Between Hunkering Down and Resurgence

After the initial influx in February of the Coronavirusl, followed by the massive and rapid lockdown and attendant social and economic damage, in early June matters were gradually being restored to some semblance of normality here in Israel. Small groups were allowed to meet, some schools were able to function partially in what was known as ‘capsules’ and there was a general relaxation of the lockdown restrictions.

After receiving financial compensation for their losses, whether in full or partially, businesses and even restaurants, cafés and bars were able to open provided certain restrictions were met. The unemployment rate fell, synagogues were reopened, people returned to the open spaces and beaches, and finally schools were allowed to function fully.

Those involved in the performing arts – actors, musicians, stand-up artists, etc. – were indignant at being left out of the general return to normality. Protests and demonstrations were held, and eventually the government gave in and performances were permitted provided the audience did not exceed 250 people, or fifty percent of the auditorium’s capacity. This was met with scorn, as no theatre could be economically viable at that level, but eventually it was accepted, and plans went ahead to hold as many performances as possible in the open air (where the risk of infection is presumed to be lower). Buses and eventually also trains were allowed to function, albeit to a limited extent. And at last, promises were made to ‘reopen the skies’ and allow Israelis desperate for holidays abroad to depart for specified countries (Cyprus, Greece, Iceland), where infection rates were considered to be sufficiently low.

At first there were some rays of light here and there amidst all the doom and gloom. A large advertisement taken out in one of the national daily newspapers expressed the gratitude of ‘the theatres, the orchestras, the dance, the museums, the opera, the cinematheques, and the other cultural and artistic institutions, as well as of the thousands of artists, actors and workers who are returning to work’ to the support and cooperation extended by the Minister of Culture and Sport, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Health, and their staffs and the various institutions of culture. Gratitude was also expressed to several philanthropic institutions. That certainly warmed the cockles of any culture vulture’s heart, but what it actually meant in practice never came to fruition.

The euphoria lasted exactly two weeks. As June progressed the general rejoicing and premature self-congratulation on the part of the government came to an abrupt stop. The dreaded second wave had arrived.

The curve which had been flattened reared its ugly head again, and alarm bells started ringing as the number of infections rose drastically. The idea of returning to the theatre and the concert hall vanished like the proverbial mirage. Admittedly, orchestras and theatres have been putting on performances of one kind or another via the medium of Zoom, but that is not going to put much money in their coffers or provide audiences with the thrill of seeing and hearing performances by living, breathing human beings.

For a while the government dithered between re-imposing a full or partial lockdown or letting matters sort themselves out somehow. Not even our all-knowing and all-powerful Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to know what line take, swinging between threatening a return to full lockdown, trying to cajole people into following the guidelines and advocating stricter policing of public behavior. Suddenly his regular evening TV appearances to say how well we were doing came to an abrupt stop. No more nightly Bibi on our screens. Various ministers are given the task of haranguing the public. Only when there is something positive to say does the Prime Minister put in an appearance. And for the moment there is no such thing.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra gave a gala performance gratis via Zoom which was introduced by Dame Helen Mirren. But there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of a live performance by the Phil. taking place any time soon. Especially considering that the average age of its audience is well over seventy-.

The idea of life ever returning to anything like normality seems to be more like a will-o-the-wisp that is constantly disappearing over the next hill.

‘Le livre de ma mere (My Mother’s Book)’ by Albert Cohen

 

Albert Cohen wrote (or at least published) this book when he was about sixty years old. I don’t know when his mother died, but – as its title implies – the book is about his late mother and her devotion to him, embellished by his evidently deep-rooted sense of guilt at not having been as kind to her as he felt should have been in her lifetime.

Near the beginning the book we read about the burial of the author’s mother, with a graphic description of the scene at the cemetery, focusing primarily on the coffin and the hole in the ground into which it is lowered.

Chapter by chapter the author gradually unveils his mother’s character, appearance and habits. He describes the way his mother would prepare the house and herself for the Sabbath, wait to greet her husband and son as they returned from synagogue on Friday night and focus her whole being on seeing to the welfare of the two men who comprised her entire universe. The family lived in Marseille, where his father was a not-very-successful businessman and his mother tended to be isolated from the society of other people, largely because of her own feelings of inadequacy.

Scenes from the author’s childhood describe the utter devotion with which his mother attended to him, cared for him, depended on his happiness, and altogether appeared to be totally absorbed in making him the centre of her world.

A large part of the book recounts over and over again that the author was living in Geneva, first as a student and then as a member of the diplomatic corps, and from time to time (approximately once a year) his mother would come to stay with him for a few weeks. He describes in exquisite detail the image of his mother descending from the train, a somewhat pathetic and dishevelled figure, her clothes crumpled and her hat slightly askew, and how her eyes would light up when she espied him waiting for her on the platform. He describes her embarrassed little laugh when he pointed out some grammatical mistake she had made, and her complete desolation when he chided her for phoning one of his lady friends at four in the morning to ascertain that no harm had befallen him. He chides himself repeatedly for his behaviour towards her.

The reader is given several detailed accounts of those and other scenes, which evidently continued to haunt the writer. He describes the battered suitcase from which his mother would extract the various treats she had prepared for him in Marseille, many of which had been beloved by him in his childhood, and how she delighted in his joy upon receiving what she had brought him.

Above all, however, the author reiterates his guilt at not having shown sufficient appreciation for his mother’s love and devotion to him, and the indifference he had occasionally displayed towards her, to the extent that on one occasion he had even been three hours late for a meeting with her somewhere in Geneva. It is with painful honesty that he describes his youthful preoccupation with a certain young lady that caused him to keep his mother waiting for him for hours.

Towards the end of the book the author’s grief (or guilt) becomes virtually unbearable, and at the end of every sentence describing his mother we find the refrain ‘She is dead.’ The sense of overpowering anguish seems to transcend everything, extinguishing all other emotions. In one of the last few paragraphs the author acknowledges that we are all destined to end the same way, all bound to lie in a dark hole in the ground as our bodies decay and decompose.

As the book comes to an end the author admonishes young people everywhere, rebuking them for not appreciating their mothers enough, for not showing them that they love them, for neglecting to pay them the attention they deserve. Somehow, this becomes a homily, likening all mothers to saints, and even to the mother of Jesus.

I hope that by writing this memoir the author managed to assuage his conscience and allay his guilt. Without going into too much psychological analysis, the association with Oedipus cannot be dismissed out of hand. For me, however, it has been clear for a long time that it is guilt rather than love that makes the world go round. And it would certainly appear to be guilt that impelled Albert Cohen to write this book.

Having a Laugh

Back in the day, when my children were young, I would sometimes join them when they watched certain programmes on Children’s TV. One of these was ‘Zehu-Zeh’ (That’s It), which tried to amuse, entertain and educate by means of little skits, songs and quizzes. Let’s face it, most of the programmes on Children’s TV were noisy, gaudy American imports, with little or no educational content, though of course Sesame Street was the exception that proved the rule.

Now that we’re undergoing a period when there are few programmes anywhere – whether for adults or children – that are not noisy, gaudy as well as being full of violence, tension, murder and mayhem, it has become increasingly difficult to find anything on TV that is enjoyable to watch (if you are over sixty and slightly out-of-step with current trends).

So it was with a sense of curiosity mixed with hope that I started watching the current revival of the erstwhile children’s programme, Zehu-Zeh. It was brought back in order to raise general morale at this difficult time of Coronavirus lockdown. It is broadcast in the evening, which means that it is certainly not intended for children. The actors participating in the modern version were also involved in the original one, though they are now understably somewhat older and less agile but still recognizably themselves and still able to hold a tune and even sing in harmony, thank goodness. As they did then, even now they still seem to have a penchant for cross-dressing, which they do very well, adding an extra touch of humour to the show.

This time round, though, the focus is less on education and more on entertainment, and to be more specific, humour. Sometimes the script is better and sometimes worse, but the five main participants are still consummate actors and know how to deliver their lines to maximum effect. In a recent episode there were some excellent examples of what can only be described as biting political satire that had me laughing out loud and hastening to repeat the gems I had witnessed to my nearest and dearest.

The various much-hyped films and TV series involving tension, high-speed car chases, action and violence are not my cup of tea, and I continue to resist all enticements aimed at getting me to watch them. At a time when the whole world seems grim, grey and dark such fare is not what I need to lighten my mood.

And so, with disaster lurking around every corner, my only consolation is laughter, and I salute all those who are endeavouring to bring us some joy and relief from the grim reality of life.

Keep up the good work, chaps, and more power to you in continuing to keep the laughter flowing.

‘Orlando’ Revisited

I read ‘Orlando’ originally many years ago, when I first ‘discovered’ Virginia Woolf and the fascinating world of the Bloomsbury Group – the coterie of artists, writers and intellectuals that coalesced around her and her husband, Leonard Woolf (who was Jewish). I eagerly swallowed every word she had ever written, as well as her diaries, collected letters and  the many works about her and the other members of the group. She and many of them lived in the Bloomsbury area of London, in those heady interwar years, hence the name. ‘Orlando’ was one of Virginia Woolf’s books that I read at the time, and I remember not being greatly taken with it, although, as always with her, the prose was rich and impressive. I simply didn’t feel that the book had the kind of narrative impact that I had come to expect.

As the result of some words of high praise written by a friend, I decided to reread the book, and found that my initial impression was not too far wrong. This time round I paid more attention to the writing (even to the highly idiosyncratic punctuation) than I had in the past, and found myself being irritated time and again by the knowing tone adopted by the narrator, the constant asides, parentheses, notes in the imaginary margin and the altogether overbearing and patronising tone in which the tale of the individual known as Orlando is told.

In fact, the story of the imaginary character, who is at first male, then female and lives through several centuries of British and European history, is the hook on which the book is predicated, but is not really the crux of the book, even though he/she constitutes the title. The book is rather an opportunity for the author to take the reader on an intellectual journey through British history, British literary fads and fashions, and British manners and mannerisms, especially those of the aristocracy and upper classes, while displaying her encyclopaedic knowledge of those and other subjects. For good measure she throws in musings about philosophy, gender identity and the nature of artistic rivalry which is all well and good but doesn’t do much to stimulate the reader’s interest.

To be quite honest, I found the entire tone of the book tedious, and because it also had a soporific effect on me it took me far longer than usual to get to the end, as I was constantly overcome by an insurmountable urge to sleep (maybe this should be recommended as bed-time reading, even though I read it in daytime). What I found particularly annoying was the constant ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ attitude of the narrator which takes the form of comments, asides and playful forays into some kind of false intimacy between reader and author.

Virginia Woolf dedicated the book to her friend, fellow-writer and possible lover, Lady Ottoline Morell, and it is a possibility that the tone of the book is in some way an echo of that writer’s style, and may even be some kind of love-letter addressed to her. There are also in-jokes and oblique references to contemporary (and possibly rival) writers and thinkers, among those I managed to identify were D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Maynard Keynes’s wife and the Hogarth Press set up by Leonard Woolf. On the brighter side, I found a scene set in the Marshall and Snelgrove department store in Oxford Street particularly evocative, though various parts of London at different times in its history are described with great vivacity.

The book may have been considered revolutionary at the time it was published, in 1928, but its general tone today strikes this particular reader as laboured, pettifogging, pretentious, patronizing, pedantic and priggish.

 

TOTAL BALONEY (Quatsch mit Sosse) (Shtuyot Bemitz in Hebrew)

The CD with the title (in German and Hebrew) ‘Total Baloney’ was given to me some time ago by the Association of Former Residents of Central Europe, and when I finally got round to watching it I found myself taken back to the kitchen of my mother and other ‘Yekke’ relatives, back to the enchanted land of nostalgia, to the tastes and aromas of yesteryear, and to a time of innocence and memories (though not always fond).

The short film contains interviews with people of Yekke origin and demonstrations by them of the food that was cooked and the meals that were eaten in the homes of Jews originally from Germany and the surrounding countries who now live in Israel. Their manners and mannerisms, the way certain foods were prepared, the importance of how the table was set, the focus on minding one’s table manners as well as various other aspects of cooking, baking and eating were treated, at times seriously, at others with humour, but always with affection. Some people proudly displayed the handwritten recipe books their mothers or grandmothers had used. That reminded me that a few years ago my sisters and I took our late mother’s handwritten recipe book and published it for the whole family, translating her German recipes into Hebrew and English for the benefit of her descendants in Israel and abroad.

It was heartwarming to see elderly ladies (and some gentlemen) donning sturdy aprons and rolling their sleeves up to cook traditional dishes such as the red cabbage so beloved of many Yekke families, or sharing memories of the hated spinach many were forced to eat in childhood because it was considered healthy. Many other likes and dislikes also came to mind. Among the latter was the prevalence of apples in every possible kind of dish, whether savoury or sweet. That was also a bane of my own life as a child, since my mother – who was a consummate cook – found it necessary to accompany every main course with apple sauce (the apfelmus I dreaded finding on my plate at every Friday night dinner).

 

Cakes and pastries were also an important component of the Yekke diet, and one particular segment shows the various stages involved in the preparation of the legendary Black Forest Cake, with something I had never encountered before – an ingenious wire device for slicing the cake into two equal halves. Many Yekkes shared their fond memory of whipped cream (schlagsahne) as an accompaniment to cake. Another fond memory that arose in several interviews was the ceremonial way birthdays were celebrated, with a humorous procession, a birthday table laden with gifts, and a general air of merriment and rejoicing.

An additional touch which served to reinforce my enjoyment of the film was its accompaniment by various Schubert lieder, which were of course beloved by all (or almost all) Yekkes. The songs chosen seemed to fit exactly to the spirit of the speakers as they demonstrated the preparation and consumption of food in an atmosphere of tranquillity and harmony, and always with a touch of dry, Yekke humour.

One person reminisced fondly about the paucity of spices and condiments used in typical Yekke cooking, and which she claimed did not usually exceed five. There seemed to be a general consensus that no self-respecting Yekke housewife would contemplate using garlic in the food she prepared for her family, considering that salt and pepper, onions and parsley provided all the flavouring necessary for a tasty meal. The idea of introducing coriander (whether cooked or raw) or any other ‘exotic’ flavour to a dish was anathema to the Yekke palate.

Potatoes also occupied a prominent position in the Yekke kitchen, doubtless due to their prevalence in Germany, and the general reluctance to embark on getting involved in the slightly more complicated process of preparing rice. Thus, potatoes in one form or another, whether as salad or in their boiled or fried incarnation, accompanied almost every meal.

If you’re curious to see what caused me to enthuse about the traditional Yekke kitchen, the film is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9dn6J8x_5U

Go ahead and take a look. You’ll enjoy it, I guarantee.

Them and Us

 

There has always been a certain divide between rulers and ruled. That is the way of the world, whether in ancient Mesopotamia, the ancient Land of Israel, ancient Greece and Rome, the various nations of Europe and all over the world. The relatively recent attempt (in historical terms) to introduce an element of fairness into the system has had its successes and its failures, whether in the shape of democracy or some form of socialism, but there is no getting away from the fact that countries have to be governed, and some people seem to feel the urge to govern them.

Modern western societies have sought to elect the people who govern them by means of a system that is considered equitable and fair, namely democracy. Representatives of segments of the population or of specific regions are elected by ballots cast on a universal basis, supposedly guaranteeing equal representation for all, with rule by the majority being generally accepted as the best solution.

So in theory, as the American Declaration of Independence states, all men (and women by now) are considered equal. We’ll disregard the fact that at the time that Declaration was made neither women nor black people had equal rights, and it has been a long, hard struggle to achieve that. But the principle remains that essentially every individual is considered to be equally valuable to society, and each person’s voice has the right to be heard.

In Israel today, so the theory goes, there is no entrenched ruling class, such as there once was in England, France, and other European countries. Even in those countries it is considered appropriate today for the government to comprise representatives who have been democratically elected. When Israel’s founding fathers established its ruling institutions the emphasis was on the equal distribution of wealth, the absence of class distinctions, and the need for society to care for the weak and the needy (thus following traditional Jewish values). In fact, in the early days of the State of Israel very few people were wealthy, most of the political leaders lived in modest circumstances, and several remained (or later became) members of a kibbutz (where the principle of the equal distribution of goods was paramount).

During the course of its existence the ethos underlying Israel’s social fabric has shifted away from the principle of equality. Today it is considered acceptable, albeit not entirely desirable, to have a society of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots,’ and despite the attempts to provide for the economically disadvantaged, this divide seems to be becoming ever more firmly entrenched.

Another overriding principle underlying most modern societies – Israel included – is that of justice, the concept of equality before the law, that no one can be considered above the law. And this brings us to painful recent events which have further deepened the existing rift within Israel.

The Coronavirus pandemic has disrupted societies all over the world, causing lockdowns and economic hardship for many. The U.K. has recently been riven by a scandal over the unsanctioned cross-country drive (supposedly to obtain care for his child) by a senior government advisor, thereby breaking the lockdown rule which the rest of the country has been obliged to obey. The Prime Minister has refused to condemn that act, and so the concept of equality before the law is destroyed.

The President of the USA has openly declared that he will not wear a mask, even though this is the medically recommended way of avoiding transmission of the disease. He, too, seems to consider himself above the rules which ordinary folk are required to follow.

England and the USA are not alone in having political figures who flout the rules which the general public is supposed to observe. At the recent Pesach (Passover) festival, at which it is customary for families to eat the festive meal together (the Seder), for the first time in Israel’s history families were forbidden to congregate, and many people were forced to sit alone or communicate with their relatives by electronic means (Zoom, etc.).

It did not take long, however, for the news media to publish photos of the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, enjoying the Seder with his son who does not live under the same roof as him. To make matters worse, the President of Israel, Ruby Rivlin, was also shown in the company of his grandchildren, who do not share his home.

Israelis expressed outrage at this blatant demonstration of hypocrisy by the very leaders who had called on them to observe the strictest terms of social isolation. However, instead of calling for their resignation, the public seems to have shrugged its shoulders and simply carried on. At least the strict lockdown restrictions were eased soon afterwards, whether prematurely or not time will tell.

But the most flagrant example of spurning the principle of equality before the law is being provided by the current Prime Minister. After evading justice for years by a series of legal and political ploys, Benjamin Netanyahu was finally brought before a court of law on charges of corruption, bribery and misappropriation of funds. Any other politician so charged would have resigned (or at least committed suicide) long since, but not Mr. Teflon. After his long fight against being brought to justice, just before he entered the courtroom he managed to bring additional shame on Israel’s political structure by launching an unbridled attack on the police, the media, the judicial system (comprised of judges appointed by his government) and the Attorney General.

In a normal country he would feel obliged to resign at this point, but he shows no intention of doing so, and will continue to sling mud in every possible direction until, so it seems, he has succeeded in undermining all the institutions that have been put in place to protect our society from the ravages of demagogues who seek to remain in power at all costs.

Democracy is still maintained, at least in theory. The only problem lies in the inability of the electorate to see through politicians’ lies and chicanery; and to realise that there’s one law for them and another for us.

 

‘Kriegskind (War Child); Eine Judische Kindheit in Hamburg (A Jewish Childhood in Hamburg)’ by Marione Ingram

Once a year the Hamburg Jewish Association sends me a beautiful wall calendar with pictures of the city. As my late father, his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived and worked there for many years, I am somehow also entitled to receive this annual token of my family’s association with the city. In addition, the Association attaches a report of its activities in the preceding year, together with a list of books which are connected in some way with the city. This book drew my attention, and after I had submitted my request it duly arrived by post and provided me with fascinating reading-matter during the Coronavirus lockdown. I must admit that my German vocabulary is sadly lacking, so that I found myself having to look up many words in the dictionary, but I feel that the effort was well worth it.

Marione Ingram was born in Hamburg in 1938 to a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, and so was defined as a ‘mischling’ (half-breed) by the Nazi authorities. Her autobiographical book begins with her account of having been sent by her mother when she was eight years old to take her younger sister to their aunt. She decided to return unbidden and found her mother in the throes of an attempt to commit suicide by putting her head in their gas oven.

That is as dramatic a start to any book as any you will find, and I read with bated breath how this child managed somehow to rescue and revive her mother. From that moment on there is a special bond between mother and daughter, and it is this that saves them from the subsequent massive bombing of Hamburg by the Allies and the firestorm that ensued. Marione describes the devastation caused by the American bombers and ‘Flying Fortresses’ by day and the British ‘Mosquitos’ by night in the framework of the concerted Allied attack known by the codename Gomorrha. She describes the frequent air-raid warnings and all-clear signals, and provides a telling account of the way their neighbours refused to allow her and her mother to enter the air-raid shelter, stating that it was reserved for ‘Aryans.’

In the total devastation that followed, Marion and her mother wandered through entire neighbourhoods of burning and destroyed buildings, trying to avoid the corpses that lay on all sides, eventually finding refuge by immersing themselves in a canal. It later transpired that all the people in the air-raid shelter that declined to accept them had perished in the bombardment. It so happened that the events of Gomorrha served to save Marione’s and her family (her father had been conscripted into the Luftwaffe) from being deported to a concentration camp, but they knew they had to go into hiding. This was arranged by their father, and they were given refuge in the flimsy farmyard hut belonging to an acquaintance.

Marione, her sister and her mother spent two years in hiding in the hut, subsisting on very little food, forced to help the farmer in various tasks and constantly hoping to avoid capture. When they were finally informed that Hitler was dead and the war was over, they were able to emerge from their hiding-place and return to what was left of the city. Marione began to attend a school in the Blankenese suburb of Hamburg which had been established on the estate of the Warburg banking family to provide shelter for Jewish children who had survived the camps.

At the school Marione met and befriended Uri, and she devotes one of the last chapters in her book to his harrowing story, describing how his parents and siblings were murdered in Auschwitz, and how he saved himself while still a teenager by accepting any kind of labour in the camp. He was eventually sent as a slave labourer to Alfred Krupps’s vast industrial complex in the town of Essen. The account of the awful conditions under which the slave-labourers, who had been brought from every country occupied by the Germans, lived and worked, and the sadistic and brutal treatment by the members of the S.S. who oversaw the work, is particularly vivid and distressing. Although the conditions and treatment were atrocious for everyone, especially bad conditions and treatment were reserved for the Jewish women prisoners there.

As the Allies advanced and the Germans realised that they would not be victorious, they moved large numbers of the prisoners to death camps, in order to erase evidence of their crimes. Uri managed to survive, but for a long time was too traumatized to speak about his experiences, until Marione managed to gain his confidence and hear his story, which she recounts in her book.

Many of the children at the school in Blankenese, including Uri, eventually went to live in what later became Israel, but Marione decided to go to America, and has made a life for herself there, taking an active part in anti-racist activities. Her efforts many years later, at a reunion of those who had attended the school, to find out what had become of Uri were fruitless, but she writes of the positive relations between the seventy or so people who attended the reunion, whom she now regards as her new family.

The book made a deep impression on me, and constitutes important documentation of a momentous period in modern history. I’m glad I made the effort to read it in German. I imagine that writing it cannot have been an easy task for the author, but I’m also glad to know that it has been published in English under the title ‘The Hands of War.’

Hanging Out with Hubby

 

In Israel we are just beginning to feel the easing of the strict lockdown rules. At the recent very low-key Independence Day celebrations one of the individuals honoured with lighting one of the twelve flames which traditionally mark the opening of the day’s events declared how much she missed being able to see, hug and kiss her grandchildren. That must have triggered something in the national psyche, as not long afterwards the Prime Minister announced – as part of the easing of restrictions – that grandchildren will henceforth be able to visit their grandparents, though still keeping a safe distance. I doubt that any other national leader has included that particular facet of family life in their official announcements about relaxing coronavirus restrictions. Well done, popular entertainer Tzippi Shavit!

But in the interim, most of the population has had to tread a long and lonely road, staying as far away as possible from normal human contact. In other words, couples have been suddenly thrown back into one another’s company, after having become accustomed to a life of activity, whether together or individually, and the freedom to come and go more or less as and when they chose.

In my own case, blessed with a considerate mate and a spacious house, this has not proved to be a hardship. But this has not been the case for everyone. Families with small children in cramped flats have experienced great difficulties, and I don’t envy anyone in that situation.

Single people have also had to come to grips with even greater isolation – and loneliness – than before. This was brought home to me in a recent Zoom meeting of the group of Jerusalem residents who meet once a fortnight to converse in German, under the auspices of the association of former residents of Central Europe.

The fact that most of these – mainly retired – individuals could even contemplate a Zoom meeting is no small achievement in itself. It’s a sign of modern times that by now most people can cope with this aspect of technology. The meeting was initiated by one of the members (one of the few men), but only after over a month of lockdown. By contrast, the German language class I attend here in Mevasseret Zion started Zoom meetings almost as soon as the lockdown began – largely due to our energetic young teacher, who will stop at nothing to continue teaching her mature pupils.

In the Zoom meeting of the Jerusalem group each participant gave a brief account of how they had been spending the previous weeks. To my surprise, almost everyone had found the period positive, on the individual level and as a couple, finding that they enjoyed one another’s company and benefited from having time to relax, read, write, garden, listen to music or watch TV and films together. Only one woman who lives on her own complained that she found the period difficult and longed to resume attending concerts, lectures and other cultural events. I also miss concerts, but there’s no shortage of music on the radio, YouTube and TV.

This is no scientific study, but it seems only natural that people who have lived alongside one another for many years will have settled into some kind of modus vivendi, continuing to live in harmony, and even if circumstances change will manage somehow to adapt and benefit.

On a personal level, this quiet period has enabled me to concentrate on my various writing projects, and so I have managed to publish another novel (‘Friends, Neighbours, Traitors’) on Amazon. Hubby has been similarly engaged and has completed another learned article about the painter Caravaggio. Since his background is in the exact sciences it amazes me that he has made this switch to art history, becoming something of an expert in this field. We’ve even got used to being without any offspring for Friday night dinner. And of course, the garden got some attention too.

Provided we remain in reasonably good health, we will probably be able one day to look back at this period and see that it had benefits as well as drawbacks.

 

‘The Story of English; How the English Language Conquered the World’ by Philip Gooden

 

Having worked for most of my life as a translator, editor and writer, I thought it must be about time I learned something about the English language, which is the principal tool of my work.

I studied English at school, mainly literature with a little grammar along the way, but decided that I did not want to continue with it at university, so switched to Sociology, which turned out to be fascinating. And of course I had to use English in order to read and communicate, writing essays and gaining new insights into the way societies function.

The author of this book takes the reader through the various periods of British – and American – history, describing who conquered whom and when, and the effect this had on the growth and development of the English language. He starts with the Biblical legend of the Tower of Babel and posits the idea that there may indeed once have been a universal language, now lost in the mists of time, but paralleling the tale that once upon a time all people could speak the same language and understand one another. In fact, in the eighteenth century, William Jones, a linguist and scholar, posited the theory that present-day Asian and European languages had a common root, after he discovered links between the ancient Indian tongue of Sanskrit and Greek and Latin (the last two having clear links to most European languages).

Gooden takes us through the various stages of ancient British history, starting with the Celts, who lived in the British Isles from the Bronze Age onwards. Their language is akin to the languages spoken in Ireland, Scotland and Brittany. The Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, whose languages were mainly Germanic, were sea-faring marauders who settled in northern and eastern parts of Britain, and influenced the language(s) spoken by the local populace. It has been suggested that the term ‘Viking’ is an ancient Celtic word for ‘pirate.’

The Romans, under Julius Caesar and Claudius, conquered Britain from around 410 C.E., and remained there for some six hundred years, until the collapse of the Roman empire. Their language, Latin, was probably spoken by those segments of the British population with whom they had contact, but it was only after the Norman conquest, led by William the Conqueror, that the Latin-influenced French language came to be the dominant tongue spoken throughout the British islaes. It has even been suggested that Richard the Lionheart, the son of Henry II and Elinor of Aquitaine, spoke French and not English, as French remained the language of the ruling class for many generations. To this day the terms used for cooked food in England are closer to their French equivalents than the words used for the animals (sheep = mutton [mouton]; cow = beef [boeuf]), etc.

Thus, the English language which evolved in the early Middle Ages was a fusion of Norman French and Old English. At the time of the Renaissance in Europe, English became the language of literature, with writers such as Shakespeare and many others. King James, who succeeded Queen Elizabeth the First, instituted the translation of the Bible by teams of scholars. This gave us the rich and mellifluous text which is treasured throughout the English-speaking world to this day.

In the time of Queen Victoria the British Empire ruled about a third of the globe, and this served to disseminate the English language to such a wide extent that to this day English is the official language of countries which have a wide variety of native languages.

With the colonization of North America principally by English speakers, the language gained precedence over the various other languages spoken by successive waves of immigrants. Thus, with the growing pre-eminence of American power and prestige, as well as the widespread use of English in scientific and academic circles (not to mention the internet and social media), English has become the international lingua franca.

It is impossible to summarise this informative and well-researched book in this short space, as Philip Gooden gives detailed analyses of the processes and individuals who influenced the development of English throughout its history. For anyone who wants to learn more about the subject, I highly recommend this well-written and accessible book.

Up and Running

 

Yes, it’s here at last! My latest book (my seventh), ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors,’ is now available as an ebook for a mere $2.99 on Amazon. If you find the price a bit too steep for you, you can always wait for 10th May, when it can be downloaded for free. I am currently in the process of preparing the paperback version of the book, which I hope will also be available on Amazon very soon.

The story is set in a Jerusalem neighborhood in 1983. Israeli troops are mired in fighting in Lebanon in an attempt to uproot terrorist groups there. Although Jerusalem is not affected directly by the combat, one of the consequences of the situation is a fall in tourism, with consequent damage to the economy.

The book has four main protagonists, three women and one man. Helena, who is a stay-at-home mother, is bringing up her two young sons, together with her husband, Aaron. Originally from England, Helena finds herself constantly struggling to cope with the realities of daily life in Israel, and the demands of her husband and children.

Helena’s friend, Anna, an artist who hails from Denmark, is battling to remain solvent as she tries to care for Shira, her five-year-old daughter. Anna is divorced, but her ex-husband uses every opportunity to insult and abuse her whenever he comes to take Shira for her weekly visit. In addition, he has been trying to gain custody of Shira through the courts, causing Anna constant anguish and fear. Anna and Helena are friends, but Anna is secretly having an affair with Helena’s husband, Aaron.

Naomi was born in Germany before the war, and came to Israel as a child with her parents. She lives on her own, works as a translator, and is doing her best to come to terms with the dense philosophical tract she has undertaken to translate. She suffers from bouts of depression associated with her grief over the death of her mother. She and Helena meet by chance and strike up a friendship. Helena introduces Naomi to Anna, and they soon become fast friends too

The changing light and atmosphere of the city of Jerusalem also play a role in the development of events, some of them trivial, others dramatic. Essentially, the book is about life as a woman and an outsider, the difficulty of coping with the realities of daily existence, and the demands society puts on us to carry on with some semblance of normalcy. This applies both to parents bringing up young children, and (or perhaps even especially) to someone who is childless. The narrative switches between the three main protagonists as they find their attachment to reality threatened, doing what they can to deal with it.

The book ends with Aaron, who is surprised to find that matters are not going quite the way he thought they would.

Here’s the link to ‘Friends, Neighbors, Traitors’: https://www.amazon.com/Friends-Neighbors-Traitors-Dorothea-Shefer-Vanson-ebook/dp/B087G5NMGY

Buy or download my book, and I will be very grateful to you. If you can bring yourself to write a review of it you will be doing a good deed and giving a struggling writer a helping hand.