A Vision of Harmony

To mark Family Day, which is the Israeli version of Valentine’s Day (don’t ask me why), my husband and I were invited to visit the kindergarten which our granddaughter attends.

The kindergarten is rather special. It is situated in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Abu Tor, which was once divided into Arab and Jewish parts by the border with Jordan. After  the Six-Day War the two neighbourhoods were no longer separated and people could move freely between them, as was the case when I lived there some thirty years ago.

The building that contains the kindergarten is set in what was once a park on the edge of the two neighbourhoods. With the help of the Jerusalem Foundation and various donors, the building was erected by the Micha Organisation which extends aid and education to deaf and hearing-impaired children in Israel. On the ground floor of the building is a kindergarten for those children, as well as offices housing speech therapists and other professionals whose task it is to help these children.

But on the second floor is the Harmony Kindergarten, where Arab and Jewish children learn and play together, and where the ethnic composition is made up of equal numbers from each population. Three times a week the two kindergartens get together for joint activities, so that what happens in that environment is a three-fold mingling of children from two different cultures as well as those who can hear and those whose hearing is impaired. The activities of the Harmony Kindergarten are conducted in two languages, Arabic and Hebrew, with attendants who come from both segments of the population.

Harmony2

The activities on the Family Day which I attended started with an introduction and welcome proffered by the two main teachers, Dafna, who spoke in Hebrew, and Randa, who spoke in Arabic.  The idea of the bilingual kindergarten had been incubating for a long time, and it was emphasized that its existence represents the fulfillment of a vision for all those involved. Then we were watched as our grandchildren all sang songs in both Arabic and Hebrew as they banged time on little plastic spoons. A light breakfast was served and together with our grandchildren we all partook of the delicacies that had been prepared.

For the rest of the morning we were divided into small groups and were directed to several stations where, together with our grandchildren, we painted, made sock-puppets and baked biscuits (wearing special hats). As was only to be expected, the Israeli and Arab grandparents all displayed equal pride in the achievements of their offspring, and it was heartening to sit side-by-side with our fellow-grandparents and work together to help and encourage the little ones. Although we were not always able to communicate verbally with one another, our smiles and gestures spoke volumes. Two of the stations were situated in the spacious and airy library, where children are able to sit and enjoy looking at books from the well-stocked shelves.

Children’s songs in both languages were played in the background as we worked at our various tasks and the atmosphere of genial cooperation was palpable. A great deal of thought and preparation had evidently been invested by the staff, and I think they were pleased with the result of their efforts. They certainly deserve a lot of credit for what they have achieved. As we left, after a period of free play in the open-air where a variety of toys and games were available, we were handed a little bag of toys for each child which we were were told was ‘a gift from Moussa’s grandmother.’

Children do not hate. That is something that they are taught by their elders and ‘betters’ somewhere along the way. If only the atmosphere of mutual cooperation that a small group of people experienced last week could prevail more widely, the world – and Israel – would be a better place. But it’s encouraging to find that there are some young parents out there who are doing their bit to overcome prejudice and encourage coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

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Brits in Israel

 

As well as forging and facilitating connections between individuals, Facebook also provides the opportunity to form groups, bringing together people all over the world who share mutual interests. These are many and varied, and seem to have succeeded in their objective. Thus, some time ago a bright spark somewhere out there in the ether had the idea of creating a Facebook group entitled ‘Brits Living in Israel’ for discussing topics of interest to former residents of Great Britain now domiciled in Israel. I’m not sure how long this group has been in existence, but at present it numbers 4,853 members, and may still be growing, for all I know.

During its existence the FB group has provided a forum for English people in Israel to discuss all kinds of subjects, though the moderators have requested that we refrain from controversial political issues (in Israel) or try to further our own business interests and sales. In my own particular case I found salvation in my relentless quest for McVitie Digestive biscuits (dark chocolate preferably), when one of the members (thanks, Anton Delin) provided the address of a shop in Tel Aviv where they could be bought. Although getting to downtown Tel Aviv is only marginally less arduous for me than getting to London, imagine the surge of joy that filled my heart when I walked into the shop and saw the shelves stacked with the biscuits that I have loved since childhood. Over the fifty-odd years I have been living in Israel I have managed to bring packets back from my occasional visits to London, eking out their lifespan by rationing myself to one a day. In an amazing recent development (apparently due to a change in their composition and subsequent granting of a rabbinic Hechsher) they are now available in plentiful supply in most supermarkets in Israel. My joy knows no bounds, but I am doing my best to restrict my daily intake.

Other subjects discussed (and mainly complained about) by the members of the group have been the availability in Israel of Heinz vegetarian baked beans, the policies regarding the BBC of Israel’s TV channels, the price and availability of other much-loved foods and sweets, the difficulty of finding reliable handymen and the agony of dealing with Israeli bureaucracy. Fair enough. I’ve seen similar grievances raised in groups catering for British expats in France, so it all seems fairly standard.

But at some point last year one of the bright sparks (Anton Delin again, I believe) had another brilliant idea. Why not arrange an actual physical meeting for members of the group? This was duly done, in a pub appropriately called Murphy’s somewhere in the Tel Aviv area. I did not go to that but by all accounts it was a great success, and the idea of organising a similar event in the Jerusalem area was duly adopted. The meeting that ensued was held recently in a Jerusalem café, with some twenty-five members including myself in attendance. The choice of venue was excellent, and we were provided with a secluded room at the back of the café, so that we were accorded sufficient privacy and a relatively quiet environment.

Names that had formerly featured solely as disembodied entities moaning about the difficulty of obtaining baked beans, BBC programmes on TV, or Cadbury’s chocolate eggs now emerged as actual, visible people, of various shapes and sizes, different religious and political beliefs, and a preponderance of women over men. Over plates of fish and chips (not quite up to the British standard), pasta or sandwiches, according to the individual’s preference and purse, we all got to know one another a little better, finding connections to places where we had lived in England, relatives and communities we had known, places where we had once worked, and altogether finding ties to bind us closer together.

Which only goes to show that you can take the individual out of England, but you can’t take England out of the individual.

A Sad Saga

 

 

 

It was not one of my best days. Deciding to do some washing, at the last minute I added my corduroy trousers (pants, if you’re American) into the washing machine, and it was only two hours later, after a persistent thump-thump noise finally impinged on my consciousness, that I realized that I’d left my super-duper iPhone in the pocket of those trousers.

After my initial panic I raced to the machine, opened it and extracted the unfortunate device, now sodden and somewhat battered.

Then began a series of rescue attempts. I had heard of miracle cures, such as putting the phone in the oven on a very low setting overnight, putting it in rice to extract the water, and we tried all those. It was a sunny day, so we lay the phone on the carpet in the hope that the sun would do its work and dry the poor waterlogged thing out.

But it was all to no avail. The phone seemed to be past all the help that we could provide. This called therefore for professional intervention.

We checked the local directory and asked friends and acquaintances for recommendations, and were sent to a local laboratory that apparently has a good reputation.

Tzach, the technician behind the desk, opened the phone and showed us that it was still waterlogged, but said he would do his best to restore it to its fully functioning former self. Luckily, my previous phone, a somewhat inferior version, was still in existence. So I retrieved it from the drawer in which it had been languishing since being superseded by its successor, the precious SIM card was transferred from the new phone to the old one, and I was sent away with hope in my heart that my suffering at having to endure this humiliating demotion would not persist for very long.

But many of the features to which I had become accustomed in the newer phone were unavailable in the old one, whether because of my own technical ineptitude or the phone’s inherent weakness. After having become accustomed to checking how far I had walked, how many steps I had taken or how many flight of stairs I had climbed, it was something of a blow not to have that feature constantly at my fingertips. Furthermore, being deprived of such features as constant weather updates, and, more importantly, Whatsapp, wherein reside the groups to which I belong, such as my close family, and the various language groups I attend, as well as being the site where photos of my latest grandchild are posted for my delectation as well as that of others, caused me real suffering. I was cut off from the virtual world to which I felt I belonged.

Phone calls to Tzach during the following week were met with the response that he was still working on the renewal project or was waiting for an essential part, and that I should be patient.

But eventually even he, a universally acknowledged magician in the field of mobile phone repair, was obliged to admit defeat. The only known remedy in such cases is to buy a new phone, which can be an expensive business. This was eventually resolved by taking advantage of the reduced offer made by one of the purveyors of these devices, and this procedure was followed by returning to Tzach and the lab in order to have all the features without which life is not worth living installed in the new device.

Once again, the SIM card was transferred from old to new, the device was told to start itself up, passwords were reinstalled, and eventually I was the proud possessor of a newer, faster, lighter but slightly smaller phone.

Once again I am a happy bunny. And I will have to try to be a more careful one in the future.

 

One Thousand Years of Royal Scandals

The lecture given by David Young at Jerusalem’s AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel) was entitled ‘Over One Thousand Years of Scandals in the British Royal Family,’ and it attracted a record audience.

David Young, who lives in Israel but is originally from England, has written several historical novels. He had prepared his subject-matter well, posting a time-line of all England’s kings and queens since 1066 up on the lectern and referring frequently to his several pages of notes. After all, who can remember all those dates and sort out all the ramifications of the various affairs and scandals that have beset England’s royal family, or rather families, since the blood-line has been severed several times, over the centuries?

The audience, which consisted of mainly elderly English-speaking persons, some of whom even managed to stay awake during the lecture, as evinced by the chortles which emanated from their mouths whenever Mr. Young imparted another tidbit of salacious information. There’s nothing like a juicy sex scandal to wake up the over-eighties.

Mr. Young had certainly done his homework, and it would seem that scarcely a single British monarch has been entirely blameless when it comes to extra-marital exploits. I suppose that on consideration this is only understandable, since throughout history monarchs were obliged to marry members of other royal families in order to consolidate royal power and political influence, and these need not necessarily have been based on love, or even attraction.

So it was more or less taken for granted that monarchs would have one or more mistresses, and Mr. Young had many amusing anecdotes to recount on this score. Thus, King Charles the Second was known to have two mistresses, one of whom was Catholic. When Nell Gwynn, the other mistress, was confronted by a hostile crowd, she put her head out of the carriage and declared, ‘Kindly desist, gentlemen. I am the Protestant whore.’

In addition to his six wives, Henry the Eighth had several mistresses, one of which was the sister of Anne Boleyn. Mr. Young has written a novel about one of them, Anne of Cleves, whom he describes as Henry’s luckiest wife. This is undoubtedly true, as Henry found her to be fat and ugly, and divorced her shortly after their marriage. However, she was dismissed with a considerable fortune and was able to establish herself as a society hostess, eventually becoming a good friend to the king, known as ‘the king’s sister.’

Queen Victoria’s love for her husband, Prince Albert, was exemplary, and her long and enduring mourning for him is universally recognized as unparalleled in its devotion. However, her close relationship with her Scottish ghillie, John Brown, was considered to have passed the bounds of propriety, to the extent that the satirical journal, Punch, referred to the queen as ‘Mrs. Brown.’ In addition, she was also known to have had a very close relationship with an Indian servant. When she died, she was buried alongside Prince Albert, with a photograph of John Brown in her hand.

In more modern times the Prince of Wales, who was the eldest son of King George the Fifth, was obliged to abdicate from his position as King Edward the Eighth because on becoming king he would have been unable to marry his mistress, Wallis Simpson, an American divorcee. This meant that his younger brother became King George the Sixth, and he in turn was succeeded by his daughter, the current Queen Elizabeth the Second.

It’s interesting to note that the Queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, is currently engaged to an American divorcee, Meghan Markel, and there is no mention of his being unable to remain a prominent member of the royal family.

So it would seem that there have been some changes in the ancient traditions of the British royal family, in keeping with the shift in morals, mores and attitudes in modern British society.

 

Mahler Plays with Lego

 

Despite the cold and the rain of the January night, Jerusalem’s principal concert hall, Binyanei HaUma was packed to almost full capacity (over 3,000 seats) for the performance by the world-renowned Israel Philharmonic Orchestra of Gustav Mahler’s seventh symphony, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski.

The programme notes informed us that Mahler was suffering from what could be called ‘composer’s block’ in the summer of 1905, when he retreated to the country to compose, as was his wont, after the rigors of the working year serving as conductor of the Vienna Opera. It was only when boating on a nearby lake that the plash of the oars suddenly gave him the inspiration to compose.

To be quite honest, at last night’s performance I failed to pick up any plash of oars or any watery allusion whatsoever. Mahler’s seventh symphony is generally acknowledged to be more difficult to understand and interpret than his previous ones, and last night’s performance bore this conclusion out, despite some stellar playing by the orchestra’s virtuoso members, almost one hundred of whom sat crowded on the stage.

What most distinguishes this symphony, in my opinion, is the absence of any identifiable, continuous melodic thread. Three of its five movements bears a descriptive heading, such as ‘Night Music’ and Shadlow-like,’ alongside the more mundane Adagio-Allegro of the first movement and Rondo-Finale of the last, but these titles do not really explain what is going on in the music.

From the introductory passage played by the horn to the grand finale, where all the instruments are playing fortissimo, with percussion galore and two (yes, two!) sets of tubular bells all giving of their utmost, the symphony is replete with all the familiar elements that we have come to know and love in Mahler’s other symphonies. And so we hear the familiar rise and fall of the strings, the echoing notes of the woodwinds and brass, the interplay between the various brass instruments, the melodious notes of the two harps, and the inimical sounds of the different kinds of drums. In his childhood Mahler lived close to a military barracks, and the sounds he heard then resound through his music and thus come to our ears, too.

But it’s the absence of any continuous melodic thread that I find most disturbing in this symphony, which nonetheless bears all the hallmarks of Mahler’s music. Snippets of other, more accessible symphonies of his appear and recur throughout the performance, and at times one thinks that one is able to recognize where a theme is going, but then it disappears and a different one emerges. The symphony as a whole seemed to me to be comprised of innumerable component parts of something that could be considered akin to the pieces of the game known as Lego.

On reflection, it seems to me that Mahler took snatches of music he had composed in the past, and wove them into a new fabric, a kaleidoscopic invention based on existing elements and reassembled in a different form. Last night’s performance lasted for almost an hour and a half, and every note, every chord, every passage was unmistakably Mahler. But although the individual parts did not seem quite to cohere into a consistent whole, the eruption of sound at the end drew a roar of appreciation and applause from the audience. And so we went out into the cold, wet night warmed and uplifted by Mahler’s inimitable genius.

Rossen to the Rescue; Secrets to Avoiding Scams, Everyday Dangers, and Major Catastrophes by Jeff Rossen

 

How can you make sure that neither you nor your near and dear ones are subjected to any of the natural and man-made disasters that seem to lurk around every corner? Several of the many pitfalls that await the average man or woman in the modern world are tackled in this book, whose author is apparently a well-known television personality in the USA and host of an investigative program designed to ferret out and tackle such issues.

So this book, which is also plugged as ‘The Essential Guide to Keeping You and Your Famile Safe in the Modern World, is the result, or summary, of his and his team’s efforts to take the sting out of many of the dangers that are now almost an inevitable part of daily life for many of us. Thus, for example, his first chapter focuses on protecting the home, whether from burglars, mold or fire, amongst other things. His principal piece of advice is to be prepared and have a plan for every contingency that might arise. Being a TV personality and having a producer and a team of assistants ready to cooperate in setting up hypothetical situations and consult experts in each field is obviously a help, but it results in invaluable information and advice for those of us who are not so well endowed with outside assistance.

The bottom line varies in each instance. So in the case of a burglary, for example, Rossen’s advice, based on interviews with law-enforcement officials, is to cooperate. “If they ask where your jewelry is, you tell them. You can always get more cash or sapphires, you can never get a new heartbeat.”  When it comes to mold, of course, your course of action is to call in an expert, know where to look for hidden caches of the dreaded infestation, and invest in good cleaning materials (and a good cleaner, too, I might add).

Tips on how to behave if your house catches fire or you are caught in an air-crash or a tornado abound. In the case of a fire, his advice (again, based on the advice of experts) is to leave the place immediately without hanging around to save any items, whether essential or not. If there’s a tornado in the offing you won’t have much time to think about what to do, but Rossen is advised by an expert that the best place to be is in a bath-tub. I’m not so sure about this, as when I was living in the Mid-West of the USA my children were told at school to go down to the basement and sit with their backs to a supporting wall. What protection a bath-tub would provide is not made clear in Rossen’s book, and I have the feeling that he got something wrong somewhere along the way. But since he writes about all the various horrible things that can happen to us in a way that is both entertaining and enlightening, it doesn’t seem fair to quibble.

In addition, over the years of preparing his TV programs Rossen has undertaken a great deal of research, exposing himself to dangers of various kinds, and is now prepared to share his experience and knowledge with the wider public. His book is obviously geared toward the American public, and deals with topics that are more likely to affect people there, but many of the subjects he tackles are certainly universal. Like most countries, America has laws designed to protect the consumer from scams of various kinds, and it transpires that all over the world there are unscrupulous people whose sole aim in life is to steal from, cheat, swindle, or otherwise harm innocent members of the general public. Jeff Rossen has made it his mission in life to protect us from those would-be crooks, and I for one am grateful to him for sharing this information with the rest of us.

 

Home is Where the Hearth is

As always, Queen Elizabeth gave her traditional Christmas message, which was televised and broadcast all over the world. Although I don’t usually pay it much attention, this year I happened to catch it live on TV, and watched with greater interest than usual, due in part to my having watched the first two series of ’The Crown’ on Netflix. The dramatized serialization of events concerning England’s royal family interlaced with contemporary British history and politics has been fascinating me in recent weeks (with admirable self-restraint I’ve managed to limit myself to one episode a day, after having first been introduced to it in more intensive dosage while in the USA recently).

The characters and events are presented in an appealing and aesthetic way, with handsome actors, convincing scripts, crystal-clear diction, beautiful interiors and clothes and altogether admirable attention to detail. To watch the way a royal personage holds a tea-cup, spreads jam and cream on a scone, engages in horsey pursuits and even romps in bed (with no explicit sex scenes, though, as no-one wants to be apprehended for lese-majesté) is to get a glimpse of a world that is almost as remote from our mundane lives as is life on Mars.

My special interest in the series derives from my own experience of growing up in England at the time of the events described. I still remember the Coronation and the excitement of going to my parents’ friends to watch it on their TV, the chronicle of Princess Margaret’s unhappy love-affair with Captain Peter Townsend and also, of course, the salacious ramifications of the Profumo Affair.

But all that is a mere aside to my main theme, because in her speech the Queen referred to the importance of home, describing it as a place associated with warmth, family, and shared stories, evoking a ‘timeless simplicity.’ It’s true that at Christmas people tend to return to their homes and families in order to celebrate the festival together. It is somewhat akin to the tendency of Jewish families to assemble for the major festivals of Pesach (Passover) and Rosh Hashana (New Year), which, like Christmas, are marked by sumptuous meals at which special foods are consumed.

Of course, when it comes to homes, the Queen has a goodly supply. She has several of them, and very grand they are, too. We mere mortals, on the other hand, should be happy if we have even one that provides us with a roof over our head and a warm hearth in these bleak winter months.

And that brings me to sad thoughts about people who find themselves without a home. First of all, there are the refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen, to name but a few, who are huddled in the makeshift huts and tents of the refugee camps. As winter comes to the Middle East, it brings further hardship to lives that are already difficult, not to mention the terrible plight of the many thousands of Rohingyha refugees who have fled Myanmar and found shelter of sorts in Bangladesh. There does not seem to be any solution in sight to alleviating those suffering from the various local and regional conflicts, and I’m not referring to the Palestinian ‘refugees’ whose forebears left their homes two, three or even four generations ago and are now being deliberately kept homeless.

When the State of Israel was established, in 1948, the Arab countries where Jews had lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, ordered those inhabitants to leave immediately, forcing them to abandon their homes without taking anything of value with them. An immense effort was made by the nascent Jewish State to take in those refugees and provide them first with temporary accommodation, and then with more permanent homes, however basic. Most of the descendants of those refugees have been absorbed into Israeli society and are represented in every profession and occupation. No Jewish refugee from an Arab country is still housed in a so-called refugee camp, and it is a lasting disgrace that this is the case with the Palestinian refugees in Arab lands. It is no secret that this situation is perpetuated for political purposes, with no regard for the dignity or comfort of the individuals concerned.

Like many other Jews living in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, my own parents were refugees and were forced to leave their homes in order to survive. I can’t say that they became prosperous, but they worked hard, raised a family, and built a home, as did most of the Jewish refugees who survived the war somehow, somewhere in the civilized world or in what eventually became the State of Israel.

Today, in affluent Europe, no visitor to any of the major cities can avoid seeing the homeless people who occupy the pavements (sidewalks) or huddle in doorways. Churches, municipalities and charitable organizations try to help these individuals, but in many cases they insist on remaining exposed to the elements for reasons of their own. In London this year the municipality gave two hundred homeless people a meal and a bed for the night at St. Pancras Station. But as the winter weather tightens its grip on Europe there are ever-increasing instances in which homeless people are found lying dead in the open.

The concept of home is one that is timeless and universal. My wish for the New Year is that no-one should be left without a home to go to.

 

Journey to a Dream; A voyage of discovery from England’s industrial north to Spain’s rural interior, by Craig Briggs

 

Another free download from an indie author, and another quite enjoyable read. Craig Briggs describes in great detail the process whereby he and his wife decamped from the north of England to Spain in order to try to buy a house and establish a business as a bed-and-breakfast (with or without breakfast) in Spain. They did this without knowing much of the Spanish language or culture, on the basis of having taken a liking when on holiday there to the rural countryside and sunny climate of the region of northern Spain known as Galicia.

Having had a similar experience in my search for a house in France, albeit not with the intention of renovating it or establishing any kind of business venture there, I could sympathise with Craig’s quest, and understand what motivated him and his wife, Melanie.

The reader is subjected to the exact specifications of each house or hovel they were taken to view by their somewhat dubious Spanish estate agent, the ins and outs of the Spanish bureaucratic system and the headaches and heartaches that afflicted Craig and Melanie, which sometimes gets to be somewhat tiresome. Ever more stories of similar vicissitudes are getting published on a daily basis, and this one falls into the rather predictable pattern displayed by most of them.

To his credit, it must be said that Craig writes reasonably well, all things considered, though there is too much repetition of certain phrases, such as ‘we thanked him/her/them and went on our way.’ Very polite, very British and rather unnecessary (unless you’re desperate to increase the number of words in your publication).

Although my own book on a similar subject, ‘Chasing Dreams and Flies; a Tragicomedy of Life in France’ (available on Amazon.com), starts pretty much at the point where Craig’s book ends, there are quite a few similarities between what Craig and Melanie go through in Spain in real life and what is experienced by John and Sophie, my fictitious ex-pats in France. The most striking feature of Craig and Melanie’s decampment is their love of wine, search for wineries and extensive wine-tasting forays, which is not the case with John and Sophie. Perhaps I should have thought of some wine-drinking activity for them, but it’s too late for me to go back and write some drinking scenes for them. Sorry, folks. My rather forlorn characters tend to stick to ‘a nice cup of tea.’

Pfefferkuchen

The pungent aroma of baking would often greet me when I came home from school. My mother was an expert baker (and cook) and had a wide range of goodies that she would make in the course of the year, as well as the delicious Challah and rolls she would bake every Friday.

But when Chanuka came round it would be time for her to bake the traditional delicacy known to us solely as Pfefferkuchen. Today I know that it’s called gingerbread or lebkuchen by the rest of the world, but for me and my family (and my sisters and their families) it will always be Pfefferkuchen. In Christian countries the delicacy is associated with Christmas, but for me it is an integral part of Chanuka.

To bake that special delicacy, which is something between a cake and biscuits (i.e., cookies) my mother would turn the whole kitchen into something approaching an industrial unit dedicated to the creation of the end-product. The preparation and baking process involved assembling a wide array of ingredients, spices, flavourings and decorations, and took several hours to achieve.

And the end-result was always a substantial quantity of delicious and delectable objects that we would consume with great enjoyment. Each biscuit would be adorned with icing upon which either multi-coloured hundreds-and-thousands or chocolate sprinkles would be scattered.

One of the treats of those far-off baking days would be the segments of Pfefferkuchen dough that my mother would leave unbaked, and which my sisters and I were allowed to roll out and then apply the gingerbread-man form to create a figure that would be placed on a baking tray and inserted into the oven to be baked. When it was ready, my mother would wield the icing-cone and deftly provide the baked gingerbread man with eyes, nose and mouth, and even buttons down his front. Then our greatest joy would be to eat the little man, biting off his head, arms and legs and eventually consuming all of him. Delicious!

Over the years I have been reluctant to undertake this baking enterprise myself. Yes, I have baked cakes and biscuits of various kinds, but nothing as ambitious and time- and energy-consuming as Pfefferkuchen. My family’s needs for this delicacy have been met by my two sisters, Esther and Ruth, who have kindly presented us with some of their production.  I have gratefully accepted their contribution to our general welfare, but as the years roll by I have started to feel increasingly inadequate in being unable to provide for my family’s requirements.

So this year I spent an evening as my sister’s apprentice, watching her prepare a batch (the first of several) of Pfefferkuchen. I came away clutching a box of delicious biscuits and a photocopy of the recipe that had been passed on to her by our mother.

After making sure I had all the ingredients, I decided to screw my courage to the sticking-post, as dear Lady Macbeth would have it, and embark on the enterprise myself. And believe me, it did take a lot of courage. The process begins with one whole kilogram of flour. That’s a lot of dough.

But it seems that having put everything together, mixed and rolled out the dough, and done my best to cut it into the requisite diamond shapes (but no gingerbread men), the end-result was passable, even edible, although I grant that there is still room for improvement. I presented each of my sisters with a (small) box of my first effort, and both pronounced it satisfactory. My own taste buds seem to find the result adequate, and those few souls who have been kind enough to try my first-fruits have given me positive feedback. In fact, within a week most of the initial production had been consumed by family and friends.

Thus encouraged, I felt ready to try and produce another batch. The second time, I’m happy to say, the process took less time and effort. And hopefully by next Chanuka I’ll be up to repeating the experiment.

The Undoing Project; a Friendship that Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis


 

In this book Michael Lewis sets out to describe the way two Israeli psychologists worked together over the course of several years to develop a theory about the process of decision-making and the way this affects and is affected by the inner workings of the human mind.

Michael Lewis begins his account of the long and convoluted road taken by Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky, leading to the award to the former of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (Amos Tversky died previously, and the Nobel Prize is awarded to living persons only), with an exceedingly long and detailed description of the way professional basketball players are selected for teams throughout the USA. The thought processes influencing the way trainers and coaches decide whom to accept or reject involve the consideration of large amounts of data, though the eventual decision may well be based on something other than the mere analysis of data, such as body image, racial preconceptions and ‘gut feeling.’

As an experienced journalist, Michael Lewis brings a personal angle into his writing about a subject that is essentially abstract and obscure, and embarks on a detailed depiction of the childhood and youth of Danny Kahneman, starting in Nazi-occupied Paris, continuing with the family’s flight into the French countryside and eventual emigration to Israel. Amos Tversky grew up in Israel, served in combat in the IDF, and participated in the Six Day War.

After military service both Danny and Amos were among the first students of psychology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Fascinated by the field of human decision-making already then, Danny Kahneman was tasked with assessing the psychological suitability of newly-inducted soldiers for the various units as well as for being sent to be trained as officers. He developed a relatively simple test that proved far more successful than other ways of identifying suitable officer material.

Both Kahneman and Tversky pursued academic careers with considerable success, working alongside one another in Jerusalem for many years, developing their ideas, theories and experiments as well as publishing papers and books. Michael Lewis stresses the close ties between the two men, more or less to the exclusion of almost any other academic or personal relations, though both got married and had children.

In later years, however, it seems that some kind of rift developed between them. Both moved to universities in the north American continent, but Tversky appeared to attract greater attention and obtain better posts at more prestigious universities than Kahneman. Nonetheless, their academic productivity continued to blossom, and their development of the decision-making processes that take place in the human mind was taken up by other disciplines, e.g., medicine, economics, and even the legal profession.

Michael Lewis presents just some of the approaches adopted by the duo in order to assess, measure and gauge the ways in which individuals process information in order to reach a decision, and they are indeed many and varied. In their work the methods of behaviorist psychology are combined with features from Gestalt theory, thus forming a completely new school of testing and analysis, yielding findings that have been found to be significant for a myriad of disciplines.

Lewis has worked hard to present this complex subject in a way that is interesting for the general reader, as is indicated by the list of sources and acknowledgements given at the end of the book. The workings of the mind continue to fascinate students of human behaviour, and it is thanks to the work of Kahneman and Tversky that some more light has been shed on this intriguing sphere.