Refugees

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Picture: Government Press Office: Refugees from Sudan in Jerusalem’s Rose Garden

 

 

I know I’ve written about this subject before, but it’s one that simply isn’t going to go away, and in fact is getting worse every day, every hour, every minute.

Many of these unfortunates come from Africa, from countries where conflicts, poverty, corruption and hopelessness are endemic. Others come from Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Libya where orderly government has collapsed, wars are being fought and no one is safe from danger.

They are the refugees who, like the poor, are always with us.

Most people reading this know at first hand or at one or two removes what the word refugee means. It is a word that has defined an entire generation of Jews who were forced to flee their homes in Europe. And even though I was born in England, to this day I still proudly define myself as ‘the daughter of refugees.’

The Jews of Europe who tried to find shelter in the years following Hitler’s rise to power were subjected to rigorous restrictions. A sponsor or place of employment had to be found, a place of residence guaranteed or an affidavit provided, and to all this were added the exorbitant taxes that had to be paid in order to be allowed to leave Germany. The heartbreak arising from having to leave home and family was not confined solely to the children who were fortunate enough to get a place on one of the Kindertransport trains.

At that time no one thought of getting into a crowded rubber dinghy and throwing themselves on the mercy of some kind person out there. No one expected to be provided with food and accommodation after enduring a hazardous journey and being exposed to the elements. The nearest thing to that experience may have been that of the illegal immigrants to pre-State Israel, but that did not save very many Jews from the fate that the Nazis had prepared for them.

Mankind has always been on the move. Millions of years ago Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens migrated from one part of the African and European continents to another in search of food and shelter. Migration is an integral part of human nature and, as we all know, there have been more than a few battles for territory and booty in the course of human history. But unless one tribe was being threatened with extinction by another, the people involved in this kind of movement could not be defined as refugees. What we are witnessing today is a different kind of mass migration, but for roughly similar reasons.

Israel has its own refugee problem. First there are the Palestinians who left Israel in the course of the War of Independence in 1948, and who have been deliberately kept in that state of limbo ever since. Their children and grandchildren have the same refugee status and demands as the first generation. They continue to live in poverty and privation in UN-sponsored refugee camps and are not enabled to obtain citizenship in the Arab countries where those camps are situated.

The contrast with the Jewish refugees who left Europe and scattered all over the world in the 1930s and 1940s, rapidly becoming self-supporting, is striking. Furthermore, Jews who were expelled penniless and en masse from Muslim countries in 1948, after the establishment of the State of Israel, were taken in and absorbed by the nascent nation to the best of its ability, and on the whole have become an integral part of society, leaving their mark on its culture and economy.

In the last few years Israel has been forced to contend with the problem of people coming from Sudan and Eritrea, seeking refuge and a way out of the conflicts and poverty that afflict their countries. Faced with a constant flow of these refugees, Israel built a fence to prevent their entry from Egypt, and a special holding camp for those who nonetheless managed to enter. Some of them have found low-paid work, but many of them constitute an almost insoluble problem. Israel’s Supreme Court has recently ruled against their protracted imprisonment in camps, so that now the ball is in the hands of the politicians once more.

Many Israelis come from families that were themselves once refugees, and, as I do, find it difficult to harden their heart to the problem of today’s refugees.

 

Books and Brocantes

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It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Every village in central France – and possibly elsewhere, for all I know – holds a brocante once a year, when locals and anyone interested can set up a stall and sell anything that they feel is superfluous to their needs.

In other words, it’s an opportunity to get rid of Stuff. And there’s an awful lot of it about, it seems. It may be their parents’ and grandparents’ discarded household goods, collections of interior design magazines, children’s clothes and toys, odds and ends that have accumulated in the house over the years, and anything and everything that comes to mind.

I’ve been a dedicated follower of brocantes ever since I first discovered them several years ago. The thing about brocantes is to go with an open mind, as you never know what you might find there. I did not go looking for crystal wine glasses, but over the years I have acquired more than a few, as well as a few crystal flutes— ideal for drinking champagne. So now I have also acquired the champagne habit, although I haven’t yet descended (or is it ascended?) to the level of my Australian neighbor who drinks only champagne when he’s on holiday.

So, when the local village announced it would be holding its annual brocante last week, I decided it would be a good opportunity to try and sell my latest book, ‘Levi Koenig, A Contemporary King Lear.’

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As I also dabble in painting (in watercolors), I have developed the habit of using one or another of my paintings for the covers of my books. My first novel, ‘The Balancing Game; A Child Between Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War,’ was published in conjunction with an American publisher, and they prepared the cover, using one of my paintings. I thought that the cover was good enough as these things go, but was later told that it was not inviting, and would not attract readers. This may or may not have been why its sales were poor, but for this and other reasons I decided not to stay with that publisher.

My second novel, ‘Time Out of Joint, the Fate of a Family,’ was self-published on Amazon and itrs cover was based entirely on one of my own paintings. Lo and behold, it sold quite well initially, and has continued to sell at a fairly steady rate ever since.

So I went ahead and prepared a suitable painting for ‘Levi Koenig, A Contemporary King Lear.’ Since both Shakespeare’s play and my novel are about three sisters and their aged, ailing father, I painted three female figures embracing, and a gnarled, bare tree (ho, very symbolic!) at the side. The book appeared (on Amazon) a few weeks ago, and is not making as much of a splash as I would like, but I console myself by saying that it’s early days yet.

And that’s when I had my bright idea, what I thought was my masterful marketing ploy. I have the twenty-odd paperback copies I had sent to me, with their colorful covers. Why don’t I make a few copies of the painting on the cover, I thought, position myself at the brocante, and offer one to anyone who buys a copy of my book?

The appointed day came round. The weather looked bleak, but I persevered. A friend had kindly allowed me to occupy a corner of her stall, where I could put my books, and my notice offering a free original painting to anyone who bought a book.

Attendance at the brocante was weak, whether because of the inclement weather or the competition presented by rival brocantes at other villages. The few visitors who came looked, smiled, and moved on to the next stall. It was cold, and there was even some drizzly rain at times, but I stuck to my guns and remained at my post (why the military metaphors, I wonder?) for a full three hours. But no fish took the bait.

As lunch-time rolled round most of the stall-holders packed up and left, and so did I. Perhaps my brilliant marketing ploy had been somewhat misguided. After all, what had made me think that in the middle of rural France anyone would be interested in reading a book in English about life in another part of the world?

And so another bright idea bites the dust.

Hoppe Hoppe Reiter

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Not long ago I was invited to join a group on Facebook that goes by the name of ‘Yecke Yeckes, Hoppe Hoppe Reiter, Young Descendants of Yekkes Seeking to Preserve the Yecke Heritage.’

That’s more than a bit of a mouthful (and I had to have the site’s name up on my iPad in order to copy it out here), but still I joined, first as a proud descendant of the Yecke tribe, and second out of curiosity to see who the fellow-members of my tribe really are.

The thing is, I grew up in England, to parents who came originally from Germany, and most of whose friends were also from there. Those few Yecke relations who survived were scattered all over the world, including in Israel, and eventually I met them, too, and formed an instant bond with most of them.

But I’m an outsider even in that group of Israeli Yeckes. I’m envious of the fact that many of them seem to have grown up with grandparents (none of mine managed to get out of Germany in time), and remember sayings they heard from them and games they played with them. I do remember the game of ‘Hoppe Hoppe Reiter,’ but have no recollection of who it was who played it with me.

The members of the group are very enthusiastic when it comes to going down Memory Lane. One person remembers a certain dish his or her mother used to make, and that triggers a whole host of memories, and even recipes, that people remember or long for. Then someone else recalls a certain German phrase or expression and along comes a series of phrases, some more obscure than others, that people remember. The only phrase I heard my parents say in German was ‘Ach, die kinder!’ probably more in despair than admiration, as far as I can make out.

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Once again, I feel excluded from ‘my’ community. My parents managed to escape to England just before war broke out, and it was not advisable to speak German, the language of the enemy. As it happens, they both had a very good command of English, as did their social circle, and so that’s what I and my sisters heard when we were growing up. We were aware of the fact that our elders spoke English with a foreign accent, and found this either amusing or embarrassing or both, but accepted this as a fact of life.

Some members of the Facebook group have expressed a desire to meet fellow-members in order to conduct German conversation. I also felt that desire some time ago, and for the past fifteen years or so have been meeting with a German teacher once a week in order to learn the language (my ‘unknown mother-tongue’), and am now able to read German and even translate it into English.

As for the recipes, as it happens a few years ago my sisters and I embarked on a project to transcribe and translate our late mother’s recipes. This involved weekly meetings with a friend who could read and decipher Gothic handwriting, and then a lengthy process of translating the transcribed texts into English and Hebrew. The illustration at the top of the page shows the cover of the book we eventually published, with dozens of recipes in both languages, as well as the menus our mother worked out for feeding the children at the Sunshine Hostel, which she and my father ran during the war. I’m glad to see that we’re not the only ones, and other descendants of Yeckes have also produced collections of recipes from their parents and grandparents.

The members of the Yeckes’ descendants group tend to be moderate in their views and gently supportive of one another, as befits the tradition of our tribe. It’s a pity that instead of belittling the Yecke culture, as was the tendency in Israel in its early days, the attitude and approach of my compatriots did not gain wider acceptance. Who knows how much bloodshed and anguish might have been avoided had that been the case.

Sacred and Profane

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 It’s not right and fair to engage in ‘old-timer’ nostalgia at any time, I know, but in view of recent events I can’t help comparing Israel as it was fifty years ago, when I first came to live here, and today.

Israel today is, if anything, even more vibrant, productive and creative than it was then. But it is also more hidebound, more xenophobic and far less attractive. Not only has Israel as a country changed, both for better and for worse, but the Jewish religion that I grew up with has also undergone a sea change. That seems a strange thing to say, after all, the Jewish religion has been immutable since time immemorial, and that is its strong point, or so we’re told.

However, the role played by religion in Israel’s daily life has definitely changed. Most notably, the nature of the political parties representing the orthodox element of the population has altered drastically. The party that once represented the moderate and tolerant Judaism of Yosef Burg and his colleagues of the now-defunct Mafdal has been transmuted into one that purveys rampant racism (anti-everyone who isn’t Jewish, and even anti other Jewish groups), serving mainly to exacerbate mutual hatred and hostility within Israeli society, but also directed towards those sectors of the population that are not Jewish. The resulting internecine hostility is seen on our streets and features prominently in the media with sickening frequency.

The resurgence of religious fervor, and its volatile combination with the old-new ‘religion’ of nationalism, serves to create an atmosphere of enmity, fostering violence, malevolence, murder and mayhem. It is as if a juggernaut were making its slow and inexorable way towards Israeli society, destroying everything in its path.

Hatred and enmity within the Jewish camp are nothing new, and since the senseless murder of Emil Greenstein at a left-wing demonstration some thirty years ago they have continued to rear their ugly head from time to time.

Protestations about the failure of the Left to demonstrate when Arabs kill Jews do not wash. There is no justification for that either, but we don’t expect such visceral hatred to emanate from within our own ranks. The thought that there are some among us who aspire to attain the barbarism of Daish and other such groups is an abomination.

Is history about to repeat itself? If it hadn’t been for the internecine violence within Jewish society two thousand years ago, Jerusalem, the Temple and the independent existence of the Hebrew nation would not have been destroyed. Those who saw themselves as the upholders of what was sacred were the very ones who led to its being made profane.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in favour of rebuilding the Temple. Far from it. Whatever was the agent that was behind that event, call it God, fate, or whatever you like, he/she/it knew what they were doing when it was destroyed. Who in their right mind would want to reinstate the practice of animal sacrifice and various other distasteful antique rituals?

But the ensuing exile of the Jewish nation and its two thousand years of suffering could and should have been avoided. All that was needed was one clear, sane voice calling for unity and the mending of the internal ruptures in order to overcome enmity, envy and betrayal.

But no such voice was forthcoming, and the result was disaster. Today, too, no such voice is forthcoming, and this bodes ill for the future.

To me it seems clear that there is a strong possibility that contemporary Israeli society will disintegrate and implode, creating an untenable situation in which the forces of hyper-nationalism will prevail, causing the eventual annihilation of Israel as an independent state.

And that would be a terrible shame.

.A Village Wedding

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The house where we are staying in rural France is opposite the village church, a not very imposing edifice dating from the late seventeenth century. Many of the other churches in the region are from the twelfth, thirteenth and even ninth centuries and seem to have stood the test of time quite well, though much of the original artwork has been eroded by time or removed by ungodly hands.

We had been informed in advance that a wedding was to be celebrated there one afternoon, and were asked to park our car elsewhere on that day, with which request we duly complied.

A wedding in an almost deserted French village is a rare event, to say the least. Most of the inhabitants of rural France are old-timers whose livelihoods were not dependent on the contemporary labour market. They live reasonably well on their pensions, but it is funerals that are a more common occurrence than weddings in this part of the world. This is partly due to the scarcity of employment for young people in the region, and also to the wholesale slaughter of many young men in the First World War. There isn’t a village in the area that doesn’t have a WW1 memorial at the centre with a long list of names of the fallen. Many houses are boarded up and deserted, falling into disrepair for lack of anyone to see to their upkeep,

So a wedding is an event to be savoured. The guests for this one started arriving in good time, and the usually deserted church square witnessed more activity than it had for many a day. The inhabitants of this part of the world are not what one might call smart dressers, so it was a pleasant surprise to see well-turned out ladies and gents, who had obviously made an effort to look their best (or come from elsewhere). At the appointed hour the church bells began to peal, and the bride and her entourage emerged from her home, at the other end of a small lane, known as ‘Lovers’ Lane,’ which leads straight to the church.

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The weather was perfect, the sun was shining but not too hot, and everything seemed to be falling into place for the occasion. The bride looked very young and pretty as she approached, but had a worried look on her face, which made me wonder if her shoes weren’t hurting her or whether she wasn’t contemplating making a bolt for it. But there was no chance of that as she was surrounded by her large and evidently loving family.

As she approached the church the throng outside stood aside and the priest, who was also wearing a long white but less frilly gown, stood at the entrance to welcome her. After an hour or so while everyone was inside the church the bells began to peal again, the people gathered outside to await the emergence of the now-married young people. If anything, the bridegroom looked even younger than the bride, and my guess is that they were both teenagers or thereabouts.

But then came the surprise that pretty much knocked my socks off. An ensemble of eight musicians, all playing what looked like a highly-polished and antique version of the bugle (I would have expected a French horn), stood in formation in the church vestibule, four on each side, and played one fanfare after another, very harmoniously, as the bride and groom came out. They continued playing as the young couple embarked on the customary round of kissing and congratulations once the official ceremony was over and before everyone (presumably) trooped off for the festive meal.

The ensemble continued to play for about half an hour, though whether those were traditional French songs or special wedding fanfares they were playing I couldn’t say. All I can say is that both visually and audially it was an impressive performance. Even more impressive was the fact that two of the players were women (you need a lot of puff to play a valveless brass instrument). The bugles seemed to have larger horns than anything I’ve managed to find on the internet, and I noted with amusement that the players had to stand with their backs to the audience to enable the sound to reach them. Then they all raised their instruments up high above their heads to form an honour guard, as it were, or perhaps to show the objects on which they had displayed their proficiency.

Understandably enough, the bride seemed happier and more relaxed after the ceremony, and as she turned among the guests I was able to examine her dress more closely. She wore the traditional meringue-style puffy white dress, but the magenta trimming and draped segment that covered her posterior were not to my taste. But then, what do I know of what’s ‘in’ in French village weddings these days? The main thing is that they should only be happy and healthy and have lots of lovely little French babies.

(photos by Yigal Shefer)

 

 

 

 

C’est la Vie

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photoTaking a few weeks off from our usual routine, ‘retiring from retirement,’ and our home in Israel means changing the pace at which we live, shifting to a different location and moving to an area where tranquillity prevails.

It has by now become our custom to spend the summer months in rural France, away from all the familiar sights and sounds of our usual routine. But lo and behold, it is hotter this year in France than it is in Israel, so that benefit is lost from the outset. Second of all, there are all kinds of attractions and activities that tempt us to venture out of our quiet village haven, so that we find we are recreating a semblance of our hectic lives in Israel.

The main charm of rural France is the natural beauty of the countryside and the relaxed tempo of life. Someone has said that it’s like going back in time to what England was like fifty years ago, and there is certainly something in that. At weekends, though, in addition to the charms of the countryside, there are brocantes, or flea-markets in villages, the equivalent of what is now known as a car-boot sale. These consist of stalls rented by individuals for a nominal sum and on which they display anything and everything that comes to hand and they want to get rid of. The brocantes are pre-arranged so that it is possible to buy a booklet containing the dates and locations of all the brocantes in the region throughout the summer months, making it possible to determine one’s weekend activities well in advance.

In many cases the objects on display are the residue of the lives of the exhibitors’ parents and grandparents. You can find elegant dinner services, crystal glassware and assorted pots, pans, soup tureens and cutlery, in short, anything that once served a household but is now superfluous, out of date and out of fashion.

Some stalls offer record collections, whole libraries of detective novels, assorted old clothes, children’s toys, lace doylies, linen tablecloths, handyman’s tools, and even items of furniture. It’s an education in the history and culture of the region to go around and see what’s on offer, and to mingle with the locals who are out doing the same thing, in an event that is a mixture of social event and general ‘happening.’

In addition to such harmless pursuits as inspecting the wares on display, together with all the other folk who have turned out for the same purpose, there are circuses and funfairs which do the rounds of the villages, set up their tent, and give a performance for one or two days, after which they move on elsewhere.

For people in search of more serious entertainment there are veritable concert series in and around the region, many of them performed in one or another of the local churches, most of which date from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries and have excellent acoustics. Those that we have attended, given by vocal and instrumental groups from France and elsewhere, were well-attended, though we have learned from experience that it’s advisable to bring a cushion along as the hard wooden seats do not add to our enjoyment of the music.

But most of all it’s the relaxed attitude of the population that’s the main attraction in this part of the world. No one ever seems to be in a hurry – and this is most evident in the courteous and considerate driving. You have no choice but to be patient when a tractor is trundling along the road ahead of you or a huge truck transporting bales of hay swings out from a field at the side of the road. The pace of life is slower, the issues that are prominent in the news seem to be far away and the media don’t assume the same importance here as they do in Israel. Perhaps this temporary break from being incessantly bombarded by news, existentialist issues and the haranguing of politicians is the main attraction after all.

Levi Koenig, A Contemporary King Lear

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This is my third novel in as many years, and portrays a modern-day equivalent of Shakespeare’s protagonist. Mr. Koenig has his good and bad points, as do his three daughters, Gloria, Renata and Corinna (yes, the parallels with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are intended). The three sisters, all mature, fairly reasonable women, are doing their best to cope with the pressures of modern life. Each one attempts in her own way to balance the multiple roles of wife, mother, daughter, sister, and employee. Although the relations between the three are not without their problems, each one does what she can to help taking care of their father in his old age.

My book aims to show the sisters in a more realistic light than Shakespeare has done in his play. His portrayal of Lear’s two older daughters as malevolent harpies and the youngest as a misunderstood angel goes against the feminist grain. While not everything in Shakespeare’s play has a parallel in the book, Mr. Koenig’s Filipina carer, Flora, could well be reminiscent of Lear’s Fool. Gloria, the eldest daughter, is divorced but thinks she has found love at last. Renata, burdened with an uncooperative husband, is drowning in household chores and turns to drink for consolation. And Corinna, the youngest, who feels that her life is a failure, is struggling to retain her equilibrium.

Mr. Koenig’s secret, which comes out in the course of the book and colors the relations within the family, casts a shadow over his departure from this world. Evidence emerges of financial aid that he has been giving to a woman who may have once been his mistress, causing tension within the family and calling into question what the sisters had presumed to be their idyllic family life. The book traces the course of Mr. Koenig’s decline and eventual death, the efforts his daughters make on his behalf, and the toll this takes on each one of them.

The dilemma confronting Levi Koenig’s daughters is not an unusual one. Should their father be placed in sheltered accommodation, encouraged to live with one or another of his ‘girls,’ or enabled to stay in his own home with a live-in carer? Their compromise solution demands considerable cooperation between the three, and this sometimes involves more than they bargained for.

Levi Koenig’s daughters are neither harpies nor angels, but human beings, with human quirks and foibles. With the best of intentions, they set out to find a solution to the problem of their elderly father’s increasing frailty. But as everyone knows, the road to hell is paved with…good intentions.

In addition, each sister has her own issues to contend with, whether it’s an inadequate husband, a drinking problem, demanding children, money troubles, an unfulfilling job, or a failed love affair. Each sister is an individual in her own right, with wishes, motives and plans of her own. And each one makes her own contribution to the unfolding drama. Past antagonisms and childhood jealousies also come back to haunt the three women, further complicating the interaction between them.

As the story unfolds we get to know each of them more intimately, the daily minutiae of their lives, their thoughts and feelings, and the attitude of each one to herself, her nuclear family, her father, and her sisters. Each one of them is a person with a defined character and her own individual approach to the difficulties that beset her personal life and the extended family unit. Inevitably, their father makes his own inimical contribution to the course of events. Like the tentacles of an octopus, the ties that bind the family together also restrict their actions and determine the eventual consequences.

Levi Koenig, A Contemporary King Lear, joins my two other novels, The Balancing Game; A Child Between Two Worlds, A Society Approaching War, which was published in 2013, and Time Out of Joint; The Fate of a Family, which was published in 2014. All three are available as ebooks and paperbacks from Amazon.com

 

Life Under Apartheid

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 Progrund

 It might seem a little out of date, but it was interesting to sit in a pleasant Jerusalem home last week and listen to Benjamin Progrund’s lecture about his life as a journalist in South Africa when it was still an apartheid state.

Benjamin Progrund was born in that country and while achieving prominence as a journalist was also involved in anti-apartheid activities. His career brought him into contact with many of South Africa’s leading personalities, including Nelson Mandela, and his account of the way both the white and black population was subject to the repressive apartheid regime was an eye-opener for many of us in the audience. Surveillance by the Secret Service was pervasive, and informants were everywhere, often being blackmailed into working for the government.

Benjamin Progrund began his talk by giving us an overview of the history of the country, describing the various colonial powers (British and Dutch), and the eventual introduction of official racial segregation in 1948 by the ruling Africaans party. The page that he passed round containing the eleven different racial categories into which the population was divided, ranging from ‘white’ through ‘Cape Coloured’ and ‘Coloured person of South-West Africa’ to ‘Baster of Rehoboth’ and ‘Nama of South-West Africa,’ provided an indication of the lengths (or rather depths) to which racism was endemic throughout that society, with severe penalties for infringement of any of the laws promulgated to sustain the corrupt system. Everyone had to carry a pass at all times denoting the racial category to which he or she belonged.

After the newspaper for which he worked, the Rand Daily Mail, was closed by the authorities in 1985, as a result of its anti-apartheid stance, Mr. Progrund found himself ‘unemployable’ in South Africa He went into exile in the UK and eventually came to live in Israel, where he is active in the Yakar movement.

Mr. Progrund was asked about apartheid in Israel, an accusation that is sometimes levelled at this country, and he referred us to his recent book on the subject. However, it seems appropriate to cite an article he wrote for the Guardian earlier this year, “Crucially, the Arabs of Israel have the vote and Israeli Arab MPs sit in parliament. An Arab judge sits on the country’s highest court; an Arab is chief surgeon at a leading hospital; an Arab commands a brigade of the Israeli army; others head university departments. Arab and Jewish babies are born in the same delivery rooms, attended by the same doctors and nurses, and mothers recover in adjoining beds. Jews and Arabs travel on the same trains, taxis and – yes – buses. Universities, theatres, cinemas, beaches and restaurants are open to all.

“However, Israeli Arabs – Palestinian citizens of Israel – do suffer discrimination, starting with severe restrictions on land use. Their generally poorer school results mean lower rates of entry into higher education, which has an impact on jobs and income levels. Arab citizens of Israel deeply resent Israel’s Law of Return whereby a Jew anywhere in the world can immigrate to Israel but Arabs cannot. Some might argue that the Jewish majority has the right to impose such a policy, just as Saudi Arabia and other Muslim states have the right not to allow Christians as citizens. But it’s a troubling discrimination.”

Those of us who live in Israel are aware of the problematic nature of some of its institutions and customs, but the bottom line is that while Israeli Arabs have full and almost equal rights, the Arabs of the Territories are subject to many more restrictions and do not have representation. How that issue is to be resolved is a thorny problem with no viable solution in sight in the foreseeable future.

 

 

A Night to Remember

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 Verdi’s Requiem is not often performed in Israel. It requires a massive choir, an accomplished and enormous orchestra with augmented brass section, and four top-flight vocal soloists. In addition, it should be performed in an auditorium that can cope with the wide range of volume, tone and timbre that this work requires.

So it was with certain reservations that we ventured as far afield as Herzliya (just one hour’s drive away from our home near Jerusalem) to attend a performance given by our own native Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra with local choirs and soloists whose names were not familiar to us from any of the many concerts we have attended in Jerusalem.

Before the concert began, the conductor, Amos Talmon (another name with which we were not familiar) gave a brief talk. He briefly mentioned the circumstances of the work’s composition, arising from the attempt by Verdi to organize a joint homage to Rossini by the most prominent composers of Italy in the late nineteenth century.

Early in his talk Maestro Talmon aroused our curiosity by mentioning the unique Jewish and Israeli aspect of the Requiem. He described the first performance of the work in Israel in 1954, when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra played it in Tel Aviv, in the open air of the grounds of one of its public buildings, and conducted by the Hungarian, Ferenc Fricsay. Although the soloists sang in the original Latin of the mass, the choir sang a Hebrew version of the words, in keeping with the spirit of the times and the patriotic and ambivalent attitude towards Christian religious texts.. The event attracted attention throughout the country, the concert was sold out and those denizens of Tel Aviv who were unable to buy tickets climbed into the nearby trees to enjoy the music. Talmon noted that many ministers and senior officials attended the concert, and wondered whether this would also have been the case with the present government.

As for the Jewish connection with Verdi’s Requiem, that referred to its performance under the direction of Raphael Schechter by inmates of the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944. When asked why they were performing for audiences which included members of the S.S. as well as other inmates, Schechter said that they were sending a message of defiance to the Nazis that they were unable to express directly in words. And although most of those who participated in the performance in Theresienstadt, including Schechter, were sent to Auschwitz and murdered, that particular performance of the Requiem lives on in the book, The Theresienstadt Requiem, by Josef Bor and the Defiant Requiem Foundation established by American musician Murry Sidlin and dedicated to commemorative performances of the Requiem combined with filmed interviews with survivors who took part in the original performance in the concentration camp. We attended the performance of the work given in Israel a few years ago and it was truly a moving experience.

For me, the work has special significance, having been one of my late father’s favourite works. It was my task on Sundays in our home in London to play and change the records on our gramophone, so that my father could work in peace at his desk while enjoying the music. Those were the days of 33 rpm vinyl records, which some people claim give the best quality sound. I can’t judge, but there’s no doubt that modern technology has produced more convenient ways of listening to music.

I also remember a performance given a few years ago in Eilat, by the Mariinsky orchestra led by maestro Valery Gergiev in the huge marquee erected in the port area for the event. The noise of the air-conditioning system almost drowned out the sound of the orchestra, especially at the beginning, when the orchestra plays pianissimo. The performance had just begun when from somewhere in the audience the ringtone of a mobile phone rang out, shattering the mood of quiet contemplation with which the piece begins. Gergiev stopped the orchestra, waited a moment or two, then started again from the beginning. That was a moment of shame and embarrassment for everyone in the audience.

But to return to Herzliya in June 2015. The combined Emek Hefer and Yoav choirs, numbering over one hundred souls and led by Shimon Levtov, produced an impressive sound, and each of the four soloists was astonishingly good. But special mention must be made of the bass, Yoram Chaiter, whose deep and resonant voice was of a quality that is rarely heard in Israel. From the programme notes we learned that he is originally from the Ukraine and in addition to his vocal career he is also a physician and cancer researcher. The conductor, Amos Talmon, did an excellent job of keeping the tempo flowing, and the orchestra responded to his leadership with its customary professionalism. Again, special mention should be made of the two timpanists, who play an important role throughout the work, but especially in the Dies Irae, where their contribution is particularly significant. It was even an aesthetic pleasure to see the young lady timpanist (sorry, I don’t have her name) wielding the drum-stick with intense energy as she banged on the big bass drum to produce the ear-shattering and spine-chilling drum-beats signifying the terror of the day of wrath and awe.

All in all, it was an impressive performance of a much-loved work, and one that will remain in our memories for a long time to come.

Parallel Worlds

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 migrants2

 

It sometimes seems as if we’re living in a kind of science-fiction fantasy world in which, from the comfort of our home, we watch the dreadful events swirling around us while we remain cosily ensconced in our little cocoon of comfort and plenty.

 The images we see nightly on the TV news reveal the appalling scenes of brutality, suffering and horror that seem to be the lot of so many unfortunates living on planet earth. Whether the events are occurring in the countries of the Middle East or in rickety boats on the Mediterranean Sea, the effect is the same – horror, despair and a paralyzing sense of hopelessness and helplessness.

 Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing their homes, abandoning their possessions in order to clamber over fences or drift in rickety boats, throwing themselves on the mercy of the sea and other countries as they abandon lives that seem to them to be either dangerous or unbearable or both. Migrants all over the world are risking life and limb, resorting to desperate and dangerous methods, in order to escape from their current situation.

 And I can understand them. It cannot be denied that a horrible fate awaits every girl and woman who happens to find herself in one of the countries overrun by the organization known as the Islamic State, though, the fate of women in most Muslim countries is not much better.

 Since time immemorial wars have periodically ravaged the Middle East, though just now Israel is not actively involved in any of them. Some people may even gain satisfaction from seeing Arab countries being torn apart by internal conflicts, but I am not among them. What I see are communities being fragmented, families destroyed and individuals condemned to a lifetime of suffering, essentially forced into a stone-age existence. Why should I wish that on anyone? Especially when I am able to benefit from all the comforts of modern life?

 I know that the striking images and heart-rending scenes in the news form a kind of nightly reality entertainment programme for the well-fed world. I know, too, that many kind people donate money and resources to help those unfortunates, but it is often too little too late, coming after the irreparable damage has already been done.

 Obviously, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions also attract the attention of the world, and intrepid reporters and photographers rush to these places in order to send the distressing images back to the rest of the world. The same goes for mining disasters, forest and bush fires and floods of various kinds. It is, I suppose, something to be proud of that humankind has developed resources to cope with such disasters.

 But all the same, it makes me feel guilty and ashamed to be sitting in a pleasant room typing this, with a full belly, books at hand and music on the radio when so many people are still suffering hunger, discomfort and the imminent threat of death.

 It’s as if we’re living in a parallel world, and as everyone knows, parallel lines never meet.

 

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