An Embarrass de Richesse

A recital devoted to three of Schubert’s last sonatas (D 845, 850 and 890) was too good to miss, so we cancelled our subscription tickets to the symphonic concert that happened to fall on the same date and bought tickets for that evening instead. Sometimes life or fate or the Jerusalem concert programme offers more than the individual can absorb at once, and it is not always easy to make one’s choice. It is at times like these that the rather apt adage about not being able to dance at two weddings comes to mind. True, we would have been happier still had Schubert’s posthumous sonata D. 960 been included in the programme, but hopefully that will come some other time.

The young soloist, Shai Wosner, sat alone at the Steinway grand piano on the stage of the quaint auditorium of Jerusalem’s YMCA communing with Schubert and his music as we, the audience, listened in rapt attention to his phenomenal and sensitive playing. Schubert’s last six sonatas constitute the summation of his approach to music and the world, expressing raw emotion and deep philosophical thinking, as well as intimacy and far-sightedness, and all this enclosed in tuneful melodies that take the listener to heights of rapture and depths of sorrow.

Gramophone, one of the world’s leading music journals, has described Wosner as “a Schubertian of unfaltering authority and character,” while Wosner himself has described Schubert’s last six sonatas as “six thick novels, rich with insight about the human condition” (taken from the programme notes).

Schubert was a great admirer of Beethoven, and was even a pall-bearer at his funeral in Vienna in 1827. He sought to emulate his hero in the sphere of the piano sonata, but his work bears all the hallmarks of his own unique talent, and conveys a very different message to Beethoven’s.

From the very first notes of the first sonata Wosner held the audience captive with his wide range and expressive musicality, bringing the music to life and setting it before us like a delectable feast. Alone with the piano, playing from memory, he took us into a world where nothing existed but the piano keys and his fingers as they skipped and danced over them to produce exquisite sounds. For me personally, it seems that anyone who can play complex music without having to look at the notes in front of him or her must be some kind of genius, and this must certainly be the case with Shai Wosner.

So here we have two geniuses (genii?) working together – one who composed the music a few hundred years ago and another who can produce it for our delight in the concert hall without appearing to make any effort, as if he was born to sit at the piano and produce divine music.

With the magical sounds still ringing in our ears, we returned to the mundane world at the end of the evening, still in thrall to Schubert and Wosner and eternally grateful for the divine world of music.

Fifty Years

I was in the ninth month of my first pregnancy when the Six Day War broke out, fifty years ago. I have written in some detail about this point in my life in my first novel, ‘The Balancing Game,’ so if you have read it I apologise for being repetitive.

The way that, together with some scared neighbours from upstairs, we hunkered down in our ground-floor apartment, with sandbags at the door and sticky tape pasted on the windows, still remains fresh in my memory. In my ‘delicate’ condition I refused to go to the public air-raid shelter, not wanting to find myself surrounded by people, both adults and children, in a place which I assumed would be neither comfortable nor clean. I may have been wrong in my assumption, but I was not to be budged. We were living at the time in one of the neighbourhoods of Jerusalem that was not very near the then border with Jordan, so perhaps that gave me a sense of security.

I know that the situation in which Israel found itself aroused the anxiety of Jews around the world, and all the more so of my immediate family, parents and sisters, who were then living in London. I had been advised by the British Embassy to leave the country, but the practicalities of leaving Israel seemed almost insurmountable then, and I somehow assumed that things would work out.

And work out they certainly did. After two or three days and nights during which we heard artillery falling around us, and planes flying above us, the announcement came over the radio that we could leave the shelters and our homes and emerge into the light of day. When I went outside I was astonished to find that all the houses were standing, unscathed, and nobody in the immediate vicinity seemed to have been hurt. This was all the more astonishing to me because as a child growing up in post-world-war London I had seen more than one house that had been destroyed during the Blitz, so that the remnants of those damaged buildings were a not uncommon sight.

And then there was the euphoria, the sense of relief at the news that not only had Israel not been obliterated, as the Arab leaders around us had promised, but that our forces had succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams in averting the threat to our existence and overcoming the armies that threatened us.

With hindsight it seems that our joy was premature because many years of anguish and tragic events were to follow, but at the time all this could not be imagined. The idea of being able to go to the Old City of Jerusalem, to Jericho and to many other places that until a few days previously had seemed to be as remote as the other side of the moon was intoxicating. And we did indeed go to those places. In Hebron there were expert glass-makers whose wares soon adorned our house, and in the Old City of Jerusalem we were entranced by the beautiful ceramic objects made by the Armenian craftsmen. Altogether, a new, exotic and enchanting country opened up before us, and the inhabitants seemed quite happy to interact with us and engage in commerce with us Israelis.

Much has changed since then, but it is still possible for the average inhabitant of Israel to visit the Old City of Jerusalem, enjoy its lively markets, take tourists to see its exotic places, and visit the Western Wall, where previously Jews were forbidden to go. Today, the places that are holy to any of the three major religions of the world are freely accessible to their respective adherents, a situation which did not exist before.

Fifty years have passed and much has changed, but it would be a tragedy if Jerusalem were to be divided again, preventing Jews, Moslems and Christians from whatever country from going freely about their business within it or worshipping openly at their own particular holy site.

In those fifty years I have grown older and, hopefully, just a little wiser, my children and grandchildren have been born here and almost all the members of my wider family now live (or lived) in Israel.

These have been fifty momentous years, both for me personally and for my country.

And now the baby that very considerately waited for another two weeks to be born has grown up to become a devoted wife, successful professional and treasured mother of three.

Happy birthday, Dana!

 

 

Israel and Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Violence Around Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Vive la France!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passing Over Passover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ in Hebrew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Mathematician to King Herod’s Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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