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.

 

Jerusalem Revisited

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 Church-of-the-Holy-Sepulchre-400[1] 

The visit to Israel of friends from abroad provided us with the opportunity to walk through the Old City of Jerusalem and show them just a few of the tourist attractions in which that relatively small area abounds.

 

One of our visitors had been to Israel several times in the last forty years of our friendship, while the other was experiencing Israel for the first time. During their ten-day stay they managed to spend a few days in both Tel Aviv and Eilat, enjoying the sunshine and warmth that contrasted so starkly with their frigid north European home. Her conclusion: Israel is a pearl.

 

In Jerusalem, too, we were able to provide some sunny days before the horrific sandstorm that engulfed the whole country, but luckily that came just at the end of their stay. It was a perfect day when we set off for the Old City.

 

Our route took us first through the bazaar which constitutes the main point of access to the various quarters of the Old City. A map conveniently situated outside the tourist office by the Jaffa Gate gives the visitor a clear idea of the layout of the city inside the massive sixteenth-century walls. We watched our step carefully as we negotiated the lane leading down through the Muslim quarter to the Christian and Jewish quarters because of the cement slopes on either side that enable the colourful wooden hand-carts to move through the area with their load of goods.

 

The lane is lined with tiny shopes where merchants offer their colourful wares of souvenirs carved from wood, metal or plastic, as well as colourful T-shirts, fabrics, dresses and scarves that crowd every inch of space. The owners stand in the doorways and offer their merchandise to the passing crowd of tourists from all over the world as well as many Israelis.

 

Our friends wanted first to see something of interest to Christians, and so we took them to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the oldest buildings in the region whose initial structure was created by the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in the fourth century. It has since been expanded by the addition of more structures. Inside and around the church groups of pilgrims from every corner of the eath congregate, each speaking their own language and venerating one or another relic of Christianity. Suddenly the melodious singing of a Russian Orthodox group broke out, joined by a priest waiting in line to enter the chapel built on the spot where Mary Magdalene supposedly met Jesus after his resurrection. The church is one of the few Christian sites that was protected by the Moslems during their centuries of control of Jerusalem.

 

As we left the church the sonorous call of the muezzin to prayer echoed around us, followed almost immediately by the chiming of the church bells. As we headed towards the Jewish quarter we were able to examine a large stone plaque commemorating the time when the knight of St. John, also known as the St. John Hospitallers, had lived and worked there, caring for wounded and ill crusaders in Jerusalem. They were driven out of Jerusalem when the Moslems took control of the city, and subsequently made their headquarters first in Rhodes and later in Malta, where their centre is still to be found.

 

With the sound of the muezzin and the church bells still echoing in our ears we made our way to the Jewish quarter and the Western Wall, the sole surviving relic of the supporting wall of the rampart on which the Roman client king, Herod, built his temple in the first century B.C.E. Our friends went to stand near the women at prayer in the section permitted to them, and were able to imbibe something of the atmosphere there.

 

Having visited the sites sacred to the three major religions, our friends were ready to find something to eat. There was no chance of finding anything in the Jewish quarter, where the religious restrictions on engaging in trade on the Sabbath are in force, and so we made our way back up through the bazaar to the Armenian quarter. Our search did not last long as we were soon spotted by a ‘fisherman’ for a nearby restaurant who duly led us to the desired eatery. The place was clean and pleasant, the service quick and efficient, and the only drawback was their inability to process a credit card.

 

Our friends, accompanied by the restaurant’s owner-manager, were escorted to the nearby money-changer, and eventually the problem was solved. Our friends were left somewhat mystified by this inability to comply with one of the basic conveniences of the modern world, but considering that the area embodies over two thousand years of history, this can only be regarded as a minor hitch.

 

Over time little seems to have changed in the Old City, and perhaps in another two thousand years it will be possible to pay for a meal with a credit card.

 

Elections in Israel again

 

 Israeli-flag[1]

And so once again, only two years after the previous election, Israel’s long-suffering population has been thrown into the maelstrom of another election campaign. Though perhaps maelstrom is too strong a tem to describe the boredom and drudgery of being exposed to another round of groupings and regroupings among the various parties and personages concerned.

The constant rearrangement of alliances and allegiances within and between Israel’s political parties – with new ones emerging, old ones disappearing and existing ones undergoing a sea-change, so that individuals formerly associated with one of the opposing parties are accepted into a new fold with open arms – is disturbing if not downright confusing.

It reminds me of nothing so much as the way in which amoeba once emerged from the primeval slime, grew excrescences and limbs, incorporated foreign bodies, and eventually became more complex life forms.

Israel is still under the influence of the longest-running show in town, the trial for corruption of the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his right-hand-woman, Shula Zaken. The latter is currently serving a much-abbreviated prison sentence in return for her help in incriminating her former employer. Olmert has so far managed to use the judicial system to the best advantage and has not yet spent a single day in jail. Nothing of all of this inspires confidence in either the justice system or the people who seem to rise to the top, like scum on the surface of standing water.

This unfolding story, together with the relentless mud-slinging and mutual recriminations that is at present prevailing among the former ministers of Bibi Netanyahu’s cabinet, with Bibi leading the pack, baying for blood, no matter whose, is not designed to foster the confidence of the general populace in its politicians either. Not only are allegiances easily switched in order to attain positions that appear beneficial, but party ideologies are adapted to changing circumstances, and those who seek to appear as leaders are shown to have feet of clay, and possibly even more than feet.

Proportional representation, the electoral system that was adopted when the State of Israel was founded, largely because it was already there, suited those who were then in power and little effort was required to amend it, has caused Israel to be plagued by splinter-groups, mini-parties and endemic instability. Government by coalition has never been the most stable of systems, and provides fertile ground for the blackmail and/or bribery of coalition partners in order to remain in power. Recently the threshold for entry into the Knesset has been raised, and it remains to be seen whether this will have the hoped-for benefits.

The ‘first past the post’ system that is used in the U.K. has its disadvantages, but tends in the end to create a more stable government, and one that is less vulnerable to threats from within. It also means that minority groups and interests tend to be less well-represented, though bearing in mind what this has achieved in Israel that might not be such a bad thing.

I, personally, am pessimistic, despite the predictions of the pollsters, and believe that the political picture will remain pretty much as before, with a further shift to the right. I think it was Churchill who said that democracy is a terrible system, but the alternatives are even worse. It’s a depressing thought.

(This article appeared in my ‘Letter from Israel’ column in the AJR Journal of February 2015)

 

Charlotte

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Life is full of strange coincidences. I first encountered the story of Charlotte Salomon about twenty years ago, when an exhibition of her work, a series of paintings with captions describing her life and entitled ‘Life? Or Theatre?’ was held at the Royal Academy in London. It made a great impression on me at the time, with its unique way of recounting her autobiography through painting, music and text. Using all these media, this talented and sensitive young Jewish woman, who happened to grow up in Germany just as the Nazis were coming to power, illustrated her own history and that of all of Europe. In fact, I even went so far as to buy the very extensive catalogue of the exhibition, which still today holds pride of place in my book-case.

Very early one morning a few days ago, I happened to hear a programme on the French radio recounting the story of Charlotte in music and describing her life as retold in a recently published book. Lo and behold! the very next day, while trying to buy a copy of ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in a local newsagents-cum-bookshop, there on the shelf behind the salesperson was the book entitled ‘Charlotte,’ a novel by French writer David Foenkinos. I bought the book, which had been awarded an important French literary prize, and began to read it almost immediately.

 The first shock I got upon opening the book was to find that it was not written in the usual form of a novel but rather in short lines, in the form known as blank verse (‘verse libre’ in French). It neither rhymed nor scanned, but I persevered, and felt that somehow this form was indeed appropriate for describing Charlotte’s unique and tragic life.

Foenkinos gives his account of Charlotte’s story based almost entirely on what she herself had written and painted. Here and there he interrupts the poetic narrative to inform the reader (still in blank verse) about his own experiences when tracing Charlotte’s journey through life. He visited the part of Berlin where she grew up, the high school she attended there, as well as the south of France, where she spent her final years before being rounded up by the Nazis and dispatched to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. She was twenty-six years old and pregnant at the time.

Foenkinos admits that ever since encountering Charlotte’s story through her work he has been obsessed by her, and that writing about her in this form was his way of dealing with this obsession. I can understand him, and I think that he has done a good job. Charlotte Salomon’s life seems to epitomize all the horrors of life under the Nazis and all the dashed dreams and hopes of young people all over the world. The author even goes so far as to end the book by imagining her entering the gas chamber, describing the process in a brief but telling way on the basis of known accounts of how this was done.

The book is written in relatively simple, free-flowing French, and I found it almost impossible to put down even though I knew what happened to Charlotte at the end of her life. Charlotte’s story is just one among many millions of lives cut short, talents wasted and tragedies not averted. But by producing her oevre in a kind of creative frenzy during the last two years of her life, and then entrusting the suitcase containing the pages to a local doctor saying ‘This is my whole life,’ Charlotte Salomon has left us a precious legacy, and David Foenkinos has made her story accessible to many people who would otherwise never have heard of her. But only if they read French, I’m sorry to say.

 

Wintry London

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In winter I get up at night

And dress by yellow candlelight.

In summer quite the other way,

I have to go to bed by day.

Spending a few days in London in January reminded me of the little ditty by Robert Louis Stevenson, and although I now have the benefit of electric light, there’s no getting away from the long, dark nights, the late rising and early setting sun — if you manage to get a glimpse of it, that is.

 Living in Israel for so many years, I’d forgotten how cold and dreary London can be in the dead of winter. Of course, it compensates anyone who ventures there with a plethora of entertainments and cultural events – concerts, plays, exhibitions, etc. – but the paucity of daylight has a depressing effect on even the most cheerful of souls, which I perhaps delude myself I am. Even in the winter Jerusalem generally provides crisp, cold days (and sometimes even snow), but there is generally some blue sky to be seen to cheer one up. Maybe it’s something to do with the quality of the light in Jerusalem, which seems to bounce off the stones of the buildings and provide an aura of something that is akin to spirituality or positivity or aesthetic delight, according to the character of the beholder.

 Another of London’s hazards is the inevitability of catching a cold in one or another of the many crowded spots that cannot be avoided – travelling on the underground or buses, attending a concert or play,going shopping in malls or Oxford Street – everywhere is so crowded. And although everyone is polite and someone even younger than myself almost always offers me their seat on the ‘tube,’ as it’s affectionately known, those journeys are fraught with germs and hazards of various kinds.

 I don’t want anyone reading this to get the idea that I had a thoroughly miserable time in London. I did not. I enjoyed the theatre, some wonderful art exhibitions, and even a recital by a world-renowned pianist, though my enjoyment of the latter event was marred somewhat by my efforts to suppress my cough. Kind people around me offered me cough sweets even though I had come equipped with some of my own, but there’s no disguising a stubborn cough.

I was born in London, grew up there and still have many friends and acquaintances there, but I’m glad to be living in Jerusalem, where my colds and coughs occur with less painful regularity, and although some days can be cold and wet and dark you always know that the sun is lurking just around the corner, and the light blue sky will soon be enveloping the hills and cheering even the darkest mood.

 

 

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