My Ex-Step-Mother-in-Law

 

Actually, the one-woman show that I saw last week has very little to do with the subject of the title, namely, mothers-in-law. I am one such, and even an ex-one in one case, but not a step one, or not yet, at least (and I hope never).

The play was recommended to me by my son and his wife, and so I was sure it would be about the mother-in-law issue and relationship problems. I soon found that I was greatly mistaken. What we were treated to was a highly original portrayal of the history, emotions, reactions and experiences of a member of the generation of our parents and grandparents in Europe before and after WWII. This was done in such a delicate and oblique way that one had to be on one’s toes and wait for the end of the evening before realizing what the subject of the play really was.

The sold-out performance was held in a small space in one of Jerusalem’s neighbourhoods. The solo actress, Naomi Yoeli, moved about the stage, at times representing her own persona and at others the ex-step-mother-in-law as well as other members of that family living in a small town in pre-war Hungary.

The main character’s family of origin is described by means of a letter from her mother, written shortly before Hungary was invaded by the Germans. In the letter, the happy mother announces the forthcoming marriage of her daughter, Agi, to the scion of a very wealthy family (also Jewish). Although she is careful to preserve the proprieties of good behaviour and social mores, the letter contains accounts of the apparent wealth of her daughter’s future family, to her evident satisfaction.

The almost bare stage contained an elegant round table into which drawers were built. From time to time a random member of the audience would be invited to sit at the table, open one of the drawers and extract its contents. In one instance this was a set of miniature wooden items of furniture typical of a bourgeois European home, in another it was a porcelain plate and bowl, and so on. Each set of items served as a trigger for Naomi, who now assumed the persona of Agi, speaking with a light Hungarian accent, to recount some aspect of her life, sometimes in a rambling highly imaginative way, sometimes evoking the time and place of her youth. In one particularly enchanting moment, she waxes lyrical about a particular Hungarian pastry she loved, whereupon trays of that pastry were handed out to the audience. It was delicious.

Thus, not necessarily in consecutive order, we learn about Agi’s childhood and youth, the attempt, together with her husband, Latz, to avoid deportation, the release from the concentration camp and her efforts to find surviving members of her family. There are also accounts of encounters with Russian, French and American soldiers of the Allied Army. No mention is made of the horrors of the camp, which we later learn was Auschwitz. We learn, too, that just prior to the establishment of the State of Israel she and Latz moved there, and that she was not very impressed with the place.

Towards the end of the evening, Agi suddenly becomes more assertive, abandoning the refined, cultured Hungarian lady we have come to know, and in firm tones she repeatedly declares that she refuses to speak about ‘it.’

However, upon hearing a final, apparently innocuous, incident, we learn that Agi and Latz, now a retired professor, were strolling in Haifa with a visiting academic and his wife. The latter asks Agi what it was like in Auschwitz, and upon hearing her noncommittal, evasive reply, which ends the play and could be described as the ‘understatement of the century,’ the stunned, audience breaks into appreciative applause.

The relationship between Agi and Naomi appears to have been a good one, with daily phone calls and regular meetings in a café. We do not learn how Agi attained the ‘ex’ and ‘step’ status that might have been the subject of the play. What has happened, however, is that in the course of the evening we have, almost unwittingly, gained an insight into the psyche of someone who endured Auschwitz and was able to rise above it and live life on her own terms.

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‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’ by Hilary Mantel

 

I picked up this book (greatly reduced in price) probably because I was intrigued by the title, and found when I started reading it that it consisted of eleven rather long short stories, set in various parts of the world, but mainly in contemporary England. Some years ago I read Mantel’s two books about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the Eighth, ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies,’ and I remember thinking at the time that they were not very well-written, though interesting. I was very surprised to learn that both (I think) won the Man-Booker Prize.

I find that in her short stories, too, Hilary Mantel’s style is as ragged, jagged and unclear as it was in her previous books. To cut a long story short (pun intended), I find her style irritating and confusing. What is worse, I find the subject-matter of her stories equally annoying. Some of them don’t seem to have much point or to go anywhere, which is hardly what a short story is supposed to achieve. In some cases they are vignettes of a certain time or place or situation, but in my view that is not enough for the medium of a short story.

One of the stories describes the author’s encounter with an Indian businessman when she is living in Jeddah, where her husband is working for an oil company. The author feels awkward about having to entertain the unwelcome guest for tea, and even attend a dinner party he has organised. But beyond the feeling of unease, and relief when she finally manages to shake him off, there doesn’t seem to be much point to the episode. Another story describes a childhood encounter with a girl from a less privileged socio-economic environment, but beyond that there is little to grab the reader’s interest. Yes, the children’s conversation is convincingly conveyed, as is the atmosphere of noseyness and latent aggression, but that is all. An account of the relationships between the staff of a doctor’s clinic reveals an unexpected lesbian alliance, and that perhaps is one of the better stories.

The story of the title is the last and longest in the book and describes what might perhaps have happened had the plumber whom the narrator had been expecting turned out to be an assassin bent on shooting Margaret Thatcher. The erstwhile prime minister, who is apparently universally hated, had been undergoing minor eye surgery in the suburban house next door which had been converted into a clinic. The encounter between the lady of the house and the assassin, who is a member of the IRA, is described in very low-key, almost casual, terms, with no-one getting particularly excited or upset about anything much. Detachedness is all. Of course, there is the period of waiting, with the conventional cup of tea, which winds up becoming something more alcoholic, but there are no accelerated heartbeats, sweating or swearing, and not even any raised voices. Everything proceeds with the utmost calm and, in a strange turn of events, the lady of the house even conspires with the would-be assassin to show him a secret escape route. Not very convincing, to say the least.

Several of the stories have previously been published in such august journals as ‘The London Review of Books’ and the ‘Guardian,’ which only leaves me wondering what has become of the British literary scene.

An Opera About Auschwitz!?

 

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I was one of the brave souls who attended a performance of the opera, ‘The Passenger,’ by Mieczyslaw Weinberg. I did so mainly because a friend of ours was the revival director of the production by the Israel Opera, and not because I’m a ‘glutton for punishment,’ as I have been accused of being (due to my inordinate consumption of Holocaust literature).

However, I’m not sorry I went. The subject is undoubtedly difficult, if not well-nigh impossible to convey in any meaningful artistic way, yet the performance left me with a heightened sense of awareness of and identification with the experience of life in a concentration camp. The combined impact of Weinberg’s music, the text (based on a novel by a non-Jewish Polish woman who was in Auschwitz herself), and the ingenious set, staging, costumes and scenery was greater than the sum of the individual parts. The soloists—a mix of imported and local talent—acted and sang with feeling and skill. It cannot have been easy for Israelis to evoke the experience of being prisoners in a concentration camp or members of the SS.

The author, Zofia Posmysz, wrote the novel originally as a radio script after having heard, while on a visit to Paris, what she thought was the voice of the German woman who had been her supervisor in Auschwitz. Posmysz was imprisoned there as a young woman for the ‘crime’ of reading and distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. The idea was taken up by the Polish-Jewish composer Weinberg, and the libretto was written by Alexander Medevdev. Weinberg had managed to reach Soviet Russia before the Germans invaded Poland, but his entire family was murdered by them.

The action of the opera is set in two different places and two different points in time: on board an ocean liner in 1958 and in Auschwitz in 1943. The first staged performance took place in Bregenz in 2010, directed by David Pountney, a British and Polish theatre and opera director. The set, which shows both locations, involves large sections of scenery which move together with the singers, constitutes a combination of imaginative reconstruction and engineering ingenuity. The railway tracks at the front of the stage serve as a constant reminder of Auschwitz.

The prisoners who form the focus of the opera are a mix of women from the various countries conquered by the Germans and each one performs in her own language. As we watch them move and sing, wearing the striped concentration-camp garb, their heads shaven, we are exposed to their touching stories and relationships, to their individual humanity and the comfort they find in their friendships.

Some scenes also expose the mental processes of the SS, managing to convey their diabolical combination of brutality and efficiency—as well as stupidity in some cases. The impossible love between two of the prisoners is shown in a way that is touching without being unduly sentimental, and the moment when the tones of Bach’s chaconne are played in defiance of the commandant’s request for a schmaltzy waltz is unbearably moving.

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Artistic licence notwithstanding, it seems odd that the presence of Jews is barely mentioned, and when it is (by the woman from Salonika, who points to her yellow star as ‘the mark of death’), it is misrepresented, as she sings in Yiddish. The Jews of Salonika, who fled Spain in 1492, continued to speak their Judeo-Spanish language, Ladino.

Weinberg’s music is not inaccessible to the untrained ear, and in many instances it sounds as if it could have been written to accompany a film, which is in fact what Weinberg did for a living in Russia. He was a friend of Shostakovich’s, and it is possible to discern some similarities between the music of the two.

Over and beyond the dramatic impact of the opera, the fact that it exists at all, and can—and hopefully will—continue to be performed for generations to come plays an important role in the task of never forgetting what happened or allowing the Holocaust deniers to prevail. ‘The Passenger’ stands as an eternal reminder of the depths to which mankind sank in order to perpetrate unspeakable horrors against other human beings, as well as the heights which the human spirit can attain in overcoming adversity.

There is no happy end to this opera, which concludes with a lone voice ringing out to assert that we must never forget or forgive.

Amen to that.

‘Asylum’ by Moriz Scheyer

Written at the time of the actual events, this powerful book starts by describing the atmosphere in Vienna before the Anschluss by Nazi Germany, followed by the author’s flight, together with his wife and non-Jewish housekeeper, who was also nanny to their children and his wife’s best friend (and who insisted on remaining with them throughout their ordeal).

Moriz Scheyer was a well-known and respected journalist and writer in pre-war Vienna. The editor of the arts section of the Neues Wiener Tagblatt, he was a friend or acquaintance of many prominent writers and musicians of the time, among them Stefan Zweig, Bruno Walter and Arthur Schnitzler.

As was the case with countless Jewish families, their comfortable bourgeois way of life was disrupted by the imposition of Nazi restrictions and race laws. He describes the behaviour of the general population of Vienna with bitter scorn, favourably mentioning just one or two individuals (a waitress in a café he frequented, a compositor for his journal) who showed any fellow-feeling towards him.

In search of security, Scheyer moved first to Switzerland, then to his beloved Paris (their two teenage sons had found sponsors in the UK), and the trio survived there until the Germans overran France too. When the country was divided into two zones, one occupied by the Germans and the other supposedly ‘free’ under Petain, ruling from Vichy, thousands of Parisians set out to leave the city. Scheyer describes the ‘Exodus’ in vivid terms, as well as the indifference displayed by most French people to the suffering of their Jewish compatriots, their desire not to be bothered by any accounts of personal misery, and their focus on continuing to enjoy the good things of life.

The Scheyers also left Paris, but their attempt to find refuge in the French countryside failed, and they returned to the capital, only to find themselves being harassed by visits from gendarmes and confiscation of what little property they had. Scheyer describes the systemic way the Nazis looted, stole and profited from the property of persecuted Jews, and does not spare the French who cooperated in these acts. The trio lived in a state of constant anxiety until they heard the fateful knock on the door heralding the arrest of Moriz.

Together with several hundred other men, Scheyer was taken under guard to the concentration camp of Beaune-la-Rolande in the Loiret region, and assigned a bunk in a hut containing 180 men. Conditions in the camp were atrocious, starvation rations and daily humiliations were the rule, accompanied by the senseless brutality of their guards, both French and German. What little consolation there was came from the sense of comradeship shown by other denizens of the hut. Scheyer describes all this in searing detail, and it is without a doubt accurate. It is harrowing to read.

On the eve of the transportation of the inmates of the camp to Auschwitz, Scheyer was told to report the next day to the camp adjutant’s office with his bundle of possessions. Twenty of the camp’s 1,800 inmates who were over 55 years of age or physically disabled were lined up, closely examined, harangued by the commandant, then marched under escort out of the camp to the town centre, where they were released. Scheyer was able to board the bus from Orleans to Paris, and was greeted with shrieks by his wife and Slava her friend when he turned up on the doorstep of their apartment.

In a chapter entitled ‘Another stay of execution,’ Scheyer describes how, after a brief respite at home, the entire neighbourhood was sealed off and the hunt for Jews began. It was known that those who were caught were sent to the infamous camp at Drancy. Scheyer and the two women managed to evade the net, and tried to get to the Free Zone. The vicissitudes of that attempt at escape are again described in disturbing detail, specifying the amounts paid to passeurs and sundry officials who were supposed to help the trio get to safety in Switzerland, the fraudulent assurances of assistance and several hair-raising close escapes as the danger of exposure came ever closer. This attempt failed too, and they turned back into France, ending up in a small town called Belvès in the Dordogne region. From there they were summoned to Grenoble and kept under guard in an army barracks together with several hundred other Jews. While there, Scheyer suffered a heart attack, and the French doctor who attended him gave him a document stating that because of his medical condition he was unable to travel. The guards told Scheyer to leave the place immediately, and he managed to do so only by being physically supported by his wife and Slava. The next day all the detained Jews – men, women and children—were sent to Auschwitz.

The trio returned to the town of Belvès, where they were obliged to register and were subject to ‘friendly’ visits from local gendarmes. One of Scheyer’s acquaintances, a young man named Jacques Rispal who lived there with his parents, showed sympathy for his plight. His mother, Helène, woke up one night with the inspiration of where Scheyer, his wife and Slava could be hidden. Thus it was that the trio were smuggled into a convent, ‘Asile de Labarde,’ an isolated building on a nearby hilltop where the nuns looked after mentally and physically disabled women.

For the next two years the trio were able to live there in relative safety. Scheyer describes the selflessness and piety of the nuns and the unexpected kindness of the Rispal family in terms that convey the depth of his gratitude and emotional attachment to them. Life in the convent was Spartan but the Scheyers were finally able to breathe more easily, without feeling as if they were hunted animals. The gift of a radio, smuggled to them by the Rispals, enabled them to hear news from the outside world and, perhaps even more significantly, to listen to music again. Scheyer describes the experience as being “like a blessed release of the self…” reminding him of the concerts he had heard in Vienna.

In comparing the situation of Jews at that time to that of the ‘weakminded’ inmates of the asylum he writes: “We, on the other hand…are hunted animals… If Einstein were here, he would be a hunted animal…” and the same would apply to a Bruno Walter, a Franz Werfel, even the great Gustav Mahler if he were still alive. These thoughts lead him to mourn the fate of the millions of Jews, adults and children, who were ‘eliminated as pests’ by the Germans, and among whom there had undoubtedly been countless gifted human beings in any and every sphere of human endeavour [as was indeed the case, DS].

The Scheyers survived the war and settled in Belvès. After Moriz’s death in 1945 the typescript of his memoirs was thrown away by his son, who considered the writing too intense in its condemnation of and hatred for the Germans. By chance, however, some years later their grandson came across the carbon copy, rescued it and translated it. He has annotated the text, as well as adding an introduction, epilogue, biography of the author and index of people mentioned in the text. He has done an admirable job, and we owe him a great debt of gratitude for providing us with this harrowing yet gripping account of events as they occurred in real time. The text uses language which is eloquent without being flowery to convey the soul-destroying experience of living through that horrific period in human history.

Has Spring Finally Sprung?

After blowing hot, then cold, then hot, then cold again, the weather in Israel seems finally to have settled down to the appropriate behaviour for this time of the year. Yes, I know that for a while last week it was warmer and sunnier in London than here, but at present the barometer seems to have swung back to its normal state. In England one can expect April to come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, but that is not what one expects here.

Though, of course, with all the current climate warming anxiety we can no longer be sure what is or isn’t ‘normal’ any more. Because of the abundant rainfall here this winter the display of wild flowers that are to be found on open spaces all over the country was more abundant and lasted longer than is usually the case, providing balm for the soul whenever one happened to catch sight of another clump of wild cyclamen on a hillside as we made our way to Jerusalem, or to see the fields of red poppies in the south.

The flowers in our garden have also jumped to the conclusion that spring is finally here, so that while the winter-growing pansies and cyclamen are still blooming, the roses have also started to produce flowers, causing me to fear a night-time frost, though fortunately so far we’ve been spared that particular trauma.

Spring in Israel coincides with the Passover festival that marks the exodus from Egypt thousands of years ago by the enslaved Children of Israel, and their forty-year journey through the wilderness to become a free nation. The notion of freedom assumes a pivotal role in the traditional retelling of the exodus story which is the focus of the Seder, the Passover meal that marks the beginning of the eight-day ‘festival’ of eating Matza (unleavened bread).

And spring also means spring-cleaning. Some folk consider themselves duty-bound to follow the religious requirement of not eating bread and not even having it in the house to extravagant lengths, hunting for recalcitrant breadcrumbs in every nook and cranny of their homes. I long ago gave up the belief that the non-existent deity is concerned with the minute observance of rules and regulations set down at a time and place that has absolutely no relevance in today’s world. I won’t go out of my way to eat bread, like some acquaintances who stock their freezer with bread before the rules of the festival are imposed on the entire country, but I refuse to bow to those restrictions willy-nilly.

As far as I’m concerned, the Seder constitutes an opportunity for the family to get together for a festive meal, something akin to Thanksgiving in America. I remember the Seder at my late parents’ home, to which sundry friends and acquaintances were always invited as well as the small family unit, and where my mother would serve all manner of delicacies over which she had toiled for long hours in the kitchen. I won’t deny that I did my own fair share of toiling in the kitchen, aided and abetted by my OH and, in the home strait, by my two big granddaughters, bless them. I just hope that my efforts came somewhere near the delicious food my mother used to provide.

At the meal itself, everyone helped and did their bit to make the evening enjoyable. Even our youngest member, just three years old, provided the occasional diversion, concerning herself mainly with keeping her parents occupied in order to keep an eye on her. We were privileged to enjoy the presence of three grandchildren who are serving members of the IDF, as well as others older and younger than them, as well as our own offspring with additional relatives.

And so now we can get down to the serious business of getting ready for our very own Independence Day, which we celebrate in a very different way, devoid of any religious significance. It is an occasion on which we note our relief and joy at finally having a country of our own and the freedom for which our people have waited for over two thousand years.

More of Same

 

Now that the actual elections (though not the coalition-building process) are behind us we can stop and think about what we have all just been through here in Israel, and what awaits us in the near future.

Apparently this election campaign was the nastiest in living memory, which isn’t saying very much as these inevitably tend not to be filled with sweetness and light. Probably what lay behind the unusually vituperous nature of the 2019 campaign was the very real threat to the long-standing hegemony of the right-wing Likud party, together with its head, Benjamin Netanyahu, who have been ruling the country for over ten years.

This is, in my opinion, a sorry state of affairs. Many people had pinned their hopes for a regime change on the Blue-and-White party, led by former Chief of Staff, Benny Gantz. Pre-election polls showed that the threat posed by that party was very real, and in the event they received the same number of seats in the Knesset as the Likud.

However, Netanyahu is assured of coalition partners from the various religious parties, so that there is every indication that in the final event he will form the next government, and introduce more right-wing (some might even say fascist) legislation.

What is surprising to onlookers from both within and outside Israel is the fact that Netanyahu has managed to be re-elected despite the fact that he will soon be facing charges of bribery and corruption in Israel’s courts, and that the process for bringing him to justice has been ongoing for several months, if not years. While he is undoubtedly a clever politician, brilliant speaker and charismatic individual, it is nonetheless surprising that support for him remains widespread among the Israeli voting public.

Behind this there would appear to lie a social phenomenon that is unique to Israel. Long-held political allegiances and family traditions are often difficult if not impossible to shift. Many of these go back to the period before the establishment of the State, when various para-military groups resisted British rule, displaying differences of attitude and approach that cut deep into pre-State society.

And so, whereas in France we have the ‘gilets jaunes’ demonstrating in the streets against a system they regard as unfair, and in Sudan the people are holding sit-ins in order to change the regime – and succeeding – in Israel the people who are suffering poverty and inequality continue to vote for the ruling party that has kept them poor and underprivileged for generations.

In my opinion, this is also due to the failure of the education system to educate youngsters and enable the younger generation to think and judge for itself. The same can perhaps be said for the education systems of the UK and the USA, explaining the phenomena of Brexit and Trump.

The future is looking bleaker by the day, as ignorance, racism, xenophobia and prejudice gather ever more support. As goes Israel, so goes the world, it would seem.

A line in the London production of the play ‘Pompeii,’ which I saw last year, comes to mind. The play showed how politics in Ancient Rome bore many similarities to events that are taking place in the world today. When one of the characters said ‘Stupid people vote for stupid things’ the audience erupted in laughter, presumably thinking of Brexit.

All that remains for us, then, is to laugh at the folly of those around (and above) us, and to pin our hopes on the ancient saying: ‘Pride goeth before a fall.’

 

Living the Dream by Lauren Berry

 

The book describes the lives of Emma and Clementine, two young women in their twenties, living and working in contemporary London, and struggling to achieve their dreams of success in one or another field of writing, but meanwhile struggling to stay afloat in jobs they dislike. A great deal of booze is consumed along the way, there are affairs and one-night stands, pregnancy scares, and friendships that sometimes descend into quarrels. The book ends with the grand wedding of a third friend, but we are not treated to a supposedly satisfying conclusion where everyone finds ‘the one.’ That, I suppose, is the new feminist approach at work.

The writing flows smoothly and is pretty bog-standard journalistic or feature article writing as found in the mid-level press in the UK, i.e., not over-intellectual but grammatically correct on the whole, with the occasional well-crafted and insightful phrase to alleviate the monotony. The book constitutes an easy read, appropriate for the beach or a holiday, and does not make undue intellectual demands on the reader. I personally found the booze culture difficult to understand, with the characters shifting almost perpetually between states of being drunk, vomiting, or hung over. I suppose that just as violence was an integral part of the childhood environment described in Elena Ferrante’s books about Naples, drinking alcohol in order to numb the senses is an integral part of contemporary life in England. I find that to be a very sad state of affairs, I must confess.

Expletives abound throughout the book, and that also seems to be pretty much par for the course for contemporary feminist writing. It takes a bit of getting used to, but I suppose that’s the new normal for this kind of ‘literature.’

The end takes the reader slightly by surprise, as one of the two main characters finally leaves her stultifying job and finds herself on course for the creative career to which she has been aspiring. BEWARE, SPOILER! She sits down to write, and the heading she puts on her screen is the title of the book we have just been reading. That is certainly a nice way to end a book.

An Exercise Fiend? Me?

The thought that I might be an exercise fiend hit me as I was walking along the promenade that skirts the Dead Sea and then continues, quite scenically, along the road to the hotels there. The route has been planted with shrubs, bushes and palm trees, with benches at strategic points so that one can rest and contemplate the serene scene. While taking a few days off from our hectic retirement schedule, hubby and I took ourselves off to one of the hotels along the Dead Sea for a few days of pampering and over-eating. So at least a couple of hours of exercise each day were called for to ease the conscience.

However, when I’m at home I exercise regularly for about an hour almost every morning in my basement, where we have a treadmill and various items of exercise equipment, and of course a TV to alleviate the concomitant boredom.

If only Miss Lawrence, my former gym teacher at Brondesbury and Kilburn High School for Girls, could see me now, I sometimes think. I was her least favourite pupil, whom she regarded (with some justification) as a habitual shirker. To hear her enunciate my name with the attendant consummate sense of dissatisfaction, would invariable send shivers down my teenage spine. Short in stature, I was inept at getting the netball into the net or performing one or another of the exercises that were customarily inflicted on teenage girls in those far-off days, and perhaps still are.

The solution to my seemingly unending antipathy for sports and gym at school was to claim that I had forgotten to bring my gym-clothes to school that day. This was an excellent ploy on days when we girls marched in twos, crocodile-style, to the nearby games field where my classmates happily jumped and ran to put the ball in the net or bash their hockey-stick against one another’s. No team sport ever appealed to me, and the failure to have brought my gym-gear along meant that I was ‘condemned’ to walk around the sports field for the hour or two while the others jumped and ran in the cold London air. Luckily for me, my friend Diana was of the same inclination as I, and so we spent many happy hours talking and walking around the playing field while the others got all hot and sweaty on the netball court.

But somehow when I reached my forties (was it my mid-life crisis?) I began to exercise, having spent most of my first forty years sitting with a book or at a desk to read, write or type. I started off at a class run by a charismatic trainer who tailored the exercises he gave us to his assessment of our capabilities. Attending his private gym once a week was all I could manage at first. But then I started going there twice a week, before setting off for work. Later I was able to exercise in the gym that was established at my place of work. After retiring I decided to continue going there, but gradually found myself preferring to exercise at home. I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to keep it up, and now go downstairs to my private ‘gym’ six days a week.

From talking with friends I realize that I’m not alone in this concern (I don’t want to call it an obsession, though it may well be). One friend is very involved with her yoga classes (three times a week) and regales me with the wonders of headstands and other similar contortions. Another is an ardent devotee of water aerobics (three times a week), while yet another swears by the ancient oriental practice of Chi-Kong, whatever that may be. Yet another swears by Zumba, the noisiest, sweatiest form of exercise I have ever encountered. There’s no accounting for tastes.

But you get the picture, don’t you? Here is a random cross-section of middle-aged (or even older) ladies who are all displaying admirable concern about their bodies. All those I’m thinking of are well over sixty (seventy, even in some cases), look good, are not overweight and seem to have all – or most – of their mental faculties intact.

When I think about the elderly aunts and acquaintances of my childhood my mental picture is of stout ladies whose appearance was less than appealing. Their faces were lined and tired, and this was definitely not from overwork, as most were from relatively comfortable backgrounds, though many of them had been widowed at a relatively early age.

These days we are inundated with data and information about how to stay healthy, what to eat, how important it is to exercise regularly and to take care of our bodies. I suppose all that propaganda must have got through to me, as it apparently has to others of my generation. And so, unlike our mothers and grandmothers, we are almost as concerned about our physical health and appearance as we were when we were teenagers, and are even prepared now to do something about it.

 

Election Fever: a Not Impartial View

 

Israel is due to hold a general election on April 9th, and polls are indicating that there might be a chance that Bibi Netanyahu and the Likud will not be forming the next government. I’ll probably be annoying a few readers by saying that it’s high time that Israel saw a change of government from the right-wing groups that have been running the country for more than a decade. For the first time in ages it looks as if a new centrist concatenation of politicians and former military commanders has a chance of unseating the cabal that has been running the country for far too long. Other polls show that this optimistic view may have been unfounded, however. We’ll have to wait until the actual election day (or night) to find out.

Each day fresh opinion polls upset the apple-cart, giving us new figures and ratios over which to puzzle out what any future coalition might look like. Over forty parties have registered to stand for election, and Israel’s proportional representation system of elections means that however the Knesset is formed it will always be necessary to set up combinations of parties in order to be able to gain a majority in the House. This means that all manner of fringe groups will be able to serve in the government, demanding positions of power involving budgets, appointments and various favours. This has created the stranglehold that the ultra-orthodox have managed to obtain in their alliance with the Likud, leading to the severe misallocation of funds, neglect of the national health system and the unequal burden of taxation and military service that is rampant in Israel today.

Bibi is under threat of legal proceedings for bribery and corruption and, like a cornered animal, he retaliates by lashing out at anyone and everyone he considers a threat to his continued control of power. So he has attacked the Attorney-General, the media, and above all the only party, the newly-formed ‘Blue and White,’ that seems to stand a chance of toppling him. Anyone holding views which in any normal country would be considered a legitimate political stance, namely, being on the left, is maligned by Bibi and his followers as a traitor. The people at the head of Blue and White are condemned on those grounds as well as being accused of having the nefarious intent of ‘overthrowing the government.’ But what could be more legitimate than having that as their aim?

Then, of course, there are the Arabs. They make up over twenty-percent of Israel’s population, are represented in the Knesset and have the right to vote. In the last general election Bibi wielded their perfectly legitimate participation in the election as a threat to Israel’s democracy, using it as his trump card in getting Likud voters to go and vote. This time, too, he is using the Arab vote as a weapon with which to threaten Israel’s electorate. What Bibi’s intentions are with regard to the Arab population, both within Israel and in the Territories, are unclear, though the fact that he has allied the Likud with the extremist ‘Power to Israel’ party of followers of Meir Kahane, who advocated the forcible expulsion of the Arabs, does not bode well for Israel’s democratic tradition.

The Labour party, which once dominated the elections, has been steadily losing support to Likud and today is expected to barely scrape into the Knesset. Although its aims and message have remained unchanged, and its candidates are experienced and accomplished parliamentarians, the fact that it does not have a charismatic leader means that it is unable to attract votes as it once did. This is a tragedy for those of us who still believe in its ideals and remember the seminal role it played in establishing the State of Israel and creating its democratic institutions. The seductive tones of right-wing rhetoric seem to have drowned out what I believe to be the voice of reason.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

 It is with a mixture of relief, admiration and sadness that I come to the end of the fourth book in the author’s series of novels about contemporary life in Naples, and Italy in general. This last volume is long, intense, full of emotion – some might say too full of too much emotion – and takes the reader on a veritable roller-coaster of events. The narrative focuses primarily on the personal – the loves, betrayals, jealousies of the main characters—as well as those of the many incidental characters. But it also refers to the general, political and social situation in Italy as a whole. All this sometimes leaves the reader catching her breath, or gasping in surprise, at the wealth of detail, intensity of intimate emotions, and intellectual honesty with which every scene is depicted.

In addition, the writer (and presumably also the translator, Ann Goldstein) writes in an admirably articulate way. This could, if one were critical, be condemned as overly wordy, and ‘succinct’ is not a word that comes to mind in describing this and the other three books in the series, but the wordiness builds up to create an intensely detailed account of the lives, loves and loathings of the myriad characters who people the world we are drawn into when reading this book. Not all the characters are equally likeable, and many, if not most, of them are flawed in one way or another, but that only adds to the sense of reality and identification that the reader experiences.

To describe the plot would make it seem banal. The main characters fall in love, get married, have children, betray – and are betrayed by – their partners and friends, almost ad infinitum. The vagaries, quirks and foibles of both adults and children are described in great detail, with insights that will raise an echo in many readers’ minds as well as occasionally causing eyebrows to be raised in surprise, shock and even dismay. The detailed accounts of pregnancy and delivery, of infancy and childhood, relations between siblings and between parents and their offspring are often startling in their brutal honesty, sometimes tender to the point of being cloying, but always ring true to form. It is, of course, the relationships between the adult characters that are the main crux of the book.The tragedy hinted at in the book’s title is as devastating and all-consuming as anything I’ve ever read, and one cannot help identifying with the mother whose child is lost, even though she is not always portrayed sympathetically.

Underlying the various individual lives are the social and political currents and events that churn through twentieth-century Italy as a whole, so that the book’s focus moves away from the tiny neighbourhood in Naples where the first books are set to a much wider canvas. Here, too, emotions are rampant and nothing that takes place, whether locally or nationally, is irrelevant to the torrent of events, emotions and ideas that pour out of this book.

But above all, at least for this particular reader, the author’s honesty and openness about the dilemmas and decisions confronting her as a writer had a particular impact. Very few writers are prepared to share with their readers the vortex of mutually contradictory considerations involved in writing about individuals and societies or to face up to the reactions, and often opprobrium, that her writing arouses in those nearest and dearest to her.

So, from many points of view, this book succeeds in creating a credible world peopled by living, breathing individuals with whom the reader can identify and in whose lives we can share. That, after all, is the purpose of fiction, and in this Elena Ferrante has undoubtedly succeeded beyond all expectations.