St. Matthew in Jerusalem

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A performance of Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion is always an event to be treasured. Its musical complexity and religious significance as well as the fact that it calls for a double choir, an organ and an enormous orchestra means that it is rarely performed in Israel.

So it was with eager anticipation that we attended last week’s performance of the work in Jerusalem’s Henry Crown auditorium. Every seat was taken, and the stage was packed to the rafters with all the present, past and future members of the orchestra who could be mustered. Row upon row of the members of two choirs from Estonia, the Estonian National Male Choir and the Girls’ Choir Ellerhein, stood ready behind the orchestra, the women attractively attired in long cherry-pink dresses with black wraps on top. Conductor Andres Mustonen, also from Estonia, had his work cut out to control, direct and inspire the over two hundred performers, and this he did with boundless energy and understanding.

No sooner had the first chords rung out and the choirs begun to sing than we knew that we were in for a very special performance. Rarely have I heard such a large choir (almost one hundred strong) produce a sound that was both powerful, expressive and controlled. Since the Passion is sung in German I cannot claim to have understood every word, but the overall effect was sublime.

Since the performance requires ten soloists, and there was not enough room for all of them on the stage at the same time, soloists came to the front of the stage, sang their part and then retired to a place at the back of the stage, or even backstage in some cases. When the first soloist seemed to be meandering onto the stage, wearing a light-coloured suit and holding a tablet or ipad, I must admit I was somewhat taken aback, and wondered if something had gone wrong. But this, it turned out, was the tenor who sang the role of the Evangelist, the narrator of the piece who recites the words of the Gospel in occasional recitatives (a kind of sing-song). The other soloists came and went in a more dignified way, most of the men wearing dark suits and the women in lovely dresses, as is customary on such occasions. Some voices were better than others, but the overall effect was one of reverence for the great music of Bach and the sad tale of Jesus’ crucifixion. Whether it was historically accurate or not did not seem to matter at this point, as the music was the message, and each time the choir gave voice in a chorus or chorale the effect was electric.

I have heard the Passion performed in English and have been moved to tears by the depth of emotion conveyed in the realisation by the apostle Peter that, as prophesied, he has indeed denied Christ three times. I have heard performances in Israel where the conductor, out of consideration for his Jewish audience, has omitted the fortissimo chorus ‘Crucify him!’ and the passage sung by the Jews accepting all future guilt for Jesus’ death. It is known that in mediaeval Europe mobs would be incited by performances of the Passion (not necessarily Bach’s, as re-enactments of the last days of Jesus’ life were traditionally performed at Easter-time in towns and villages all over the Continent) to rampage through Jewish quarters and attack Jewish individuals and institutions. Fortunately, this is no longer the case today.

Far be it from me to condemn those who refuse to attend performances of church music because of religious or historical reasons. All I can say is that I pity anyone who knowingly deprives him- or herself of an experience that stands at the pinnacle of human culture and art.

 

The Journey from Iran to Israel

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Wandering through the stalls of the Jerusalem International Book Fair held a few weeks ago my eye fell upon a display entitled ‘Lavi Publications,’ where copies of just one or two volumes in Hebrew were on display. The modestly dressed elderly lady in attendance at the stall was eager to show me her wares when I stopped to leaf through the book.

“It contains the stories of Jews who emigrated to Israel from Iran,” she told me. “And I was one of them. My story’s in there. On page 68,” and so saying, she deftly inserted a bookmark into the relevant page.

“What a good thing it was that you came to Israel,” I said, adopting an encouraging tone.

“Yes, but my husband died…” the woman’s eyes clouded over, and I could see that she was fighting to hold back tears.

At that point, of course, I felt morally obliged to buy the book (which was edited by Pierre Lavi). In addition to containing the personal accounts of some eighteen individuals and families, classified by the towns from which they came (Isfahan, Teheran, Hamadan, Shiraz, to name but a few), the book also provides photographs of the individuals concerned and several pages of recipes for main courses, rice dishes, soups, pies and desserts from the Iranian-Jewish cuisine. This last was the clinching factor in persuading me to fork out my hard-earned cash and buy the book.

“And this book comes free with it,” the saleslady said, thrusting a small volume entitled ‘The Dream-Weavers of Teheran’ into my hand. That book describes the tragic story of how the author, orphaned at an early age, was kidnapped in Teheran, imprisoned in dreadful conditions in the basement belonging to a carpet merchant and forced to weave carpets for him by day and by night.

Muslin bags of coloured sweets were also given away with every book, and so I came away feeling I had made a good bargain.

Leafing through the book describing individual journeys from Iran to Israel I found many tales describing a comfortable existence in Iran that had come to an end after the Ayatollahs’ rise to power there, impelling people to leave their homes and embark on a long, expensive and often dangerous journey. This generally involved taking a plane to a town near the border with Pakistan and then meeting a local smuggler at an agreed spot. From there some individuals crossed the mountainous border on foot, while others were picked up by truck and driven along treacherous roads to cross the border. Once inside Pakistan their troubles were not always over, and it was only after they had reached Karachi or some other large city where the Jewish Agency could meet them that they were given shelter and documents, and enabled to leave for Israel.

As well as abandoning their property, many of those departing Iran were obliged to take special measures such as wearing soiled clothes and shoes to avoid being stopped by the police and revolutionary guards who were constantly on the lookout for Jews and anyone else seeking to leave Iran illegally. The book contains many cases of hardship, in some cases with a fatal outcome, in the endeavour to leave the country. For thousands of years Iran provided a safe haven for Jews, who had prospered in many parts of the country, but under the rule of the Ayatollahs this was no longer the case.

The book also contains an introduction by David Nissan giving an outline of the history of the Jews in Iran, a history that goes back to their manumission by Cyrus the Great, the story of Queen Esther, and their period of prosperity under the Shah and the Pahlevi dynasty. One cannot but admire the resilience of those Jewish communities that endured hardship, discrimination and even forced conversion to Islam throughout the centuries, and yet survived and prospered. Most of those have now moved to Israel and other countries where they are able to live in freedom.

The saleslady’s story is indeed a sad one. Her grown-up children were already in Israel when she and her husband were finally able to join them, but her husband died of heart failure just before they were due to leave. The only thing she could bring with her as a memento for her children was a small bag of earth from his grave. No wonder there were tears in her eyes when she recalled her story.

 

Jerusalem Revisited

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The visit to Israel of friends from abroad provided us with the opportunity to walk through the Old City of Jerusalem and show them just a few of the tourist attractions in which that relatively small area abounds.

 

One of our visitors had been to Israel several times in the last forty years of our friendship, while the other was experiencing Israel for the first time. During their ten-day stay they managed to spend a few days in both Tel Aviv and Eilat, enjoying the sunshine and warmth that contrasted so starkly with their frigid north European home. Her conclusion: Israel is a pearl.

 

In Jerusalem, too, we were able to provide some sunny days before the horrific sandstorm that engulfed the whole country, but luckily that came just at the end of their stay. It was a perfect day when we set off for the Old City.

 

Our route took us first through the bazaar which constitutes the main point of access to the various quarters of the Old City. A map conveniently situated outside the tourist office by the Jaffa Gate gives the visitor a clear idea of the layout of the city inside the massive sixteenth-century walls. We watched our step carefully as we negotiated the lane leading down through the Muslim quarter to the Christian and Jewish quarters because of the cement slopes on either side that enable the colourful wooden hand-carts to move through the area with their load of goods.

 

The lane is lined with tiny shopes where merchants offer their colourful wares of souvenirs carved from wood, metal or plastic, as well as colourful T-shirts, fabrics, dresses and scarves that crowd every inch of space. The owners stand in the doorways and offer their merchandise to the passing crowd of tourists from all over the world as well as many Israelis.

 

Our friends wanted first to see something of interest to Christians, and so we took them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the oldest buildings in the region whose initial structure was created by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century. It has since been expanded by the addition of more structures. Inside and around the church groups of pilgrims from every corner of the eath congregate, each speaking their own language and venerating one or another relic of Christianity. Suddenly the melodious singing of a Russian Orthodox group broke out, joined by a priest waiting in line to enter the chapel built on the spot where Mary Magdalene supposedly met Jesus after his resurrection. The church is one of the few Christian sites that was protected by the Moslems during their centuries of control of Jerusalem.

 

As we left the church the sonorous call of the muezzin to prayer echoed around us, followed almost immediately by the chiming of the church bells. As we headed towards the Jewish quarter we were able to examine a large stone plaque commemorating the time when the knight of St. John, also known as the St. John Hospitallers, had lived and worked there, caring for wounded and ill crusaders in Jerusalem. They were driven out of Jerusalem when the Moslems took control of the city, and subsequently made their headquarters first in Rhodes and later in Malta, where their centre is still to be found.

 

With the sound of the muezzin and the church bells still echoing in our ears we made our way to the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall, the sole surviving relic of the supporting wall of the rampart on which the Roman client king, Herod, built his temple in the first century B.C.E. Our friends went to stand near the women at prayer in the section permitted to them, and were able to imbibe something of the atmosphere there.

 

Having visited the sites sacred to the three major religions, our friends were ready to find something to eat. There was no chance of finding anything in the Jewish quarter, where the religious restrictions on engaging in trade on the Sabbath are in force, and so we made our way back up through the bazaar to the Armenian quarter. Our search did not last long as we were soon spotted by a ‘fisherman’ for a nearby restaurant who duly led us to the desired eatery. The place was clean and pleasant, the service quick and efficient, and the only drawback was their inability to process a credit card.

 

Our friends, accompanied by the restaurant’s owner-manager, were escorted to the nearby money-changer, and eventually the problem was solved. Our friends were left somewhat mystified by this inability to comply with one of the basic conveniences of the modern world, but considering that the area embodies over two thousand years of history, this can only be regarded as a minor hitch.

 

Over time little seems to have changed in the Old City, and perhaps in another two thousand years it will be possible to pay for a meal with a credit card.

 

Elections in Israel again

 

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And so once again, only two years after the previous election, Israel’s long-suffering population has been thrown into the maelstrom of another election campaign. Though perhaps maelstrom is too strong a tem to describe the boredom and drudgery of being exposed to another round of groupings and regroupings among the various parties and personages concerned.

The constant rearrangement of alliances and allegiances within and between Israel’s political parties – with new ones emerging, old ones disappearing and existing ones undergoing a sea-change, so that individuals formerly associated with one of the opposing parties are accepted into a new fold with open arms – is disturbing if not downright confusing.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the way in which amoeba once emerged from the primeval slime, grew excrescences and limbs, incorporated foreign bodies, and eventually became more complex life forms.

Israel is still under the influence of the longest-running show in town, the trial for corruption of the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his right-hand-woman, Shula Zaken. The latter is currently serving a much-abbreviated prison sentence in return for her help in incriminating her former employer. Olmert has so far managed to use the judicial system to the best advantage and has not yet spent a single day in jail. Nothing of all of this inspires confidence in either the justice system or the people who seem to rise to the top, like scum on the surface of standing water.

This unfolding story, together with the relentless mud-slinging and mutual recriminations that is at present prevailing among the former ministers of Bibi Netanyahu’s cabinet, with Bibi leading the pack, baying for blood, no matter whose, is not designed to foster the confidence of the general populace in its politicians either. Not only are allegiances easily switched in order to attain positions that appear beneficial, but party ideologies are adapted to changing circumstances, and those who seek to appear as leaders are shown to have feet of clay, and possibly even more than feet.

Proportional representation, the electoral system that was adopted when the State of Israel was founded, largely because it was already there, suited those who were then in power and little effort was required to amend it, has caused Israel to be plagued by splinter-groups, mini-parties and endemic instability. Government by coalition has never been the most stable of systems, and provides fertile ground for the blackmail and/or bribery of coalition partners in order to remain in power. Recently the threshold for entry into the Knesset has been raised, and it remains to be seen whether this will have the hoped-for benefits.

The ‘first past the post’ system that is used in the U.K. has its disadvantages, but tends in the end to create a more stable government, and one that is less vulnerable to threats from within. It also means that minority groups and interests tend to be less well-represented, though bearing in mind what this has achieved in Israel that might not be such a bad thing.

I, personally, am pessimistic, despite the predictions of the pollsters, and believe that the political picture will remain pretty much as before, with a further shift to the right. I think it was Churchill who said that democracy is a terrible system, but the alternatives are even worse. It’s a depressing thought.

(This article appeared in my ‘Letter from Israel’ column in the AJR Journal of February 2015)

 

Charlotte

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Life is full of strange coincidences. I first encountered the story of Charlotte Salomon about twenty years ago, when an exhibition of her work, a series of paintings with captions describing her life and entitled ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ was held at the Royal Academy in London. It made a great impression on me at the time, with its unique way of recounting her autobiography through painting, music and text. Using all these media, this talented and sensitive young Jewish woman, who happened to grow up in Germany just as the Nazis were coming to power, illustrated her own history and that of all of Europe. In fact, I even went so far as to buy the very extensive catalogue of the exhibition, which still today holds pride of place in my book-case.

Very early one morning a few days ago, I happened to hear a programme on the French radio recounting the story of Charlotte in music and describing her life as retold in a recently published book. Lo and behold! the very next day, while trying to buy a copy of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in a local newsagents-cum-bookshop, there on the shelf behind the salesperson was the book entitled ‘Charlotte,’ a novel by French writer David Foenkinos. I bought the book, which had been awarded an important French literary prize, and began to read it almost immediately.

 The first shock I got upon opening the book was to find that it was not written in the usual form of a novel but rather in short lines, in the form known as blank verse (‘verse libre’ in French). It neither rhymed nor scanned, but I persevered, and felt that somehow this form was indeed appropriate for describing Charlotte’s unique and tragic life.

Foenkinos gives his account of Charlotte’s story based almost entirely on what she herself had written and painted. Here and there he interrupts the poetic narrative to inform the reader (still in blank verse) about his own experiences when tracing Charlotte’s journey through life. He visited the part of Berlin where she grew up, the high school she attended there, as well as the south of France, where she spent her final years before being rounded up by the Nazis and dispatched to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. She was twenty-six years old and pregnant at the time.

Foenkinos admits that ever since encountering Charlotte’s story through her work he has been obsessed by her, and that writing about her in this form was his way of dealing with this obsession. I can understand him, and I think that he has done a good job. Charlotte Salomon’s life seems to epitomize all the horrors of life under the Nazis and all the dashed dreams and hopes of young people all over the world. The author even goes so far as to end the book by imagining her entering the gas chamber, describing the process in a brief but telling way on the basis of known accounts of how this was done.

The book is written in relatively simple, free-flowing French, and I found it almost impossible to put down even though I knew what happened to Charlotte at the end of her life. Charlotte’s story is just one among many millions of lives cut short, talents wasted and tragedies not averted. But by producing her oevre in a kind of creative frenzy during the last two years of her life, and then entrusting the suitcase containing the pages to a local doctor saying ‘This is my whole life,’ Charlotte Salomon has left us a precious legacy, and David Foenkinos has made her story accessible to many people who would otherwise never have heard of her. But only if they read French, I’m sorry to say.

 

Wintry London

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In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candlelight.

In summer quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.

Spending a few days in London in January reminded me of the little ditty by Robert Louis Stevenson, and although I now have the benefit of electric light, there’s no getting away from the long, dark nights, the late rising and early setting sun — if you manage to get a glimpse of it, that is.

 Living in Israel for so many years, I’d forgotten how cold and dreary London can be in the dead of winter. Of course, it compensates anyone who ventures there with a plethora of entertainments and cultural events – concerts, plays, exhibitions, etc. – but the paucity of daylight has a depressing effect on even the most cheerful of souls, which I perhaps delude myself I am. Even in the winter Jerusalem generally provides crisp, cold days (and sometimes even snow), but there is generally some blue sky to be seen to cheer one up. Maybe it’s something to do with the quality of the light in Jerusalem, which seems to bounce off the stones of the buildings and provide an aura of something that is akin to spirituality or positivity or aesthetic delight, according to the character of the beholder.

 Another of London’s hazards is the inevitability of catching a cold in one or another of the many crowded spots that cannot be avoided – travelling on the underground or buses, attending a concert or play,going shopping in malls or Oxford Street – everywhere is so crowded. And although everyone is polite and someone even younger than myself almost always offers me their seat on the ‘tube,’ as it’s affectionately known, those journeys are fraught with germs and hazards of various kinds.

 I don’t want anyone reading this to get the idea that I had a thoroughly miserable time in London. I did not. I enjoyed the theatre, some wonderful art exhibitions, and even a recital by a world-renowned pianist, though my enjoyment of the latter event was marred somewhat by my efforts to suppress my cough. Kind people around me offered me cough sweets even though I had come equipped with some of my own, but there’s no disguising a stubborn cough.

I was born in London, grew up there and still have many friends and acquaintances there, but I’m glad to be living in Jerusalem, where my colds and coughs occur with less painful regularity, and although some days can be cold and wet and dark you always know that the sun is lurking just around the corner, and the light blue sky will soon be enveloping the hills and cheering even the darkest mood.

 

 

The Baroness, the Search for Nica, Rebellious Rothschild and Jazz’s Secret Muse by Hannah Rothschild

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nica-rothschild-480x270[1]The House of Rothschild, the semi-official aristocracy of world Jewry, has been a constant source of fascination for Jews and non-Jews alike, with its fabulous wealth, global reach, and philanthropic undertakings. In Israel many places commemorate members of the family, especially those of Edmund de Rothschild, the munificent benefactor, who poured money into the country well before the State was founded, seeking to provide succor and employment for the impoverished Jews who were fleeing eastern Europe and Russia. I found this well-written memoir of one member of that tribe fascinating and almost impossible to put down.

Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, known as Nica, the third daughter and youngest child of Nathaniel Charles de Rothschild, head of the British branch of the family, and a Hungarian beauty, Rozsika von Wertheimstein, was born in 1913. She grew up in the rarified atmosphere of Tring House and various other Rothschild grand residences, “moved from one great country house to another…in reserved Pullman coaches…guarded night and day by a regiment of nurses, governesses, tutors, footmen, valets, chauffeurs and grooms,” as she described it. Together with her two older sisters, her days were ruled by a fixed regimen, with little or no contact with children of her own age, other than the cousins she met at various family gatherings. Everything was run on rigid, formal lines. The girls were educated at home while their brother, Victor, was sent to Harrow, where he suffered from anti-Semitism, epitomized by occasional ‘Jew hunts’ in which his role was to run fast enough to escape from the other boys’ beatings.

It would seem that quite a few members of the Rothschild family were susceptible to severe mood swings, if not something that could be defined more clinically, and suicide was not unknown. This was the case with Nica’s father, Charles as well as others, and every effort was made by the wider family to obscure every record of these events. Documents and medical records were destroyed, and the deed itself was glossed over by relatives. Some Rothschilds displayed characteristics that could only be described as eccentric. Nica’s older sister, Miriam, became an obsessive etymologist, and Charles’s obsession involved collecting and displaying stuffed wildlife speciments in his private museum. While Miriam did marry and have a family, her main concern seems to have been her study of fleas, butterflies and chemical communications, whose mating habits she studied intensely continuing her father’s unfinished research. She became one of Britain’s leading naturalists and went on to be awarded eight honorary doctorates and be made a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Their brother, Victor, also had similar interests, going on to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge, but he was also interested in jazz music and when he took lessons from jazz pianist, Teddy Wilson. he took his little sister Nica along. This later served as her entrée to the New York club scene. At the same time, he pursued his studies at Cambridge, in which he excelled, and continued to focus on zoological research, eventually being made a Fellow of the Royal Society. It was Victor who encouraged Nica to learn to fly, to become knowledgeable about jazz, and who bought her a sports car for her eighteenth birthday (and a plane for her wedding). It was at the time of her ‘coming out’ that Nica discovered jazz, first in London, especially at the fashionable Café de Paris and later on trips to Paris and Le Touquet, and then to New York, where she first came into contact with the leading jazz performers.

Hannah Rothschild, the author, gives a vibrant account of her search for information about her elusive great-aunt, who eventually slipped off the shackles of aristocratic life. In 1935, a few years after ‘coming out,’ as was the custom in England at the time, she married an eligible Jewish-French widower, Baron Jules de Koenigsvarter, and produced two children. The outbreak of the Second World War found the family living in grand style in France, and after taking her children to stay with their good friends the Guggenheims in America, Nica joined her husband in the ranks of the Free French Army, serving as an interpreter and broadcaster for the Resistance forces and engaging in exciting trips into Africa with Jules (both of them were pilots and owned a plane of their own).

After the war, the return to married life and the birth of another three children, Nica found herself increasingly unable to slip back into the routine of entertaining and return to the pre-war way of life. In line with the atmosphere prevailing in Europe, she was ready for a change. While accompanying her husband, now a French diplomat, in Mexico, a friend played her a record of Duke Ellington’s symphony, ‘Black, Brown and Beige.’ She later related that this served as some kind of wake-up call for her, making her feel that “I belonged where that music was. There was something I was supposed to do.”

At this point the author links Nica’s ‘calling’ to similar obsessions, albeit for other subjects, mainly scientific or financial, displayed by other Rothschilds, causing her to wonder whether there might not be some inherited obsessive-compulsive trait behind the single-minded determination that has characterized many of the members of the family over the generations.

In 1949, after a visit to New York, Nica visited Teddy Wilson, the jazz pianist, on her way to the airport to say goodbye. He played her a record by Thelonious Monk, which struck her as so brilliant and amazing that she insisted on hearing it another twenty times. She missed her plane and, in fact, never really returned to her husband. After that she made her home in New York, associated with the jazz musicians there, almost all of them black, went to jazz clubs almost every night, lived extravagantly and also helped, supported and encouraged many of them, although the one she was closest too was Thelonious Monk. At times these connections got her into trouble with the police, as drugs and alcohol were an integral part of that way of life, but in a very real sense Nica formed the mainstay and safety net of many jazz musicians, sharing their way of life and helping them out in times of need.

Although Nica and Jules were divorced and Jules retained custody of the five children, her eldest daughter Janka lived with her in New York from the age of sixteen. The small New York house that was eventually bought for Nica by her brother Victor, was a haven for dozens of cats as well as occasionally for jazz musicians who had fallen on hard times. It was the refuge where Thelonious Monk spent his last few years, afflicted by an unknown disease that made him incapable of playing or making music. Many jazz musicians dedicated music to Nica, the ‘Baroness of Jazz,’ who lived on until 1988, dying suddenly and peacefully in her New York home at the age of seventy-five.

In this thrilling book that describes the life and interests—you could say obsessions—of her great aunt Pannonica (Nica), Hannah Rothschild has brought to life a fascinating and indomitable character. What is more, for me, a classical-music afficionado, she has given an insight into the beauty and meaning of jazz, and opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of experience.

 

A True Man of the Land

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The tragic and sudden death in a traffic accident of our daughter’s father-in-law, Eli Goldstein, brought an abrupt and untimely stop to the life of a man who was born on the land and worked the land throughout his life. His funeral, which was attended by what seemed to be the entire population of Zikhron Ya’akov, filled every inch of the pedestrian mall that extends from the town’s synagogue to the cemetery. Everyone in Zikhron Ya’akov knew Eli and his family, and everyone mourned the loss of a man who seemed to embody the best of human nature, ethical values and devotion to the land.

 We first met Eli some twenty-five years ago, when our daughter brought her then boyfriend home to meet us. Not long after that we met his parents, and that was an experience in itself. Neither Yigal nor I had ever had really close contact with agriculture in Israel and the cultivation of its soil. My own roots go back to London and urban Germany, Yigal’s to a neighborhood on the outskirts of Haifa and before that to Poland, where Jews were not allowed to own land.

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 But Eli was born in Zikhron Ya’akov, the third generation of its native sons, a scion of one of the town’s founding families. In 1882 his grandfather was one of the Jewish pioneers from Romania, members of the Hovevei Zion movement, who came to what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine to settle the deserted and arid land. In Israel of today they constitute the true aristocracy, something akin to America’s Pilgrim Fathers. The trials and tribulations that those early settlers endured meant that only the toughest survived, and the members of the Goldstein family must have been very resilient, as well as hard-working, to remain attached to the land.

 The first thing you noticed about Eli was his kindly face and warm smile. The second thing was the firmness of his handshake. In fact, a lifetime of working the land had given him hands that felt as strong and tough as a block of wood. At the funeral his sons spoke of his devotion to the land, his attention to detail in everything he did and his dedication to getting the most and the best out of every grain of soil. I remember talking to him one day when he began to speak about the various ailments to which pear trees were prone, and I believe I saw a tear in his eye as he spoke. It was obvious that his fruit trees were close to his heart and he cared for them as if they were his children

 He graduated with honours from Israel’s foremost agricultural school, Mikveh Yisrael, and after his military service he proceeded to apply his newly-acquired knowledge to his work on the land he had inherited. His vineyards produced grapes that contributed to the Carmel wines for which Zikhron Ya’akov is famous, and the produce of his various orchards went to market to nourish Israel’s growing population.

 To the funeral eulogies given by his wife and four children were added those of fellow-members of Zikhron Ya’akov’s farming community as well as other residents of the town. From everyone we heard the same message: he set a standard of hard work, honesty and decency that will remain for ever with all those who knew him.

  

Evil

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 Are we going to have to cut ourselves off from the news and other media, in order to hold on to our mental equanimity? This week has been particularly hard for consumers of the news media, like myself. Many people thought that the evil that threatened the world had been eradicated with Hitler’s defeat, but it seems that we were mistaken.

Over one hundred and thirty schoolchildren massacred in Pakistan in the name of a creed that calls itself a religion of peace. A lone gunman holds forty people hostage in a Sydney café, also in the name of that so-called religion. Speaking after the event, and the deaths of two of the hostages, the Australian Prime Minister labeled it a ‘death cult.’ Perhaps it is, but if only all those terrorists would take his word for it and simply bump themselves off the world would undoubtedly be a better place. Sadly, their cult glorifies the deaths of others, the ‘unbelievers,’ rather than their own, though they’re prepared to die if it involves the deaths of those who do not share their beliefs.

Of course, not all adherents of Islam follow its extremist version, and thank goodness for that, but the minority that does casts a dark shadow over the entire global civilization, and that is what is so depressing.

A friend who attends a clinic at the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus told me that when waiting for the bus she always stands together with the Muslim women (many Arabs go to that hospital for treatment), feeling that any terrorist who decides on the spur of the moment to ram his (or her) car into the people waiting at the stop will not aim at their co-religionists. She may have a point.

Israelis continue to go about their daily lives, possibly deceived by the sunshine and a sense of false confidence. The people who tend to be targets for knifings, axings and other acts of aggression tend to be easily identifiable as Jews – ultra-orthodox men, soldiers, settlers in the West Bank. The feeling that at all times one has to be on one’s guard is not a comfortable one, but in Israel we have learned to live with that kind of situation on a daily basis.

But Australia? Why there? It’s far away from the Middle East and all its troubles, and if anywhere in the world ever seemed safe from the scourge of Islamic terrorism it was there. Now the Australian authorities are calling the perpetrator ‘a disturbed individual.’ However, he posted the Islamic flag and creed on the window of the café which was the site of his attack. Disturbed? Or perhaps just a believer? I’m prepared to go along with the idea that all terrorists are disturbed individuals, but it would require an awful lot of psychologists to sort that one out.

In an extended essay, John Gray recently wrote in the Guardian newspaper that it is futile to seek to eradicate what Western leaders naively term ‘the forces of evil,’ as cruelty and conflict are basic human traits, and when one such movement is suppressed it will generally be replaced by another. When repressive regimes such as those of Qaddafi and Saddam Hussein are overthrown they tend to be replaced by anarchy. Reluctantly, I have to agree with him, especially when the photograph at the top of his article shows the good-looking, innocent faces of a group of German boys belonging to the Hitler Youth movement in 1939. If the entire German nation could happily support a movement as evil and oppressive as Nazism why should we be surprised to find less-educated and uncultured individuals in other parts of the world subscribing to similar ideologies?

The bottom line seems to be that an ideology that preaches the superiority of one individual, nation or creed over another seems to sanction actions that are perceived as abhorrent and savage by people brought up to believe in equality, liberty and the eventual triumph of good over evil. The thought that the former may eventually overcome and overthrow the latter is one that is both depressing and possibly naïve.

 

Qalqiliya, Mon Amour

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Terrs-landscape

 

I wanted to see for myself. Day and night we are bombarded with news, views and opinions about what is happening in the ‘Territories,’ whether defined as ‘occupied’ or by their ancient geographical designation, ‘Judea and Samaria.’ So a few weeks ago, when things seemed relatively quiet, I joined a tour of the area around Qalqiliya and Alfei Menashe that was organized by Machsom Watch.

Showing us where we were on the map that had been distributed, Daniela, our English-speaking guide, escorted our group, consisting of both Israelis and tourists, along the highways and byways of the region. Although I had been warned by well-meaning relatives that the route might be dangerous (and was told not to sit next to a window in the bus), at no time in the several hours that we drove to and through villages and towns did we feel that we were in any danger. In fact, in the village of Hawara, where we stopped to buy falafel, we mingled with the local population and did not seem to arouse anyone’s resentment or even attention.

One of the purposes of the tour was to see how the division of the region into areas A (Palestinian controlled), B (both Palestinian and Israeli controlled) and C (Israeli-controlled) works on the ground. The essential point here is that moving from one area to the other is a simple matter for Israelis and rather more complicated for Palestinians. The wall and separation fence that have been built along some 700 kilometers of the border between areas A and C include checkpoints at various sites. Some of these are open all day, and Palestinians and their vehicles have to be checked thoroughly in order to go through them. Obviously, the task of the IDF soldiers who do the work of policing these checkpoints is to ensure that Israel’s security is not threatened. This inevitably places a heavy responsibility on their young shoulders. I’m thinking of my own grandsons now serving in the IDF as I write this, and it makes me shudder.

Just outside Qalqiliya (a stone’s throw from Kfar Saba) we were taken to a large nursery where plants and flowers were on sale, arranged aesthetically in serried rows, with labels in Hebrew. The clientele consists of Israelis, mainly from nearby Alfei Menashe, we were told by Omar, the friendly owner of the nursery. As we sat in the shade, drinking coffee and enjoying the ambience, he told us about his daily routine. The land on which the nursery stands has been owned, and registered as such, by his family for generations. It is agricultural land which lies just beyond the town of Qalqiliya, where he and his family live. This requires going through the checkpoint at least twice a day, each time involving lengthy delays and checks, especially of his vehicle. At one of the checkpoints, which is managed by a civilian company rather than the IDF, sniffer dogs are used, which the local population finds particularly offensive.

At the village of Nebi Elias we met a member of the village council, who took us up to the roof of the municipality building to show us how the road leading out of the village has been blocked, preventing the villagers from gaining access to their land, and obliging them to make a long detour in order to do so. From the roof we had a good view of the open sewage from nearby Alfei Menashe, which courses down the hill to where the outlying houses of the village are situated.

‘Agricultural gates’ have been set into the separation fence, enabling farmers and others to go through more freely. Some of these are opened two or three times a day at specified times for quarter of an hour. Others are open only once or twice a year, at a defined season (e.g., the time of the olive harvest), and access to farmland is possible only then. We stood on a hill and watched as a cart drawn by a donkey raced to get to the gate just before it closed.

According to an Ottoman law that is still in effect, land that is not cultivated for three years reverts to become state property. Hence the importance for the local farmers of being able to gain access to their land. We were told that in most areas the relations between the Israeli settlers and the local inhabitants are peaceful, if not amicable. In some cases, however, the more radical settlers engage in harassing the Palestinians who come to tend their olive groves, and have even been known to cause damage to the trees themselves. More recently individual Palestinians have conducted ‘lone terrorist’ attacks on Israelis.

At the edge of Elkana we observed a solitary Palestinian house that is entirely surrounded by the separation fence. A special gate has been made in it, enabling the members of the family living there to go in and out freely, but only they are allowed to do so. Cameras and soldiers at the nearby checkpoint ensure that no one else takes advantage of this arrangement.

At the end of the tour, using the term ‘occupation’ for the first time, our guide pointed out the evils and injustices inherent in the situation. The question that remains is, are the settlers the true Zionists, akin to those pioneers who established the first settlements of what is now Israel proper, or are they oppressors who have expropriated land that by rights belongs to others?

One thing is certain, there is no simple solution to the problem, and the intransigence displayed by the leaders on both sides means that any solution is inevitably slipping ever further away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look as if the age-old Hebrew prayer ‘May he who makes peace in his high places, make peace for us and for all Israel,’ is going to be fulfilled any time soon.

 

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