Jerusalem, Mon Amour


It came as a bit of a shock to realize that I’ve been living in or near Jerusalem for over fifty years – the best part of my life, in fact. I still love London, my birthplace, but there’s no escaping the fact that I don’t really know it any more. The residents of the suburb where I grew up have changed radically, as have its physical surroundings – the field at the back of the house, the shops in the high street and the exteriors of the houses.

Change is, I suppose, an inescapable feature of the urban experience wherever one happens to live. These days most people undertake the large part of their purchases in the shopping malls that protect them from the elements and offer every possible facility under one pleasant roof.

So it’s a rare occurrence that brings me to downtown Jerusalem nowadays. This was not the case when I first came to live in Jerusalem, even though at the time it was little more than a provincial backwater with only a few dusty shops, hardly any traffic-lights and not a single pedestrian mall. ‘Going to town’ was what young people did on a Saturday night, and that was where the few night-clubs, cinemas, cafés and eateries were situated.

Over the years, though, the place has undergone a radical transformation occasioned by both technical progress and the results of the Six Day War. The Old City now serves as a magnet for tourists and some segments of the population. Part of the famous ‘triangle’ formed by the town’s three principal thoroughfares has been pedestrianized, the Light Rail that runs down Jaffa Road has brought an eerie silence to what was once a noisy, congested route replete with polluted air and crumbling shop facades.

Because I had to leave my car in the garage for a few hours I decided to use the opportunity and visit downtown Jerusalem. Very few of the shops I remembered still existed, most of them having been tarted up and converted into fashionable cafés with lavish outdoor seating. The unkindest blow of all was to find that Shai Kong, the one shop that sold cotton garments imported from India and the Far East had disappeared. I walked up Jaffa Road looking for it and failed to find it. Only when I walked back down on the other side did I realize that the interior had been completely gutted and workmen were busy tearing it to pieces. The words ‘closing-down sale’ were still scrawled on the glass facade. Only the name of the store on the awning that had not yet been removed served to prove that it had once existed. My first thought was: where am I going to buy the cotton blouses and trousers that have served me as perfect summer pyjamas for so many years?

But trivial matters aside, whither downtown Jerusalem? None of the cinemas that were local landmarks in my younger days are left, and anyone who wants to see a film must go to one of the emporia of the cinematic industry located elsewhere in Jerusalem. Some of the market-style stores selling cheap clothes and trinkets have been replaced by more respectable chains selling garments that are neatly arranged on counters and artistically displayed in shop-fronts. But the overriding impression is that the area has become the mecca of eating and drinking, and possibly of making merry, too, for all I know. But that is something I must leave to the younger generation.

Who knows? Perhaps in another fifty years one of those individuals will find him- or herself in downtown Jerusalem and be amazed by the changes that have occurred.


Zionism or Judaism?


The headline in the paper one morning made me shudder. It reported that Israel’s Minister of Education, Naftali Bennet, had proclaimed that it was more important to focus on Jewish studies in schools than on maths and science subjects.

Admittedly, the party that Bennet represents, Jewish Home, stands for those values that the religious segment of the population regards as paramount, but one would expect the Minister of Education to take into account the views of the general population, the majority of which sends its children to secular schools. After all, the religious segment of Israel’s population has its own schools, covering all the various shades and gradations of religious observance. In addition, all secular schools are required to include Bible studies and Jewish subjects in their curricula, and this has always been the case.

What Bennet’s ideas sound like to me is proselytising, or even an attempt at brainwashing. After all, children’s minds are malleable and pupils generally tend to accept what they are taught by figures of authority, i.e., teachers. In addition, I fail to see how secular teachers can be expected to impart values, customs and mores to which they do not themselves subscribe.

The whole episode brought to mind my long-lost youth when, as the product of an orthodox home, it was the most natural thing in the world for me to join the Bnei Akivah youth movement. As teenagers we had some good times at weekly meetings, weekend seminars and summer camps, Bnei Akiva in those days was more moderate in its approach to religion than it is today, and boys and girls mixed freely, though I have the feeling that our way of enjoying ourselves then is probably not what today’s youngsters would consider constituting a good time. We spent weekends and summer holidays together in rented boarding schools or under canvas, dividing our time between serious subjects and having fun, always under the guidance of some older, supposedly more responsible, members.

One incident that stands out in my mind is a Shabbat lunch when, uplifted by the enthusiastic singing of the entire camp, one of our leaders declared: “It is by expanding observance of the Shabbat to include all Jews everywhere that we will finally attain our goal of Medinat Halacha, i.e., the State of Israel run on the lines of the universal observance of Judaism.”

At the time I found that inspiring, but today the thought fills me with horror. Israel today is witness to a constant battle between the efforts of the religious parties to impose their views on the entire country, so that on Shabbat there is no public transport, all shops are shut and essential infrastructure maintenance work cannot be implemented. It goes without saying that the attitude towards women in orthodox Judaism is unacceptable in today’s modern, egalitarian world.

Israel’s unfortunate electoral system has given rise to a situation in which coalition governments are unavoidable, and the stranglehold of the religious parties obliges governments to accede to their demands. If it is their intention to make Israel a Medinat Halacha I’m very much afraid they will find themselves in a State of their own, possibly together with the Moslem extremists with whom they have so much in common.

(This article appeared in the November edition of the AJR Journal.)

1606, Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro


When I picked this book up at Luton airport, as I was about to board a plane, I thought I was going to read a historical novel. I couldn’t have been more wrong. All the same, this historically accurate account of the events that occurred in that year, and the ways in which they affected Shakespeare and his contemporaries, reads like an exciting detective story, taking the reader along an uncharted route in which previously hidden connections are established and mysteries resolved.

James Shapiro, who is Professor of English at Columbia University, New York, displays a breadth and depth of knowledge that left me astounded. Linking together the hiatus caused by the succession of King James the First, the son of Queen Elizabeth the First’s cousin and rival, Mary Queen of Scots, and the resultant Union of England and Scotland, Shapiro shows how the opening scene of King Lear alludes to this event. The life and livelihood of actors and playwrights could be precarious at that time, so Shakespeare and his fellow-playwrights had to tread very carefully when writing about current events.

In addition to the possibility that plays which were considered politically threatening could be banned by the Lord Chamberlain, who acted on the monarch’s behalf, the theatres of London were periodically closed for reasons such as Lent (the period leading up to Easter), fears of the recurrence of an epidemic of plague, and apprehensions regarding political unrest. This was a time when religious rivalries were still rife, with the Catholic faith being regarded as subversive, even treasonable. In this connection Shapiro devotes a particularly learned and fascinating chapter to the concept of equivocation – a rhetorical technique used by persons suspected of Catholic leanings to avoid being apprehended and forced to confess their crime.

This was also the year of the Gunpowder Plot, the infamous attempt by Guy Fawkes and his associates to blow up the Houses of Parliament just when the king and his court were in attendance. The fortuitous way the plot was uncovered and the ramifications of this and the subsequent trials and executions of the considerable number of conspirators undoubtedly left a deep impression on all strata of English society, both urban and rural. The extent to which the date is still commemorated in England today is just one indication of the widespread effect of the event and its consequences throughout the land.

But for me, an avowed devotee of what may be considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest play, it came as something of a shock to find that the Bard based the text to a considerable extent on a previous play, ‘The True Chronicle History of King Leir,’ written by an unknown hand and performed by a rival troop of actors known as The Queen’s Men. From Shapiro’s careful analysis we learn that Shakespeare must have not only seen the original play performed on stage but also had the printed text beside him while he wrote, as there are several clear parallels between the wording in both plays. There is, of course, much in the play that is Shakespeare’s own invention and it is no simple matter to disentangle the text that is Shakespeare’s and what he has cribbed from the previous version. This is made even more complicated by the changes that were made to the text between the publication of the first version of the play (the 1608 quarto) and the later one (the1623 folio), some substantial, others inconsequential, with omissions and additions in various hands, possibly due to the exigencies of staging the play at various venues.

The fact that a Scottish king was now on the throne of England created new problems for Shakespeare as well as providing him with inspiration, most prominently for Macbeth. Once again, he had to tread a fine line between courting favour with the monarch, a prominent consumer of dramatic plays, and employing terms and creating situations that would not be taken amiss by those in power. In that same year Shakespeare also wrote Anthony and Cleopatra, and Shapiro reveals the similarities between those two plays as well as their relevance to the general situation at the time.

This book is both mind-blowing and eye-opening, and I can only sit back and admire the breadth of knowledge and depth of understanding that has gone into writing it. We all know that Shakespeare relied on historical sources for the plots of many of his plays, but here we see the creative process taking shape and form before our very eyes, and the revelation is both enriching and empowering.


Turmoil and Torment


News of the World front page pointing out earth's location in space.

News of the World front page pointing out earth’s location in space.

There’s an ill wind blowing through the world.

First Brexit, and now Trump. What’s next? And what makes people vote for a policy or a person that seems on the face of it to embody all that is worst in human nature and societal relations?

In the referendum in the UK, as far as I could tell from thousands of miles away in Israel, the focus was on the negative. Feelings of resentment were directed against foreigners and experts who predicted dire economic consequences; in addition, misleading – even mendacious – statements were made about the redirection of funds. Foremost among those stirring up all these antagonistic emotions was the tabloid press, but that comes as no surprise, as it has always appealed to the lowest common denominator in the British public. But yet it worked, and the (small) majority voted to leave the EU.

The bottom line there, as far as I can see from far away, was that the British education system has failed miserably to provide a decent level of schooling for the majority of Britons. Way back then, when I benefited from a reasonably decent grammar school and then went on to university, with tuition paid by the government, I took all that for granted. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was part of the system that created a meritocracy, leaving a large proportion of young people out in the cold. It was that generation, now grown up, that voted to leave.

Today, the situation is very different, and while a far greater percentage of British school-leavers attend further or higher education than was the case in my day, an even greater proportion of youngsters seems to be left high and dry, without the means of supporting themselves to a decent level, full of resentment towards those who do work hard in order to better themselves, and particularly if those people happen to have been born outside Britain.

And now the same current of emotion appears to have inspired millions of Americans to vote for a man who, without an iota of shame, uses demagoguery and prejudice to rally support. The USA was founded in order to provide freedom from oppression and constitute a haven for immigrants, but those values seem to have been thrown aside in the stampede towards power and exclusion.

That current of ignorance and prejudice tends to be fanned up to astonishing heights at election time, as happened here in Israel not so long ago with Netanyahu’s falsehood about busloads of Arabs were being taken to the polling stations. And it seems that it was that statement that swung the election for him, so that Netanyahu and his party gained power on the basis of scaremongering and prejudice. The rise in poverty rates and income inequality in Israel in recent years seems not to concern that segment of the population which continues to vote for the government that keeps them in poverty and does little or nothing to improve their economic situation, despite promises to the contrary.

Shades of Weimar Germany? I hope not. But the lessons of history seem not to have been learnt yet by a sufficient number of people. Or could this just be part of the Marxist formula of thesis-antithesis-synthesis regarding the course of history? That being the case, there is hope for us, because eventually the pendulum will swing back.


Cousins Reunited


When I came to live in Israel fifty years ago, and even before that on my occasional visits to the country, my father equipped me with a typewritten list of names and addresses of relatives. I dutifully visited most of them, and so I got to know the numerous cousins of my parents, but mainly those of my mother.

It seems that back in pre-WWII Germany many of the descendants of the eight children born to Elias Hirsch, who was himself born in the small Polish town of Gollub in 1785, and Miriam Jakob-Koski, who was born in Mattebuden in 1786, lived first in western Poland and later in eastern Germany, in and around the region known as Silesia. The various generations of the Hirsch family seem to have succeeded in running small businesses, being able to maintain their families in relative comfort.

The development of the railways enabled the families who were scattered throughout the region to visit one another, and these periodic visits were highlights of the family routine. The faded photographs my mother brought with her when she left Germany show well-dressed and well-behaved children enjoying their annual holiday in the countryside, or even swimming in the river on the outskirts of Sprottau, the town where my mother’s family lived. One of her cousins, who stayed with them every summer, told my sisters and me of the hide-and-seek games they used to play in the house, the fun they had in the surrounding countryside and the kindness of my grandparents (whom I never knew), who would always send her home with a pair of new shoes from their shoe-shop.

My mother’s parents, Max Hirsch and Paula née Jacobson, were second cousins, and theirs was not the only marriage between those two families. Between them Max and Paula had seventeen siblings, and all of them seem to have been on good terms with one another. In the event, most of those families managed to get out of Germany in time, though scattered all over the world, and a fairly large proportion of them ended up in pre-State Israel. Whenever my parents came to Israel, whether on a visit or when they moved here permanently after my father’s retirement, the meetings with those cousins were always a source of enjoyment.

And so, on my visits to the relatives who were just names and addresses on the page my father had given me, I found individuals who in many ways were very similar to my mother. Sometimes we found communication difficult because neither my German nor my Hebrew were fluent, and neither was their English. But they were all welcoming and friendly, and I knew that I could always find a good meal, and ample coffee and cake, in their homes. These were my mother’s cousins, as well as her sister, and it was comforting to be able to ‘touch base’ with them, though the exact nature of how we were related was not always clear to me. Today I have an extensive graphic family tree that I can refer to and see how everyone is connected.

Over the years the older generation has gone the way of all flesh, and now it is my generation that bears the torch of maintaining the family ties. However, because everyone has their own family and various occupations and concerns, we don’t manage to get together very often, and in fact this tends to be only on occasions such as weddings, bar-mitzvas, etc., when it’s not so easy to sit down and chat in comfort.

So when one set of cousins decided to invite the current generation (most of us by now in our seventies) to mark their move into the modest house they had inherited from their parents and had spent two years renovating, bringing it to a standard of comfort and aesthetics that is a joy to behold, some twenty of us were able to get together and share experiences, admire photos of grandchildren, recount tales of activities and interests, and renew our common bond. Without much ado we found ourselves at ease with one another even though we hadn’t met for several years. Some backs were a bit more bowed than they had been and some knees more stiff, but on the whole we seem to be holding up well, enjoying life, finding new spheres of interset in our retirement and reveling in the achievements of our grandchildren. Our chronological age is one thing, and the way we feel and behave is quite another.

Silesia, the part of Germany where our ancestors lived, was annexed by Poland after the war and the entire German population banished. The place names were changed, so that Sprottau is now Szpratawa, for example, and the only language that is spoken is Polish. Yes, you could call it a kind of Transfer, I suppose.

As the evening wore on, I looked around at my second and third cousins and wondered what our grandparents and great-grandparents would have thought of our reunion. I hope they would have been glad to know that the connection and affection between us is still clearly in evidence in this very different time and place, that we still subscribe to their values of hard work, honesty and decency, and that we are proud of our ‘yekke’ heritage.



Security and Naievete


I happened to be in France this summer at the time of several vicious terrorist attacks there, all of course perpetrated by Muslims. The poor French public is subjected time and again to these horrendous attacks and is left both bothered and bewildered by it all, as well as being angry with its government for not doing enough to ensure  its safety. The trouble with France, the country of liberty, equality and fraternity, is that it has allowed itself to be lulled into a sense of false security by those very values.

Everyone tries to be very tolerant and enjoy the good things of life (and France has plenty of those) and this has enabled cohorts of angry or possibly disturbed young men to be persuaded by leaders and preachers with evil intent to perpetrate acts
of mass or individual murder on an unprecedented scale.

I have heard well-meaning French intellectuals speak out in favour of the assumption of a position of cultural superiority. It seems somewhat naïve on their part to contend that culture, music and greater acceptance of the other will defeat all the hatred and radicalism that is awash in the immigrant communities that inhabit the high-rise suburbs of the big cities, where poverty, crime and murder are everyday occurrences. Other than that, it is no secret that France is host to a large Muslim population, much of it from what were once French colonies and most of whose members are well-integrated into French culture and language. So there shouldn’t be any sense of disgruntlement there, nor should one expect young men (and it always seems to be young men) to be so full of hatred and venom that they are prepared to plough a heavy truck through a throng of innocent people enjoying a day of national rejoicing, or take a knife to the throat of an elderly priest as he conducts a church service.

One can only shake one’s head in dismay and wonder what is going through the minds of those young men. On the other hand, there are a great many things that governments can do to stymie or preempt those dastardly deeds, and unfortunately the necessary actions do not seem to have been taken by the French authorities. After all, as an editorial in Le Figaro pointed out, the attacks that took place in Paris earlier this year and at the end of 2015 (Charlie Hebdo and Hyperkacher in November 2015, the Bataclan theatre earlier this year), with dozens of casualties, should have triggered a far-reaching heightening of security. In this respect, Israel has much to teach other countries. After suffering for many years from terrorist attacks of every possible variety, the last few years have seen a drastic reduction in such attacks, so that even though some individuals still feel impelled to perpetrate attacks, these are usually restricted to small-scale knifings and the occasional attempt to ram vehicles into bus-stops or run down pedestrians

Obviously, every country and society has to tailor its counter-terrorist activity to meet ts own needs, and one cannot expect everyone to put into place the same kind of extensive surveillance and security checks that Israel does, but the fact of the matter is that these methods work. No-one wants to live in an Orwellian dystopia, and Israel is not quite at that stage, but surveillance is part of the modern world and the methods available in this day and age can contribute to preventing terrorist attacks. After all, when all is said and done, it’s still preferable to have a higher degree of security than to put innocent lives at risk. Surveillance makes it possible to identify and track down potential terrorists, and in my opinion the price of less personal privacy is worth paying. There are indications that things are moving in France.

As we left Toulouse airport a unit of ten heavily-armed soldiers patrolled the area. And a friend in the south told me that the small holiday town where he lives on the Riviera was being inundated by armed soldiers and policemen, with sharp-shooters posted on the roofs of buildings. This was happening just prior to the 15th of August, a national holiday when crowds tend to fill the beaches, promenades and open spaces. In the final event, however, in France as in Israel, Germany and anywhere else, it’s all a question of being lucky enough not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

.(This article appeared in the October issue of the AJR Journal.)


Thar she blows!


A nautical image for a totally landlocked novel? But I’ve just launched my new book on the waves of the ether, so there is some justification.

My novel is now up on Amazon (LINK: in both ebook and printed form, and can even be downloaded for free on 9th and 10th October. I’m hoping that readers who go for the free download will be kind enough to write a review on Amazon.

The book is about Sophie and John, a couple from England who decide to retire to France in the early 2000s in order to benefit from the favourable sterling-euro exchange rate and enjoy the good things of life that France has to offer.

Helped by their French estate agent, Jean-Christophe, they eventually find the house of their dreams and embark on the adventure that is supposed to bring them tranquillity and security, far away from their perception of contemporary Britain, with its influx of ‘foreigners’ from the former British Empire and the current European Union. All is not as it seems, however, and dreams have a way of turning into nightmares.

In a nearby village Julie Smithers is also embarking on a new life, having left England and an unhappy romance behind in order to settle down to writing a novel of her own. She is alarmed to find that the refurbished house she has bought appears to have faulty plumbing, and when Steve, an expat British handyman appears, they soon embark on a bumpy romance.

The renovated barn next door to Sophie and John houses an orphanage or foster home with a large number of children who constitute a constant nuisance. The manager of the institution is unfriendly, even hostile, and Sophie and John find themselves being increasingly harassed by actions that may or may not originate from the orphanage. Their own lack of familiarity with the French language and culture constitutes an additional obstacle to their integration into local society, giving rise to situations that are comic at times, and less so at others.

The adventures and misadventures that befall the various characters lead to a surprising denouement, that puts everything that has gone before in a new light.

The events and situations described in the book are based in part on my own experiences and those of friends and acquaintances. My imagination has also played a role, though in the light of recent developments I feel that the book is prophetic.



How the Internet Began

I found this on a site for British expats in France so thought I would share it:

How the Internet Began
By hgibson in Ubuntu on 2012-08-14camels
In ancient Israel , it came to pass that a trader by the name of Abraham Com did take unto himself a young wife by the name of Dot.

Dot Com was a comely woman, broad of shoulder and long of leg. Indeed, she was often called Amazon Dot Com.

And she said unto Abraham, her husband, “Why dos’t thou travel so far from town to town with thy goods when thou cans’t trade without ever leaving thy tent?”

And Abraham did look at her as though she were several saddle bags short of a camel load, but simply said, “How, dear?”

And Dot replied, “I will place drums in all the towns and drums in between to send messages saying what you have for sale, and they will reply telling you who hath the best price. And the sale can be made on the drums and delivery made by Uriah’s Pony Stable (UPS).”

Abraham thought long and decided he would let Dot have her way with the drums. And the drums rang out and were an immediate success.

Abraham sold all the goods he had at the top price, without ever having to move from his tent.

To prevent neighboring countries from overhearing what the drums were saying, Dot devised a system that only she and the drummers knew. It was known as Must Send Drum Over Sound (MSDOS), and she also developed a language to transmit ideas and pictures – Hebrew To The People (HTTP).

And the young men did take to Dot Com’s trading as doth the greedy horsefly take to camel dung. They were called Nomadic Ecclesiastical Rich Dominican Sybarites, or  NERDS.

And lo, the land was so feverish with joy at the new riches and the deafening sound of drums that no one noticed that the real riches were going to that enterprising drum dealer, Brother William of Gates, who bought off every drum maker in the land.

And indeed did insist on drums to be made that would work only with Brother Gates’ drumheads and drumsticks.

And Dot did say, “Oh, Abraham, what we have started is being taken over by others.”

And Abraham looked out over the Bay of Ezekiel , or eBay as it came to be known. He said, “We need a name that reflects what we are.”

And Dot replied, “Young Ambitious Hebrew Owner Operators.” “YAHOO,” said Abraham. And because it was Dot’s idea, they named it YAHOO Dot Com.

Abraham’s cousin, Joshua, being the young Gregarious Energetic Educated Kid (GEEK) that he was, soon started using Dot’s drums to locate things around the countryside. It soon became known as God’s Own Official Guide to Locating Everything (GOOGLE).

And that’s how the Internet began.


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt



I finished ploughing through this tome and had to immediately go back and read the first few pages, as the book starts by plunging the reader into a strange, surrealistic almost nightmarish scenario of a person (man? woman?) constrained by unknown circumstances to remain in a hotel room in Amsterdam. The physical situation (a pretty standard hotel room) is described in great detail and then we are taken back in time to the situation of a young boy approaching what he expects to be a painful interview with the school principal, accompanied by his mother. The narrative voice is that of an adult, so that the device of presenting the narrator as a young boy does not come across as convincing at all.

From there the narrative takes off, whirling the reader through the mind of the anxious child, the chance entry into the museum (in New York), and the explosion (what the analysts call the ‘inciting incident’) which kills the boy’s mother, brings him into contact with a dying elderly man who tells the boy to take a small painting, the goldfinch of the title. In the museum the narrator has seen a young girl, whose image haunts him.

The ‘inciting incident,’ i.e., the explosion, is described at inordinate length, as is the long and tortuous route the boy takes to get out of the museum. This turns out to be a feature of the book as a whole, setting sudden acts of violence or twists and turns of the narrative against long and tedious descriptions or accounts of events. The various situations in which the main protagonist finds himself are all given at great and excessive length and in wearisome detail. And so, we experience the boy’s feelings as he waits in vain in their apartment for his mother’s return, is taken in by his best friend’s wealthy family, is then transported to Las Vegas to live with his less-than-successful father and the father’s girlfriend, strikes up a friendship with Boris, another half-abandoned boy, with whom he experiments extensively with drugs, and his eventual escape back to New York in the company of a small white dog, eventually reaching the antique shop once owned by the elderly man in the museum and now run by a large, kind man called Hobie. This is the situation in which the boy remains for the rest of his story, and the antique shop and the antiques trade form the focus of the rest of the action.

The narrator continues to describe his life up to the point where he is holed up in the hotel in Amsterdam, along the way introducing a host of interesting characters, some friendly, others ominous, but most of whom are depicted in a convincing way. There is also a renewed encounter with Boris, his friend from Las Vegas, now grown up and involved in some kind of shady deals, though nothing is spelled out very clearly. Boris is originally from Russia, and his way of speaking and accent are depicted with devastating and entertaining accuracy. The narrator gets involved willy-nilly in a violent and eventually fatal attack in an attempt to retrieve the painting he himself once stole from the museum, and this explains his situation at the beginning of the book.

In between the longeurs of the descriptive passages and accounts of situations that could and should have been cut in the editorial process are brilliantly evocative accounts of feelings, events, individuals, and developments that almost take the reader’s breath away. Interspersed with all these are passages where, instead of describing scenes or events the author simply lists a series of adverbs or adjectives, seeming to think that by doing so she is creating atmosphere. To me this simply reflects laziness, or weariness with the need to build a sentence rather than just giving a list of words. There are sections that display great knowledge of such diverse subjects as art, drugs, and antiques, and I found these both interesting and illuminating, though I’m not sure if that was the purpose of the book.

To sum up, this book has descriptive passages of luminous brilliance and insight and a narrative thread that pulls the reader onwards, alongside parts that are simply too long and almost unbearably tedious. Where was the editor in all this?



Jerusalem — Again



So now the Palestinians are saying that the concept of any historical connection between the Jews and Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount in particular, is pure myth, and they are trying to get UNESCO to adopt a resolution to that effect.

I wonder what would happen if they tried to claim that there’s no connection between Christianity and Jerusalem. Their ability to totally deny proven historical facts and create a fictional reality simply beggars belief. Admittedly, Christianity’s association with Jerusalem is not entirely lacking in violence, murder and mayhem, yet it cannot be denied that it existed and continues to exist. Understandably enough, the inhabitants of Rome don’t seem to be anxious to proclaim their connection with Jerusalem, though I believe that the Pope is not averse to asserting Catholicism’s association with the city. But when all is said and done, the Vatican is an independent political entity and cannot be linked to the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem in 70 C.E.

Jews should not need to be reminded that most of what Jesus preached was based on Jewish ethics and teachings. His presence in Jerusalem prior to his death served as the culmination of a life lived as a Jew in the Holy Land, where pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Temple for one of the three ‘foot-festivals’ formed just one aspect of Jewish observance, and he obviously participated in this custom (although that particular pilgrimage ended badly).

The Crusaders who conquered Jerusalem in the eleventh century and remained there for several centuries until they were defeated by Saladdin and his army, left their physical mark in the form of churches, fortresses and other mementos. Jerusalem is mentioned in numerous Christian texts and prayers, as it is of course in Jewish ones. To give just one example, anyone who attends a performance of Fauré’s touching Requiem cannot fail to be moved by the final chorus about Paradise, which ends with the tender repetition of the word Jerusalem by the choir.

Of course, the Christian references are primarily to celestial Jerusalem, perceived as a metaphor for heaven, a place of love and peace. That seems to be the vision perceived by the nineteenth-century English poet, William Blake, whose poem, ‘Jerusalem,’ set to music by Hubert Parry, is tantamount to a second national anthem for England.

On a personal note, Handel’s oratorio, Messiah, contains several references to Jerusalem, all taken from the Torah. The beautiful aria, ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into the high mountain, O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem…’ refers quite clearly to physical Jerusalem, as do innumerable verses in the Bible. For me, hearing that particular passage is always a special delight, because the far more concise Hebrew text reads Mevasseret Ziyyon and Mevasseret Yerushalayim, which are the names of the place just outside Jerusalem where I live. To be sitting in the church of the neighbouring Arab village of Abu Ghosh and hear this performed is an incomparable experience.

And of course, the funniest thing of all is that the Quran doesn’t have a single reference to Jerusalem. The Muslims say that a verse mentioning ‘the far place’ is in fact about Jerusalem, but that contention is flimsy in the extreme. Granted, Muslims or Ottomans did rule Jerusalem for several hundred years, as they did most of the area of the Middle East, and Suleiman the Magnificent built an impressive wall around Jerusalem in the fifteenth century, but Jerusalem is considered only the third most sacred site for Muslims. The original version of the Al-Aksa mosque was built on the Temple Mount in the eighth century C.E. (and rebuilt and extended several times after being destroyed by earthquakes and used as a palace by the Crusaders).

Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that Jews traditionally turn towards Jerusalem when praying whereas Muslims turn towards Mecca, which means in essence that they turn their backs and behinds to Jerusalem (just visualize their position while praying). Nevertheless, as Goebbels remarked, the more outrageous the lie, the greater the chances that it will be believed. Fortunately, Goebbels is no longer with us, but it seems that those who lie as well as those who give credence to untruths remain.

(This article firstappeared in the September issue of the AJR)