What if…?

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 Niqab[2] 

The scenario seems quite feasible. A Muslim political party gains enough votes in the general election in a democratic European country to serve as the key element in the new government. At the same time massive Saudi-Arabian funding is channeled into the greatly depleted coffers of the country’s leading academic institutions. Et voila! The result is Muslim domination of society.

This is the premise behind Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel Soumission, published in France earlier this year. The title, meaning Submission, is the translation of the word Islam, but more of that later.

In the novel, which happened to be published in France on the same day as the murderous attacks by Muslim extremists on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo journal and the kosher supermarket in Paris, Houellebecq describes the rather dull life of a minor academic at the Sorbonne at a time somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

Alongside his descriptions of various locations in and around Paris and other parts of France, as well as his account of his vapid academic work, the narrator gives lurid accounts of his sporadic sexual encounters, whether with female colleagues, former students or paid sex workers. He seems to be unable to work up much enthusiasm for anything or anyone, is used to being told by former lovers that they have ‘met someone else,’ and is torn between his need for sexual congress and his inability to form a close bond with any woman.

Among the strategies to which he resorts in an attempt to dispel his general sense of alienation and unease is a period of retreat in a monastery, but that, too, does little to dispel his sense of general dissatisfaction.

Meanwhile, in the course of the general election the Muslim party gains the ascendancy, and its very capable leader is appointed Prime Minister. It transpires that the academic regime at the Sorbonne is now subject to the laws of Islam. No woman may occupy a teaching post, female students must be covered from head to toe, and male members of the teaching staff are required to convert to Islam and take at least one wife. Those men who are over-occupied with academic life or are unable to find a wife for themselves are helped by matchmakers to make their selection from among the nubile young students.

Although the protagonist has been dismissed from his post and awarded a generous pension, he is envious of the enormous salaries paid to those staff members who have agreed to meet the demands of the new authorities in order to remain in their position. He attends one or two academic receptions and is impressed by the Middle Eastern delicacies on offer, which is hardly surprising since he has been living on a diet of takeaway food or pre-cooked TV dinners from the supermarket. What also strikes him at these events is the total absence of women.

In fact, it finally hits him that short skirts and low necklines seem to have completely disappeared from the streets of Paris, a fact he notes with regret.

A meeting with a senior member of staff, at his luxurious home, during which he is apprised of the fact that the man has at least two wives, one a teenager and the other, older, one a superb cook, seems to constitute the tipping point. His friend expounds on the superiority of Muslim philosophy and the supremacy of family values in Islam, with women owing complete submission to men, and men owing submission only to Allah.

The idea sounds appealing to our rather inadequate male, and so it comes as no surprise to the reader to find that in order to be eligible for the generous salary and prestigious academic position that is offered to him, and to be provided with at least one wife, the nameless protagonist is prepared to undergo the simple ceremony marking his conversion to Islam.

The progression is logical, the ideas propounded convincing, and it would seem to be the author’s contention that it is only a matter of time before all Europe succumbs to the overwhelming logic of male supremacy and the unification of all countries (including those of the Middle East and North Africa) under one set of laws, one language and one religion.

Complete subservience of women to men? Somehow I don’t see that happening in this day and age. At least I fervently hope so.

 

 

Days of Remembrance

 

photo: Yaron Brener

photo: Yaron Brener

  Jewish and Israeli history is replete with both tragic and joyful events, and in fact the life of a Jew living in Israel is something of a roller-coaster existence, taking us from the depths of sorrow one day to the sublime heights of joy the next, whether it’s to celebrate one of the religious festivals or Independence Day, to mark the fallen in Israel’s wars or to remember those who perished in the Holocaust (not to mention other solemn days such as Yom Kippur).

 

Someone once said that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, and no one can accuse the Jews of not being aware of their history. In fact, they have erected an entire set of religious beliefs to commemorate their history. Pesach and the Seder denote the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot marks the giving of the ten commandments at Mount Sinai, and Succot reminds us of the booths the Children of Israel erected in their forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

 

Whether by coincidence or design – probably the latter – those festivals, as well as others, also coincide with salient points in the agricultural calendar. In the farming communities of ancient times the seasons and the times of sowing, planting, reaping and harvesting were the main events of the year. Whether they warrant being elevated to the status of religious events is questionable in this day and age, but Jews being what they are the agricultural festivals have remained embedded in daily life, no matter how urbanized and mechanized our lives have become.

 

By the nature of things, Holocaust Day, Remembrance Day and Independence Day are relatively recent inventions. To make matters still more complicated, the first two take place within one week of one another, and the third on the very next day. So that instead of having time to wind down from the sorrow and emotional depths of remembering personal and national tragedies we are almost immediately thrown into a state of euphoria as we celebrate the fact that after so many centuries of suffering the State of Israel exists.

 

The problem for the individual is how to combine, cope with and also separate all those conflicting emotions. And if this is the case with adults, how much more so must it be the case for children?

 

The outgoing Minister of Education introduced a ruling to the effect that preschool children should be taught about the Holocaust. I am not alone in finding this offensive and totally out of place. Who knows what effect learning about the subject – no matter how it is modulated – can have on a young child’s mind? In last week’s newspaper I read a report of one preschool teacher who sent the little ones home with a yellow star pinned to their clothing. This was roundly condemned by all concerned, but I doubt that there’s any ‘right’ way of teaching this subject to infants.

 

It’s hard even for adults and older children to cope with the emotional burden of what happened in the Holocaust. Recently I encountered a protest on Facebook complaining that the day of mourning for ‘a bunch of Ashkenazim’who were killed long ago and far away’ is being taken to undue lengths in preventing the average Joe from watching a football match on TV on that day.

 

The growing divide between the various segments of the population in Israel, as was demonstrated by the recent election results, seems to have given rise to a situation in which some people are unable to understand why the nation as a whole should commemorate something that happened to other Jews in a distant place.

I doubt that anyone has suggested it, but perhaps it’s time to introduce a day to commemorate the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. Maybe then those people who object to commemorating the Holocaust will be appeased.

  

‘The King’s Curse’ by Philippa Gregory

 Henry

 Although I don’t share the enthusiasm that millions of viewers have for the TV fantasy series ‘Game of Thrones,’ I am fascinated by the lives and machinations of real-life monarchs. I recently learned that the idea for that series derives from the actual history of France in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and I realized that it also bears a resemblance to the history of England at the same time, the period of civil war known as the Wars of the Roses. This was brought to the small screen in the excellent BBC series ‘The White Queen,’ which itself was based on the book of that title by Philippa Gregory.

 So I was overjoyed when our good friends from the Netherlands brought me a copy of the novel entitled ‘The King’s Curse,’ by the same author. That book deals with the life and times of Henry VIII, the son of the Tudor King Henry VII, whose defeat of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and subsequent marriage to Margaret of York, Richard’s niece, put an end to tha conflict. It is a large tome, comprising almost 600 pages, so I had to wait until I had a decent period of time in which to devote myself to the book, and I found that once I had started reading it I couldn’t put it down.

 It starts in the year 1499 in London, where Henry VII has just executed the brother of the heroine-narrator of the story, Lady Margaret Pole, another niece of King Richard III. Lady Margaret is cousin to the queen and also her trusted lady-in-waiting and confidante. As a girl, together with her late mother, Elizabeth Woodville, Elizabeth of York had pronounced a curse on whoever had murdered her two young brothers in the Tower of London, thus ending any hopes the Plantagenets may have had of providing a successor to Richard III. Under the curse, the culprit would be left without male issue – the sine qua non for succession to the throne of England. According to Shakespeare it was Richard who was responsible for the murder, but evidently Philippa Gregory does not subscribe to that view.

 From the viewpoint of Margaret Pole, who has been stripped of her royal rank but permitted to remain at court in the position of lady-in-waiting to the queen, we learn about the way the life of the court is conducted, the political maneouvering within the nobility, and the tyrannous hold King Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, has over her son and hence over everything that is decided at court and in the entire kingdom.

 After the death of her own husband, followed by that of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, Margaret Pole is banished from court and forced to seek refuge in a nunnery, together with her two youngest children, while the two oldest boys are sent to live with a relative and the third son is placed in a monastery while still a child. The vicissitudes of Margaret’s life are described in detail, and eventually she is restored to her former estate and brought back to court.

 English history comes to life through the account Margaret Pole gives of the marriage of the heir to the throne, Prince Arthur, to Princess Katherine of Aragon, the death of the young bridegroom followed by that of his father, Henry VII, and the accession to the throne and marriage to Katherine of the younger brother, who becomes Henry VIII. The vagaries of the relationship between the husband and wife, focusing on the latter’s failure to give birth to a boy, dominate the narrative at this point. Our narrator, Margaret, becomes lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine and develops a close friendship with her, to the extent that she is appointed governess of her daughter, Princess Mary.

 After Anne Boleyn’s entry onto the scene, first as Henry’s current love interest, later as his wife, the need for a male heir is the overriding subject that dominates that couple’s relations with one another and, eventually, Henry’s attitude to the accepted religion, the Pope and his own role as king. It is this which constitutes the motivation for the dissolution of the monasteries, the Reformation and the establishment of the Anglican church in England, revolutionizing the established social order and the relations between church and state in the kingdom.

 The rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, followed by the careers and fates of Henry VIII’s other advisors, Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, also play a significant part in the book, and through them we gain a better understanding of how and why the various measures were introduced, steps taken and laws introduced, still affecting our world today.

 The reader gains insight into life in Tudor England at the level of the minutiae of individual life as well as at those of national politics and sociological developments. Never writing in a dry, academic way, Philippa Gregory reveals her deep and extensive knowledge of her subject, though her writing is never boring. This book provides the reader with a broad view of a time and place when people’s lives and motivations bore a clear resemblance to those of today, one that still reverberates throughout our current existence but one in which – thankfully – the English monarch no longer wields the power to execute subjects whom he or she regards as disobedient or menacing.

 In an author’s note at the end of the book Ms. Gregory mentions recent medical research which suggests that Henry VIII may have belonged to a rare blood type, inherited from his mother, which was incompatible with that of his wives, causing them to miscarry male babies, and also giving rise to his paranoia and physical degeneration in later life. This might explain some of Henry’s behavior, but I’m convinced that no imaginary TV series could ever come up with a better explanation.

 

Coffee, Cantatas and Bach

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 coffee cup

A Saturday morning all-Bach concert in the neighbouring village of Abu Ghosh was an occasion not to be missed, especially as it coincided with a special birthday. And what an occasion it was! It marked the conclusion of the Barrocade ensemble’s concert season, featured Finnish violinist and conductor Andres Mustonen, and the programme included Bach’s Cantata no. 140, Brandenburg concerto no. 5 and his concerto for oboe d’amore. A rich programme indeed, and one that ended on a particularly attractive note – a performance of Bach’s Coffee Cantata

 

The history of the spread of coffee in Europe in the seventeenth century is the subject of legend. According to some reports an Ethiopian farmer noted the lively behavior of his goats after they had chewed the berries of a certain bush. From there the coffee drink spread throughout the Arab world, was traded by the Ottomans with Venice, and entered Europe via that route.

 

According to another account, when the invading Ottoman army was routed by the troops of the Holy Roman Empire at the siege of Vienna in 1683, the Turks left large quantities of tents, pack animals, grain and gold as well as sacks filled with green coffee beans. When the booty was distributed it transpired that no one wanted the beans, which were unknown in Vienna at the time. A Polish resident of Vienna by the name of Kolschitsky who had lived in Istanbul and served as an interpreter, offered to take the sacks. He knew how to prepare coffee, and later established the first coffee house in Vienna, from where the institution spread to the rest of Europe.

 

Coffee houses became meeting places and the scene of social gatherings, the forerunner of the men’s club; women were banned from them in England and France, while in Germany they were permitted to enter. In Bach’s time in Leipzig (1723 until his death in 1750) the Zimmerman Café was well known as a meeting place for musicians, it housed the Collegium Musicum, an ensemble that was established there in 1702 by Telemann, and it was there that Bach’s Coffee Cantata was first performed.

 

We all know Bach as a serious, prolific and God-fearing composer, and the cantatas he composed for performance in the framework of the weekly church service are a mainstay of the musical repertoire, not to mention his many other orchestral, chamber and choral compositions.

 

We also know that Bach had a large family, and it would seem that – perhaps inevitably – he also had a sense of humour. At any rate, the Coffee Cantata begins with the narrator telling the audience (in German) to ‘Shut up, and stop chattering,’ which probably reflects what was happening in the coffee house at the time.

 

The two main characters in what is essentially a mini-opera, the father, Schlendrian (literally, ‘Stick in the Mud’) and Lieschen, his daughter, are in disagreement because the father objects to his daughter’s habit of drinking coffee. The two engage in an entertaining musical duel – the father trying every ruse he can think of to stop his daughter drinking coffee and the daughter happily accepting every restriction he seeks to impose in order to be able to continue indulging in the habit. In the performance we attended the singers donned period costume and acted their roles, using props such as coffee cups of various shapes and sizes. However, when the father threatens to prevent his daughter from marrying she finally agrees to stop drinking coffee and urges him to find her a husband, though secretly resolving that whoever he may be he will have to allow her to drink coffee.

 

At this point, much to the audience’s amusement, the father started to point to one or another member of the audience, indicating that they might be a suitable match. But Lieschen has a plan of her own and it turns out that her choice has fallen on the personable young tenor-narrator. The cantata ends with all three singing joyfully about the delights of coffee, a beverage that is enjoyed even by mothers and grandmothers. The message seems to be ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’ and that is possibly a lesson that Bach himself had to learn in his long and productive life.

 

(In honour of Yigal’s 75th birthday)

 

 

More of the Same

 

knesset[1]

Like most – if not all – of my friends, I was disappointed by the outcome of Israel’s recent general election. Perhaps I was not quite as disappointed as some of them, as I had been expecting a result along the lines of what actually transpired. I still remember the night about ten years ago when ‘we went to bed with Peres and woke up with Netanyahu.’ It is not only the pre-election polls that are deceptive (has anyone ever told those pollsters about taking a representative random sample?), the actual results are not final until every last vote has been counted, and some of those are sent from abroad by diplomats and other service personnel and can have a significant effect on the result.

Some friends confess to being ‘clinically depressed’ by the result, and deeply worried for Israel’s future, and more pertinently, the future of our children and grandchildren. I grant that those are legitimate concerns, but at this stage, having cast our vote and fulfilled our democratic duty, there is little more we can do, and worrying isn’t going to help.

The bottom line seems to be that Israel is no longer the open, liberal country with a social conscience that it was intended to be, and essentially was to begin with. Both the sociological composition of the population and the geopolitical situation around us have changed, and it is impossible to remain stuck in the same mindset as we were over sixty years ago.

One radical change is embodied in the fact that the people who founded the State, the kibbutzniks who tilled the soil and worked day and night to make the desert flourish, were made pariahs by the hate-filled rhetoric of right-wing leaders, starting with the saintly Menahem Begin. In fact, the rhetoric of hatred has generally been the prime instrument of the leaders of Israel’s right-wing parties. It led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and just now, as we went to vote in the recent election, it was used by Bibi Netanyahu to garner votes.

That approach, which is supported by what is evidently the majority of voters, is based on a combination of genuine security considerations and the sense of injustice felt by that segment of the population that regards itself as disadvantaged. The people who voted for Netanyahu may well be disadvantaged, but little has been done to improve their lot by the Likud party in the last ten years – and in many cases their situation is worse today than it ever was under a party with socialist leanings.

It has been posited that the situation in Israel today is akin to one of tribalism – there is the orthodox tribe, the disadvantaged tribe, the prosperous tribe, and the Arab tribe – and each one hates and either despises or envies the other. That is a view to which I prefer not to subscribe, though it cannot be denied that at election time the differences between the various segments of Israel’s populatio are cultivated and exploited by the political parties.

Security matters aside, the vision of egalitarianism and enlightenment that was the banner held aloft by Israel’s founding generation, and to achieve which they were prepared to endure privation and discomfort, has been trampled underfoot by the combination of economic policies that promote self-interest and an ideology that pays little heed to caring for those less fortunate. Many of those who voted for Netanyahu will continue to remain disadvantaged and will have no one to blame but themselves.

 

 

More of the Same

 knesset[1]

 Like most – if not all – of my friends, I was disappointed by the outcome of Israel’s recent general election. Perhaps I was not quite as disappointed as some of them, as I had been expecting a result along the lines of what actually transpired. I still remember the night about ten years ago when ‘we went to bed with Peres and woke up with Netanyahu.’ It is not only the pre-election polls that are deceptive (has anyone ever told those pollsters about taking a representative random sample?), the actual results are not final until every last vote has been counted, and some of those are sent from abroad by diplomats and other service personnel and can have a significant effect on the result.

Some friends confess to being ‘clinically depressed’ by the result, and deeply worried for Israel’s future, and more pertinently, the future of our children and grandchildren. I grant that those are legitimate concerns, but at this stage, having cast our vote and fulfilled our democratic duty, there is little more we can do, and worrying isn’t going to help.

The bottom line seems to be that Israel is no longer the open, liberal country with a social conscience that it was intended to be, and essentially was to begin with. Both the sociological composition of the population and the geopolitical situation around us have changed, and it is impossible to remain stuck in the same mindset as we were over sixty years ago.

One radical change is embodied in the fact that the people who founded the State, the kibbutzniks who tilled the soil and worked day and night to make the desert flourish, were made pariahs by the hate-filled rhetoric of right-wing leaders, starting with the saintly Menahem Begin. In fact, the rhetoric of hatred has generally been the prime instrument of the leaders of Israel’s right-wing parties. It led to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and just now, as we went to vote in the recent election, it was used by Bibi Netanyahu to garner votes.

That approach, which is supported by what is evidently the majority of voters, is based on a combination of genuine security considerations and the sense of injustice felt by that segment of the population that regards itself as disadvantaged. The people who voted for Netanyahu may well be disadvantaged, but little has been done to improve their lot by the Likud party in the last ten years – and in many cases their situation is worse today than it ever was under a party with socialist leanings.

It has been posited that the situation in Israel today is akin to one of tribalism – there is the orthodox tribe, the disadvantaged tribe, the prosperous tribe, and the Arab tribe – and each one hates and either despises or envies the other. That is a view to which I prefer not to subscribe, though it cannot be denied that at election time the differences between the various segments of Israel’s populatio are cultivated and exploited by the political parties.

Security matters aside, the vision of egalitarianism and enlightenment that was the banner held aloft by Israel’s founding generation, and to achieve which they were prepared to endure privation and discomfort, has been trampled underfoot by the combination of economic policies that promote self-interest and an ideology that pays little heed to caring for those less fortunate. Many of those who voted for Netanyahu will continue to remain disadvantaged and will have no one to blame but themselves.

 

 

Memories

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Dry Rot

 

Presumably I’m not the only person who finds it difficult to dispose of theatre programmes (or ‘theater programs’ as it’s spelled in the US). In recent years, as my attendance at performances has increased I’ve become more ruthless in my attitude to these mementos. Thus, I have been able to dispose of them and put them in the recycling bin, even though it’s with a heavy heart and only after I’ve done my best to read almost every word before I do so.

 However, over the years the box containing the programmes I collected in my childhood and teenage years of concerts and plays I was taken to see has survived somehow. Until this year, that is, when exigencies of space in our overcrowded basement have forced me to face up to cruel reality and get rid of those precious – and by now ancient – objects.

 But not without a last, lingering look, I said, and so I have just spent an interesting few hours with those remnants of my lost youth, dredging up memories and in some cases wondering where on earth they came from. In some instances, to my shame, I have absolutely no recollection whatsoever of the event, while others have occasioned a glow of happiness.

 How come that I have no memory whatsoever of what must have been a stellar performance of Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear,’ with Charles Laughton and Albert Finney, amongst others? The play was given at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-on-Avon, so presumably I was taken there in the framework of a school outing, and that admittedly was a long time ago (1959). There were other such school outings, mainly of Shakespeare’s plays or something else of a ‘classical’ nature, and I do remember our total puzzlement when we were taken to a performance of ‘The Antigone of Sophocles’ given at the Cambridge Arts Theatre in the original Greek, of all things – a language we did not study at school. In the programme, beside each student-actor’s name, stands the college to which he or she belonged, which I’m sure must have been very gratifying for the performers.

 As a teenager one of my boyfriends was interested mainly in musicals, and so I was fortunate enough to attend early performances of ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Oliver,’ and ‘My Fair Lady.’ I can credit my acquaintance with the light operas of Gilbert and Sullivan to another past flame, as my parents’ taste was restricted to performances of serious choral music (Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ Verdi’s ‘Requiem,’ etc.). We also went on an annual family outing to something lighter, generally of a humourous nature. Among the crumbling programmes are those for something called ‘Share My Lettuce,’ featuring the now-forgotten British comedian Kenneth Williams, and a review entitled ‘At the Drop of a Hat,’ in which Michael Flanders and Donald Swann starred in what is described as an ‘After-Dinner Farrago.’ I can’t remember much about it and I still don’t know what a Farrago is, but the main thing was that we all enjoyed ourselves. Being taken to a performance by a boyfriend or one’s parents doesn’t give one much choice as to what to see, however.

 My own personal preference was for anything that would make me laugh, and so I remember trying to persuade unwilling schoolfriends to join me for the phenomenon known at the time (late 1950s and 1960s) as ‘a Whitehall Farce.’ These were light-hearted romps, often based on French bedroom farces, performed at London’s Whitehall Theatre (which no longer exists), in which a troupe of actors directed by and starring one Brian Rix performed on a more or less regular basis. The plays were all slightly racy and very entertaining, though I presumably missed half the innuendos. But the highlight for me came after the performance, when I would drag my friend round to the stage door and get the actors to sign our programmes as they left the building. I remember that they all seemed perfectly happy to do so, and this seemed to give me some kind of intimacy with the magical world of the theatre.

 Now all those memories are going to be deposited in the recycling receptacle, unless I manage to find an individual or institution which is interested in matters theatrical and would be prepared to take the dozens of programmes off my hands.

 

 

Muslims, Jews, etc.

 

 hebdo[1]

 To get four million French people out into the streets on a cold Sunday in January is quite unusual. In fact it has never happened before, and hopefully never will again, or at least not for the kind of reasons it happened this time.

The murder by Muslim terrorists of cartoonists and journalists in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, aroused feelings of horror, distrust and distaste throughout the civilized world. The idea of killing for the sake of ideology, religion or honour is something that is totally alien to most normal people, and became passé when the European Wars of Religion ended in 1648 with the compromise solution: cujus regio, eius religio (your ruler’s religion shall be yours).

Yet here it is, right under our noses, in the most civilised city of the civilised world. France is not some ‘shitty little country’ in a backwater of the Middle East (as Israel was defined by an unnamed American official a few months ago), and neither is Paris, the cradle of the rights of man, a place where just anyone, even a Muslim, can get away with murder.

What brought the French out into the streets en masse was the feeling that their basic rights were being violated, that someone was seeking to deprive them of the right to freely speak their mind and to poke fun at anyone and everyone. What brought the French out into the streets en masse was not the hostage-taking and murder of four Jews in a kosher supermarket.

The French are used to Jews being killed simply because they are Jews. Let’s not go into the coopreration and collaboration by the French government, police and railway system during the Nazi occupation. In Toulouse not long ago a rabbi and several children were murdered by a Muslim terrorist outside a Jewish school, and there was no apparent outcry. Security outside Jewish institutions was increased for a while, but then relaxed.

The same happened in Belgium, where four people were murdered, once again by a Muslim terrorist, at the entrance to the Jewish Museum there. The idea that anyone who wants to can get hold of a deadly weapon and use it against innocent people who happen to be Jewish is an idea that has returned to haunt the Jewish diaspora in this post-Holocaust era.

Israel is not without its dangers, as we all know, and it doesn’t take much for a single Muslim individual with a kitchen knife to wreak havoc on a Tel-Aviv bus, as happened not long ago. The terrorist was quickly overpowered and the injured treated and evacuated to hospitals by teams practiced in such activity. That, however, is small consolation.

So where is a Jew going to feel safe? Australia? Even the remote antipodes have had a taste of Muslim terrorism, though on a relatively small scale. London? Having recently spent a few days there I wouldn’t want to guarantee anything. The crowded tube carriages and shopping centres seem to me to be easy targets for anyone determined to make a statement by shedding blood, and if it happens to be Jewish, all the better. Wasn’t it a leading figure in the BBC who is Jewish who said that he is starting to feel uncomfortable as a Jew in England.

Expressing anti-Israel (i.e., what amounts to anti-Jewish) sentiments is becoming de rigeur on university campuses in the USA as well as in European democracies. In the IS-ruled area of Syria-Iraq thirteen teenage boys were executed recently for the crime of watching a football game on television. If that didn’t bring every football fan in England out onto the streets, nothing will.

It is the apathy of the masses that is the most dangerous tool in the hands of the terrorists. Chapeau to the French who at least showed that they were prepared to stand up and be counted. As for the rest of the so-called civilised world, if it continues along this road it will eventually have no choice but to submit to those who are prepared to take action, abusing the democratic system in order to subvert Western values and go on to kill and maim in the name of Allah or Muhammed.

Recent signs of a slight change of heart among the over-tolerant governments of Europe, and the fact that at least in Israel we are fighting against this trend both overtly and covertly, provides some consolation in these troubling times.

(This article appeared previously in the AJR Journal (Association of Jewish Refugees.)

 

St. Matthew in Jerusalem

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 bach_matt[1]

A performance of Bach’s monumental St. Matthew Passion is always an event to be treasured. Its musical complexity and religious significance as well as the fact that it calls for a double choir, an organ and an enormous orchestra means that it is rarely performed in Israel.

So it was with eager anticipation that we attended last week’s performance of the work in Jerusalem’s Henry Crown auditorium. Every seat was taken, and the stage was packed to the rafters with all the present, past and future members of the orchestra who could be mustered. Row upon row of the members of two choirs from Estonia, the Estonian National Male Choir and the Girls’ Choir Ellerhein, stood ready behind the orchestra, the women attractively attired in long cherry-pink dresses with black wraps on top. Conductor Andres Mustonen, also from Estonia, had his work cut out to control, direct and inspire the over two hundred performers, and this he did with boundless energy and understanding.

No sooner had the first chords rung out and the choirs begun to sing than we knew that we were in for a very special performance. Rarely have I heard such a large choir (almost one hundred strong) produce a sound that was both powerful, expressive and controlled. Since the Passion is sung in German I cannot claim to have understood every word, but the overall effect was sublime.

Since the performance requires ten soloists, and there was not enough room for all of them on the stage at the same time, soloists came to the front of the stage, sang their part and then retired to a place at the back of the stage, or even backstage in some cases. When the first soloist seemed to be meandering onto the stage, wearing a light-coloured suit and holding a tablet or ipad, I must admit I was somewhat taken aback, and wondered if something had gone wrong. But this, it turned out, was the tenor who sang the role of the Evangelist, the narrator of the piece who recites the words of the Gospel in occasional recitatives (a kind of sing-song). The other soloists came and went in a more dignified way, most of the men wearing dark suits and the women in lovely dresses, as is customary on such occasions. Some voices were better than others, but the overall effect was one of reverence for the great music of Bach and the sad tale of Jesus’ crucifixion. Whether it was historically accurate or not did not seem to matter at this point, as the music was the message, and each time the choir gave voice in a chorus or chorale the effect was electric.

I have heard the Passion performed in English and have been moved to tears by the depth of emotion conveyed in the realisation by the apostle Peter that, as prophesied, he has indeed denied Christ three times. I have heard performances in Israel where the conductor, out of consideration for his Jewish audience, has omitted the fortissimo chorus ‘Crucify him!’ and the passage sung by the Jews accepting all future guilt for Jesus’ death. It is known that in mediaeval Europe mobs would be incited by performances of the Passion (not necessarily Bach’s, as re-enactments of the last days of Jesus’ life were traditionally performed at Easter-time in towns and villages all over the Continent) to rampage through Jewish quarters and attack Jewish individuals and institutions. Fortunately, this is no longer the case today.

Far be it from me to condemn those who refuse to attend performances of church music because of religious or historical reasons. All I can say is that I pity anyone who knowingly deprives him- or herself of an experience that stands at the pinnacle of human culture and art.

 

The Journey from Iran to Israel

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Iran book

 

Wandering through the stalls of the Jerusalem International Book Fair held a few weeks ago my eye fell upon a display entitled ‘Lavi Publications,’ where copies of just one or two volumes in Hebrew were on display. The modestly dressed elderly lady in attendance at the stall was eager to show me her wares when I stopped to leaf through the book.

“It contains the stories of Jews who emigrated to Israel from Iran,” she told me. “And I was one of them. My story’s in there. On page 68,” and so saying, she deftly inserted a bookmark into the relevant page.

“What a good thing it was that you came to Israel,” I said, adopting an encouraging tone.

“Yes, but my husband died…” the woman’s eyes clouded over, and I could see that she was fighting to hold back tears.

At that point, of course, I felt morally obliged to buy the book (which was edited by Pierre Lavi). In addition to containing the personal accounts of some eighteen individuals and families, classified by the towns from which they came (Isfahan, Teheran, Hamadan, Shiraz, to name but a few), the book also provides photographs of the individuals concerned and several pages of recipes for main courses, rice dishes, soups, pies and desserts from the Iranian-Jewish cuisine. This last was the clinching factor in persuading me to fork out my hard-earned cash and buy the book.

“And this book comes free with it,” the saleslady said, thrusting a small volume entitled ‘The Dream-Weavers of Teheran’ into my hand. That book describes the tragic story of how the author, orphaned at an early age, was kidnapped in Teheran, imprisoned in dreadful conditions in the basement belonging to a carpet merchant and forced to weave carpets for him by day and by night.

Muslin bags of coloured sweets were also given away with every book, and so I came away feeling I had made a good bargain.

Leafing through the book describing individual journeys from Iran to Israel I found many tales describing a comfortable existence in Iran that had come to an end after the Ayatollahs’ rise to power there, impelling people to leave their homes and embark on a long, expensive and often dangerous journey. This generally involved taking a plane to a town near the border with Pakistan and then meeting a local smuggler at an agreed spot. From there some individuals crossed the mountainous border on foot, while others were picked up by truck and driven along treacherous roads to cross the border. Once inside Pakistan their troubles were not always over, and it was only after they had reached Karachi or some other large city where the Jewish Agency could meet them that they were given shelter and documents, and enabled to leave for Israel.

As well as abandoning their property, many of those departing Iran were obliged to take special measures such as wearing soiled clothes and shoes to avoid being stopped by the police and revolutionary guards who were constantly on the lookout for Jews and anyone else seeking to leave Iran illegally. The book contains many cases of hardship, in some cases with a fatal outcome, in the endeavour to leave the country. For thousands of years Iran provided a safe haven for Jews, who had prospered in many parts of the country, but under the rule of the Ayatollahs this was no longer the case.

The book also contains an introduction by David Nissan giving an outline of the history of the Jews in Iran, a history that goes back to their manumission by Cyrus the Great, the story of Queen Esther, and their period of prosperity under the Shah and the Pahlevi dynasty. One cannot but admire the resilience of those Jewish communities that endured hardship, discrimination and even forced conversion to Islam throughout the centuries, and yet survived and prospered. Most of those have now moved to Israel and other countries where they are able to live in freedom.

The saleslady’s story is indeed a sad one. Her grown-up children were already in Israel when she and her husband were finally able to join them, but her husband died of heart failure just before they were due to leave. The only thing she could bring with her as a memento for her children was a small bag of earth from his grave. No wonder there were tears in her eyes when she recalled her story.

 

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