‘Jours Caucasiens’ (Caucasian Days) by Banine

 

This autobiography (published in French in 1985 by Gris Banal)  was kindly lent to me by my neighbor, who stems originally from Russia, and it was a true eye-opener regarding a time and place about which I knew absolutely nothing.

The author, who writes under a nom-de-plume, was born in 1905 into a fabulously rich family of oil-producers in Bakou, Azerbaijan. Her mother died giving birth to her, leaving her the youngest of four sisters. In the book she describes her childhood which, though lacking for nothing in the material sense, was far from idyllic.

Banine depicts the various members of her family of wealthy but uneducated Caucasian Moslems, and paints vivid portraits of each one. These include her corpulent and irascible grandmother, who spends most of her day praying and reciting verses from the Koran, intermittently cursing all non-Moslems and hurling insults at her children and grandchildren. As was the custom in those days, she wore traditional garb, was heavily veiled and spent most of her time sitting on cushions on the floor. One gets the impression that she was primarily involved in creating an acerbic atmosphere around her.

The idea the reader gains of Banine’s sisters is that they were considerably older than her, heavily-built, liberally-endowed with facial hair and generally unpleasant in mien. In addition to Banine’s immediate family, there was a large number of uncles and aunts, who were attached to Banine’s family, but seemed to be consumed by jealousy and ire of their great wealth. The author spares no-one in her accounts of the petty in-fighting within and between the various families that made up the wider clan. In addition, they all seemed to live either under the same, extremely extensive roof or in close proximity to one another. Apart from constantly arguing with one another, the adults, both men and women, spent their time playing endless games of poker, enabling the young nephews and nieces to benefit from the occasional coin disbursed by whoever was winning.

In the summer the entire family, including all the uncles, aunts, cousins, and servants, moved to their grand estate in the country, where armies of gardeners tended the gardens, woods, vineyards, pools and grounds. In the period before the Revolution, the main means of transport was by horse-drawn carriage over unpaved roads, involving considerable physical discomfort. In order to provide an education for his daughters, Banine’s father employed a German governess, Fraulein Anna, whose blond hair and blue eyes inspired the love and admiration of the young girl. Thus, the sisters were taught the basics of European languages, as well as how to play the piano and eat in a manner that befits a civilised person.

Banine and her cousins continued in this way for most of her childhood, using the grounds of their estate as a playground that most children in that part of the world could only dream of. Banine assuaged her sense of isolation by reading voraciously from the extensive library in one of the many rooms of their house. In addition, there were also occasional family outings to the sea which involved passing through the poorer parts of the district and undergoing uncomfortable encounters with distant poor relatives.

As was the custom in that part of the world, Banine’s sisters were married while still in their teens, and departed the family home, eventually settling in Paris. This left their sister feeling even more neglected and lonely. The outbreak of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution did not affect the Caucasus initially, and the area was controlled successively by British and Turkish troops. Eventually, however, the Russians gained supremacy, and the forces of Communism prevailed.

It is interesting to read Banine’s account of her encounter as a teenager with the young Russians sent to impose socialist principles on the oil-rich region, and her own realization that her family’s wealth was unjust. She even went so far as to be actively involved in making inventories of the property owned by individual families, and ended up falling in love with one of the young Russian emisseries.

Aged only fifteen, Banine was married to a much older man whom she detested, in order to enable her father to obtain the passport he needed so that he could leave Russia. As the book ends, we find that she, too, was able to leave Russia and, after travelling through Russia to Constantinople (as it was then known), and on through Europe, she was finally able to join her father and her sisters in Paris.

What happened then, we can only guess from inspecting the list of books she has translated (from Russian, German and English) into French, as well as those she has written herself. This book is written in a lively and interesting way and contains a fascinating account of a world that no longer exists.

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The Longest Hatred

(image: NYTimes)

The recent tragic events in Pittsburgh took my thoughts to Professor Robert Wistrich’s seminal study of anti-Semitism. Coining the phrase ‘the longest hatred’ to denote the phenomenon, and making it the title of his book, Wistrich describes the longstanding and widespread occurrence of anti-Semitism. In a subsequent tome, ‘A Lethal Obsession,’ he traces in great and exhaustive detail the outbreak of the phenomenon across cultures, countries, nationalities and religions. Starting with the period of early Christianity, when the adherents of the new religion felt compelled to demonstrate their rejection of the ancient faith by denigrating its devotees, the book traces the many expressions of anti-Semitism throughout the ages up to the present day.

The ultimate culmination of anti-Semitism was of course the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, but the phenomenon could be found in every European country throughout the middle ages, at a time when modern nations had not yet been established in their final form. The crusades that sent countless multitudes of men across Europe to fight for the Holy Land did not spare the Jews living in the countries through which they passed, nor those in the Holy Land either. The massacres at that time of Jewish communities along the Rhine have not been forgotten. Nor have the pogroms that devastated the Jewish communities of eastern Europe and Russia in more recent times. As the countries of western Europe waged war on one another, they did not omit to oppress, slaughter and decimate the Jewish communities they encountered.

In ‘The Merchant of Venice’ Shakespeare gives his Jewish character Shylock a human face and voice when he says ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ and goes on to show that a Jew is a human being with feelings like anyone else. At a time when Jews were banned from living in England and portrayed as the offspring of Satan, subhuman and the source of all evil, to express such a sentiment was truly revolutionary. Shakespeare’s play may have been based to some extent on Christopher Marlowe’s play, ‘The Jew of Malta,’ but in that instance the main character displays no mitigating humanity and is as conniving and murderous as befits the prejudiced stereotype of the Jew current at that time.

So to accuse President Trump of being responsible for the murderous attack in the synagogue in Pittsburgh is not strictly fair. Inflammatory rhetoric is just that, inflammatory rhetoric. Whether someone commits an act of violent aggression as a result of that rhetoric or of some internal mental imbalance is immaterial. Unless the machinery of aggression or annihilation is available, or the wider situation enables acts of violence to be performed by the wider society, as was the case with the crusades, the pogroms and the Holocaust, words remain just words. It could be said that the general availability of firearms in America is to blame, and that claim does have some weight. But it cannot be denied that until this week’s attack no similar act has been perpetrated against Jews, other than isolated incidents of beatings and desecration of cemeteries.

My own experience in the Midwest of the USA brought me into contact with the underlying enmity towards Jews (and Israel) and various minorities felt by some Americans, and I have described these individuals and their activities in my recent book, ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Plains.’ In real life, however, I did not encounter any violence, and the Jewish community was not subjected to acts of aggression.

Like many Jews in England, as a child I experienced some instances of anti-Semitic speech or acts, but nothing of any great severity. Instances of that kind may have been partly behind my decision to come and live in Israel, but many Jews, including several of my Jewish friends, have forged successful careers in England, the USA and elsewhere. They have been able to rise above encounters with anti-Semitism and even act to combat it. But who knows? Perhaps the strict gun controls in England have prevented violent actions from being committed against the Jewish community there.

All that remains is to hope that irrational hatreds can be set aside and an atmosphere of tolerance towards minorities, whoever and wherever they may be, can be fostered. What is needed is for religions and communities to work together to combat the rising tide of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment that is evident throughout the Western world. After all, the paramount aspiration repeated in so many prayers of so many religions is the desire for peace.

 

ANOTHER CONTROVERSIAL LAW

The furore surrounding the Nation-State Law recently passed by Israel’s Knesset has continued to reverberate throughout Israel and beyond, even reaching the pages of the French daily, ‘Le Figaro,’ the weekend edition of which I read when I was on holiday in France.

Since I cannot bear to be completely disconnected from Israel and events there even when I’m on holiday, I make sure to have an internet connection while I’m away. This may seem somewhat masochistic, but it’s an intrinsic part of my life wherever I am, so that being cut off from this form of communication causes me suffering to which I am not prepared to expose myself.

Thus it was that my news updates and Facebook feed while in France contained numerous messages condemning the law, claiming that it was discriminatory, contrary to the values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence and even racist – all things that are anathema to any decent person anywhere in the world, and also to most Israelis. Massive demonstrations were held to oppose the law, and there seemed to be widespread condemnation of it, at least among my friends and many of my relations. No-one can accuse me of being a supporter of Binyamin Netanyahu and his party, but the significance of the article in ‘Le Figaro’ made me stop and think that perhaps the messages I’ve been receiving are one-sided, to say the least.

Headed ‘The State of Israel Will Not Be Binational!’ (my translation, his exclamation mark), the article, under the byline of Francois d’Orcival, asserts that the justification for introducing the law is that it serves to guarantee the future of the Jewish state.  Claiming that the law does not contravert the rights of the various minorities living in Israel at present but merely affirms the Jewish character of Israel, the writer underlines the confrontation between national identity and multiculturism that is becoming increasingly prevalent all over the Western world, adding that political opposition is inseparable from demographic evolution.

The sticking point, according to M. d’Orcival, is the difference in the birth rates of Arabs and Jews in Israel. Currently, Jews account for 75 percent of the population and Arabs for 18 percent. But the Palestinian Arabs have said more than once that the weapon with which they will defeat the Jews is their birth-rate, and the difference in those of the two populations seems to bear this out (4.6 percent as opposed to 3.2).

Under the provisions of the law, the official language of Israel is Hebrew and the official religion is Judaism. In England, America, France and most other Western democracies there is an official language and an official religion (the British monarch is even the head of the Anglican church), and no-one accuses them of being undemocratic on that score. If the aim of the law is to ensure the Jewish character of Israel in the future, like M. d’Orcival, I personally see no harm in that.

In the final analysis, there is no getting away from the fact that there are at least thirty Arab or Muslim countries and only one Jewish one. And we all know what happens when Jews do not have a single country that will accept them in their hour of need. Many, though not all, of the Muslim countries will not allow Jews or even anyone who has ever visited Israel to set foot on their soil. Israel has no such policy regarding members of other religions.

Sometimes it takes an objective outsider to reveal the truth of a situation, so I remain grateful to Francois d’Orcival for enabling me to see matters in a different light.

The Eagle has Landed!

It’s a very metaphorical eagle: my latest book, ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Front; a Tale of Deception, Betrayal and Vindication,’ which has been two years in the making and has now been published on Amazon and is available as an ebook and a paperback. It is my longest book so far, numbering just under 500 pages, and I only hope that readers will enjoy the ride. Like my previous books, this one has a cover based on a water-colour painting of mine that has been admirably produced by my talented son Eitan Shefer. The picture shows a quiet suburban street with an ambiguous – possibly threatening – figure in the foreground.

The book describes the events that befall Avi Samuels, an ambitious Israeli scientist who is spending a year in Seabrook, a sleepy university town in Nebraska, only to find that the head of the department seems to be hostile towards him, while articles and letters from readers in the local newspaper proclaim rabidly anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, opinions. Despite these and other setbacks, Avi is determined to do good scientific work while he is in Nebraska.

Avi’s wife, Rachel, suffers from boredom and loneliness at first, though the wife of the head of the department tries to provide her with some company. However, Rachel does not feel comfortable with the lady’s overbearing personality, and it is only when she starts going to art classes at the local community college that she starts to find an interest in life. The main focus of her interest is the art teacher, Duane, who seems to be equally attracted to Rachel, and so the inevitable love affair, with all its complicated ramifications, ensues.

Rachel and Avi’s children, teenage twins, one of each gender, encounter difficulties at school, finding the American education system alien and complicated, and the students unfriendly. In addition, they have to contend with language and cultural differences that place them at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the system. Their frustration eventually lands them in trouble and it is only after the school principal intervenes that they are able to come to terms with their new life.

The reader is made privy to the machinations of the Brotherhood, a group of rabidly racist individuals who are plotting to bring death and destruction to minority groups in Seabrook and the rest of America. Whether the head of Avi’s department is involved in this or not is one of the strands that constitute the plot of the book.

Various other characters move in and out of the narrative, with Avi’s colleague and neighbour, Tom Friedman and his wife Nancy, featuring prominently in the events described in the book. Some of the university’s cleaning staff also play a role in helping Avi overcome the various setbacks he encounters as he seeks to make a scientific breakthrough in his chosen field.

The Nebraska climate also plays a part, and determines to a considerable extent what happens to the various individuals.

As the book comes to its conclusion, the various ends are tied up, the scientific breakthrough may or may not have been achieved, and the plot to sow death and destruction throughout America appears to have been foiled. At least for the moment.

I hope that everyone reading this blog will buy a copy, whether for Kindle or to hold in their hand, and if they write a review on Amazon my gratitude will know no bounds.

 

‘Camino Island’ by John Grisham

By chance I happened to see an interview with John Grisham on TV, and found myself riveted by this charming and enormously successful writer. His books are not quite my cup of tea, but I found my attention drawn to his account of his recent novel, in which he tried to stay away from his usual subject of lawyers, crime and legal issues and focus on a story about books, publishing and writing.

Grisham has published over thirty novels, almost all of them bestsellers, so he must know a thing or two about the subject. He wrote the book, he claimed, to cock a snook at the ‘literary mafia’ which describes his books as fit only to be read at the beach. And so he wrote about a scenic spot by the sea. A ‘beach book’ to end all beach books.

As a result, I ordered the book from Amazon, and all I can say is that I was not disappointed. The novel has pace, interesting and varied characters, and a series of situations that keep the reader’s interest. For me, as a writer, it was particularly interesting to read Grisham’s insights into the pitfalls that tend to beset writers who are not careful about such matters as ‘starting a book with a prologue that leaves the reader hanging, then goes on to chapter 1, which, of course, has nothing to do with the prologue,’ and so on. Never mind that Grisham does just that in this book, this is his alter ego poking fun at his own writing style.

But Grisham’s bookseller character has many more insights to impart about writing. Amongst other things, he says: “Another mistake is to introduce twenty characters in the first chapter. Five’s enough and won’t confuse your reader. Next, if you feel the need to go to the thesaurus, look for a word with three syllables or fewer…Please use quotation marks with dialogue, otherwise it’s bewildering…Most writers say too much, so always look for things to cut.. I could go on.” The point he makes about quotation marks is very valid, and I still remember being reprimanded by my English teacher in high school for using single quotes instead of double. That was a long time ago, but it seems that it’s a convention that serves a function and should not be neglected or ignored.

‘Camino Island’ contains much more than a few rules for writing, and the situations that are described are more than enough to keep any reader’s attention riveted till the end of the book. I promise to try to apply Grisham’s rules in my next book, while in the meantime I was able to enjoy the story of ‘Camino Island.’ To give the bare bones of the book, a young writer suffering from writer’s block is recruited by a mysterious company to find information about a character who appears to be a perfectly sane and sensible bookseller but is suspected of dealing in stolen books and manuscripts.

True to form, the denouement took me by surprise even though the idea was lurking in my mind towards the end of the book. Contrary to expectations, the prime suspect manages to get away with the loot, but at least in this book there is less of the violence, murder and mayhem that generally abounds in books of this kind. All in all, a rollicking good read as well as a tutorial for aspiring writers.

Why I Started Writing

 

I’m not quite sure when I started writing. I remember trying to write a story of my own sometime around my tenth birthday and having a great deal of difficulty deciding on my characters’ names. Nothing remains of that attempt, but as I grew up I found myself being appointed as the chronicler of family events, and later I became just another of my family’s inveterate letter-writers. I’ve been told that my letters home from my first trip to Israel when I was sixteen, and later from my post-graduate years there which turned into the rest of my life were valued by my family.

All my life I’ve been a voracious reader, whether of newspapers or books, the latter including fiction and nonfiction, plays, essays, and the encyclopaedias that my parents bought for the home. But books were my rock and my salvation from my earliest childhood until today, and it is rare to find me without reading matter to hand. The advent of that blessed invention the Kindle, now in my iPad and iPhone relieves me of the need to carry a physical book with me at all times as I have a veritable library to hand in my iPhone.

I kept a diary or notebook from time to time, and the record of my experiences during the Six-Day War enabled me to reconstruct my feelings and what I went through at that time. Reading Virginia Woolf’s writings and getting absorbed in the various biographies of her as well as her autobiographical writings helped me to see the process by which she turned her own experiences and life-events into stunning literature.

In principle, three novels that I read at various times in the 1990s, I think, made me realize what I wanted to write about. The first was Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy,’ about life and politics in modern India. The second was ‘Wild Swans; Three Daughters of China,’ by Jung Chang, about life and politics in China. The third was ‘House of the Spirits’ by Isabel Allende, about life and politics in Chile, though I couldn’t swear that I read them in that order.

However, it dawned on me that each novel was in fact an account of the experiences of each of those writers and their family as they lived through historic times. And it also dawned on me that my family and I have lived through historic times and experienced events that have had a far-reaching effect and continue to be of lasting significance. That is how I came to write my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game; A Child Between Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War,’ which is a fictionalized account of my childhood in post-war London and my experience of living in Jerusalem during the period leading up to Israel’s Six-Day War. Of course, I also referred to newspapers of the time and other material to make sure I got my facts right, but much of what I wrote was still engraved on my memory.

Then I wrote my second book, ‘Time Out of Joint, the Fate of a Family,’ in which I tried to reconstruct the life and times of my paternal grandparents in Germany in the interwar period and then during the Second World War. My focus was not so much on the events of the Holocaust, though that of course came into it, but rather an attempt to depict the everyday life of the Jewish bourgeoisie in Germany and the way in which this was undermined and eventually destroyed. In order to depict these characters I was fortunate to have extensive files of family correspondence and documents that my late father brought out of Germany with him, as well as what he had told me about his family. The main trigger for writing that book was, however, the plaque in their memory that my father had erected in Jerusalem, where it was brought home to me that although all five family members were born and lived in Hamburg, Germany, each one died in a different country, and in some cases even a different continent.

When you think about it, anyone who has lived through any part of the twentieth century has lived through momentous times, with two world wars, political upheavals galore, climate change and immense technological advances. Some may call it progress, and one must hope that the end-result of all this will be something positive, though political upheavals tend to cause at least as much suffering and privation as progress. Statistics show, however, that a far smaller proportion of the world’s population now lives in poverty than was the case fifty years ago.

After writing and publishing my first two books, I found that there were other subjects about which I felt compelled to write. The first of these (my third novel, also based loosely on personal experience) was about the perils and indignities of old-age and how these affect the various members of a family (‘Levi Koenig; A Contemporary King Lear,’); and the folly of English people who think that retirement in France will be paradise (‘Chasing Dreams and Flies; A Tragicomedy of Life in France’).

And now it’s time for novel number five, ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Plains; A Tale of Deception, Betrayal, and Vindication,’ about the effects of life in the American Midwest on an Israeli academic and his family, bearing in mind the fact that in 1985, when the events in the novel take place, the headquarters of the American Nazi Party was in the Midwest. My family and I spent a year in Nebraska in similar circumstances, so I do have some personal knowledge of the subject. Here, too, I made use of contemporary newspaper articles as well as my own memory and correspondence, but of course the actual characters and events are fictional. The ebook is already up and available on Amazon, and I hope it won’t be too long before it’s joined by the paperback. Once that’s done, I’ll be deep into getting novel number six, ‘A Ruffled Calm,’ ready to go, so keep your eyes open for future developments.

 

 

 

 

 

My new book. ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Plains,’

 

So, this is the moment I’ve been waiting for. My new book is out. Hooray! So far it’s only available as an ebook, but the paperback version is in the pipeline and will be available soon, I hope.

It’s taken about two years to write, which is almost twice as long as each of my previous four books have taken, partly due to its length and partly to its complexity. Of course, there is also my own dithering about what to say and how to say it, about how far to go with the various strands of the narrative — how evil to make the bad character, how far to embroil the hero in the various machinations, and to what extent to involve the themes of Jews, Israelis, sex and anti-Semitism.

Yes, all those themes and more are in the book, along with a whole bunch of other ideas and situations that cropped up in the course of writing.  Essentially, the book is based on my own experience of living in Nebraska for a year back in the 1980s, when my OH was employed at a university there. This involved uprooting our family from its environment and moving to a totally different culture and set of experiences.

At the time we had three children of varying ages, but in the book these have been whittled down to teenage twins who have a really hard time in the new place. They make their feelings known in no uncertain terms, both at home and at school. I found myself laughing and crying at some of the events they encountered and their reactions, whether real or imagined. 

The wife of the chief protagonist who has docilely followed her man as he goes ahead with forging his career finds the climate and stultifying atmosphere of the Midwest a bit too much to bear and derives consolation in attending an evening art class. This leads to her having an affair with the art teacher. Of course, this part is complete fiction, and no such situation arose in real life. In fact, it was then that I attended a creative writing course, run by a very nice lady writer, and started to write seriously. For that I will be eternally grateful for the chance to take that break out from the routine of life in Israel.

The people of Nebraska were almost invariably warm and welcoming, though this cannot be said for the climate, which has its own role to play in the novel. However, the American Nazi Party happened to have its headquarters in the area, and this manifested itself primarily in letters and items in the local paper, though there were indications that more ominous developments could arise. Fortunately these never came to fruition. Current events in the USA indicate that these trends have not abated and may even be growing in strength.

Thus, my novel is a mixture of fact and fiction, and it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins. What I earnestly hope is that I have created an interesting story with believable characters and a plot that will keep the reader laughing and crying and eager to find out what happens next.

The Kindle ebook is available on Amazon for only $2.99. so please do go ahead and buy a copy, and better still — write a nice review on Amazon.

 

 

 

‘Adieu Volodia’ by Simone Signoret

The name of the author, the actress Simone Signoret, caught my eye and I bought this book for 50 cents (521 pages, hardback) last summer while browsing the stalls at a village brocante, a kind of flea-market in rural France where the locals bring out the items they wish to sell.

On opening the book (published in French by France Loisirs, Paris. 1985) and starting to read I was stunned to find that I was reading the saga of two families of Polish Jews who emigrated to Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century, and so before too long I was engrossed in the account of the lives of the Guttman and Roginski families, their struggle to find their feet and make a living, their relations with one another and with the other residents of their building and their delight a few years later on obtaining their naturalization papers as French citizens. Of course, I had to struggle with the French language, and found myself referring quite often to my dictionary, but I could not tear myself away from the chronicle of their daily lives and the characters they encountered along the way.

Knowing Simone Signoret’s career as a film and theatre actress, I suppose it is no coincidence that as the story develops some of the characters find themselves involved to a greater or lesser extent with the French film industry, whether as seamstresses or furriers, as well as with political developments in the country. The history of Europe has a role to play in this inter-war period, together with memories of pogroms in the families’s countries of origin, of relatives lost and property destroyed. As the children of the families and their neighbours grow and develop we know that the clock of history is ticking, that the period of the Second World War and the German occupation of France is approaching and that the characters with whom we have become involved will have to face a period of darkness and danger.

Simone Signoret describes the individuals with a theatre-director’s eye, or perhaps it’s a cinematic eye, but it is also an ear and a nose, for her accounts of scenes, people, situations and incidents are always lively and convincing. The lives of people are always played out against the backdrop of world events, and it is with admirable skill that Signoret succeeds in combining the two threads.

This is less a novel about Jews than about people who are doing their best to fit in with the wider society, find their place and provide their children with the education that will equip them to function as adults, not knowing what lies ahead.The characters do not celebrate their Judaism or observe any traditions, but simply seek to find their place in the world and in modern-day Paris. The eponymous Volodia makes only a small appearance in the book, but he symbolizes the world that has been left behind and the tragic fate of the Jews there that has always been in evidence. Occasional references to conversations that take place in Yiddish are the only other acknowledgement of the characters’ place of origin.

The reader is spared lurid accounts of atrocities and brutality, and the description of the way Jewish residents of Paris are persuaded to accompany the French police to an unknown destination is presented with sensitivity and delicacy. By a quirk of fate (or of the author) the characters to whom we have become attached are spared the destiny of so many of France’s Jews, and we are also given an insight into some of the ways in which the Resistance worked to sabotage the plans of the Nazis, both in Paris and in the countryside.

At the end of the book Simone Signoret gives her own account of the process whereby she wrote the book, providing a fascinating insight into the workings of her mind and the way she tackled her subject-matter and the process of writing. Born in Germany to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, she seems to have been well-situated to describe both societies and the individuals who comprised them. She confesses that although she had always loved to write, as an actress it was considered advisable to present herself as illiterate rather than as a writer. There is no doubt, however, that she is (or rather was, she died in 1985, shortly after the publication of this book) a very talented author.

 

Home Again

 

As ever, returning to Israel after two months of absence is something of a culture shock, particularly when it comes to driving a car. One is reminded with alarm that rules are no longer rules, the word ‘courtesy’ does not exist in the Hebrew language and the overall feeling is that someone out there wants to kill me.

But humour and exaggeration aside, it is enough to get behind the wheel of a car to realise that the overall culture and philosophy of life in Israel is very different from that of rural France. And quite rightly so. What does the French farmer have to contend with other than the vagaries of the climate and the occasional encounter with a neighbour (although anyone who has seen the film ‘Jean de Florette’ might be led to believe otherwise)? Israel, on the other hand, has to fight for its existence, and that mindset seems to spill over into daily life.

But home is where the heart is, and my heart is definitely in Israel. My ‘vacation from my retirement’ was restful and productive, as is generally the case, and I managed to read (and even write) a great deal more than I do when I’m in Israel. I suppose that not having the distraction of television may have something to do with it. I only wish I could manage to avoid the constant barrage of news and information that emanates from my TV set during the normal course of the day when I’m in Israel. My inability to grasp the rapid speech of the news-readers on the radio in France helps in this respect, of course.

The last week of our holiday was spent in London which, as usual, provided all manner of delights. Meeting old friends, and renewing acquaintance with some with whom I’d lost contact, was wonderful, and I still dwell with amazement and joy on the memory of those renewed friendships (which I hope we will manage to maintain). Some old friends found me as a result of my articles in the AJR Journal, for which I’m eternally grateful.

In addition, in London there is the pleasure of attending theatre performances where the actors are trained to project their voices, so that there is no need to use a face microphone, as is the case in Israel. Learning to speak from the stage so that the entire auditorium can hear you is an essential part of an actor’s training in England, and that unfortunately does not seem to be the case in Israel. I find it annoying to be subjected to an artificially-projected voice and that, apart from the inferior standard of most plays in Israel, is why I avoid the theatre here. The standard of music, on the other hand, is as high as anywhere in the world, if not higher, so that serves as some compensation. And so, the two plays we managed to see in London (another great production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Imperium’ based on the writings of Cicero) were immensely enjoyable.

London seems to have become the polyglot centre of the world. Wherever you go you hear a dozen different (and not always identifiable) languages as you walk around. Oxford Street, the mecca of all shopping expeditions, is awash with people hurrying along in search of the perfect item to bring home in triumph. I joined the throng in eager anticipation of achieving just that objective (only partly fulfilled, I’m afraid).

And of course, the ultimate enjoyment, a pub lunch with the traditional fish and chips, or even bangers and mash, is an experience to be savoured far beyond any of the fine culinary delights on offer in France or even one of the better restaurants in London or elsewhere. Whether the sight – and particularly the sound – of dozens of Londoners watching a football game on the huge TV screens in the pub is so enjoyable is questionable, but there are some delights that have to be endured rather than enjoyed.

And finally, of course, there is always the comfort of ‘a nice cup of tea’ and a piece of cake or a chocolate digestive biscuit as one rests between excursions, museum tours, outings to places of interest or reunions with friends. Little things can also give enormous pleasure.

Yes, London is certainly full of delights, but there’s no denying that coming home to the bosom of one’s family and friends is the greatest delight of them all.

Red Sky at Noon by Simon Sebag-Montefiore

 

 

This book (published by Penguin, Random House, UK, 2017) gives a detailed account of the days leading up to the German attempt to take Stalingrad in the summer of 1942, doing so by tracing the exploits of a group of former prisoners, taken from the Gulag and given the chance to redeem themselves by becoming a special unit of the Russian army known as Shtrafniki.

Amongst the motley crew of murderers, swindlers and cut-throats, whom the reader learns to know and identify by name, is a Jew and former writer by the name of Benya Golden, whose death sentence for supposedly plotting to assassinate Stalin, has been commuted to a lifetime of hard labour in the Kolyma mines of the Gulag.

As part of the training of the new recruits they are formed into a cavalry troop, assigned horses and weapons, taught to ride and initiated into the niceties of methods of killing the enemy. The endless steppes of Russia form the backdrop to the events that follow as, having completed their training period, the men begin to advance toward the Don River, where Stalingrad is situated. Along the way they clash with enemy troops as well as with splinter-groups of other Russian units who have defected to the German side. Among the armies fighting alongside the Nazis are Italians, Ukrainians and Hungarians, most of whom are also on horseback, although some tanks are also involved. The Italians, recognizable by their feathered caps, display a more humane attitude to the civilian population, and are not as quick to murder and pillage as the other troops. Their army is also equipped with medical personnel and equipment for treating the wounded.

In that terrain and at that stage of the war cavalry was still utilized in combat, providing greater speed and ease of movement than tanks, and it is Golden’s horse, Silver Socks, who comes up trumps and rescues her rider from dangerous situations. Golden himself, who is the book’s main protagonist, manages to survive the various battles, and even to escape pursuit together with the Italian nurse who has tended his wounds, but eventually finds himself alone with two companions from his original troop. After various encounters with murderous Germans, a kind-hearted doctor who appears to be a defector and any number of enemy soldiers, he is invalided out of battle and ends up in a Moscow hospital.

Along the way, displaying considerable knowledge of the Soviet hierarchy and the Russian front, the author provides us with a glimpse into the workings of Stalin’s inner circle, life in the Kremlin, and the machinations which decide the fate of millions of subjects of the USSR. The entire fate of the country rests in the hands of a few powerful men, and it is their jealousies, rivalries and desires which determine which way the dice will fall.

The book ends with a series of surprises that leave the reader somewhat taken aback by the twists and turns, but without a doubt it is a well-written and thoroughly-researched read. The very informative epilogue gives the author’s insights into the process of researching and writing the book, and there is no doubt that it shines a light on a period of Russian and WWII history about which not very much is known.