Pianistic pleasures and pain

I have my fans, you know.  What I mean by this is that some of the people who receive this blog actually read it and some of them occasionally write to me to comment or to offer suggestions as to how I might have produced a better version of what I had just posted or how I might have improved the content in general; some even remark upon my writing style.  So far, nobody has actually demanded or even requested that I refrain from sending them any more of these things, from which I can only surmise that those who don’t want it just junk it —or even worse, ignore it. (I have to admit that on occasion when I really don’t want to read rubbish from people I hardly know, I have told them to stop sending it to me.)  However, you’re part of a pretty selective group to start off with.

On Tuesday night, there was a gala concert at the Tel Aviv Opera House, which marked the opening the 15th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.  As I noted in my last post, I decided to give that particular event a miss and to start my duties as a volunteer photographer the following morning at the draw for the current competition.  This is the event at which the order in which the contestants perform is determined and it remains constant for the whole competition.  So, weighed down by a camera bag containing half a dozen lenses, a couple of cameras, and other bits and pieces, I bussed and walked down to the hotel in downtown Tel Aviv in which the draw was to take place on what was already turning out to be a warm day.  

As far as I was concerned, it was an inauspicious start to my participation in this competition.  Arriving at the hotel, I was directed to two places in order of their immediate importance—the men’s room and the room in which the draw was to take place.  Having done with the former, I made my way to the latter—to find that it seemed to be crawling with people holding expensive photographic accessories.  I thought this odd as when we were deciding on which sessions each photographer—there are two of us—would attend, I had specifically told the producer that I would take the draw.  

So I decided to check and discovered that despite all the attention given to the detail of organising this fortnight-long event, there seemed to be—how shall I say—a gap along the lines of communication.  The office manager informed me that she had nothing to do with photographers and that I should talk to the Executive Producer who, when I eventually located her, told me that the photographers were being coordinated by the PR outfit they had hired for the competition.  So on I went in search of the person concerned only to discover that she had, indeed, invited the press en masse—well, that’s her job, isn’t itto cover the draw but who hadn’t been told about me.  

Frankly, I couldn’t see any point in hanging around; it just seemed as if all the snappers and paparazzi were already treading on one another’s toes quite literally.  Moreover, as each competitor was being transported to the next venue by their individual volunteer host (to the Tel Aviv Museum, where the first three rounds of the competition take place) for the 15 minutes allotted to each to select from the three pianos available to them in the competition, I would have had to find my own way there.  So, such being the state of affairs, I took myself home before trying to find out once more if I was really needed.  The only positive facet of all this shenanigans was that walking around the part of Tel Aviv where the hotel is located — an area I hadn’t been to for a few years — it struck me that I should come again with a camera and a suitable lens but not laden down with a bag photographic equipment or dressed “respectably”, as I was for the aborted event.

Piano Trio 1

Make music, not noise

Piano Trio

In Formula 1-speak, The Constructors’ Championship

By noon I was the Museum to take pictures of the piano selection.  Somehow I had a feeling of déjà déjà vu as the competitors trooped up from auditorium to stage to have their 15 minutes to choose from a Steinway, a Fazioli or a Kawai instrument as their preferred weapon of musical war.   Then they trooped down again to sign an agreement that they stick with their choice to the bitter (or sweet) end, come what may.  In 2014, 31 competitors chose a Steinway and just five plumped for Fazioli,  leading to a much overworked Steinway piano with a weak voice at the end of the competition.  This time around, the distribution was more even — 15 elected to play on a Steinway, 10 went for Fazioli and five chose Kawai.

Signing for Fazioii

Luka Okros signs with Fazioli

I didn’t stay to watch all of these very talented kiddos strut their stuff, for that would have taken me through to quite late in the evening and anyway, hearing people plays bits and pieces for eight hours is a little mind-numbing.  Anyway, there’ll be plenty opportunity to hear some of them over and over again during the next fortnight, ad nauseam, ad infinitum — but never ad hoc.  (The first round concludes on Sunday afternoon whereupon the judges announce which competitors will be looking to fly home the next day and which remain on to fight yet another few days, that is until the final six are chosen to “progress” to the chamber music and orchestral stages a few days later).

Suffice to say that on choosing pianos, they divided into several categories.  There were those who were “tied” to one or other of the piano companies prior to the competition and they simply used their allotted quarter of an hour to practise or rehearse parts of their programmes without as much as looking at the other two monsters on the stage.  (The representatives of the piano companies seem to all use the possessive case when referring to “their” men and women.  Then, there were those who seemed to expend much of their energy walking or trotting from piano to piano, playing a few phrases or chords on each and then doing the circuit again, and again, and again.  A third group comprised “the confused”; these seemed to have had no preconceived idea as to which sounded best and they appeared to be asking their minders (who might have been teachers, parents or grandparents—I have no idea which) in languages I don’t understand what they should do.  It’s quite a fateful decision as if they have erred in their choice, they have to grin and bear it (and play on it)  throughout the competition just as they’re stuck with when they play, something that had been decided earlier by the luck of the draw.

That done, Thursday marked the start of the competition in the Recanati Auditorium at Tel Aviv Museum of Art.  I’m the duty photographer in the first session and take a seat in the last row so that I can see the faces of the pianists rather than their hands.  But before it starts, the judges also seated in the last row but in the middle section are introduced to the audience.  And quite an exalted bunch of fingersmiths they are, too.  Chaired by Arie Vardi from Israel, they include Peter Donohoe from the UK, Michel Béroff from France, Janina Fialkowska from Canada. And then there is the 93-year old Menachem Pressler of Beaux Arts Trio fame.  The audience responds to the announcement of his name by giving him an especially vociferous ovation, presumably because he is (a) 93 and still lucid if not so spry, (b) back in Tel Aviv, where his career began, and (c) willing to subject himself to the rigours of  judging an almost 3-week long competition.  Yet here he is, 71 years after he was awarded first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946! He is accompanied by the charming Annabelle Whitestone for whom the 90-year-old Arthur Rubinstein left his wife of 45 years in 1977, living with her in Geneva until he died in 1982.  (Subsequently, a decade later, Annabelle married the publisher George Weidenfeld and remained with him until he passed away last year.)


Menachem & Annabelle

As usual, the standard was pretty high.  To my untutored ear, I would say that overall, it’s  a higher level than three years ago.  They’re all good otherwise they wouldn’t be here in the first place.  They may all be good but only some of them are interesting.  And only some of those are exciting.  And then there are a couple who radiate energy like none of the others.

I photographed four pianists on my watch in the first part of the afternoon.  Two Chinese performers and one from Taiwan were followed by a young man from Georgia, who played Schubert and Liszt and who I thought was a mature artist.  However, I’ll say no more except that in 2014, every performer I liked most was eliminated at the end of the round, which says something about my level of ignorance and what the judges are listening for.

Tiffany POON

Tiffany Poon, Round 1, Day 1, Session 1


Luka Okros, Round 1, Day 1, Session 1

Today (Friday), I did the afternoon session — a French girl, followed by a Chinese competitor wearing a wonderful scarlet shirt, followed by a dour Russian who did little for me but perhaps made an impression on the judges.  

Beethoven — Umm

Staying awake during a Beethoven sonata CAN be tedious sometimes

Lighting Man

But NOTHING bothered the auditorium’s on-duty lighting technician for an hour and a half!

Xiaoyu LIU

Xiaoyu Liu’s scarlet shirt

Finally, we were treated to an 18-year old Englishman, Julian Trevelyan.  Most of the time, I have no difficulty remembering that I am there just to take photographs.  However, every now and then, I have to give myself a kick in the backside as a reminder that I shouldn’t get too carried away and this was one of those occasions.  On the website of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition 2016 at which he was a piano finalist, he was described as follows: “Julian is a member of Aldeburgh Young Musicians and also attends Mid-Herts Centre for Music and Arts. He plays violin and viola at Pro Corda and Britten Sinfonia Academy. He also enjoys chamber music and singing. [He] is home educated, and his interests include geology, gymnastics and good food.”  

Yes, quite so.  As far as I’m concerned—and this is probably the kiss of death for young Julian—this is a born artist.  He played Schumann’s Humoreske with feeling and Shostakovich’s fiendishly difficult Piano Sonata #1 with aplomb.  I was seated directly behind Menachem Pressler who nodded in approval many, many times over the 40 minutes (and he wasn’t falling asleep; Béroff followed the score of the Shostakovich intently on his iPad.  I think that “electric” is the term that is often used for an experience like this.  The audience lapped him up with a thirst that seemed as if they were the Children of Israel who’d been plodding through the Sinai Desert without as much as sip of water for 40 years.


Julian keeps a straight back

Ah, yes.  We’re only halfway through the first round and we’ll have to see what tomorrow and Sunday bring in terms of pianistic genius!

By the way, in case anyone’s counting, this is PhotoGeoGraphy post #100.


In the Court of King Arthur


Next Thursday, here in Tel Aviv, the Rubinstein Piano Competition (or the 15th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, to give it its full name) gets under way.  This is a triennial competition for talented pianists, all hopeful of the glory of winning an international competition and the glittering international career that it promises.

Rubinstein arched back

Backbreaking work trying to win a piano competition (And he didn’t)

It began in 1974 when Rubinstein himself served as the Chair of the International jury, which included, amongst others, Enrique Barenboim (father of), Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Eugene Istomin and Pnina Salzman.  The winner of the first competition was Emanuel Ax who went on to have a stellar international career, not only as a soloist but as a performer of chamber music with such luminaries as Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Jaime Laredo.  

Not all the winners of this competition (in fact not all the winners of any major music competition) necessarily go on to repeat their competition successes in the real world just as many of those who were runners-up or did even more poorly in competition did go on to become stars.  In fact, and without naming names, many of the world’s top performers seem to have managed to get where they are on the basis of their talent and personalities without having had to endure the tension of participating in a music competition.

Arthur himself only participated in one piano competition and in his day, such things didn’t exist or if they did, they certainly weren’t the well-oiled industry that they are today.  He was a competitor in the 1910 Anton Rubinstein Competition in St. Petersburg and was passed over for 1st prize.  However, he served as a member of the jury at the international piano competition held in Geneva in 1927, mentioning in his autobiography, (My Young Years/My Many Years) that he had a heard a very promising young Chilean pianist called Claudio Arrau about whom Alfred Cortot (who was also a juror at that competition) apparently exclaimed: “Cela c’est un pianiste. C’est merveilleux” (and he was!).

Anyway, by the 4th Rubinstein Competition in 1983, Arthur had departed, leaving this world all the poorer, for the Next World, which at that time was made of vinyl, and which today comprises just a series of 0s and 1s.  Interestingly, in his autobiography, he wrote an anecdote which epitomises the dilemma that I imagine all competitors at music competitions have to deal with — pianism .v. musicianship, or if you prefer a rough elucidation, technique and technicality .v. artistry.  In his youth, Rubinstein had been overshadowed by such personalities as Rachmaninoff (who let it be known that he had to perform in order to make a living whereas he would have preferred just to be a composer) and Josef Hofmann. But as these pianists of an older generation breathed their last, Rubinstein’s career went from strength to strength, and he became in the process the most popular and most respected of all the great pianists.  

He had only a single rival: Vladimir Horowitz, 15 years his junior. In those years before recorded music had become the ubiquitous commodity it now is, these artists seldom heard one another as they travelled from city to city and between continents to perform — in Horowitz’ case, with his own concert grand piano.  (Horowitz also stated that as he couldn’t eat hotel food, he had to take his own cook with him too and for good measure he also carried a water purification machine.  Nevertheless, he insisted that he was not neurotic, merely highly strung—just like his piano, I guess.)   Consequently, such artists often only knew one another by reputation alone. 

Anyway, there was one occasion on which Rubinstein found himself in the same city as Horowitz and went along to listen to this pianistic phenomenon about whom he had heard and read such a lot.  As he described it, he stood in the wings and listened to the recital in awe and when it ended, after having heard Horowitz’ virtuoso performance, he had to admit that he (Horowitz) was by far the better pianist — but he, Rubinstein, was by far the better musician.  One up for Arthur!  

And in another shaggy-dog reminiscence just to show how different things were 80 years ago, Rubinstein recalled that his idea of practising  was just to memorise a score — until he himself began recording, whereupon he heard the wrong notes that he was wont to spray through a performance (and which he and his audiences had hitherto ignored or missed because of the sublimeness of his interpretations).  In contrast, play one wrong note today in a competition and it’s a black mark against you on the judges’ scoresheet; play two and you’ll be performing Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata at your leisure for yourself alone — forever!

So, you might well be asking yourself why am I telling you all this?  What’s it got to do with Geography?  Well, to answer the second question first: nothing whatsoever, except to say that the 32 competitors in this year’s Rubinstein competition come from 16 different countries—Albania, Canada, China (8), Croatia, France (2), Georgia (2), Israel (3), Italy (2), S. Korea, Poland, Romania (2), Russia (2), Taiwan, UK (2), Ukraine, USA (2)— a third of them thus from Asia.  Twenty-three of them are male, eight are female and one, at least from the picture, appears to be androgynous — but I guess we’ll find out.

The answer to the first question is that, for my sins, I am once again going to photograph this event.  I did this job three years ago when a friend suggested that I might be interested and had passed my name along to the organisers.  I was interested but didn’t think I could do it as I had had no prior experience at this sort of thing.  Nevertheless, I agreed and I entered the fray with considerable trepidation.  As things turned out, it was probably the best thing I could have done for myself at the time for the three weeks turned out to be a wonderful photo workshop with a steep learning curve.

However, this time around, it’s not trepidation that I feel but something else.  It’s strange, really.  When I contacted the competition organisers a few months ago and offered my services, I thought that my experience of three years ago might stand me in good stead and allow me do a better job than last time; after all, I think that my skills as a photographer have improved and I’m using a better camera than then.  On the other hand, as the date approached a feeling of uneasiness set in, not aroused by the fact that I think I can’t do a good job but one stimulated by the fact that I’ve been there and done that.  The thought of sitting through two and a half weeks of recitals and concerts (I think I heard close on 50 last time round) is mind-shattering (not to mention what it will do to my tinnitus).  

Rubinstein video

Keep out of his way!


There are the same limitations as there were last time — no flash, no clicks from the shutter, no moving around, no getting in the way of the video people, &c. and I don’t expect it to be any different this time.  Three years ago, it took me a week to understand that there are only four or five photos that you need of each competitor — s/he comes out and bows to the audience, s/he concentrates prior to making a sound (some don’t), s/he engages in pianistic prestidigitation (literally), s/he shows intense, almost erotic, emotion (which apparently has little influence on the jury, s/he smiles, bows and exits (or bows, cries and exits) and Hey Presto!, you gird your loins in preparation for the next lamb to the slaughter.

Rubinstein Finals night

Pianistic prestidigitation

So, I think that what I need to try over the next few weeks is look for the unconventional in photographs.  Just as I am convinced that spectators attend a Formula One car race not to see the winner (because, be honest, how interesting can it really be watching 20 very fast cars go around a circuit for an hour and a half?) but to witness a decent crash (non-fatal, of course), go to the Henley Regatta to see a boat with eight oarsmen and a cox sink, or attend the Grand National steeplechase race to see a large-scale fall of horses and riders at Becher’s Brook, then what I’d like to see is a pianist so carried away with things that s/he falls off the piano stool, or touches the piano’s fallboard with their subsiding hands and bruise a finger or two or, perhaps less unlikely, forget the score and burst into tears.  Or perhaps I can find a jury member asleep during proceedings!

Choosing by lot

The draw begins for the 14th Rubinstein Competition, 2014

Well, time will tell.  The event begins on Tuesday night with a gala concert at the Tel Aviv Opera House, which I will thankfully miss as my colleague (there are two of us — he’s a more experienced photographer but non-musical) will get the feel for things there.  I begin the following morning when the draw takes place (there’s bound to be some drama there, as it seemed from the last time that most competitors prefer to play as late in the competition as possible with only a small minority preferring to get it over and done with sooner rather than later.  (I discussed this issue with a University of Haifa colleague who was in attendance at the 2014 competition for a week and whose areas of expertise include judgments of learning and feeling of knowing.  He, too, was convinced that those who perform later remain in the judges’ memory more clearly that the early birds and that some advantage accrues as a result.  Having said that, the last winner was one of the early performers.)  

The draw's over

Draw complete, 14th Rubinstein Competition, 2014

Following this, I trot along after the competitors to the stage at the Recanati Auditorium at Tel Aviv Museum of Art where they choose the piano they would like to perform on. (I’m given to understand that it’s a three-horse race between Steinway, Fazioli and Kawai this time round, which means that it’s going to be a long drawn out session indeed).

They only give you 15 mins

Seven and a half minutes per piano.  It’s just not fair!

Signing for my piano

Signing for the Steinway team

The competition itself starts on Thursday morning.  My good lady tells me that I was on high three years ago at the end of it all and perhaps I was.  I seem to remember that I thought I might write a book or at least an article on music competitions and then spent a year putting together a bibliography and reading much of the material.  Just as was about to start writing, I discovered—thankfully, in retrospect — that I had been beaten to it by Lisa McCormick, a Canadian cellist and sociologist whose wonderful book Performing Civility: International Competitions in Classical Music was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015, which was just in time to save me from several years of absolute frustration.

Nevertheless, there might still be some interesting phenomena to uncover.  Last time round, on observing the jury, I concluded that as all of them knew one another and had served on juries together before, and as many of the competitors had been students of one or more of them at some time in the past, there had to have been about as much backscratching going on as there is in a troop of baboons.  These individuals are housed in the same hotel, more or less eat their meals together and are transported from hotel to venue in concert—but they are prohibited from discussing the competition or competitors with one another.  Consequently, I am at a loss to know what they do talk about as the weather in Tel Aviv in May is hardly an issue. The effect of humidity on the tension in piano strings?    How to protect your piano in case of a nuclear war?

Maybe I’ll be wiser at the end of the proceedings.

Judge's are tired

An exhausted jury on the final evening


May in June

Here we go gathering nuts in May,
Nuts in May, nuts in May,
Here we go gathering nuts in May,
On a cold and frosty morning.

Knife's edge

The world is in a state of chaos, on a knife’s edge, I would say.  Several months ago, I began a post with a line from Seán O’Casey’s “Juno and the Paycock” in which  “Captain” Jack Boyle stumbles home and collapses after an evening at the pub with his mate Joxer Daly, intoxicated and oblivious to the fact that his son is dead and that his wife and daughter have left him.  Before he passes out and through his drunken stupor he utters his famous pronouncement that “the whole world is in a terrible state o’ chassis”.  As viewed from a Dublin tenement in 1922, just after the outbreak of the Irish Civil War, this Dublin sot had realised that from his perspective, the world had become quite chaotic.  And as with Captain Jack, so with yours truly.

I quoted this line last July, a month after British citizens had voted to leave the European Union and just after Donald Trump had been selected as the Republican candidate in the presidential election in November 2016.  Now, as we all know, Trump was elected president and Mrs. May has delivered her letter to the EU triggering the discussions on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.   What kind of Brexit emerges and what its implications  will be might become clear as the months pass, especially now that May has called an election in June.  However, the result of Britain’s EU referendum is trivial in world politics when compared to the utterances of the American twitterer.  As well as broadcasting his lack of knowledge via his puerile vocabulary and displaying his narcissism in full, he also seems to be somewhat paranoid.  

However, as of a few days ago, his paranoia pales beside that of the man whose intention is to rule Turkey until 2029 without opposition.  Mr. Erdogan is so sensitive, his ego so fragile, that he cannot bear to be criticised, let alone laughed at—and will not permit either.  Given that he has already jailed perhaps 150 journalists—editors, writers, cartoonists and photographers—all of whom face anti-state charges in a crackdown that includes the closing of more than 100 news outlets, that he has successfully employed a rarely used 19th-century section of Germany’s criminal code prohibiting defamation of foreign heads of state against a German satirist, and that he has accused Germany and the Netherlands of Nazi practices for blocking several rallies in the run-up to the Turkish referendum, his paranoia outguns Trump’s by several degrees.  


His self-importance and puffed-uppedness are even more nauseous than the American president’s or even Putin’s.  In comparison, Bibi is the epitome of normalcy, his newly dyed hair notwithstanding.  

At this point, I am reminded of a piece in The Independent newspaper a few years ago by Howard Jacobson, reprinted in his collection The Dog’s Last Walk, on a certain kind of autocracy into which Turkey has now dived full time:  

“If there is one thing theocracies and their variants have difficulty with, it’s laughter. If there’s another, it’s women. Put the two together and the foundations of their states begin to crumble. When the Turkish deputy prime minister made his speech about ‘moral corruption’ last week, calling for women to be vigilant of their chastity, not to be ‘inviting’ in their demeanour and, above all, not to laugh in public, he was invoking an ancient neurosis. Yes … Turkey calls itself a secular democracy, but it’s a secular democracy with God looking over its shoulder, and it’s with God, of course … that this fear of a woman’s laughter originates. Let the state describe itself how it will; if it is nervous of laughter in general, and women’s laughter in particular, it’s a theocracy. That this remains the case when the god happens to be Karl Marx, I don’t need to remind readers …”  

So, there you have it.  Yet, despite his antipathy towards the leaders of the “Crusader lands”, Erdogan must have been gratified by the congratulations he received on Monday from the President of the United States on the successful outcome of the referendum in his country.  I can only guess that the President of America envies the ease with which Mr. Erdogan was able to convince his people to approve a new constitution, allowing a strong President to rule with no opposition and that that’s better than checks and balances to the power he wields.  (In the USA, amending the Constitution is laborious, requiring two-thirds of both houses of Congress to pass a proposed constitutional amendment, which is then sent to the states for ratification.  If three-quarters of the states ratify the proposed amendment, the Constitution is amended.  (Erdogan might be über-sensitive but he’s not stupid and he’s silenced Europe, knowing that he has 3 million refugees that he can unleash on them any time he feels the need!)

In Europe, things are on a downhill skiing course.  Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wants to abandon liberal democracy in favour of an “illiberal state” (citing Russia and Turkey as examples!!!).  The National Front’s Marine Le Pen’s claims that France was not responsible for the round-up of Jews in World War II, that Vichy was fine—or as her father said—’excusable’.  It really looks as if the world is returning to nationalist business as usual after seven decades of trying to convince it that authoritarian rule is really good for nobody.  Then, of course, add to this the rhetoric of the past weeks on the parts of Trump and the cabal of gangsters who run North Korea about blowing up the world, and the world is further from being a ‘safe’ place in which to live than it appeared to be not so long ago (not that it really was).

And then, when one reads that George Soros is the major source of trouble for right-wing America, for all the opposition to Orban, for the problems of Romania, Macedonia as well as the woes of Russia, then we’re only one or two steps away from fully-fledged you-know-what.  


(Tsouris, by the way, (not too far in pronunciation from Soros) is Yiddish for ‘trouble’ or ‘woe’.)

Given that the majorities in the UK and Turkish referenda were hardly convincing and that Trump was elected President with almost 3 million fewer votes than Clinton, the world is beginning to look as if it’s composed of states that have become so polarised internally that groups within them have fewer and fewer issues of common ground which they can discuss with one another, let alone talk with other nation-states about.

If Seán O’Casey had been looking at the world in 2017 and not at Dublin in 1922, I wonder what words he might have put into Captain Jack Boyle’s mouth. 

Anyway … as I was walking along Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv the other morning, my eyes were drawn to the van in the picture below.

Anglo Movers

I suppose it was the Union Flag that initially attracted my attention and then the the words themselves “Anglo-Movers”.  But something seemed strange about the names—Eddie and Vitaly—that appear under the sign.  Whereas ‘Eddie’ is perfectly Anglo, the Vitaly part seemed out of place.  Because this is the season of conspiracy theories and fake news, it struck me that this might very well be someone trying to tell us that just as Putin had interfered with last year’s U.S. election (a ‘fact’ strongly denied by Vladimir Vladimirovich himself and his minions), allowing the Donald to triumph, he might well have intervened in the trashaganda that was swallowed hook, line and sinker by millions of well-meaning Britons whose votes are likely to lead to a weakening of the EU.  And who would that benefit?  After all, somebody suggested that Nigel Farage be appointed British ambassador to the United States, presumably in gratitude for his contribution to the well-being and independence of British sovereignty.  (Now there’s to be a British General Election in less than two months’ time, who else is in Putin’s pocket? Oh, yes, and by the way, why wouldn’t she call an election?  She likes her job and wants some job security.  There used to be something like this in academia if memory serves me right; it was called “acquiring tenure”.  And even then, there were often post facto regrets concerning some people who had been awarded tenure!)

And while my mind was running wild with conspiracy theories, I looked across the road and saw someone who definitely didn’t look like an Eddie—more like a Vitaly, I thought.

Anglo Movers 1

While on the subject of machination and subterfuge, what might a paranoid make of this sign on the apartment block going up around the corner from us?  Tibet is the surname of the man who owns the company putting up the block but on the left-hand side the Hebrew signs tells us that the air-conditioning in the building is by Toshiba and called “Siberia”.  As a good geographer, I know that the mean average of Tibet and Siberia is China!  And there you have it!


Well, Passover’s over for another year and it appears that I’ve got away without any serious intestinal damage.  One of the plusses of Passover (and there aren’t many after the family’s been together for the Seder) is that on the day after it finally comes to an end, you can be pretty sure that all the baked goods on sale are absolutely fresh, such these goodies in the Carmel Market yesterday morning.

Really fresh

My eye is not just attracted to signs and cakes but also to fire hydrants, which, as I explained eons ago, often seem to me to exhibit an almost human personality.  This one, photographed last week, seemed to me to be consuming matzah (sheets of unleavened bread), just like the rest of Israel.  (And just in case you might think that it’s only Jews in Israel who eat the stuff, you’d be wrong! 


Matzo Hydrant

The weather during the holiday was mostly fine, even if it was windy on one or two of the days.  The spray at Tel Aviv Port was really quite spectacular at times.


And close to the port, I photographed a sawn-off log which marks part of the perimeter of a car park.

Wooden half-pole

I was enchanted by this hair-do on an abandoned house on the south of Hayarqon Street on my walk yesterday morning.


However, my favourite picture of all for the whole Passover holiday is actually one that is not mine.  But here they are, altogether, aged from left to right — 7, 6, 4, and 5.  And when I’m around this bunch, the opening paragraphs of this post are totally irrelevant!

Favourite holiday picture

Tal, Gali, Lily, Maya


Spring is here

Spring is here, spring is here
Life is skittles and life is beer
I think the loveliest time of the year
Is the spring, I do, don’t you? Course you do
But there’s one thing that makes spring complete for me
And makes every Sunday a treat for me

Spring has finally arrived in Tel Aviv.  As did Tom Lehrer, I always think it’s the loveliest time of the year—even if I don’t do what comes next in his song although there are times I think I’d like to (and to the crows as well, especially the crows!)   

There are several signs that it’s spring has sprung.  For a start, come the vernal equinox, (March 21) some idiot on the radio or the television will inform the public that “today is ‘officially’ the first day of spring”.  But because an old cynic like me generally takes what he hears on the radio with not just a grain but a whole pit of salt, I don’t pay much attention to that.  Then, of course, there’s the ritual of turning clocks forward an hour to Daylight Savings Time, which occurred in Israel this year two days after the spring equinox on March 23 (two days earlier than Europe, just to confuse people, I suppose) and that’s a hint as well that seasons are changing.

But there are other, more tangible, hints that things are on the move.  For a start, the cormorants that have looked down on events from the treetops along the river and whose arrival way back in November heralded the onset of winter have vanished, abandoning the treetops to the crows so that they (the crows, that is) can aim their stuff directly for those foolhardy enough to stand under the trees for long enough.  The cyclamens have mostly withered away to be replaced by other less graceful flowers that will also shrivel up before too long.  And then, last Wednesday, we experienced the hottest day of 2017 so far, with the temperature in the shade reaching 34ºC.  That may sound awful to some except that for a Tel Aviv resident, used to temperatures like that in the summer but accompanied Relative Humidity of over 80% and sometimes over 90%, 34º and dry air is something of a luxury.  Nevertheless, it won’t be long before summer hits us with a wet whack one day and will be with us until late October at the earliest.  It may turn up this week or next month.  Or if we’re lucky and the gods smile at us and we find favour in their eyes, we might last out till June.  But summer will be here to punish us for our ill thoughts and deeds sooner rather than later.

So, having dealt with the joys of spring and the damp doom of summer in this post and a couple of esoteric posts on walls last week and the preceding one, I suppose it’s time to show some pictures from recent early morning walks around this city.

Winter's end

The frames that have covered footpaths outside cafés and restaurants all winter are unceremoniously removed


Parakeet in the Park



Orchids for sale.  Friday Farmers’ Market, Tel Aviv Port


Hibiscus, Nordau Boulevard, Tel Aviv

Luminous flower

Coral Tree Flower (embellished, obviously), Brandeis Street, Tel Aviv


Just because Spring is here doesn’t mean that the rains have ceased.  A couple of weeks ago while walking through Tel Aviv Port, the sky turned ominous (it didn’t look that way when I left the house but within 20 minutes, this is [more or less] the way it looked and then there a short, sharp shower showed us that it meant business. (How was that for alliteration?)


Rain on the way

Mammatus rainclouds form over Tel Aviv Port.  March 31 2017


A couple of days later, while observing park activities, I snapped this pair close to one another.  In the upper image, the young woman facing towards me seems to be following the every word of the personal trainer (perhaps she’s a friend?) with great interest; her dog, however, thought otherwise — perhaps another canine in the distance?




However, less than 100m away, things seemed much more gripping!

Not so boring

Less tedious, more gripping


On reaching Ben-Yehuda Street, I came across this sign, which was clearly composed for canine comprehension (assuming that the canine in question interprets the upper symbol as appealing to her/him).  But then something struck me as odd.  How does the dog inform the barista that s/he isn’t all that keen on coffee and that plain water would be just great?

A dog's life

A dog’s life

The same café, which is usually busy at 8 in the morning, was closed this morning as I passed by.  I assume that that’s because it’s been licensed by the local rabbinical council and that the coffee and other products it sells its clients are pure.  Preparing the place for Passover to the satisfaction of the powers-that-be creates additional barriers to the ones already in place for those wishing to comply with rabbinical rigours, with the consequence that many kosher food places avoid this by simply closing for the week+.  However, this one forgot to cancel the daily newspaper.

Pesach Holiday

While on the subject of Passover, it is also referred to as the Spring Festival or the Festival of Freedom.  However, I sometimes (only part jokingly) refer to as the Festival of the Injured Intestines for if one of these sharp edges should encounter your gut at the wrong angle, it could cause some very painful self-inflicted internal injury.

Bread of Affliction 2

And again, on the subject of Passover, the gentleman sitting below outside his wine and spirits shop just after 8 in the morning on Ben-Yehuda Street seemed to think, as the Passover Seder requires participants to drink four goblets of (usually sticky sweet and red) wine over a period of 2-3 hours (along with hard-boiled eggs, some horseradish and if you survive that, some real food), that I should purchase the wine for our Seder there and then on the spot.  I declined, telling him that it was really  too early in the morning to even think about wine.  Anyway, didn’t he really expect me to be able to lug bottles of wine and a camera around the streets of Tel Aviv simultaneously?

Wine for Passover

En route home, I encountered the image below on the rear of a traffic sign on Dizengoff Street.  The gentleman in question is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known to his followers as “the Rebbe”.  He was born in the Ukraine in 1902 and died in New York in 1994.  Rabbi Schneerson studied engineering and mathematics in Paris in the 1930s and when war broke out, arrived in New York in 1941.  But it’s not as an engineer or mathematician for which he is remembered but as the leader of the Lubavitcher chassidim (Chabad), the seventh in a line of leaders of this particular chassidic sect.  Since his passing, the organisation he headed and which functions as an extremely active and successful Jewish outreach body (something that distinguishes it from other chassidic sects) has been in a bit of a quandary.  The Rebbe died childless so that there was nobody continue the line and in the 23 years since his death, no one person has been elected, selected or proposed to succeed him.  During the last two years of his life, the hope that he could be revealed as the Messiah became widespread among some within his movement and there are still many who refuse to believe that he has departed this world.  Yet, his life’s work lives on through others and that, surely, is what “the next world” is really all about.  Notwithstanding the very obvious, his portrait declaiming him to be the Messiah stares out at people in all sorts of corners throughout the country.


Early one day last week I watched a young man walk the length of Brandeis Street with flip-flops and head for his car en route to work (I am, of course, making that assumption as I didn’t ask him).  Socks, shoes and cellphone in his right hand, shirt and suit in his left.  Couldn’t see a tie, though. That’s the life!

off to work at 06.53

And I’ll leave you with a link to an excerpt from an interview with and a plug for a new novel by the Booker Prize-winning author Howard Jacobson, which I thought was interesting and I thank my friend Marlena for drawing my attention to it.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvjHTwjHhWI


Walls (2) — Tel Aviv from the Outside


Since it was established over a century ago, Tel Aviv has possessed an allure all of its own. But having said (or, at least written) that, this attraction has meant that it was always at variance with the appeal of socialist Zionism—not that that matters much today. (Socialist Zionism was, until the late 1970s, the mainstream of the Jewish national revival movement. The kibbutz (collective village) is probably the most frequently recalled motif relating to the Zionist enterprise from the early years of the 20th century, with men and women in long shorts, perspiring heavily as they drained swamps and tended cows and chickens.  In contrast, Tel Aviv was the oft-neglected second focal point of that Zionist venture, the one the socialist pioneers didn’t often talk or write about.)  

In hindsight, the city—and the metropolis that has mushroomed around it—has been more of a long-term success than the kibbutz and those other sundry socialist institutions that came into being 100 years or so ago (such as the moshav (cooperative village) or the Histradrut (Trades Union Federation), which have been so utterly altered since then.  In essence, Tel Aviv marketed itself as a place offering Jews the possibility of making their mark—as Jews—in a Jewish environment in Palestine rather than amongst Gentiles in North America or in Central and Western Europe.  In Tel Aviv, they would be able to participate in the rebirth of the Jewish people in a chickenbrothy heimische-gemacht Jewish city.  And what is more, to do this, there was no need for them to break their backs as socialist pioneers working the land, sweating in long shorts and a singlet and eating bread and olives!

Yes, in Tel Aviv, too, they could wear their long shorts and glow profusely but they would be drinking Turkish coffee (café-botz, literally “mud-coffee” for that’s what it felt like as the grains were being filtered through coffee-stained teeth) and eating bread rolls and jam.  In later years, the café-botz was replaced by cappuccino (although it wasn’t called that until much later still; it used to be simply called café-hafukh, literally “upside-down coffee”).  Both the botz and hafukh variants used to be drunk from glasses without handles, which the cafédipsomaniacs managed to accomplish without scalding their fingertips, a skill somehow acquired by veteran Tel Avivians through lots of practice and little self-denial.  Eventually cups won out and are now run a close race by paper or plastic, both of which detract appallingly from the flavour of the coffee. (Really!)

The city grew through private initiatives and private investment and, more significantly, it stressed a new brand of secular Jewishness. It was, as my Haifa colleague Maoz Azaryahu has so colourfully explained in his fascinating book Tel Aviv — Mythography of a City, the first Hebrew city—meaning one that was Jewish, but in a newly secular way.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aT4A2YMYUBE  From the start, it had pretensions of becoming a World City: its aim was to be a Jewish New York, Paris, or London—or perhaps all three together—on the eastern littoral of the Mediterranean.  Be that as it may, its World City aspirations and status may have been a trifle more other-worldly than earthly. 

A century later, even with the best will in the world and much as its World City chutzpah endures, it is beyond the bounds of good taste to characterise Tel Aviv as an “attractive city” in any sense.  There’s no historical structure such as the Colosseum or Parthenon; it lacks a Sagrada Familia or a Western Wall; there’s no sky-reaching monument like the Eiffel Tower or the Shard, no architectural gem such as Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum or Sydney’s Opera House.  And there’s not even anything like the London Eye or Universal Studios to rook visitors of their shekels or stimulate the pride of the locals.  It even lacks the topography and colour of Jerusalem and Haifa.  In fact, it doesn’t possess an accessible vantage point from which one can view the city as a whole. (The picture below is not from an accessible point; it was taken while I went to have an eye problem seen to and happened to have the camera with me!)

From Azrieli looking west 1.jpg

South T-A looking south-west from Azrieli Towers

But what Tel Aviv might lack in architectural or historical masterpieces is compensated for in its audacity—in even thinking it might be world city. It has a buzz and a bustle about it, an undercurrent of non-stop activity that belies its lack of show-off pieces. In point of fact though, this is somewhat of a trumped up image.  For I  tell a little untruth forsooth as it does have an architectural masterpiece—recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.  However, this tour de force is not an individual structure. Rather it is The White City, the area of Central Tel Aviv renowned for the richness of its modernist architecture, dating from the from the 1930s through the 1950s.  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1096 (Most frequently referred to as Bauhaus style, it’s worth noting that not all the architects working in this period in British Mandate Palestine/Israel attended the Bauhaus School in Weimar, Dessau or Berlin.  Some were trained in Brussels and Ghent and others went to Italy.  Nevertheless they provided Tel Aviv with a plethora of modernist buildings, which are usually referred to collectively as Bauhaus.)  And now that I’ve got this far, it’s probably time for a few pics for as we all well know by now, this blog does contain both words “photo” and “geography”.  

The picture below is of a large renovated building on one of the city’s main streets, Dizengoff Street.  It’s a recent renovation and its stands out because the scale is relatively large.  However, you’ll agree that it bears more than a superficial resemblance to the building that appears at the top of this post—except that that one isn’t in Tel Aviv but is the Isokon Building on Lawn Road, a quiet street in Belsize Park in NW London.  It was designed as a progressive experiment in new ways of urban living in 1934 by Wells Coates, who was inspired by Le Corbusier, to create the greatest possible utility and comfort out of constricted dimensions. (Incidentally, it was the first block ever to be built chiefly using reinforced concrete.)  And it’s easy to see that if the London building could be picked up and flown 3,500 km east south east and plonked down in Tel Aviv, it would look quite at home.  Except, of course, that were it in Tel Aviv, the likelihood is that it would probably be crowded out by surrounding buildings so that you wouldn’t be able to appreciate its architectural lines nearly as well.

94 Dizengoff

Renovated Bauhaus, 94 Dizengoff Street, Tel Aviv

BalconiesLondon Hampstead London Hampstead

Modernist Apartment Block, Haverstock Hill/England’s Lane, Belsize Park, London NW3

Isokon 1.jpg

Isokon Building, Lawn Road, London NW3

One of the features of Bauhaus building was that in their search for a humane, egalitarian and democratic architecture suited to the needs of people who were not wealthy, the architects not only sought “clean” architecture with a new look but used cheaper materials than perhaps might have been advisable.  For the most part, these materials were based on cement in the form of various stuccoes and mosaics though there was also some use of steel.  However, these materials have weathered differentially and today’s Tel Aviv, these buildings are in various states off disrepair and dilapidation.  Moreover, despite its UNESCO accolade, renovation is piecemeal.

As a consequence, Tel Aviv’s urban heritage—including its modernist gems—is marred and scarred as the city’s residential and commercial buildings are set close to one another in a very dense urban fabric.  And although there are over 1,000 Bauhaus-style buildings in The White City, they are interspersed with others, mostly humdrum and even drab buildings, very few of which are striking in any way and many of which are in disrepair, at least to the casual viewer from the outside.    

In some ways, then, Tel Aviv’s urban landscape is a crumbling one.  In this sense, it differs not all that much from the situation described by the American geographer Erich Isaac nearly six decades ago, in his little read and even less cited article: “A deteriorating urban core: ideology and economics in the landscape of Tel-Aviv”.  There, Isaac (whose academic kudos stemmed from his later work on plant and animal domestication, including a wonderful piece on the influence of religion on the diffusion of the citron) placed the blame for this neglect on key money, a rental system located a spectrum somewhere between buying and renting.  In the key money system, tenants paid a sum to the owner to buy the rights to the keys to (i.e., to live in) the property (but did not purchase the property itself) and could live in it for a fixed nominal rental in perpetuity.  Moreover, they not only bought the rights to rent, but could sell these rights on, sub-letting it to others who continued to pay the controlled rent until the original owner died. As a consequence, there would therefore be little onus on the owner to invest in upkeep, which was an unadulterated recipe for unadulterated neglect.

Today, it’s not key money that’s at issue but the absence of mandatory by-laws to maintain or refurbish the façades of buildings and of municipal by-laws—or an effective system for enforcing them—detailing what residents are permitted to place on the façades and side walls of buildings.  Consequently, like ill-disciplined children, people have the impression that they can do whatever they wish.  And they do.  The upshot of this is that even in neighbourhoods regarded as relatively affluent, many buildings continue to appear neglected.

In recent years, with the Israeli national construction programme (TAMA 38) designed to strengthen and upgrade older apartment buildings and with the construction of new buildings, efforts have been made to hide unsightly objects such as water storage tanks, air-conditioning units and such like but as this programme is patchy at best, the confusion and chaos (balagan) is there for all to see.  In cases in which there is neither TAMA upgrading nor new construction, and residents live a multi-family building (i.e., an apartment block), any decision to maintain, renovate or upgrade the house depends on a decision of the cooperative house committee, and in such cases, the unwillingness of someone to cooperate—whether on the basis of cost, inconvenience or just plain malice (a common enough characteristic, believe it or not)—can almost be counted upon.

In the image immediately below of several towers that are part of the Park Tzameret development north of Tel Aviv’s central railway station, the buildings have been planned and constructed so that wiring, pipes, air-conditioners, hot water storage tanks, solar heaters and all the rest of the paraphernalia that blight the urban landscape (even if they allow it to function relatively efficiently) are hidden from view.   (The high-rise buildings constructed in the past couple of decades in the Tel Aviv suburbs north of the river were planned and built in a similar way.)  


Yoo Towers (Philippe Starck) at Park Tzameret neighbourhood, Tel Aviv

In the same way, the following two pictures of less extravagant redevelopments in North Tel Aviv show a like pattern.

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The two images below were photographed from the 4th floor roof of a building in North Tel Aviv.  They begin to illustrate some of the features of the architectonic clangour that can be observed all over the city.  Water heaters and storage tanks adorn the roofs; pipes, wires and cables run from roof to lower floors without any attempt for aesthetic regularity, let alone care, for what neighbours see and feel (but you must remember that these are Israelis and they’re all doing it to one another!).  There are even old television aerials despite the fact that analog terrestrial television transmissions were shut down six years ago, between March and June 2011.  But then, removal of TV antennae costs money and as these things useless—functionless— why go to the bother and the expense?

Hairy wall, Shimon HaTarsi, T-AShimon HaTarsi 

In the photographs that follow, I might be criticised for selecting images that exaggerate the situation and that might well indeed be so, in which case the criticism is justified.  But why do people exaggerate if not to clarify a point?  (Remember: electricity, hot water, air-conditioning, telephones, internet connection, and all the rest are essentials.  And if they’re essential—but also ugly and unsightly—hard luck)  So, in the knowledge and understanding that I have chosen some awful images in order to draw attention to a situation, here are some awful images from around North Tel Aviv.

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Penultimately, just to return to Modernist architecture for a minute or two.  Whenever images of Bauhaus architecture appear in books, they are presented in their most pristine condition, with walls in stark white and lines as straight as they can possibly be.  However, in reality as you walk through Tel Aviv, you are more likely to come across buildings that hint to you how they looked originally—and you can imagine how they might look again if there were both consensus and capital to see renovation through.

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As a final thought, are we to learn anything at all from looking at walls in Tel Aviv?  Maybe.  And perhaps one lesson we might take away would be not to judge a book by its cover nor a city by its walls.  Buzz, bustle, busyness and brashness are not easy to capture with a camera!



Inasmuch as I ever have a plan before I sit down to write a piece, this one got a little out of hand. (I normally have a vague idea of what I want to say but planning it out carefully is usually beyond my ability; it normally gets written on the fly.) I generally try to limit the text to no more than 1,500 words and it typically turns out less than that.  In spite of my best intentions, this one went a little overboard (2,356 if you’re really curious).  However, true to Tel Avian principles, I offer no apologies.