Edward Hopper and the American Hotel


While visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia, we used the occasion to pay a return visit to the impressive VMFA (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), and attempt to take in just a fraction of the many delights on offer there. The featured temporary exhibition currently on display there was  ‘Edward Hopper and the American Hotel; a travel guide.’ This was an opportunity not to be missed.

Hopper is renowned for his depictions of city rooms with one or two persons in them, looking either in or to the outside, reflecting a sense of alienation, of urban anomie (in the Durkheimian sense of the word), and of detachment from human contact. The pictures in the current exhibition, whether by Hopper himself or other artists, all pertain to the subject of ‘hotels, motels, and tourist homes.’ Hopper and his wife Jo travelled extensively through the USA in the 1940s and 1950s, at a time when America was changing as automobile ownership expanded, new and better roads and highways were constantly being built and improved, and travel became an easier and more convenient form of transportation.

The cousin with whom we were staying  said that it brought back memories of the six-week trip his family (father, mother, brother and self) made across America by car in the 1950s, visiting places and encountering people which till then had just been names on a map (no GPS or Waze then).  Knowing my late uncle (my mother’s older brother), I’m sure that the trip was carefully planned and mapped out, the hotels and motels booked in advance, and that nothing was left to chance. Im not so sure that that is the message conveyed by Hopper’s paintings, however.

The characters he depicts find themselves — whether by chance or by design — in anonymous hotel rooms, with their standard furnishings and soulless decor. Their individual stories are a mystery that it is for the viewers to decide for themselves. Is the young woman in a pink slip suffering the pangs of unrequited love or simply relaxing after having travelled for several hours? Is the man standing and looking out of the window simply admiring the view or is he angry with the unkempt woman sitting on the bed behind him? Each painting is an enigma which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Hopper was commissioned to illustrate the covers of a trade publication for hotels in the 1920s, when the boom in travel and tourism was still in its infancy. This gave him the opportunity and the incentive to go and see for himself, always accompanied by his wife Jo, what hotel and motel rooms had to offer, and it is his interpretation of this that we find in his pictures. It is this combination of ambivalence, and his unique mystical aesthetic, together with consummate skill in depicting figures and interiors, that gives Edward Hopper’s paintings their enduring fascination.

Hitches, Glitches, Delays and Ultimate Success!

In a stunning display of arrogance and stupidity, I ventured out into the wild and woolly world of self-publishing on Amazon’s KDP platform. I’ve done it before, five times in fact, twice with the help of outside agencies, and three times by myself. It’s been a little more than a year since I published my last book, ‘All Quiet on the Midwestern Plains,’ and apart from help from my designer and computer-whizz son Eitan with the cover of the paperback version, I managed it pretty well by myself.

So I was taken aback when all did not go smoothly with my new book, ‘A Ruffled Calm, (affectionately known by my typo-riddled version, ‘A Ruggled Clam’). The first hitch was when I was unable to even access my KDP account, where my previous five books were published and are listed. I struggled and stumbled, appealed to KDP, and was delighted to receive a prompt reply. Yes, silly me (or is it senile me?) had forgotten that I have two email accounts and had been using the wrong address.

But that was not the end of my troubles. In my haste (and more stupidity?), I had somehow managed to delete my last novel while uploading the new one. Good golly, Miss Molly! How on earth did I manage that? The usual st-p-d-ty, I suppose. Another appeal gets sent to KDP, to which I receive two different replies (each from a different person, and each to a different address). One of them (a woman) kindly tells me that she will merge my two accounts and restore my deleted novel. The other (a male) tells me that I will have to go through the whole lengthy process of uploading the deleted book all over again.

I had to follow both courses of advice.

Having finally at last managed to get the text of my new book uploaded, the next hurdle was the cover. I am not the world’s best artist, but to date I have managed to use a painting of mine as the cover for each of my novels, so that I regard it as almost part of my signature as an author. For several weeks I have been trying to paint a picture of a woman sitting in an armchair, in keeping with the subject-matter of the book. It sounds a simple enough task, but my efforts were invariably unsatisfactory. Arms too long, legs too short, or vice versa. The colors weren’t right or the armchair was all crooked. I wanted the woman to be holding a cup, but it seems I’m unable to paint even that. An artist friend, with whom I am in correspondence, suggested that I use a smaller brush, and upon doing so I found that the result was much improved. Thanks, Michele.

Uploading the cover wasn’t all plain sailing either. At first I could get the image to appear as the cover, but without the title or my name. I tried a few times, but couldn’t get the desired result, so I stopped and waited for help from Eitan. Life intervened, however, and I was unable to get to my computer for a couple of days. When I returned to it, lo and behold, there was my cover, with the title and my name in place. I tried to rearrange the text and coloring to my satisfaction, and although it’s not perfect, it will do for the ebook.

So now I’ve completed the process, I think. The ebook is now up on Amazon, and can be purchased for just $2.99. However, from the 11th to the 13th of November it can be downloaded for free. So if anyone is interested in finding out how an eccentric visitor turns an ordinary family’s life upside-down, they’re invited to take a look at ‘A Ruffled Calm.’ It’s a relatively short book, and should make for easy reading. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for something to read during a flight.

Hopefully the paperback version will be available in the not-too-distant future. But that process inevitably takes a little longer to complete. The main thing as far as I’m concerned is that the ebook is up and running, and I’m looking forward to hearing from anyone who reads it what they think of it, or better still, to reading a kind review of it on Amazon.

‘Village of Secrets’ by Caroline Moorehead


Based on extensive historical research, personal interviews and visits to the places concerned, Caroline Moorehead has produced an astounding account of life on a remote, mountainous plateau perched on France’s Massif Central, where the residents of villages, hamlets and isolated farms worked together in Nazi-controlled France to rescue hundreds if not thousands of people, mainly Jewish children and members of the Resistance.

The largely rural Vivarais-Lignon plateau enjoys a climate considered to be healthy during the summer months, resulting in the existence there of several hotels, children’s homes and convalescent centres for visiting tourists. In the winter, however, it was more or less cut off from the rest of the country by deep, long-lasting snow and its mountainous terrain. These conditions enabled the villagers to provide sanctuary for people – and especially children – seeking to evade capture and deportation to concentration camps.

Most of the inhabitants of the region were devout Protestants, many of them descendants of the Huguenots who had themselves been persecuted in sixteenth-century France. Some of them belonged to obscure Christian sects, such as the Darbyists and the Ravenists, which were in various ways akin to the Quakers and Amish, with special clothing and an austere life style. Led by pacifist pastors, the inhabitants of the local villages, Chambon sur Lignon, Mazet sur Voy, Riou as well as hamlets and individual farms, took in and cared for dozens of Jewish children brought to the region, whether by individuals or by the Jewish and Christian organisations (OSE and Cimade) involved in their rescue.

The author describes in harrowing detail the conditions in the various detention camps in France, such as Gurs at the foot of the Pyrenees, Drancy near Paris and Venisseux near Lyons, from where trains full of Jews were sent to the concentration camps.. Despite assurances to the contrary, after 1942 Jews were hunted down with as much rigour in the part of France controlled by the Vichy collaborationist government, as in Nazi-controlled northern France.

The systematic deportation of France’s Jewish population, starting with the ‘foreign Jews,’ who had fled from other parts of Europe, and continuing with the ‘French Jews,’ persisted till the end of the war. Those individuals and groups who had managed to make their way to the plateau were taken in by institutions and families. In some cases their names and identities were changed while in others they were hidden in basements, barns and lofts, or enabled to find shelter in the nearby forests. Eventually many of them were helped to cross the border into Switzerland, a journey which involved considerable danger for the victims and their helpers. Moore describes one such escape in which a girl’s long hair was caught in the barbed-wire fence. The teenager who stayed behind to help disentangle her hair became her husband manyyears later.

When the Germans required able-bodied French men to enlist for work in Germany many of them fled to the plateau. Among the Jews in hiding were expert forgers who were able to produce false identity papers and medical certificates, enabling both Jews and non-Jews to evade capture. Members of the Maquis also found shelter there. The individuals who sheltered the Jews were inspired by the pacifist sermons preached by the local pastors, some of whom paid dearly for their refusal to cooperate with the occupying forces. At a time when food was scarce and rationing prevailed throughout France, the farmers of the region supplied extra food to the homes where Jewish children were being sheltered.

After liberation the work began of restoring the names and identities of theJewish children, many of whom had little or no recollection of their original families. A large number of them were now orphans, and the work of returning them to their surviving relatives was often problematic. Some of the older children preferred to join the Jews in what was then Palestine in order to help establish a Jewish state.

There is no doubt that France’s record during its occupation by the Germans is far from glorious, but here and there there were small rays of light, among them the people of the Vivarais-Lignon plateau. In fact, the village of Chambon-sur-Lignon is one of only two villages worldwide to be awarded the title of Righteous Among the Narions. by Yad Vashem.

Nearly There!


Just over a year ago I started writing my sixth novel. Called ‘A Ruffled Calm,’ it’s based on an actual event and describes what happens to the various members of a family when an eccentric visitor descends upon them. Of course, I have changed names and details of the characters, but something very similar did in fact happen to me many years ago.

The visitor in my story is Serena, a woman of a certain age who seems to suffer from delusions about her physical state (she believes she is pregnant), her position in the world (she claims to be on the Hebrew University’s Board of Governors) and makes all kinds of strange demands on her hosts.

Writing the book has occupied my thoughts as well as my days and nights for the past year, and I have grown very fond of my characters, with all their quirks and foibles. I tried to find a publisher for it in the big world of publishing, but with no success, and so I’m resorting to publishing it myself on Amazon, as I have done with my previous five books.

As I’ve done in the past, I have prepared the text as required by KDP, the publishing arm of Amazon. This involves merging all the chapters (there are eighteen in this book) into one document, arranging the layout in a way that makes the book look as professional as possible, designing a cover, and then uploading the document to the KDP platform so that it can be published as an ebook and a paperback and made available for purchase on Amazon.

The text is ready, and all that remains is for my son to prepare the Photoshop version of the cover, using one of the paintings I have done for it. I wasn’t quite sure about the ending, but on consideration, and with the help and encouragement of members of one of the Facebook writers’ groups I belong to, I have decided to keep my original, softer conclusion rather than ending it with a bang.

So here I am, once again on the verge of sending a child, er, I mean a book, out into the big wide world, to sink or swim and hopefully find someone brave enough to undertake the task of reading it, whether as an ebook or a paperback.

It’s coming. The day is nigh. I’m waiting with bated breath for those last few final steps until my new book is launched into the world. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and hoping that I’ve corrected all the typos, set the text up in as professional a manner as I can manage, and that someone out there will find interest and entertainment in its pages.

To be continued.

Our Evolving Tabernacle


The Jewish custom of building a little hut or sukkah in one’s garden or backyard once a year supposedly harks back to the time many thousands of years ago when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness after having left Egypt and had to live in makeshift huts or tabernacles, more or less in the way the Beduin Arabs live today.

Like many aspects of the Jewish religion, practice and history are bound up together. So it is with the Passover meal, the Seder, with its unleavened bread, matza, and the various symbolic foods all chosen to remind us of about the time when we were in the process of emerging from being slaves in order to become a unified nation. And of course Hannuka commemorates the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks and the symbolic cleansing of the Temple through the vial of untainted oil. Purim is another reminder of a ‘historic’ event that may or may not have happened, but at least it gives Jews a chance to dress up and celebrate a carnival of their own.

As a child growing up in London I enjoyed the adventure involved in eating our meals outside our house in the little makeshift hut my parents constructed using blankets that were hung between the two other walls formed by our house on one side and the brick wall between our garden and the one next door, on the other.

We children were set to making coloured paper chains and lanterns, while our mother’s artistic talents were devoted to preparing little string bags for fruits of various kinds. All of these were hung around the ‘walls’ and from the roof made of branches from the various trees available in London in the 1950s. No one thought of the palm branches that are so ubiquitous in Israel today, or even of the ‘permanent-temporary’ roofs that are also very popular, and which apparently meet the necessary religious requirements. I regret not having asked my parents how they celebrated the festival in their homes in pre-war Germany.

The festival of Tabernacles falls at the beginning of autumn, and so it is almost inevitable that some rain will fall at that time of the year, whether it’s in Israel or in Europe, or anywhere in the northern hemisphere. I remember dashing through the rain with a bowl of soup in my hand during one such downpour in London, in a procession formed by my parents, my sisters and me.

But as is the way with children, we found it all tremendous fun, and the novelty never wore off. In fact, we were always disappointed to come home from school one day and find that our lovely sukkah had been dismantled. But then I grew up and put away childish things, as the saying goes, and never gave the festival another thought.

It was only when one of my own children came home from kindergarten one day singing a song about building a sukkah that my husband and I decided that we would need to erect some version of the traditional hut on the minuscule balcony of our second-floor apartment. Our children enjoyed the novelty, just as I had as a child, and while we were not concerned with keeping to the niceties of religious observance, we felt that we were providing an experience for our children that united us with the rest of Israel.

We continued to build a somewhat larger sukkah after we moved to a house with a garden and our children produced children of their own. Each year our three-generation family did its best to squeeze into the confines of our new-old hut, now made from gaily coloured Indian fabrics brought back with us from London’s Petticoat Lane market.

But today almost all our grandchildren are grownups themselves, and our sukkah is too small to contain all those rather large bodies. Since religious observance doesn’t play a role for any of us, there doesn’t seem to be much point in squeezing ourselves into an uncomfortable space in order to eat the meal we traditionally have together on a Friday night.

And so we have loaned our ‘permanent-temporary’ sukkah roof to our neighbours, for one of whom religious observance is paramount, and when they invited us for a meal in their sukkah we gladly accepted. It was a strange but rather invigorating experience to be sitting under our familiar roof surrounded by different decorations and eating the food someone else had prepared. I’m quite happy to pass the baton of preparing a temporary hut on to anyone else who is up to the task.

‘Middle England’ by Jonathan Coe


A friend in France recommended this book as giving some kind of an insight into the inner workings of contemporary British society, with all its quirks and foibles, and particularly into the mindset of that segment of the population that voted to leave the European Union.

Jonathan Coe has set his novel in the Midlands, the area in the geographical middle of England. The people whose actions he describes are mostly middle class and middle aged (though there are one or two younger and older individuals), and I suppose it could be considered to portray a representative cross-section of the contemporary British population. The Britain in which I grew up some sixty-odd years ago was far more homogenous and insular than the Britain of today, and it would seem that that is what some of its population is yearning for.

Although the name of Enich Powell, the Conservative Minister for Health in Edward Heath’s government in the late 1960s is not mentioned specifically, his anti-immigration stance and warning of ‘rivers of blood’ does come up in the conversation of one of the main character’s elderly relatives, and it is this attitude that overshadows much of the events described in the book and turns out to be part of the explanation for what is happening in Britain today.

Benjamin Trotter, the principal character, unpublished writer and ineffective husband/lover, is preoccupied with helping his recently-widowed father to overcome his grief and isolation while at the same time trying to provide moral support for his sister Lois, who is virtually separated from her husband. Lois’s daughter Sophie constitutes another central character of the book, and her initial encounter with and subsequent relations with her husband Ian form another strand of the narrative. In addition to the members of the family which constitutes the core of the book there are several subordinate characters, though these sometimes serve as an unwelcome and even confusing distraction from the main storyline.

But what is the main storyline if not the variegated tapestry that makes up modern Britain? Some of the characters are British-born, white and rooted in their native land while others stem from other countries, as is the case with the Caribbean immigrants who came to live in England from the Commonwealth, in what is popularly known as the ‘Windrush’ generation, after the name of the first ship that brought those immigrants to Britain’s shores. The descendants of the original immigrants feel as British as anyone else even though the colour of their skin betrays their origin elsewhere, and it is they who are competing with the original inhabitants of the island for places at university and promotion at work. To quote Enoch Powell, there is ‘a;sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected.’That feeling has been intensified as people from the countries that comprise the European Union have settled in England in increasing numbers.

As the events described in the book unfold, revealing the deep rift within British society between the haves and the have-nots, the struggle experienced by many to stay afloat economically, the tone of the daily press and the ideological disenchantment of the younger generation, the reader is exposed to the various currents that are constantly eddying about in contemporary British society.

Finally, in an attempt to escape the growing sense of alienation from the general tenor of British society, Benjamin Trotter and several of his relatives and friends decide to move to France and make a new life for themselves there. If that is the only solution to the current situation it can only be described as a very British mess.

All in all, akthough it’s an entertaining read, the book is a depressing comment on modern Britain as it moves inexorably towards a no-deal Brexit, with all the harmful economic repercussions that will ensue.


Only in Israel

Like every country, Israel has its advantages and its disadvantages. One of the former is its climate, which is on the whole pleasant (at least in Jerusalem) with sunny days throughout the summer, often with cool evenings and nights. It also has a long coastline giving most of the population access to the sea with all its benefits.

Considering its small size, the country encompasses a particularly wide range of interesting geographical features, with hilly areas in the north, and even mountains on which one can ski in winter. Going south there’s the Dead Sea, with beneficial health properties that have been known since ancient times, as well as the Negev desert, which contains interesting and unique geological formations, as well as a wealth of interesting fauna and flora. At its southernmost point the Red Sea provides a port and a seaside resort where it is always hot in both summer and winter.

You can hardly take a step anywhere in Israel without coming across some archaeological or geological site, starting with the origins of homo sapiens, and continuing through the history of the ancient Near East, with the events mentioned in the Old and New Testaments featuring prominently wherever you turn, resulting in a plethora of holy sites for the three main religions.

But what most distinguishes Israel is its population. Jews from all over the world have come to live here, bringing a wealth of genetic heritages that are mixing and mingling with one another. The population is far from homogeneous as regards both hereditary characteristics and cultural traditions, yet on the whole there is some kind of modus vivendi between all the different kinds of people. Notwithstanding, differences in background can often give rise to differences in manners and mores, and this can sometimes cause conflicts or disagreements, but the country somehow manages to keep going, no matter how deep the internal divisions.

The current political divide has the country split almost exactly in half between those who support the current government and those who oppose it. The political impasse has given rise to two general elections within the last six months and may well give rise to another one in the not-too-distant future. The prospect is dismaying for all concerned, but unless some radical solution is found that will be our fate.

But at a time like now, when the high holydays are being celebrated throughout the country, albeit in different ways and according to different traditions, there is an unaccustomed atmosphere of tolerance and even amity between total strangers.

Thus, as I waited this morning to be seen by an official in the Health Fund in order to arrange an appointment for a medical screening there was much good-natured grumbling among the waiting patients. But no-one raised their voice or protested, and no-one really tried to push in out of turn (as often happens at non-festive times of the year), and everyone wished their neighbour good luck, good health, and a good year as their turn came.

The best moment for me was when, after returning home with the precious referral in my hand, I rang the central Health Fund number in order to arrange the date and time for the screening. Today is the first working day after a very long weekend and so the line was busy for a long time. Eventually, however, one of the attendants at the call centre picked up the phone and was ready to hear my request. What happened next left me flabbergasted.

When I repeated my name, at her request, she said “Oh, I see that tomorrow’s your birthday. Have  happy birthday!”

She really made my day, and it made me wonder whether that would or could have happened anywhere else in the world.

‘A Trace of Smoke’ by Rebecca Cantrell


I downloaded this independently published ebook from Amazon’s Kindle Store in order to have something to read on the plane. I always like to have something to read in my phone-cum-Kindle, as that means I’m not dependent on having access to wi-fi, and I don’t have to carry a paper book with me. It’s taken me some time (years, actually) to get used to the idea, but I find it’s an invaluable addition to my ability to never being without something to read at hand.

I chose this book by Rebecca Cantrell because it promised to describe what life was like in Berlin in the early 1930s. I was not disappointed. Apart from the somewhat lurid plot of the novel, the book contains a vivid account of the way Berliners lived and loved at that time, the rising political power and physical presence of the Nazi party and – in a particularly sensational way – the life of the homosexual community there.

In the author’s afterword she details the sources of her very extensive research into the time and place she describes in the novel, and I personally found this very impressive. She watched movies, read books, interviewed people and undoubtedly invested an enormous amount of time and energy into extending her knowledge of pre-war Berlin. It would seem that she spent several years at high school in Berlin, so that her knowledge of the German language obviously helped her in establishing the setting of her story.

Although I found the book enjoyable, serving to provide both entertainment and information, I came across occasional linguistic lapses in the English, lapses that could only have been made by a non-native speaker. The text flows well on the whole, but when the narrator, who is the main character, talks about “a dress I wore” rather than ‘a dress I was wearing’ and similar occasions when a continuous construction is required rather than the past or present simple, it constitutes a jarring disruption of the flow of the text. That kind of thing should have been picked up by the book’s editor.

Notwithstanding, I have downloaded the two subsequent volumes in the series, which follow the fate of the main character, Hannah Vogel, as the atmosphere in Germany under Nazi rule becomes ever more ominous. Although Hannah is not herself Jewish, the sense of menace overshadows the daily life of all Germany’s denizens, and especially those who do not support the Nazi party. The danger to Jews and foreigners is also evident throughout, and the sense of ever-increasing peril assumes increasing prominence.

So I’m looking forward to my next flight, or possibly even my next visit to the doctor, both of which will inevitably leave me with time on my hands, and the chance to read what I’ve downloaded onto my phone.


The Best and the Worst of London

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, la la la. Yes, I was born and brought up in London, albeit by parents originally from Germany, but London still has a place in my heart, and I treasure my memories of growing up there and going shopping in Oxford Street with my mother and my two sisters to get new clothes for each big Jewish festival.

And so, when my husband and I spend our summer holidays in France we generally fly back to Israel via London, where we stay at a hotel overlooking Russell Square in Bloomsbury, enjoy fish and chips at the local pub “The Friend at Hand’ and try to catch up with friends as well as taking in some exhibitions in the wonderful museums and galleries which abound in London.

This year’s visit started with a bang, the sun was shining and we had been invited to tour the House of Lords by a sitting member who had attended the LSE at the same time as I had, but had gone on to have a stellar career in the law, eventually being made a baroness. She had seen my articles about life in Israel in the AJR Journal and contacted me last year, when we visited her in Oxford. Because parliament had been ‘prorogued,’ i.e., suspended, by the Prime Minister, the place was deserted apart from a few security personnel. Nonetheless, we were taken around the opulent building, parts of which date back to the thirteenth century, while much of it was restored in the nineteenth century after a fire. We felt very privileged to be taken around by our friend, who also treated us to a lovely meal at the Wolesley restaurant.

Another friend, a non-Jewish former head-teacher whom we had met in France and happened to mention in passing that she had taught maths at the Lubavitch school in North London, invited us to visit an exhibition of self-portraits by contemporary artists at King’s Place. This was an exciting new venue for us near King’s Cross which hosts all kinds of artistic and cultural events. The self-portraits were chosen from entrants to a competition held in the framework of the Ruth Borchard Art Collection located there. The name of Ruth Borchard rang a bell with me, and sure enough, she was originally from Hamburg, my father’s home town, and I had met her daughter here in Israel. Small Jewish world, once again.

Planning to buy somethingfor myself and possibly my granddaughters, I set off down Oxford Street and entered the hallowed halls of Marks and Spencer’s Marble Arch branch. While I was trying to find trousers in my size I noticed some women jostling the trolley I had taken in the hopes of easing my burden, and where I had foolishly put my bag while I searched for the right pair of trousers. I apologized, assuming that I was disturbing their search for clothes, but it was only a few minutes later, when I went to the fitting room to try the trousers on, that I noticed that my bag was open and that my purse was missing!

Omar, the burly security officer took me in hand and, seeing my distress, brought me a chair and a cup of water. Apart from that, however, there was little he could do. The security cameras did not focus on the area where I had been. He told me that this sort of thing happens all the time, and that thieves are known to work in all the stores along Oxford Street and elsewhere. I can only say that they are very professional, and the actual theft of my purse can have taken only a minute or two. I can remember the harsh face and dark eyes of the woman to whom I apologized, but that’s no good to anyone. We reported the details of the theft to the police, cancelled all our credit cards and wrote off our cash loss as the price one pays because I had not been sufficiently on my guard. Luckily, no physical harm was done, my passport and phone were not touched and so I suppose I can consider myself lucky.

All the same, it’s as well to remember that London is not all bright sunshine and green parks, there are vile people everywhere and one should be on one’s guard at all times and especially in crowded places.

The Talmud, a Biography; Banned, Censored and Burned, the Book They Couldn’t Suppress

I ordered this book, written by Harry Freedman, from good old Bibliophile in an attempt to broaden my education. I feel I have learned a lot, but whether it will stay in my memory is another matter.

According to the author’s Preface, it is the Talmud, rather than the Bible, which defines the religion of the Jews, and in fact the Jews themselves.

In tracing the origins and development of the Talmud over the millennia in which it has existed in one form or another (first oral, then written, and eventually printed), Harry Freedman, a historian and expert in Aramaic and Judaic studies, introduces us to the different environments and cultures in which the Talmud emerged and eventually flourished, as well as giving us insights into the various rabbis, interpreters and scholars who helped to formulate and establish it.

The Talmud has its roots in biblical exegesis in both ancient Israel and ancient Babylon, the latter being the community established by the Jews originally brought there forcibly by Nebuchadnezzer II after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE (remember the plaintive refrain ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept’?). When Cyrus, the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon, permitted the Jews to return to their homeland about fifty years later, many Jews chose to remain in the land of their exile where they had established their homes, families and apparently also their livelihoods. Thus, the two centres of learning, in Judea and Babylon, developed two traditions of Bible interpretation.

In essence, the Babylonian Talmud is considered to be preeminent, although both Talmuds consist of discussions among scholars of the meaning and implementation of laws contained in the Bible and interpreted in the Mishna, even though these discussions may have taken place at different times and in different places. During the sixth and seventh centuries CE editors collected and collated them into a cohesive whole, formulating them in a way that has endured to this day.

In effect, citing Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the author defines the Talmud as “a literary construction in which debates, opinions, proofs and rulings that took place over nearly three hundred years are woven together by later editors into a coherent whole.” The central column, written in Hebrew or Aramaic, of a page of Talmud, in a slightly larger font than the columns of text on either side, consists of the text of the Mishna and the Talmudic commentaries on it. The columns on either side contain the commentaries of Rashi, the great eleventh-century French commentator, while the outer column contains the commentaries of the tosafists, scholars from different, earlier periods. Interspersed with these rabbinical discussions are legends and tales which supposedly illustrate aspects of the text, or simply contain an illuminating diversion from the scholarly exegesis.

Most of the Talmud is based on a record of discussions held in the rabbinic academies in Babylon between the years 230 and 500 CE. Thus, we are introduced to such rabbinic luminaries as Yehudai Gaon, Pirkoi ben Baboi, Saadia Gaon of Sura and many others. In the period after the decline and fall of Babylon, the centres of Jewish learning shifted throughout North Africa (Alexandria, Kairouan) and Spain as well as moving to western and eastern Europe).

Throughout the millennia Jews have been subjected to persecution, banishment, exile and forcible conversion (whether to Islam or Christianity). In the Middle Ages several European monarchs instituted officially sanctioned disputations between leading rabbis and Christian scholars, often with unwelcome consequences for the local Jewish population. England’s King Henry VIII had a Talmud brought to his court in order to find justification in it for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Since the rulings taken from the Bible regarding levirate marriage were inconclusive (or even mutually contradictory), Henry dropped that approach, adopted the attitude of the Protestant church and abandoned Catholicism Thus the Anglican church, which prevails to this day, was established.

In several eastern European countries anti-Semitic Christian leaders claimed that the Talmud advocated ritual murder using the blood of Christians, and on the basis of these accusations homes of Jews were searched and copies of the Talmud confiscated and publicly burned. The Crusades of the tenth and eleventh centuries served as an excuse to ravage and destroy Jewish communities in the Rhineland, and once again the age-old calumnies were produced and used as an excuse for acts of pillage and aggression against Jewish communities and their sacred texts.

The tradition of rabbinic academies, or yeshivot, where study of the Talmud is the central area of activity, flourished in eastern Europe prior to WWII, and while most of these academies were destroyed in that dark period, a few survived and re-established themselves in modern Israel. This was often done despite the demand made by some rabbis that the yeshivot remain in Europe. Those that did were decimated, but the few that have survived in Israel have flourished, benefiting from the financial and legal support extended to them by the government.