Israel and Africa

Last week I was invited to hear a talk by Sharon Bashevkin Perry, who has been involved for many years in early childhood education in a variety of positions in Israel, the US and Africa. The talk was entitled ‘From Israel to Ghana – Building Bridges and Friendships Through Early Childhood Education.’

In 1958 Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, visited Africa and was appalled by the poverty and privation she witnessed there. On her return to Israel she established a programme, known as Mashav, involving cooperation between Israel and African countries in the fields of education, health and agriculture. Her objective was twofold: to extend a helping hand to those countries and to foster good relations with them. Since then the programme, known as Mashav, has continued, under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Israeli educators and training teams in various areas of expertise spending periods of time in Africa. In addition, African educators, medical personnel and farmers are brought to Israel to participate in intensive training programmes. All these activities have helped to create a favourable attitude towards Israel in those countries, though over the years diplomatic relations with various African countries have had their ups and downs.

Together with my friends, I was treated to a fascinating talk, accompanied by a colourful Powerpoint presentation, about Sharon Bashevkin Perry’s experiences working in this programme in Ghana. We were able to hear about her encounters with local preschool and early school educators, share her own personal insights into the various aspects of Israel’s outreach activities and gain an understanding of the importance of training preschool and elementary school teachers in Ghana. We saw the various ways in which Sharon and her associates showed the local teachers how to take everyday items (e.g., bottle-tops, sticks, fabrics) and use them in making toys and educational aids in the pre-school and elementary school environment. Sharon stressed the positive and welcoming attitude towards Israel and Israelis shown by the people with whom she came into contact.

One of the features that struck Sharon in her encounters with the local populace was the limited verbal interaction between mothers and small children. She witnessed many instances in which a child would be sitting with its mother, even in close contact, stroking and caressing her, but the mother would not speak to the child. This, of course, has repercussions for the child’s verbal and possibly even cognitive development, and Sharon and her associates sought to stress the importance of talking to children at as early a stage as possible.

Additional objectives of the programme in which Sharon participated are to foster leadership and interpersonal skills among the teaching personnel, to change cultural norms such as the use of corporal punishment in the classroom, and to show the teachers that the tools and aids for stimulating the minds of their young pupils are to be found in the environment and to use local and natural materials for this purpose.

It is hoped that both the adults and the youngsters who come into contact with Israel’s outreach programmes will benefit on an individual basis as well as being able to pass on their newly-acquired knowledge to their colleagues and others around them, thereby advancing their community as a whole.

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

What exactly lies behind the closing of Israel’s Broadcasting Authority after its seven decades of serving the public is a subject for speculation. Politics, finances and greed are part of the picture for sure, although other reasons have been posited.

The radio, followed by television, has been the constant companion of daily life in Israel for the vast majority of its population. Initially there was only one radio channel, and during the day its various programmes of talk and music, both light and heavy, constituted the means whereby information was disseminated to the population.

The various languages spoken in the nascent State reflected its composition, which consisted to a large extent of immigrants from a wide range of countries. There were programmes in Yiddish for those originally from Eastern Europe, many of them Holocaust survivors. There were programmes in Arabic for the immigrants from the countries of the Maghreb, who were forced to leave their homes when Israel was established. Those programmes also served the indigenous Arab population. There were even programmes in French and English, consisting mainly of news, as well as programmes in simple Hebrew to help all immigrants. One important programme was devoted to the search for missing relatives, which often succeeded in reuniting family members who had lost touch with one another due to the events of WWII.

For someone like me, who grew up in the England of the 1950s and 1960s, when the BBC ruled the sound waves, our daily routine was accompanied by stalwarts like Music While You Work, Mrs. Dale’s Diary, Listen With Mother and Women’s Hour. At the weekends there was Educating Archie and the Billy Cotton Band Show, with the highlights of the week being Family Favourites and the Goon Show. All that is ancient history now, but the fact that those names come easily to my brain show that they evidently made a deep and lasting impression on me.

The same goes for the early days of radio and TV in Israel. I was not here when Israel was founded, but made my way here only in 1964, upon graduating from university in London. I brought a radio with me and very quickly came to know the daily routine, despite my very inadequate knowledge of Hebrew. The early morning programme would start with an energetic male voice instructing listeners in some elementary gymnastics – a subject I had always hated at school, and was not very enthusiastic about then either. This was followed by a gentleman speaking Hebrew with a strong American accent giving drivers some helpful hints about driving carefully and avoiding accidents. Light music and talks of various kinds generally followed. At the weekend there was the weekly music quiz, where one of the first Hebrew words I learned was the one for composer.

After my daughter was born and I found myself unable to continue in my job at the university I benefited greatly from the daily programme devoted to housewifely matters and hosted by Rivka Michaeli. It contained medical advice from children’s physician, Dr. Sherashevsky, cookery hints from Chef Nikolai, and many other useful items. I must confess that that, too, helped me to learn Hebrew.

Life changed for me when a programme was inaugurated devoted to music, primarily of the classical kind. And that improved even more when that programme was extended to twenty-four hours. I later learned that the programme from midnight to 6 a.m., which I encountered occasionally, was in fact produced by a computer, but that did not bother me as I continued to enjoy the music.

The TV programmes also played a major role in Israel’s communications scene, and I was even able to use texts from two TV news programmes as the basis for my M.A. thesis in Communications at the Hebrew University, comparing their respective uses of rhetorical devices.

But now all that has gone. No more talk programmes. No more phone-ins. No more news broadcasts. No more sports commentaries. My constant compantion, The Voice of Music, has been replaced by the computerized programme of music (which is not at all bad, I must admit). I don’t know how many people were once employed there, but it can’t be making them feel any better to know they’ve been replaced by a computer.

I wonder what would happen if the British government decided to scrap the BBC.

Violence Around Us

The sight of officials of United Airlines dragging a helpless passenger down the aisle of an airplane as other passengers scream in shock and protest is not one that I will easily forget. Physical violence of any kind is shocking, and any time the TV news shows a violent demonstration anywhere in the world or the violent repression of a peaceful demonstration my horrified attention is drawn once again to man’s inhumanity  to man (and woman).

The use of violence against unarmed individuals is something that has been prevalent throughout human history. In addition, the Bible and the annals of ancient peoples are full of accounts of battles waged in order to gain ascendancy over other nations, or to fend it off, and the massacres that ensued. The Ancient Romans were past-masters in the art of war and subjugation. In recent history the atrocities inflicted by Germans and other European nations on innocent victims, with attendant evil and sadistic acts of gratuitous violence, directed particularly at Jews, went ahead unabated until eventually  stopped only by the deployment of tremendous force by the Allies. The European Union was establishment primarily to put an end to conflicts between the nations of the region, and by and large it has been successful in this.

In this day and age, mainly because the prevalence of modern media enables us to witness the violence being perpetrated by the indigenous peoples of the Middle East against one another, the existence of barbarous acts is evident for all to see, though not enough is being done to put an end to it. Evidently, no world leader wants to risk his or her position by sending their military into dangerous situations in order to help stop the slaughter or enslavement of innocents in a distant land.

In an interview I saw recently on BBC (‘Hard Talk’), the son of Hans Frank, the Nazi Gauleiter of Poland (the General Government, as the Nazis called it), spoke of his contempt and shame when he thinks of his father, claiming he can never forgive him for destroying millions of lives and bringing tragedy to so many families. Hans Frank was hanged at the Nuremberg Trials for his crimes but his son, Niklas, who still lives in Germany, maintains that to this day he does not trust the German people. “At present they are enjoying economic prosperity, but if the situation were to deteriorate once more, as it did in the 1920s and 1930s, history could repeat itself,” he said.

The fact that the members of a nation that prides itself on being a bastion of culture and civilization could be whipped up into a frenzy of fanatical hatred and be able to inflict untold misery on other human beings is something that continues to mystify me. The psychology and sociology of mass hatred for others can’t be simply explained away as the actions of a group of psychopathic criminals. An entire nation countenanced and participated first in ostracism and persecution and eventually in mass murder. And it is common knowledge that not only Germans were involved in all the atrocities that constituted the Holocaust throughout Europe.

Every now and again there is an isolated incident or statement that can restore my faith in human nature, but over against it there are many more that undermine it. Sometimes I wonder how we can go on living in this world where there is so much misery and inhumanity.

But then I remind myself of the pleasant way in which I live and that every day I, my family, and most of the people around me have enough to eat, a roof over our heads, and the ability to go about our daily lives without being oppressed. That is a gift that should never be taken for granted. The dark days of the Holocaust are gone, hopefully never to return, and that should be our solace, constituting the yardstick by which we measure our current lives.

 

 

Vive la France!

I spend part of my summers in France, I have relatives and friends who live in France and I am a great admirer of France and (almost) all things French.

So it was with considerable interest and not a little trepidation that I followed the course of the first round of elections for the position of President of France. The vagaries of the French political system are something of a mystery to me, but it soon became clear that the unknown maverick, Emmanuel Macron, was a strong contender for the position. Several candidates representing a wide variety of political views were vying for election but only the top two would be able to go on to the next, and final, round.

The fact that Marine le Pen, the extreme right-wing candidate and daughter of the anti-Semitic founder of the National Front party, managed to attract a large number of supporters was very worrying. It was pretty certain that she would manage to get through to the second round, but the crucial question was: who would be standing against her? She claimed that she was not anti-Semitic, though she was definitely against immigration and, worse still, against the European Union. If she were to be elected and France was taken out of the EU that would spell the end of the Union and any number of complications would arise in consequence.

If the leader of the Republican Party, Francois Fillon, had got through to the second round that would have presented a dilemma for voters who tended to support the right wing. Fillon has been advocating views and policies that have not differed very greatly from those of Marine le Pen, and although his rhetoric was convincing his record was not very good. His misuse of public funds in order to pay his wife and children fat salaries for doing virtually nothing managed to reduce support for him, although the tide seemed to be turning in his favour just before the election.

Jean-Luc Melanchon, a socialist who was also against the European Union, had almost as much support, according to the polls, as Fillon. Here, too, if he had managed to get to the second round, probably to go head-to-head with Marine le Pen, the prospect of him winning would also be dismal. As the country went to vote it looked as if all four of the candidates mentioned had more or less similar chances of going to the next round. It was a time of great anxiety for anyone like myself who cares about Europe and is still reeling from the thought of England leaving the European Union.

As polling day drew near and the results predicted by the opinion polls seemed to indicate that anything could happen my nerves became increasingly frazzled. From posts put up on Facebook by expat British citizens living in France I could see that they were also extremely worried.

On the evening of election day, as I was watching the evening news on television, I was pleasantly surprised by the sight of M. Fillon giving his concession speech. That was the moment I had been waiting for! That meant that Emmanuel Macron was through to the second round, and would stand for the principles of the European Union and a sound economic policy that would bring France’s finances into a better state than they had been for the past ten years at least.

Now the run-off is between Macron and le Pen, but it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that the former will win as not many people who voted for any of the other candidates will contemplate voting for the extreme right. Macron claims to be neither left nor right, but centrist, and in favour of improving France’s economic situation. Let’s hope he can pull it off. I can’t vote, so all I can do is keep my fingers crossed and hope that reason will prevail in what purports to be the most reasonable of countries.

Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks,

 

The author, who has written several books about various aspects of psychology, among them ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,’ and ‘Awakenings,’ has extensive experience of working with individuals who have developed illnesses akin to Alzheimers, or who have been born with some brain disorder causing what appears to be mental retardation or abnormality of any kind.

Whether by chance or intention, Oliver Sacks embarked on courses of treatment involving music of one kind or another. The book begins with a series of case studies describing individuals whose treatment for mental disability has involved  music or for whom music has become a significant aspect of their life. In between these individual instances Oliver Sacks mentions his own experience of music, whether his regret at being unable to sing in key or his affection for certain kinds of music. He is able to enjoy listening to music but is frustrated by being unable to join in when others sing.

But that is a minor irritation compared to the deeply-ingrained incapacity of some of the patients he describes to function on what we would call a ‘normal’ level, i.e., communicate with others via speech, attend to matters of daily toilet and routine, and so on. Yet somehow in many such cases these people are able to conduct themselves in an acceptable manner if they are singing or whistling or listening to music. He describes individuals suffering from brain damage of various kinds who are able to relate to the material world only if they are able to hear music.

Sacks hypothesizes that music, which is found throughout all human societies, may somehow be a more basic function of the brain than speech, and accompanies this with a detailed analysis of the parts of the brain involved in the various human functions. This concept is occasioned by the fact that singing, dancing, and listening to music seem to stimulate the mental faculties of people who have lost the ability to communicate normally through speech.

On the other hand, he points out, there are some highly musical individuals who are unable to listen to music as a background to work, as the music demands their full attention. Personally, I don’t fall in that category and in fact feel sorry for those individuals, as I know that I function better, whether I’m at the computer,  in the kitchen, driving or anywhere,  if I can listen to music at the same time. This has become something of an obsession with me, and every room in my house, including the smallest, must have a radio in it, and the radio must be tuned to the classical music programme. Luckily for me, my close family don’t seem to object to this, though their attachment to music is less intense than mine.

So in a way I’m somewhere on the spectrum of people who find that music helps them function on something near normality. In fact, I found it very consoling to read that patients with various forms of dementia are able to perform the tasks involved in conducting daily life if they hear music. Unfortunately, as soon as the music stops their mental state reverts to what it previously was. However, the concept of music therapy has been developed in recent years, and much is being done through this to help people in various stages of mental confusion. I only hope that if and when I find myself in that state someone will have the sense to let me listen to music.

Passing Over Passover

No matter how hard I try, and believe me, I have and do try, passing over Passover is very hard to do if you live in Israel. The countdown to the festival begins for some people one month beforehand, namely, as soon as the previous festival is over and done with, and these preparations involve intensive and extensive cleaning operations. In Gentile lands this is known as ‘spring cleaning,’ and seems to be taken with only slightly less seriousness than the all-encompassing scrubbing, washing, sweeping and dusting that pre-Passover cleaning involves.

The problem with the Jewish festivals is that they all seem to involve special foods, eaten in a special way, and at Passover this also involves special dishes  from which to eat them and special pots and pans in which to prepare them. In my parents’ home, and doubtless in their parents’ homes, too, the days and nights before the first festive Passover meal, known as the Seder, or ‘order’ (not of the military kind), involved endless trips up and down stairs to attics and closets where the special dishes and pots and pans were kept throughout the year. It also involved stowing away the everyday dishes and pots and pans, making the final days before embarking on the extensive cooking undertaking a logistical nightmare.

Luckily, my immediate family doesn’t bother about such niceties, and I am free to make my own arrangements. When my parents were alive and would spend part of the festival in my house I made a huge effort and made our crockery ‘kosher’ for Passover, and even used special pots and pans for preparing the Seder meal. I’m not glad that my parents are no longer with us, but it does certainly let me off the hook when it comes to religious observance. My sisters’ obscenely high level of religious observance won’t allow them to set foot in my house during this or any other Jewish festival, and perhaps it’s just as well.

But some token level of observance seems to be incumbent upon even the most atheistic and unbelieving of souls, such as myself. It is a time of family gatherings and as usual food occupies pride of place. So in addition to some pathetic attempts at cleaning my house, I prepared lists in the time-honoured tradition of my mother, and her mother before her, presumably. The Seder meal, with most of the family present at our table, was due to be held on Monday night. This meant that the count-down would have to leave two whole days beforehand for cooking and baking, a day before that for final cleaning operations and getting the guest beds ready, and a day before that for last-minute shopping, the meat for the Seder having been bought a week before that and placed in the freezer that had been specially cleaned to receive its precious contents.

Everything went according to plan. The daily schedules were carefully read and adhered to, and quantities of roast beef, cooked tongue, chopped liver, chicken soup and other traditional foods were prepared well in hand. The trusty Jewish cookbook first put out by Florence Greenberg in 1947 (my edition is from 1968, and was professionally rebound by my father’s friend, Moshe Tiefenbrunner after it literally fell to pieces in my hands) still serves me for the recipe for matza balls (kneidlech), as well as reminding me what symbolic items to put on the special Seder plate, and I was feeling pleased with myself as the night of the Seder approached.

But lo and behold, both husband and I came down with bad coughs and colds. The idea of cancelling the whole affair was out of the question, so we soldiered on, accompanied by boxes of tissues and a cacophony of coughs and sneezes. The family did their best to ignore our infirmity, lending a hand where they could, and carrying on regardless as far as possible. After the meal it is customary to sing jolly songs, sometimes accompanying them with funny actions, and in order not to disappoint our grandchildren this was duly done. After we had finished, including going through the weekly general-knowledge quiz provided by the ‘Haaretz’ newspaper, I had to choose between falling asleep at the table or taking myself off to bed, and I opted for the latter, leaving the debris and detritus to whoever felt up to dealing with them.

When I got up the next day some of the decks had been cleared, but there were still a few jobs to be done, and in the morning light I felt recovered enough to tackle them.s

 

 

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew

Over the years I have attended many performances of Handel’s Messiah, but no matter where it was performed (England, America, France, Israel) it was always sung in English. George Frederick Handel wrote the oratorio
using the text devised by Charles Jennens
, based on the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. These texts were translated from the Latin Vulgate and German translations in the sixteenth century rather than from the GreekHebrew and Aramaic texts. Most of the passages in the oratorio are taken from the book of Isaiah, Psalms, and the New Testament.

My curiosity was aroused when I saw that the notice advertising the performance at Jerusalem’s YMCA one evening last week stated that the Messiah would be sung in Hebrew. This struck me as very strange, since in my mind, and on the basis of the dozens if not hundreds of performances of the oratorio I have attended, the music is inextricably allied to the text. It’s true that Mozart produced a re-orchestrated version to fit a German translation of the text, but this doesn’t seem to have caught on.

On the night of the performance the hall was almost full, and from overhearing several conversations I suspect that many of those in the audience were drawn from participants in one of the several Christian conferences held in the YMCA building that week. That suspicion was further reinforced when the moment came for the Hallelujah chorus. In England it is the custom for the audience to stand for this, apparently because King George II did so when he attended a performance of the work. In other countries the practice has not caught on, and here in Israel I only once saw one lone individual stand up, and remain standing on his own to the end of the chorus. But yesterday, as if impelled by a common motivation, the entire audience, consisting mainly of Americans and Israelis, got to its feet and stood until the chorus was over. Some people even joined in the singing, but the pleasant atmosphere prevailing in the hall seemed to make even this departure from the concert-going norm acceptable.

Another reason why I was eager to attend the performance was the statement on the advertisement that the proceeds of the concert would be donated to help Syrian refugees. And indeed, before the performance began, two members of the Musalka organization, which seeks to bring together the hearts and minds of Israelis and Palestinians, spoke briefly about their work. The spoke briefly in Hebrew, English and Arabic, also mentioning the fact that some students from the Bethlehem Bible College who intend to cross the border in order to further their cause, were present in the audience. One of the projects that Musalka sponsors is what is known as the ‘Syrian Refugee Challenge,’ whereby for a given period of time, in order to show solidarity with the plight of the refugees, an individual undertakes to live for a week on what a Syrian refugee is given. The contents of the bag containing the food items, consisting of half a kilo of rice, a kilo of chickpeas, a tin of sardines, and various other items, were on display during these speeches. It was, indeed, a very restricted diet, though the lady who had attempted the challenge didn’t seem very much the worse for wear as a result.

However, coming in the week when Syrian civilians were subjected to chemical attacks the evening acquired additional significance, though there was no mention of this in the speeches. At a time when barbarism and belligerence seem to be the order of the day in our region, it is some consolation to believe that we can unite the hearts and minds of people who are forced to live side by side but have not yet managed to find a peaceful modus vivendi.

The evening ended, as is always the case with this oratorio, with the uplifting display of choral singing embodied in the ‘Amen’ section. The conductor departed from tradition by giving the first few ‘amens’ to each soloist by turn, and only subsequently bringing in the whole choir. ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ are among the few Hebrew words that have found their way into the English language. When I asked the conductor, American-born David Loden, why he had decided to perform the text in Hebrew he explained that it was so that the audience would understand the words, in keeping with Handel’s original intention.

I’m not convinced that that was what Handel wanted to achieve, nor that much of the audience at the YMCA could understand Hebrew. In my opinion, the original language of the oratorio, the language in which it was written, suits the music better than the Hebrew phrases, however close to the original verses of the Bible from which they may have come. I must confess that hearing the soprano sing ‘Gili’ instead of ‘Rejoice’ grated on my ear and disturbed my sense of the continuity of the piece. But the soloists, choir and orchestra all played their parts with supreme musicality and attention to diction, creating a refreshing new take on the familiar oratorio.

From Mathematician to King Herod’s Mason

The intriguing title of the lecture given by Frankie Snyder to our group of English-speaking women brought out a large number of members to hear her despite the pouring rain (which usually keeps Israelis in their homes).

Originally from the USA, where she graduated in mathematics, Ms. Snyder now lives in Israel and has been working for the last few years on the Israel Antiquities Authority endeavour known as the Temple Mount Sifting Project. Within this framework, for the last few years several archaeologists have been analysing the debris dumped by the Waqf authorities when they removed hundreds of tons of earth from the Temple Mount in order to construct a subterranean mosque.

Among the many priceless items that have come to light during the sifting process (coins, seals, tools, etc.) are stone fragments, many of which have been identified as part of the tiled floor of the Second Temple built by Herod in the first century B.C.E. Ms. Snyder’s mathematical background has enabled her to piece together what is essentially a giant puzzle, with geometric patterns based on triangles and rectangular forms that combine to form squares. In addition, the guiding principle of the artists who built the floors appears to have been to place stones of contrasting colours alongside one another, thereby constructing flooring that is aesthetically pleasing. The floors in the various palaces that Herod built in Israel (e.g., Herodium, Massada, Jericho) displayed similar flooring.

This technique, known as opus sectile (cut work), employed the Roman foot of 11.6 inches as its basic measurement, and each tile was cut with great precision to fit within the square that surrounded it and sit snugly alongside the adjacent tiles. A wide variety of stones were used. The dark stones were of bituminous chalk, quarried to the north west of the Dead Sea, while some of the light-coloured stones were of local limestone or even alabaster imported from Greece, Asia Minor, Tunisia and Egypt. These kinds of floors were popular throughout the Roman world, and were considered superior to mosaic floors.

In his historical record, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus wrote that the courtyard of Herod’s Temple “was paved from end to end with variegated paving of all manner of stones.” The patterns on the tiles that Ms. Snyder and her associates have managed to piece together produce an effect that is as beautiful as it is impressive, undoubtedly adding to the majestic effect created by the Temple’s ornate architecture. These kinds of floors were usually installed in areas that were covered to prevent their being damaged by the elements, while tiles of a less ornate kind were used for open areas.

Equally fascinating is the lecturer’s own life story. Ms. Snyder was brought up as a Catholic, and only at a relatively late age did she realise that her mother and grandmother had Jewish roots. The Catholic religion emphasises prayer and attendance at services, while actual reading of the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is discouraged. Ms. Snyder’s curiosity led her to delve into those texts, however, and she eventually decided that she wanted to know more about the history of the Jewish people. Her objective was to make contact with a Jewish community but she was unable to do so as her husband’s work took her to locations such as Guam, Alaska and South Dakota, where there was virtually no Jewish community. It was only after moving to Boston in the USA that she was able to connect with a synagogue, whereupon she discovered that she was in fact defined as a Jew and did not even need to undergo conversion.

Her unique background, innate intelligence and sense of mission has provided Ms. Snyder with the tools and ability to solve another mystery surrounding the Second Temple, providing additional insight into the past of the Jewish people and the connection to yet another of its ancient site

‘The Impress of Heaven,’ and ‘A Dragon in the Ashes,’ both by Neal Roberts

Intrigued by the Shakespearean reference in the title, I came across the first book in this series, ‘A Second Daniel,’ some time ago. I enjoyed the well-written story set in Elizabethan England with a variety of characters, both real and fictitious, some of them members of the Jewish faith. By some miraculous turn of events, the second and third books also came into my possession recently. They continue to relate the adventures and actions of Neal Roberts’ main protagonist, Noah Ames, a Jewish barrister doing his best to serve his patron, Queen Elizabeth the First, who showed him particular favour when he was a boy, and ensured that he was given the best education England could provide.

The situation of Jews in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was extremely precarious as they had not been officially allowed to settle in the country following their expulsion in the thirteenth century. Nevertheless, some Jews were able to enter and reside there, one of them being the queen’s physician, Roderigo Lopez, who had converted to Christianity. After serving the queen for several years he was eventually executed on trumped-up charges, but his story runs through the first book in this series, and his name is mentioned in the succeeding two.

The author combines actual historic events and characters (e.g. the Earl of Essex, Lord Robert Cecil, Francis Bacon, and Walter Raleigh) with the fictitious characters of his own devising, embroiling them all in real events as well as incidents involving espionage, violence, drinking, sword fights, and action of every imaginable kind. In one book their objective is to regain a stolen map which could be of value to the queen’s enemies, while in another it is to obtain copies of correspondence sent by the (actual) amabassador to France, Lord Walsingham, at the time of the massacre of the Protestant Huguenots by the Catholic mob in Paris and elsewhere in France. The author weaves the actual and fictitious events together so well that the reader is almost convinced that the various deeds of evil, intrigue, and derring-do really happened.

Neal Roberts is obviously well acquainted with the period about which he writes, and is even able to introduce the occasional reference to Shakespeare and one or another of his works, regarding which he is considered something of an expert. The third volume in the series (I won’t call it a trilogy as there is a fourth book in the works) introduces additional Jewish characters, this time originating from Poland rather than the Iberian peninsula, embellishing this segment with a supernatural element. This rather jarred with me, I must admit, but I suppose if it was good enough for Shakespeare (in whose works ghosts, fairies and spirits abound) it must be good enough for Neal Roberts.

All in all, I can recommend these books to anyone who has an interest in Elizabethan England, the history of the Jews in Europe, and England in particular, and is not averse to a rattling good tale. My one criticism is the author’s use of the present tense throughout. This may be appropriate for a screenplay, but in my view it does not enable the narrative to flow smoothly or help the reader to suspend disbelief.

Leo Baeck and Jewish Liberalism

 

 

Tucked away in a quiet Jerusalem side-street is the Leo Baeck Institute, where activities associated with the man himself and various aspects of his heritage are held, its official purpose being ‘the study of German and Central European Jewry.’ Sister institutes are to be found in cities elsewhere in the world – Frankfurt, New York, London and Berlin. The Jerusalem institute hosts a wide range of lectures, symposia and seminars, whether at its official home or in universities, research institutes and sundry other venues throughout Israel.

Together with the Association of Former Residents of Central Europe and Beit Theresienstadt, the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association (situated at Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud and known in Hebrew as Beit Terezin), the Leo Baeck Institute recently held a symposium entitled ‘Liberal Judaism Then and Now, Sixty Years Since the Passing of Rabbi Doctor Leo Baeck.’

The turnout one cold, wet December evening at the end of 2016 was surprisingly large, and when I finally found the building (the invitation gave the wrong address) I was lucky to find an empty chair at the back of the hall. Some sixty persons, many of them not very young, were listening attentively to the introductory lecture given by the director of the Institute, Professor Samuel Feiner. After a few words of welcome from the Deputy German Ambassador to Israel, each member of the panel of five scholars, experts in aspects of Liberal Judaism as currently practised in Israel and elsewhere, gave a short lecture on an allied subject. Thus, for example, Professor Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University spoke about the importance of ethics and spiritualism in the USA today and how this features in the focus of Liberal Judaism there. Dr. Hillel Ben-Sasson, of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, spoke about the central position of the individual in Liberal Judaism in the USA and the heightened attention placed on the separation of religion and state in the political arena, the implication being that this is sadly lacking in modern Israel.

For me personally the talk by Rabbi Gabi Dagan, who heads the complex of educational institutions named for Leo Baeck in Haifa, was particularly interesting. The emphasis there, starting in the kindergarten and going all through the system to the high-school and vocational education classes, is on inculcating the values of Liberal Judaism as opposed to the rote learning and restricted intellectual scope of orthodox Jewish learning. He stressed the fact that this approach was that advocated by Rabbi Leo Baeck himself, and that pupils who go through the educational institutions that bear his name are equipped for life with an open mind, an enquiring approach, tolerance and acceptance of the other and recognition of the importance of self-realisation within the framework of the community.

Professor Ruhama Weiss of the Hebrew Union College spoke of the importance of giving a feminist interpretation to the Talmud, and in particular the Babylonian Talmud, which evolved in exile. She noted with satisfaction that an increasingly feminist approach to religion is evident throughout Judaism, including even the orthodox variety, and certainly in Liberal Judaism, which has adopted that stance from its very inception.

Finally, Dr. Margalit Shlein, who heads the Theresienstadt Martyrs Remembrance Association, gave an outline of Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck’s activities in the two years he was incarcerated in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, 1943 – 1945. During this period, although given preferential treatment as a ‘Prominent,’ he devoted himself to endeavouring to bring succour to the other inmates, providing spiritual guidance as well as giving lectures on subjects connected with his religious philosophy and outlook.

Dr. Shlein was at pains to point out that although he was aware of the fate of the Jews who were sent to Auschwitz, Rabbi Baeck kept the information to himself, fearing that knowledge of this would serve to deter those being deported from cooperating, and thus causing them additional suffering. When the prisoners were finally released, in May 1945, Theresienstadt being the last concentration camp to be liberated, Rabbi Baeck refused to leave until the last prisoners had left.

The evening ended on a lighter note, with singers from the seminar held on music in Theresienstadt performing songs in English, German, Yiddish and Hebrew.