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.

The Lebanese Restaurant in Abu Ghosh

 

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On a sunny Saturday morning, Israel’s official day of rest (the country has not yet officially adopted the two-day weekend) I got into my car and drove to the nearby Arab village of Abu Ghosh.

For the village, which is situated some fifteen kilometers outside Jerusalem, well within the Green Line, Saturday is possibly the busiest day of the week. The village is known for its hospitality, and its restaurants and cafés are frequented by Israelis of all kinds – both Jews and Arabs. In addition, its various stores and businesses seem to be flourishing.

Trying to find a place to park on a Saturday morning is far from easy, as the village is also a focus of attraction for Israelis who want to enjoy some of the traditional oriental fare that is on offer at the various restaurants – whether to eat on the spot or to take away.

And so it was that I found myself standing in line in the Lebanese restaurant there, together with several other Israelis. We were all waiting to get to the counter which fronts the kitchen where the food is being constantly prepared, to be served by the hard-working attendants. It was truly a remarkable sight. The staff consisted solely of men, all clad in black shirts and trousers, each and every one of them working as hard as he possibly could to satisfy the almost insatiable demand for their wares.

I counted at least six men preparing the food, and another six who were serving customers. The counter was too small for all six servers, so every now and again one of them would appear from the side and ask ‘Who’s next?’ careful not to bump into one or another of his colleagues. There was no sign of tiredness, impatience or slacking, everyone was focused to the fullest extent on taking the next order, getting the food packed and ready, and handed over to the customer who had requested it, all the time adding up the price of each item in their head. And all this was done at an amazing pace – an impressive feat of technical organization, mental arithmetic and physical agility. Not an instant was wasted on idle chit-chat or pleasantries, and so even the fairly long queue that I encountered when I entered did not mean that I had to wait very long to be served, though by the time I had paid there were quite a few people waiting behind me.

I was buying some of the traditional oriental delicacies to serve to my guests in the afternoon, other people appeared be to buying food to take on a picnic (they asked for sets of plastic cutlery), while yet others seemed intent on providing a meal for the family at home. Humus and Tehina were the obvious favourites, followed by all manner of salads, pickles, vegetables in various shapes and forms, and even the traditional fried vegetable balls known as falafel. Everything was fresh and ready to eat, and the end result in my case was delicious food, happy guests and an even happier hostess.

 

Moab is my Washpot, by Stephen Fry

 

stephen-fry

I have mixed feelings about the author whose avowed brilliance is tempered by strange behavior, apparently due to his being subject to bi-polar disorder, as well as his aversion to Israel and Zionism. His half-Jewish background may partly account for the latter, and possibly even the former, but it doesn’t make me like him any better.

On the other hand, to see him act and to read his book is to love and admire him, both for his vast talent and for his disarming honesty. I laughed and cried, alternately gasping in admiration and clutching my head in dismay, as I read the 430 pages of this book, and am looking forward to reading its sequel. Even more exhilarating is the news that the third volume in the series has just been published. But I think I’ll give my quest to acquire additional Fry reading matter a rest for the moment.

There is no doubt that Stephen Fry has a way with words, as well as having something akin to total recall with regard to the sometimes audacious, sometimes salacious, aspects of the first twenty years of his life. He was obviously a troubled teenager, but if you are sent away to boarding school at the age of seven that is hardly surprising. According to Fry’s account, there is a certain similarity between public school and Borstal (he has experienced both), and to be deprived at such an early age of what one would hope is the warmth and security of family life must affect the individual in some way, for better or for worse. But then the question that has to be asked is: why don’t all those children who are sent away to boarding school at an early age turn out to be disturbed? Perhaps they do in some way or another, but then they’re not Stephen Fry, who would habitually steal money from his fellow-pupils in order to buy sweets, as well as playing pranks of various kinds on teachers and fellow-pupils alike.

Admittedly, Stephen’s father was somewhat eccentric, apparently being something of a genius, totally devoted to his work as an independent inventor and developer of various kinds of scientific measuring equipment. He seems to have been reasonably successful at this, being able to live in an enormous house which also served as his physics laboratory, workshop and production floor. He was a very distant person, and it was on Stephen’s mother, whom he adored, that the burden of bringing up three children fell (though of course there were servants who helped around the house and with the children when they were small).

One of the most touching parts of the book is Fry’s long and detailed account of falling in love at school at the age of fourteen with a boy about a year younger than himself. The pre-pubescent boy evidently possessed an almost ethereal beauty, and Fry describes the feeling of being hopelessly in love with astonishing fidelity, managing to evoke emotions that most of us have felt at one time but have long forgotten. The memory of that love, which may or may not have been unrequited, haunts Fry almost throughout the book, and although his tone is for the most part flippant and conversational, when it comes to this topic he plumbs depths of emotion that are both terrifying and uplifting.

After an undistinguished school career, eventually being expelled from yet another school, having been caught red-handed by the matron from whose handbag he was trying to steal money, Stephen spent some time in a detention centre and was eventually given a two-year suspended  sentence and placed under probation. Once again, he failed to live up to his innate ability, but it was at this point that he decided to take himself in hand, managing to persuade the reluctant head of an external college to not only let him sit his A-levels again but also to sit for the Cambridge Entrance Exams.

By dint of his hard work, amazing memory and extraordinary intelligence, Stephen managed to excel in all his exams, and was offered a scholarship to Queens College, Cambridge, justifying his parents’ belief in him and serving to console them for all the trouble he had caused them till then.

A Dismal and Delightful Week

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My week began with the stranger who walked into the local hairdresser’s where I was sitting and asked if the car parked further along the road was mine. It was. “Well, I’ve caused some damage to the windscreen,” he informed me. In the process of cutting branches off a tree in his garden one of them had fallen right onto my windscreen, smashing it, then bounced onto the bonnet, causing further damage. The result: three days at the garage and several thousand shekels of damage.

I had a very full programme that week, with activities in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv, so that it was necessary to resort to public transport, lifts from friends and my husband, and even the occasional taxi. Until recently, Mevasseret Zion, where I live, was on the route between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv but recent changes to the road system means that we are now cut off from the highway. The bus route that used to go directly to and from Tel-Aviv from Mevasseret is now limited to a couple of hours in the morning, and vice versa in the evening. Oh well, such is life. I managed to get the bus to Tel-Aviv, but wasn’t so lucky on the way back, which meant changing buses, catching the shuttle-bus and calling my husband to collect me from the distant bus-stop.

But the reward for all this inconvenience was being able to attend the conference of the Israel Translators Association, with its plethora of fascinating lectures and the chance to meet up with old friends and colleagues. After all, translators are generally ensconced in their homes with their computers, and in this day and age one doesn’t even need to venture outside to go to a library to consult a book or to go to the post office to send off a completed text. Thus,  an opportunity to meet up with other translators is very much appreciated.

The Conference had many interesting lectures on offer. I was particularly intrigued by the title of Dr. Basilius Bawardi’s talk, ‘How Did Sherlock Holmes Build a Nation? The Cultural Translation of Nasib al-Mashalani into Arabic at the Turn of the 20th Century,’ and found myself plunged into Egyptian society in the late 19th and early 20th century, when the aforementioned Nasib al-Mashalani (about whom very little is known) took it upon himself to translate works by Conan Doyle into Arabic. He did not always acknowledge his source, sometimes presenting the stories (when they did not involve Sherlock Holmes) as his own. According to Dr. Bawardi, the translator’s objective was to disseminate the concepts of law and order, adherence to norms of morality and respect for the police. Apparently, in his translations of the Sherlock Holmes stories the police are regarded as purveyors of justice rather than being the corrupt and bribable element they constituted in Egypt at that time (or the inept force depicted by Conan Doyle). In an aside at the end of the lecture Dr. Bawardi mentioned the mind-boggling fact that al-Mashalani had begun his career by translating the books of Enid Blyton.

Anothere fascinating lecture was given by Inbal Saggiv-Nakdimon and concerned the problems encountered by translators of science fiction and fantasy into Hebrew. As well as having to invent terms for concepts and objects which appear in these kinds of texts, there is the additional issue of consistency for such terminology within a series, for example when a later volume is published at a different time and is given to a different translator. In addition, across the genre different terms may be used by different translators for similar concepts or objects. The presence in the audience of other translators in that genre gave rise to a lively discussion about the different words used for the concept of ‘telekinesis,’ regarding which it transpired that there is as yet no accepted term in Hebrew.

The highlight of the conference was the final lecture, given by the acclaimed Israeli writer, Amos Oz, about the translation of his books. As well as writing novels which are known for the richness of their characterization and beautiful Hebrew prose, Oz possesses the gift of being able to speak clearly, concisely and in an engaging way. Thus, he held the audience captive with his account of the way he and Nicholas de Lange worked together on translating his first novel, My Michael, into English, some fifty years ago. He admitted that his ability to monitor translations of his work into Korean or Japanese is limited, but he asks those translators to read him a passage or a page out loud in order to gauge whether they have accurately captured the ‘music’ of his prose.

Amos Oz also spoke about his approach to the writing process. It was interesting and inspiring to hear how he starts each day at 4 a.m., when he goes out to walk in nature, and it is this communing with the natural world that gives him his perspective on life and the universe. He contends that this enables him to utilize his own natural empathy and curiosity about people to imagine himself in their place in various situations.

The insights, intellectual stimulation and social interaction that I experienced that day filled me with joy, providing a delightful contrast to the rather dismal beginning of the week.

Capturing the Enigma; the Unsung Heroes of HMS Bulldog

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In May 1941, at a time when the Second World War was in full swing and the British forces were doing their utmost to block Hitler’s rampage across Europe, the battle to control the ocean was of paramount importance. Convoys of ships transporting troops and bringing much-needed supplies and materiel to Britain from the USA and Canada were routinely hunted down and attacked by groups of German submarines, known as wolf packs, causing untold damage to the British navy and mainland, not to mention suffering and death to the sailors manning those ships.

The British war effort was conducted on a number of fronts, among them that of intelligence. Inter alia, the British were doing their utmost to decipher the codes used by the Germans to disseminate their military messages to their troops, whether on land or at sea, but their efforts were frustrated by their inability to gain access to the encoding machine used by the German for this purpose. The existence of the machine, known as Enigma, was known to the Allied forces, but without a working exemplar it was impossible to ascertain precisely how it was used. Although the Poles and the French had managed to work out some aspects of the code, they were still far from attaining perfect knowledge of the way the machine worked. The British had set up an extensive system for decoding and translating messages at Bletchley Park, and tremendously important espionage work was implemented there, including the development of what came to be known later as the first computer, by Alan Turing. As is well known, Turing played a seminal role in understanding the workings of the Enigma machine and deciphering the code.

How the actual machine came to be in the hands of British Intelligence is the subject of this book by Patrick Spencer which tells an exciting tale of the pursuit and capture of a German u-boat by a British destroyer. HMS Bulldog, commanded by Captain Joe Baker-Cresswell, as he shepherded a convoy of merchant ships across the North Atlantic. From being the hunter he became the hunted, but the depth charge he set off succeeded in hitting the German u-boat that was pursuing his vessel. The u-boat was listing, and its crew abandoned ship. At that point Captain Baker-Cresswell decided that instead of finally sinking the German vessel his men would board it and take whatever they could find, known as ‘doing a Magdeburg,’

The operation was complex and risky, as the u-boat was in the process of sinking, but the men of the boarding party were determined to remove anything they could find that looked as if it might be of value, whether papers or equipment. Thus it was that one of the men came across what looked like a peculiar typewriter which was bolted to a wooden surface. Using the screwdriver that he had included in his bag of tools before leaving the ship, the officer managed to release the machine. It was only with great difficulty and considerable dexterity that the men managed to haul the heavy machine up to HMS Bulldog, where it could finally be identified as an actual Enigma machine. Displaying great bravery, the boarding party returned to the u-boat several times to remove whatever they could find that might be of value to the war effort.

The commander began towing the captured u-boat back to Blighty behind his ship, but when it began to sink beneath the waves he cut the tow-rope and let it go to the bottom. The operation was later given the name ‘Operation Primrose,’ and every effort was made to ensure that the Germans did not realise that the British had managed to seize hold of an actual working Enigma machine. In fact, Winston Churchill kept the details secret for months even from his close ally, President Roosevelt. The decryption of the Enigma code enabled the British forces to anticipate the movements of the u-boat wolfpacks, significantly reducing the loss of ships and contributing significantly to the victory of the Allies

London, Paris, Jerusalem


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‘He who tires of London has tired of life,’ wrote Samuel Johnson, and I dare say he had a point. Even in the dead of winter, when the bone-chilling cold really does chill every inch of bone in your body, the place has its pleasures provided you are suitably attired with hat, coat, boots, etc., breathe only through your woolly scarf and try to limit your time outdoors to the absolute minimum.

After all, buses, trains, shops and the tube are reasonably well-heated, and the pub is usually full enough of human bodies to generate sufficient heat to enable one to remove at least one outer layer of clothing. It pains me, though, to see the homeless people (mainly men) huddled in doorways, and probably literally freezing to death. I’m told on good authority (taxi drivers) that these people could find shelter through one of the government or charitable agencies that are prepared to help them, but they prefer to be free to come and go as they please. And for that they have to pay a price.

One of the chief delights of London is the theatre. I confess to being greatly irritated on the rare occasions when I go to the theatre in Israel. The actors do not speak clearly and, worst of all, have never learned to project their voices and rely instead on those odious little face-microphones. What do they think? That the actors in Shakespeare’s day used face-mikes? In England (and America, too, perhaps, but I’ve never been to a play there) part of the basic training of an actor is learning how to project their voice so that even the poor sods up in the gods (the highest, cheapest seats, often limited to standing only) can hear every word. Admittedly, our seats were quite near the stage and so we were in a particularly privileged position, but it was definitely possible to understand most if not all the dialogue on stage. And what a joy the two plays we saw (‘This House’ and ‘The Kite-Runner’) were, with clever dialogue, imaginative staging, competent acting and witty direction.

We left cold and rainy London for freezing central France and felt very sorry for ourselves as we huddled over log fires (me) or spent a lot of time and energy bringing logs into the house and getting fires going (him). The countryside was beautiful in its frozen state, but I’m afraid I didn’t see much of it as simply going outside required immense investment of mental and physical energy. We couldn’t even enjoy the view when we drove to Paris as almost the entire route was shrouded in fog. Can we call freezing fog frog? Let the froggies keep their frog, I say.db75f405-688f-4eec-97d4-780bc7ccb71e

Our few days in icy cold Paris enabled us to enjoy an enlightening visit to the Musée d’Orsay to see the special exhibition of works by Frederick Bazille, an early Impressionist painter who was killed at the age of 29 in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870. What a waste! The few paintings he produced are extremely impressive, showing his ability to produce work of great sophistication and beauty.

The pinnacle of our stay in Paris was a stellar performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute opera, with first-rate singers and orchestra. The show ended late and we had to get up early the next morning to catch our plane, but it was worth it.

In Israel we were greeted by pouring rain, but consoled ourselves with the thought that at least it wasn’t freezing, foggy or froggy.