The Corona Chronicles – Feeling Lightheaded

What has the pandemic done to us? I had intended to devote this post to such weighty matters as the forthcoming elections to the Knesset (in less than three weeks), to the various fake news reports and outrageous conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine rollout and to the iniquitous decision of the International Criminal Court at the Hague to open a war crimes investigation against Israel. Instead, I find myself unable to concentrate on depressing subjects such as these and will write, instead, of such trivialities as a long walk to a neighbourhood beauty spot, and the joys of going shopping or of getting a much-needed haircut in a rapidly opening (too rapidly?), post-lockdown economy.

Trivialities, did I say?
I lied.
After a year in which I have been denied the pleasure of my monthly field trips with Yad Yitzchak Ben Zvi, it was no small thing to discover the existence of a local beauty spot barely a half hour’s walk from my home. The fact that I only learned of its existence through a Facebook group dedicated to saving it from the Municipality’s plan to erect a Police Station on the spot, thereby destroying one of Jerusalem’s few “green lungs,” is a matter of acute embarrassment to me, not to say shame!

So, fearful that this might prove to be my last chance to see Givat Haturmussim (גבעת התורמוסים – Lupin Hill) in all its glory, I took a walk up there last week.




From the hilltop. there are marvellous views of the Old City of Jerusalem and of the surrounding Judaean Hills.

At the lookout post at the top of the hill, I met a former colleague who lives at the corner of the street that runs below the ridge where the lupins grow, who told me how, for the past few years, he has brought his family here on Shabbat afternoons, to enjoy the beauty of nature and how, during the lockdown(s), when it was impossible to travel more than one kilometre from one’s own home (or, as in the case of the first lockdown, last Pessach/Passover, more than one hundred metres from one’s own front door), it was a lifeline of sanity. And I had not known about it!!! And now it is in danger of destruction!

As I walked home, my eyes were once more opened to the beauty that surrounds us, sometimes right under our noses, if we would only take the time to open our eyes and look.

And here is the same picture after I tinkered with it a bit:

Nor is there anything trivial about going shopping – even though I have, on more than one occasion, written on this blog about how it is not one of my favourite pastimes. But when one has been obliged to make most of one’s purchases online for the past year, there is something pleasantly refreshing about being able to enter an actual shop and try on clothes. So I took advantage of the fact that I was in town for a doctor’s appointment, to walk down Jaffa Road – which was crowded and humming with life, in the first week of Israel’s return to normalcy after the latest lockdown, albeit a very strange “normalcy”, in which entry into many shops required queueing outside, until a vacancy became available inside – since Social Distancing regulations made it necessary to limit the number of people allowed inside at any given moment. The queue outside FOX was so long, I decided there was no point in waiting. I therefore proceeded to Steimatzky’s book shop a little further down the road. There was no queue there. I have to ask myself, what does this say about us – we, who are called “the People of the Book”?
I went inside – but quickly remembered that I am capable of spending two hours in a book shop and coming away with nothing, or else with three or four books to add to the pile of seventy or so that I have bought since retiring and have yet to read. It isn’t that I don’t read. The problem is that book shops are always offering special deals, such as buy two and get one free and so on. Thus, for every book I read, I am acquiring two or three more. I am buying them faster than I can read them!

So I left Steimatzky and walked back in the direction of King George V Street, stopping en route at Golf and Co. where I purchased a “smart-casual” sweatshirt and a new sweater with one of my gift-cards (which I have to use by April – I’m just not sure whether that means the beginning or the end of April).

Nor is a haircut – after living with “lockdown locks” for six months – in any way a trivial matter. The only downside was that I no longer had all that weight of curls to keep my head and neck warm in weather that turned wintry again the following day. Still, there I was in Derech Beit-Lehem (Bethlehem Road), feeling curiously light-headed as I wandered among the many delightful little shops lining the street, and popping into a boutique bread shop, where I stocked up on fancy cheeses, fancier bread and other delicacies, all of them expensive and none of them available at the local supermarket or grocery store.

All in all – a most satisfying week, culminating in Purim.
The elections, the conspiracy theories and the disgraceful politicization of the International Criminal Court can wait.

Posted in Daily Life, Nature, Tourism, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Corona Chronicles – Bagpipes and Banana Bread

In my previous post, if you remember, I wrote about the changing partners within the Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party (aka the National Religious Party), and expressed the opinion that it was, as the airlines put it, “not final”.
How right I was! The Ichud Le’umi (National Union) party has since entered into a joint list with the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former Kahanist, and with Noam (Pleasantness). The latter has a very conservative policy against non-Orthodox Judaism, especially Reform Judaism, and an extremely anti-LGBTQ platform. The former (to get back to the Cotillion theme of my previous post) was founded in 2012 by breakaway members of the Ichud Leumi party.
And what, meanwhile of the erstwhile National Religious Party, now known as Habayit Hayehudi?
What, indeed?
On February 4th 2021, the last day for the filing of party lists for the elections to be held next month, after all efforts to bring about a merger between her own party, the Ichud Le’umi and Otzma Yehudit failed (for reasons I will not go into here) and in the face of polls which indicated the probable complete disappearance of the party, the new leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Hagit Moshe, announced that The Jewish Home would not contest the elections this time, but would, instead, endorse Naftali Bennett’s Yemina party – in return for a written promise that if Bennett’s party joins the next government, she will receive a government ministry.
That’s a big “if”.

If you think I have devoted an inordinate amount of time to the religious parties, be aware that the same sort of dance has taken place right across the board. I merely took the former National Religious Party as an example.

I will say one more thing about the forthcoming elections. For weeks now, I have been bombarded by SMS messages purporting to come from pollsters, wanting to know my electoral intentions. Many, if not most, are thinly disguised propaganda from one or other of the 39 (!) parties vying for a seat in the 24th Knesset. I refuse to participate in pre-election polls. I believe in the principle of the Secret Ballot and who I vote for is a matter between me and the Ballot Box. Most, if not all, of the so-called “polls” ask you to reply “0” or “Remove” if you want to be removed from the list of “the surveyed”. On every occasion when I attempted to do so, I received a message informing me that the number was “invalid”.
I – am – very – angry!!!

Next, to the Pandemic. The vaccine is now available here for anyone over 16. With some 4 million Israelis having already received at least their first dose of the vaccine, and approximately 2 and a half million having completed both doses, the country is slowly opening up again – too slowly for some, too fast for others. Children are going back to school – but not all age groups. On the subject of schoolchildren, as is the case all over the world, the vaccine has not been authorised for use on under-16s. On the news earlier this week, it was reported that thirty children and infants are seriously ill in hospital with the disease, including a 14-year-old boy with no background illnesses who is in critical condition. It was also reported that a pregnant woman with COVID had apparently passed the virus to the foetus, which was stillborn.
I hope all those who are still claiming that COVID is no worse than flu or a bad cold and is only dangerous to old people and those with background illnesses hear about this. Remember the early claims made about AIDS? That it only affected homosexuals, or drug addicts who shared needles?
Some people will never learn!

And now for the bagpipes. 🙂
I have mentioned, in previous posts, that my choir has been holding meetings twice a week via Zoom. On Sundays, we rehearse – as well as we can considering the limitations of the medium. On Wednesdays, we have a talk/lecture on a subject connected with music. For example, our Musical Director gave a talk a couple of weeks ago on the composer Gesualdo. Before that, we had lectures on the sonatas and partitas for solo violin by J.S. Bach and on the composer, Sir Edward Elgar. I suggested that maybe members of the choir would also like to give talks about musical subjects. Sure enough, a few days later, the Musical Director called for volunteers. As it had been my idea at the outset, a sense of noblesse oblige prompted me to pick up the gauntlet.
I chose, as my subject, the music of the bagpipes. Not surprisingly, I soon discovered that the subject was much more complex than I had imagined. I already knew, of course, that besides the Great Highland Bagpipe, which everyone immediately thinks of, there are also Uillean pipes (from Ireland) and that there is also a bagpipe tradition in regions where the population is descended from Celtic tribes – such as northern Spain (Galicia and Asturias) and northern France (Brittany). But, in researching the history of the bagpipes, and the bitter controversy over their place of origin, I discovered the rich fount of bagpipe music in such places as diverse as Azerbaijan, Libya, Malta, Sweden, Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Iran…in short, all over the world, from the Caucasus to the Baltic, from the Balkans to Africa. I learned of the different kinds of bagpipes – those that are played by blowing through a mouthpiece into the airbag, and those whose air supply is replenished by a small bellows held under, and operated by, the player’s elbow. I learned of bagpipes with one drone, bagpipes with two or three drones, and bagpipes with no drones at all. I learned of attempts to recreate bagpipes pictured in medieval manuscripts, such as the Cantigas de Santa Maria, as well as the askaulos of ancient Greece.

As a musician, and as a person interested in history, it was a pleasure to learn so much myself, as well as to be able to pass on what I had learned to my fellow choristers.
I even picked up a few words of Gaelic while I was about it, since I kept coming back to the Great Highland Bagpipe – not just terms connected with bagpipe music, but everyday terms. That’s what I like about doing these research projects and what makes it such fun – but also time-consuming. One is so often led off at a tangent.
Anyway, here is an example of the classic music of the pipes – a pibroch (piobaireachd):



Speaking of Scotland, and Highland landscapes as compared to our Israeli landscapes – it snowed last night. For days now, the meteorologists had been warning us that a monumental storm was headed our way, with extremely strong winds, followed by torrential rains and, eventually, snow. But they warned that the snow probably would not last overnight and that by morning, would be mostly gone. That’s exactly what happened – in Jerusalem, at least. I understand that in other parts of the country, the storm damage was more severe, but in Jerusalem, apart from a few hours during which the Light Rail was unable to operate because of snow on the tracks, public transport seems to have been affected hardly at all. I have noticed damp patches on the ceiling of my study, due, according to my neighbour, who was kind enough to climb up on the roof and take a look, to cracks in the cladding (which can’t be fixed, obviously, until the weather calms down and dries out somewhat). But the snow was nothing much to write home about, as they say – at least in my own neighbourhood:

I was obliged to postpone my long-awaited and much-needed haircut to next week. Perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. The masses of hair at least keep my head and neck warm (LOL). I find myself looking back longingly to Monday. It was about 15 or 16 degrees C and we sat in the garden, soaking up the sunshine. Was that really only three days ago?

I can’t wait for the Spring to arrive! On a day like today, the best thing to do is to ensconce myself comfortably in front of the television, with a cup of hot cocoa and a slice or two (or three) of my homemade Peanut Butter and Banana Bread.
This was yet another one of my culinary experiments, prompted by the fact that I had an almost full tub of peanut butter that was on the verge of its “use by” date, as well as a bunch of very over-ripe, mushy bananas. I had never made banana bread before, not had I ever cooked with peanut butter. I hadn’t originally intended to use the two ingredients in the same recipe but I didn’t want to waste either of them. My sister, to whom I usually go for recipes, was unavailable, so I consulted Dr. Google. 😉
Having found a recipe that included both items, I proceeded to adapt it to my needs (in other words – to ignore the instructions).

It didn’t turn out too badly for a first attempt, although I found it tasted even better when I treated it as bread, rather than as a cake, and spread the slices with jam – or with even more peanut butter!

So here is the recipe (mine, not Dr. Google’s):


SHIMONA’S OWN PEANUT BUTTER AND BANANA BREAD

Ingredients

1 and 1/2 cups plain flour
3 tsp baking powder
3 or 4 mashed brown, over-ripe bananas
3 or 4 dollops (ie.tbsp) of creamy peanut butter
75 grams margarine (the original recipe called for butter, but I wanted the cake to be parve)
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup white sugar
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract.
A handful of walnuts, raisins, sultanas, dried cranberries (optional)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180 C.
2. Grease a 9 x 5 inch loaf tin.
3. In a large bowl, mash the bananas with a fork. Add the peanut butter and melted margarine and stir till all is combined.
4. Stir in the sugar, egg and vanilla extract.
Stir until smooth.
5. Add the flour and baking powder.
6. Add the nuts and dried fruits (optional).
7. Pour the batter into the loaf tin and bake for 45 – 50 minutes, or until a toothpick stuck into the centre comes out clean. (Since every oven is slightly different, I would check after 40 minutes already.)
8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 10 minutes, then remove from the baking tin.

And that’s it. Bete’avon (Bon appetit)!


Posted in Cuisine, Daily Life, Music, News, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

The Corona Chronicles – COVID, Cotillion, Computers and Cake

It’s hard to know really, where we stand with regard to the pandemic. On the one hand, more than 2 million Israelis have already received the first dose of the much-vaunted Pfizer vaccine, administration of the second dose is well under way, and, as of this week, anyone over the age of 45 is now eligible for vaccination. This latter fact, we are told, is due to a slowdown in the number of applications by over-60s to receive the vaccine and the resulting surplus of vaccine, which is being made available to younger age groups rather than having to throw it away (because it has a limited “shelf life”). Actually, the decrease in the number of Senior Citizens making appointments to be vaccinated should come as no surprise, considering that the successful rollout in December has resulted in about 70% of them having already received the vaccine.

On the other hand, the past few weeks have seen the daily numbers of COVID-positive tests, and – even worse – the number of seriously sick COVID patients in Intensive Care, and the death toll, spiralling out of control. On the news this morning, I heard that we have the highest morbidity rate in the Middle East and the 14th highest in the world! Of course, it will take some weeks for the effect of the mass vaccination campaign to be felt – and it does not help that certain sections of the population seem to think they are above the law and that their right to keep their schools open, and to hold mass weddings, religious gatherings, and demonstrations, trumps the right of the citizens of Israel to Life and Health.

Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens (such as Yours Truly) are stuck in our third Lockdown, which has just been extended by ten days to the end of January.

And what does one do when one is stuck in the house for days on end? Well, for one thing, I have been watching a lot of stuff on YouTube. I have found so many old favourites, BBC historical drama series from fifty years ago, (such as The Onedin Line, my favourite historical drama series EVER), children’s programmes (who remembers the 1968 BBC TV series The Railway Children?), full-length operas, even radio plays – which are perfect for listening to tucked up in bed on a cold, rainy day when you don’t want to get up and don’t even want to open your eyes. 🙂

And sometimes, one comes across something, quite by chance, that sounds a chord because it just seems so apposite to something else that one is reading, or thinking about. For example, one of the Facebook groups with which I while away the time, is the Georgette Heyer Appreciation Group. A question/comment concerning one of her novels, Cotillion, was occupying my thoughts while I was idly surfing YouTube and stumbled across this – how to dance a Regency-style Cotillion:

The cotillion (also cotillon or “French country dance”) is a social dance, popular in the late 18th-century and early 19th-century in Europe and America. Originally for four couples in square formation, it was a courtly version of an English country dance, the forerunner of the quadrille and, in the United States, the square dance.
Consisting of a main “figure” that varied from dance to dance, it was interspersed with “changes” – a number of different figures that broke out of the square formation, often decided spontaneously by the leading couple or by a caller or “conductor”. As you may have noticed, participants exchanged partners within the formation network of the dance. You may also notice that eventually, the dancers return to their original partners.
Something similar seems to happen among Israeli political parties whenever a General Election approaches – and this time is no different. For example, the old National Religious Party (itself a party formed by merging two earlier religious Zionist parties, Hamizrachi and Hapoel Hamizrachi) became Habayit Hayehudi (The Jewish Home) under the leadership of Naftali Bennet, but Bennett and his sidekick Ayelet Shaked broke away in December 2018 to form Hayamin Hechadash (the New Right), which ran on a separate ticket in elections to the 21st Knesset in April 2019. However, they failed to receive the minimum percentage of the vote to win any seats in the Knesset.
By the time the elections for the 22nd Knesset came round, a bare five months later (September 17th, 2019), Hayamin Hechadash had joined Ha’Ichud Ha’Leumi (the National Union) and Habayit Hayehudi to form Yemina (Rightwards). The Ichud LeumiTekuma party was formed by breakaway members of the National Religious Party and, as the name suggests, was itself formed by an amalgam of more than one party. (Confused? So am I 😉 ) At all events, in this round of elections, Yamina garnered seven Knesset seats, but then split up into Hayamin Hechadash and Habayit Hayehudi-Ha’Ichud HaLeumi.
Six months later (March 2nd, 2020), the three parties were back together again to run for the elections to the 23rd Knesset (Is your head spinning yet? Wait – there’s more to come) and dropped to 6 Knesset seats. They did not join the ruling coalition, but the leader of Habayit Hayehudi, Rabbi Rafi Peretz, broke away and joined the government.
Now we are in the throes of a campaign for the 24th Knesset, set to take place on March 23rd. (Seriously? FOUR General Elections in less than two years?) At the time of writing, the three parties are running on separate tickets. This, however, is – as they say at the airport – “not final”. The Bayit Yehudi party (formerly the National Religious Party, as you may recall), has just elected Hagit Moshe as its leader – the first time ever that a woman has been elected to head an Orthodox Jewish religious party. She is very keen to unify all the orthodox Zionist parties. Will this cotillion end with the reunification of the original partners? If you listen to Naftali Bennett – probably not. But Israeli politics being what they are – that’s really anybody’s guess!

And from elections to computers – and to another skill acquired/problem solved by Yours Truly who was, once again, forced to rely on herself because of the lockdown.
I believe I mentioned in one of my previous posts that my father made me a present of his old laptop, after buying a brand new one. And that it was so slow as to be of no practical value. Well – I have fixed it. At first, I thought I would have to re-format it, so I googled how to do that and, in the course of my search, came across the suggestion that I try first simply to re-set it to the factory default and reinstall Windows. I tried that – but it got stuck before I even reached “Reset”. My brother thought that it might be infected with Malware which was taking over the computer every time I connected to the internet and was using my laptop as part of a network to carry out DDoS attacks. So I disconnected it from the internet and made another attempt. This time, it seems to have worked. I am very proud of myself! 😉

And finally, to cakes. I find that baking is wonderfully relaxing – and since everyone seems to be doing it, YouTube is full of wonderful recipes, all of which, it is claimed, are so easy and so quick, that you will wonder why you never tried them before. So here is my take on one of the recipes I have already tried. I think it was originally a lemon cake, if I remember rightly and then it evolved into a chocolate cake and here it is in its latest reincarnation:

SHIMONA’S OWN RUM AND COCONUT CHOCOLATE CAKE

Ingredients

1 tub plain yoghurt (150g) – save the tub to use as a measuring cup
2 eggs
1/2 – 2/3 tub of sugar (depending on how sweet your tooth is)
4 tbsp vegetable oil
1 1/2 tubs of plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 heaped tbsp sweetened Chocolite (or you can use unsweetened cocoa powder but then you really need to use 2/3 tub of sugar and not just 1/2)
1 tsp instant coffee dissolved in a little boiling water
2 tsp rum essence

Frosting

75 grams unsalted butter
Heaped tbsp Chocolite
Caster sugar (to taste)
Ground coconut
A few drops more of rum essence

  1. Whisk the yoghurt and eggs together
  2. Add the vegetable oil
  3. Add the sugar
  4. Mix well.
  5. Add the flour and baking powder
  6. Add the sweetened Chocolite
  7. Add the dissolved coffee and the rum essence and mix well.
  8. Bake in a small Angel Cake tin or a small English Cake tin for 30 – 40 minutes in an oven preheated to 180 degrees C.

    To make the frosting, melt the butter in the microwave till it is runny. Add the powdered Chocolite, caster sugar and rum essence and mix well. Drizzle it over the cooled cake and sprinkle ground coconut over the whole.

    That’s all there is to it. Bete’avon.

Posted in Computers and Internet, Cuisine, Daily Life, Modern Living, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Corona Chronicles – Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro – an Italian term meaning “Light and Dark”, used in Art (according to Wikipedia) to describe “the use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition.” The term originated during the Renaissance, and the reason the word came to my mind was because, amongst other activities designed to bring a little light into the cultural darkness brought about by the current pandemic, I am taking a course on Renaissance Art (together with the Bible and Music courses I have been taking for several years now, and which I have mentioned in previous posts).

There has been a lot of debate about “distance learning”, and whether it can sufficiently fill the vacuum left by the closing of schools during the present lockdown, as well as previous lockdowns. I mentioned in my last post, that we are again in lockdown – although that was a lockdown with so many holes, it is debatable whether the word was even applicable. As of midnight last Thursday, we are supposed to be in a “complete” lockdown – this time, including schools. But it is unclear how widespread it will be in some sectors (such as the ultra-Orthodox religious sector), besides which, an unknown number of businesses have declared they will remain open, preferring the fear of substantial fines to that of bankruptcy. My personal opinion about these lectures on Zoom is that their efficacy greatly depends (as does any educational venture) on the quality of the lecturer. It is hard to sit for hours in front of a computer screen and listen to a lecture, especially if the lecture is pre-recorded. The Bible and Music courses I am taking are fascinating, even if the Music lecture is pre-recorded. That’s because the lecturers are involved with their listeners. But the lecturer in the Art course (also pre-recorded) appears to be reading a prepared script and she does so in a very dry tone which I find quite soporific.

As I mentioned in previous posts, we have managed to keep choir activity going. As there is a limit to how effective an online rehearsal can be, the Choir committee decided to add some variety, by inviting the Choir’s artistic team (the conductors) and others, (professional musicians and academics) to lecture to the Choir on various subjects, such as The Dimension of Time in Music, Hebrew Cantillation of the Bible, Music of the Livorno Synagogue etc. Last Wednesday, instead of a rehearsal, we had an interesting, short lecture on the composer Olivier Messiaen.

In short, I have been keeping myself busy. I had a rehearsal, or a lecture, every day last week so far and on Thursday, I even had TWO lectures!

Last Wednesday, I received my first dose of the Pfizer vaccine against the coronavirus – one of the almost 1.9 million Israelis (over 20% of the population) to have been vaccinated so far. At the end of the month, I shall have the second dose – and then we shall see if it works. Meanwhile, I can still see my reflection in the mirror and my canine teeth have not grown any longer, or sharper. I suffer no ill-effects from exposure to sunlight (such as bursting into flame and disintegrating,) nor have I noticed any aversion to garlic 😉 .

But beside these little rays of light, there is still a great deal of darkness abroad. I worry about my brother in England, where the new variant of the virus seems to be rampaging unchecked. I worry about friends in Europe, where there seems to be no let-up in the pandemic. Quite the contrary, in fact. And as for the drama unfolding in what I fear I must henceforth call the Disunited States of America… I shall refrain from commenting, for the time being, if only out of consideration for my own, and my readers’, blood pressure levels. (Remember what I wrote in my last post about Anger.)

Curiously enough, my YouTube feed last week “recommended” a couple of pieces from a concert we (that is, the combined choirs of Jerusalem Oratorio) gave a couple of years ago, under the title “From Darkness to Light”. The name seems peculiarly fitting for these times, and so, to end this week’s post, I bring you the two main items from the concert. The first, representing, I suppose, the Darkness, is Requiem by the Canadian-Israeli composer, Aharon Harlap. It is not the full Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, but a version tailored for a Jewish-Israeli choir and audience, without the Credo, Pie Jesu or Agnus Dei sections. In many aspects though, I found it reminiscent of the Fauré Requiem, especially in the opening section.



I will end my first post of 2021 with the “Light” section of that concert – selections from Haydn’s Creation – and with the traditional Priestly Blessing:

May the Lord bless you and guard you.
May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord lift up His countenance unto you, and give you Peace.




Posted in Daily Life, Modern Living, Music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

The Corona Chronicles – Back on the Merry-Go-Round

It’s been a long time since I last posted on this blog. I had intended to write last week about the brutal murder at the hands of a “Palestinian” terrorist of Esther Horgan, a 52-year-old mother of six, who went out jogging the Sunday before last (December 20th) and never returned. Late that night, her lifeless body was found, her head having been smashed in and her body displaying other signs of a horrific attack. Days later, on Thursday December 24th, her murderer, a resident of Jenin in the Palestinian Authority territory, was arrested. He has confessed to having infiltrated Israel and lain in wait for a victim – any victim, as long as they were Jewish. When Esther came jogging by, he attacked her and bludgeoned her to death with a rock.

But it is hard to write about such things and I found myself putting it off, time and time again. Strange. When I started writing this blog, fourteen years ago, such subjects were at the heart of many of my posts. But over time, I began to find it more and more difficult, and instead of finding a release in writing for all my rage, the anger began to build up inside me more and more and eat away at me.
Not that I am any the less angry. But putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) to express it has become ever more emotionally draining. And somehow, since the world-wide COVID crisis began, it has become even harder.

Writing, itself, has become more of an effort. The fact that since Sunday evening, we in Israel are once again in lockdown is so depressing that I am finding it difficult even to frame my thoughts to compose this short post. One again, we cannot go further than 1000 metres from our own homes, cannot visit anyone else, cannot go shopping (except to buy food, medicines or other essential items), and cannot meet with other people. Schools, which are generally believed to be a major risk for infection and which were supposed to remain closed, remain open due to pressure from the Ministry of Education. The teachers, on the other hand, are insisting that if they are expected to endanger themselves by coming to work and teaching, they must be bounced to the front of the queue and vaccinated against COVID-19 immediately, even ahead of the over-60s and people with pre-existing health problems such as diabetes and hypertension, who are (theoretically, at least) supposed to be the first to receive the vaccine.
Oddly enough, before the (Pfizer) vaccine arrived, government officials expressed concerns that widespread public suspicion of the new vaccines would lead to a low turnout to receive it. However, a rumour somehow (?) began to spread about fears of a shortage of vaccines (I wonder who started that) and suddenly, it was almost impossible to get through to the various Kupot Holim, either by phone or on their websites to make an appointment. Remember the toilet paper? 😉
I can understand the suspicion of a new vaccine, whose long-term effects cannot be known until – well, until the long-term. I had not intended to be vaccinated. I cannot explain why I changed my mind (it was not the fear of an impending shortage, which I did not believe in anyway), but I did and I have an appointment to receive my first dose the week after next. UPDATE: Since writing this, the Ministry of Health has announced that from January 10th, there will be a hiatus in new (ie. first dose) vaccinations, because there is, in fact, a shortage and they need to ensure enough vaccine is available for those who have already had their first dose and must have the second exactly three weeks later. So no new appointments will be made after January 10th for at least a couple of weeks. I am not sure how this will affect people who have already made appointments. Meanwhile, people who do not intend to get vaccinated themselves, are continuing to bombard me with scare stories and articles by “international experts” (of whom, naturally, I have never heard – and neither had they until they began searching for confirmation of their own fears) about the dangers of the new vaccines.

Not only is Israel back in lockdown, which might be justified, considering the skyrocketing daily toll of new COVID-19 cases – we are also back on the election merry-go-round, since the Knesset automatically dissolved last week, after failing to pass the State Budget Law for the year now ending. This means that in March 2021, Israeli citizens will be voting in the 4th General Election in two years – in the middle of a global pandemic!
But just so as to make sure that things won’t be boring, we have several new parties. Or perhaps I should call them “new-old parties”. After all, Israel is the Old-New Land. 😉

First, Gideon Sa’ar resigned from the Knesset (which he did once before,) quit the Likud party (which he did not do before) and announced the formation of a new party, under his leadership, to be called Tikva Hadasha (A New Hope). Over the next few days, other Likud members, most notably Minister of Water Resources and of Higher Education, Zeev Elkin, announced they would be joining him.

Then, it was the turn of Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai to announce that he was joining the race for the Prime Ministership and was founding his own party, Hayisraelim (the Israelis). Perhaps, instead, he should call it The Empire Strikes Back.

And what, you might ask, has become of the old Labour Party (Ha’Avoda) which, under various names, held virtually unchallenged sway over Israel for the first 29 years of the state’s existence? It has all but disappeared. Perhaps it, too, could do with rebranding, and a change of name, if it is to have any hope of regaining its former status. Might I humbly suggest – Return of the Jedi?

In a few hours, we shall say goodbye to what has been a truly horrible year for many of us – although it did have its high points, that can’t be denied. I am sure that most of us, if we are honest, will be able to look back and see that it wasn’t all bad.
Many of us learned new skills. We came to understand that there are millions of people all over the world far worse off than we. Those of us living with family learned to get to know our nearest and dearest better than ever before (for better or for worse). And we learned to appreciate the things we still had, as well as those we had not.

I myself became a great-auntie, my sister became a grandma, and my father became a great-grandpa. 🙂

And somehow, against all the odds, my choir kept going, even though we were forced to rehearse in “capsules” or meet online via Zoom and could not perform in live concerts.
So, to conclude my final post for 2020, here are members of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra in the Jerusalem International YMCA Christmas Concert, performing the traditional Hanukkah hymn Maoz Tzur to a tune by the Italian Baroque composer Benedetto Marcello, and the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.

Enjoy – and may tomorrow see the start of a brighter, happier, and healthier future for us all.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!





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The Corona Chronicles – A Small Candle in the Darkness

Albert Schweitzer is reported to have said: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: Music and Cats”. I am sure that many of us, forced to live in a bubble largely cut off from meaningful human contact by this wretched pandemic, can agree with him.

Music – and Cats. I feel myself inestimably blessed to be able to enjoy both.

As many of you no doubt know, I have three cats (I was going to say I own three cats, but, as anyone who has ever been privileged to share their lives with these magnificent creatures knows well, the boot is on the other foot – er, paw. They own us.) They have their own blog, where they graciously allow me to act as their editorial assistant, secretary and head typist. Nobody who shares their home with a cat can ever be truly alone, even in their most private moments (as anyone who has ever tried to shut one of them out of the bathroom or shower knows well) – but, on the other hand, I have known cats intensely sensitive to the emotions of their humans, and, on more than one occasion, when “the miseries of life” have brought me to tears, my cats have come and thrust their little faces up against mine as if to say: “It’s all right, Mummy. We are here for you”, or have snuggled up against me and soothed me with the comforting sound of their purrs.

The other candle in the darkness is my choir. True, we can only meet in small groups, and it often happens that one of the voices is missing (we currently have only one tenor), or that I find myself the only first soprano present – but it is still a vast improvement from having to make do with rehearsals online, useful as these may have been at the stage when we were still learning the music.

Recently, however, two projects came to fruition, which gave great satisfaction to all of us. The Jerusalem Oratorio Choir (the roof organisation for five choirs, of which the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir – my own choir – is one) released a “virtual choir” recording to YouTube. This was recorded during the summer, but the editing took quite a long time. And no wonder. I think it was very cleverly done, and I hope you will all agree:




The piece chosen – Dona Nobis Pacem, from Haydn’s Missa in Angustiis (Mass in Troubled Times), aka the Nelson Mass – means “Give us peace”. I think no prayer could be more suited in these very troubled times.

The Choir was supposed to perform the whole Nelson Mass at our annual gala concert in May of this year. Of course, the pandemic and ensuing lockdown put a stop to that, as it has put a stop to so many cultural activities, throwing thousands of artists and supporting workers such as sound and lighting technicians, stage managers, costumers etc. out of work. The concert has been officially postponed to late spring 2021 – but, of course, there’s no guarantee that it will happen then, either. In the meantime, however, we are not throwing in the towel because music is like a breath of air for us.

For the same reason, the organizers of the annual Pianos in Jerusalem festival decided not to give up either, and to hold the 8th annual festival, devoted this year to the 250th anniversary of the birth of Beethoven, without a live audience, online. The closing concert included the rarely performed Choral Fantasy, in which my chamber choir participated, together with two others. Not all members of my choir were happy about putting in so much effort for a mere four minutes or so of singing and one, at least, attempted to justify his refusal with the claim that “It isn’t even one of Beethoven’s best pieces. Anyone of us could do better”. His attitude angered many of us, not least Yours Truly. The pandemic has dampened our spirits more than enough as it is. Nobody was forced to take part – and there was no need to attempt to spoil things for those who did!

And for those of us who overcame our fears of venturing out into the public sphere – it paid dividends. To be with other singers, with an orchestra, after so long without live music! To be able to sit in an auditorium (suitably distanced from one another, I hasten to add) and to hear an entire concert and then to sing! The concert was also broadcast live on Israel Radio’s Kol Hamusica (Voice of Music) channel.
Even the rehearsals with the orchestra were uplifting. I have always particularly enjoyed the first orchestra rehearsal, every time we perform a large-scale work. You rehearse all year round with piano accompaniment and then, finally, you meet with the orchestra and the conductor (who is, frequently, not our own conductor) and you finally feel everything start to come together. Even the sound of a great orchestra tuning up sends a frisson of excitement running through every fibre of my being.

Here is the final part of the Choral Fantasy, performed by the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, the Capellatte Oratorio Choir, the Chamber Choir of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the pianist Dorel Golan and the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ziv Cojocaru. If you would like to hear the whole concert, which included also Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and the Fifth Piano Concerto (the “Emperor”) here is the link.

Please note that the concert starts at 18:08 and is preceded by a couple of interviews, in Hebrew, with two of the festival organizers.

There is such power in music – power to comfort, power to heal. It allows us to escape, if only for a while, “the miseries of life”. Like the love of cats, it allows us to enjoy beauty and grace.


As the lyrics of the Choral Fantasy put it:



Großes, das ins Herz gedrungen,
blüht dann neu und schön empor.
Hat ein Geist sich aufgeschwungen,
hallt ihm stets ein Geisterchor.
Nehmt denn hin, ihr schönen Seelen,
froh die Gaben schöner Kunst
Wenn sich Lieb und Kraft vermählen,
lohnt den Menschen Göttergunst.



Or in English translation:

Something great, when it’s touched the heart,
Blooms anew in all its beauty.
When one spirit has taken flight,
A choir of spirits resounds in response.
Accept then, oh you gracious souls,
Joyously the gifts of art.
When love and strength are united,
The favour of the Gods rewards Man.

Enjoy the concert. May you all find your own candles in the darkness.

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The Corona Chronicles – Lockdown Library

A while back, I counted the number of books on my shelves which I haven’t yet read, and came to the astonishing total of 63 – almost evenly divided between Hebrew and English. The problem is, that I cannot resist book shops and I buy books at a much faster rate than I can read them.

I still read faster in English (my native language) than I do in Hebrew, mainly because I can “speed read” in English, whereas in Hebrew, I have to read each word. But the truth is, I enjoy doing so. And I am now doing so in English also, learning to savour every word, as if I am reading aloud to an audience, even when I am only reading to myself.

Of course, there are books that benefit more from this approach than others. A fast-paced action thriller by Dan Brown is not really suited to this method. But a beautiful, sweeping family saga, such as Catherine Banner’s “The House at the Edge of Night” (which had been waiting on my To Be Read shelf for over three years before I finally got round to it, this lockdown summer) was an ideal choice, brimming over, as it is, with beautiful passages such as this one:



…She had been gone two entire years. Sitting on the varnished wooden seat at the prow of Bepe’s boat, she felt worn thin, as though time had travelled twice as fast since she had left the island. Her skin was no longer well armoured; she had forgotten the way it stung you, this sun, the air that came over you in hot waves, the bare white to which all colours turned under its glare.

The ferry swung against the tide, water pooling under its left flank, and before her reared the island. And now she was down on the quay, and now climbing the old hill, and the island assaulted her with the force of memory: the sea’s hydraulic hiss, its familiar hot-dust smell. And yet she saw it through her mother’s eyes, too: saw how the streets she climbed were full of stale air, the pavements crusted with dog turds, the facades of the church and the shops peeling, and every inhabitant in some phase of advanced age. The kind of place one could not love without effort, and yet, she understood now, the only place on the face of the whole earth that she herself loved.

The House at the Edge of Night” is a the story of four generations of the Esposito family, set on the fictional island of Castellamare, off the coast of Sicily, and their cafe, the eponymous House at the Edge of Night. Covering the years 1914 – 2009, the story begins with the arrival of Amedeo Esposito, practically on the eve of World War I, to take up a position as the island’s doctor. Amedeo is a collector of stories . Each section of the book begins with one of Amedeo’s stories and they form a framework for the book. Indeed, the red leather-bound notebook in which Amedeo transcribes the stories he collects, is itself the subject of a bitter rivalry between his grandsons.




The story begins with Amedeo, but the plot is driven by women – Amedeo’s beautiful, strong-willed wife, Pina, their daughter, Maria-Grazia, her grand-daughter, Lena – and the island’s saint, Sant’ Agata, on whose feast day Amedeo first arrived on the island and on whose festival, 95 years later, the novel ends. In between, we follow the islanders through two world wars, the rise of fascism, the economic boom of the 1970s and 80s, the financial crisis of 2008 – until we are so heavily invested in their destinies, that we, too, are ready to say a little prayer to Sant’ Agata and to work with the islanders shoulder to shoulder when all seems lost, such as in this passage, near the end of the book, when the ferry breaks down, leaving scores of tourists who have heard of the saint’s miracles, stranded on the Sicilian shore, with no way to reach the island (I should add, that the money brought by those tourists is desperately needed to save the heavily-mortgaged House at the Edge of Night).

Now Agata-the-fisherwoman rose to a great height, hauling herself by the bar’s counter. “We’ll take the old boats,” she said. “We’ll launch the ones stored away in the tonnara. The old boats, painted, with the white stones, that we used before the war. There are ten or twelve in there.”

The islanders began to stir themselves. Down the road to the quay they hurried, in cars and vans, on bicycles, on foot, bearing lanterns like little white stars. Maria-Grazia seized Flavio’s Balilla binoculars, and together she and Lena took the three-wheeled van and followed them. In the dark that was all at once less storm-tossed, less rain-washed, the young men of the island launched the boats. On the waters of the harbour they rode again: the Sant’Agata Salvatrice, the Trust in God, the Santa Maria delle Luce. The Provvidenza, the Maria Concetta, and the Siracusa Star.

Lena and Maria-Grazia were left onshore with the rest of the islanders, watching the lights sail away from them. And here on the edge of the ocean, Maria-Grazia seemed to see the island as it looked to those ships leaving it, and must have looked to those Espositos who had left it: her son, her brothers, her granddaughter — a rock in a haze of water vapour, receding on the clouded surface of the water like a ship cast off. “Didn’t you want to go in the ships, too?” she asked Lena.

“I’m going to stay here,” said Lena, “and prepare the bar for when they get back.”

And, finishing the novel, the reader is left with the feeling that the bar is still there, waiting for them, warm and hospitable, and that you can return and it will seem as if you have never been away.

Another book that I have been reading during this seemingly never-ending, on again-off again lockdown, is “Rapid Eye Movement” by Amanda Sheridan.



Rapid Eye Movement by Amanda Sheridan




This one also stays with you long after you have finished reading it, but in a very different way to “The House at the Edge of Night“. This one is a fast-paced action thriller, but with a hint of something more, possibly the supernatural, possibly Sci-Fi. It, too, begins on an island – the island of Cyprus – but it begins with a flight in the dark and a bat out of hell car chase culminating in a devastating crash which lands Jennifer, one of the protagonists, in hospital, in a coma.
At the same time, Lucy, the second protagonist, is involved in an accident near her home in Yorkshire, putting her, too, in a coma.

And now things start to get very, very weird. Because Lucy begins to dream about Jennifer’s life, even as Jennifer dreams about Lucy’s.

Two ordinary women who have never met. And whom the doctors are unable to bring out of their respective comas.

Through their dreams, we learn about their respective (and very different) lives – Lucy’s with her building contractor husband Charlie and their two daughters, in the Yorkshire Dales, and Jennifer’s, by the side of her darkly handsome and somewhat mysterious Israeli lover, the enigmatic Ilan.

What the two women do seem to have in common is an artistic streak – Jennifer is an interior designer and Lucy is a photographer. The homes of both are described in loving detail, including the extensive renovations undertaken by Lucy and Charlie – in a way that makes it clear that the author is writing from personal experience.

But why are these two women dreaming about each other’s lives? And are they, in fact, doing so? Or is one of them real and the other merely a dream?

And most important of all – now that the lives of the two are so inextricably intertwined, what will happen if one of them wakes up? Will the other remain in a coma? Or will she cease to exist?

This book is not one to be read at your leisure, but rather, one where you reach the end of a chapter and tell yourself: “Just one chapter more” – and then again “Just one more” – until you realise it is nearly 2 o’clock in the morning and that, if you want to get any sleep at all, you are going to have to leave Lucy and Jennifer to their dreams for a few hours.
That’s if you dare to go to sleep. For who knows where your dreams may take you…


The book ends on a profoundly disturbing note, with many questions left deliberately unanswered. Yet a possible cause of the connection between the two women is hinted at and the epilogue leaves the way open for a sequel. In fact, I am happy to report that a sequel has just come out – and it goes without saying that I shall be reading it as soon as I finish the two books I am currently reading!


The Dreaming: The sequel to Rapid Eye Movement by [Amanda Sheridan]


Side by side with the new books on my TBR bookshelf, the recent four-part dramatisation of E.M. Forster’s “Howards End” induced me to reread a modern classic which I first encountered in the Lower Sixth. At the age of 16, I hated it. I haven’t looked at it again till now – but this time round, I found it so much more palatable.

Spoilers now follow.





The story revolves around three families – the wealthy, artistic, intellectual and determinedly liberal Schlegels, the equally wealthy, entirely worldly and unswervingly capitalistic Wilcoxes and the poverty-stricken, nominally lower middle-class (but practically working class) Basts. The latter impact the lives of both Schlegels and Wilcoxes, without even knowing it.

The Schlegel family consists of three siblings – Margaret, the eldest, and most practical of the three (although she constantly denies her own practicality), from whose point of view the story is mostly told, her passionately idealistic sister Helen (who, in many ways, reminded me of Marianne Dashwood in “Sense and Sensibility” and whom, like Marianne, I found rather tiresome) and their brother , Tibby – a very clever teenager, but, I thought, lacking in human warmth. A chance meeting in Germany, where both families were holidaying, has thrown them into a seemingly unlikely friendship with the Wilcoxes, who invite them to visit them at their country home, the eponymous Howards End – an invitation to which only Helen responds.

Disaster seems to follow Helen around wherever she goes. It is her thoughtless “theft” of his umbrella, some weeks later, which draws into their circle the young clerk, Leonard Bast – a boy of twenty with ambitions to “better himself” by means of literature and music, whom Margaret and, more particularly, the idealistic Helen, are anxious to “help”. Leonard is burdened with a wife, Jacky, “of whom it is simplest to say that she was not respectable” (to quote Forster). In fact, when we first meet her, Jacky, who is some thirteen years older than Leonard, is actually his mistress whom, for some inexplicable reason, he feels in honour bound to marry, as soon as he attains the age of twenty-one. I say “inexplicable”, because as the book progresses, it becomes clear that Jacky has been “not respectable” for many years before she and Leonard ever met and that he played no part in her degradation. It is later revealed that ten years previously, she had had a liaison with Mr. Wilcox, but it is by no means clear that he was the first and indeed, one suspects that he was not.

I stated earlier that the story is told, for the most part, from Margaret’s point of view – but it is Helen’s blundering attempts to “help” Leonard which drive much of the narrative and lead her to an act which, in the eyes of society at that time (the first decade of the 20th century), is unforgiveable – and to a tragic outcome.

I will say no more, as I don’t want to give everything away. I will just add that most reviews of the book, and of the media adaptations of it, stress its concern with the social, gender and class divisions in early 20th-century England, but to my mind, the novel is most interesting when it deals with personal relationships, which Helen reminds us time and time again, are the most important of all.

These are just three of the books I have been reading during this seemingly interminable lockdown and, no doubt, I shall be reading many more before it is done.
I see no danger of growing bored – and if I run out of books, there are many delights to be found on YouTube. In fact, I am currently indulging in “The Onedin Line” – all 91 episodes of it…

So, how about you? What have you been reading/watching these past few months?

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The Corona Chronicles – In Spite of All Terror (or: The Bright Side of Life)

I ended my previous post on a very dark note, I fear. And while subsequent events – for example, the spike in new COVID-19 cases in the Arab community, due to a large number of mass gatherings, such as weddings with hundreds of participants, every weekend (Friday to Sunday), and the complete chaos surrounding the reopening of (some) schools, and the refusal of certain large segments of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to abide by the prohibition on opening yeshivot and talmudei torah – seem to have borne out my fears, I feel I should try to balance my pessimism with something more optimistic.

So – where, oh where, is that silver lining?

Well, the fact that synagogues were closed over the High Holy Days and that one was forced to pray at home, alone, did make me concentrate more on the meaning of the prayers. That, certainly, was an upside to the surrealistic situation imposed upon us – as was the initiative to have the shofar blown throughout the country at the same time, in order to promote unity (a commodity sorely lacking these days) throughout the country.
I listened to it standing at my living-room window, and I wept – not least at the almost certain knowledge that the fragile unity would be short-lived.

Then, too, there are the Open University courses which, instead of being held in various campuses throughout the country, are now being conducted via Zoom or on Facebook. This started earlier this year, during the First Lockdown and is set to continue during the Winter Semester which begins next week. It does have the advantage that, this year, I shall be able to participate in courses which are not usually held in Jerusalem. Moreover, when winter finally arrives, it will be nice to listen to a lecture ensconced in a comfortable armchair, a hot cup of coffee/tea/cocoa in my hand, rather than have to brave the elements to get to a lecture hall on the opposite side of town, or spend a fortune on taxi fares (because I am too scared of catching the virus to risk going by bus).

And then, there is choir practice. Zoom is far from ideal for this. It is impossible to sing together, because there is always a delay factor. And that makes it impossible to hear the harmony that is at the heart of choral singing. On the other hand, it makes it very easy to learn new pieces, especially because we have been going over the same half dozen songs again and again. But I think we have reached saturation point – and it was a relief to learn that this week, we are returning to face-to-face meetings, albeit in “capsules”. Instead of the whole choir meeting twice a week, each group of ten members will meet once a week. (If you think you have seen this movie before, you are right!) Even so, since the meetings will now be indoors rather than in the large synagogue courtyard, as they were during the summer, some of us are still afraid to attend, and so it has been decided that the rehearsals will also be streamed on Zoom. I have hesitated – but singing in the choir is like the breath of life to me, and so I shall take the risk. It’s hard enough that several members have left recently. Two have moved away from Jerusalem, one – who lives in a retirement home where the management has a stringent “non-mingling” lockdown policy – has decided to “take a break” till all this is over, and one has been struggling with recurrent laryngitis and has decided to leave, with the hope that one day, she will be able to return. One of our other members described it as “tearing bits off our mutual heart” and that’s how it feels. We did discuss pausing all activity “for the duration” (as they used to say in World War 2), but we all fear that once we stop, we may never get it going again.

So, I will take the risk and go to the live meetings – wearing a mask and keeping my distance and hoping that everyone else does likewise.

********

I have already mentioned some of the new skills I have been forced to acquire since the start of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. Two more opportunities presented themselves earlier this month. First of all, whilst researching ways to help my 93-year-old father overcome difficulties with his computer, being unable to visit him myself due to the lockdown, I discovered that Windows 10 contains software which enables users to ask for, or extend, assistance from afar, by giving or taking temporary remote control over the affected computer. If you don’t believe me, try clicking on the Start icon in the bottom left hand corner of the computer, go to Windows Accessories and thence, to Quick Assist. Or just type Quick Assist in the search box next to the Start icon. Then follow the instructions.
Unfortunately, my Dad hasn’t yet allowed me to try this out on his computer.

At one point, I lost internet connectivity for a couple of days due to what the cable company which provides my internet infrastructure called “a regional problem”. They had no idea, they said, how long it would take to fix the problem, although they had technicians in situ working on repairs. That was all very well, but I had a Zoom meeting with my choir set for that evening. And then I remembered Dor, our musical director and conductor, suggesting to someone else who was experiencing problems from an unstable internet connection, that they use their mobile phone as a modem. So I thought, why not give it a try (although I had no idea how). Usually when I am at home, if I want to use my mobile phone to surf the internet, I use the computer’s Wi-Fi, so as not to eat into my cellular internet package, which I prefer to save for when I am out and about. But these were desperate times. I unplugged the modem/router from my computer, connected the cell-phone to one of the USB ports and, following the instructions on my phone, was able to connect the computer to the phone’s cellular internet service (which is provided by a different company). I daresay for many of you, more tech-savvy than I, this sounds like child’s play, but for me, it was like discovering Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (lol).

********

On Friday, October 9th, the eve of Simchat Torah, Rabbi David Refael ben Ami Feinshil, died of COVID-19. He was just 70 years old. In his youth, before he “found religion”, he was better known as the singer, Dedi ben Ami. I first heard of his death a couple of days later when the radio started playing one of his most famous songs (from when he had already become religious, and devoted himself to collecting the songs of the Breslov Hassidim, to which he belonged). It was a song I first heard thirty years ago, during the First Gulf War, crouched one night in my sealed room, as Saddam Hussein was making good his threat to rain down Scud missiles on Israel. The song is an adaptation of one of the sayings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov:

“Thus says Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: It is forbidden to despair. And even if hard times come, one must only rejoice.”

In my sealed room, that song gave me comfort. Listening to it again, earlier this month, I thought to myself that no song could be more suited to the present situation.


And I wept.

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The Corona Chronicles – Mad As Hell

When I was a child, one of my favourite radio shows was the BBC’s “Just a Minute” – in which participants were given a topic on which they then had to speak for one minute, without hesitation, repetition or deviation. Occasionally, they would also have to conform to special rules. For example, in a given round, a particular word might be banned – such as “is” or “very”.

Of late, I have found myself wondering what would happen if we were to apply this rule to everyday conversation. How would an ordinary chat between two neighbours meeting at the corner grocery sound, if the words “coronavirus”, “COVID-19” and “social distancing” were to be banned? Or, should it prove impossible to avoid completely any mention of these words, could the current pandemic be discussed “without hesitation, repetition or deviation”?

Somehow, I doubt it.

While we are on the subject of the pandemic – I bet I am not the only one to feel total despair at the inability of our “leaders” to actually lead. Decisions seem to be made on the basis of what can be done without offending this or that coalition partner. The Opposition insists on allowing anti-Netanyahu demonstrations to take place, even though this would involve mass gatherings consisting of hundreds, if not thousands, of participants. At the same time, they demand that synagogues and yeshivot (Jewish religious academies) remain closed to prevent the spread of infection, which is particularly high among close-knit ultra-Orthodox communities. The “experts” came up with the idea of quarantining “Red Cities” (in which the number of infected is highest), but that was opposed by the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members, because so many majority Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) towns fell into that category, and so the Government put us all into lockdown over the High Holy Days, so that the Haredim wouldn’t feel discriminated against. That lockdown was widely ignored by the latter, however – some of whose leaders “recommended” that their flock adhere as far as possible to social distancing rules and not hold hands while dancing round the Torah on Simchat Torah, or kiss the Torah scrolls, but refrained from issuing a clear-cut ruling to that effect. After the festivals, we saw on the news and social media just how seriously (not) the rank-and-file took those “recommendations”!

Moreover, now that the High Holy Days and festivals have passed and the government and “Corona Cabinet” are discussing partially opening up the country again, using the “Red Cities” model, the ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset are “negotiating” (ie. resorting to blackmail) for their support for this model in return for allowing the yeshivot to re-open immediately (many of these, of course, being in the “Red Cities”).

Meanwhile, the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators also continue openly to defy the lockdown measures. While they adhered, for the most part, to the sanction against travelling more than 1000 metres from one’s place of residence, they held mass gatherings where the participants did not observe the 2-metre distancing rule and many did not wear masks or wore them on their chins.

In addition, each day brings a new “scoop” about this or that Cabinet Minister, high-ranking army or police officer, or other “social influencer” breaking quarantine restrictions, even to the extent of confirmed COVID-19 carriers taking part in family or other gatherings outside their homes.

It is no wonder then, that ordinary people – those who are facing bankruptcy because they cannot earn a living – are choosing to open their businesses regardless, even at the cost of being heavily fined. They are angry, and who can blame them? Many commentators have attributed this to a loss of hope. During the “First Wave” of the pandemic, people were ready to endure hardship and weeks of lockdown, if only they could see a light at the end of the tunnel. If they knew there was an exit strategy. But instead, every such plan that is announced, is shot down by special interest groups before it has even got off the ground.

It makes me so angry, I could scream. Or perhaps I should adopt Howard Beale’s iconic rant, because I am, indeed, as mad as hell:



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The Corona Chronicles – Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Those of you who follow this blog know how much I enjoy touring the country and taking  part in archaeological field-trips and nature rambles organized by Yad Yitzchak Ben Zvi, many of which I have described over the past few years. It has been hard having to do without them, during the past six months of lockdown or partial lockdown. So you can imagine my joy when activities started up again, albeit in a limited format and subject to strict Social Distancing restrictions.

On Friday, August 28th, masked, armed with bottles of hand sanitizer, and equipped with mini walkie-talkies (I don’t know how else to describe them) so that we could adhere to the two-metre social distancing rule, yet still be able to hear our guide, we set out on a tour of the archaeological excavations under the Old City of Jerusalem police station, popularly known by its Ottoman Turkish name, the Kishleh.

We had the good fortune to be guided on this tour by Amit Re’em, the archaeologist in charge of the excavation.

Entrance is through the Museum of the History of Jerusalem, housed in the Citadel (anachronistically known as the Tower of David):

In fact, in King David’s time, Jerusalem had not spread so much to the west of what is now known as the Ophel, and the Temple Mount. That happened later. How much later, we do not know exactly, but excavations under the Kishleh have unearthed foundations dating back to the First Temple period, believed to be part of King Hezekiah’s fortifications (8th century BCE).

In fact, one of the beauties of the site is that you can see the layers of history – the walls of the Ottoman lock-up, later used by the British Mandatory authorities to imprison Jewish underground fighters, sitting on top of a Herodian wall, which in turn is built upon earlier Hasmonean fortifications, and beneath that, the original First Temple period defensive wall.

When you first enter the Citadel, you find yourself looking down on an impressive courtyard, where, in happier times (i.e. when not plagued by COVID-19), the Museum offers son-et-lumière presentations, narrating the three thousand year history of Jerusalem – as well as concerts.

Amit led us up to a roof overlooking today’s Old City police station, from where there is a panoramic view of Jerusalem and the surrounding hills:

From there, a heavy, locked door led us to an underground world, where Amit and his team of archaeologists are still stripping away the layers of history to lay bare the secrets of what was once Herod’s palace and was later the official Jerusalem residence of the Roman Procurator of Judaea (his main palace being in Caesarea).

Amongst the things we saw, close to the entrance, on the upper level where the British Mandatory authorities had housed prisoners from the Jewish underground, was a map of Greater Israel (ie. the whole of the original British Mandate for Palestine, which included Transjordan), drawn on the wall by a prisoner belonging to Etzel (known to the British as the Irgun). I have no pictures of this, for reasons which will be explained later.

Further down were dye-vats, dating back to the Crusader era.  We know from the writings of the mediaeval Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela,  of Jews employed in the occupation of dyeing, living near the palace of the Crusader rulers of Jerusalem and these two huge basins, still stained with red dye, confirm his words.

Descending still further into the bowels of the earth, we encountered the remains of Herodian walls built atop the foundations of Hasmonean-era fortifications.  Herod destroyed the walls built by his predecessors rather than use them as the foundations for his own edifices, in order to send a clear message to his subjects. The Hasmoneans are gone, it is Herod who is your master now. (My readers will, no doubt, recall, that Herod was a usurper who came to power with the help of the Romans and who murdered most of the remaining Hasmonean royal family.)

After we emerged once more into the sunlight and came out of the Citadel, Amit showed us the entrance to a tunnel through which, during the Mandate, Jewish underground fighters attempted to smuggle explosives to blow up part of the wall of the Kishleh lock-up and free Jewish prisoners.
The attempt was unsuccessful.

Now, you may be wondering why today’s virtual tour was so short (even taking into account that it was only a half-day tour) and included so few pictures. The answer is, alas, that while I was still engaged in writing this post (which I started about three weeks ago), my computer suffered a catastrophic failure which resulted in my having to take it in to be repaired (it was – and is – still under warranty). The damage proved to be just about as bad as could be – Murphy’s Law in spades. The hard disk had to be replaced and I lost almost all of my photos from the last three months which had not yet been backed up. Fortunately, I had already uploaded some to WordPress and others still remained on my camera. But those that I took on my mobile phone, from which they were erased as soon as I had transferred them to the computer, were lost 😦  .

Moreover, the timing of this disaster could not have been worse, as the COVID-19 infection rate spiralled out of control and the government, fearing an even greater spike over the High Holy Days, announced a two-week lockdown (later increased to three weeks), similar in character to the one we endured at Pessach (Passover), to take effect from Friday September 18th, the eve of Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) until after Succot (Tabernacles).  When I took my computer in to the lab, I was told that under the circumstances – the impending lockdown coupled with the rapidly approaching holy days – they could not guarantee when I would get it back and I faced the prospect of spending the festival alone, and unable even to have resource to Zoom. I suspect that for that reason, they didn’t really try to retrieve the data on the corrupted hard disk but merely replaced it with a new one. At all events, I got my computer back the day before Rosh Hashana and since then, have been attempting to retrieve what I can from the Cloud and other places.

Now, to the lockdown. This morning, the government announced a further tightening of restrictions. I should explain that the Rosh Hashana lockdown was full of holes, with exceptions for synagogue services in a limited format and also to allow for the continuation of demonstrations against the government. But the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, who claimed that the lockdown was all a ploy to put a stop to the demonstrations, ignored the social distancing rules, including the obligation to wear face-masks, tore down police barriers designed to keep the demonstrators in small groups (because in a pandemic, you do NOT want thousands of people all crammed together cheek by jowl, shouting and screaming in unison and filling the air with possibly infected droplets of saliva) and, while law-abiding citizens were huddled together in their homes, prevented from joining family members (other than those who lived with them) for the traditional festival meals, they held a “protest meal” outside the Prime Minister’s home, in complete contempt of all the social distancing rules.

The daily new infections count has soared, coming close on some days to 7000 new cases. Everyone is blaming everyone else. The religiously observant are angry at the restrictions imposed on gatherings for prayer when thousands of demonstrators were allowed to gather with impunity, the demonstrators claim that there isn’t a single documented case of anyone getting infected at a demonstration (this, after some of their organizers instructed them to leave their mobile phones at home so that their presence at demonstrations could not be traced – in other words, deliberately to impede the epidemiological research), owners of private businesses which do not involve contact with the public and who are on the verge of bankruptcy already since the first lockdown cannot understand why they are being “punished” for the sake of “equal treatment for everyone”, many people are claiming that the blanket lockdown is because the government is unable to stand up to all the different pressure groups demanding exceptions and finds it easier to impose a complete lockdown rather than explain why this branch of the economy is closed and that one is not…..

And all this on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the day when we are supposed to look within ourselves and pray for forgiveness for our own sins, but also for those of the community as a whole. That is why we say: “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before thee.”  That is why a basic tenet of Judaism is כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה (Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All the community of Israel are responsible for one another). But that sense of community seems to be gone. If it were there, we would all be scrupulously observing the social distancing rules, to protect one another. If it were there, we would be examining our own failures instead of blaming everybody else.

From the very start of this pandemic, I have said that God has sent it to test us. Not just the Jewish people, but all of humanity. Can we put aside our differences and work together to overcome this modern-day plague?
It seems we cannot.

Who is left for us to turn to?
I can only answer with the prayer which runs like a thread throughout the Yom Kippur services.

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ
חָנֵּנוּ וַעֲנֵנוּ
כִּי אֵין בָּנוּ מַעֲשִׂים.

עֲשֵׂה עִמָּנוּ צְדָקָה וָחֶסֶד
וְהושִׁיעֵנוּ.

Our Father, our King, be thou gracious unto us and answer us; for lo! we are destitute of meritorious deeds; deal thou with us in charity and loving-kindness, and save us.

And because I cannot bring myself to end on a note of despair, I will leave you with the traditional Jewish greeting for Yom Kippur:

May you be signed and sealed in the book of life.
 G’mar Chatima Tova

גְּמַר חֲתִימָה טוֹבָה

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