Our Evolving Tabernacle


The Jewish custom of building a little hut or sukkah in one’s garden or backyard once a year supposedly harks back to the time many thousands of years ago when the Hebrews were wandering in the wilderness after having left Egypt and had to live in makeshift huts or tabernacles, more or less in the way the Beduin Arabs live today.

Like many aspects of the Jewish religion, practice and history are bound up together. So it is with the Passover meal, the Seder, with its unleavened bread, matza, and the various symbolic foods all chosen to remind us of about the time when we were in the process of emerging from being slaves in order to become a unified nation. And of course Hannuka commemorates the Hasmonean revolt against the Greeks and the symbolic cleansing of the Temple through the vial of untainted oil. Purim is another reminder of a ‘historic’ event that may or may not have happened, but at least it gives Jews a chance to dress up and celebrate a carnival of their own.

As a child growing up in London I enjoyed the adventure involved in eating our meals outside our house in the little makeshift hut my parents constructed using blankets that were hung between the two other walls formed by our house on one side and the brick wall between our garden and the one next door, on the other.

We children were set to making coloured paper chains and lanterns, while our mother’s artistic talents were devoted to preparing little string bags for fruits of various kinds. All of these were hung around the ‘walls’ and from the roof made of branches from the various trees available in London in the 1950s. No one thought of the palm branches that are so ubiquitous in Israel today, or even of the ‘permanent-temporary’ roofs that are also very popular, and which apparently meet the necessary religious requirements. I regret not having asked my parents how they celebrated the festival in their homes in pre-war Germany.

The festival of Tabernacles falls at the beginning of autumn, and so it is almost inevitable that some rain will fall at that time of the year, whether it’s in Israel or in Europe, or anywhere in the northern hemisphere. I remember dashing through the rain with a bowl of soup in my hand during one such downpour in London, in a procession formed by my parents, my sisters and me.

But as is the way with children, we found it all tremendous fun, and the novelty never wore off. In fact, we were always disappointed to come home from school one day and find that our lovely sukkah had been dismantled. But then I grew up and put away childish things, as the saying goes, and never gave the festival another thought.

It was only when one of my own children came home from kindergarten one day singing a song about building a sukkah that my husband and I decided that we would need to erect some version of the traditional hut on the minuscule balcony of our second-floor apartment. Our children enjoyed the novelty, just as I had as a child, and while we were not concerned with keeping to the niceties of religious observance, we felt that we were providing an experience for our children that united us with the rest of Israel.

We continued to build a somewhat larger sukkah after we moved to a house with a garden and our children produced children of their own. Each year our three-generation family did its best to squeeze into the confines of our new-old hut, now made from gaily coloured Indian fabrics brought back with us from London’s Petticoat Lane market.

But today almost all our grandchildren are grownups themselves, and our sukkah is too small to contain all those rather large bodies. Since religious observance doesn’t play a role for any of us, there doesn’t seem to be much point in squeezing ourselves into an uncomfortable space in order to eat the meal we traditionally have together on a Friday night.

And so we have loaned our ‘permanent-temporary’ sukkah roof to our neighbours, for one of whom religious observance is paramount, and when they invited us for a meal in their sukkah we gladly accepted. It was a strange but rather invigorating experience to be sitting under our familiar roof surrounded by different decorations and eating the food someone else had prepared. I’m quite happy to pass the baton of preparing a temporary hut on to anyone else who is up to the task.

‘Middle England’ by Jonathan Coe


A friend in France recommended this book as giving some kind of an insight into the inner workings of contemporary British society, with all its quirks and foibles, and particularly into the mindset of that segment of the population that voted to leave the European Union.

Jonathan Coe has set his novel in the Midlands, the area in the geographical middle of England. The people whose actions he describes are mostly middle class and middle aged (though there are one or two younger and older individuals), and I suppose it could be considered to portray a representative cross-section of the contemporary British population. The Britain in which I grew up some sixty-odd years ago was far more homogenous and insular than the Britain of today, and it would seem that that is what some of its population is yearning for.

Although the name of Enich Powell, the Conservative Minister for Health in Edward Heath’s government in the late 1960s is not mentioned specifically, his anti-immigration stance and warning of ‘rivers of blood’ does come up in the conversation of one of the main character’s elderly relatives, and it is this attitude that overshadows much of the events described in the book and turns out to be part of the explanation for what is happening in Britain today.

Benjamin Trotter, the principal character, unpublished writer and ineffective husband/lover, is preoccupied with helping his recently-widowed father to overcome his grief and isolation while at the same time trying to provide moral support for his sister Lois, who is virtually separated from her husband. Lois’s daughter Sophie constitutes another central character of the book, and her initial encounter with and subsequent relations with her husband Ian form another strand of the narrative. In addition to the members of the family which constitutes the core of the book there are several subordinate characters, though these sometimes serve as an unwelcome and even confusing distraction from the main storyline.

But what is the main storyline if not the variegated tapestry that makes up modern Britain? Some of the characters are British-born, white and rooted in their native land while others stem from other countries, as is the case with the Caribbean immigrants who came to live in England from the Commonwealth, in what is popularly known as the ‘Windrush’ generation, after the name of the first ship that brought those immigrants to Britain’s shores. The descendants of the original immigrants feel as British as anyone else even though the colour of their skin betrays their origin elsewhere, and it is they who are competing with the original inhabitants of the island for places at university and promotion at work. To quote Enoch Powell, there is ‘a;sense of being a persecuted minority which is growing among ordinary English people in the areas of the country which are affected.’That feeling has been intensified as people from the countries that comprise the European Union have settled in England in increasing numbers.

As the events described in the book unfold, revealing the deep rift within British society between the haves and the have-nots, the struggle experienced by many to stay afloat economically, the tone of the daily press and the ideological disenchantment of the younger generation, the reader is exposed to the various currents that are constantly eddying about in contemporary British society.

Finally, in an attempt to escape the growing sense of alienation from the general tenor of British society, Benjamin Trotter and several of his relatives and friends decide to move to France and make a new life for themselves there. If that is the only solution to the current situation it can only be described as a very British mess.

All in all, akthough it’s an entertaining read, the book is a depressing comment on modern Britain as it moves inexorably towards a no-deal Brexit, with all the harmful economic repercussions that will ensue.


Only in Israel

Like every country, Israel has its advantages and its disadvantages. One of the former is its climate, which is on the whole pleasant (at least in Jerusalem) with sunny days throughout the summer, often with cool evenings and nights. It also has a long coastline giving most of the population access to the sea with all its benefits.

Considering its small size, the country encompasses a particularly wide range of interesting geographical features, with hilly areas in the north, and even mountains on which one can ski in winter. Going south there’s the Dead Sea, with beneficial health properties that have been known since ancient times, as well as the Negev desert, which contains interesting and unique geological formations, as well as a wealth of interesting fauna and flora. At its southernmost point the Red Sea provides a port and a seaside resort where it is always hot in both summer and winter.

You can hardly take a step anywhere in Israel without coming across some archaeological or geological site, starting with the origins of homo sapiens, and continuing through the history of the ancient Near East, with the events mentioned in the Old and New Testaments featuring prominently wherever you turn, resulting in a plethora of holy sites for the three main religions.

But what most distinguishes Israel is its population. Jews from all over the world have come to live here, bringing a wealth of genetic heritages that are mixing and mingling with one another. The population is far from homogeneous as regards both hereditary characteristics and cultural traditions, yet on the whole there is some kind of modus vivendi between all the different kinds of people. Notwithstanding, differences in background can often give rise to differences in manners and mores, and this can sometimes cause conflicts or disagreements, but the country somehow manages to keep going, no matter how deep the internal divisions.

The current political divide has the country split almost exactly in half between those who support the current government and those who oppose it. The political impasse has given rise to two general elections within the last six months and may well give rise to another one in the not-too-distant future. The prospect is dismaying for all concerned, but unless some radical solution is found that will be our fate.

But at a time like now, when the high holydays are being celebrated throughout the country, albeit in different ways and according to different traditions, there is an unaccustomed atmosphere of tolerance and even amity between total strangers.

Thus, as I waited this morning to be seen by an official in the Health Fund in order to arrange an appointment for a medical screening there was much good-natured grumbling among the waiting patients. But no-one raised their voice or protested, and no-one really tried to push in out of turn (as often happens at non-festive times of the year), and everyone wished their neighbour good luck, good health, and a good year as their turn came.

The best moment for me was when, after returning home with the precious referral in my hand, I rang the central Health Fund number in order to arrange the date and time for the screening. Today is the first working day after a very long weekend and so the line was busy for a long time. Eventually, however, one of the attendants at the call centre picked up the phone and was ready to hear my request. What happened next left me flabbergasted.

When I repeated my name, at her request, she said “Oh, I see that tomorrow’s your birthday. Have  happy birthday!”

She really made my day, and it made me wonder whether that would or could have happened anywhere else in the world.

‘A Trace of Smoke’ by Rebecca Cantrell


I downloaded this independently published ebook from Amazon’s Kindle Store in order to have something to read on the plane. I always like to have something to read in my phone-cum-Kindle, as that means I’m not dependent on having access to wi-fi, and I don’t have to carry a paper book with me. It’s taken me some time (years, actually) to get used to the idea, but I find it’s an invaluable addition to my ability to never being without something to read at hand.

I chose this book by Rebecca Cantrell because it promised to describe what life was like in Berlin in the early 1930s. I was not disappointed. Apart from the somewhat lurid plot of the novel, the book contains a vivid account of the way Berliners lived and loved at that time, the rising political power and physical presence of the Nazi party and – in a particularly sensational way – the life of the homosexual community there.

In the author’s afterword she details the sources of her very extensive research into the time and place she describes in the novel, and I personally found this very impressive. She watched movies, read books, interviewed people and undoubtedly invested an enormous amount of time and energy into extending her knowledge of pre-war Berlin. It would seem that she spent several years at high school in Berlin, so that her knowledge of the German language obviously helped her in establishing the setting of her story.

Although I found the book enjoyable, serving to provide both entertainment and information, I came across occasional linguistic lapses in the English, lapses that could only have been made by a non-native speaker. The text flows well on the whole, but when the narrator, who is the main character, talks about “a dress I wore” rather than ‘a dress I was wearing’ and similar occasions when a continuous construction is required rather than the past or present simple, it constitutes a jarring disruption of the flow of the text. That kind of thing should have been picked up by the book’s editor.

Notwithstanding, I have downloaded the two subsequent volumes in the series, which follow the fate of the main character, Hannah Vogel, as the atmosphere in Germany under Nazi rule becomes ever more ominous. Although Hannah is not herself Jewish, the sense of menace overshadows the daily life of all Germany’s denizens, and especially those who do not support the Nazi party. The danger to Jews and foreigners is also evident throughout, and the sense of ever-increasing peril assumes increasing prominence.

So I’m looking forward to my next flight, or possibly even my next visit to the doctor, both of which will inevitably leave me with time on my hands, and the chance to read what I’ve downloaded onto my phone.


The Best and the Worst of London

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, la la la. Yes, I was born and brought up in London, albeit by parents originally from Germany, but London still has a place in my heart, and I treasure my memories of growing up there and going shopping in Oxford Street with my mother and my two sisters to get new clothes for each big Jewish festival.

And so, when my husband and I spend our summer holidays in France we generally fly back to Israel via London, where we stay at a hotel overlooking Russell Square in Bloomsbury, enjoy fish and chips at the local pub “The Friend at Hand’ and try to catch up with friends as well as taking in some exhibitions in the wonderful museums and galleries which abound in London.

This year’s visit started with a bang, the sun was shining and we had been invited to tour the House of Lords by a sitting member who had attended the LSE at the same time as I had, but had gone on to have a stellar career in the law, eventually being made a baroness. She had seen my articles about life in Israel in the AJR Journal and contacted me last year, when we visited her in Oxford. Because parliament had been ‘prorogued,’ i.e., suspended, by the Prime Minister, the place was deserted apart from a few security personnel. Nonetheless, we were taken around the opulent building, parts of which date back to the thirteenth century, while much of it was restored in the nineteenth century after a fire. We felt very privileged to be taken around by our friend, who also treated us to a lovely meal at the Wolesley restaurant.

Another friend, a non-Jewish former head-teacher whom we had met in France and happened to mention in passing that she had taught maths at the Lubavitch school in North London, invited us to visit an exhibition of self-portraits by contemporary artists at King’s Place. This was an exciting new venue for us near King’s Cross which hosts all kinds of artistic and cultural events. The self-portraits were chosen from entrants to a competition held in the framework of the Ruth Borchard Art Collection located there. The name of Ruth Borchard rang a bell with me, and sure enough, she was originally from Hamburg, my father’s home town, and I had met her daughter here in Israel. Small Jewish world, once again.

Planning to buy somethingfor myself and possibly my granddaughters, I set off down Oxford Street and entered the hallowed halls of Marks and Spencer’s Marble Arch branch. While I was trying to find trousers in my size I noticed some women jostling the trolley I had taken in the hopes of easing my burden, and where I had foolishly put my bag while I searched for the right pair of trousers. I apologized, assuming that I was disturbing their search for clothes, but it was only a few minutes later, when I went to the fitting room to try the trousers on, that I noticed that my bag was open and that my purse was missing!

Omar, the burly security officer took me in hand and, seeing my distress, brought me a chair and a cup of water. Apart from that, however, there was little he could do. The security cameras did not focus on the area where I had been. He told me that this sort of thing happens all the time, and that thieves are known to work in all the stores along Oxford Street and elsewhere. I can only say that they are very professional, and the actual theft of my purse can have taken only a minute or two. I can remember the harsh face and dark eyes of the woman to whom I apologized, but that’s no good to anyone. We reported the details of the theft to the police, cancelled all our credit cards and wrote off our cash loss as the price one pays because I had not been sufficiently on my guard. Luckily, no physical harm was done, my passport and phone were not touched and so I suppose I can consider myself lucky.

All the same, it’s as well to remember that London is not all bright sunshine and green parks, there are vile people everywhere and one should be on one’s guard at all times and especially in crowded places.

The Talmud, a Biography; Banned, Censored and Burned, the Book They Couldn’t Suppress

I ordered this book, written by Harry Freedman, from good old Bibliophile in an attempt to broaden my education. I feel I have learned a lot, but whether it will stay in my memory is another matter.

According to the author’s Preface, it is the Talmud, rather than the Bible, which defines the religion of the Jews, and in fact the Jews themselves.

In tracing the origins and development of the Talmud over the millennia in which it has existed in one form or another (first oral, then written, and eventually printed), Harry Freedman, a historian and expert in Aramaic and Judaic studies, introduces us to the different environments and cultures in which the Talmud emerged and eventually flourished, as well as giving us insights into the various rabbis, interpreters and scholars who helped to formulate and establish it.

The Talmud has its roots in biblical exegesis in both ancient Israel and ancient Babylon, the latter being the community established by the Jews originally brought there forcibly by Nebuchadnezzer II after the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE (remember the plaintive refrain ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept’?). When Cyrus, the Persian ruler who conquered Babylon, permitted the Jews to return to their homeland about fifty years later, many Jews chose to remain in the land of their exile where they had established their homes, families and apparently also their livelihoods. Thus, the two centres of learning, in Judea and Babylon, developed two traditions of Bible interpretation.

In essence, the Babylonian Talmud is considered to be preeminent, although both Talmuds consist of discussions among scholars of the meaning and implementation of laws contained in the Bible and interpreted in the Mishna, even though these discussions may have taken place at different times and in different places. During the sixth and seventh centuries CE editors collected and collated them into a cohesive whole, formulating them in a way that has endured to this day.

In effect, citing Rabbi Louis Jacobs, the author defines the Talmud as “a literary construction in which debates, opinions, proofs and rulings that took place over nearly three hundred years are woven together by later editors into a coherent whole.” The central column, written in Hebrew or Aramaic, of a page of Talmud, in a slightly larger font than the columns of text on either side, consists of the text of the Mishna and the Talmudic commentaries on it. The columns on either side contain the commentaries of Rashi, the great eleventh-century French commentator, while the outer column contains the commentaries of the tosafists, scholars from different, earlier periods. Interspersed with these rabbinical discussions are legends and tales which supposedly illustrate aspects of the text, or simply contain an illuminating diversion from the scholarly exegesis.

Most of the Talmud is based on a record of discussions held in the rabbinic academies in Babylon between the years 230 and 500 CE. Thus, we are introduced to such rabbinic luminaries as Yehudai Gaon, Pirkoi ben Baboi, Saadia Gaon of Sura and many others. In the period after the decline and fall of Babylon, the centres of Jewish learning shifted throughout North Africa (Alexandria, Kairouan) and Spain as well as moving to western and eastern Europe).

Throughout the millennia Jews have been subjected to persecution, banishment, exile and forcible conversion (whether to Islam or Christianity). In the Middle Ages several European monarchs instituted officially sanctioned disputations between leading rabbis and Christian scholars, often with unwelcome consequences for the local Jewish population. England’s King Henry VIII had a Talmud brought to his court in order to find justification in it for the annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Since the rulings taken from the Bible regarding levirate marriage were inconclusive (or even mutually contradictory), Henry dropped that approach, adopted the attitude of the Protestant church and abandoned Catholicism Thus the Anglican church, which prevails to this day, was established.

In several eastern European countries anti-Semitic Christian leaders claimed that the Talmud advocated ritual murder using the blood of Christians, and on the basis of these accusations homes of Jews were searched and copies of the Talmud confiscated and publicly burned. The Crusades of the tenth and eleventh centuries served as an excuse to ravage and destroy Jewish communities in the Rhineland, and once again the age-old calumnies were produced and used as an excuse for acts of pillage and aggression against Jewish communities and their sacred texts.

The tradition of rabbinic academies, or yeshivot, where study of the Talmud is the central area of activity, flourished in eastern Europe prior to WWII, and while most of these academies were destroyed in that dark period, a few survived and re-established themselves in modern Israel. This was often done despite the demand made by some rabbis that the yeshivot remain in Europe. Those that did were decimated, but the few that have survived in Israel have flourished, benefiting from the financial and legal support extended to them by the government.

Brigitte Bardot Puts up a Fight

When I’m in France I like to read the weekend edition of ‘Le Figaro,’ a fairly centrist daily newspaper which has interesting supplements and articles. It enables me to improve my understanding of French language and culture as well as keeping me au courant with current events and political trends in France and elsewhere.

In the main part of the paper of 9 August my attention was drawn to a full-page advertisement placed by the Brigitte Bardot Foundation and headed by the clarion call (in French): ’11th August 2019 – “Aid el-Kebir,” Day of Sorrow and Blood.’

What followed was a long and detailed diatribe against the fact that thousands of sheep were going to have their throats cut under appalling conditions. The ad continued by assuring readers that this year, once again, the Foundation run by BB, as she was once known, would be on the spot to prevent this happening. How they proposed to do this was not made clear, but it was obviously a cause which the Foundation was seeking to combat with all its might.

But as I read on, I realized that the object of BB’s wrath was not solely the ritual sacrifice of sheep to mark a Moslem festival but also the daily slaughter of cattle and sheep in what was defined as their ‘terrible suffering in abattoirs throughout France.’ The advertisement was at pains to point out that fifteen European countries had banned the slaughter of animals which had not been stunned beforehand. BB and her foundation demanded that the concessions accorded to ‘cults’ be rescinded.

This puts me in a difficult position. I know that the ritual laws ordaining that meat which is permissible to Moslems, known as ‘Halal,’ require that animals be slaughtered in a certain way, and that this practice is widespread throughout France. I also know that the Halal ritual slaughter requirements are very much akin to the ritual slaughter which makes meat ‘Kasher,’ or permissible to be eaten by observant Jews (of which I am not one). Does BB mean that Judaism, too, is a cult?

So what it boils down to is that BB’s foundation is waging war against any practice involving the slaughter of animals for food that does not involve preliminary stunning by electrical means. Obviously, the laws determining what would define permissible slaughter for food in the Jewish and Moslem religions were devised long before electricity was discovered. Thousands of years ago, those slaughtering practices were considered to be as humane as possible.

But times have changed, and it is commendable that the slaughter of animals for food is now undertaken in a more humane way.

. To me, as a non-religious Jew, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect the various religions to move with the times and accept the innovations that modern technology can provide if this makes the whole process less cruel. Let’s face it, slaughtering animals for food can never be the most humane act, but it doesn’t look as if the whole world is going to become vegetarian any time soon, so it’s a situation we are going to have to live with for the foreseeable future.

The ad concludes by calling on the French government to cease tolerating an intolerable situation. What are the chances that anything will be done? Very few, I’d say, considering the large and vociferous Muslim population in France, and in Europe in general.

(Sorry, no pics of BB then and now. Both too terrifying.)

A Trip to Troyes

 Several years ago I was told that I really ought to visit the French town of Troyes (pronounced ‘Trois,’ like the number three in French), since it is a charming mediaeval town. It is also the birthplace of Rashi, the great twelfth century commentator on the Bible and the Talmud, whose is known by the acronym of his full name, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki.

Finally, after many years of spending our summers in France, we finally managed to make the trip to the east, going towards the border with Switzerland, to the Champagne region, where Rashi lived (1040-1105). Having read Maggi Anton’s trilogy about Rashi’s daughters (he had no sons), I was especially curious to see what the place was like.

I was not disappointed. The old part of Troyes is indeed charming, with its half-timbered, or even full-timbered, old houses, some of which seem to be about to collapse, while others are in a relatively good state. Many buildings date back to the twelfth century, and some are still in use as private residences, restaurants, or cafes. Some contain institutions of various kinds, such as the Rashi (spelled Rachi in French) Institute and Cultural Centre, or the Museum of Ancient Tools and Musical Instruments. Everything is within walking distance, and the open, tree-shaded squares are full of restaurants and cafes, a veritable tourist’s paradise.

The town is a mixture of ancient and modern buildings, with stores such as H&M and Etam in the street adjacent to the narrow ancient roads where Rashi and his contemporaries once walked. I didn’t see a McDonald’s, but that doesn’t mean that there wasn’t one there somewhere. The town has expanded into the surrounding countryside, so that the vineyards that allegedly were once tended by Rashi and other local vintners have been supplanted by commercial and industrial buildings. Nonetheless, the drive there took us through beautiful French countryside, which may well have remained unchanged since Rashi’s time.

In addition to the building that commemorates Rashi, Troyes has other sites of interest. The town has several ancient churches, and its enormous cathedral, which also dates from the twelfth century, is one of the grandest I have ever seen. Its Gothic architecture is beautifully preserved, and its stained-glass windows are on a par with any to be found in Chartres or elsewhere. Outside the cathedral is a plaque that was installed there in 1929 to mark the five hundred-year anniversary of the visit there by Joan of Arc. The plaque declares that in 1429 Joan arrived in the town, accompanying Charles VII en route to Reims, and that the townspeople spontaneously acknowledged him as their legitimate king in that cathedral.

In addition to a plaque in French and English explaining who Rashi was and what he did, a black plaque is affixed to the wall outside Maison Rachi, where Rashi’s bouse once stood, stating in gold letters (in French): “The French Republic pays its respects to the victims of racist and anti-Semitic persecutions, and of the crimes against humanity committed under the de facto authority of the so-called ‘Government of the French State’ (1940-19944). We will never forget.”

I had wanted to conclude our visit by drinking a glass of champagne as I toasted Rashi, but somehow it didn’t work out.

 Maison Rachi1

‘What Language do I Dream in?’ by Elena Lappin


As a bilingual speaker of Hebrew and English as well as having some knowledge of French and German, I was intrigued by the title of this book. But the beginning is something of a surprise, as the author starts by describing a dramatic phone call which changed the course of her life and shook the very foundation of her knowledge of who she was and where she came from.

Speaking in Russian, the person at the other end of the line told her that the man she had known as her father all her life was not her real father, and that the man who had fathered her had been an American living in Moscow working as an undercover agent for the Soviet Union.

At that point the author starts to describe her life as a child growing up in Czechoslovakia, with her mother and the man she thought was her father but who, it later transpired, had married her mother when Elena was two years old, and had taken the two of them to live with him in Prague. Sincce both her parents had grown up in Russia, it was Russian that was the language spoken in their home. However, Elena’s early years and initial education were all in Czech, and that was her first and main language, or so she thought.

Interweaving stories and memories of her happy childhood in Prague, with occasional visits to her grandparents in Moscow, Elena relates how she immersed herself in Czech literature and culture, and how she appreciated and loved the ancient city of Prague itself. Thus it came as quite a shock to her at the age of sixteen when her parents moved to Hamburg, requiring them all – parents, Elena, and her younger brother Maxim – to learn a new language. Elena’s father worked as a translator and for him in particular the transition was not an easy one, but he was able to find work in a factory, translating technical texts and marketing material from German into Russian.

Like many Jewish families from eastern Europe and Russia, Elena’s family originally came from a small village in Ukraine, eventually gravitating to the city of Moscow. Much later in her life she discovered that most of her grandfather’s family had emigrated to the USA in 1914, just before the Russian Revolution, and that most of them had prospered there. Her paternal grandfather was the only one who had returned to the USSR together with his wife, and had made his life there.

The transition to a German-speaking environment was not easy for Elena, but she apparently adapted well to the language and the different attitudes and outlooks of her fellow-students, and even embarked on her undergraduate studies at the university of Hamburg. However, she found the atmosphere and subject matter (linguistics) unappealing, and decided to move on, ending up in the USA. In the course of her high-school studies Elena had applied herself to learning French and English, even spending time as an au pair in France and England, so that her knowledge of several languages enabled her to work in translating, editing and other spheres associated with publishing, as well as to continue with her linguistic studies.

After getting married and having children, Elena and her husband spent several years in Canada and the USA, eventually settling in London. It is from there that she has conducted the extensive genealogical research that has enabled her to trace the trajectory of her family across continents and cultures. The final segment of the book details how Elena has pursued the complex history of her family by combing through various archives and research sites, including that of the FBI, which held a dossier on her grandfather.

Most of the book is written in a lively and entertaining style, though I must confess I found the final segment somewhat tedious. But without a doubt, the author has made the most of her checkered linguistic history, and is still unable to decide which language she dreams in.

Things You See in France

It seems that no matter where one roams, we Brits still hanker for the taste of home. And although for each one of us those tastes may vary, the sum of hankering adds up to a general yearning which cannot be denied. And so it came about that somewhere in the depths of rural France, in a village so small and insignificant that it does not register on the GPS navigation built into our very modern rental car, we came across the British Market Stall. Within the rather unprepossessing walls of what was apparently once a barn attached to a large house are shelves stacked and stocked with all the goodies for which British palates yearn.

 Thus, our astonished gaze encountered extensive supplies of genuine Heinz Beanz (spelt thusly on the sky-blue tins), Birds’ custard powder, cream crackers, genuine Scottish shortbread, as well as fruit cakes (both with and without icing), and an enormous fridge stocked with classic British cheeses, sausages, and many other goodies. You can even find genuine curry powder, as the curry has become the staple food of most of the British population, as well as digestive biscuits, Hobnobs, and many other items intended to delight the expat Brit in self-imposed exile in the alien fields of France.

 The welcoming owners, Cris and Andy, who also run a gite (self-catering B&B), do a weekly run in their truck to the UK to stock up on all the foodstuffs which their customers crave, and are even prepared to try to meet any special request that may be presented to them. Just to enter their establishment and encounter one’s compatriots and hear the accents of ‘home’ is an enjoyable and heart-warming experience in itself.



Most mornings, in order to buy the fresh baguette which is an indispensable part of our French breakfast, we have no choice but to drive to the next village, some ten kilometers away, and frequent the local boulangerie-patisserie, where baguettes are ranged in rows and an eye-watering assortment of little cakes lurks beneath the glass-fronted counter. But at the entrance to this village one is confronted by a large and rather imposing statue of a sphinx. No, we’re not back in Egypt, but rather passing the studio of a local sculptor. Nonetheless, it is at first startling but then almost reassuring to find this echo of the ancient past guarding the entrance to a French village. Whatever next? one wonders. By now we have become accustomed to the sight, but it did come as something of a shock on our first sighting of it.


Since France is the country of culinary delights, it is incumbent on anyone staying for any period of time in the country to partake of its delicacies. Our excursions to local restaurants generally provide us with a reasonably-priced but not very exciting ‘plat du jour’ which, while enjoyable, does little to titillate the senses. This was not the case, however, when we ventured a little further afield, to a restaurant called ‘Le Viaduc.’

Set in wooded hills and overlooking the viaduct built in the 1890s by none other than M.Eiffel himself, the restaurant is a very different proposition from the run-of-the-mill eating establishments to be found in the region. Simply to enter the restaurant is to experience an aesthetic shock, with flower arrangements on the tables, and a spectacular view from the panoramic windows of the wooded hills and the viaduct, on which a train still runs daily. The tables are set with loving care and even each course of the ‘menu du jour’ is an aesthetic as well as a culinary delight. The ‘pièce de resistance’ was the dessert, which combined a tartelette bedecked with seasonal fruits and a delicate strawberry sorbet, all arranged on a plate which in itself constituted an artistic achievement. It seemed a shame to eat it, but it certainly was delicious.