First of all, let it be said that I don’t like flying. Especially not for twelve and a half hours at a stretch. Nor, had it been up to me, would I have chosen late January for my first visit to New York – nay, to the United States. However, when offered a free trip to the Big Apple, one makes these little compromises, doesn’t one ?
Regular readers of this blog will no doubt recall that a couple of years ago, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir took part in a project with the Zamirchor from Bayreuth, performing together with the German choir, two cantatas by the Israeli composer Issak Tavior to mark the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. This time, both choirs were invited to New York to take part in the International Holocaust Remembrance Day Concert in the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations on January 27th – the 65th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by Allied troops. Once again, we were to perform "The Vision of the Dry Bones", and extracts from "Mount Sinai", together with a new work by Tavior entitled "The Last Days to Come" – the latter, a setting of verses from the Books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Amos and Zephaniah relating to the End of Days when the Children of Israel will finally find peace in the Promised Land and all will worship the One True G-d. I must admit, I particularly liked the idea of singing this in the United Nations General Assembly Hall, in light of the numerous anti-Israel (not to say anti-semitic) resolutions passed by that organization.
Since we each had to take care of our own visa, my first stop was the online website of the United States Consulate in Jerusalem. When it became apparent that in order to obtain a visa, it would be necessary to schedule an interview with a consular official, pay to set up the interview, pay again for processing the visa application and possibly (this wasn’t entirely clear) pay for the issuance of the visa, (all this totalling at least $151), it occurred to me that UK passport holders might be exempt from the visa requirement. So, I checked that out and yes! UK citizens can, indeed, take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program (excuse the American spelling, that’s the way it appears on the website) but – and this is an all-important "but", especially in light of recent revelations – only if they are in possession of a biometric passport; that is to say, a passport containing a micro-chip holding heaven knows what data (supposedly in order to prevent identity theft) and costing a whopping £124.50. I was not. My UK passport was issued before the introduction of the biometric passports and had another three and a half years to run before expiry. Obviously, on a purely financial basis, it made more sense to pay the $151 dollars and get the US visa. On the other hand, time is money and the US visa procedure seemed to be a real hassle. I opted for a new UK passport. For this, I needed new photos, conforming to strict requirements as to size, positioning of the head, eyes etc. so as to enable measurements to be recorded on the aforementioned micro-chip (or so I understand). My first attempt looked pretty dire – and that’s saying something when you consider that I’m not photogenic at the best of times. I don’t know why it is, but the camera does not love me. Furthermore, when I showed it to a friend from the choir, also a UK passport holder, she was of the opinion that my head took up too much of the picture and said that her daughter’s passport application had been sent back twice because the photo did not conform to requirements. Enquiries at the British Consulate confirmed her suspicions. It took two further attempts to obtain photos that would satisfy not only the Passport Department of the FCO, but also my own feminine vanity (did I say something about time is money? Ha ha ha.) At all events, when I finally had a set of passport photos that didn’t make me look like the Wicked Witch from "The Wizard of Oz", I was able to mail my passport application to the British Consulate in Tel Aviv and receive my new biometric passport by registered post within two weeks. That done, all that was left to do was to attend rehearsals and shop for really warm clothes, suitable for New York in January.
As I already mentioned, it’s a twelve and a half hour flight from Tel Aviv to New York. On the plane, they distributed Immigration Service forms containing the same ridiculous questions you have to answer to obtain a US visa, or to register online with ESTA , if you are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program. For example: Have you ever been, or are you now involved, in espionage or sabotage; or in terrorist activities?
I mean, do they really expect an Al-Quaeda terrorist to answer in the affirmative???
Or again: Have you ever been, or are you now involved, in…genocide?
One is tempted to reply – I suppose that depends on how much credence you give to the Goldstone Report… However, US immigration and customs officials are famous for having no sense of humour, so perhaps one should avoid the wisecracks. One does wonder though, how Oscar Wilde got away with that famous reply to a US Customs official on arriving in New York in 1882: "I have nothing to declare but my genius".
By the way, on the Visa Application form, it says at the bottom that a positive answer to any of the above questions need not necessarily result in a denial of the visa, but that making a false statement could lead to that and to prosecution. So, if an Al-Quaeda terrorist who knowingly lied on his visa application in order to obtain a US visa, is caught and put on trial for terrorist activities, they can throw in an extra charge of obtaining a visa under false pretences, I suppose.
It was, as I said, a long flight. Nevertheless, on arrival, not a few choir members (not necessarily the youngest of them) dumped their belongings at the hotel and then rushed out to explore Manhattan or at least, the immediate vicinity of the hotel. Since the Novotel Times Square is situated on the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway, it’s really at the hub of the city. I was not one of this group, however. New York is 7 hours behind Israel. It might have been 9:30 PM in New York, but for me, it felt like 4:30AM the following morning. I decided that the Big Apple could wait and went to sleep.
Breakfast at American hotels is not, apparently, included in the price of the room although for a further $18, we could have had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. However, we had been advised that it would be cheaper to grab a coffee and a bite to eat at one of the many coffee shops or diners nearby, so, on that first morning, most of us headed for Starbucks, just around the corner. It was here that I discovered one of the most annoying facts about New York. There is an 8.375% Sales Tax on restaurant food and services. That would be fine – except that it isn’t included in the price quoted, so that it’s only when you get to the checkout point, or receive the bill, that you know what you are paying for your coffee and sandwich. Would it be so difficult to post prices which include the tax, so that the consumer knows what he or she is actually going to be asked to pay?! Also irritating was the fact that many cafe and restaurant staff appeared to speak little English (and so mixed up our orders) – and no, I’m not referring to that famous quip attributed to George Bernard Shaw about Britain and the US being "two nations divided by a common language". Even a police officer whom I asked for street directions replied in such poor English that I barely understood him.
One of the advantages of going abroad with the choir is that we get to see places we might not otherwise have seen. Here was a case in point. Day 1 in New York was devoted to rehearsals – in the morning, at the Carnegie Hall (how many people get to see the hidden nooks and crannies of the Carnegie Hall?), and in the afternoon, with the orchestra, at the United Nations Headquarters. As a security-minded Israeli, I would like to go on record as stating that in my (albeit non-professional) opinion, the security arrangements at the UN leave a great deal to be desired.
The UN concert was the following evening. It was very long. Towards the end, the Jewish memorial prayer El Male Rachamim was sung by a chazan (cantor). It was at this point that I began to cry – and the tears lasted, on and off, until the end of the concert. After the concert, back at the hotel, the aunt of one of my fellow choir members, herself a survivor of Auschwitz, who had made a point of attending both the concert and the rehearsals which preceded it, told us – a mixed group of Germans and Israelis – her story. How an eleven-year-old girl managed to survive that hell, I don’t know even now. I’m not sure she knew herself. When she asked, at the end, if anyone wanted to ask any questions, I just couldn’t. The lump in my throat wouldn’t let me speak. Looking round at the others, I could see I wasn’t alone. One of the young Germans, who said how ashamed he was, asked her why, in her opinion, the Germans had committed such crimes. I believe she understood him as meaning, did she think there was something inherently evil in the German people, because she gave him an answer that was partly reassurance that she didn’t blame or hate his generation and added that it was the task of his generation to make sure such a thing never happened again. In her place, I think I would have responded (in typically Jewish fashion, I admit) with a question of my own: "Why do you, as a German, think it happened?"
We gave another concert, the following evening, at the Park West Synagogue. The programme was slightly different – only 2 of the 3 cantatas we had performed at the UN, and preceded by "Adon Olam", sung to the melody by David de Sola, in which I have a solo. After this concert, there was a reception, during which we met a young woman who introduced herself as a descendant of that same David de Sola who had composed the melody we had sung not an hour before! It’s a small world, isn’t it?
There was really very little time for sightseeing, although, had I been as determined as some of the others about rising early and packing in every single moment with non-stop activity, I could, no doubt have seen more. As it is, I’m ashamed to admit that I did not get to see the Statue of Liberty. The bitterly cold weather and, especially, the icy wind, made me quail at the thought of the boat trip out to the island and I settled for the view from the Empire State Building. Even more do I regret that I didn’t get to visit the site of Ground Zero and the Memorial Museum that is being erected there. I would have wished to pay my respects to the victims of 9/11.
So, what did I see? Well, mostly places near to the hotel. Central Park in the snow, for example. There were a lot of squirrels there. I adore squirrels – but aren’t they supposed to hibernate in winter??? After that, we went to visit our fellow chorister, Haggi, who was supposed to be the Reader in "The Last Days to Come", but who had collapsed at the dress rehearsal and been rushed to hospital. His place was ably and gallantly filled by Shmulik. However, by the time we reached the hospital (on foot), we discovered that Haggi had already been discharged.
What else? Fifth Avenue, of course. The Trump Building (just in and out, for a quick photo opportunity). The Apple building – on the very day they unveiled the new I-Pad. The Rockefeller Plaza with its outdoor ice-rink. There were some very talented kids there, aged about thirteen, twirling around on the ice like professionals. (This was mid-week. Shouldn’t they have been in school?) St. Patrick’s Cathedral – where a funeral was taking place. There were a lot of policemen there and I wondered if maybe the deceased had been a policeman, so I asked. No, he had been a prominent lawyer, one who had represented the Roman Catholic Church, was the answer. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which was just around the corner from the hotel and where there was a really fascinating exhibition of the work of film director Tim Burton, including drawings, paintings, models – and posters from his films. That man is seriously disturbed! I suspected as much from his films but now, having seen the rest of his work, I’m sure of it! (I love his films and am looking forward to seeing his take on "Alice in Wonderland".) Then there was a really fascinating backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera at the Lincoln Center, which took us into the dressing-rooms of the stars, the scenery workshops, the costume workshops and even to the wings of the famous stage itself (they don’t allow you to actually walk onto the stage, but you can put your foot on it – so I can now claim to have been – almost – on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera ). Our guide, a charming elderly gentleman named Norman, also told us some fascinating anecdotes of the goings-on at that august establishment.
Naturally, after that, I had to go and see an opera. Most of my friends opted for a Broadway show, but I’ve seen most of the big shows already – for less money – in London’s West End. I would have liked to see Carmen, but the last (affordable – at $125) ticket was snapped up over the Internet just as I reached the box office and I was obliged to make do with a matinee performance of Verdi’s little-known Stiffelio, which at least had the added attraction of being conducted by the multi-talented Placido Domingo. It’s a pity I didn’t get to see him the previous evening in Simon Boccanegra, making his debut in the baritone lead role, but in Stiffelio, I got to hear Jose Cura in the title role, as well as the very promising young tenor Michael Fabiano in a supporting role. I was sitting pretty high up and far back and I asked the lady next to me if I could borrow her opera glasses just for a minute, to see the singers’ faces. Any Israeli would have said "Sure, no problem", but she flatly refused. Well, I had been warned that New Yorkers were rude and unfriendly. I did meet a very helpful and friendly African-American security guard at the Empire State building, who pointed out all the important sights to me, but she turned out to be from New Jersey.
Getting back to the Met. I was delighted to see that the programmes were free (in London and Tel Aviv, they are quite expensive and full of advertisements). However, I consider the cloakroom fee of $3 per item, even if on the same hanger, to be daylight robbery! If, in addition to my coat, I had deposited my umbrella and scarf (not to mention my sweater), I would have ended up paying more than it cost me for the taxi to get there!
Since Saturdays are late closing days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after the opera, I walked through Central Park in the gathering dusk to the Museum. It was a fitting conclusion to a very cultural day. Besides a fascinating Egyptian collection, which was the first thing I headed for (I do that at the British Museum too), there was also an impressive collection of Impressionist paintings. Obviously one can’t "do" the Met in a couple of hours – or even a whole day – so I concentrated on these two sections. When I returned to the hotel, at about half past nine, I met Revital from the choir, who had walked out of "Chicago" because, she said, she had been falling asleep. That’s what tends to happen on trips with the choir – we burn the candle at both ends.
No doubt I could have seen much more had I not shunned the subway. My one venture there faltered and died on encountering a very unhelpful ticket-office clerk. I cannot really explain (because I don’t understand myself) how it should be that a person such as myself, born and bred in London and used to navigating, without difficulty, the infinitely more intricate London Underground, should have been so completely fazed by the New York Subway, but there you are. I suppose it’s a question of familiarity.
So, to sum up – what is my impression of New York? People who ask me this somehow expect me to have been overwhelmed, but why? I grew up in a huge metropolis. As for the skyscrapers – I don’t really care for them. They actually make the streets seem narrower. I had very little inter-reaction with New Yorkers and as for the weather – I am not used to, nor am I keen on, sub-zero temperatures. However, I saw enough to be sure that, were I to have the chance of visiting again – in spring, say – I might like it very well. The truth of the matter is that it was not until my last evening there, in Times Square, that I really had the feeling of being in "The Big Apple", or even in America. Nor was there the feeling of togetherness that we usually have on trips with the choir, since everyone went off and did their own thing. Several, who actually came from New York or from New Jersey, left us right after the second concert to visit their families and others had made plans that involved extended visits outside of the city. After all – it’s a long way from Israel to the United States and fares are expensive, so if you’re already there, you want to make the most of the opportunity. I’m rather sorry I didn’t do likewise. I have had a nibble at the Big Apple and I would like to see more. I would also hope, if I do find myself again on the other side of the Atlantic, to get out of New York and see more of the rest of the country. I have quite a list, in fact…
Finally, I would like to say that I’m sorry for keeping everyone waiting for my "New York Blog", but here it is, at last. Better late than never. Photos to follow at a later date.