Here it Comes Again

Matzah__Jewish_Passover_bread

It came as something of a shock to me a few years to hear that there are some people who have mixed feelings about celebrating the Jewish festival known as Passover (Pesach). For someone like myself who quite likes eating matza this seems strange. But then I remember how things used to be.

In my childhood Pesach was always a time of excitement and renewal. Some time beforehand, my mother, my two younger sisters and I would undertake the long journey by underground from the London suburb where we lived into ‘town,’ i.e., Oxford Street, to buy new clothes for the festival. This invariably involved a lot of walking (Oxford Street itself is several miles long), gazing longingly into shop windows and eventually trying to find some garment (coat, dress) suitable in price, size and style to suit our various tastes. Sometimes this involved getting new shoes as well. All this must have represented a considerable financial burden for our parents, whose income was modest by any standard. But getting new clothes for the festival was considered essential.

Most important, at least for our parents, was the process of cleaning and preparing every nook and cranny of the house so that not a single speck of dust or crumb of food was left. Everything had to be pristine clean, so much so, in fact, that all our crockery and cooking utensils were packed up and put away so that different ones, which had themselves been packed up and put away at the end of the festival the previous year, could be brought out. As well as the interminable cleaning and scrubbing operations, this involved endless trips up and down the stairs to the attic where the Passover things were kept to bring them out and reinstall them. Equally, the everyday dishes and utensils had to be put away in the same fashion.

My poor parents hard to work long into the night to achieve all this. No sooner was all this done, however, than in something akin to a logistical nightmare my mother had to embark on a marathon of cooking and baking in preparation for the impending Seder meal, the massive family dinner that involved providing all the ritual dishes that symbolized aspects of the Exodus story (bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, haroseth, a mixture of apples, wine and nuts commemorating the cement used to bind the bricks together, a hard-boiled egg to symbolize mourning and the circle of life, etc., etc.). Incidentally, any pictorial depiction of Jesus’ Last Supper, i.e., the Seder, in which bread features is by definition a historical travesty as Jesus was an observant Jew and would not have dreamt of eating leavened bread on that occasion.

To make matters worse, ever since the Jews were sent into exile by the Romans, the custom in the diaspora was to hold the Seder twice, as there was no way of knowing which was the correct Hebrew date. Nowadays we know, but the custom has become entrenched nonetheless. That is at least one good reason for moving to Israel, where there has always been only one Seder.

On the actual evening, once all the preparations are over and the ritual reading of the Haggadah, which recounts the sequence of events interspersed by prayers of devotion and praise for the miracle of the escape from bondage by the Children of Israel and even some rabbinical exegesis, all present partake of the traditional unleavened bread (matza) and the other ritual foods, followed by a sumptuous meal, which taxes everyone’s digestive system to the utmost and whose preparation has generally left the long-suffering housewife close to a state of exhaustion.

As devout and observant Jews, my parents and their parents before them did not question the necessity of adhering to every jot and tittle of the traditions and requirements. But I was born into a time when the existence of Israel as an independent Jewish state gives me the option of being Jewish without having to be observant and incurring the displeasure of the community. I feel that I am truly fortunate.

 

 

Whatsapp Baby

 crybaby

Some twenty-five years ago our son and his wife presented us with our first grandchild. She was the centre of our life and our pride and joy, and over the subsequent fifteen years she was joined by another six grandchildren, three from the same couple and three from our daughter and her husband. It goes without saying that we adore and cherish each and every one of them.

 

Eventually our youngest son got married and life continued pretty much as before for all concerned. But a week ago that same son and his wife presented us with their first child, a little girl amid general rejoicing.

 

In the ten years since our previous last grandchild was born life and technology have changed. How did we manage to stay in touch with our offspring and other relatives before the days of email, Facebook and above all Whatsapp? How otherwise could we be apprised of every fleeting expression, mood and movement of our nearest and dearest without these essential elements of daily life.

 

And so it is that at our request a special Whatsapp group was formed for the new arrival in which the proud parents post pictures of the little one whenever the fancy takes them, which is quite often. And it also gives the proud grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins, whether near or far, to have their say and make comments as to the cuteness, awesomeness, pulchritude and evident intelligence of the newest addition to the family.

 IMG_0243

The wonders of modern technology enable us, the happy entrants into the realm of second grandparenthood (akin to a second childhood), to enjoy the sight but not necessarily the sound of the baby crying, knowing that it isn’t us who’ll be woken up in the night by it, and to marvel at the glorious spectacle of her chubby cheeks and sparkling eyes.

 

So if you happen to meet one of us please don’t be alarmed if we take out our mobile phones to share this newest wonder of the world with you. It’s not our fault. We can’t help it. You can blame Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg if you like, but I personally will be eternally grateful to them.

 

A History Lesson

 

Babylon photo Haim Zach003

(photo by Haim Zach)

It was very gratifying to hear two of our grandsons (aged 22 and 18) express a desire to be taken on a tour of the exhibition entitled ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ concerning the exile of the Jews of Judea by Nebuchadnezzer II in 586 B.C.E. and currently being held at the Bible Lands Museum, where my husband is a guide.

The tour, in Yigal’s customary thorough fashion, began with a session in front of a large, illuminated wall-map showing the entire Ancient Near East at various stages in its history. Apart from Egypt, the first to establish cities and some form of writing (i.e., ‘civilisation’) were the Sumerians (situated in what is now southern Iraq). Their territory was invaded and conquered by the Akkadians from what was known then as Babylon or Akkad, followed by the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, the Turks, and finally the British, to name but a few. Finally, following the First World War and the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the entire area was divvied up among the major European colonial nations, only to disintegrate into mutual enmity, chaos and mayhem in recent years.

The exhibition itself, about which I have written before, is well done, attempting to arouse interest and provide food for thought for visitors of all ages, with animated films that explain how and why the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer II eventually decided he had had enough of the fractious Judeans and their rebellious kings (particularly Joakin, Joachim, and Zedekiah), who rebelled and refused to pay their tribute taxes. After laying siege to and conquering Jerusalem, the troops dealt with the defeated enemy in the manner customary at the time, namely, total destruction of everything in sight, including the (First) Temple, and forced ethnic cleansing by means of mass massacre and exile of the remaining population.

But, as the exhibition shows, the Israelites’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances came to the fore in Babylon. Exhorted by their leaders to display obedience to and cooperation with the authorities, the Jews farmed the land they were granted, established families, adhered to their religion and prospered. When the Persians under Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E. all exiled nations were allowed to return to their lands. but not all the Jews undertook the journey back to Judea. The exhibition displays dozens of clay tablets from the Soffer collection recording transactions undertaken at the time by Jews, primarily in the Jewish settlement of El Yahudo in the region of Babylon.

Those Jews who remained in Babylon flourished for two thousand years, producing inter alia the renowned Babylonian Talmud. Those who returned merged with those who had managed to remain behind in Judea, and eventually built the (Second) Temple, and hung on to it for some five hundred years. Once again, however, internecine conflict and rebelliousness caused the all-powerful Romans to come down upon them with the full force of their might. As everyone knows, this led to the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. and the exile that lasted two thousand years and ended only 67 years ago. In a nice touch, the exhibition ends with the reggae song ‘By the Rivers of Babylon,’ recorded by Boney M and popular in the 1970s. The last Iraqi Jews were deprived of their property and expelled from Iraq shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel. Like the many thousands of other Jews who were turned overnight into refugees, they were absorbed into the general population.

No one knows whether the people currently inhabiting the various regions of what was once the Ancient Near East share the same genetic make-up as the original inhabitants of the region. What we do know, however, is that the tendency to engage in mutual warfare involving massacre and enmity on a gigantic scale has endured. Sadly, our newspapers and TV screens are filled on a daily basis with the tragic results of what appears to be a longstanding tradition of mutual intolerance and the desire to dominate others.

Plus ça change…

[This article first appeared in the April 2016 edition of the AJR Journal/]

 

 

Time Passes

 

family for Nadav_3_09 024

When I was eighteen I had all the answers.

I knew where my political allegiance lay and which party I supported. I knew where I should go to live for my future wellbeing. I marched in favour of nuclear disarmament, in England and spoke out on behalf of my beliefs in friendly forums. I even knew what I wanted to study at university, who were my friends and who I preferred to avoid.

Then, in line with my conviction that all Jews should go and live in their national homeland, I went to live in Israel in 1964.

My first few years in Israel were not always easy. Like most immigrants, I struggled with the language and the culture, and found many things that grated on my delicate British sensibilities. But I persevered, weathered the various storms, wars, children and other obstacles to self-fulfillment, and now that all that is behind me I seem to suddenly find myself on the wrong side of seventy, falling into ‘the sere and yellow leaf,’ as Macbeth puts it, and far less sure of all the things I used to be certain about.

I was here before the Six Day War broke out and felt perfectly happy about living in Israel as it was then, its borders defined by ‘the green line.’ After the war, when the euphoria of our victory over three Arab armies had begun to wear off, I was all in favour of giving the territories back, and was quite horrified when religious right-wing extremists defied official government policy and insisted on establishing settlements in the territory that the IDF had conquered.

Then came Hebron, where even more extreme extremists insisted on settling, asserting some kind of ‘right of return’ to a place that had formerly seen Jewish habitation for centuries. The need to protect them placed an additional burden on the IDF and Israel’s limited resources, but gradually the government line shifted, first towards acceptance and then to encouragement, of this and other settlement activity.

Today Jewish settlements are to be found pretty much everywhere throughout the area that was either liberated, conquered or occupied, according to your political stance, and the facts established on the ground cannot be denied. I avoid going to those areas to the best of my ability, but judging by the results of the last few elections, I now find myself in an ever-shrinking minority of Israelis.

But today, when I look back over Israel’s sixty-eight years of existence, awkward questions arise in my mind. In 1947, when the UN Partition Plan was proposed, the Arab countries refused to accept this, and sought to annihilate the fledgling State of Israel before it came into existence, with considerable loss of life on all sides. Israel prevailed, but was subjected to continuous infiltrations and terrorist attacks by what were then known as Fedayeen, inflicting more loss of life.

Then came the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Lebanon War, the constant attacks, first within and then from the Gaza Strip, and devastating terrorist attacks inside Israel. The common thread that unites all those events was the desire to destroy Israel and, failing that, to cause as much physical and psychological damage as possible. Threats to Israel’s existence continue to emerge from various other quarters, causing us to live in a constant state of being ‘on guard.’

The belief that peace with our neighbours is possible is gradually being eroded by the actions of settlers, on the one hand, and Palestinians, on the other. Religious and nationalist radicalization seems to have taken hold on both sides, and the prospect of any peaceful settlement of the dispute appears to be moving ever further away.

The thought of living in a perpetual state of war is depressing, though a long-term view of European history gives some hope that in the very, very long term some solution will eventually emerge. How much war and bloodshed we will have to endure till then is not clear, and as Maynard Keynes pronounced ‘in the long term we are all dead.’

But let’s look on the bright side. Perhaps in less than the one thousand years it has taken for the major European countries to settle their differences some of our descendants will be able to live in peace.

 

Bach’s Passion

Bach score

I don’t write about every concert I attend, or even every book I read, for that matter. That would be boring and repetitive. However, there are some concerts (and some books) that I feel I really must share with anyone out there who might be slightly interested in what I have to say.

As you probably know by now, I am a great lover of the grand choral music composed by Bach, Handel and various others. I also love chamber music, but that’s another story. This love of choral music is something I acquired (or inherited) from my father, and he in turn inherited it from his father, so perhaps it’s in my DNA. I was taken to performances of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ from a very early age, and have endeavoured to pass on this tradition to my own children and, especially, my grandchildren, with varying degrees of success.

And so when the opportunity arose to hear a performance of Bach’s great St. Matthew Passion in Jerusalem, I was not going to let the opportunity go by and was able, through my husband’s quick reactions and equally dedicated love of music, to be assured of a ticket in one of the first rows in the YMCA auditorium.

The Passion was performed by the Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra which was founded several years ago by the organist and harpsichordist David Shemer to play baroque music on original instruments. And so this year, 2016, over the course of five days, we were privileged to witness the first ‘Bach in Jerusalem Festival,’ to mark the composer’s birthday on 17th March, with several concerts performed both in Jerusalem and other parts of Israel.

The Passion was the first concert to be given in the framework of the festival, and was a very special event. The conductor was the American Joshua Rifkin, a world-renowned expert in baroque music, but most of the performers, with the exception of Richard Resch, the excellent German tenor who sang the part of the Evangelist, were from Israel. Rifkin’s conception of the music was based on his extensive research into Bach’s original performance of the work, and somewhat different from performances of the Passion to which modern audiences have become accustomed.

It is common knowledge by now that after Bach’s death in 1750 the Passion was forgotten and not performed for almost a hundred years. It was revived by young Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and performed in Berlin in 1829 after Felix had been given the score by his grandmother Bella Salomon. Bach scored the music for two choirs, two orchestras and two organs, but modern performances generally overlook those instructions, preferring to use an augmented choir and orchestra. Anyway, where are you going to find two organs?

In the performance conducted by Rifkin there was no augmented choir, just two quartets, one on either side of the stage. These comprised excellent singers, each one of them soloists in their own right, who were able to tackle the complex music and thus do double service as soloists and choir. Where the score creates a dialogue between the two choirs this dualism produced maximum effect, with each quartet playing its part in the evolving narrative. The ‘conversation’ thus created was felt, heard and seen to the utmost, and the absence of the large choral ensemble was hardly noticed at all.

In a small exhibition at the nearby Jerusalem Theatre one could see the original score, as copied by Mendelssohn from the one in Bach’s own hand, on loan from the exhibition in the town of Eisenach, Bach’s birthplace. What joy it was, a few days after the concert, to put on the headphones provided, listen to excerpts of the Passion and hear the instructive commentary about how and why Bach came to compose this immense, complex and inspiring music.

For many years there was general reluctance about performing the Passion in Israel because of the story it tells of the taking and crucifixion of Jesus, and it cannot be denied that the gospels accuse the Jews of responsibility for this. But it seems that the grandeur of the music has overcome these doubts, and even Jews like myself can leave the concert hall with a sense of having been spiritually uplifted. Such is the power of music.

 

 

Painfully Honest

 

I was given Elliot Jager’s book, ‘The Pater: My Father, My Judaism, My Childlessness,’ as a gift, and must admit that it is not a book I would have chosen to read in the normal course of my reading experience.

This is a book that is full of pain. First of all, it is painfully honest. Second, it addresses an issue that is a major cause of pain – the fact that the author is unable to have children. The issue assumes additional prominence given the author’s Jewish roots and identity. This last is further aggravated by the writer’s ambivalent attitude to the orthodox Jewish observance with which he grew up and his intellectual and emotional departure from adherence to every minute feature of orthodox Judaism. And over and above all that is the fact that many years ago his ultra-orthodox father (the ‘Pater’ of the title) abandoned eight-year-old Elliot and his mother in New York and went to live in Israel.

I must admit that I felt distinctly uncomfortable reading this book. It is really unfair that most people seem to be able to beget children without so much as a second thought, and in many cases turn out to be unfit or inadequate parents. In this day and age many cases of infertility can be remedied by IVF, and the ‘tragedy’ of being childless averted. In the case of Elliot Jager and his wife, however, this was not the case.

Being unable to procreate raises many questions about God, Judaism and faith in general, and Elliot Jager goes into these subjects at great (some might say inordinate) length, while also interviewing other (mainly observant) Jewish men in a similar position, interspersing those segments with the account of his own experiences as an only child in a single-parent family and his feelings about his absent father. The story is complex, and after a period of thirty years in which there was no contact between the two, Elliot reached out to his aged father and was eventually reconciled with him to some extent.

That extent is limited by Elliot’s rejection of what he regards as his father’s irrational and superstitious version of fanatical adherence to every jot and tittle of Jewish observance, and he even goes so far as to mock it. But somehow their reconciliation also seems to give him some kind of consolation. In sum, the reader comes away with the sense that the author has achieved closure of a kind, or at least found a modicum of serenity and acceptance of his fate.

While, of course, I don’t envy him. i cannot help admiring his extensive research, wide-ranging knowledge on various allied subjects and his insuperable honesty in tackling subjects whether medical, Jewish or personal.

An exercise in coexistence

 Dead Sea2

 Spending a few days in a luxurious hotel by the Dead Sea induces a sense of well-being, of physical and mental peace. The air is still pleasantly warm, and has not yet reached the burning heat of summer. The décor of the hotel is aesthetic and comfortable, and the scenery round about impressive, with the mountains of Moab shimmering on the other side of the water. The food is plentiful, varied and of excellent quality, and if one can manage to restrain oneself it can even be beneficial, as all kinds of healthy options are provided.

Along the roadside trees and shrubs have been planted, providing shade and a visually pleasing vista to all those who, like me, like to start their day by setting out to walk for a kilometer or two or three. At seven a.m. the path is abuzz with people walking, some slowly some fast, in twos or singly, as they enjoy the imposing scenery and gain health benefits in the process.

The guests staying at the hotel while we were there could be heard speaking several languages, with Hebrew prevailing, of course, but English and French were also in evidence. In addition, several of the guests were Arabs, though whether they were Druze or Muslims I was unable to tell. The only way of knowing whether a family is Arab is by observing the attire of the women, as the men dress and behave much the same as any secular Israeli Jew.

Although the Arab families were identifiable there was no apparent animosity between them and the Jewish guests, just as Arabs and Jews travel side by side in buses and trains in Israel, tend to patients in hospitals as nurses and doctors and are attended to by them, and work and shop alongside one another in any and every public place.

I was witness to an interesting exchange between an Arab woman in traditional garb (long black embroidered dress and flimsy white head-covering) and various Jewish guests. The conversation was in Hebrew, so I could understand what was going on. The woman was sitting in the spacious lobby and occupied with knitting a colourful sweater. As I watched, one elderly Israeli woman after another went up to the woman and opened a conversation with her about what she was knitting, admiring her skill and complimenting her on her work. After a while a Jewish man sitting with his family also spoke to her, congratulating her and wishing her well. She seemed to take all this with perfect equanimity, answering their questions in fluent Hebrew.

On another occasion I was intrigued to see an Arab family of not-so-young husband, wife and grown-up son, the latter apparently having some kind of physical and possibly also mental disability being unable to use one of his arms. At breakfast I saw the son bring a plate of scrambled eggs to his father and I immediately assumed that this particular paterfamilias was used to being waited on by the other members of his family. How wrong I was! The father deftly cut up the food on the plate, mixed the eggs with tomatoes and other salad vegetables, then gently fed it to his son. For me this was an object lesson in the way that a caring father attends to his son’s needs.

On our last day the news of the stabbing spree by a Palestinian terrorist in Jaffa was all over the newspapers. I was in the lift on my way to our room, my eyes riveted to the headlines describing the event when a young Arab couple came in and we began our ascent to a higher floor. Coward that I am, I could not look them in the eye. I’m still wondering what would have happened if I had.

Even More So…

Wagner

It’s one of the best-kept secrets of British journalism that the Life and Arts section of the Financial Times’ weekend edition contains some of the best-written and most stimulating articles and reviews. So as we were leaving the airport of our almost next-door neighbor of Cyprus for the brief flight home on Saturday night I picked up a copy of the ‘pink’un,’ as it is known among the cognoscenti, to try to retain my connection with the best of Blighty.

Imagine my surprise then when I opened the aforesaid section to find an enormous front-page article entitled ‘More British than the British’ by Ian Buruma, a writer/journalist previously unknown to me, describing the German-Jewish roots of his family (he notes that his Schlesinger grandparents took in ten Kindertransport children). His ancestors came to Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were moneyed professionals and far from being penniless refugees. Their deep-seated attachment to German culture (especially the music of Wagner) did not prevent them from becoming equally attached to all things British – literature, cricket and even Christmas (not solely British, I know), or from identifying with Britain in the tradition of immigrants who become ‘British through-and-through.’

They abandoned their ancestors’ attachment to orthodox Judaism, but could not shake off their Jewish cachet and developed a family code-term, ‘forty-five,’ for referring to matters that were redolent of the insidious and typically British form of anti-Semitism. Although some professional avenues were closed to them, others were not, and their obvious intelligence, abilities and persistence enabled them to climb to social, professional and intellectual heights.

The article, lavishly adorned with nostalgic family photographs, could well have come from the pages of the AJR Journal, and as I read it I felt the strings of the land of my birth tugging fiercely at my heart. The piece ends with some well-considered thoughts about Britain, assimilationism and the lessons to be learned with regard to Islam and the current immigration issue. As Buruma points out, Judaism has nothing similar to violent jihadism but leaving that aside it is possible to hope that the second and third generations of immigrants will find their place in what has become an increasingly multi-cultural Britain.

In what I think is the most telling phrase, Buruma concludes his article by remarking that his grandparents were fortunate in being able to find their place “in a relatively decent society during frequently indecent times. One can only hope that, eventually, other children of immigrants will feel as lucky as they did.”

I cannot help adding that I’m sure I’m not alone in heartily endorsing that view.

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

Drink Camel’s Milk!

Tags

camels

Tucked away on the edge of the village of Tarabin, named for the Beduin tribe that inhabits it in southern Israel, is a farm whose sole objective is to produce camel’s milk. For that purpose some fifty female camels are kept in pens to be ‘serviced’ by a single lucky male camel during the breeding period. The mothers are then milked and the product bottled and packaged for delivery to customers all over Israel. Both the milk and the cream produced using it have been scientifically proved to have generally beneficial and medicinal properties.

We had set out on a seemingly routine excursion to sites of interest in southern Israel and also to see the ‘red carpet’ in the fields produced by the flowering of thousands of wild poppies. But as sometimes happens, the day of our trip turned out to be rainy and cloudy, yes, even in the Negev, the traditionally arid south of Israel, so that the poppies were closed. Apparently, this year has witnessed the freak phenomenon of more rain in the south of the country than in the north, upsetting the usual course of climatic events, but producing wonderful green vistas as far as the eye can see in the south. You might think you were in a European country when on all sides are green fields and gently rolling hills and valleys.

Seated in rows facing the camels, our group, consisting of some fifty retired residents of Mevasseret Zion, was treated to an edifying lecture by Eyal, the manager of the farm and a chemist with extensive knowledge of the intricacies of the various ailments that flesh is heir to. Along with a warming cup of (milkless) tea or coffee, we were given an extensive account of the wondrous properties of camel’s milk. Since the chemical composition of camel’s milk is very close to that of human mother’s milk, this enables it to make a valuable contribution to the human immune system.

According to Eyal, in conjunction with a healthy diet camel’s milk helps to combat diabetes, heart disease, illnesses of the joints and lungs, ailments of the digestive system, specifically colitis, Crohn’s disease and gastritis, skin diseases, osteoporosis and illnesses associated with old age, allergies, and certain types and stages of cancer. It can even be used to allay the symptoms of ADD and ADHD in children as well as having a significant effect on some kinds of autism. Anyone wishing to order milk or who is in doubt as to whether camel’s milk is the most appropriate treatment for their particular medical problem is invited to call the farm for a free phone consultation (077-3295116; 077-5560212). There is also a website: http://www.camels-milk.com

As we sat listening to the lecture we were treated to the sight (and smell) of the fifty or so female camels and their babies, who gambolled and sprang about among the adult females, each one eventually returning to its own mother. The single male was tied up at the side, and Eyal was at pains to point out that there could only be one male to the herd as more than one would inevitably give rise to a fight for supremacy.

At the end of the lecture we were all given a little cream on a small stick and encouraged to smooth it onto any part of our body that was giving us pain. I was in no pain and so declined this offer, but there were some people who did so and who claimed that the cream did indeed allay their pain, even if only temporarily. Even if it doesn’t reduce pain, the cream is supposed to be good for the skin and even to have an anti-aging effect while also serving as a sunscreen. Hardly surprising, then, that many people, myself included, bought a pot of the cream to take home.

The farm is open to visitors and we were all encouraged to return with our families at the weekend and be assured of a warm welcome.

 

A Transport of Translators

ITA lecture1 2016

You can have a flock of sheep and a herd of cows, a covey of witches and a murmuration of starlings, so why not a transport of translators? This is one of the thoughts that occurred to me in the course of the recent annual Conference organized by the Israel Translators Association. While the Association itself numbers several hundred members who translate into and from a plethora of tongues, not all of them attended the conference, or did not do so for all the three days of its duration. Nonetheless, attendance was relatively good, with some two hundred translators present at any given time. It goes without saying that the organizers did a terrific job and the usually isolated translators were glad of the opportunity to meet one another face-to-face instead of computer-to-computer.

The lectures were many and varied, some extremely polished and professional, others less so, on subjects ranging from the challenges and difficulties of being a medical interpreter to translating works by Jane Austen, with any number of categories in between. Lectures were also given on aspects of business management, technical terminology, making use of MT (machine translation), and what the future holds for today’s translators. That, of course, is not at all clear, as the likes of Google and Microsoft are steadily encroaching on the translator’s turf. One message that came across loud and clear in one of the plenary sessions was that machine translation will take over the work done by individuals who translate like machines, leaving the field clear for translators whose work depends on intelligence. Let’s hope…

At a previous conference a few years ago I gave a talk at about translating financial texts, and was suddenly seized by that terrible tickle in my throat that sometimes haunts me when I’m at a concert. That inevitably arouses nasty glances from those sitting near me. I’m always equipped with strong cough sweets, which sometimes help, though the noise that unwrapping them is sometimes even worse than the cough. At that conference I was able to benefit from the cup of tea brought by the kind chairperson.

After that experience I swore I would never give another such talk, but this year, possibly because I had forgotten my embarrassment or was inspired by the book I had been working on, I offered myself once more on the altar of public speaking. And thus it was that I found myself standing in front of a room half-full of people who had come to hear me speak about the book I had translated. Like the book, my talk was entitled ‘Every Day in Theresienstadt is a Gift,’ and I set out to describe my experience of translating the diary of Martha Glass, a 63-year-old Jewish woman who was deported from Hamburg to Theresienstadt in 1942. Her trajectory was very similar to that of my own grandmother, Regina van Son, the main difference being that Martha Glass survived whereas my grandmother did not. This may have been because Martha was able to receive occasional food packages sent by her daughter in Berlin.

The book was sent to me a few years ago by the Hamburg Council for Political Education, and I decided to translate it from German into English in order to better understand it. There is nothing like translating a text for gaining a deeper comprehension of it, in line with Chomsky’s analysis of deep and surface structure. The insight provided by the great linguist encapsulates what translators do: going beyond the surface to access the deep, underlying sense of a text and then reformulating it in surface structure (which in this case is another language).

Although I had prepared my talk to the best of my abilities, and had been provided with a fine Power-Point presentation by my husband, I felt that I coughed, stammered, spluttered and spat my way through it, even though I had made sure to have a cup of hot water by me beforehand. Yigal and both my sisters were there, as well as several translators, so I felt that I had a supportive audience. When it was all over there was polite applause and a few people came up to me and made comments (mainly positive) and asked questions.

I hope I remember not to let myself in for this kind of nerve-wracking experience again and can content myself with sitting at my computer in splendid isolation.

 

 

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