A New Year Is Just Around The Corner

Shame on me, allowing almost three months to pass without writing about anything. And now, lo and behold – Rosh Hashana is less than a fortnight away, the children are all back at school (the almost “traditional” teachers’ strike having been averted – as usual – at the last minute), choir rehearsals have started again (we are working on Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, which it has long been an ambition of mine to sing), and earlier this month, I took part in an afternoon walking tour with Yad Ben Zvi – my first in a very, very long time (thanks to the impact of COVID-19).

This tour was (for me) a very local tour, from the old Ottoman Railway Station (now converted into a restaurant and cafe quarter), to the Bible Hill opposite (so called because Ben Gurion wanted to open a Bible Institute on the hill but now, best known for the wildflowers that cover it in spring and autumn, especially the squills which bloom there at the end of the summer and are known as harbingers of the Fall), past the Khan Theatre, taking in St. Andrew’s Scottish Church with its rather tenuous connection to Robert the Bruce, an ancient necropolis dating back to the First Temple period, and ending with a monument to peace made of the debris of war.

Opposite the old Railway Station is a piece of street art, which many people pass by without noticing, except maybe to ask themselves, why anyone would park a car in such an awkward place.

Actually. whenever I see this statue, the work of the sculptor and painter Gavriel Klasmer, I am reminded of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and the painting of the boa constrictor digesting an elephant, which the undiscerning mistake for a picture of a hat.



A few yards further on is a drinking fountain, donated as a parting gift to the people of Jerusalem by General Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, who served as the British High Commissioner for Palestine between 1931 – 1938.

By the way – it doesn’t work!

Not much further along the road is the Khan Theatre, which I have always been given to understand to have been originally built in the Ottoman Turkish period as a caravanserai – a roadside inn where caravan travellers could rest overnight on their way to Jerusalem in the days when the city gates were closed at sunset. However, it appears there is some disagreement about that. Even the Jerusalem Municipality seems to be unable to make up its mind about the origins of the Khan, which would explain the existence of not one, but TWO plaques, one at each side of the entrance. One of them claims that the building dates to the Mamluk period (1250 – 1517 C.E.):

The other dates the building to 1853 and claims it originally served as a silk factory, before being converted to a hostel for Christian and Jewish pilgrims on their way to Hebron and Bethlehem.

The latter story does seem more likely, as the present building does not bear the distinguishing characteristics of Mamluk architecture as found elsewhere in Jerusalem, such as alternating layers of different coloured bricks, for example. Moreover, the date, 1853, is very specific indeed.
I imagine that there are elements of truth in both stories and it is entirely possible that the present building (which was, itself, renovated in the late 1960s and early 1970s) was built on the site of a pre-existing caravanserai.
Nowadays, as I already mentioned, the building complex houses the Khan Theatre repertory company and serves as the venue for various cultural events in its courtyard and restaurant cafe.

Just beyond the Khan, passing an old stone building which, until quite recently, housed the British Consulate in Jerusalem (well, in western Jerusalem, at least), is the turn-off to what is known to every Jerusalemite as “the Scottish Church” – St. Andrew’s, where I have appeared many times with my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir. The church, also known as the Scots Memorial Church, was built as a memorial to the Scottish soldiers killed in the region while fighting the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Designed by the British architect Clifford Holliday, the foundation stone was laid on the 7th of May 1927 by Field-Marshal Lord Allenby himself and the church opened its doors in 1930.
Built on a rocky outcrop high above the Hinnom Valley, the church and adjoining hospice, designed to evoke a Highland castle and keep, enjoy a magnificent view of the Old City.

One of the most poignant legends associated with the church is connected to the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce. The story goes that the king had taken a vow to undertake a crusade to fight the “Saracens” in the Holy Land. As he had failed to fulfil that vow, on his deathbed, he instructed that after he died, his heart was to be removed from his body and brought to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Accordingly, after his death on the 7th of June, 1329, his heart was removed and placed in a silver casket, which was entrusted to Sir James Douglas (Black Douglas). The latter, for some reason, was sidetracked to Spain where he joined a campaign against the Moorish kingdom of Granada, in the course of which, he was killed. King Robert’s heart was found and brought back to Scotland, where it was buried at Melrose Abbey, but the Abbey was sacked during the Reformation and later fell into complete disrepair. Over the years, the King’s heart was lost and found and then lost again – and not found again until 1996. It was finally reburied in Melrose Abbey, in 1998. For this reason, there is a plaque set in the floor of St. Andrew’s Church, commemorating the Scottish king’s pious wish for his heart to be buried in Jerusalem – reminding me, at any rate, of the poem by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi: “My heart is in the East, Whilst I am in the utmost West”.

Adjoining the church is the guesthouse, which contains some beautiful examples of Armenian ceramics created by the artist David Ohanessian, whose tiles also decorate other Jerusalem landmarks, such as the Rockefeller Museum, and the Jerusalem House of Quality:

Ohanessian, a Turkish-born Armenian, survived the genocide wreaked by the Turks on his people and came to Jerusalem as an almost penniless refugee in 1918, to work on the restitution of the tiles of the Dome of the Rock. He founded the Dome of the Rock Tiles ceramic workshop in the Old City’s Via Dolorosa and almost single-handedly, created the Jerusalem Armenian school of ceramics, on the basis of Turkish Ottoman ceramics.

The church and guesthouse are surrounded by a beautiful and well-kept garden, in which one can find the graves of two dogs:



Popular legend has it that these are the graves of two dogs that fought with the Scots troops in the battle for Jerusalem, but according to our guide, they were actually the faithful pets of the guesthouse’s House Mother. Since one of the tombstones states that the dog known (fittingly) as Bruce was born in 1942, this seems much more likely.

Sandwiched between St. Andrew’s Church and the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre lies the small, but fascinating, Ketef Hinnom Archaeological Park, housing a network of tombs from the First Temple period. During that time, it was customary to place the dead on stone benches hewn around the walls of the burial cave. The head would repose in a hollowed out space, as if on a pillow. After about a year, when it could be assumed that the flesh had decomposed, the bare bones would be collected and placed in a chamber hewn under the “bench”, where they would rest with the bones of family members who had gone before. Hence the expression “he was gathered unto his fathers”.


Seven family tombs were discovered here in the 1970’s, containing the bones of 95 people, obviously people of means, to judge by the objects found with them. The latter were discovered almost accidentally, by a 13-year-old boy. They included pottery, coins and jewellery. One of the most important finds was a pair of silver amulets in the form of scrolls. These were so fragile, it took several years before it was possible to open the tiny scrolls without damaging them. When they were finally opened, they were found to be inscribed with the words of the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6: 23 – 27), still recited by Jews today. Dating back to the 6th century BCE, they pre-date the Dead Sea Scrolls by several hundred years and are the oldest Hebrew texts known to be in existence. They are on display at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Leaving the archaeological park by the back gate, we now ascended the Bible Hill as the sun slowly sank behind us.

From the ridge, on a clear day, one can see far out into the Judaean Desert. But it was starting to get dark, so we descended the hill on its eastern side and proceeded to the Jerusalem House of Quality.

The building which, nowadays, serves as a centre for showcasing art and artists, was originally built as a wing of St. John’s Eye Hospital – which explains why the entrance courtyard is covered with the coats of arms of Knights of the Order of St. John (the Hospitallers), and why the Cross of the Order (the famous “Maltese” Cross) features prominently among its decorative features:



Like the Scottish Church described above, this building was also designed by the British architect Clifford Holliday – and like the Scottish Church, here too can be seen fine examples of David Ohanessian’s Armenian ceramics:

After an all-to-short twenty minute period to enjoy the more modern art and crafts displayed in the building, it was time for our last stop. Between the Jerusalem House of Quality and the Menachem Begin Heritage Centre is a monument to peace designed by the controversial Israeli painter and sculptor Yigael Tumarkin. and made out of pieces of broken weapons:

You could not say more clearly: “And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – and that verse is, indeed, engraved on the pillar.

Nearby, reminiscent of the famous handprints in the Hollywood Boulevard, are the handprints of those who contributed to the cost of erecting the monument, the largest being that of Jerusalem’s legendary mayor, Teddy Kollek:

With that, our tour ended. I hope you have enjoyed reliving it with me.




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Postscript:

I started writing this article a week ago today, and before I was even half way through, I was stunned to hear the news of the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. She was Queen before I was born and I always imagined her living to be 100 at least, like her mother – but it was not to be. I left England 48 years ago, but for me, she will always be THE Queen. Talking about King Charles III still feels surreal to me. I suddenly feel very old. It sounds trite but an era has, indeed, ended – the Second Elizabethan Age.
Rest in Peace, Your Majesty. You’ve earned it.

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The Corona Chronicles – Back To Business

I spoke too soon. COVID-19 is still with us, now mostly in the form of the latest variant, BA-5.
The Ministry of Health dashboard, last updated at 11.06 this morning, gives the Transmission Rate (R) as 1.37 although on the morning news programme, it was reported as 1.55. That was at 9 am, however – and, in any case, the figures are not (cannot be) completely up to date to the minute but refer to the last 24 hours. At all events, it is clear that COVID is once again spreading. The Ministry of Health has “recommended” that we resume the use of face-masks in closed spaces. However, in line with the current policy of learning to live with COVID, no restrictions have (as yet) been imposed. Some of the “experts” think we are witnessing the start of a Sixth Wave. On the other hand, a few weeks ago, the Transmission Rate rose to 1.42, right after Purim – but fell again and remained well below 1 for several weeks, without any special measures being taken to contain the spread of the virus.

At choir rehearsals, some people are once again (or maybe, still) wearing face-masks and this was the case also, at our concert the day before yesterday (in the audience, that is).

Yes, it’s back to business for Israel’s cultural institutions – the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir amongst them. All of the five component choirs have produced, or will be producing, concerts this month – and that is in addition to the big choir’s Gala concert which is set to take place on the 5th of July, in the Henry Crown Auditorium, with a full orchestra, just like in the days BC (Before COVID).

The day before yesterday, it was the turn of my own choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir.
The first part of the programme consisted of music from the Renaissance to the 20th century, based on Jewish and Christian liturgical texts (although even the Jewish texts, from the Psalms, were in Latin) – three motets by Bruckner (who must have hated sopranos, judging by the incredibly difficult vocal feats he demanded of them), two of Duruflé’s Four Motets on Gregorian Themes, and – my personal favourite – O Magnum Mysterium by Tomás Luis de Victoria, which resounded magnificently in the acoustic of Christ Church, an Anglican church just inside the Old City of Jerusalem, opposite the Citadel.

Unusually for us, apart from the a cappella portion of the programme, we also were accompanied by a string quintet in the central item of the evening, the Stabat Mater by Josef Rheinberger. The quintet actually consisted of the Across Quartet, and the contrabass player Kai Jack. The Quartet also added diversity to the evening’s programme by treating us all to the First Movement of Dvorak’s Quartet no. 12 in F Major opus 96 (the “American” Quartet) – one of my favourite pieces of chamber music.

The second half of the programme was rather lighter in mood, and more varied in language, encompassing works by the contemporary Canadian composer, Stephen Chatman, the 19th century English composer and conductor Henry David Leslie, the Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos and ending with Cole Porter.

After three years of truncated, on-and-off musical activity, it feels so good to be back!

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The Corona Chronicles – Gerusalemme Liberata

Fifty five years ago come Sunday, in the midst of the Six Day War, all Israel was electrified by the announcement of Motta Gur, Commander of the 55th Paratroop Brigade, which liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians: Har Habayit Beyadeinu (הר הבית בידינו – The Temple Mount is in our hands).

In the years that followed, however, that miraculous victory was virtually thrown away by successive Israeli governments.

The first mistake was that of Moshe Dayan, then Minister of Defence, who ordered Gur to remove the Israeli flag which the Israeli soldiers had raised over the holy site, and who personally returned the keys to the Muslim Waqf. Since then, Israeli sovereignty over the holiest site in the world to the Jewish people, has been under attack and steadily weakening.

Just think of it! A Jewish government prevents Jews from praying at our holiest of holy places! And I’m not just talking about organised prayer. Nobody is suggesting converting the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock into synagogues. But the fact is that when Jews visit the Temple Mount, they are accompanied by Waqf guards – with the agreement of the Israel Government and the Israel Police – and any Jew who dares even to utter a prayer under his breath, or don a tallit (prayer-shawl), risks being attacked by Muslims and arrested by the Israel Police for causing a breach of the peace!!!

What other country, after winning a war which had been forced upon it, in the course of which it regained control of its spiritual heart, has EVER made such a concession to its defeated enemies?!

Last week, the Police arrested three Jewish teenagers who had committed the terrible “crime” of prostrating themselves on the Temple Mount and reciting the Shemapossibly the oldest and most important prayer in the Jewish tradition. Among the conditions for their release, they were banned from the Temple Mount for 15 days. They appealed the decision and the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court (Judge Tzion Saharay) overturned the Police ban, remarking: “I believe that one cannot say that prostrating and saying Kriyat Shema can be suspected of being behaviors which violate public order. It is hard to accept a situation in which saying Shema Yisrael on Temple Mount could be deemed a criminal act and one that could bring a violation of the peace“.

Unfortunately, Israeli weakness on this subject, the way successive governments have backed down in face of the “Heckler’s Veto” exercised by the Waqf every time a Jew dares to claim the right (which no Israeli government has actually denied and which the Supreme Court has upheld) of “quiet prayer” on the Temple Mount, has merely fueled the demands of our enemies and their threats to take violent action if Israel dares to alter the Status Quo on the holy site (as the Muslims have been doing for years) – and so the Police, backed by the District Attorney’s Office hurried to appeal to the District Court. The District Court apparently lacks the courage of the lower court and upheld the Police ban.

On the other hand, the Government has not given in (yet) to Hamas demands to curtail the traditional Jerusalem Day March of the Flags (or Dance of the Flags) and prevent the marchers/dancers from entering via the Damascus Gate, though Hamas has threatened to fire rockets at Jerusalem if the march proceeds as planned (which they did, in fact, do last year, even though the route was changed).

To which I say – bring it on, boys. With any luck, your rockets will fall on your precious mosques and blow them to kingdom come.

Of course, should that happen, no doubt CNN would conduct another of their laughable “independent investigations” and find Israel guilty of deliberately destroying the mosques, just as they found Israel guilty, on the testimony of blatantly biased witnesses, of the deliberate assassination of Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, when, in fact, she was almost certainly killed by Palestinian terrorists (and that is why the Palestinians are refusing to produce the bullet which killed her). CNN, as we all know, is incapable of objectivity where Israel is concerned, but concocting this blood libel is a new low, even for them.

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As the COVID statistics continue to decline in Israel, and almost all restrictions have now been abolished, this will probably be my last post to contain the title “The Corona Chronicles”. Should further developments make it necessary, that series can always be resumed. I hope, however, that that particular crisis is behind us – and that the rest of the world will be able to say the same in the very near future.
I only hope I am not going to have to start a new series – the Monkey-pox Saga.

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In honour of Jerusalem Liberation Day, which, as I said, falls this coming Sunday, I will leave you with one of the loveliest songs I know about Jerusalem – Or V’Yerushalayim (אור וירושלים – Light and Jerusalem), words and music by Yossi Sarig, who was killed in the Yom Kippur War, performed by the Parvarim duo.

It’s such a beautiful song, I feel sure you will want the translation:

Again the silence falls here from the evening sky.
Like the soaring red kite (bird) above the abyss.
And a red sun kisses, like a flaming sword,
The peaks, towers and walls.

Refrain:
I saw a city enveloped in light (or: enveloping light)
And it rises in all the colours of the rainbow
And it plays within me like the ten-stringed harp.
I saw a city enveloped in light.

Behold, the shadow creeps from among the pine-covered hills.
It draws near, secretly, as a lover, to the neighborhoods.
And lo, before him, winking- a myriad eyes of light.
Suddenly his eyes opened as if amazed.

Refrain:
I saw a city enveloped in light (etc)

In the silence of the last night watch the city breaths,
And in the velvet sky a last shard pales.
But dawn’s golden dome is already turning red,
In the warm, soft touch of a young light.

Refrain:
I saw a city enveloped in light (etc).



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The Corona Chronicles – Never Forget

Today, in Israel, we are marking Holocaust Remembrance Day – or, to give it its full title, Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. And I stress the word Heroism. Because while many people think Jews went like lambs to the slaughter in Nazi-occupied Europe, we are learning more and more about Jewish resistance, whether physical resistance, as typified by Jewish partisans such as the Bielski brothers, (whose story you may know from the film Defiance) or spiritual resistance, as expressed in the valiant efforts to preserve Jewish values, education and culture in the face of the Nazis’ and their helpers’ determination to suppress these.  

The Nazis attempted to dehumanise their victims before killing them, by denying them education, medical care, even food. Jews fought to retain their humanity by organising schools, welfare services, an underground educational network, both religious and secular, as well as cultural activities.

Spiritual resistance took many forms. I have written before about a concert “in blue” held in the Kovno Ghetto in July 1943, in which the participants expressed their defiance by means of their choice of programme – a Zionist programme through and through. And what about the opera Brundibar, performed by children in the Terezin (Theresienstadt) Ghetto?

Other forms of spiritual resistance included the keeping of diaries. The Nazis wanted to extinguish all trace of the Jewish people. Diaries ensured that the memory of those murdered remained alive. The Diary of Anne Frank is well-known. But what of the Lodz Ghetto diaries of David Sierakowiak, or the Vilna Ghetto diary of Yitzchak Rudashevski, who describes the establishment of a library in the Ghetto to preserve Jewish culture and learning?

Every year when Holocaust Remembrance Day comes round, I tell myself I am not going to watch any more of the films and documentaries which replace the usual television schedule, that I can’t take any more of it. But I can’t help myself. More than thirty years ago, I bought a six-volume Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, in Hebrew, published by Yad Vashem. There is also a four-volume English version. Each year, I discover there is still more to learn. Each year, I am appalled to discover how ignorant so many people are about the Holocaust. People like the covert antisemite Whoopi Goldberg, who chose the name Goldberg as her professional name because she believed it would be useful to her in what she believed to be a Jewish – controlled Hollywood, and who still insists that the Holocaust wasn’t about racism “because it was whites doing it to other whites”.

I am angered too, by those who ignorantly compare mask mandates with the Nuremberg laws! Whether or not you agree with mask mandates, such a comparison trivialises the Holocaust!

And each year, I am enraged by those who tell us to forgive and forget. Because how can a people that still commemorates the destruction of our Temple, two thousand years after the event, be expected to forgive the destruction of six million of our brothers and sisters a mere 80 years ago, when there are still men and women alive today who suffered under the Nazis and their helpers?

And when I hear of some Nazi, who has managed to escape punishment for 77 years, finally being brought before a court to answer for his crimes, and I hear people say: “He’s 95 years old, why can’t you let him live out his remaining years in peace?”, I think of my own father, nearly 95 years old, weeping silently for his murdered parents, and apologising to me for losing control – and I remember King David’s instructions to his son, Solomon, regarding one who had injured him and committed murder: “Do not let his grey head go down to the grave in peace”.

Never forget.
Never forgive.

I swear I never shall.

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The Corona Chronicles – Whatever Happened To Spring?

The beginning of the week saw the official start of Spring, with the vernal equinox. Tonight, we will be moving the clocks forward one hour, thus heralding the official start of Israel Summer Time.
The weather, however, does not seem to be aware of that. It is freezing cold (at the time of writing, midday, it is 6 degrees C) and pouring with rain! Yesterday, it snowed!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, we are experiencing a definite upswing in the COVID transmission rate (R). A week ago, it was already 0.92. By Sunday morning, it had risen to 1.1, meaning the pandemic was officially spreading once more. As of 8:38 am today, it stands at 1.42. On Sunday morning, the number of new, confirmed cases in the previous 24 hours was 7,783. Today’s figure is 13,603.

It is very likely that the transmission rate will increase even faster over the next few days, in view of the many Purim parties last week. (Friends in the US tell me that a similar effect is being experienced there, only they are blaming the St. Patrick’s Day festivities.)

Under the circumstances, one can’t help but wonder if Pessach (Passover), in three weeks time, will see us in lockdown again.

Meanwhile, the war drags on in the Ukraine, and the Israeli Knesset hosted the Ukrainian President, Zelenskyy, on Zoom, in a special Assembly, which was broadcast live on Israel TV. I have to say, if Zelenskyy was hoping to convince the Israeli public to pressure the Israeli Government into extending more aid to the Ukraine (such as sending them weapons), he was going the wrong way about it when he likened the Russian invasion to the Holocaust and claimed that during that terrible time, Ukraine helped the Jewish People. The Russians are not out to exterminate the Ukrainian People – and the Ukraine most definitely did NOT help the Jewish People. On the contrary, they eagerly did the Nazis’ work for them. Nor has the Ukraine ever supported Israel in the UN when that blatantly biased body passed resolution after resolution against us.

I am by no means suggesting that Israel should turn her back on the Ukraine, in the face of the naked, inexcusable Russian aggression. But to suggest that Israel owes that country a special debt is ludicrous! In fact – it’s a downright chutzpah.

The beastly weather, combined with the COVID upswing, means I haven’t been out much and have therefore had more time for improving my baking skills. Yesterday, I baked a cheese and vegetable pie, with Parmesan and cottage cheese, carrots, onions and celery:



I had some for supper and some more for lunch today and it was so good, I’ve almost finished it.

Then today, I baked a cheese strudel for Shabbat:

I know, I know – it doesn’t look all that professional. But I have sneaked a taste of it, and I can tell you, without any false modesty, that it tastes delicious!

Today’s post is going to be a relatively short one, as I am anxious to get back to a lovely book I am reading – one which I actually bought four years ago and which has been waiting for me on my “To Be Read” shelf for a considerable while (along with over fifty others, both in Hebrew and in English), until I felt the time was right.

I suspect the current events in eastern Europe might have had some influence on my choosing to read Katherine Arden’s debut novel, The Bear and the Nightingale, at this particular time. Set in the land of the Kievan Rus’ (Ukraine and Russia) in the fourteenth century, at a time when the Rus’ were still subject to the Mongol Khans, it is a fantasy steeped in Russian folklore. This was a time of political struggle, between what was to become Russia, and the Golden Horde, and also of spiritual tension, between the Orthodox Church and the old gods and other spirits. The heroine, Vasilisa Petrovna (Vasya), daughter of a northern boyar (Pyotr Vladimirovich) and a mother (Marina Ivanovna) who died giving birth to her, is also in conflict – with her stepmother (of course!). Both women are gifted with the power to see the spirits and demons, the veneration of which, the Church is determined to stamp out. But whereas Vasya welcomes many of them as friends, her stepmother, Anna Ivanovna, fears and hates them. Anna finds an ally in the ambitious and fanatic young priest, Konstantin – who, it appears to me, both fears and lusts after Vasya.
I will not say much more. In fact, I cannot, as I have only read about a third of the book so far. However, besides current events, I think the weather might also have played its part in my choosing to read the book just now. Most of the events take place in winter. Vasya was born “on the steely cusp of winter”. As her mother’s labour pains began, “the first screaming winds of November rattled the bare trees …and the child’s first cry mingled with their howl”. And as her father laid his dead wife in the cold earth, “the snow hurried down like tears” while the baby Vasya screamed all through the funeral – “a demon wail like the absent wind”.

Much of the action in Vasya’s home takes place in “the winter kitchen”, with its huge oven large enough for a whole family to sleep on top, for warmth. Indeed, the house is divided into a winter half and a summer half:

The sleet had stopped and the night was clearing. A few valiant stars showed between the clouds when Pyotr came into the dooryard and pulled the barn door shut behind him. Despite the wet, his house was buried nearly to the eaves in a winter’s worth of snow. Only the pitched roof and chimneys had escaped, and the space around the door, which the men of Pyotr’s household laboriously kept clear.

The summer half of the great house had wide windows and an open hearth. But that wing was shut when winter came, and it had a deserted look now, entombed in snow and sealed up in frost. The winter half of the house boasted huge ovens and small, high windows. A perpetual smoke trickled from its chimneys, and at the first hard freeze, Pyotr fitted its window-frames with slabs of ice, to block the cold but let in the light. Now firelight from his wife’s room threw a flickering bar of gold onto the snow.


Winterfell, anyone?

And now, I can’t wait to get back to the winter magic.
But I do wish it would stop raining…

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The Corona Chronicles – New Variants, the Weather, Purim, Putin and Other Ruminations


Earlier this week, we were warned that a new, hybrid variant of the COVID-19 virus has arrived in Israel, a combination of the Omicron and Delta variants, currently nicknamed Deltacron. That’s in addition to the BA2 variant I mentioned in my previous post. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, yesterday they also announced the discovery of two cases of people infected with a combination of Omicron and BA2!

Overall, the number of new cases daily, which had dropped to about 5000 the week before last, has climbed back to over 6000 and today, reached 6,738 according to the Ministry of Health dashboard. The transmission rate, which had dropped to 0.67 a few weeks ago, is creeping up again. This Sunday, it stood at 0.87 and today, it has already reached 0.92. And, of course, that’s not taking into account people who might have light common cold-like symptoms and not even bother to be tested.

In spite of all this, I took my courage in both hands earlier this week and attended a lecture in my Bible study course. I hope I’m not going to regret it.

The weather is really weird. It’s very, very cold for mid-March – and earlier in the week, it even snowed in parts of the country. It didn’t settle in Jerusalem, as it was mingled with rain. But we are still being warned to leave a tap dripping overnight, so as to prevent the water from freezing in the pipes. Today, the sun is shining, but we are looking at more rain for most of next week, starting Monday – which, let’s not forget, is supposed to be the first day of Spring!!! The wintry weather also affected the Purim celebrations, with many municipalities bringing the parties and fancy dress parades forward to Monday, as the weather was supposed to be better than that expected later in the week.

The Big Topic, which is taking up most of the news broadcasts, is, of course, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine. As I mentioned in my last post, I have mixed feelings about the Ukraine. In fact, I have mixed feelings about this oh, so unnecessary war!

We are living inside history, as it were, and we often don’t know it’s happening till it’s happened. And when we are “inside” an event, we often don’t remember how it all began. I do remember thinking, why did we even need NATO, after the Soviet Union collapsed and the Warsaw Pact broke up? Then, again – one could say that what is happening to the Ukraine emphasises the importance of NATO, because if the Ukraine had already been a NATO member, with a nuclear defence, it’s highly unlikely Putin would have dared to invade her. But on the other hand, if Ukraine had not made moves to join NATO, Putin might not have “got the wind up” and would have had no reason to invade his neighbour.
Another question I have to ask – naive as it may sound – is this. Why do nations always fear that if things are going well for another country, it must be at someone’s expense? Hasn’t anyone ever heard of a Win-Win situation.

I am sure of one thing, however. What is happening in Europe is proof that Israel can never rely on another country for her defence – not even the United States. And we must never give up our nuclear deterrent (the one we don’t admit to having). Ukraine did that – in return for guarantees from the US and the UK.
Big mistake.

Another thing I am sure of and that is, when it comes to taking in Ukrainian refugees, Israel must and should give priority, first and foremost, to Jews and others (such as the non-Halachically Jewish children and grandchildren of Jews) who are entitled to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return. Next in line should be those with family members in Israel, even if they, themselves, are not entitled under the Law of Return. And only afterwards, those who have no connection to Israel. And no-one has the moral right to tell us “Jews know what it means to be a refugee, so they, of all people, should welcome the Ukrainian refugees”. The world turned its back on the Jews in the 1930s. They can make up for it now by welcoming all the non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees they tell us we should be welcoming.
Israel is a small country, with a much smaller population than the European countries bordering the Ukraine. We cannot afford to take in large numbers of non-Jews who will shift the demographic balance and possibly, in the future, outnumber the Jewish population and have the power to revoke the Law of Return. Israel – the only Jewish state in the world – was founded to be a refuge for Jews. Ukrainian Jewish refugees are no less refugees for being Jewish!

On the subject of refugees – while I was ruminating on the rights and wrongs of the Ukraine-Russia conflict, and telling myself “on the one hand – on the other hand”, I was reminded of Tevye the Milkman in Fiddler on the Roof, who debates his course of action whenever confronted with a dilemma, using exactly those words. The musical ends with the Jews of Anatevka, a small shtetl in the Ukraine, being expelled from their homes, after a pogrom (of which there were many, in the Ukraine).

As you know, I like to end my posts with some music. Here, then, is the finale of the musical, as Tevye and the other Jews of Anatevka are forced to turn their backs on the town, on their homes, on everything they ever knew and take the road as refugees., facing an uncertain future.


The difference now is that they have a country of their own waiting for them.

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The Corona Chronicles – How Putin Single-Handedly Defeated COVID-19

Have you noticed how nobody is talking about the pandemic any more? True, the transmission rate and other numbers are falling and the Fifth Wave did seem to be gradually subsiding (here, in Israel, at any rate) throughout February, although the daily number of confirmed new cases is still high (8,280 yesterday, according to the updated figures released by the Ministry of Health this morning). However, since the last remaining restrictions ended on March 1st (most notably, the “Green Pass”), one would have expected the news and commentary programmes on TV and radio to be full of analysts attempting to predict how the return to “normal” would affect the Curve. Judging by past experience, this would continue for a couple of months – until the Curve does, once again, take an upswing with some new mutation. However, nobody is now talking about anything other than Putin’s vicious and unprovoked attack on a peaceful, non-nuclear neighbour. And judging by what I see as I zap from one TV channel to another, this is true not only here in Israel.

I have to be honest and say that I have mixed feelings about the Ukraine. It is not easy to forget that some of the worst pogroms in recent history (the 19th and 20th centuries) have been carried out by Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police and other local collaborators enthusiastically assisted the Nazis in the massacre at Babi Yar, in 1941. Then there was the butchery perpetrated against the Jews twenty years earlier, by the “Cossack” leader Petlyura and his supporters.
On the other hand, the Russians were really no better. And Ukraine today is a democracy, which elected a Jewish President, a sovereign state which has become the victim of naked aggression by a power-hungry dictator whose dream, it seems to me, is to restore the Soviet Empire (albeit without restoring Communism).

One thing I am sure of. The lesson Israel needs to take to heart from what has happened in eastern Europe is clear. First of all, we can rely on nobody but ourselves. And secondly, we must never give up our nuclear deterrent. If Ukraine had not voluntarily relinquished her nuclear stockpile in return for empty Russian and Western guarantees of her independence, Putin would have thought twice before daring to invade her.

********

Update: Even as I type this post, I just heard on the news that the COVID transmission rate is rising again (0.72) and that a new variant (BA.2) has appeared, which is 30% more transmissible than the Omicron variant. Will we be back in lockdown for Pessach (Passover)?

********


Time now for something positive with which to end this post. March is here – and today is the first day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet. In a fortnight’s time, we will celebrate Purim. In the meanwhile, I was going to write about the arrival of Spring, until I looked out of the window and saw that the sky had clouded over and that this morning’s sunshine had turned into pouring rain.

Still, the almond trees – harbingers of spring – are in flower at last:



And see who came to visit my window-boxes yesterday:



Oh – I just noticed! The sun has come out again.

May the sun shine again for the people of Ukraine.

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The Corona Chronicles – Looking For The Logic

On the news this morning, I heard that the government is planning on scrapping most of the remaining COVID restrictions – this, despite the fact that there are still about 20,000 new confirmed cases daily – which is, admittedly, a huge drop from the numbers when the pandemic was at its peak.
According to the Ministry of Health dashboard, last updated at 7:43 a.m. today, there are currently 173,685 “active” cases, 9,630 fewer than yesterday. Over the past seven days, there have been 165,310 new confirmed cases – a drop of 43.2% compared to the previous seven days. So far, so good. But the numbers are still high and one wonders whether it is not still too soon to “get back to normal” (whatever “normal” means nowadays).

Amongst other restrictions to be scrapped is the requirement for unvaccinated children under the age of 12 returning to Israel from a visit abroad to undergo a period of quarantine, as long as their parents are vaccinated.
Yes, you got that right. Apparently, the vaccine is so miraculous that if you were properly vaccinated, your unvaccinated children under the age of 12 are not a danger to others!!!

I am not going to ask the obvious question here. Instead, I shall give free rein to the lawyer in me and ask the following (not entirely tongue-in-cheek):

1. Do both parents need to be vaccinated for the child to enjoy the exemption from quarantine?
2. If so, what happens if the child has only one living parent?
3. What happens if the parents are divorced, or separated? Is it sufficient that the parent having custody is fully vaccinated? And supposing the child travelled abroad with the parent who does not have custody but will be returning to the home of the parent who does? Which of the two parents needs to be vaccinated?

Let me make clear here that I am not expressing an opinion on the efficacy of the vaccine per se – merely on the total lack of logic exercised by the Powers That Be. So why should I not gently mock them – laugh at them, even?

There seems to be little enough to laugh about these days, what with earthquakes in the north of the country, war fever in eastern Europe, a global pandemic which, every time it seems to be dying down, flares up again in a new mutation – not to mention the winter, which appears strangely reluctant to leave us.

Today, however, the sun is shining and it is possible to believe that spring is just around the corner.
So I will leave you with a song by the Gevatron choral ensemble – a setting by the composer Dafna Eilat of lyrics from The Song of Songs 2:11 – 13.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance.





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The Corona Chronicles – Letting Off Steam

On Tuesday morning, I awoke to the sound of rain pattering against my windows. Yet when I looked at the Weather Channel app on my mobile phone, it informed me that the sun was shining!
It just goes to show, you can’t believe everything you read. That’s especially true when it comes from biased “human rights” organizations which seem to be obsessed with Israel, to the exclusion of almost all else.

That same morning Amnesty International released its latest piece of antisemitic fiction, accusing Israel of imposing an apartheid regime on all Palestinians, both in the “Occupied Palestinian Territories” and within Israel itself.

I have written before, on numerous occasions, about this outrageous and blatant LIE. The only way Amnesty International can fit Israel into the apartheid box is by redesigning the box ie. changing the definition of apartheid. Because nobody with the slightest claim to intellectual integrity could claim that Arab Israelis (whom Amnesty International considers “Palestinians”) are subject to segregation, denied the right to vote, prevented from owning land, or excluded from most skilled jobs. Nor are they excluded from power. The report claims that every facet of Israeli rule is designed to promote Jewish supremacy. Yet an Arab Islamic party is a member of the current government coalition. The Druze Director of the Ziv Medical Centre in Safad, Dr. Salman Zarka, is Israel’s current COVID czar. The former Chief Medical Officer of the Israel Defence Forces, Brig. Gen. Tarif Bader, another Druze, was appointed in October 2020 Head of the Directorate for preparing the healthcare system ahead of winter. A Professor in the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Medicine, in February 2021 he was appointed Director of the Kaplan Medical Centre in Rehovot. There are Arab and Druze judges, Knesset members, heads of university departments. Excluded from most skilled jobs? Give me a break!

An Arab woman has represented Israel in the Miss Universe contest. Another Arab woman has represented Israel in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Under the apartheid regime in South Africa (the country which coined the word apartheid), Africans were not allowed to live in “white” neighbourhoods.
Well, for the record, my downstairs neighbour is an Arab. Skilled jobs? He is a lawyer. And his wife is a doctor. And in case anyone was thinking of claiming that Arabs aren’t allowed to own property in Jewish neighbourhoods, though they might rent – as the idiotic Richard Silverstein, a pathologically anti-Israel blogger from Seattle, did once when I challenged him on his outrageous lie that Arabs are barred from owning property in Jewish areas – my neighbour owns his apartment. It was sold to him by the previous (Jewish) owners and he is as much the owner of his apartment as I am of mine.

According to the report, the “territorial fragmentation” of the Palestinian population “serves as a foundational element of the regime of oppression and domination”.
By “territorial fragmentation”, they mean the fact that most of the “Palestinians” live in the so-called “West Bank” under their own government, the Palestinian Authority, or in the Gaza Strip, where they are ruled by Hamas. The remaining “Palestinians” are Arab and Druze Israelis, who are citizens of Israel. To “reunite” all these “fragmented” populations, Israel would have to cease to exist. But that, of course, is what Amnesty International really wants.

And now for the news on the COVID front. Israel is currently facing a new sub-variant of the Omicron variant. Quite a few Knesset Members and Cabinet Ministers have now tested positive for COVID – including Defence Minister Benny Gantz – who has already been vaccinated FOUR times! The number of deaths after contracting the virus has risen to 9,013 since the start of the pandemic. The number of seriously ill stands at 1,147 according to the Ministry of Health data dashboard (last updated this morning), of whom 353 are in critical condition. Of the latter, 274 are on ventilators and 18 are on ECMO machines. The experts tell us we are all going to catch it sooner or later – including people who have already had it and recovered. A couple of weeks ago, they told us we were past the peak, and that the end of the pandemic was in sight. Some said it was becoming an endemic disease.
And then came this new variant.
Who knows when it will all end? I really wish I could hibernate until it was all over – if it ever is.

At least maybe I could hibernate till winter ends. It has been so cold these past few weeks. Last Wednesday night, it even snowed. On Thursday morning, I awoke to this:




I should have taken a leaf out of the book of one of my friends from choir, who didn’t feel like going out into the cold and wet and made a miniature snowman out of the snow which collected on her window-sill!

The next time it snows, I am going to make a snowman on my front porch.

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The Corona Chronicles – The Many-Headed Monster

The Mutations of COVID are many, varied, ever-changing and eternal. Fighting them is like fighting a many-headed monster, which, each time a neck is severed, sprouts a head even fiercer and cleverer than before.You are fighting that which is unfixed, mutating, indestructible….
Your defences…must therefore be as flexible and inventive as the Mutations you seek to undo.

(With apologies to J.K. Rowling, whose description of the Dark Arts I have just put to my own use.)

So, how is our battle with the wretched pandemic progressing?

The latest “Public Service Announcement” to flood the airwaves here in Israel, is one urging everyone who had their second dose of the vaccine at least three months ago, to hurry up and have a third shot (hereinafter: the First Booster).
Remember that they first told us that the double Pfizer shot which was rolled out in December 2020 would protect us for 6 months. Then they said it was probably effective for a whole year. Then they backtracked and said its efficacy began to wane after four or five months unless backed up with a booster. And now, they say we need the First Booster after only three months and are already pushing a Second Booster for over-60s and people in high risk categories. So the period between shots is getting shorter and shorter, just as I predicted months ago. At this rate, we’ll be having boosters at monthly intervals – or even more frequently.

As for the Second Booster – it doesn’t seem to matter to our Government that the EU’s drug regulator, the EMA not only does not support the administering of a fourth dose as a general policy, but has actually warned that frequent doses of the vaccine at short intervals might even weaken the body’s immune response.

Another “oddity” (for want of a better word) in the Government’s handling of the crisis relates to the problem of testing large numbers of people for the virus. Because of an overload on the PCR testing centres, they decided to prioritise the testing of the elderly and people at high risk at these centres, and allow all the rest (as long as they are vaccinated) to make do with home antigen-testing kits.
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of Public Health Services at the Israeli Ministry of Health, is on record as saying that the antigen tests are “less sensitive” (ie. less accurate) than PCR tests and that people should therefore take more than one test or else wait at least three days after exposure to the virus before taking the test. In a radio interview, I heard her say that tests taken using home kits during the first couple of days after exposure were only 50% accurate compared to at least 80% after three days. In other words, if you take the test too early, there’s a 50:50 chance it will be inaccurate. And that is most likely to be a false negative. So people using it might think they are virus-free and go out and infect others.

The Health Ministry also advised using these home-testing kits to swab the throat as well as the nose – even though they are designed for nose swabs only and even though using them other than as instructed by the manufacturers could prove dangerous!

A Facebook contact of mine (actually a family member) has frequently hinted that people who ask too many questions (as he thinks I do) are closet conspiracy theorists. It’s easier for him to believe that those in power have our best interests at heart and actually know what they are doing.

As I have said before, I do not believe in any of the weirder theories such as the one that holds the vaccine can change your sexual preferences and turn heterosexuals gay, or that they contain microscopic tracking devices. I do think some people are making money out of the pandemic (for example, the price of home testing kits – when available at all – has shot up) but on the whole, I agree with Napoleon (or possibly Hanlon):  never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

One final note – a more positive one, I hope. Next Monday is Tu b’Shvat – the New Year for the Trees. Although the Spring Equinox is still more than two months away, Tu b’Shvat is seen as the harbinger of spring and is celebrated with tree plantings and as a celebration of nature. And so it was that, right on time, one of the potted plants on my front porch, which I had feared lost forever, has returned to life again and the succulent on my living-room windowsill has come into flower.

It’s odd how little things like this can cheer me up when I’m feeling down.
I hope they do the same for you 🙂 .



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