in my opinion, even worse.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The dental X-rays showed that some of my teeth were in a bad shape. Treatment would be required. At first it looked as if a large old filling on a molar would have to come out and be replaced by a new one. Fine. I’m prepared to have fillings done, provided I get all the desensitizing injections that make the process tolerable.

The first dentist, supposedly an expert in his field, removed the said filling and then proceeded to give me a long explanation, most of which I didn’t understand, about the sorry state of what roots were left. I gathered that this meant that there was nothing for it but to extract the offending tooth. However, the state of the rotten roots was so grave that not even a crown could be considered. The only solution, in his view, would be to put in an implant – a procedure that is extremely long, tortuous and expensive. I could only gulp and nod in helpless acceptance of my fate.

But the hapless tooth would be extracted by another, even more expert dentist, a professor no less, whose proficiency in his field is acknowledged worldwide. The appointment was duly made, and I was taken like a lamb to the slaughter by my devoted husband. The extraction was to be implemented at the same time as another dental procedure, the preparation for a previously-ordained implant, and since the two teeth involved were fairly near one another, it seemed advisable to undertake the two together.

The process of preparing a mouth for an implant procedure is interesting. A surgeon’s hat is placed over the patient’s hair, the body is swaddled from the neck to the waist, the head, including the eyes and nose, is wrapped in material so that the only part visible is the mouth. The dentist and his assistant are also dressed in surgical gear, so one has the impression that this is going to be a very sterile and professional procedure.

Several painful injections later the dentist started to work on my mouth, drilling, digging, burrowing and screwing, exerting all his considerable energy on wrestling that darn tooth to the ground. In my head I was trying to sing Brahms’ German Requiem, a performance of which I had attended the previous night. I also wondered if what I was feeling was in any way akin to what my grandparents must have felt in the Auschwitz gas chambers (no, it never leaves me).

I suppose one could say the dentist was ultimately successful, as after an hour or so of vigorous activity he declared my mouth to be rid of the loathsome tooth.

The wrappings were removed from my face and body, and my slightly wobbly legs took me out of the surgery to where my husband was waiting, equipped with chocolate ice-cream and sympathy. The shocked look on his face and the uncharacteristic panic in his voice when he uttered the phrase ‘What’s this!’ told me that something was amiss.

The entire side of my face had swollen. My skin had turned bright red. It looked to him as if a big red balloon had been placed atop my neck. The dentist, who seemed to be similarly alarmed, took me back to the surgery and tried by force to depress the swollen cheek. He’s big and strong. It hurt. Nothing doing. “Well, at least it irons out the wrinkles,” he said with a playful smile. I did not appreciate the humour.

“Put ice on it,” the dentist called after us as my husband led me out of the surgery.

Yes, the swelling went down gradually over the next few days, though eating, talking and smiling are still difficult one week later. But worse was to come. My face turned all the colours of the rainbow. I have two big black eyes (just like the song), with purple, blue and wine-coloured bruises around my mouth, chin and neck.

I have not felt up to leaving the house for a week, and although the pain and discomfort have subsided I am still too embarrassed to be seen by anyone but my close family. Heavy makeup helps to some extent, but tends to wear off after a while.

So that’s it. I’ve had it with dentists. Until every single tooth in my head rots itself to death I’ll think twenty times before venturing into another dentist’s surgery.

A Visit to the Ballet

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Once a year Israel’s classical ballet comany puts on a performance of a traditional ballet. This is intended mainly for the entertainment of children during the Chanukah/Christmas holiday season. For me, however, this is a golden opportunity to enjoy a very special aesthetic and artistic treat.

When I was growing up my parents showed no interest in the ballet, and I don’t regard myself as a great connoisseur of that particular art form, but ever since I saw my first performance in Jerusalem some twenty years ago I have loved it and waited eagerly for the next opportunity to attend a performance. In addition, ever since the massive immigration from the former Soviet Union in the 1980s the intake of dancers in the field of classical ballet in Israel has risen in both quantity and quality. The number of Russian-sounding names participating in the show each year is a clear indication of this. Until 2012 the Israel Ballet was headed by Bertha Yampolsky and Hillel Markman, who founded the company in 1967, directed and choreographed the performances and kept up a very high standard. Upon their retirement in 2012 they were replaced by Leah Lavi and Matte Morai, who have succeeded in maintaining the company’s excellence.

Over the years, accompanied by one or two of my granddaughters (the boys declined to join us), as well as the occasional daughter-in-law, I have been able to see some wonderful performances here in Jerusalem (though the company’s home is in Tel Aviv). It goes without saying that putting on a ballet is a highly complicated and complex undertaking, involving scenery-painters and movers, set designers, choreographers, costume designers and makers and lighting experts, not to mention male and female dancers (predominantly the latter), all of whom must demonstrate consummate skill and artistry as well as being lithe, athletic and beautiful. Amazingly, all the dancers in the one I saw last week fulfilled all those requirements, making for a breathtakingly beautiful performance.

This year the ballet chosen for the stage was ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ with the music of Tchaikovsky, and what a delight it was! So although my granddaughters and daughter-in-law and I are all fairly grown-up and no longer entranced by fairy-tales, we were all enchanted by the beauty of the dancing, the superior technical level, the beautiful costumes and the excellence of every aspect of the show.

It is customary in Israel to use recorded music rather than a full orchestra for a ballet performance (the cost would be prohibitive), but the professional sound system used dispelled all reservations about the quality of the sound. And Tchaikovsky’s music resonated throughout the Jerusalem Theatre, bringing joy and emotion to our hearts.

The costumes and dancing of the corps de ballet, as well as the soloists (the Good Fairy, the Wicked Fairy, the Prince, Sleeping Beauty herself) were outstanding, and each dancer managed to convey a gamut of emotions through movement and expression alone. I have never forgotten the question my granddaughter asked on her first visit to the ballet. Accustomed to seeing children’s plays, after half an hour of music and dance she turned to me and whispered “Why aren’t they talking?” Many dancers and wonderful music have entranced her since then, and now grown up she is quite the connoisseur, but I hope that my answer to her question then made it clear that in ballet there is no need for words.

Now that the season’s performances have ended all that remains is to wait eagerly for next year’s offering. We are truly blessed in Israel to be able to enjoy artistic performances of such a high standard and such variety. And for me to be able to share that pleasure with my grandchildren is an added bonus.

Shakespeare and Insomnia

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Some time ago I had one of those ‘white nights’ that occasionally descend and prevent me from sleeping. I cannot say whether it was my night-cap cup of tea or thoughts about the dire political situation, but whatever the cause, sleep eluded me.

As I lay in bed passages from Macbeth kept popping into my head. ‘Macbeth hath murdered sleep.’ ‘Sleep no more.’ And ‘Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care.’ And of course there was Lady Macbeth’s famous sleepwalking affair. Although I read the play at school a great many years ago I was intrigued to note that those phrases had remained in my mind.

That set me thinking. Was it possible that Shakespeare, the brilliant poet, dramatist and psychologist, himself suffered from insomnia? That could, of course, explain his immense output in a relatively short life (think about it; as well as writing thirty-nine plays and undertaking research into historical sources for some of them, he also acted in some of them, produced most of them, formed his own theatre company and wrote dozens of sonnets and sundry poetry). My volume of his complete works in minuscule print with two columns on each page runs to 1,080 pages. That’s a stupendous output that could put many other writers to shame.

So I decided to re-read Macbeth, and see if I could find any clues to my theory. I was surprised to find very early on in the play a reference to Aleppo, of all places, which is mentioned in passing by one of the three witches, a curiously topical reference in this day and age. My re-reading of ‘the Scottish play’ also reminded me that Macbeth and his wife were both as evil as each other, egging one another on to further acts of betrayal and murder in order to clear the path for Macbeth to become king. And both paid a heavy psychological (and eventually physical) price for their deeds.

In Act II, scene I, after Lady Macbeth tells her husband not to dwell on negative thoughts (essentially saying ‘snap out of it’), Macbeth replies saying that he thought he heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more!’ At this point Shakespeare puts words in Macbeth’s mouth that describe the blissful state of sleep that ‘knits up the raveled sleeve of care,’ and constitutes ‘the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath, Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, Chief nourisher in life’s feast.’ In other words, sleep is nature’s way of bringing comfort and consolation to our troubled minds, so that if we are deprived of it our psychological equilibrium is upset. This is something that is known to anyone who has been reading espionage novels and knows anything about interrogation techniques.

In Act III, scene II Macbeth talks of ‘terrible dreams that shake us nightly,’ and declares that it would be better to be dead than ‘on the torture of the mind to lie in restless ecstasy.’ I understand what he means by ‘restless,’ but it’s not clear to me what he means here by ‘ecstasy,’ which seems to be a contradiction in terms, but the bit about ‘terrible dreams’ is pretty obvious.

Those ghosts and other apparitions that he keeps seeing also constitute some kind of psychological disturbance, though in this case not necessarily associated with sleep. But in the same scene he speaks almost enviously of Duncan, whom he has murdered, being ‘in his grave; After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well… Nothing can touch him further.’ Now that’s a wonderful description of peaceful sleep if ever there was one, and that seems to be how he perceived death (‘the bourne from which no traveller returns,’ as he describes it in Hamlet).

I decided not to pursue my researches any further, as doubtless there are references to sleep in others of his plays, not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where it’s almost as if the whole play takes place in our sleeping minds as well as on stage, and Shakespeare even recommends us to regard it as such at the end of the play..

Then I had the bright idea of googling ‘Shakespeare and sleep,’ and sure enough, there I found that the sleep and dream images in Shakespeare’s plays (not to mention his sonnets) come thick and fast, with varying degrees of positive and negative associations. So it seems I’m not alone in seeing additional meanings into this particular aspect of the Bard’s work.

 

The Pianist of Willesden Lane

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Several years ago I read the book of that title written by Mona Golabek about the experiences of her mother, Lisa Jura, first in Vienna and then in London. She had been sent there at the age of fourteen in the framework of the Kindertransport, the undertaking that saved twenty thousand Jewish children from certain death in the Holocaust.

The book spoke to me on several levels. First of all, the pivotal role played by music in the life of the young girl who eventually became a concert pianist, and secondly, the location of the hostel for refugee children, Willesden Lane, not far from where I grew up, in Kilburn. Incidentally, Willesden Lane is no country lane, as its name implies, but rather a busy thoroughfare in a residential area of north-west London. Even Riffel Road, which is mentioned several times, featured in my childhood, as it was there that my mother’s cousin, our Auntie Fraenze, lived. But most importantly, the hostel itself was a concept that featured largely in my life. As a newly-married couple, my parents worked for several years as house-parents at a similar hostel, the Sunshine Hostel in Hampstead, and it was there, in fact, that I first saw the light of day.

Over the course of recent years I read that the author, Mona Golabek, was appearing with great success in America, and later London, with a dramatized version of the story, and it intrigued me greatly. In fact, I went so far as to contact her by email to suggest that she bring the performance to Israel. I received a polite reply from her assistant saying that at present Miss Golabek had no plans to come to Israel, but that it was a possibility to be considered in the future.

And so I jumped as if bitten last week when I saw an ad in the newspaper stating that the play would be given at the Cameri Theatre in Tel-Aviv in a few days’ time. The tickets were quickly ordered (by then the main auditorium was already completely sold out, and the only seats left were on the balcony), and on the appointed evening we made our way to the metropolis.

Mona Golabek is the sole performer, and what a talented individual she is! She walks onto the empty, darkened stage alone, plays passages from Grieg’s piano concerto and other pieces from the classical repertoire and reenacts the story of her mother, first as a child in Vienna, and then as a teenager in London during the Blitz. Images illustrating the various incidents in her life are projected onto screens behind her, but the main focus of attention is on Mona at the piano.

Simply being able to play that demanding piano concerto would be quite a feat in itself, but Mona does much more than that. She sits at the piano, plays and talks (sometimes simultaneously) and seems to revive her mother’s life, to such an extent that we identify the two as one individual. She also has an actor’s talent for mimicking the voices of other characters – her gruff piano teacher in Vienna, the young French resistance fighter who courts her mother, and some of the other children in the hostel.

But for me the most moving moment came at the end. After tumultuous applause from the audience, Mona came to the front of the stage and spoke, visibly moved, about her lifelong ambition to present her story in Israel, “the best country in the world” (her words), and how much it meant to her to be here. She also mentioned having visited Yad Vashem with her father, and for a moment I thought ‘that’s impossible,’ but of course she was speaking as Mona, not as Lisa, the persona she had inhabited for the preceding hour and a half.

Sadly, only one or two performances were given in Israel, and it is to be hoped that Miss Golabek will find the time to come back in the future, to enable more people to benefit from her moving story and unbounded talent.

I Only Wanted to Live; the Struggle of a Boy to Survive the Holocaust by Arie Tamir (translated from the Hebrew by Batya Erenberg)

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Some kind of morbid fascination, possibly even masochism, seems to impel me to download and read yet another Holocaust memoir, and this one is a faithful member of its genre – not always well-written but a genuine and authentic account of what it was like to live through that period and emerge more or less intact.

The author was a boy of seven, living  a comfortable life in Krakow, one of Poland’s major towns, when the Germans invaded and conquered that country. He and his parents and two sisters, as well as grandparents and various uncles, aunts and cousins, were part of a warm family, living in a cosmopolitan city with a rich social and cultural life. Arie’s parents met at university in Vienna in the 1920s and were perfectly at home in the German language and culture. His father was part owner of a wholesale textile business, supplying fabrics to many stores and factories in and around Krakow. The author points out that the Jews of Krakow did not speak Yiddish, as their co-religionists in the Polish villages did.

Initially the Jews of Krakow were not opressed by the German invaders, and not only was Arie’s father able to continue to manage his business, but even to supply the Germans with fabrics. With the introduction of anti-Semitic laws and restrictions the business was nominally in the hands of his non-Jewish partner, but the family did not suffer privation, even when obliged to leave their large apartment and move into housing designated for Jews. In fact, for some time their neighbours in the apartment block were German military personnel, and a German woman even rented a room in their apartment. The family’s ability to speak German doubtless helped to protect them from the worst excesses of Nazi brutality, at least initially. Arieh writes about his friendship with a German boy of his age, the son of a neighbour who was an officer in the Wehrmacht.

Eventually, however, all the Jews of Krakow were obliged to move to the crowded conditions of the ghetto. Arie’s family seems to have been able to live in relative comfort, and his description of the way the Jewish children went to improvised schools and played together makes it sound almost idyllic. But little by little the property and possessions of the Jews were appropriated by the Germans, food supplies were restricted, and the deportations to concentration camps began.

Arieh describes how he and other Jewish children would manage to sneak out of the ghetto in order to steal and scrounge food outside, then smuggle it into the ghetto to help their families and earn money. Because of the German occupation and the loss of many lives all over Poland, gangs of street urchins came to be a common sight on the streets of the cities, so that the Jewish children did not arouse undue suspicion. Arie’s father managed to stave off the family’s deportation for some considerable time, during which young Arie witnessed many ‘actions’ in which Jews were rounded up and deported, often accompanied by displays of sadistic brutality by the German soldiers and their henchmen from various eastern European countries.

Eventually, Arie managed to escape from the ghetto and was taken in by a non-Jewish Polish family, who treated him well. His father had provided him with money and this enabled him to remain with the family for some time. Eventually, however, he was either discovered or betrayed and was sent to the Plaszow forced labour camp, where he was reunited with his parents and older sister. His three-year-old younger sister had previously been handed over to relatives who had documents enabling them to leave for South America, but instead they were deported to an extermination camp and murdered.

It is amazing to read the details of Arie’s experiences in the camp, the way he was able, though little more than nine or ten years old, to evade execution and even to find work for which he was paid in extra food rations and sometimes even in money. Luck was obviously part of the explanation, but it seems that he was an intelligent child who developed a heightened awareness of danger as well as the ability to arouse the interest, even affection, of the people around him, also including the occasional German soldier. In this way he managed to survive Plaszow as well as several concentration camps, including Gozen and Mauthausen. His accounts of the way the camps were run and how life was lived there is both harrowing and instructive, and the descriptions he gives constitute important evidence for the record.

Arie was the only member of his family to survive the camps, despite doing his utmost to enable his father, with whom he endured the camps, to survive. He gives an entertaining account of what happened when he was liberated by American troops and the way he and other Jewish youngsters roamed the Austrian countryside, demanding compensation from the local population, who readily gave them money and valuables. When Arie was recuperating in an American-run hospital he encountered emissaries from pre-state Israel and was convinced to go there. He landed at Haifa, aged sixteen, just in time to participate in Israel’s War of Independence. He subsequently joined a kibbutz, married and established a family of his own in Israel. It was the trip with his wife, children and granchildren to Krakow, and the interest they displayed in his family’s history there that moved him to write this memoir.

The book concludes with a chapter of factual notes about the Jews of Krakow, aspects of Jewish community life under Nazi rule and various historic events concerning deportations, ‘actions,’ and resistance. All in all, it constitutes another important plank in the structure that is the history of the Holocaust as experienced by someone who was there in person and whose eye-witness testimony is invaluable for dismissing the lies of those who seek to deny what happened.

 

Jerusalem, Mon Amour

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It came as a bit of a shock to realize that I’ve been living in or near Jerusalem for over fifty years – the best part of my life, in fact. I still love London, my birthplace, but there’s no escaping the fact that I don’t really know it any more. The residents of the suburb where I grew up have changed radically, as have its physical surroundings – the field at the back of the house, the shops in the high street and the exteriors of the houses.

Change is, I suppose, an inescapable feature of the urban experience wherever one happens to live. These days most people undertake the large part of their purchases in the shopping malls that protect them from the elements and offer every possible facility under one pleasant roof.

So it’s a rare occurrence that brings me to downtown Jerusalem nowadays. This was not the case when I first came to live in Jerusalem, even though at the time it was little more than a provincial backwater with only a few dusty shops, hardly any traffic-lights and not a single pedestrian mall. ‘Going to town’ was what young people did on a Saturday night, and that was where the few night-clubs, cinemas, cafés and eateries were situated.

Over the years, though, the place has undergone a radical transformation occasioned by both technical progress and the results of the Six Day War. The Old City now serves as a magnet for tourists and some segments of the population. Part of the famous ‘triangle’ formed by the town’s three principal thoroughfares has been pedestrianized, the Light Rail that runs down Jaffa Road has brought an eerie silence to what was once a noisy, congested route replete with polluted air and crumbling shop facades.

Because I had to leave my car in the garage for a few hours I decided to use the opportunity and visit downtown Jerusalem. Very few of the shops I remembered still existed, most of them having been tarted up and converted into fashionable cafés with lavish outdoor seating. The unkindest blow of all was to find that Shai Kong, the one shop that sold cotton garments imported from India and the Far East had disappeared. I walked up Jaffa Road looking for it and failed to find it. Only when I walked back down on the other side did I realize that the interior had been completely gutted and workmen were busy tearing it to pieces. The words ‘closing-down sale’ were still scrawled on the glass facade. Only the name of the store on the awning that had not yet been removed served to prove that it had once existed. My first thought was: where am I going to buy the cotton blouses and trousers that have served me as perfect summer pyjamas for so many years?

But trivial matters aside, whither downtown Jerusalem? None of the cinemas that were local landmarks in my younger days are left, and anyone who wants to see a film must go to one of the emporia of the cinematic industry located elsewhere in Jerusalem. Some of the market-style stores selling cheap clothes and trinkets have been replaced by more respectable chains selling garments that are neatly arranged on counters and artistically displayed in shop-fronts. But the overriding impression is that the area has become the mecca of eating and drinking, and possibly of making merry, too, for all I know. But that is something I must leave to the younger generation.

Who knows? Perhaps in another fifty years one of those individuals will find him- or herself in downtown Jerusalem and be amazed by the changes that have occurred.

 

Zionism or Judaism?

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The headline in the paper one morning made me shudder. It reported that Israel’s Minister of Education, Naftali Bennet, had proclaimed that it was more important to focus on Jewish studies in schools than on maths and science subjects.

Admittedly, the party that Bennet represents, Jewish Home, stands for those values that the religious segment of the population regards as paramount, but one would expect the Minister of Education to take into account the views of the general population, the majority of which sends its children to secular schools. After all, the religious segment of Israel’s population has its own schools, covering all the various shades and gradations of religious observance. In addition, all secular schools are required to include Bible studies and Jewish subjects in their curricula, and this has always been the case.

What Bennet’s ideas sound like to me is proselytising, or even an attempt at brainwashing. After all, children’s minds are malleable and pupils generally tend to accept what they are taught by figures of authority, i.e., teachers. In addition, I fail to see how secular teachers can be expected to impart values, customs and mores to which they do not themselves subscribe.

The whole episode brought to mind my long-lost youth when, as the product of an orthodox home, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to join the Bnei Akivah youth movement. As teenagers we had some good times at weekly meetings, weekend seminars and summer camps, Bnei Akiva in those days was more moderate in its approach to religion than it is today, and boys and girls mixed freely, though I have the feeling that our way of enjoying ourselves then is probably not what today’s youngsters would consider constituting a good time. We spent weekends and summer holidays together in rented boarding schools or under canvas, dividing our time between serious subjects and having fun, always under the guidance of some older, supposedly more responsible, members.

One incident that stands out in my mind is a Shabbat lunch when, uplifted by the enthusiastic singing of the entire camp, one of our leaders declared: “It is by expanding observance of the Shabbat to include all Jews everywhere that we will finally attain our goal of Medinat Halacha, i.e., the State of Israel run on the lines of the universal observance of Judaism.”

At the time I found that inspiring, but today the thought fills me with horror. Israel today is witness to a constant battle between the efforts of the religious parties to impose their views on the entire country, so that on Shabbat there is no public transport, all shops are shut and essential infrastructure maintenance work cannot be implemented. It goes without saying that the attitude towards women in orthodox Judaism is unacceptable in today’s modern, egalitarian world.

Israel’s unfortunate electoral system has given rise to a situation in which coalition governments are unavoidable, and the stranglehold of the religious parties obliges governments to accede to their demands. If it is their intention to make Israel a Medinat Halacha I’m very much afraid they will find themselves in a State of their own, possibly together with the Moslem extremists with whom they have so much in common.

(This article appeared in the November edition of the AJR Journal.)

1606, Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro

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When I picked this book up at Luton airport, as I was about to board a plane, I thought I was going to read a historical novel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All the same, this historically accurate account of the events that occurred in that year, and the ways in which they affected Shakespeare and his contemporaries, reads like an exciting detective story, taking the reader along an uncharted route in which previously hidden connections are established and mysteries resolved.

James Shapiro, who is Professor of English at Columbia University, New York, displays a breadth and depth of knowledge that left me astounded. Linking together the hiatus caused by the succession of King James the First, the son of Queen Elizabeth the First’s cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots, and the resultant Union of England and Scotland, Shapiro shows how the opening scene of King Lear alludes to this event. The life and livelihood of actors and playwrights could be precarious at that time, so Shakespeare and his fellow-playwrights had to tread very carefully when writing about current events.

In addition to the possibility that plays which were considered politically threatening could be banned by the Lord Chamberlain, who acted on the monarch’s behalf, the theatres of London were periodically closed for reasons such as Lent (the period leading up to Easter), fears of the recurrence of an epidemic of plague, and apprehensions regarding political unrest. This was a time when religious rivalries were still rife, with the Catholic faith being regarded as subversive, even treasonable. In this connection Shapiro devotes a particularly learned and fascinating chapter to the concept of equivocation – a rhetorical technique used by persons suspected of Catholic leanings to avoid being apprehended and forced to confess their crime.

This was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, the infamous attempt by Guy Fawkes and his associates to blow up the Houses of Parliament just when the king and his court were in attendance. The fortuitous way the plot was uncovered and the ramifications of this and the subsequent trials and executions of the considerable number of conspirators undoubtedly left a deep impression on all strata of English society, both urban and rural. The extent to which the date is still commemorated in England today is just one indication of the widespread effect of the event and its consequences throughout the land.

But for me, an avowed devotee of what may be considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, it came as something of a shock to find that the Bard based the text to a considerable extent on a previous play, ‘The True Chronicle History of King Leir,’ written by an unknown hand and performed by a rival troop of actors known as The Queen’s Men. From Shapiro’s careful analysis we learn that Shakespeare must have not only seen the original play performed on stage but also had the printed text beside him while he wrote, as there are several clear parallels between the wording in both plays. There is, of course, much in the play that is Shakespeare’s own invention and it is no simple matter to disentangle the text that is Shakespeare’s and what he has cribbed from the previous version. This is made even more complicated by the changes that were made to the text between the publication of the first version of the play (the 1608 quarto) and the later one (the1623 folio), some substantial, others inconsequential, with omissions and additions in various hands, possibly due to the exigencies of staging the play at various venues.

The fact that a Scottish king was now on the throne of England created new problems for Shakespeare as well as providing him with inspiration, most prominently for Macbeth. Once again, he had to tread a fine line between courting favour with the monarch, a prominent consumer of dramatic plays, and employing terms and creating situations that would not be taken amiss by those in power. In that same year Shakespeare also wrote Anthony and Cleopatra, and Shapiro reveals the similarities between those two plays as well as their relevance to the general situation at the time.

This book is both mind-blowing and eye-opening, and I can only sit back and admire the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding that has gone into writing it. We all know that Shakespeare relied on historical sources for the plots of many of his plays, but here we see the creative process taking shape and form before our very eyes, and the revelation is both enriching and empowering.

 

Turmoil and Torment

 

News of the World front page pointing out earth's location in space.

News of the World front page pointing out earth’s location in space.

There’s an ill wind blowing through the world.

First Brexit, and now Trump. What’s next? And what makes people vote for a policy or a person that seems on the face of it to embody all that is worst in human nature and societal relations?

In the referendum in the UK, as far as I could tell from thousands of miles away in Israel, the focus was on the negative. Feelings of resentment were directed against foreigners and experts who predicted dire economic consequences; in addition, misleading – even mendacious – statements were made about the redirection of funds. Foremost among those stirring up all these antagonistic emotions was the tabloid press, but that comes as no surprise, as it has always appealed to the lowest common denominator in the British public. But yet it worked, and the (small) majority voted to leave the EU.

The bottom line there, as far as I can see from far away, was that the British education system has failed miserably to provide a decent level of schooling for the majority of Britons. Way back then, when I benefited from a reasonably decent grammar school and then went on to university, with tuition paid by the government, I took all that for granted. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was part of the system that created a meritocracy, leaving a large proportion of young people out in the cold. It was that generation, now grown up, that voted to leave.

Today, the situation is very different, and while a far greater percentage of British school-leavers attend further or higher education than was the case in my day, an even greater proportion of youngsters seems to be left high and dry, without the means of supporting themselves to a decent level, full of resentment towards those who do work hard in order to better themselves, and particularly if those people happen to have been born outside Britain.

And now the same current of emotion appears to have inspired millions of Americans to vote for a man who, without an iota of shame, uses demagoguery and prejudice to rally support. The USA was founded in order to provide freedom from oppression and constitute a haven for immigrants, but those values seem to have been thrown aside in the stampede towards power and exclusion.

That current of ignorance and prejudice tends to be fanned up to astonishing heights at election time, as happened here in Israel not so long ago with Netanyahu’s falsehood about busloads of Arabs were being taken to the polling stations. And it seems that it was that statement that swung the election for him, so that Netanyahu and his party gained power on the basis of scaremongering and prejudice. The rise in poverty rates and income inequality in Israel in recent years seems not to concern that segment of the population which continues to vote for the government that keeps them in poverty and does little or nothing to improve their economic situation, despite promises to the contrary.

Shades of Weimar Germany? I hope not. But the lessons of history seem not to have been learnt yet by a sufficient number of people. Or could this just be part of the Marxist formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis regarding the course of history? That being the case, there is hope for us, because eventually the pendulum will swing back.