The Crown takes the Biscuit

When we were in Las Vegas last year, visiting our son and daughter-in-law, on one particular evening they were otherwise occupied. They made sure to seat us comfortably in the living room facing the large TV screen, handed us the remote control, and told us to find something on Netflix that would interest us. We looked at many garish posters advertising mainly American films which did not interest us in the least.

As we progressed down past the gaudy pictures on display, the solitary figure of a woman dressed in a sober blue outfit caught my eye. ‘The Crown,’ was the title, and this turned out to be a series made especially for Netflix (until then neither Yigal nor I had even heard of Netflix, the company that provides TV entertainment to many Americans who are sick and tired of the tasteless fare offered by the TV channels in that country).

We started to watch and were hooked from the very first moment. The series follows the life of our own dear Queen Elizabeth, tracing the trajectory of her life from childhood until her coronation (an event I remember), and then onwards through several decades.

The series appears to have been made with a great deal of attention to detail, and with first-class actors (British, of course). Alongside the personal life and development of the main characters, Elizabeth, Philip, and other members of the royal family, political events are given suitable prominence, and the interaction between the two strands is both entertaining and enlightening.

And so we are taken gently through the scandals and crises that have beset British politics and the royal family since time immemorial, starting with the abdication of the Queen’s uncle, Edward the Fifth, that caused her father to become George the Sixth and thus, it is intimated, bringing about his early demise and Elizabeth’s consequent accession to the throne.

We see the stately figure of Churchill, England’s war-time leader, gradually deteriorate until he is finally left with no choice but to resign. We see, too, the unfortunate incident of the portrait of him painted by Graham Sutherland which is eventually consigned to the flames in a fit of pique (or possibly artistic jealousy). Other prime ministers do not fare much better, with Anthony Eden leaving in disgrace after the Suez crisis and the fiasco of his collusion with France and Israel, and his successor Harold MacMillan, bowing out not-very-gracefully on the grounds of ill health but probably more as a result of the unfortunate Profumo scandal.

What is particularly fascinating for me is that I remember many of those incidents and even as a child was an avid reader of the daily newspaper that was delivered to our front door. To have lived through events and then to see them portrayed, with greater or lesser accuracy, as a television series, is a unique experience that cannot have been experienced by many people, I think.

In Las Vegas we ‘binge watched’ some twelve or so episodes, but then had no time or strength left to see any more (twenty have been made so far). But rest assured, almost as soon as we touched down back in Israel we subscribed to Netflix and managed to complete viewing the entire series. Now, together with many others, I am awaiting the production of the next series. After all, our Queen has reached the age of 92, and so there’s a lot more fun to be had, I’m sure.

Recently, I was treated to an extra bonus when one of my sisters asked if she could come round and watch ‘The Crown’ with me. Of course, I agreed, and so the two of us have been meeting weekly to watch the series, laugh and cry together, and enjoy our trip down memory lane. The fact that I have seen it all already does not detract in any way from my pleasure and emotional involvement.

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Social Realism: Russians in Israel

 

Currently showing at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is an exhibition by Zoya Cherkassky, who was born in Russia and immigrated to Israel with her family in the 1990s. The Cherkasskys were part of the million-strong influx of Jewish immigrants from Russia who were finally able to leave the ‘Soviet socialist paradise’ following the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

All immigrants (myself included) undergo a period of acclimatization and integration, in the hope that they will eventually find their place in Israeli society. For some of the Russian immigrants this was a painful process involving having to get used to a very different way of life, learn a new language, overcome difficulties in finding employment, and find a way of fitting in and adapting to the new environment.

Zoya Cherkassky was fourteen when she came to Israel and portrays the experience of people having to confront the rigours and demands of a very different society. Arriving as an impressionable teenager, Zoya still remembers what life was like in Russia and is well-placed to observe and compare the two societies. Her family was not imbued with Zionist ideology or well-versed in the practices of the Jewish religion, concepts which required both mental and physical adjustment from the newcomers.

Underlying Zoya’s pictures, which are painted in bright colours with bold contours, conveying the life of the new immigrants in a way that is almost a caricature of individual figures and expressions, is a lively sense of humour that pillories Russians and Israelis alike. One of the first pictures, entitled ‘Fresh Victims,’ portrays Zoya’s family, still all swathed in their winter clothing, descending the gangway from the airplane bringing them to Israel. Some of the faces display eager anticipation, others apprehension, even dismay, while on the tarmac awaits a fresh-faced lady official ready to welcome them and present each one with a small Israeli flag.

I happened to mention my impression of the exhibition to a Russian physician of my acquaintance and her face showed displeasure. She told me that among the Russian community the exhibition, and Zoya herself, had come in for a great deal of criticism for the negative portrayal of Russians as well as Israelis. I found the paintings delightful and full of humour, but it seems that this view is not universal.

One of the paintings shows a mother and daughter, their faces impassive as they eat a meal and watch what’s on the television screen, which is showing ballet dancers performing. The explanatory panel tells us that as the Soviet regime was collapsing and it was not yet clear what was happening to the leadership, the television showed a performance of Swan Lake all through the day. I suppose it’s a sad fact that for many of the immigrants the music of Swan Lake will forever be associated with the fall of the Soviet Union.

Zoya’s portrayal of life in Israel is often cynical, almost cruel. Throughout Israel’s existence each new influx of immigrants has been welcomed with a mixture of appreciation and suspicion by those (themselves doubtless former immigrants) who came before them. Zoya portrays this ambivalence in several of her paintings, primarily those showing life in Israel as experienced by Russian immigrants. Thus, one painting shows the aggression displayed by young Israelis towards young Russians, comparing it to the violence inflicted on Jews in Russia. Another painting, entitled just ‘Itzik,’ shows a swarthy falafel vendor trying to force his attentions on his horrified blonde Russian waitress.

Many of the pictures raise a smile. The painting entitled ‘Friday Night Dinner’ shows an appalled rabbi inspecting a cooking pot from which a pig’s snout emerges, while the newly-converted Russian couple, sporting religious headgear, look on uncomprehending. Zoya is a past-master at conveying human emotions through facial expressions, making use of appropriate details to emphasize the context of each situation.

Altogether, this is an exhibition that is both entertaining and instructive, giving the viewer an insight into the inner workings of the mentality of the immigrants from Russia. In so doing Zoya is shining a light on a situation that is endemic to any country, as Israel is, that purports to welcome immigrants.

Here We Go Again

Unable to sleep one night I surfed through the TV channels I sometimes watch and came across a debate about anti-Semitism on France24 (in English, fortunately).

The trigger for this was President Macron’s tweet about the existence of an ‘old anti-Semitism’ in France alongside a new form of the phenomenon, and an open letter signed by some 300 religious leaders and leading intellectuals condemning the rise of anti-Semitism.

The people engaged in the debate were drawn from various communities (unfortunately I did not get their names), one of them was even located in Tel-Aviv, and all seemed to be making a effort to keep the dialogue on an even tone, not always with complete success.

We all know about the ‘old anti-Semitism’ in France, which goes back to before the Dreyfus affair at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. That was in fact the spark that set Theodore Herzl, who was a journalist covering the trial, on the track that led eventually to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. However, according to President Macron (and also the German Chancellor, Angela Markel), the new form of anti-Semitism in France is associated with the influx of immigrants from Moslem countries.

The individual representing the Moslem community tried to play down the aspect of that religion that denigrated all other religions, but was forced to confront the representative of CRIF, the umbrella organization of French Jewry, who cited chapter and verse of the Koran and the Hadith stating that all other religions were inferior to Islam, and their adherents would have to convert or be slain.

This representative and others were at pains to point out that not all Moslems adopted that radical view, yet it remained part of that religion’s beliefs. All the participants in the debate agreed that it was impossible to rewrite the ancient texts (Old Testament, New Testament, Koran) on which the various religions were based, and that it was necessary to shift the focus away from them.

The gentleman in Tel-Aviv tried to move the debate away from the role of individual religions, stressing the overriding French doctrine of secularity and seeking to expunge sectoral differences. He asserted that the struggle should be against ignorance and poverty rather than any specific religious beliefs, that he regarded all French people as his community and that the problem lay in the indoctrination of vulnerable young people by religious leaders. He also insisted that until all religions gave equal standing to women and men (women rabbis, female imams, even a woman Pope) there would be no true equality and secularity in France.

The representative of CRIF pointed out that the people who were being radicalized were not necessarily drawn from the poorest and least educated sections of the population, agreeing nonetheless that education in the poorer areas was sadly lacking. How can a teacher hope to teach a class of fifty pupils? he asked, amid general agreement that more money should be devoted to education and improving living conditions.

This all comes at a time when throughout Europe Jewish people are being attacked on an almost daily basis. What is different this time, however, is that Jewish communities are coming out and standing up for themselves. In Berlin a demonstration of several thousands attracted Jews and non-Jews alike, who stood together wearing skullcaps (kippot) to protest such attacks. In France, following assaults on individual Jews, a march to voice disapproval of such acts attracted many supporters.

And in England, my England, where criticism has been leveled primarily (but not only) at the stance of the opposition Labour Party, the Jewish community organized a demonstration to express its disapproval of the failure to act to repress anti-Semitism on the part of the leader, Jeremy Corbyn. The bottom line in the UK is that it has become far more multi-cultural than before, with a large Moslem minority, which is exerting influence on the political scene.

Part of the opposition stems from the fact that Jews are being attacked for wearing identifying clothing (skullcaps) in public. In addition, in France, Germany and England no Jewish institution (synagogue, school, social club) can risk not having strict security at the entrance. This is not the case with Moslem or Christian garb or institutions, as the CRIF representative in the debate was quick to point out. I might add, on a personal note, that when I was a youngster in England some fifty years ago I moved in orthodox circles and absolutely no-one wore a skullcap in public. There are alternatives, such as hats of various kinds, but neither should one be vulnerable to attack because of one’s religion.

As the TV debate came to an end, the sociologist on the panel was given the floor. She derided the tenor of the debate, claiming that the issue was in fact a political rather than a religious one, and that what really lay behind contemporary anti-Semitism was the settlement policy of the current Israeli government and, by implication, the plight of the Palestinians. Her name had an Arabic ring to it, so that explains her opinion.

What this means, essentially, is that Israel is being expected to act in accordance with what some people in the West, including those holding anti-Semitic views, think is right, rather than with its democratically elected government’s policy. There is no doubt that anti-Zionism is being deployed as a tool against Jews in Europe and the USA, but however critical of Israel one may be, there can be no justification for attacking Jews wherever they are.

Their Promised Land; My Grandparents in Love and War by Ian Buruma

 

I found this book, which was published by Penguin Random House in 2017, so fascinating that I read it more or less in one sitting and, having read it on my Kindle, proceeded to order the paperback version from Amazon as I knew I would want to read it again as well as to press it on my nearest and dearest and encourage them to read it too. Many features of the life of the couple whose letters form the backbone of the book resonate with my own experience of life in post-war Britain, even though my background was different to theirs.

Using the hundreds of letters that passed between his grandmother and grandfather when separated by circumstances or war, the author has reconstructed the lives of this wealthy anglo-Jewish couple whose erudition and humanity shines through their supposedly ordinary lives. Bernard ‘Bun’ Schlesinger and Winifred ‘Win’ nee Regensburg, lived through two world wars and managed to come through them unscathed, leaving behind the treasure trove of their almost daily correspondence when separated. In between the letters Buruma has interspersed his own comments, insights, memories and explanations, bringing to life the times, places and relationships mentioned. Buruma’s style is at once intimate and literary, imparting a dimension of enlightened familiarity to the text.

The author starts with a vivid account of Christmas at his grandparents’ country home in Berkshire. Though making no secret of their Jewish background, the couple did not adhere to the restrictions of religious observance and celebrated Christmas in the traditional British way, with a tree replete with colourful decorations, traditional Christmas fare, as well as mistletoe and holly sprigs decorating the drawing room and beautifully wrapped presents at the base of the tree.

For Ian Buruma’s grandparents, the promised land of the book’s title was most definitely England and everything English. Their lifestyle was not lavish, yet their own parents’ wealth (Bernard’s father had made his fortune as a stockbroker and Win’s father was also a stockbroker, both families being solidly middle class) afforded them each an education in the best British tradition and the ability to set up home in the ‘genteel Hampstead world of German Jewish immigrants, well-off, cultivated, but largely confined to their own kind.’ Buruma stresses the important role that music played in their lives, the center of family life among many Hampstead Jews, the sign of education, high culture, an emblem of class and in fact the common ground that brought them together.

While they espoused the British way of life, they still retained the ‘worship of classical music,’ and Wagner’s operas in particular, that characterised many German Jews (my own family included). Bernard studied medicine and served in the First World War as a medical orderly, enduring life in the trenches in France and emerging as full of patriotic fervour as ever. Win, who had studied the violin to an advanced level, volunteered as a nurse, but focused much of her attention on her music. In the Second World War Bernard was posted to India as a doctor for three years and in between writing letters Win attended to family matters, gardened ardently at their Berkshire country house and played the violin in amateur ensembles set up to entertain troops waiting to be sent abroad and civilians who sought some cultural succour from the rigours of wartime Britain.

One aspect that I found particularly touching was Bernard and Win’s decision to provide a home for twelve children who had entered England under the Kindertransport programme. They established a hostel for ten of these girls in a house in London, supporting them and ensuring they received a good education, supplying all their needs. These children were treated as family members, spending holidays with the family in Berkshire or the seaside, receiving pocket-money and serving as the focus of Bernard and Win’s loving attention and concern.

In his introduction Buruma dwells on his grandparents’ position as being both insiders and outsiders in English society at a time when England was far less multi-cultural than it is today. He draws the conclusion that despite their privileged position they felt they had to make more of an effort to fit in than most people, to prove that they belonged, and it was this that motivated their devoted patriotism. According to Buruma, this notion also underlies several of the films, such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, Billy Liar and Midnight Cowboy, made by their son, his uncle, John Schlesinger.

The tone of the early letters is replete with schoolboy (and schoolgirl) slang, things are ‘ripping,’ ‘jolly,’ and ‘topping,’ but in all the letters the deeply-felt longing for and dependence on one another shines through. Win was known to undergo periods of depression, called by the family in the best Wagnerian tradition ‘the curse of the Regensburgs,’ and her heartfelt desire to have Bernard at her side once more is at times almost painful to read. Buruma writes that it was always Bernard’s role to cheer her up, citing her recollection that she fell in love with him at first sight because of the ‘broad grin on his face when he entered the drawing room carrying a cello’ one Sunday afternoon at the home of mutual friends.

In sum, this is the story of two good, kind, decent and generous people whose country of birth was the adopted country of their parents. It represents successful integration of a kind, though some people might question the extent to which Bernard and Win were ever fully accepted by the wider society in which they lived. However, if they ever encountered anti-Semitism it was not of the murderous nature that was inflicted on their coreligionists in Europe, and they never let it diminish their allegiance to England.

Memory in the Living Room

 

In recent years it has become customary in Israel, in addition to the official ceremonies marking Holocaust Day, for small groups of people, whether survivors, descendants of survivors or simply those who feel a connection to the subject, to gather together in private homes and talk about their own or their family’s experience of the Holocaust. These meetings have been given the name ‘Memory in the Living Room.’

I belong to a group of Israelis whose parents originated from Germany or Central Europe. We meet on a fortnightly basis in the Jerusalem offices of the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin (Die Vereinigung der Israelis mitteleuropaischer Herkunft) to talk about subjects of mutual interest, and to do so in German.

The majority of the members were born in Israel or were brought here as children but grew up in ‘Yekke’ homes, namely, with parents who spoke German at home. Most of them seem to me to speak quite fluently, but then sometimes even they are stumped for a word, so that one or another person has to help them out. My own German is far less fluent as my parents, though originally from Germany, did not speak German at home because we were living in war-time London. But still, I do my best, and manage to stammer my way through a few sentences at most meetings.

Because of the desire to give the most recent meeting a different character, in tune with the new-found tradition of ‘Memory in the Living Room,’ this time we assembled at the home of one of the members. Although our hostess had provided light refreshments, some of the members brought treats of their own to offer to the twelve or so participants.

One member described growing up in a home overshadowed by sorrow, by the terrible guilt and constant depression felt by her mother, who had been unable to save her own parents. Near to tears, she described how, as a child of five, she had said to her mother “I will be your mother.” This gave rise to a general discussion about the effect on children of growing up with parents who had undergone trauma of this kind, causing them (the children) to feel that it was incumbent on them to protect their parents from further hurt, to cause them only happiness and to hide any display of sorrow.

Another member then told us how in her home there had been no sign of sadness, that the atmosphere had always been positive. In her particular case, however, all the members of the extended family had managed to reach Israel (then British-controlled Palestine), coming from a wealthy family in Czechoslovakia. Nevertheless, before managing to leave that country her grandparents had had to engage in lengthy and costly negotiations with the authorities, and had also corresponded extensively with the relatives already living in Israel. She, too, was visibly moved as she read out an extract from one of her grandmother’s letters telling how she was determined to stay in her own house to the last minute, unwilling to see strangers living in their lovely home.

The overriding theme of the meeting was the struggle each family had undergone in order to obtain the necessary documents granting entry to any country ready to accept them. Those present at the meeting had obviously all ended up in Israel, and in order to gain entry to the country it was necessary to have a Certificate issued by the British Mandatory authority. In order to obtain this one had to pay a considerable sum of money or, in some cases, to prove that one was able to engage in heavy physical or agricultural work following preparation and training in a Hachshara institution before emigrating.

This led to a discussion about the similarity to the situation concerning migrants from Africa currently confronting Israel, and the concern many of those present felt at being forced to witness a repeat of the experience their own families had once gone through. There being no apparent solution in view to that particular problem, the discussion reverted to the individual experiences of families torn from the home and country they had loved, and, too, of families torn apart by the necessity of finding some kind of refuge anywhere in the world. The crucial work done by the Kindertransport enterprise, which brought 10,000 unaccompanied children from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to England, was also mentioned. Many of those children have grown up to achieve personal and professional success in England, Israel, America and elsewhere.

For me, personally, the unavoidable message of that meeting, and of Holocaust Day in general, is the necessity for Jews to have their own country, as the situation that arose in Germany – and the whole world – prior to the outbreak of WWII could occur again. With all its faults, as long as Israel exists no Jews will ever be forced to become homeless refugees again and find that all doors are closed to them.

‘Julius Matthias; a Pact with the Devil’ by Michelle Mazel

This family saga, published by New Meridian in 2017, spans the first half of the twentieth century, focusing primarily on good-looking Julius Matthias, the son of a poor Jewish family, whose one ambition in life is to become a doctor. In order to achieve this aim he agrees to marry a widow a few years older than himself, the unattractive daughter of a wealthy Jewish pharmacist in his home town of Nagyvarad. The town is a provincial backwater  in what was then Hungary, but changed hands in the aftermath of the First World War, when the region was annexed by Romania. Over the years the town was also considered part of Transylvania, and its name was changed to Oradea, as the vast Austro-Hungarian empire crumbled and borders shifted accordingly.

Having agreed to accept the bargain (the so-called pact with the devil) proposed by his prospective parents-in-law, the young man is sent to Vienna to study medicine, and remains there for five years, until his studies are complete. The relations between his own impoverished family and that of his wealthy wife are not good and the trajectory of his life is described in all its agonising detail, stuck as he is in an unhappy union with a woman who does not love or even like him. Our protagonist does his best to keep his side of the bargain, but finds it increasingly difficult, and sometimes seeks solace in the arms of other women.

Nevertheless, four children are born to the unfortunate couple, though the eldest, a boy of five, dies by drowning in the local river. The vicissitudes of the lives of the two families form the substance of the book, and the reader is drawn into the manners and mores of the Jewish community in this far-flung region of Hungary. For Jews, arranged marriages are the norm, and the fate of a young woman is determined mainly by her physical appearance and the size of her dowry.

The society that is depicted here is neither the traditional orthodox community of the Polish stetl nor the sophisticated milieu of Vienna, but something in-between, reflecting the atmosphere of an environment where people aspire to attain higher social standing while maintaining a smattering of Jewish tradition. The cities of Bucharest and Budapest constitute the pinnacle of sophistication for the denizens of this provincial outpost, and money plays an important role in determining one’s status in society.

During the First World War Dr. Matthias is able to tend to wounded soldiers, and thereby gains the gratitude of senior officers and non-Jewish aristocrats, who later offer him protection when anti-Semitic riots erupt in his home town. The fact that the riots are fomented by students rather than an ignorant rabble gives him cause for concern, but he and the rest of the Jewish community hang on hoping that the situation will improve.

Dr. Julius Matthias becomes a successful and well-regarded physician in the town despite his own personal trials and tribulations. In the 1930s, sensing that war is about to engulf eastern Europe once again, he manages to send his two eldest children to study in Paris, which is considered to be safer and less anti-Semitic. However, despite all his efforts he is unable to prevail upon his wife to leave her home and flee with him to Paris or even Switzerland, where he has managed to transfer funds.

Throughout the book the author interweaves an account of developments in the wider political arena and the way in which they affect the fate of the individuals whose lives she is describing.

As the book comes to a conclusion in the throes of the Second World War, we find Dr. Matthias fleeing from the Germans who have overrun the country and killed his wife in the process of the community’s deportation to a concentration camp. Helped by a non-Jewish childhood friend, he is able to flee Hungary on foot, eventually reaching Switzerland, which the author defines as ‘his own promised land.’

This account of Jewish life in the provincial towns of eastern Europe in the period before and after the First World War depicts a time and place that has not been extensively described in contemporary literature, giving the reader an insight into an unfamiliar world that has since vanished for ever.

It Takes Ten to Tango

The ad in the paper for the show entitled ‘Tango in the Shadows’ caught my eye, and since Yigal and I have long been aficionados of the tango in every shape and form we decided to buy tickets for the performance in Jerusalem. The fact that the event fell exactly on the day of Yigal’s birthday made it especially attractive.

Yigal and I met at a student party many years ago, and as we were dancing together I have a clear recollection of him telling me that he particularly liked the tango. My knowledge of dancing of any kind was sketchy at the time, but I knew, or thought I knew, that dancing the tango meant striding along in close contact with the other person. At any rate, that’s what the tango represents to people in England, the country of my birth and from which I had recently arrived in Jerusalem. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but other matters took priority, and at our modest wedding a few months later in the garden of some friends there was no dancing. Already before we met, Yigal had been familiar with Argentinian folk music, and did his best to impart his love of it to me. In doing so he had to overcome the mental barrier of my intellectual snobbery, used as I was from infancy to a diet of classical music. Eventually I did come to love that music, which found its way into my heart when I was first exposed to Ariel Ramirez’s ‘Missa Criolla.’

I came to know the music of the Argentinian composer, Astor Piazzolla, many years later. Piazzolla took the traditional tango rhythms and instruments used by Argentinian musicians, especially the bandoneon, which is something like a mini-accordion, and elevated them to a higher intellectual plane yet one that is still as all-embracing as the traditional tango. The way the tango is danced in Argentina differs in some respects from the way this is done in Europe, but both forms require the woman to follow the man’s steps faithfully, giving her little freedom to express herself. That, of course, goes against my nature, but I do my best to comply.

The Argentinian tango emerged in the early years of that country’s development, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in the nightclubs of Buenos Aires and other towns of that enormous country, where immigrants congregated in an attempt to find comfort and companionship far away from their homes in Europe. It provides an excuse for combining the physical attraction between a man and a woman with the hypnotic spell cast by the all-encompassing rhythm of the music.

Yigal’s dream had always been to visit Argentina, and on his retirement we took a long trip there. We travelled from its southern tip (Ushaia) to its northern-most region (Iguassu), visiting the regions in between. We also spent some time in Buenos Aires. Apart from discovering long-lost relatives who had fled there from Germany at the same time as my own parents found refuge in England, we attended several tango performances, took lessons in tango dancing and even attended a Milonga, where one can dance the night away.

The music of the tango still manages to exert its magic, and the performance of Marcos Ayala’s Tango Company in Jerusalem was no exception. The company consists of ten dancers in addition to its lead dancers, Marcos Ayala and his partner Paola Camacho, all of them from Argentina. The music by various composers, including Piazzolla, was pre-recorded by the company’s orchestra and transmitted over loudspeakers.

The dancers were all outstanding professionals, displaying elegant footwork and consummate artistry. In the first half of the programme their outfits echoed the simple clothes worn by the first immigrants to Argentina, while in the second half the men wore stylish suits and the women donned what appeared to be either black bikinis or something akin to underwear. This contrasted starkly with the stylish, figure-hugging dresses that one generally sees in tango shows and seemed out of place, though it certainly gave the ladies a chance to display their shapely legs.

For the finale the women changed once again, this time into what appeared to be sequined swimming-suits. So once again, there were no elegant, slinky dresses but plenty of legs on show. As is customary for tango dancing, the women all wore high heels, requiring them to display considerable aplomb and equilibrium. The dancers acquitted themselves admirably, displaying breath-taking acrobatic agility and strength. I would have preferred some elegant clothes, but there is no doubt that the display of lissome female bodies was not displeasing to most of the audience.

What a Life!

 

 

‘Une Vie’ (A Life) by Simone Veil, published by Stock, France, 2017

On the cover of Simone Veil’s autobiography, written in 2007, we read that she is a member of the Academie Francaise, though this is not mentioned in the book. It would seem that after a long and eventful life, she was too modest to mention that particular distinction. Nevertheless, the list of Simone Veil’s achievements and exploits is sufficiently long and impressive to fill a book of almost four hundred pages.

Simone Veil, the youngest of the four children of André and Yvonne Jacob, was born in 1927 in Nice, France, died at the age of ninety-one in 2018, and was buried in the Pantheon in Paris, a signal honour accorded to only a few distinguished individuals. Reading her autobiography and the long list of her achievements, one can only conclude that this honour was certainly well-deserved.

The book begins with an account of her halcyon childhood and youth in Nice on the French Riviera, only to be rudely interrupted by the advent of the Germans in 1943. Sixteen-year-old Simone and other members of her family were deported first to Drancy and then to Auschwitz. Her harrowing account of life in the concentration camp, with its horrific conditions, harsh privations and work as a slave labourer for the Siemens company, was followed by a Death March to Bergen-Belsen, and eventual liberation, albeit after the loss of her mother and other family members. The heading of that chapter in her book is simply ‘Hell.’

On returning to France after a year in the camps, only to find that most of her family had been murdered, Simone decided to resume her studies and, with typical determination, completed her Baccalaureate and went on to study law at a university in Switzerland, where she had relatives who helped and supported her. While she was studying she met and married her husband, Antoine Veil, and subsequently their three sons were born. As she mentions at this point in her book, “it’s a good thing that we got married and had children while we were young, as now, after sixty years together, we can enjoy our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” Among the photographs that adorn the book is a touching one of the senior Veils surrounded by over twenty members of their family.

After completing her studies in law, Simone decided not to apply for the bar but to follow the separate track that led to becoming a magistrate. After some years in that capacity she was appointed Commissioner for Prisons, and worked assiduously to improve and reform the conditions in prisons. She served for several years in this capacity, and in 1974 was appointed Minister of Health by Jacques Chirac. Her principal concern in that office was to reform of the law regarding abortion, and to achieve that end she was obliged to overcome a great deal of opposition from the entrenched conservatism of the mainly male parliament. Woven in among the opposition was the equally deep-rooted anti-Semitism of many of her colleagues in the government, constituting another hurdle that she had to overcome while in office.

Although her connection with Israel and Judaism was tenuous, she supported the idea of the Jewish state. Nonetheless, her loyalty to France was paramount for her, and in later years she found herself ever more critical of the policies of Israel’s government.

A staunch pro-European, in 1979 she was elected President of the recently established European Parliament, and found herself constantly having to contend with the political manipulations and machinations of its members, especially those of the French representatives, whose agenda was often dictated by internal French politics rather than the European interests which she was trying to promote. While she was in this office the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited, a process that she and other French politicians watched with a mixture of approbation and concern. This, in turn, led to the eventual acceptance into the EU of many of the former Soviet-era satellite countries of Eastern Europe. After thirteen years as President, she was reappointed France’s Minister of Health in 1993. This time her main concern was to combat the incidence of Aids, both in Europe and in Africa.

Interspersed with her account of her varied and interesting career, Simone Veil presents her vision of society, which is coloured to some extent by her harrowing experience of having been a slave labourer in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Thus, she emphasizes her support for a united Europe which can never return to the enmities that gave rise to two world wars, as well as for open and democratic politics and social reform. Above all, she was motivated by an acute sense of justice, respect for human beings and the need to achieve a society that is both fair and just.

Eventually disillusioned by politics, she was appointed to France’s Constitutional Council, where she continued to promote women’s rights and pay equality. Towards the end of her life she was particularly gratified by the public acknowledgement in July 1995, by President Jacques Chirac, of France’s complicity in the crimes committed against Jews in WWII. This was accompanied by the establishment of a commission to provide compensation in the form of financial support for projects supporting Jewish activities and commemorating the crimes against Jews, and of which she was appointed President. The commission also acted to commemorate the 2,725 French Righteous Gentiles who helped to save Jews from deportation, hiding and protecting them during the years of the war, often at great personal cost.

The photographs which are included in the book show Simone Veil at the height of her beauty meeting numerous statesmen and dignitaries from around the world, though she claims that the person who impressed her the most was Anwar Sadat, who combined personal simplicity with grand human vision. The book ends with several annexes containing the text of speeches she gave at various points in her career, such as at the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2005, her address as Minister of Health to the French National Assembly in 1974, when she defended the proposal to reform the law on abortion, her address to the European Parliament following her appointment as its President in 1979, the speech she gave at the Pantheon in 2007 regarding the commemoration of France’s Righteous Gentiles, and her address to the UN General Assembly on international Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Truly, a remarkable woman who overcame adversity and devoted her life to noble causes, serving as a shining light and inspiration to us all.

Friday Night Dinner

 

“What is your favourite sound?” was one of the questions that the legendary French interviewer and literary figure, Bernard Pivo, used to ask his interviewees. The answers were usually interesting but not very original. “The sounds of nature,” “A champagne cork popping,” “The harmonious cacophany of the orchestra tuning up before a concert,” were some of the answers that I can remember.

Had he interviewed me I would have given a different reply, though I’ll grant that those are all very agreeable sounds. The sound that I like best is the buzz and hum made by the voices of my children and grandchildren as they sit at the dining-table while I am giving out the food that comprises our Friday night meal.

Whoever designed our house must have had a typical family meal in mind when he (or she) placed our rather small but compact kitchen adjacent to the dining corner, so that eye and ear contact between the two is not lost. The layout is arranged in such a way that there is not very far to go from the hob, where the saucepans are arrayed, to the diners sitting at the table. We have been living in the house for almost thirty years, so that inititally we just needed room for ourselves plus one or two of our offspring. Then along came their spouses, followed by children of their own, so that where once we had to find room for five or six people, today our table is often laid for twelve, fourteen or more. There was a time when there were several little ones either sitting at the table or running around and playing football or tag in our open-plan living area. Thankfully, those days are now long gone.

Over the years the grandchildren have grown up, so that by now most of them are adults, and this brings me to the sound I love. As they sit together at the dining table they talk about the various subjects that interest them (not politics) and because by now we have four or five grandsons who are at one stage or another of their military service or have even completed it, their voices are deep and manly. And it is the sound of their animated conversation, often interspersed by guffaws of laughter, that I find so pleasant to my ears. Of course, the feminine voices of the women of the family, and especially the granddaughters, are also to be heard, and the combined constant background of conversation is as music to my ears.

Of course, the mobile phones are unavoidable and ubiquitous, and are sometimes whipped out to check a fact or to support a point. Our Friday night meals are a mixture of tradition and modernity, beginning with the traditional blessing over bread and wine (Kiddush), but that’s as far as tradition is allowed to intrude into our gathering. One memorable evening, when the man of the house was away, one of the grandsons volunteered to pronounce the blessing. This raised my feminist hackles, and I said that anyone can pronounce the blessing, even me, whereupon the assembled grandchildren rounded on me and insisted that I do so. I had no choice but to comply, and the memory of this continues to amuse my family to this day.

To conclude the meal, either together with dessert or with the tea and cake that follows, we turn to the weekly general knowledge quiz that is a regular feature of the weekend edition of the newspaper, and a combined effort is invested in trying to solve the questions. One person reads out the questions, which cover a wide range of subjects, some of which can be known only by members of the younger generation (TV programs, sport, pop music, etc.), while others are more esoteric, ranging from English and world literature to scientific subjects. We do our best to cover all areas of expertise between us, but rarely manage to come up with more than fifty percent of the answers.

I don’t know how much longer our children and grandchildren will be able to continue assembling at our house most Friday nights, or how long I will be able to cook a meal for a large number of people. All I can say is that as long as I have the strength, I’ll keep on doing so. Whatever the physical toll may be, it is more than compensated for by the emotional satisfaction our family dinners give me.

 

An Inspiring Evening

 

 

When Ron Regev strides onto the stage to talk about the Beethoven piano sonatas he is about to play, the audience is immediately captivated by his youthful bearing, informal way of talking and encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. Setting the topic in its musical, historical and philosophical context, he provides us with additional understanding and appreciation of the music we are about to hear.

Attending another of the series of recitals accompanied by explanations that Dr. Regev has been giving over the past few weeks at the Ein Karem Music Center, with its intimate atmosphere and rural setting, we are once again entranced and fascinated by Dr. Regev’s charm and talent. In fact, he is something of a phenomenon, having been appointed head of the Jerusalem Music Academy’s keyboard department at a very early age while continuing to pursue a successful career as a performing musician.

To see and hear Dr. Regev in the course of this series, at each of which he discusses and plays several Beethoven piano sonatas (no mean feat in and of itself) is to take a journey into the complex world of Beethoven the man and the composer, as well as to learn about his place in the musical world. Regev’s abilities and broad understanding of his field enables him to establish Beethoven’s connections with those musicians and composers who went before him as well as with those who followed him.

Seemingly without any particular effort, after giving a few introductory remarks, Regev strides over to the piano and plays a few passages from a piece by Schubert, then plays the corresponding piece in Beethoven’s Sonata no. 18 to demonstrate the similarities between them, concluding with a few bars from Saint-Saen’s piano concerto for additional emphasis. Needless to say, all the works he plays are infinitely complex, requiring the dexterity, concentration and musicality of a concert pianist, and this he achieves with what appears to be great ease.

Regev was one of the first musicians to use an ipad instead of musical notation on paper as an aide to playing. In this, however, he is no longer unique as it is becoming more and more customary to see musicians using the digital device. From where I was sitting I was fascinated to be able to observe the way the music appears on the screen and automatically progresses without any ‘human’ intervention such as having to take one’s hands off the piano keys to turn the page (or have an assistant at hand to do the work). Amongst other things, Regev serves as musical advisor to the Tonara company that has developed the program that ‘hears’ the music being played and automatically progresses to the next passage. On the screen the page is turned automatically, making life much easier for the performing artist.

Still, though scientific progress may be all well and good, it can never compensate for depth of feeling and the ability to convey emotion through the notes that are played, and this Dr. Regev manages to achieve with admirable aplomb.

And so, once again, an evening that combined an uplifting musical experience with enlightenment that was neither condescending nor trivialising came to a satisfying end with an impassioned performance of Beethoven’s sonata no. 23, popularly known as the Appassionata Sonata, whose ending with a bravura cascade of chords simply took our breath away.