It’s Here Again!

It’s that time of the year again. Over the summer weekends every self-respecting village and town in central France holds its annual fete or saint’s day, meaning that bowls competitions are held, food and drink is served for a minimum fee and both local people and ‘outsiders’ can set up stalls for the annual flea-market sale of sundry goods, bric-a-brac and anything that’s surplus to requirements.

The flea-market, or ‘brocante,’ is the place to be on a balmy summer morning, when people of all ages, shapes and sizes turn out to inspect one another’s wares, possibly even to buy a trinket or ancient copper pot and to enjoy socializing with neighbours from near and far.

The brocante is everyone’s chance to bring out the contents of their basement or attic (some brocantes are also called ‘attic-emptier’), set up a stall and get rid of the porcelain service they inherited from their grandparents, the toys and clothes that their children have outgrown, old books, records and tools, and even the jewellery that dear grandmamma left them.

I really enjoy strolling along the rows of stalls, inspecting the goods on sale and exchanging a friendly greeting with the people manning (or rather womanning) the stalls. Sometimes one sees beautiful dinner- or tea-services, antique cutlery and interesting paintings. And it can be almost painful to see the linen tablecloths and serviettes upon which a young woman once embroidered her initials, as was the custom before marriage in former times.

I have seen ornate soup tureens that I would dearly have loved to buy, but really have no good use for. And of course there are also cups without saucers, saucers without cups, teapots without lids, pots, pans and ancient metal implements whose purpose is not always clear.

One of the items that caught my eye one Sunday morning was a large metal stand consisting of dozens of arms and hooks. When I asked the stall-owner what it was for he told me it was for drying wine bottles. Now, who has to dry dozens of wine bottles all in one go? This is not a grape-growing area, so I can only presume that the former owners used to consume a great deal of wine. I was later informed that such objects were taken by the early Dadaist artists and presented as ‘a fountain,’ revolutionizing modern art by the introduction of the concept of ‘ready-made.’

Every once in a while I have come across items that are both beautiful and serviceable. And so my tea-service has benefited from two cups with matching saucers that are almost an exact fit with mine. In addition, four handsome mugs matching my breakfast dishes and large enough to accommodate a generous cup of tea also now grace my table of a morning.

Arts and crafts aficionados can also occasionally find something to their liking, and I know several artistic types who use the opportunity to earn a few extra pennies by selling their home-made embroidered tablecloths, crocheted mats and even delicate items of clothing. Of course, there are also those talented individuals who make necklaces, bracelets, earrings and other trinkets which can be very attractive.

As long as I don’t have enough things I regard as discardable I am relieved of the onerous task of standing behind a stall for several hours, and am happy to leave the work to others. But perhaps one day my children and/or grandchildren will be doing that with all the ‘stuff’ I’ve accumulated over the years. Sorry, folks!

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Chasing Lost Time: The Life of C.K.Scott Moncrieff; Soldier, Spy and Translator

The book was written by Jean Findlay, a distant relative of the subject, and was published by Chatto and Windus in 2014

As a former translator and great admirer of the works of Proust, both in the original French (a bit of a struggle for me) and in their delightful English version, I could not resist ordering this book from the Bibliophile company that offers hundreds of books at reduced prices.

My expectations were not dashed, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this well-written account of the unusual character and life of Charles Kenneth Scott Moncreiff (CKSM, or CK as he was known to his friends), from his beginnings as the scion of a somewhat eccentric Scottish family to his later life as an itinerant intellectual, literary luminary and intelligence gatherer in Italy.

His mother, to whom he was very attached, was something of a society beauty but also an artist and a professional writer, publishing essays, articles and stories in a variety of journals and newspapers. His father was a lawyer, eventually becoming a judge, so that his employment in various capacities meant that the family had to move several times in CKSM’s childhood and youth, though always remaining in some part of Scotland.

Much of the book describes CKSM’s education, first in a Scottish private school and then at Winchester public school, having been awarded a scholarship. There he developed his love for poetry and literature in general, made lifelong friendships, and presumably developed the homosexuality that formed an integral part of his adult life. Having failed to get into Cambridge, he went up to Edinburgh university, first graduating in law in order to satisfy his parents, and then following his own inclination by studying literature.

Born in 1889, Charles belonged to the generation of young men who fought in the First World War. Having been an enthusiastic member of the cadets, he became an officer in a regiment of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and spent the war years fighting in France interspersed with periods of being sent home to recover from the disease known as Trench Fever, which afflicted him at various periods throughout his life. He relished the life of the soldier, displaying fearless fighting spirit and loyalty to his men, but eventually suffered a serious wound to his right leg that left him disabled for the rest of his life and caused him to endure several bouts of hospitalization for surgery in an attempt to save the leg from amputation. During the war, and possibly as a result of his experiences in it, he converted to Catholicism.

Inevitably, he was affected by the death in war of many of his friends and fellow-soldiers, particularly that of the poet Wilfred Owen, whom he admired tremendously and to whom he was particularly devoted. In civilian life he held positions in London in the War Office and in the offices of The Times, which was owned at the time by Lord Northcliffe (Alfred Harmsworth).

Before the war CKSM had translated the ancient texts of Beowulf and Chanson de Roland, and it was while he was working at The Times that he began translating the first volume of Proust’s epic novel, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. His method consisted of reading a sentence, then translating it viva voce to a friend, and subsequently writing it down. To this particular translator this seems an impossible undertaking, but this was CKSM’s preferred modus operandi, and seems to have worked exceedingly well, as his translations of all the volumes that comprise the novel, as well as those of many other authors (Pirandello, Balzac, Stendhal, inter alia), are acclaimed as works of great beauty and profound understanding.

He spent most of his later life in Italy, living in a succession of rented rooms in Pisa, Venice, Rome, to name but a few, while undertaking intelligence work for Britain and also entertaining a wide assortment of literary figures from England and elsewhere. He also worked simultaneously as a literary critic, writing for various London journals, as well as conducting an extensive correspondence with many of his friends and colleagues.

He died in Rome in 1930, aged only forty, after being diagnosed with stomach cancer just eight weeks earlier, but having lived almost twice as long as those friends who had been killed in the war. He seems to have managed to enjoy his somewhat diversified life-style while at the same time working hard, combating disability, maintaining a wide range of relationships, and sending money to help support the families of his two older brothers who had died before him.

The Lady and the Unicorn

The region of France around the town of Limoges has been known since mediaeval times for its weavers, and the art of tapestry-making once flourished there for many generations, passing down from father to son. Today the towns of Aubusson and Felletin are no longer famous for that particular speciality, though remnants of those ancient times are still to be found there in the form of museums and studios. Shops in Aubusson’s main street still display coloured wools of all kinds in their windows for the benefit of the many local hobbyists.

In the castle perched atop the steep precipice overlooking the Creuse river in the nearby town of Boussac one may take a guided tour of the building and sense something of the mediaeval atmosphere that once prevailed there. The grand dining hall, where lavish meals were once served to hundreds of revelers, now stands empty, and the guide is quick to point out that this part of the castle was destroyed by the British in the fourteenth century (whereupon this British visitor felt obliged to apologise). A fascinating book describing the tapestries recently came into my hands, providing with me with an insight into these beautiful works of art.

One of the rooms in the castle, where much of the original furniture may still be found, was occupied by the French writer, George Sand (Aurore Dudevant) in the 1830s. In her novel, Jeanne, she describes the castle and the surrounding countryside, also mentioning the impressive set of tapestries entitled ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’ that adorned the walls at that time. In later years, as the devastation wrought by time, rats and mould threatened to cause irreparable damage to the tapestries, they were purchased for the French nation and hung, after extensive restoration, in the Cluny Museum in Paris. One or two reproductions may still be seen in the castle, but not the originals.

The early history of the six remaining tapestries (there may once have been more), is not absolutely clear. What is known is that they were produced in France for one of the members of the nobility on the basis of designs made by a mediaeval master. In fact, the production of the tapestries required the skills of an artist or artists who could produce the basic design, those who could transfer it onto a cartoon, or basis for the weaver, and extremely skilful weavers who were masters of the intricate art of producing the finished tapestry.

The six huge tapestries, each one different but depicting similar principal figures – a lady, her maidservant, a lion and a unicorn – also show a myriad of smaller animals, as well as birds and flowers of various kinds and sizes in a wealth of colours, covering each tapestry in abundant detail that is both fascinating and a delight to the eye. Contemporary scholars have concluded that each tapestry concerns one of the five senses, smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing, while the last one bears the inscription ‘Mon seul desir,’ which could mean either ‘My one desire’ or ‘Only my will.’ Whether this refers to some concept of romantic love or is a philosophical pronouncement is still an open question. It has been suggested that the tapestries were commissioned for the wedding or betrothal of the son and daughter of two noble families, but no records have been found to verify this assumption.

The lion and the unicorn are well-known heraldic figures, and are even to be found in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom, though no association with England is known. The production of the tapestries in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries connects the traditions of the mediaeval and renaissance periods of art. Be that as it may, the tapestries themselves are works of great beauty and interest, and make a visit to the Cluny Museum a must for my next visit to Paris.

 

Subservience, Suffering and Sex,

Doing His Will (Osah Kirtzono)

by Esti Weinstein

Published in Hebrew by Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan, Dvir, 2016

The poor woman who wrote this book (she eventually committed suicide) was born into a specific sect – tantamount to a cult – of ultra-orthodox Judaism known as the Gur Hassidim.

As a child and teenager the author accepted the rules, regulations and restrictions (and there were many restrictions) required by the sect. As disciples of the principal rabbi of the sect, the Gur Rabbi, both men and women were subject to strict rules regarding dress, food, prayer, family life and even sex. The key word in all aspects of life was subservience: men were subservient to the rabbi, who was considered the principal purveyor of the word of God, and women were subservient to men – to their father before marriage, and to their husband subsequently.

The author, who seems to have total recall when it comes to recollecting every conversation she had throughout her childhood and every thought that passed through her head, describes all this in almost painful detail, which can become rather tedious after a while. This applies in particular to her imagined conversations with God, whom she appears to have regarded as her best friend. Reciting the appropriate prayers at the appointed times also occupied a prominent place in her life.

The account of her upbringing and home life reveals a spirited youngster who toes the line dictated by the society she grows up in, a line that seems intentionally designed to cramp any individual thought or idea, focusing on preparing girls for marriage and parenthood as soon as they reach the age of sixteen or seventeen, and keeping them protected from and ignorant of life in the wider world outside the sect.

Thus, from an early age the heroine’s thoughts are focused primarily on the search her parents undertake to find her a suitable husband, the  process of considering and being considered by fitting suitors, and her joy at having been found acceptable by the scion of a respectable family. The ‘courtship’ process involved meetings between the two sets of parents, a single meeting between the two candidates, and a period of separation lasting several months while preparations for the wedding went ahead.

Naturally, the main concern of the seventeen-year-old was the fabric and design of her wedding dress, and also the triumph of getting married before her best friend. The actual wedding ceremony was long and arduous, with strict separation between male and female guests, and the inevitable disappointment in bed on the first night.

Nevertheless, the young couple must have overcome their initial shyness, as well as the various constraints imposed by the sect on the nature and frequency of intercourse (no expressions of love or displays of intimacy allowed), as they managed to have eight children in the next fourteen years. Sex is a duty to be undertaken solely in order to fulfill the commandment ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ This took its toll on the author’s body, and after seeing a non-orthodox friend in a swimming suit she felt impelled to undergo surgery to have her breasts enlarged.

Although her husband said he loved and admired her just as she was and did his best to make her happy, the heroine gradually found herself consumed by revulsion at his appearance and physical attentions. Notwithstanding, she did her best to fulfill her marital duty and succumb to his nightly demands. At some stage the couple embarked on visits to hotel spas for massages. These at first were separate, but then together, and this started a train of events that culminated in the husband initiating and encouraging his wife to experience treatment by a male masseur, leading eventually to erotic experiences, which the husband witnessed and apparently enjoyed.

Consumed by guilt and disgust the heroine felt she had lost her faith in her religion, and even her relationship with God. Disillusioned and disgusted by the hypocrisy of the other members of her sect-cum-cult she made an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide, eventually left her husband, and as a result was prevented from seeing her children. Finally she sank into utter despair and depression, so that her last suicide attempt succeeded.

Her tragic story featured in Israel’s media for a while, but was soon pushed aside by other subjects. It is doubtful whether any lessons were learned from this sorry saga, either by the community which spewed her out or by the wider, secular society. But at least this book, which she must have written over a considerable period of time, constitutes her revenge from beyond the grave.

 

London in Jerusalem

British Mandatory rule of the region known at the time as Palestine but currently the State of Israel lasted only thirty years, from 1917 (the conquest of the region by British forces and the granting of the mandate by the League of Nations) to 1948 (the declaration of independence by Israel). In view of the region’s recorded history, going back several thousands of years, this is a mere blip, nonetheless the effects of that brief interlude can be seen still today.

The exhibition entitled ‘London in Jerusalem’ tracing just some of these effects occupies part of the exhibition space in the ancient Jerusalem structure known as the Tower of David (the rest describes the conquest of Jerusalem and entry into the city by General Allenby). There are those who believe the site to be the burial place of King David, but the archaeological evidence dates the structure to a later period. However, the building is certainly at least one thousand years old, and has yielded many interesting artifacts. It stands at the outer edge of Jerusalem’s Old City, and forms a prominent landmark, constituting part of the wall surrounding it, separating the old from the newer parts of the city.

During the period of the Mandate the Tower of David served as a focal point for cultural and artistic activities, as is attested by posters in the exhibition advertising exhibitions, concerts and art auctions held there. The influence of British rule may be clearly seen still today throughout the newer parts of Jerusalem, as the first Governor-General, Sir Ronald Storrs, issued an order stating that any new building erected in Jerusalem had to be faced with Jerusalem stone, thus preserving the architectural character of the city.

Under British rule Jerusalem flourished both physically and culturally, with the construction of important buildings, among them the YMCA building and the King David hotel, as well as the garden suburbs of Rechavia and Beit Hakerem. The period also saw an influx of new inhabitants, mainly from Europe but also from other parts of the Middle East, so that both the Arab and the Jewish populations grew. It goes without saying that in the 1930s Jews from Germany and other parts of Europe also made Jerusalem their home, although immigration by Jews became increasingly difficult with the restrictions imposed by the Mandatory authorities as they bowed to Arab pressure.

Nonetheless, alongside the surge in residential and public construction, social and cultural life in Jerusalem flourished. One wall of the exhibition is devoted to posters for concerts, recitals, plays, art exhibitions and dances open to the public. Alongside the growth in the population from former European countries, there was a general expansion of life in the cafés and restaurants of the city, and the exhibition contains a life-size reconstruction of an authentic Jerusalem café of the time, as well as of the famous Fink’s bar, where a large number of journalists and others spent many happy hours.

One of the most outstanding legacies of British rule was the establishment of the broadcasting service, known at the time as the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS). The broadcasts were in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and members of the three communities served on the programming board, although this did not preclude disputes over content and time slots. ‘Jerusalem Calling,’ as the station was known, played a significant role in fostering local culture, broadcasting news as well as live music, language lessons, radio plays, segments for children and youth and morning exercise programmes.

One intriguing display cabinet contains the delicate bone china tea service used by the King David hotel when VIPs came to stay. In addition, main roads were given English names, some of which have endured to this day. Thus, every Jerusalemite knows where King George street is located, though few remember that its continuation was once known as Princess Mary street. The exhibition notes point out that as well as turning Jerusalem into a financial and cultural centre, the British made it the administrative center of the region, a status it had not enjoyed under Ottoman rule.

All in all, it is possible to look back at that brief period as one of relative peace and harmony between the different cultures, as a time of cultural blossoming and economic stability. It was also the period in which the leaders of the Yishuv, as the Jewish comunity was then known, were able to focus on creating the instruments of self-government and forging the path for the future State of Israel.

 

Music in the Creuse

Summer in the depths of rural France is peaceful in the extreme, providing R&R (rest and relaxation) and constituting balm for the soul.

One does one’s best to take advantage of the quiet time, and even to enjoy the food and wine while endeavouring to maintain a modicum of moderation. This, of course, is particularly hard given the many temptations that surround one on all sides.

Cultural delights such as those we are able to enjoy in the city are rare, however, and one doesn’t expect to encounter first-class entertainment of that kind while in the countryside of any country, and certainly not in France, far away from any centre of any kind.

However, we were able one evening to enjoy music-making on a high standard in a church in one of the nearby villages. An ensemble consisting of a flautist and harp-player, both originally from the Netherlands, entertained the packed hall with a selection of classical music ranging from Bach to very modern pieces, in some cases written especially for these artists. The musicians, who also teach in Dutch music academies, are both members of the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

In between the two parts of the concert (which started at the very sensible hour of 6 p.m., leaving time to get home in time for dinner) we were entertained by the local choir of some forty adults, presenting a very eclectic programme of songs sung in a variety of languages. This took us far from the provincial and rural France we have come to know and love, with harmonious arrangements of French folk songs, the orthodox Serbian liturgy, a rendition in French of ‘Let the Sun Shine in,’ from the musical ‘Hair,’ and also of ‘Amazing Grace,’ as well as of Handel’s ‘Lascia ch’io pianga’ and ‘Erlaube mir’ by Brahms. The grand finale, in which the choir was accompanied by the flute and harp ensemble, was Verdi’s ‘Va Pensiero,’ the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from ‘Nabucco.’

The choir seemed to consist mainly of elderly and middle-aged individuals drawn from the various local communities of the region. What was surprising was its particularly strong male section, which added considerably to the quality of the sound as it resonated around the tiny church. The enthusiasm of the lady conductor was also admirable, though I was somewhat distracted by wondering whether the sleeves of her jacket would withstand the strain of her energetic arm movements.

The audience also displayed considerable enthusiasm, and seemed reluctant to let either the players or the choir end the evening without a series of encores of various kinds. However, sitting on hard wooden benches for two hours was starting to get too much for us, so that we felt impelled to leave before the choir embarked on a repeat performance of ‘Va Pensiero.’ It was also becoming apparent that the choristers were also beginning to get tired, having had to stand for most of the evening.

After all, they must have wanted to go home and have dinner, too. They certainly deserved it.

Trump crumbled!

 

The recent furore over Donald Trump’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents and placing them in enclosures that have been likened to cages, seems in the end to have brought out the best in American society.

After all, virtually all Americans, Trump included, can trace their roots back to immigrant forefathers, whether relatively recent or distant. For many years immigration into America was permitted in almost unlimited fashion. In the 1920s America introduced quotas restricting the number of immigrants by country, thus putting paid to the hopes of many European Jews of finding refuge from Nazi persecution.

Initially there seemed to be general support for Trump’s policy of ‘zero tolerance’ regarding the illegal entry into America of people entering the country via the southern border from Mexico. However, as reporters and photographers provided evidence of the heartbreaking scenes of children being separated from their parents, this gave way to widespread indignation.

To America’s credit, except in a handful of cases, this indignation was expressed right across the board, regardless of party affiliation or political beliefs. The general outrage eventually persuaded even that most stubborn and presumably heartless of presidents to revoke his edict, which he falsely claimed had been introduced by the previous Democratic administration.

The whole episode brought back to me an episode from my own life, which I call ‘my epiphany in the library.’

When I was studying for a degree in Sociology at the London School of Economics back in the 1960s, we were told to read the work of psychologist John Bowlby on maternal deprivation. Sitting in the university library, I read about the deleterious effects of separating a young child from his or her mother. It was then, at the age of eighteen, that I remembered having been told that when I was one year old I was sent away to a children’s home in the countrside in the framework of the evacuation of children from London during the Blitz of the Second World War. My parents had said that before that I had sung and even spoken, but that when I was brought back, about a year later, it took a long time before I would sing and speak again.

At the time the account of what had been done to me left me unmoved, but as I read more and more about the long-term psychological damage that separation from a mother or surrogate mother does to a very young child I became more and more agitated. I don’t know if I burst into tears there and then, but I certainly had a lot of food for thought.

I was living at home at the time, and when I got home later that day I asked my mother, possibly with a note of accusation in my voice, how she could have done that to me, her only child at the time. I recall that my mother became very upset, possibly even breaking down in tears, and said that what they had done had been only for my own good, to save me from possible injury or death from the bombing.

At that time, my parents were house-parents at a hostel for some twenty-five refugee children who had come to England in the framework of the Kindertransport, which gave refuge to ten thousand unaccompanied children from Europe. So the concept of separating children from their parents must have seemed quite reasonable to them, although none of their wards were under the age of eight or nine, and some were already in their teens. Most of those younger children were also sent out of London in the framework of the general evacuation policy.

Many years later I wrote about this episode in my life, as well as others, in my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game.’ I have no actual memory of the event, but I’m in no doubt that it affected my psyche. Writing about what I imagined that I felt may well have served in some way to help heal the wounds.

However, it isn’t necessary to have experienced maternal deprivation oneself in order to feel empathy for the children of immigrants separated from their parents, as has been proved by recent events in America.

I can only say, well done, America, and thank goodness for its free press and social media. The uproar forced Trump to crumble. If only other countries had behaved in a similar fashion who knows how different history might have been. But at least the America of today has proved that it has a heart and that the vaunted American values still prevail.

 

‘Jacob and his Sons’ at the Israel Museum

 

The exhibition of paintings by  Francisco de Zurburan, a seventeenth-century Spanish painter, has been a major attraction at the Israel Museum for the last few weeks. I had never heard of him, so I made use of a free morning to go and take a look.

What met my eyes came as a huge surprise (with the emphasis on ‘huge’). Each of the thirteen paintings depicts Jacob and his twelve sons, as described in the Old Testament. As Jacob feels his last hours approaching, he calls all his sons to him and on each one by turn he bestows a blessing and a characterization, phrased succinctly and sometimes in a caustic or prophetic way. In the exhibition at the Israel Museum these quotations are given in both Hebrew and English alongside each picture, enabling the viewer to relate the visual depiction to the father’s analysis.

The twelve sons of Jacob are regarded as the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, and it is in that light that they should be perceived through Zurburan’s paintings. The actual pictures are extremely large, larger than life even, and clearly painted with a great deal of thought and attention to detail. The models for each painting were evidently chosen with the idea of revealing some aspect of the Biblical character. But that is only part of the story. Each model wears clothing that reflects his character and role in life. Thus, Judah, the son who is destined to be the predecessor of kings, wears regal robes of great delicacy and complexity, while Asher, who is described by Jacob as someone who both feasts on and provides good food and delicacies fit for kings, is painted as a ‘bon vivant,’ with an expression of satisfaction on his face.

What is most striking about all the paintings is the richness of the colours of various items of clothing. Thus, even the attire worn by Gad, who is depicted as a poor man, is painted in such great detail and with such artistic delicacy that to the viewer it feels as if one can almost touch the fabric of his dress.

The paintings apparently have a checkered history, and it is thought that they were intended to be used as a visual stimulus for the conversion of the natives of South America. The Spanish conquerors managed to overcome the physical resistance displayed by the local population, which nonetheless continued to adhere to their own beliefs. It is thought that the paintings were on board a vessel bound for South America that was captured by pirates and were lost for several years. Eventually, in the mid-eighteenth century, the pictures were bought at an auction in England by the Bishop of Durham, who hung them in Auckland Castle in Scotland. He did this in the aspiration that they would serve to further awareness of the need for tolerance and social, political and religious understanding between Christians and Jews in Britain.

Since Auckland Castle is currently undergoing renovations, the Israel Museum was given the opportunity to provide a temporary home for them in the form of the current exhibition, which is certainly well worth a visit.

Mazal Tov!

 

When I got married, over fifty years ago, the custom in Israel was for weddings to be festive affairs, but compared with today’s scene they were relatively sedate. I know that people hired halls and hotels in some cases, but I do not recollect any such event involving the participation of many hundreds of guests, dervish-like dancing that went on for hours and the total abandonment of consideration for the eardrums of the participants.

Being constitutionally averse to large-scale celebrations, I chose to celebrate my own wedding in an even more low-key fashion, with just a handful of guests (close friends and family), in the garden of friends in Jerusalem’s German Colony neighbourhood, and refreshments that consisted primarily of sandwiches (which I felt too excited or occupied with my guests to partake of). Of course, I spurned the traditional long white dress and wore what I hoped was a tasteful cream-coloured two-piece. I recollect the annoyance I felt at having to take myriad photographs with each guest in turn. Furthermore, the subdued background music that was supposed to have been provided by a friend who had undertaken the task failed for some reason and there was no music at all.

Still, neither I nor anybody else seemed to be unduly disturbed by the lack of entertainment or the modest refreshments, and the event was as joyous and enjoyable as any I have attended since. But then, I might be biased.

These days, however, weddings in Israel seem to have become ever more raucous, and to involve ever greater throngs of people, with music blasting the eardrums of the assembled guests making it totally impossible to conduct a conversation of any kind, whether civilized or not. The marriage ceremony is generally followed by several hours of frenetic dancing by all concerned, whether in separate groups for men and women or in mixed formation. In the misanthropic miasma that descends on me at these times I try – but usually fail – to understand why anyone would get dressed in their best clothes in order to get all hot and sweaty jumping up and down along with hundreds of other people doing likewise.

What cannot be denied, however, is that such events provide a golden opportunity to get together with other members of our ever-growing family, as relatives from all over the country (and abroad) join forces to celebrate yet another merry milestone in the life of one of its members. In effect what is being celebrated is the continuation of one more branch of the tree that has grown and blossomed from the plant nurtured by the first generation, thata of our parents, the penniless young couple who once found refuge from persecution and war in England and eventually ended up in Israel, together with the rest of the family.

So I suppose that when all is said and done, in the final analysis, weighing up the pros and the cons, taking the rough with the smooth and considering all the options, I will continue to attend these nuptial festivities as and when they come (and they seem to be coming ever thicker and faster these days). At any rate, festive occasions are infinitely preferable to mournful ones.

Mazal tov to the young couple and everyone in the family!

‘Uscolia’ by Gabriel Lanyi

 

 

 

It is many years since I read material on the theory of education, and this book on the subject came into my hands through the kindness of our new neighbor, who also happens to be the author. But it is no standard book on education, far from it, as it is presented in the form of an account of a fictional voyage to a distant land (something akin to Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ and Swift’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’) together with a raft of revolutionary ideas about what education consists of and what role it should play in society.

The book starts with a description of the narrator being ‘surf-wrecked’ off the coast of north America, incidentally displaying admirable expertise in the terminology and technique of wind-surfing. This brings him to the imaginary island of Uscolia, where a highly advanced society with unique ideas about education and socialization has emerged. What follows is a series of narratives designed in the form of Russian dolls, with conversations taking place at the level of the society in which the narrator finds himself as well as at the level of the book’s initial starting point and a subsequent discussion among visitors staying in the local hotel. This can be a trifle confusing at times, but the main point is to examine and justify the distinctive approach to education that permeates every aspect of life on the island, starting with the education of children from early infancy.

The basic premise of the Uscolian theory – and this even appears on the back cover of the book – is that ‘all newborns are created equal, but a day later they no longer are.’ In other words, the task of moulding a child’s brain begins at birth, if not before, and it is to this end that from the outset tiny babies are exposed to all kinds of stimuli, starting with language, as is generally the case with humans, but also involving music and tactile experiences. Building on the concept that native fluency in one’s first language is learned by hearing and responding to messages received in the mothertongue, the idea is that using this approach it is also possible to learn other languages and skills, and even acquire knowledge in many fields, using the child’s natural curiosity and ability to learn. Another basic premise is that the human brain’s capacity to absorb information is infinite, and that most people use only a fraction of their abilities. In effect, in the Uscolian system there is no such thing as direct teaching, but rather an approach that enables a child to work out for him- or her-self what it is that interests them and how to pursue these subjects and solve problems, generally doing so in cooperation with other children of various ages.

The idea of independent learning is conducted by means of ‘studios’ in which children interact with one another and share their enquiries by developing projects. All this is done without a teacher of any kind being involved, though there does seem to be some kind of supervision, or rather monitoring, by ‘helpers,’ whose task it is to facilitate the children’s exploratory activities. Thus, at some point we find one of the helpers ‘talking’ mathematics to a very young child, and it is assumed that this will enable him to grasp the relations between numbers and mathematical concepts.

This all seems to be very idyllic in the context of the world in which we find ourselves today, but, as in all utopias, the idea seems to work. In addition, the concept of criminality or delinquency either does not exist, is ignored or is channeled into ‘positive’ activity.

The most interesting part of the book comes at the end, where Gabriel Lanyi describes how he and his wife implemented their ‘Uscolian’ theories of education when bringing up their own child, Ariel, who is now aged twenty and studying music in London. They evidently invested a great deal of thought, as well as energy, originality and ingenuity, into applying their ideas about the optimum environment for the development of the child, starting with specific musical education, which could perhaps be more appropriately termed ‘immersion,’ and providing him with the tools and surroundings that would enable him to pursue any interest he showed in any subject. O fortunate infant!

In an ideal world I believe most parents would do the same for their children, though few parents are equipped with the mental and physical resources displayed by the Lanyis. However, as far as I can recollect, when my own children were born my husband and I were far too preoccupied with making a living, forging a career, and simply surviving to be able to develop sophisticated ideas about education. I reckon this applies to many, if not most, young parents. Maybe we were too young and inexperienced, but despite everything, our children have grown up to develop their own wonderful and unique abilities and personalities. It seems that innate ability and resilience still have a role to play.