‘How to Plan a Crusade; Religious War in the High Middle Ages’

This book, with its sixty pages of notes, twenty pages of bibliography, lavish illustrations and extensive index, is a thoroughly-researched study of events that took place between the late eleventh and mid-fourteenth centuries during which crusades were launched from Europe to the Levant. The author does not deal with the crusades chronologically, although he provides a list of dates and events at the beginning of the book. Rather, the book proceeds according to specific subjects in chapters devoted to them, such as Justification, Propaganda, Recruitment, Finance, Logistics, etc.

Furthermore, the level of detail in the book concerns every aspect of the broad topics covered. Thus, in the chapter on Logistics, we read how the boats that took the armies across the Mediterranean were constructed, and how they were adapted for the transportation of horses – an essential component of every fighting force at the time. Thus, as well as separate stalls in the ship’s hold, every stall contained a cloth cradle within which each horse would be strapped during the voyage, to prevent it from falling as the ship rolled.

I must admit that my knowledge of the various crusades was rather sketchy before I read this book. Now I know that the First Crusade, which succeeded in capturing Jerusalem from its Turkish rulers lasted from 1096 to 1099, was the result of preaching and instigation by the Pope and other clergy. This process culminated in the Council of Clermont, which proclaimed the Crusade, and set the wheels in motion for its execution, with the eventual establishment of crusader rule in the Levant. The Fifth and essentially final Crusade, which lasted from 1217 to 1221, ended in Muslim victory and the failure of the crusaders to recapture Jerusalem.

Where I live, just outside Jerusalem, there is a hilltop called Kastel with the remains of a Crusader castle, which in turn was built on top of a former Roman stronghold. In fact, throughout modern Israel (as well as Lebanon, Jordan and Syria) there are remains of crusader castles and other edifices. I have toured the impressive halls once inhabited by the Templars which have been excavated in Acre, the last crusader stronghold before their defeat by Saladin’s successors in 1291. I have also visited the site of the battle of Hattin (Hittin in Hebrew) in Galilee, where Saladin routed the crusader forces in 1187, marking the beginning of the end of the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.

Thus, between 1099 and 1291 Christian forces ruled some or even most of what was known as the Holy Land, or Outremer for the French, establishing what was known as the Kingdom of Jerusalem with European rulers, benefiting from the local crops and other produce, trading with the countries of the region and interacting with the local population.

Organising a crusade involved a great deal of planning, such as prior knowledge of the geography of the various regions, the vagaries of possible land and sea routes, the need to find food and equipment for the troops, the nature of the indigenous populations of the countries on the route, and the necessity of negotiating treaties with the rulers of those regions. Prior to each successive crusade (there were five main ones, as well as several minor ones) various members of the clergy would embark on preaching tours throughout Europe to rally support among the local populace and set in process the arrarngements for amassing men, weapons and materiel for the promulgation of what was seen as a holy war to rescue the places sacred to Christians from the hands of infidels (i.e., Muslims).

Fired up by a combination of religious fervor, the promise of salvation and remission of sins, as well as the possibility of material gain, many thousands of the inhabitants of the countries of Europe gathered together to make their way to the ports or other points of departure for the Levant. The rulers of each country, supported by the local aristocracy, were also instrumental in the crusades, providing physical, financial and moral support for the venture. Taxation was an important element in the funding of each crusade, and in many instances the various monarchs used the opportunity to impose additional taxes on the local population, including the Jewish communities (whose property was often expropriated). The massive forces mustered sometimes attacked local populations, and this was especially so with regard to Jewish communities along the Rhineland (Worms, Wormaisa, Mainz), where large numbers of Jews were massacred.

The crusades were not limited to fighting against the Turks or whoever controlled the Holy Land. In 1208 what was known as the Albigensian Crusade was initated by the Pope against the Cathars in the Languedoc region of southern France who adhered to a different version of Christianity than the Catholicism of Western Europe. This resulted in the deaths of many thousands of the local population. Between 1239 and 1268 periodical ‘crusades’ were launched against the Hohenstaufen rulers of Germany and Sicily by rival German dukes. The various Popes were actively involved in the crusades, and usually also instigated them.

The overall picture one gets is that war was a way of life for all or most of Europe, which was on a war footing for a large part of the Middle Ages (and certainly beyond that, too). This can perhaps even be traced back to 1066, when William, Duke of Normandy, massed forces, crossed the channel and invaded England. War seems to have been a way of life for large segments of the population, so that its promulgation, organization and implementation, as well as its sanction by the religious authorities, constituted an integral part of daily life, affecting every stratum of society. This was what determined the fates of millions of inhabitants of Europe for many centuries, even until quite recently.

One can only hope that the age of wars in Europe has now come to an end.

Speaking Out

In these difficult times Israel finds itself facing a fresh scandal on an almost daily basis. The latest was the bold statement made by the outgoing head of a hospital situated in the ultra-orthodox town of Bnei Braq, and hence treating primarily that population.

As a rule I prefer not to write about negative aspects of life in Israel, or to tackle political issues which are amply covered in the media. Given the current situation, however, matters seem to have got out of hand, and this bodes ill for the future.

In a radio interview to mark his departure, Professor Motti Ravid had some harsh things to say about the population he has been serving for the last twenty years. The views he expressed were essentially akin to those held by large segments of the general population in Israel, though because of political considerations they are not often voiced out loud by public officials.

The vast majority of Israel’s population is secular, or at most traditional. Some segments adhere to the full panoply of religious precepts, but they are a minority. Most Israelis are happy to mark the various festivals that punctuate the year with traditional observances such as lighting candles (Chanuka) or holding a token Seder and eating matza (Pesach), and that’s about as far as it goes. They still want to go to the sea or a national park on the Sabbath, eat out in all kinds of restaurants or drive to visit friends and relatives whenever it suits them. Living in Israel enables one to identify as Jewish without having to be observant.

When Israel was founded its first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, agreed to exempt a small quota of ultra-orthodox Jews from serving in the military. Since then the political clout wielded by ultra-orthodox politicians has extended that quota considerably, as well as managing to extort enormous sums from the government to support those communities, whose birth-rates are far higher than those of the general population.

And so today, in the middle of the twenty-first century, the general Israeli population finds itself supporting a huge and growing ultra-orthodox segment that has come to constitute a millstone round its neck. These groups of ultra-orthodox Jews cling to modes of behaviour, dress and religious observance that were current in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Most of them do not work, do not pay taxes, do not serve in the military, and thus benefit from the efforts of the rest of the population.

When restrictions were imposed on the entire country in order to stem the tide of coronavirus infections, several ultra-orthodox groups blatantly ignored the ban on large-scale gatherings by insisting on congregating together for mass prayers and festivities. The latest lockdown imposed on the country as a whole was in part due to their refusal to abide by these restrictions, as well as to their politicians’ threats to cease supporting the current government if the restrictions were imposed selectively on areas with a high proportion of ultra-orthodox residents, which is where infection rates are highest.

Thus, many ultra-orthodox groups appear to have made it part and parcel of their ethos to hold the rest of the country to ransom, and it was the good doctor, Professor Rabid, who pointed this out fairly and squarely, without quailing before the repercussions to his position and reputation.

Israel’s tragedy is that the current government, and especially the individual at its head, show themselves only too ready to kowtow to the threats and pressure exerted by the ultra-orthodox and their leaders.

Once the coronavirus is beaten and the world – Israel included – can return to normality of some kind, it will be time for a thorough reassessment of the values and political systems that have prevailed to date.

Newspapers and I

I have read at least one daily newspaper almost since I could read. At my parents’ home in London we had the luxury (which we took for granted) of having a morning newspaper put through our letterbox every morning, so that it was there on the mat, waiting for whoever was the first to come downstairs. Originally it was the News Chronicle, and when that failed it was the (Manchester) Guardian. When my father came home from work each evening he would have the Evening Standard under his arm, and it would be eagerly seized and read by myself and my sisters. Sunday mornings were always the highlight of the week when I could delve into the Observer and soak up the delights provided by its erudite reporters, feature writers, columnists and book and theatre reviewers.

More recently, whenever I made my annual pilgrimage to London in pre-Corona days, I would marvel at the fact that the Evening Standard was freely available (albeit full of rubbish) and wished my father had lived long enough to see that.

Since making my home in Israel my consumption of newsprint has not declined. At first I was limited to the Jerusalem Post, which was not very satisfactory back in those distant pre-Six-Day War days, when Israel was still finding its feet in the world, and in journalism, too. But my knowledge of Hebrew was not up to reading the Hebrew press, and it wasn’t until many years later that I found myself preferring to read the Ha’aretz morning paper in Hebrew, even though today it is also available in English. I suppose that spending many years translating texts of various kinds from Hebrew to English must have honed my Hebrew-reading and comprehension skills.

Some years ago, when I was offered a job in the Government Press Office in Jerusalem, I jumped at the opportunity. However, I soon found that the nature of the work involved far more than simply reading and summarising the Hebrew press. The work was done in awkward shifts which unhinged my home life, the pay was low, the physical conditions were shabby, the equipment unfriendly and office rivalries prevailed. It did not take long for me to realise that I was not cut out for that kind of work, and resigned in short order, relieved to be able to continue my leisurely (and more profitable) work as a free-lance translator.

These days, since I am an early riser, I delight in the start of my day, when I can read the paper in peace as I drink a cup of coffee and nibble a Hobnob or (chocolate) digestive biscuit (now easily available in Israel, thank goodness). Even though it may still be dark, by six in the morning the paper has usually been delivered, while my house and the street where I live are still at rest. The birds are just beginning to chirp and sing, and even the neighbours’ dogs are still asleep.

Sometimes I’m up even before the paper has arrived. It comes wrapped in a plastic bag and is usually deposited at the far edge of our driveway, which means that I have to take a few steps outside to retrieve it. If there is no sign of the paper, I go out onto the pavement and look up the road to see if there is some indication that it is on its way, the indication being the headlights of the car of the lady who distributes the paper to the various subscribers in our area. If I see the headlights gradually coming closer, I stand at the end of our driveway and as the car draws near, instead of chucking the paper out of her window, the lady hands it to me with a smile. We each greet one another with ‘boker tov’ (good morning) and we then go our respective ways. I to sit in comfort and read the day’s (usually depressing) news, and she to bring the information to the other poor blighters who are still sound asleep.

‘A Notable Woman; the Romantic Journals of Jean Lucey Pratt’ edited by Simon Garfield


Jean Lucey Pratt began writing a journal in April 1925, when she was fifteen years old, and continued doing so for sixty years. She lived through much of the twentieth century, and experienced most of its principal events. She recorded the mundane happenings of her daily routine as well as disclosing the feelings, desires and experiences that occupied her mind. The editor has gone through the large number of exercise books that Jean bought from Woolworth’s and has presented the reading public with an all-encompassing picture of the diarist, though inevitably forced to be selective.

Her family (her parents and older brother) lived in a large house in Wembley, which at the time was still a semi-rural suburb of London. Her mother died when she was thirteen and her father remarried, to a woman whom Jean understandably found it difficult to like. Nevertheless, her relationship with her step-mother lasted throughout most of her life, long after her father’s death, and eventually developed into one of affection, much to this reader’s surprise.

Jean started studying architecture at London University but failed some exams and was told she would have to repeat the second year, whereupon she abandoned her studies and decided to study journalism. However, the friendships she made during her student days remained with her throughout her life. She endeavoured to forge a career for herself as a writer, and even managed eventually to get a book published. Her biography of the eighteenth-century actress, Peggy Wooffington, who was the mistress of George II, was published under a pseudonym in 1952, but she never managed to get anything else published.

She seems to have invested a great deal of her writing energies in her diary, and it was there that her character, loves and disapointments are revealed with disarming and sometimes heartbreaking honesty. There were too many failed love affairs, too many unreliable or simply dastardly men, leaving her pining for someone to love and be loved by. But it never happened. Time and again she was let down by the man she thought was ‘the one,’ and time and again she confides her stricken heartache to her diary.

I myself was living in London for some of the time she records in her diary, and it is interesting to read her accounts of listening to the same programmes on the radio, the broadcasts of plays or concerts, as well as to read her opinions of books that she read. She was an educated woman, went to the theatre and concerts, as well as to lectures and other cultural events, in which of course London abounds. In her early thirties she moved to a country cottage, which must have been in a very primitive state, as we learn that it had only one outside toilet, and no proper bathroom until she had been living there for some twenty years. But it had a large garden, was in a beautiful setting, enabling her to indulge in her passion for cats, of which she had many. Nonetheless, she bemoaned having to attend to many domestic chores even though she almost always had ‘a woman from the village’ to do the heavy work.

During the Second World War Jean worked in the office of an industrial fimr in Slough, riding there and back on her bike, as so many people did in those days, often having to make her way through the heavy fog which affected England at that time. Her work also brought her into contact with another of the philandering men who stole her heart and then broke it. She admits quite openly to her need for sex and her almost constant sense of hopelessness and physical frustration.

Eventually, as middle-age descends, there is a greater sense of contentment in the entries. Although having to contend with financial difficulties for most of her adult life, she never dreams of abandoning her cats. She tries several times to stop smoking, but fails every time until a sudden illness and consequent surgery completely stifles her desire for a cigarette (she had been smoking about 30 or 40 a day).

On the day the Nuremberg trials began in Germany she records a discussion at lunch at work about Jews, quoting the vaguely anti-Semitic comments her companions make, but making no judgment of her own (November 1945). One indication of her feeling on the subject may be inferred from the veritable tirade she writes in referring to the concentration camps in April 1945: “The horrors that have been revealed by the Allies are past belief…how any human being in a so-called civilized nation could treat other human beings like that… We just cannot understand it.”

She lived through the Second World War in which London and other cities were bombed, and expresses sympathy for all those forced into underground shelters. She even mentions the arrival of “Rudolf Hess (sic.) Nazi Party leader and Hitler’s deputy…It is the best piece of news we have been given for months.” (May 1941). She pronounces her disappointment at not having lost her virginity until she was well over thirty, but she eventually rejoices in being a virgin no longer. She also makes comments about current events, such as the unexpected death of King George and “the idea of that shy, charming young mother Princess Elizabeth as Queen now is too massive to take in properly (February 1952).” For the last twenty years of her life she ran a bookshop in the village, which caused her both happiness and financial difficulties.

All in all, the book constitutes a fascinating, well-written account of the daily life of a fairly average woman in the course of the events that shaped twentieth-century England.

Louisville, Kentucky


 It’s just a fairly obscure town in the USA where a woman of colour was recently shot and killed, and the subsequent decision by the court not to indict any of the three policemen involved for a serious crime has given rise to demonstrations and riots there and elsewhere. But it has a connection with my family’s past.

In 1928 Herbert van Son, the uncle I never knew, was a young man of nineteen. The family lived in Hamburg and his father was a successful importer of tobacco. He arranged for his son to travel to Louisville and work as an apprentice to a business associate who was a tobacco farmer and trader there. He writes about the hot, damp climate and the warm relations between him and his employer, who helped him get settled and even took him to the Kentucky Derby. It was all interesting but very different to the life he had known in Hamburg,

Herbert, like most of the members of his family, was an inveterate letter-writer. Every week a typed letter describing his experiences and encounters in Louisville’s tobacco farming and processing industry would arrive in the family home in Hamburg. His initial tentative steps in the field eventually led to his being given ever more responsible positions, such as improving the speed and efficiency with which the blending process was managed. He writes home that “All the negroes here regard me as the ‘Big German Boss,’ simply because I don’t talk to them as if they were dogs, and I don’t go around with a gun in my pocket, like the other managers do, indicating their ridiculous arrogance and stupidity…”

After spending a year in Louisville and the surrounding area, Herbert was asked to manage the Chinese branch of the American tobacco company to which he had been apprenticed. After a brief trip back to Hamburg to see his family, he set off overland to Shanghai, taking a series of trains culminating in a week-long journey on the Trans-Siberia express. Before leaving Hamburg he traced his route with his younger brother, Manfred, who eventually became my father.

Herbert’s letters, which were written in German, were carefully collected and filed by his parents, and that file was among the few possessions my late father was able to take out of Germany when he fled the country in December 1938, after Kristallnacht.

There are no letters from Herbert from Shanghai. The family was informed a few days after his arrival of his death there by suicide, and the anguished correspondence between his father and the Jewish community there regarding the gravestone is all that remains.

In 2002 my father commissioned the translation of the letters, which I undertook together with Miriam Ron. The letters, which were published in book form as ‘The Tobacco Road; Hamburg, Kentucky, Shanghai,’ trace the brief trajectory of Herbert van Son’s life.

Several years later, I spent some time in the British Library’s Newspaper Department in Stanmore, London, as my father was sure that there had been a newspaper report of the incident. Lo and behold, in the May 25 edition of the ‘North China Herold,’ the English-language weekly newspaper that appearend in Shanghai at the time, I came across an irem headed ‘Tragedy in a Bathroom; Young Foreigner Found Dead: Suggested Suicide.’ My sharp intake of breath when I found it caused heads to turn, but blessed silence was soon restored.

And so, every mention of Louisville, Kentucky, brings back the memory of the bright young man who came to a tragic end at the other side of the world.

P.S. I have imagined Herbert and the other members of the family in my novel, ‘Time Out of Joint, the Fate of a Family,’ available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Time-Out-Joint-Family-Historical-ebook/dp/B00L96LKUI/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Time+Out+of+Joint%2C+the+Fate+of+a+Family&qid=1551801977&s=digital-text&sr=1-1-catcorr



Tracking the Fate of my Grandparents

“We don’t know anything about what happened to our (mutual) grandparents. Our parents never talked about them,” my American cousins told me when I visited them last year.

The two sons of my mother’s brother, the late Dr. Kurt Hirsch, live comfortable lives in Virginia. Jack and Harry and their families maintain their connection with Israel and Judaism, and are loyal American citizens. We have not grown up together, for obvious reasons, but over the years we have kept in touch, whether by letters, email or occasional visits to one another’s country. We are all more or less the same age, which helps to keep the bond between us strong.

I did not have much information about what happened to our grandparents, Max and Paula Hirsch, either. I knew only that in 1940 they had been due to leave their home town of Sprottau, Silesia (then Germany, today Poland), to make their way to Cuba at some point, but had never arrived. The whole thing was a mystery, and had obviously caused immense grief to their children: my mother in England, her brother and sister on either coast of the USA, and another sister in Israel.

I mentioned this to my cousin in Israel (son of my mother’s sister) and he claimed to have very little knowledge of the subject, though he sent me copies of the memorial pages (Gedankblatte) his mother had filled out for her parents for Yad Vashem. For both Max and Paula Hirsch the details of when and where they had died were ‘unbekannt’ (unknown). There is no record of them in any official archive.

“Don’t you remember? We found the Red Cross messages between them and our mother in their flat after Dad died,” my sister reminded me when I told her about this. And then it came back to me.

Over the course of a year my two sisters and I would meet one evening each week to clear out the contents of our father’s flat. One small box tucked away in a cupboard contained some tiny dolls that had evidently come from our mother’s childhood home. The box also contained the few Red Cross messages (sent from Red Cross Message Bureau 80 at 130 Station Road, Hendon N.W.4) she had sent to her parents in 1941 and their replies to her from Germany. The flimsy paper used at the time was disintegrating, and after much heart-searching we decided to deposit those precious mementos for safekeeping in the Yad Vashem archive. We were given photocopies of the pages, and it was with a heavy heart that we left the originals there.

After being reminded of their existence by my sister, I located the photocopies, typed the texts into my computer, and promptly sent the file to my sisters and my cousins.

The first Red Cross letter was sent from Sprottau and is dated 29 July 1941. The number of words is limited to twenty, and mentions hopes of reaching Cuba via Barcelona. The next Red Cross letter from Sprottau is dated 19 November 1941 and notes that the journey to Cuba seems unlikely. This is followed by a Western Union Cable from Norfolk, Virginia, evidently from my uncle, dated 12 November 1941 and stating solely ‘LEFT FOR CUBA.’ How he knew this I don’t know, and nor it seems do my cousins. My uncle had presumably arranged the visa for Cuba, and also sent tickets for the voyage.

The last Red Cross letter from my grandparents was sent from Leignitz, which was then (22 March, 1942) in Germany but is now in Poland. It states that they are well, and that they hope to be reunited with their children.

Of course, that was not to be, and they probably knew that by then. I have no idea why they went to Leignitz, though they may have been ordered by the Gestapo to report there, as it seems that from there they were deported to one of the concentration camps. Or shot. Nobody knows.

While browsing Facebook a few days ago, I came across a question asked by one of the members of a group of descendants of Holocaust survivors asking till when it had been possible for Jews to leave Germany.

One of the replies contained the link to the Jewish Virtual Library, and the order issued by the Gestapo on 23 October 1941 (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/order-banning-the-emigration-of-jews-from-the-reich) banning Jews from emigrating from the Reich. Among the comments were accounts of people whose relatives had escaped by boarding a train in October 1941 that went from Berlin to Lisbon. The train was sealed and guarded by the Gestapo, and the journey took five or six days. Passengers remained in Lisbon for a few days, before sailing to America or Cuba.

So it seems that for reasons unknown my grandparents could not get to the train that was to be their salvation in time to leave that benighted country. Just another story of pain and grief like countless others, but it’s my own and my family’s private pain and grief.

A Name to Conjure With

The name of England’s Foreign Secretary in 1917, Arthur Balfour, has been given to one of the more prestigious streets in Jerusalem, as is only fitting. After all, the official statement known as the Balfour Declaration, in which the Zionist leadership, as represented by Lord Walter Rothschild, was informed therein that “his Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people…” helped to give a seal of official approval to what had till then been a collection of piece-meal efforts to establish a Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

It did not do the trick, but it helped, and with that encouragement Jewish settlement in the region continued, being bolstered subsequently by the British victory over the Ottoman forces in the region. Despite Arab opposition and many setbacks, the Jewish settlement project persisted, culminating in the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

So it seems rather ironic to hear in the press these days that the name of Balfour is used to represent two contradictory phenomena in the context of modern Israel, depending on one’s point of view.

First, the fact that the fine building at the top of Balfour St. now houses the official residence of Israel’s prime minister and his family has taken on an additional meaning. The behaviour, some would say shenanigans, of the first lady, Sarah Netanyahu, with regard to the staff of the official residence – even leading to court cases being brought against her by former employees – has led to the term ‘Balfour’ being used to represent the actions of the first family. Somehow ‘Balfour’ has become synonymous with ‘misbehaviour’ of various kinds on the part of the various members of the first family (there is also an adult son, Yair, who lives with his parents, has no known occupation and seems to spend his time attacking the media and defending his parents on social media).

A few months ago a handful of people started demonstrating outside the prime minister’s residence on a constant basis. Then it became a regular Saturday night event, eventually snowballing into gatherings of many thousands of dissatisfied citizens. There were calls for Netanyahu to resign in the face of his pending trial on several counts of misuse of his office, demands for compensation from small business-people who had lost their livelihoods, calls from artists, actors and musicians to reinstate public performances, and other groups with complaints of various kinds. Speeches were made, noisemakers were brought into action, the police tried unsuccessfully to break up the demonstrations – sometimes doing so violently – and an attempt at a counter-demonstration failed miserably. And still they demonstrate each week.

The demonstrators simply won’t go away, and since they’re located, you guessed it, outside the official residence, they’re also known as ‘Balfour.’ So, depending which side of the political divide you’re on and which particular section of the spectrum you’re referring to, the epithet ‘Balfour’ is bandied about to mean pretty much anything and everything.

As is often the case, it is important to pay attention to the context of what is being said, by whom and to whom it is addressed. Sometimes, in the fast-moving world of today’s electronic media, it isn’t always possible to work out exactly who is the object of opprobrium of any given report, article or interview, but there’s nothing wrong with making a little effort to try and understand what it is and why.

What is really saddening is that the name of the illustrious statesman Arthur Balfour is being maligned in this way.

P.S. My latest book, ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors,’ describes life in Israel in 1983. It’s available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Friends-Neighbors-Traitors-Dorothea-Shefer-Vanson-ebook/dp/B087G5NMGY

‘By the Olive Groves: a Calabrian Childhood’ by Grazia Ietto Gillies



In these Corona-dominated times, when travel is well-nigh impossible, we can console ourselves to some extent by reading about the places we would like to visit, and this book certainly fills that gap.

I really enjoyed reading this book, which describes the author’s childhood in a remote village in the southern Italian region of Calabria. Grazia Ietto Gillies, who is today an academic economist living in London, writes in an entertaining and insightful way, describing daily life in the village, the relationships within the nuclear and wider family, the way goods and services were provided and, best of all – the food her mother cooked. Thus, each of the twenty-five chapters ends with recipes as well as instructions for preparing the food mentioned in the chapter.

Only the first ten years of the author’s life (1939 to 1949) were spent in Calabria, as subsequently the family moved to Rome, but the memory of those childhood years is evidently still deeply embedded in her memory, and she is able to perfectly convey the feelings, aromas and activities she experienced growing up in that environment.

The life that is described in the book is basic, involving many hours of labour-intensive activity on the part of the housewife. Grazia’s family home had electricity and running water, which was not the case for all the families in the village performed by Grazia’s mother, but it took time until machines which could do many of Grazia’s mother’s daily chores arrived in that mountain-top village. The lack of a refrigerator meant that a daily visit to the market to see what was on offer and decide what to cook was an essential part of her mother’s daily routine.

In those early years, especially during and immediately after the war (WWII), food was not plentiful and people learned to make do with the fruit and vegetables that were readily available. Thus, there were figs and grapes in the summer, as well as chestnuts and olives at other times of the year, while nourishing soups were made from dandelions and other plants growing wild in the area. Women invested a great deal of time in bottling and preserving the fruit and vegetables that were plentiful in their season.

Particularly fascinating is the author’s account of her schooldays. At that time the village did not have a school building, although one was built later. Instead, each class was situated in a rented room in one of the houses. The account of the attempt of one unfortunate substitute teacher to keep the class interested had me in fits of laughter. Having decided to read out part of de Amici’s book Cuore (The Heart), which describes the (mis)adventures of a boy in search of his mother, children and teacher ended up ‘sobbing and wailing uncontrollably.’ The door suddenly opened to reveal the landlady, who threatened to throw them all out of her house if they did not ‘stop this nonsense and noise in my house immediately.’ The author concludes by recounting that she found out the end of the story only many years later, when she bought a copy of the book and read it for herself.

One of the first chapters describes the milkman arriving in the morning outside the family home with his goats and proceeding to milk one of them into the receptacle provided by Grazia’s mother. Other chapters describe the role of the church and the various festivals, the games the children played, the many members of the wider family (whose photographs are included), since both sets of grandparents and most of her parents’ adult siblings were still living in or near the village, and of course the relations between the various inhabitants of the village.

Many of the recipes seem easy to make and require simple but fresh ingredients. Salient among the lessons I am taking away from this book are the importance of good quality olive oil and the idea that it is better to tear up fresh basil leaves into a dish at the last moment instead of incorporating the herb in the cooking process. In some of the recipes the author adds the adaptations she has made for them to the ingredients available to her in London.

You can read about my take on expatriates’ life in France in my novel, ‘Chasing Dreams and Flies; a Tragi-Comedy of Life in France,’ https://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Dreams-Flies-Tragicomedy-France-ebook/dp/B01LW3D212

Hosting a Friend


This week I’m hosting a long-term friend of mine, Norma Levinson-Sedler, who is a talented writer and gifted rhymester. She has written the ‘ditty’ below, which is called ‘The Aftermath of the Ten Plagues.’ Enjoy!

Moses Crossy

Also Bossy

We don’t Likey

This long Hikey

Sun is Bakey

Feet are achey

Air is scaldy

O, Vivaldi!

Nasty Wavey

Not so Bravey

Bloody Muddy

Mumble Grumble

Manna Crummy

Dicey Tummy

Forty Yeary

Weary Dreary


Up there

Moses goeses

Days are Forty

People Naughty

Dancy Prancy

Taking Chancy

Pretty Calfy

Made of Goldy

Moses Scoldy

Splutter stutter

Loses raggy

Chucks from Craggy

Smashy Bashy

Wordy Lordy.

God Almighty

What a frighty.

Forty lines

Is in this story

Getting borey

God in Heaven

Thanks for Leaven

Nessun Dorma

Good night. Norma



On Becoming an Old Curmudgeon

One Friday night, when my grandchildren tried to tell me a joke (in Hebrew) and my sole response was to point out the linguistic fallacy involved, it dawned on me that I had become an old curmudgeon. And a bilingual one at that.

What riled me in that particular instance was the omission of the ‘h’ at the beginning of a word (and was the crux of that particular joke), which has become endemic in Hebrew in recent years. In English it is a sign of lack of education or a specific dialect, but is not common in received pronunciation. It is typical of the Cockney form of speech that characterises less-educated Londoners. It is also a built-in feature of current French pronunciation (though I gather that in mediaeval France it was pronounced, which is how I heard it sung by an ensemble performing the songs of French troubadours).

Be that as it may, in Hebrew the absence of the aspirated consonant at the beginning of a word can give rise to great confusion, and even dismay, as happened in my case. I hate the idea of becoming a stickler for proper language use (popularly known as a grammar-Nazi), but if we let our standards slide we will lose the ability to communicate in a meaningful and intelligent way.

There are other expressions that have come into common usage in Hebrew that irk my purist ear, and I see that I am not alone in this. Whenever someone who is being interviewed on TV uses the expression ‘zot-hi’ (omitting the ‘h’ to boot) instead of ‘zot’ the Hebrew transcription at the bottom of the screen contains only ‘zot,’ indicating that the language editor has rejected the jargon term. When I heard that a new restaurant called ‘Zotti’ had opened near us I knew that I would never set foot in that particular institution.

Another bugbear is the over-use of ‘ke-ilu’ which is the Hebrew equivalent of ‘like’ as used originally, meaninglessly and extensively in teenage speak but which has now entered into common usage. I hear politicians who should know better using all the terms I have denigrated above, and although I have no great love for Benjamin Netanyahu I have to give him credit for his correct usage of Hebrew (as well as English).

Sadly, the situation with regard to contemporary English is also in the process of sending my blood-pressure soaring. From where did the ugly expression ‘I/he/she was sat/stood’ come from? Has the average English person decided to abandon the present continuous tense? I continue to be horrified by this expression whenever I encounter it, but I’m sorry to say I have heard it used even by announcers who should certainly know better.

And of course, the endemic ‘like,’ as in ‘I was…like…’ instead of ‘I said…,’ not forgetting ‘she felt like she was drowning’ instead of ‘as if’ is also anathema to my ears, and to my eyes when I see it on the printed page. But it seems to stem from America, that land of linguistic mystery, where language usage is different, and almost every verb has to be embellished with a preposition, as in ‘head up’ instead of ‘head,’ ‘talk with’ instead of ‘talk to’ and goodness only knows how they manage to twist the simple term ‘visit’ to mean a simple telephone conversation, or ‘school’ to mean college or even university. But American usage is a world unto itself, and it is not for me to criticize the language used by our cousins across the ocean, merely to bewail its insidious entry into standard British usage.

There are other terms that rile me. Where did ‘so fun’ spring from? What’s wrong with ‘such fun’ or ‘so much fun’? And I also find that turning the word ‘concern’ into an adjective, as in ‘a concerning development’ is tremendously annoying. There are plenty of synonyms for the term, and it seems to me to be an insult to proper English usage to twist the meaning of a word to suit someone’s limited vocabulary (shades of ‘Alice in Wonderland’).

I have the feeling that I’m the only person left in the English-speaking world who cares where the word ‘only’ is placed in a sentence, as even learned books by university professors, not to mention newspaper articles, novels and of course everyday speech, almost invariably misplace it when using it to modify an expression. Thus, in a rather serious book by an Oxford don the sentence ‘archival evidence for them only surfaces during the Third Crusade’ is wrong, in my opinion, as the term referred to here is ‘during’ not ‘surfaces.’ A couple of pages later I came across, ‘Bernard of Clairvaux could only preach in French.’ Obviously the ‘only’ should qualify ‘in French’ rather than ‘preach.’ There are many more such examples, but nobody seems to care about that sort of thing these days, namely, precise and correct usage of the wonderful tool that is the English language.

I fear that I will have to remain mired in my antiquated attachment to the correct English of my youth, and continue to be adamant in my refusal to move with the times. And so, I will continue to constitute the solitary rearguard action against allowing the (mis)use of language to take over the treasure which is English.

You can see my novel, ‘The Balancing Game; a Child Between Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War,’ at: https://www.amazon.com/BALANCING-Between-Worlds-Society-Approaching-ebook/dp/B00PQKHVG0/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=The+Balancing+Game&qid=1551802061&s=digital-text&sr=1-3