Terror in the ‘Hood

This week saw the return of Arab terrorism to my Jerusalem neighbourhood. On Sunday, an Arab resident of the nearby neighbourhood of Jabel Mukaber drove a truck into a group of young IDF cadets who were visiting the popular Promenade at the entrance to East Talpiot, backed up and then ploughed into them once more, killing three young women and a young man, and injuring many more, before he was shot dead.

It came as no surprise that the headline of the BBC, not known as any kind of a friend to Israel, attributed the attack to the lorry which served as a weapon, rather than to the perpetrator (and even that, in quotation marks, as if to cast doubt as to whether this was an attack or merely a traffic accident). Only in the secondary headline is it noted that the perpetrator was a “suspected terrorist” and even this is only mentioned after Al Beeb notes that the “suspected terrorist” was shot by the police (in fact, he was shot, while still at the wheel of the truck,  by the soldiers who were attacked and by a tour guide who was, fortunately, carrying his licensed weapon). One gets the impression that he was only mentioned at all, because he was shot dead.

The same was true  of other news outlets such as CNN (a determined enemy of Israel). None of this came as any surprise. What did surprise me – favourably so – was the fact that major European capitals publicly expressed their solidarity with Israel, by displaying the Israeli flag on landmark buildings. Thus, the blue Star of David was flown at half-mast at Rotterdam’s City HallBrandenburg Gate in Berlin was lit up by the Israeli colours, and even the French capital emblazoned Israel’s flag on the façade of the Hôtel de Ville, in a rare gesture of solidarity from a country which is not known for its warmth towards Israel.

As the foreign press only describes the victims as “soldiers”, I would ask you to take a minute or two to get to know them as people – youngsters at the start of their lives, and – tragically – now at the end of those lives.

Erez Orbach, aged 20.
Shira Tzur, aged 20.
Shir Hajaj, aged 22.
Yael Yekutiel, aged 20.

May their memory be for a blessing.







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The Herdsman of Tekoa

I have been wondering what would be the best subject for my last post of 2016. I had intended to present my readers with a round-up of some of the books I have been reading over the past twelve months. Then came the shameful betrayal of Israel at the UN by the moribund Obama regime – but, of course, everyone is writing about that, and I really would like to end the civil year on a positive note.
So, I have decided to take you all on yet another trip along the highways and byways of Jewish history in the Land of Israel and tell you about yesterday’s field trip in the framework of the course “929 on the Map of Israel“, about which I have already written several times in the past.
And of course, a reminder of how ancient is our presence in this land  which the UN has accused us of illegally occupying, won’t do any harm either…

For those who have forgotten, or who are new to this blog, I am participating in a Bible class, in which we read one chapter of the Hebrew Bible every weekday. In addition, I am participating in another course, under the auspices of Yad Ben Zvi, whereby, once a month, we have a field trip through the hills and valleys of Israel, in the wake of what we are reading that particular month.

Earlier this week, we finished reading the Book of Amos and so yesterday’s field trip was devoted to the Judaean herdsman, who prophesied, not in his own birthplace, Tekoa, but in the northern kingdom of Israel, which was at that time, under the rule of King Jeroboam II. It had been raining heavily for the past few days, causing flooding and mud, which necessitated a slight change in our planned route. Miraculously, yesterday was dry, and there was even quite a lot of sunshine, though for the first few hours, the sky was often cloudy and overcast. It was also bitterly cold.

Our time was limited, as it gets dark early here in December, and we had several places to visit. Therefore, instead of visiting Tekoa itself, we headed first for Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, where there is a spa and resort hotel, from the roof of which is a magnificent panorama, which includes a view to the south, where lie Bethlehem, Herodion and Tekoa.





Inside the hotel lobby, there is a display of some of the many archaeological finds unearthed at Ramat Rachel, including oil-lamps from the time of Amos (as well as later finds, so one can see the developing style of oil-lamps, an artefact much loved by archaeologists, because their changing style is one of the ways by which they are able to date archaeological sites). There is also a Proto-Aeolian capital from the late First Temple Period – close enough to the time when Amos prophesied to make one wonder if, perhaps, he actually saw it and had it – or something like it – in mind when he was holding forth against the wealthy and the powerful who, from their palaces,  oppressed the poor and the weak.

From Ramat Rachel, we proceeded to Beit El, on the southern border of the Kingdom of Israel. Beit El was one of two sites (the other being Dan, in the north) where Jeroboam I set up statues of a Golden Calf, after the Division of the Kingdoms (I Kings 12: 20 – 33) in order to deter the Israelites from going up to sacrifice in Jerusalem (and possibly being persuaded, as a result,  to give their allegiance, once more, to the House of David). It was thus an important symbol of the rule of the Israelite kingdom.
The name of the Biblical site Beit El (Bethel)  has been preserved in the name of the nearby Arab village Beitin (the replacement of the Hebrew ending  -el with the Arabic -in is quite common).

Beit El was, of course, an important site from much earlier times. It was at Beit El that Jacob had his famous dream, in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder, and where God promised to him and his seed, “the land on which thou liest” (Genesis 28:12 – 22).

Our first stop at Beit El was the observation point atop the water tower, from where, on a clear day (which yesterday  most assuredly was not!), one can supposedly see as far as Jerusalem to the south, the coastal plain to the west, and Mount Hermon in the north. Yesterday, however, was a very cloudy day, and to make matters worse, there was a very strong, cold wind blowing. The topography also made things unpleasant. Beit El is higher above sea level than Jerusalem (almost 900 ft. above sea level), and thus colder and windier and it often snows there.
It was, therefore, not possible to see very far.




There is, however, a (modern) mosaic map of the Promised Land.




Nearby is a site known as the site of Jacob’s Dream and adjacent to it, a thousand year wormwood oak tree – maybe a descendant of the oak under which the Matriarch Rebecca’s wet-nurse Deborah was buried  “below Beit El” (Genesis 35:8). At any rate, it is the oldest tree of its kind in Israel.




However, let us return to Amos. Amos prophesied the fall of the Israelite kingdom, not because of idolatry but, principally, because of the rampant corruption, the perversion of justice, the arrogance of its ruling class, and consequent oppression of the poor and the weak (Amos 4:1; Amos 5:7, ; Amos 5:11- 15; Amos 6:1 – 8, 12; Amos 8:4 – 6;).
Symbolic of the social injustice are the palaces of the rich and powerful:

The Lord GOD hath sworn by Himself, saith the LORD, the God of hosts: I abhor the pride of Jacob, and hate his palaces; and I will deliver up the city with all that is therein.” (Amos 6:8).

Besides the palaces with their pillars and ornate capitals (such as the Proto-Aeolian capital hitherto described), the beds of ivory and the couches on which the aristocracy reclined while feasting and enjoying music, the wealthy citizens of Beit El  built themselves winter palaces down in the Jordan Valley, in the vicinity of Jericho and the Dead Sea, to escape the cold of winter (which we ourselves experienced) – a tradition continued by later generations, including the arch-builder himself, King Herod the Great. Those unacquainted with the enormous variations in temperature to be found in what is, all told, a very small country, will be surprised when – as we did – they take the half hour drive from Beit El, up in the hills, down to Mevo’ot Yericho, down in the Jordan Valley, 150 metres below sea level. We went from 9 degrees Celsius in Beit El, to 17 degrees Celsius in Mevo’ot Yericho.  So called because of its proximity to Biblical Jericho, (which Israel ceded in accordance with the Oslo Accords, and from which Jews are now banned, despite the promise in those Accords that Jews would still be permitted access to their holy sites, including the ancient synagogue of Jericho), the temperature at Mevo’ot Yericho is mild and one can easily imagine a wealthy Beit El family building a winter palace here. After reading the words of Amos, one can also imagine how they came by their wealth and understand God’s vow to “smite the winter house with the summer house” (Amos 3:15).

By now, it was almost three o’clock. At this time of year, the sun sets at about half-past four and by five-fifteen, it is dark. We still had to get to Qumran, which closes at 4 pm in winter. It meant foregoing lunch (most of us had brought sandwiches, and I, in fact, had been steadily munching mine since mid-morning!)

We reached the Qumran Park, at ten past three. The park closes at 4 pm in winter – not that this appeared to worry Arye, our guide.

Qumran is famous as the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947. It is believed to have been a settlement of the Essene sect and that these scrolls were part of their library.  The scrolls contain both Biblical and non-Biblical texts. The Biblical texts include a complete copy of the Book of Isaiah, as well as parts of every single book of the Hebrew Bible, with the exception of the Book of Esther. Some of the books exist in more than one copy. The largest number of fragments, from the largest number of texts, was found in Cave 4, which is therefore the most famous of the Qumran caves – and also the most highly visible.





Amongst the non-Biblical documents found at Qumran, in multiple copies, was one that became known as The Damascus Document, setting forth the community’s beliefs and rules. This work was known before the discoveries at Qumran, because it was one of the fragments found in the Cairo Genizah, at the end of the 19th century, and published by Rabbi Solomon Schechter in 1910. So called because of its many references to Damascus, it is believed by many scholars that this refers, not to the actual city of Damascus, but is a symbolic reference to a distant place of exile, as referred to by Amos (Amos 5:27): “Therefore will I cause you to go into captivity beyond Damascus, saith He, whose name is the LORD God of hosts.

Quite apart from that, it appears that Amos was “popular” among the Essenes because of his rejection and condemnation of the hedonistic and ostentatious lifestyle of the wealthy and of the aristocracy, which was so totally in opposition to their own lifestyle. Just as Amos railed against the priests  of Beit El, declaring that their rituals and sacrifices were worthless, as long as they oppressed the poor and the weak, so too were the Essenes opposed to the ruling, priestly class.

The Essenes placed great emphasis on ritual purity. At Qumran, a large number of ritual purification pools (מקוואות – mikvaot) were found. Here is one:




We were just exploring what some scholars believe to have been the scriptorium, where the Essene scribes supposedly performed their work of copying the holy (and secular) texts, (because tables and inkwells were discovered there), when the inexorably approaching sunset forced us to leave. We dragged our feet for as long as humanly possible 😉  but to no avail.

The orthodox men of our group (of which there are many) recited the afternoon (Mincha) prayer, and then we slowly made our way back to the bus and, as the sun went down, we turned our backs on the Dead Sea and headed back to Jerusalem to light our Hanukkah candles.




Wishing you all a Happy Hanukkah, and looking forward to seeing you again next time I post.









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The Age of Babylon and the Valley of the Dry Bones

Last month saw the start of the 2016/17 academic year at Yad Ben Zvi, with a brand new series of Bible study tours linked to Project 929, about which I have written several times in the past.
Since, last month, we finished reading the book of Ezekiel, last month’s study trip focused on that period of Biblical history. Ezekiel is the only one of the prophets to have lived outside of the Land of Israel, in Babylon and so the first part of the tour took place in the Israel Museum’s archaeology wing, where we studied exhibits relating to the Babylonian conquest and occupation of Israel, as well as life in the Holy Land in the century preceding that event.

For example, we had a glimpse of the justice system in the years preceding the Babylonian occupation.  Unlike most ancient historical documents, in which the voice we hear is typically that of the rulers, the generals, the high and the mighty, the so-called “Reaper’s Plea”, written in ink on a potsherd, brings before our eyes the plight of a simple farmhand.




Let my lord, the governor, hear the plea of his servant. Your servant is working in the harvest; your servant was at Hasar-Asam (when the following incident occurred). Your servant did his reaping, finished, and stored (the grain) a few days ago before the Sabbath (or: before stopping work). When your servant had finished (his) reaping and had stored it a few days ago, Hoshayahu ben Shabay came and took your servant’s garment. When I had finished my reaping, at that time, a few days ago, he took your servant’s garment. All my companions will vouch for me, all who were reaping with me in the heat of the sun: my companions will vouch for me (that) truly I am guiltless of any in[fraction]. [(So) please return] my garment. If the governor does not consider it an obligation to return [your servant’s garment, then have] pity upon him [and return] your servant’s [garment] from that motivation. You must not remain silent [when your servant is without his garment].

The author of this letter has performed what he believes to have been his fair quota of labour but his supervisor apparently thinks otherwise and has confiscated his garment, and is holding it until the farmhand fulfils his obligation – in defiance of Biblical law, as expressed in Exodus 22:25-26:

If thou at all take thy neighbour’s garment to pledge, thou shalt restore it unto him by that the sun goeth down;  for that is his only covering, it is his garment for his skin; wherein shall he sleep? and it shall come to pass, when he crieth unto Me, that I will hear; for I am gracious.

We can learn several things from this man’s heartfelt plea. For one thing, it is clear that he knows his rights. For another, we can deduce that, not only does he know the law is on his side, but that he has sufficient faith in “the system” to apply to the authorities with, presumably, a reasonable expectation of obtaining justice.

Our visit to the Israel Museum was a short one, no more than a couple of hours, intended merely to give us an idea of the way people lived in the Land of Israel at the time Ezekiel was prophesying. From there, we proceeded to the place which, more than any other, symbolises the 20th century embodiment of Ezekiel’s best known prophecy – the Vision of the Dry Bones. That place is, of course, Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Campus.

I think most of us, if asked to visualise the Holocaust, would immediately see in their mind’s eye a picture of the piles of corpses that greeted the Allied Forces who liberated the death camps, or of the horribly emaciated survivors, no more than skin and bones.


A mass grave soon after camp liberation. Bergen-Belsen, Germany, May 1945.

A mass grave soon after camp liberation. Bergen-Belsen, Germany, May 1945                                                                             –  US Holocaust Memorial Museum


Jewish survivors at Ebensee – Photo credit: National Archives, courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives


And I think that most of us who have read the Bible, would immediately think of the words of Ezekiel 37:1-14 and, in particular, verse 11:
Then He said unto me: ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole House of Israel; behold, they say: Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.

It is no coincidence that Yad Vashem is situated on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, linked by a path to the Mount Herzl National Military Cemetery, where the Founders of the State of Israel, as well as Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, are buried. Mount Herzl is the largest of Israel’s all-too-many military cemeteries and its proximity to Yad Vashem is charged with symbolism.

So too is the Children’s Memorial, perhaps the most moving of all the exhibits at Yad Vashem – commemorating the one and a half million Jewish children murdered in the Holocaust by the Nazis and their collaborators.

Outside the entrance is a symbolic representation of trees cut down – all different sizes, representing the children of all ages who never grew to adulthood, their lives cut short by the monstrous evil of the Nazi butchers.




As you walk into the underground cavern which houses the exhibit, you may notice (depending on the time of day) that the sun striking the roof creates a pattern of bars on the floor, reminiscent of railway tracks. As you first enter and pause, to let your eyes become accustomed to the dim light, you will see many portraits of child victims of the Nazis. Then, a circular path leads you down into the darkness, illuminated only by the light from six candles (one for each of the six millions Jews who perished in the Holocaust), which is endlessly reflected in mirrors, thus symbolising the many millions more who were never born, because of the lives which were snuffed out, like so many candles, before they had time to bring children into the world. And in the background, you will hear, in Hebrew, English and Yiddish, the names, ages and places of residence of some of the murdered children.



When you enter the main exhibition hall, you will first see items which show the richness of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust – because it is only by understanding what there was before that you can begin to comprehend the magnitude of what was lost. And you will notice that, as you move further and further inside, the floor slopes downward – like a descent into hell.

It also gets darker and darker  – but when you reach the end, you step out of the doors to be confronted with a view of the future, a spectacular panorama of the city of Jerusalem, capital of the reborn State of Israel.


The balcony at the exit from Yad Vashem

(Photo credit: http://www.museeum.net/article/227/yad-vashem-the-world-holocaust-remembrance-center.html)




View from Yad Vashem at dusk


Ezekiel’s prophecy does not end with the despairing cry of the host of dry bones, declaring their loss of hope.  It continues with a promise to open the graves of the House of Israel and to bring them up to the Land of Israel. The poet Naftali Herz Imber, who wrote the words of what became, in the course of time, the Israeli national anthem, Hatikvah (The Hope), echoing and reversing the words of the prophecy, defiantly declared: “Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of 2000 years”.


The Hope still lives.

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More Random Thoughts on the Race to the White House

The race is over – but it seems the losing side is unable to accept the results. Much as was the case with the UK’s Brexit referendum, what might be described as “the incumbent party”  felt that the election had somehow been “stolen” from them. Unlike the case in the Brexit vote, one has to admit that Hillary Clinton’s supporters appear to have some justification for such a feeling, as the Electoral College system allows a Presidential candidate to garner a majority of Electors, even when his or her share of the popular vote is actually less. This is what has happened in the recent elections – but it is not the first time it has happened, and the Electoral College system, with all its inherent unfairness, has remained in place.

And that brings me to the point  I wish to make. There is now a petition circulating, calling upon the Electors in states which voted Republican, to defy the decision of their voters and elect Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump, on the grounds that this is what the majority of US citizens want. That may be so – but the time to change the rules is between  elections. One doesn’t go tearing up the rule-book simply because one failed to achieve the hoped-for result. (I could say the same for the anti-Brexiteers in the UK, whose immediate response to their loss in the Referendum was to demand another Referendum.)

In my last post, and on my Facebook page, I asked what makes a nation great and it became clear that for a good many people, a nation’s greatness lies in how it is perceived by outsiders.
What, then,  are those of us who are not Americans but merely interested spectators, to make of the hissy fit to end all hissy fits, which has enveloped Clinton’s disappointed supporters?

What do you think it does to our perception of America, when students are granted deferment of exams, in order to attend “grief counselling” sessions?! Some of us may simply shrug and see it as the inevitable result of the spread of so-called “safe spaces” across American university and college campuses, where students are wrapped in cotton wool and “protected” from the merest mention of any opinion which conflicts with their own (I use the words “their own” advisedly, because more often than not, it is merely the parroted declamation of the current Politically Correct Group Thought).
Others – and I make no bones about being one of them – are outraged at such namby-pamby behaviour. In Israel, 18-year-olds are serving in the armed forces, often having to deal with the violent deaths, in war or to terrorism, of their friends – in short, with real cause for grief – only they don’t have the luxury of safe spaces or time off from exams to deal with their grief, but climb back up on the horse (or into their tanks or armoured cars) and get on with the business in hand.

What do the anti-Trump supporters hope to achieve by all their protests? Protests? No. Smashing shop windows and burning the American flag goes beyond mere protest. These are rioters, not protesters.  Is this supposed to express their “love” for the America they claim the President-Elect is going to destroy?

Most infuriating of all are some of the reactions of so-called “celebrities”, which have gone viral on social media. A common theme seems to be that those who supported Trump are all racists/antisemites/misogynists/homophobes and that they themselves are grieving and in shock because they didn’t realise how many of their fellow Americans shared Trump’s racist/antisemitic/misogynistic/homophobic views. In short – they claim that they woke up on the morning of Wednesday November 9th to discover that America was not the nation they had believed her to be.
One of the most publicised was a letter by actress Lena Dunham, who writes:
“A lot of people have been talking about how we need to try to understand how this happened and what’s going on in the minds of the people who voted for Donald Trump. Maybe. Maybe. But maybe let’s leave that to the strategists, to the men in offices who need to run the numbers. It should not be the job of women, of people of color, of queer and trans Americans, to understand who does not consider them human and why, just as it’s not the job of the abused to understand their abuser.

What is Ms. Dunham saying here? It’s clear enough. In her mind, the people who voted for Trump (all of them) are bigots/misogynists/racists/homophobes. In short – what Hillary Clinton famously (or infamously) described as “a basket of deplorables”.  Hillary “generously” attributed the quality of deplorability only to half of Trump’s supporters, but many of her supporters insist that anyone who voted for Trump is “part of his bigotry“. Despite a slew of  articles analysing the reasons why so many people voted for Trump – even people who, in the past, supported Obama and are clearly, therefore, not racists (this one, for example, by David Dayen of The New Republic, or this extraordinarily thoughtful and honest post by a 19-year-old college student blogger ) – the disappointed Clinton supporters, who expect to be mollycoddled and helped to deal with their grief over Trump’s win, are unwilling to extend the same understanding to those who voted for “the other side” and insist on painting them all as bigots/racists/antisemites/misogynists/homophobes.  (See this one, for example.)
Yes, they are right. America is not the nation they had supposed it to be. But not because their fellow Americans (those who supported Trump) are all bigots and racists, but because millions of their fellow Americans are living in a completely different world, a world as described by Tori Sanders, a world unseen and unknown by the liberal and political elite. And it’s that mind-boggling arrogance, which even now refuses to see that, which refuses to acknowledge the hopes and fears of those Americans who don’t enjoy the wealth of California or the cultural advantages of New York, which is likely to cost the Democrats the election in four years time as well.

I spoke of hissy fits. What are we, the dispassionate observers who are not Americans, to make of the spiteful calls to boycott members of the President-Elect’s family? The call by one Sophie Theallet ( a fashion designer, apparently, although I had never heard of her before this) to fellow designers to refuse to dress the future First Lady, Melania Trump, for example? Now, quite apart from the fact that, as far as I know, Ms. Theallet has not been invited to dress her, as a former model and wife of a multi-millionaire, Mrs Trump is, I am quite sure, perfectly capable of dressing herself and stands in no need of free dresses. Ms. Theallet herself has much more to gain (in free publicity) from dressing the First Lady than Mrs Trump has to lose from not being dressed by a hypocritical fashion designer who loudly proclaims: “The Sophie Theallet brand stands against all discrimination and prejudice….. As one who celebrates and strives for diversity, individual freedom, and respect for all lifestyles. I will not participate in dressing or associate myself in any way with the next First Lady. The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by.”
Ms. Theallet appears to have some difficulty in practicing what she preaches, however.
In refusing to dress Melania Trump because of Donald Trump’s supposed racism, sexism and xenophobia, she has declared to all the world that Melania is no more than an adjunct of her husband.
Could there be any greater manifestation of sexism?

One final thought. Today, millions of Americans will be sitting down with their extended families to celebrate Thanksgiving.  From articles I have read, it appears that many families have been so deeply divided by this election that they don’t feel they can even sit down over the Thanksgiving turkey with family members who voted for the opposing candidate.

To those, I say: Remember this. You can change your President every four years.
Family is forever.

Happy Thanksgiving.


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Some Random Thoughts On The Race To The White House

It is not my habit to write about the internal politics of other countries, but, since the President of the United States is so often described as “The Leader of the Free World” (even  those Presidents in whom qualities of leadership have been conspicuously lacking – and I shall name no names), and since I can’t recall another election campaign so cut-throat in nature, I shall make an exception in this case.

Quite apart from the rather obvious comparison to “House of Cards” – or possibly, to “The Game of Thrones” – what has struck me most in this race between two of the worst contenders America has seen in many a long year (and certainly within my adult memory), is the fact that other than cutting down the other side, neither candidate seems to have very much to offer. It has been a campaign of slogans rather than substance.
And I have to say, some of those slogans have me quite baffled.

Take this one, for example: “Let’s Make America Great Again”.
What does that mean, exactly?

I posed precisely that question on my Facebook page and received the swift response from a Clinton supporter: “America is great already”.

An answer as meaningless as the original slogan.

How does one measure a nation’s greatness?  By its military might? The strength of its social fabric? Its wealth? Its determination to uphold its ideals? Its contribution to science? To the arts? To humanity in general?

The aforementioned Clinton supporter wrote: “I would say we have the most versatile culture in the world – we are a culture that regularly produces Nobel laureates and Olympic medalists; Americans are (or have been) behind most great advances in science and technology since WW1 or even before. America pioneered the concept of international law and global democracy with the League of Nations and the War Crimes court. At the heart of America’s greatness is the freedom of expression, which, while not an American invention, is still something that the American culture has adopted as sacred.”

For this Bostonian, then, America’s greatness lies in the versatility of her culture, her sporting prowess, her pre-eminence in science and technology.

Another of my friends, however, a New Yorker who supports Trump, sees America’s greatness in her military and industrial strength. She writes: “When an American soldier walked down the street anywhere in the world after WWII and Korea, they were respected. When we had factories in our country that were making American products, rather than send all our factories to other countries who can do it cheaper. Go along the whole of the North East on the train or a bus. See all the factories that are sitting there in ruins.”

A third friend, born in the United States (I know not where, precisely), but now living in Israel, came up with a more unusual definition: “A country, any country, is great when its citizens are proud of their country, are proud to be a part of that country’s process, and are proud to represent their country.”
I have to admit, I was tempted to adopt his suggestion. It certainly has its merits. But after I stopped and considered it more deeply, I realised that that statement could also have defined Nazi Germany!

I pressed my friends further. What about morality?

It was then that my Bostonian friend finally came up with the Jewish point-of-view (which was, in fact, what I had been waiting for).
“Judaism judges the greatness of society by how its laws treat the lowest societal rungs – the poor, the orphans, the immigrants and strangers. “
Well – almost. I would say that Judaism judges a society’s greatness not merely by how its laws treat its weakest members (de jure), but how that society treats the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger in deed. It is not so much the letter of the law that counts, as its spirit.

And all at once, I thought of a hymn that we used to sing in school, in England,when I was a young girl,  on Commonwealth Day.
“I Vow To Thee, My Country” was a favourite of both the late Margaret Thatcher, and the late Princess Diana, and was, in fact, sung at both the wedding and the funeral of the latter.


In these changed times, the ultra-nationalist nature of the first verse has aroused controversy in “progressive” circles:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Now, those are lyrics that could be encapsulated in the words of another American President – none other than John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

But take a look at the second verse:
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

Not jingoistic at all. And the oddest thing is that last line, which strangely parallels the words sung in Jewish synagogues after the Torah reading, as the scrolls are being carried back to the Ark:
It (ie. the Torah) is a tree of life to them that grasp it…its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”

So for the writer of that hymn, maybe a truly great nation is one based on God’s law, whose ways are ways of gentleness or pleasantness, and all of whose paths are peace?

Is there such a nation anywhere on this earth?

I leave it to you.
What do you think?





Posted in News, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

In England’s Green and Pleasant Land

It’s been five years since my last visit to London, where I was born and grew up. It’s one of those ironies of life that, while I was working, I used to “pop over” to England almost every year, but now that I am retired and with plenty of time on my hands, I have done most of my travelling within Israel.

Be that as it may, this year I decided – almost on the spur of the moment – that the time was ripe for a visit back to the land of my birth.
Actually, now that I come to think of it, nearly all my trips abroad (except for those connected with my choir) have been taken “on the spur of the moment”.

Robert Louis Stevenson famously said: “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” – a saying which has been widely misquoted and even transformed into the fake Buddhist axiom “to journey is better than to arrive”. I cannot say I agree. Foreign travel has become a nightmare in our modern world, what with the stringent security checks made necessary by the rise of (mostly) Islamist terrorism, the discomfort of sitting for several hours in a narrow seat in a metal tube (because, in the cause of increasing profits, airlines continue to cram ever more passengers onto fewer flights) and the short tempers provoked by such conditions. When I tried to use my magnetic card which, supposedly, allows me to pass through a fast track at Passport Control at Ben Gurion Airport, it didn’t work and a message appeared on the screen informing me that my card was out of date. Then, when I landed at Heathrow, the automatic passport scanners failed to read my biometric passport and when I presented it to a flesh-and-blood Immigration official, he looked at it, then at me, then again at the passport, before finally pronouncing: “You’ve changed your hairstyle”.

Duh! “Well, yes!” I admitted. “We ladies like to do that once in a while.”
Was that really the reason the scanner failed to identify me, I wanted to know. He assured me that it was. I had been under the impression that the purpose of biometric passports was to take note of those features which cannot be changed (at least, not without plastic surgery), such as the distance between my earlobes and the corners of my eyes, or the tip of my nose and my chin. Anything else would be, plainly, absurd!

But the worst was yet to come. I attempted to withdraw £200 from an ATM at the airport. The machine duly presented me with a receipt – but no cash! However, on returning to Israel, I found that I had, in fact, been debited for the entire amount. I am still trying to get my money back!

As you can imagine, by the time I reached my hotel, at least two hours later than expected, I was hot, tired and in a very bad temper.

I had heard much about the rise in antisemitism in the UK – as in the whole of Europe – so naturally, I made sure to take with me (and wear, all the time), my Magen David necklace, which I flaunted on every possible occasion, while casually dropping the information that I was Israeli.
I have to say, I did not encounter any negative reactions – whether because  the scare stories were greatly exaggerated or whether because the British are too polite, or whether simply because I exude an attitude of “Don’t mess with me!” In fact, the most helpful of the front-desk staff at the hotel, a trainee from Brazil by the name of Leticia, who went out of her way to make sure I had exactly the room I wanted, seemed delighted to meet someone from Israel.

My hotel was very central, right opposite one of the entrances to Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park. On my first night, I found myself in a well-appointed room, on the first floor, but facing a kind of inner courtyard, so that, while I was away from the noise of the street, the view was a particularly unlovely one of the huge pipes serving the hotel’s air-conditioning system. Since I was planning a longish stay (nine nights), the staff were very helpful in ensuring that I was able to transfer the following day to a room on the fourth floor, overlooking the park.

I had paid for a full English breakfast – worth every penny. It was lavish! I passed over the bacon and ham, of course, but that still left a wide choice of eggs – scrambled, sunny-side up, or poached (if I had expressed a wish for lightly-boiled eggs, I am sure that would have presented no difficulty), fried tomatoes and mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns (not to be confused with hash brownies 😉 ), several varieties of bread and rolls, including toast,  croissants and a delicious fruit bread, English and French cheeses, cakes, muesli and all manner of breakfast cereals, fresh and preserved fruits, at least four different kinds of fruit juice and of jam, yogurt in  various flavours, coffee and – of course – properly brewed English Breakfast Tea!
Ok – no salads and no  smoked or pickled fish, so it still didn’t match the traditional Israeli hotel breakfast, but it was pretty good all the same and made additional meals during the day (other than maybe a sandwich mid-afternoon and tea and malt-loaf in the evening) almost unnecessary.

Besides spending time with my brother, I visit London mainly for two things – the theatre and the parks. On my very first morning in London, the skies were partially cloudy but the sun was shining and it was quite warm (by British standards anyway 😉 ), although rain was forecast for the afternoon. That’s the trouble with British weather – one never knows how to dress, because when they say “possibility of some rain in places”, you can never know which places or how much rain, and so I never dared wear one of the summer dresses I had packed in my (very small) suitcase and I almost always felt the need to be cautious and carry an umbrella.

My brother and I arranged to meet in the Broadwalk of Kensington Gardens, right opposite the hotel. I got there early and so I walked over to the Round Pond and watched children feeding the gulls, ducks, geese and swans.



By the time David arrived, it was starting to cloud over. David has an application on his smartphone that notifies one in how many minutes it is going to start raining. Forewarned, we took refuge in an (outdoor) cafe near the children’s playground (had we waited for the rain to start, we would have been unable to find a table at which to sit), and “splurged” on a cappuchino apiece. We were exposed to the cold wind, but at least the giant sunshades provided some shelter from the drizzle.
And I had the opportunity to photograph some of the many starlings which congregate at the cafe (as I had noticed on my previous visit, five years ago).
At least, I think they were a kind of starling, but I may be wrong and if anyone knows better, please let me know!


When the sun came out again, we strolled through the park, popped over the road to the Royal Albert Hall to see if, by some miracle, they had any tickets available for the Last Night of the Proms the following weekend (they didn’t), then returned to the park to enjoy the lake, the Princess Diana Memorial, and the Serpentine Museum, which has a new and very modernistic, artsy cafe, within whose “walls”, any pigeon would be happy to perch 😉



Halfway through the afternoon, the rain started again – in earnest this time – and we again took refuge in one of the restaurants by the Serpentine, for a bowl of delicious tomato and basil soup, over which we lingered, in the hope the rain would stop. When it failed to do so, we walked back through the park  in the rain to the hotel.  I had forgotten, and needed to be reminded by my brother, but as children, we did quite a lot of walking through the park (not this one, but Regent’s Park) in the rain.


The following day we spent on the South Bank of the Thames – one of my brother’s favourite haunts and it was easy to see why. The River Thames is always fascinating and there is so much to see and do along its banks – much of it free. There was some kind of Africa festival going on, with African films being screened (some of them free, in the South Bank Centre lobby), a Pop Up Food Market featuring African foods (I had no idea they eat so well in Africa! I thought they were always suffering from famine – at least,, that’s what Oxfam was always telling us), and a class in African drumming in one of the spaces in the South Bank Centre.



Along the riverside promenade, we saw these locks affixed to the railings, with names inscribed upon them, but were unable to ascertain their significance. Google was no help. If any Londoners can help solve the mystery, please do so, in the comments section below.


Anchored in the middle of the river, was an installation by the Korean artist Ik-Joong Kang, Floating Dreams, consisting  of 500 individual drawings and illuminated from within – a kind of floating lantern, three storeys high, dedicated to the memory of the millions displaced and parted from their loved ones during the Korean War.


On a barge hard by the opposite bank, there was a giant wooden replica of the City of London skyline as it would have appeared on the eve of the Great Fire of London. Later that evening, it would be set on fire and burned, to mark the 350th anniversary of the conflagration that changed the face of the British capital forever.

The next day, Monday, I took my brother to see the National Theatre’s award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.  Based on Mark Haddon’s book of the same name, the play tells the story of 15-year old Christopher, a mathematical genius who suffers from Asperger Syndrome.

It is always a challenge to adapt, successfully, a book to the stage or screen, but I thought the way we were shown Christopher’s view of the terrors of the outside world – as a cacophony of loud noises and flashing lights – was brilliantly done.

My favourite of all the London parks is Regent’s Park, which, when I was a child and living nearby, no more than a fifteen minute walk away , served as our “back garden”. There were parts of the park which we favoured more – such as the Rose Garden – and other parts – such as the section we referred to as “Doggy Park”, because dogs were allowed to roam there unleashed – which we enjoyed less, as we were all afraid of dogs. It is a fear we have long since overcome, and so on Tuesday, we spent much of our time in these roads less-travelled. We returned to the Rose Garden, however, where I managed to snap up the last available ticket for that evening’s performance of “Pride and Prejudice” in the Open Air Theatre. I was hesitant at first about doing so, because the skies were still quite overcast and the theatre does not refund money for performances cancelled because of the weather. Instead, they exchange the tickets for another performance (on the basis of ticket availability) and I was due to return home in less than a week. However, I was glad I took the risk, because it did not rain – in fact, it was quite a warm, summery evening – and the adaptation of Jane Austen’s most popular work was most enjoyable. Most of the cast were very young – some, straight out of drama school, I gather – and I didn’t recognise any of the names, but it was great fun.


The Regent’s Park lake. Note the minaret of the Central London Mosque on the far side.


The Regent’s Park lake


The Regent’s Park lake


The Green Man in the Rose Garden


In the Rose Garden, Regent’s Park

The following day dawned bright and sunny and so I was emboldened to leave my umbrella back at the hotel, and enjoy a day at Hampstead Heath and Kenwood, unfettered by excess baggage.

Hampstead Heath is not one of the places we used to frequent as children, but it has since become one of my brother’s favourite outdoor spots.



However, I do remember visits to Kenwood House, once home to the great jurist Lord Mansfield, who, in 1772, delivered a ruling which is widely held to have abolished slavery in Britain.
The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it is so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from a decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged


I was almost unable to believe my good luck when the hot weather continued the next day also and we were able to travel by river to Greenwich.

A word to anyone planning a visit to London: if you have an Oyster Card (a smartcard which enables you to purchase various travelcards and upload them to the card, or to store money for Pay-As-You-Go), not only will you pay a lot less for travelling around London by bus and Underground (the Tube, as it’s known to Londoners), but you will also be entitled to a 33% reduction on some (not all) of the riverboats, which ply the Thames between Westminster and Greenwich (and also, possibly, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court and Richmond). Since not all of the riverboats have a running commentary about the sights you will see along the river, it’s worth asking about that, too. Ours did – not a professional guide, as he took pains to remind us, but simply a riverboat skipper who loves London and who does not get paid for his commentary and explanations, except for any tip you might feel inclined to give (they pass a top hat round, at the end of the trip) for an amusing and informative commentary, delivered in an inimitable Cockney accent and peppered with many in-jokes which you probably have to be British (or, at least, ex-British) to understand. A knowledge of the English language, however good, is not enough.

Along the river are many famous sights such as the London Eye (otherwise known as the Millenium Wheel), St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Obelisk (popularly known as “Cleopatra’s Needle”), the Shard (so called because the observation platform at the top resembles a broken shard of glass), a replica of Sir Francis Drake’s ship The Golden Hinde, in which he circumnavigated the world, Tower Bridge and many others.


The London Eye and the former County Hall


Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament


The Shard


The Tower of London


Passing under Tower Bridge

Disembarking at Greenwich, our first stop was at the Old Royal Naval Hospital and the Old Royal Naval College, before proceeding to the Park, which houses the Old Observatory and the Greenwich Meridian.


View of the Royal Naval Hospital and College from the river

Shortly after arriving, we were fortunate to catch the start of a free, guided tour of these historic buildings. The only parts of the the Royal Naval College open to the public are the Chapel and the Dining Hall, known as the Painted Hall and famous for its painted ceiling – which should not be missed by anyone keen on art, and Baroque art in particular.  At the time of our visit, the Hall was being used for filming a new feature film about Queen Victoria and so we could not go inside but we could see the celebrated ceiling.

From the hill where the Observatory is situated, there is a magnificent view of London, and of the river which made the city what it is.


We also found time for a brief visit to the National Maritime Museum, where there was a fascinating exhibition made up of sounds and pictures screened on a screen shaped like an ocean wave, and all around, videos were screened with ordinary people describing what the sea represented for them.

We spent the whole day at Greenwich, finishing up with supper (the traditional fish and chips) at a riverside pub, and returning to town by the Docklands Light Railway.

And with that, it seemed, the spell of good weather had ended. The following day was cloudy and drizzly and we both had things to do, so I took the opportunity for a little shopping. But even there, London never ceases to surprise and delight. I found myself in one of the city’s most oldest and famous department stores, Selfridges. This huge and, arguably, over-the-top department store, opened in 1909, is famous, among other things, for its window displays, which are always based on a relevant theme. This year, the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s  death, that theme was the plays of William Shakespeare. Not only were the storefront windows devoted to the subject, but inside the store also, fashion displays recreated scenes from “Macbeth”, “Richard III”, “Romeo and Juliet” and other plays. And to complete the picture, the comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” was staged in the store’s own in-house theatre.

The following day the weather was even worse. It poured the whole day, putting paid to our plans to purchase tickets (at an exorbitant price of £40 apiece) to attend the Proms in the Park event that evening. There were tickets available within the Royal Albert Hall for the Last Night of the Proms, for those willing to spend £660 on a box, or, if that was a tad too pricey, a modest £192 in the Stalls, but even these were just a trifle over my budget 😉 so we decided instead, to content ourselves with watching the live TV broadcast on the BBC, up in my hotel room. But before that, for the day’s live entertainment, we went to a matinee performance of The Play That Goes Wrong:

It was so funny that I laughed until the tears ran down my cheeks and David said he almost fell off his seat, he laughed so much.

After that, we walked across Waterloo Bridge in the rain (it was too windy to attempt to open an umbrella) to the South Bank Centre, where we indulged ourselves with coffee and the most delicious carrot cake on the fifth floor terrace of the Royal Festival Hall, as we enjoyed the view of the Thames in the rain, under lowering grey skies.


Back at the hotel, since it was too rainy and windy to join the promenaders in Hyde Park with their picnic hampers, we switched on the TV, took out the remains of the fried chicken, egg and onions, tuna and sweetcorn salad and challah thoughtfully provided the evening before by my brother, and settled down to enjoy the Last Night of the Proms in the comfort of my hotel room.

When it was over, David said he thought he could see the fireworks lighting up the sky over Hyde Park from the window (as I said, my room did overlook the park), but I myself didn’t see anything.

I should mention that I did, in fact, take in a couple of live concerts during my ten days in London – both of them at the delightful Church of St. Martin’s in the Fields, a gem of the late Baroque era. Besides its regular programme of evening concerts, held by candlelight, St. Martin’s also has free lunchtime concerts three times a week. These generally feature young and upcoming musicians at the start of their musical career, and make an ideal midday break if you happen to be shopping in the West End, after which one can have a picnic lunch in Trafalgar Square, just across the road, before popping in for an hour or so to the National Gallery, which is right next door.
I enjoyed two concerts – one on Monday, featuring the Roth Guitar Duo, and another on Friday, with the mezzo-soprano Emma Stannard, who performed, amongst other things, De Falla’s “Seven Spanish Folk Songs”, which I know well, as I am working on it with my own vocal coach and therefore particularly enjoyed.

After each of these concerts, I took my own advice and, after a sandwich lunch in Trafalgar Square, visited the National Gallery. Those of you who may be planning a trip to London, do not fail to put the National Gallery on your “Must See” list. I make it a regular stop every trip – sometimes visiting it more than once. Like many of London’s great museums, entrance is free. There is a box for donations at the entrance, but no-one will press you to make one or look at you askance if you don’t.
Anyway, as I said – I visited the National Gallery after both concerts. In fact, I actually popped in there three times, so impressed was I with the annual “Take One Picture” exhibition. Each year, one picture serves as the inspiration for primary schools’ projects which encompass, not just art, but also geography, social history, textile design, and even current events. This year’s painting was “Mr and Mrs Andrews” by Thomas Gainsborough. Just to give an example, in one school, the children noted that Mr Andrews was carrying a gun. This led to a discussion by the third year students (aged 7-8) as to the possible reasons for him carrying a gun. They assumed, rightly, that it would have been used for hunting and this, in turn, led to a spirited discussion on the rights and wrongs of fox-hunting, in which framework, the children researched the laws of hunting in the British Isles. A recording of the debate could be heard on headphones by exhibition goers. The casual listener will be amazed at the maturity of some of the arguments put forward by these 7 and 8 year olds. Other  children researched fox habitats in the school grounds, drew foxes and prepared fox heads from clay, which they later painted. Thus, Gainsborough’s famous painting served as the kick-off point for studies in art, geography, natural history, law etc.

Another school used the picture in geography lessons, as an aid to understanding map work and symbols. The children, aged 7-8, drew a birds’ eye map of the Andrews estate, carefully marking the churches, hills, fields, rivers, hedgerows, lakes and woods. They then reproduced sections of the map and, using various modelling and marking techniques, they created clay tiles which were glazed in colours which reflected the colours in the painting, and were then fired in a kiln.


The 8-9 year olds at another primary school, in Brighton, felt that Gainsborough’s large canvas reminded them of a flat TV screen, which started them wondering what families of the Andrews’s social class would do in their leisure time in the evenings. They felt that a peepshow was the closest approximation of the modern television and so they set about creating one. Small groups of children created various scenes for inclusion in the peepshow. The school served children of many different backgrounds, and I found myself wondering what might have been the background of those responsible for this particular scene, with its Middle Eastern-style archway, the armed man in the background, and its graffiti on the wall saying “Let’s Win This War”.


I found this exhibition so enthralling – not to mention enlightening – that I actually went back for a third visit, to which, this time, I dragged my brother along.

Another one of the temporary exhibitions which I quite enjoyed on this third visit, was My Back to Nature”, by contemporary artist George Shaw. At first glance, some of the paintings seem to belong to what I call “the Emperor’s New Clothes School of Art” – meaning they are modern rubbish that pseudo-intellectuals will praise to the high heavens because they want to be thought clever. Other were genuinely compelling – beautiful, even.

Image result for national gallery george shaw

Image result for national gallery george shaw

Image result for national gallery george shaw

I don’t usually care for modern art. This exhibition, however, made me think twice – for which my brother’s enjoyment of it was, in no small measure, responsible.

I had planned to spend my last day in London at one of the great museums, but the day dawned so bright and sunny that David and I both agreed that Regent’s Park would be more suitable by far. We had planned to meet in the Rose Garden, but as I walked by the lake on my way from Baker Street Undergound Station (without catching even a glimpse of Sherlock Holmes, I might add 😉 ), my ear caught the sound of music and I was surprised also to see armed policemen and private security guards patrolling the paths, as well as tented kiosks on the lawn. In reply to my query, one of them informed me that it was a music festival – a Jewish music festival. Yes, on my last day in London, hours before I was due to fly home,  I found myself enjoying Klezmer in the Park – actually, a fusion of klezmer and sephardi/mizrahi music, in company with hundreds of my fellow Jews, eating kosher sandwiches on sale from the kiosks, dancing, singing along – and enjoying the open display of their Judaism.


The festivities went on for several hours, during which time, David and I also found time to visit the Rose Garden once more, and to enjoy the beauty of “The Island”, where many species of waterfowl make their nests and which, when we were children, seemed to be closed to visitors most of the time 😦  .

In those days, the Island seemed a mysterious, impenetrable sanctuary and we used to make up fantastic tales about what we imagined it must be like. Nowadays, there seem always to be crowds of visitors there. It quite spoils the Magic 😦 .





As we turned to make our way back to the hotel, this squirrel came to investigate us. I couldn’t persuade it to eat from my hand, but it condescended to accept three nuts from me, which it promptly buried in the soil.


It was hard to tear myself away from the park but I had a plane to catch. Here too, things did not go smoothly. The on-line check-in on the El Al website, which is supposed to save time, actually took the best part of two hours, as I was repeatedly bounced from the website (and the extremely unstable wi-fi connection in the hotel made matters worse. I eventually disconnected and used the cellular internet connection for which I had taken out an overpriced package with the phone company but that was not much better.) A few hours later, as I ate a sandwich in the park, I received not one but two SMS notifications from El Al to say that the flight would leave as scheduled but would be operated by a Portuguese charter company I had never heard of. I fly El Al, not only for security reasons but also for its safety record. El AL has never lost a passenger flight, with the exception of a plane that was deliberately shot down by the Bulgarians in 1955 at the height of the Cold War. Moreover, I had paid extra for a seat with more leg-room, but this flight did not have Economy Class Plus.
In fact, I was even considering switching to another flight. In the event, I did not do so. The flight took place as scheduled, landed on time (despite taking off nearly an hour late) and my seat was quite comfortable. The cabin crew, with one exception – and she tended to the Business Class passengers only – consisted entirely of young men, all of them rather good-looking. Too good to be true – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were all gay 😉 .

All in all, I enjoyed my vacation. But it’s good to be home.

Posted in Tourism, Travel, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Shana Tova

I had hoped to be able to post about my trip to England last month but it’s taking longer than expected to choose and edit the many photos and write about all that I managed to see and do in ten short days. Before I knew it, the High Holy Days were – are – upon us. Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year – starts this evening at sundown.

So this is a very brief post, just to wish all those of you who are celebrating Rosh Hashana – לשנה טובה תכתיבו ותחתימו – Leshana tova tichatevu vetichatevu – May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

By a curious coincidence – well, not really so curious, if you remember that both Jews and Muslims use a lunar calendar – today marks the start of a new Islamic year as well, so I would like also to offer New Year’s greetings to my Muslim friends (yes, I do have some!)

I will leave you with the traditional Jewish prayer for the High Holy Days, with the lyrics of which, I believe we can all of us, Jew, Christian and Muslim, identify.

Posted in Daily Life, Religion, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments