.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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 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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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.

 

The Kagan Learning Centre

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Helena Kagan was born in 1889 in Uzbekistan, where her father, who was originally from Lithuania, had been sent as a chemical engineer to establish and supervise the construction of glass-manufacturing plants there. In 1914, after qualifying as a physician, she settled in Jerusalem and was a pioneer in tending to the health of both Arab and Jewish children, establishing clinics and pediatric centres throughout the region. She died in 1978, having devoted her life to improving the health and welfare of Jerusalem’s children.

Among her spheres of activity was the prevention of juvenile delinquency, and she was instrumental in providing an environment where youngsters could find a positive and supportive atmosphere rather than roaming the streets, providing them with coaching in their school work and thereby reducing delinquency and school drop-out rates.

In 1968, with the aid of Wizo UK and the Jerusalem municipality, the Kagan Community Center was established in Jerusalem’s Katamon Tet neighbourhood in honour of Dr. Kagan’s seventy-fifth birthday. Within that framework the Kagan Learning Center enables youngsters to spend time in a warm and friendly environment where they can receive help in subjects with which they are having difficulties at school.

When I visited the Centre I found a large, modern, well-lit building, set back from the dingy street in one of Jerusalem’s less salubrious areas. Inside it are rooms in which tutors, some of them volunteers, provide one-on-one teaching for youngsters who are having difficulties at school, as well as a library and a computer room, and a general atmosphere of relaxed and positive activity.

Most of the children attending the Centre today come from families that have immigrated from Ethiopia, where the language used at home is generally not Hebrew, which puts the child at a disadvantage in their first years at school. Much of the work of the Center involves bringing children in line with the level of their peers in basic subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as providing them with the basic concepts that are learned by Israeli-born children even before they start school.

The Centre’s devoted teachers and administrator maintain contact with the parents of the children who attend and are always willing to help resolve problems connected with the child’s schooling. The Center originally provided its services to the children of the Katamon neighbourhood, many of whose parents had immigrated from the countries of the Maghreb and were unable to provide their children with the headstart that these children often required. Today the children who attend the Centre live in the neighbourhood as well as from elsewhere in Jerusalem.

As is usually the case with such institutions, the Centre is chronically short of funds; \ its basic upkeep is provided by the Jerusalem municipality, but it is the Kagan Fund that pays for its staff and equipment, including computers and enrichment activities. Anyone who is able to contribute to the activities of this admirable enterprise is invited to visit its website at http://www.israelgives.org/amuta/580126605, where information about giving is available.

Out of the Shoebox, an Autobiographical Mystery Historical Novel

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Yaron Reshef begins his book, which has been expertly translated by Nina and Shira Davis, with a declaration regarding the sequence of chance and serendipitous events that led him to engage on an unexpected quest to discover aspects of his own and his family’s past. Although he had shown some interest in his family’s history, the fact that his father had died when he was seven years old had inevitably limited his access to information. What eventually set him off on a two-year-long paper-trail was a phone-call that came out of the blue in July 2011 from an attorney representing the Company for the Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets seeking Yaron, the son and legal heir of Shlomo Zvi Finkelman. It transpires that, together with an associate, one Mordechai Liebman, Yaron’s father had bought a plot of land in the Haifa area in 1935 and that in order to benefit from this property all Yaron had to do was to prove that he was indeed the son of Shlomo Zvi Finkelman and that neither Mordechai Liebman nor his heirs were alive.

It turned out that this was no simple request. Yaron’s father had moved from Poland to Israel, then Mandatory Palestine, on a student visa in 1934, though he had never actually attended any academic institution, having already qualified as an architect in Vienna. Furthermore, he had changed his name by Hebraicising it, and had not been registered as possessing an identity card until a later date.

In Israel, as elsewhere, the authorities require legal proof of identity, whether in the form of an identity card or proof of residence, or both. This was not easy to obtain, and Yaron invested a great deal of time and energy tracking down documents attesting to his father’s residence in pre-State Israel by means of the Haifa Technion, the Israel Lands Authority, the Tel-Aviv City Archives and the Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. He was also required to find proof of a connection between his father and Mordechai Liebman, and in this, too, he was eventually successful, though his task was far from easy. Amazingly, he claims that wherever he turned the officials with whom he came into contact were invariably courteous and helpful!

To cut a long story short (the book has over 260 pages) the necessary documents were eventually found, the relationship between father and son was established, the address where his father had first lived verified, and compensation received. But that was not the end of the story. Having uncovered all kinds of previously unknown connections with his father’s past, Yaron felt impelled to visit the town of Chortkow in the Ukraine from which both of his parents had originally hailed, and escaped at the eleventh hour, having returned there from pre-State Israel for a family visit. It so happens that my own father-in-law also came from there, and reading the account of the theft of property and wholesale massacre of almost all the members of Chortkow’s once-prosperous Jewish community, first by the Soviets and subsequently by the Nazis and the local residents, was almost unbearably painful for me.

Yaron describes in considerable detail his visit to Chortkow and the surrounding area. Like his father, he is an architect, and thus provides a telling visual account (with photographs) of the remaining structures in the region. There are many emotional moments, and the reader is swept along with Yaron on his roller-coaster of conflicting emotions and heart-wrenching experiences. The English translation by reads well on the whole, though I’m not convinced that ‘lot’ is the best term for the Hebrew word ‘migrash.’ I think ‘plot of land’ and ‘plot’ or ‘parcel’ would have been a better choice.

I wrote to Yaron, telling him of my connection with the story and the depression that beset me every time I read another chapter, but he replied saying that for him it had been an uplifting experience, bringing him into contact with the family he had never known and clarifying aspects of his past. As someone who has written about her own family’s history, I can sympathise with that emotion despite the bitter taste that is left by reading about yet another place and time when evil prevailed over good.

 

The Joys of a Garden

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Land is scarce in Jerusalem, so I can consider myself very fortunate to have a small plot of land attached to my house. It is divided into terraced sections because of the lay of the land, which is actually the side of a hill. Thus the back of my house is protected by the hillside that abuts it and we have no windows on that side, providing the building with excellent insulation. Luckily the front of the house gets a lot of light, offsetting the fact that two sides have no windows at all.

Most of the garden is devoted to grass and the shrubs that grow along the fence and screen us from the outside world, but one small part of the garden is devoted to flowers. By a long process of trial and error I think I have found more or less the right combinations to plant at the various seasons, thereby providing a constant show of colour that catches the eye as one enters the driveway and ascends the twelve stone steps that lead up to the level on which the house is built.

When we bought our house, some twenty-five years ago, when it was just a hole in the ground and a plan on paper, we pondered at length which of the four buildings in the row to choose. Others had the same interior layout but slightly larger gardens and it was tempting to go for one of them. But then it struck us that because of the downward slope of the road on which they were situated, the other houses had many more steps to climb in order to reach the front door. Similar houses in a parallel but more desirable road had an equal number of steps that one would have to descend in order to reach one’s front door, but the thought of climbing twenty or more stairs just to leave the house was not very enticing. Besides, those houses were more expensive.

So we went for the first house in the row, the one with the least number of stairs to go up from the road, thinking at the time of our elderly parents and not imagining that one day we ourselves would benefit from our foresight.

But apart from the convenience of access to the house, the garden has played a major role in our off-duty activities. The grass requires attention every now and again, and our automatic watering system doesn’t do a terribly good job of reaching all parts of it, but it is nonetheless pleasant to look out of the house and see a patch of green. The weeds that seem to enjoy harassing us tend to come and go with the seasons of the year, and provided we keep cutting the grass at reasonable intervals they are more or less manageable. That is the main task of the man of the house.

But it is the part with the flowers that is my pride and joy. This year, possibly because of the slow-release fertilizer that I sprinkled on that area a few months ago, it has flourished as never before. Earlier in the year, in the cold winter months, the cyclamens put up a lovely show, and in spring it was most notably the snapdragons and pansies that brought joy to my heart, with their amazing array of colour.

I wanted to plant some godetias, those bright pink, white and purple plants that have been imported from South America and have become almost native in these parts, but once again I missed the planting season. So I have decided to keep a gardening diary to remind myself what to plant when, and when to prune and cut other plants. I know that the late Walter Frankel used to have a regular gardening column in the Jerusalem Post, and even published books about gardening in Jerusalem, but I’ve found that my particular garden has its own quirks and foibles, and doesn’t keep to the rules (probably much like me).

And so, under ‘January’ I’ve written ‘buy and plant godetias, pansies, snapdragons’ and under ‘May’ I’ve written ‘buy and plant petunias, bosmat and winkas,’ and hope that in the intervening months the slow-release fertilizer will do its work. When we come back from our summer holiday it will be time to start on the chrysanthemums, and hopefully they’ll continue to provide colour until it’s time to start with the cyclamens again.

There are few pleasures in life greater than the joy of seeing the flowers that I bought in their infancy from the nursery grow and flourish and fill the garden with a rainbow of colour.

 

 

The Jerusalem Syndrome

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Psychologists and psychiatrists have defined the outburst of mystical ectasy and identification with our ancient city as a known phenomenon that sometimes even requires hospitalization or sedation of the person affected. It has a distant echo in the sense of awe that occasionally envelops visitors to Florence, but no other place on earth arouses so much and such intense emotional, religious and historic attachment as Jerusalem.

Throughout recorded history Jerusalem has been the subject of longing and reverence, first by the exiled Hebrews, then by the defeated Crusaders, and eventually by the entire Christian world. The Muslims also claim a stake in what they claim is their third holiest site. Jewish prayers repeatedly cite the sanctity of Jerusalem, the requiem mass of the Catholic faith mentions Jerusalem, the prayers of the Protestant religion refer to Jerusalem, musicians from Jesualdo to contemporary composers have written music extolling its beauty and bewailing its loss, and even the painters of the Renaissance tried to depict it (but actually painted Tuscan landscapes).

I have lived in or just outside Jerusalem for the best part of my life, namely, the last fifty years, and have seen it grow from a dusty backwater to a vibrant metropolis, incorporating religions, nationalities and ethnicities in a glorious and colourful mix. There is no denying that it has a magical beauty, whether because of its location amidst the Jerusalem hills, its limestone buildings that glow in the setting sun or its benign climate – not as hot and humid as Tel-Aviv in summer though somewhat colder in winter. But even in winter Jerusalem has a haunting beauty of its own, and the crisp days of cool sun are a true delight.

I still have a vivid memory of how, during the Six Day War of 1967, I heard shells falling and exploding around me, automatic fire not far from my home and planes roaring overhead. For a few days we did not know how it would all end, but luckily for me and mine, it ended well, when the barriers between the two halves of Jerusalem came tumbling down and the free flow of people and goods in both directions was the surprising outcome. The euphoria of those weeks and months exploded in the excitement of discovering a whole new world of sights, sounds, flavours and humanity on our very doorstep.

In recent years, however, Jerusalem Day, the day that commemorates that event has been hijacked by certain elements. It has become a festival in its own right, with prayers and ceremonies that leave much of the Jewish population unmoved and even hostile. Thus, the restrained pleasure in being able to stroll from one part of the city to the other that was once in evidence is no more, or at least not on that day. For the segment of the population that marks the unification of the city with prayers and ceremonies this also means doing everything in its power to show everyone who’s the boss now, to proclaim Israel’s predominance over every stone and piece of rubble where Palestinians live and to brandish flags and rub their noses into the new state of affairs.

How did it happen that what was once a place where it was a pleasure to live, where different cultures and civilizations, both old and new, could live side by side, tolerating one another’s religion and beliefs, respecting one another’s traditions, has become a place of enmity and hostility, with security a paramount consideration requiring almost unending resources and manpower? Would matters have been otherwise had the Jewish population of Jerusalem displayed greater consideration for the feelings of the other side? That is one of the great imponderables of our time. What is certain, however, is that demonstrating our sovereignty in a vociferous and provocative way hasn’t helped to foster cooperation and coexistence.

Throughout the ages innumerable victims have been slain in the battles to obtain control of Jerusalem, and that, perhaps, is what lies behind the current need to proclaim that it is now in Israeli hands. But perhaps that is what the Jerusalem Syndrome is all about. What is certain is that there can never be peace and harmony as long as one side aspires to grind the other one into the dust.

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