Listening to the news this week, I am becoming more and more convinced that my grandmother was right and that the world is turning upside down. And walking down Pinkas Street in North Tel Aviv the other day, I found absolute proof of she was correct in her assessment of things.
I was reminded of her again the other evening when we were watching the superb and rather disturbing three-part BBC documentary about the detrimental use of music by despots and other, Tunes for Tyrants, written and presented Suzy Klein. In one of the episodes, she reminded us of the ironic fact that both the dictator Josef Stalin and the composer Sergey Prokofiev had died on the same day—March 5 1953—but as the masses had bought up all the flowers in Moscow to honour Stalin there were none left to lay on Prokofiev’s grave. I can remember to this day the joy on my grandmother’s face and in her voice on hearing that Stalin had gone. Strange how these things stick in your mind!
In the final episode, Suzy interviewed the cellist, Anita-Lasker Wallfisch, who had been a member of a women’s orchestra in Auschwitz, whose testimony of playing Schumann’s Traumerei from his Kinderszenen privately, one on one, for Josef Mengele—at Mengele’s command (Mengele was a music lover) after which he returned to his notorious “medical” experiments. That was particularly chilling. Given that the previous evening I had heard Anita’s son, the cellist Raphael Wallfisch perform live at the Israel Conservatory of Music about 250 m from home sent icy pangs down my spine. I wrote to Suzy a year ago after I’d watched the programme for the first time and her [immediate—within 5 minutes] response was “yes, it is scary stuff. Awful to have to film in Auschwitz, but I felt it had to be done, so I steeled myself…”
But now to the past week. It’s unusual on my morning walk to find that there isn’t really anything worth photographing. It’s happened maybe three or four days over the past 11 years since I’ve been doing this and it occurred again one day last weekend. Other than that the hailstones that had fallen in a short but wild burst during the previous night and had not yet melted (an unusual occurrence to observe ice on the ground in Tel Aviv) and the fact that a portable loo had migrated from a building site around the corner from one side of the street to the other side, there really was nothing of any interest for me to record at all, and even those two pictures weren’t really worth showing to anybody.
However, on Friday morning this week, I observed something that I thought could be interesting. Approaching the park from Brandeis Street, I observed two bearded gentlemen exiting an automobile and making their way across the grass in the direction of the river. There was nothing unusual about their garb — black yarmulkas, waistcoats, white shirts — except for the that one of them was wearing a bright luminous orange waistcoat not normally associated with strictly Orthodox gentlemen and the other was carrying an instrument that I somehow associated with athletics. You know what I mean, an implement to replace the bar when the high-jumper or the pole-vaulter has not succeeded in clearing it.
They were walking at some pace so I decided I’d better get the camera working while at the same time figuring out where they might be headed and why. It didn’t take me very long to guess what they were about and following a brief conversation with them, I scored 100%. This was the eruv repair team.
Now for those of you unfamiliar with the term “eruv“, I will attempt to explain without being overly cynical although that is my nature as I age. (I wasn’t always a cynic, which is possibly, or quite probably, an unhealthy mindset. When I was younger I used to be a sceptic, which is a healthy state of mind, highly recommended to all and sundry. However, the danger is that you can become a cynic when you realise that most of the things you feared might happen when you were a sceptic have actually taken place and will probably recur.)
I suppose that in order to keep things free of my disbelieving biases, I will quote directly from an article “Eruvim: Talmudic places in a postmodern world” by two geographers, Peter Vincent and Barney Warf, which appeared in the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers in 2002:
“Scattered across the landscapes of Israel and many towns and cities in the Western world, frequently invisible to inhabitants who may be ignorant of their purpose and symbolic meaning, lie a series of Orthodox Jewish places called, in Hebrew, eruvim (eruvin – Aramaic; singular eruv). Defined and erected according to ancient Talmudic law, eruvim are important to the behaviour of their residents. As spaces of identity that reflect and reproduce traditional religious practices in a largely secular culture, eruvim are miniature worlds that personalize urban space by making, for Orthodox Jews, the public arena private.”
Or, as the Wikipedia entry puts it:
An eruv “is a ritual enclosure that some Jewish communities, and especially Orthodox Jewish communities, construct in their neighborhoods to work around (my italics, SW) the religious prohibition against Jewish residents or visitors carrying certain objects outside their own homes on the Sabbath [and other days on which “work” is prohibited.. An eruv accomplishes this by symbolically integrating a number of private and public properties into one larger “private domain”, thereby avoiding restrictions on carrying objects from the private to the public domain on Sabbath and holidays. [It] allows Jews to carry, among other things, house keys, tissues, medication, or babies with them, and to use strollers and canes. The presence or absence of an eruv thus especially affects the lives of strictly observant Jews with limited mobility and those responsible for taking care of babies and young children.”
At any rate, if you keep your eyes open anywhere you travel in Israel, streets, parks, municipal boundaries, among other things, are surrounded by almost invisible boundary in the form of chicken wires—or, in this case, a heavy translucent plastic thread.
As I caught up with the two gentlemen concerned, one of them asked if I’d like to photograph them and if I knew what they were doing. I explained that I knew exactly what they were up to, which seemed to take him by surprise, at which point, he informed me that they regularly check to see if the eruv is whole and undamaged and only attend to when it has it is not, which was another way of saying “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
However, if it is, it causes acute mobility issues for those for whom moving while carrying, pushing, shlepping or whatever in private space —even imagined private space— is important. I told him that I thought that not to fix something that wasn’t broken was a sensible idea and also thought (to myself and here comes the cynic) that all this is an extreme manifestation of Israbluff, which can be desribed as an ethnically particular and highly sophisticated type of “Let’s pretend”. (You have to realise that this is being written by one whose former sceptic’s agnosticism seems to have been replaced by a cynic’s convinced atheism—except that, and let it be recorded, on occasional days of weakness I seem to revert to a sort of tepid and flaky agnosticism.)
Anyway, be all that as it may, the man in the orange waistcoat approached me and said (in Hebrew) “You’re American, aren’t you”, to which I responded “Heaven forbid” (only because Mr. Trump and his support group—his base base, as it were—turn me off a tad.) “But your accent, your accent”, he says, (still in Hebrew), “you speak English.” (in English). I answered that he had correctly determined that my Hebrew is far from flawless and that my accent (in Hebrew) has a distinctly Anglo-Saxon flavour (Anglo-Saxon is the term they use in Israel for English-speakers without having a clue as to whom the original Anglo-Saxons really were). “Yes”, I assured him, “I am an English-speaker but I hail not from America — nor from Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or the United Kingdom.” He was flummoxed, bemused, completely perplexed, as if there was somewhere else in the world that people spoke English and looked sort of “normal”. “So where are you from?” he inquired — and I told him that I was born in Ireland. “From Dublin?”, says he. “I’ve been to Dublin!” at which point, it was my turn to be thrown slightly off balance. So I asked where in Dublin (because I really didn’t believe him) to which he responded “Well, not really Dublin. I stayed in Bray.”
Now to those of you who might be familiar with the Vicar [of Bray] or with asses (which is what they do), the Bray to which this gentleman was referring had nothing whatsoever to so with either. Bray is a smallish coastal town about 20 km south of Dublin whose main attraction was Dawsons’ Amusement Arcade and the Dodgems, and for many years it was common for Jewish families from Dublin to rent a house there for a few weeks as a summer holiday home. It was close enough to Dublin for the father to commute into work and be back with family in the evening, and the joke was that those members of Dublin’s mainly Catholic majority who had Jewish neighbours or acquaintances would say to the Jews: “If you give us back Bray and we’ll give you back Jerusalem”. Well, over the years, the Jews of Dublin have found other places to spend a few weeks in the summer so the return of Bray side of the bargain materialised. But as the status of Jerusalem is still in some dispute, I’m not so sure about the rest of it. (Incidentally, when I was about 10 or 11, my parents rented a house in Bray from a Mr. Butler. Some way through the stay, I inadvertently moved a bed in the room I had been assigned, knocking the plug of a bedside lamp out if its socket and cracking the socket at the same time and about which I had neglected to tell my parents. On his return, Mr. Butler was none too happy to find a cracked electricity socket in the bedroom and phoned to relate his displeasure to my parents. It was the only example of overt antisemitism I had experienced in all the years I lived in Ireland (because in the view of Mr. Butler, Jews were in the habit of smashing other people’s property, it seemed, and for most of the troubles in the world). It upset my parents terribly.
But to return to the orange-vested eruv repairer, what in God’s name was he doing in Bray? And that was just the point — he was there in God’s name. He was at a summer camp for youth run by Agudas Yisroël, a strictly Orthodox Jewish organization, the aim of which was/is to strengthen Orthodox institutions independently of the Zionist movement and mainstream [modern] Orthodox organizations. I had no idea that Aguda brought their children to Ireland although, in retrospect, I suppose Ireland at that period was considered morally safer than an increasingly secular England. So I thought back to which Jewish families in Dublin half a century ago might have visited such a place and discovered that he recognised all the names that I could think of. He even asked me if I knew a Rabbi Zalman Alony, who was one of the two rabbis who participated in our marriage ceremony 52 years ago! So there! We departed as if old friends and wished one another “shabbat shalom” (literally, a peaceful Sabbath) and I moved on.
A couple of hundred metres further along in the park, I came across a scene I’d observed and photographed before and I posted this picture a few weeks ago of two men and a woman involved in some sort of calisthenics, using ropes suspended from a bridge above, along a street upon which there’s usually considerable traffic. The exercise seemed to involve one guy holding the girl while the other raised her, upside down, until his and her arms were straight, elbows and probably wrists locked.
I subsequently discovered that they seem to be at it every day — or at least each time I pass by. The female participants seem to change by the day and at least one of the males (he who holds the ladies in the correct position so that they avoid toppling over) appears to be permanent. Quite what the purpose of all this activity is I’m not sure but as they seem by now to have got used to the idea that I stop, look and click and they don’t seem unduly perturbed by my presence, I think hat it’s now time to ask them what they’re about.
Continuing through the park and into Tel Aviv Port, these two ladies passed me by. One of the downsides of being a flâneur with a camera is that you only hear snippets of conversation as you pass by other people strolling through the park and some of these conversations sound as if they might be fascinating but to trail them wouldn’t seem quite right. This pair, of which I was privy to about three or four sentences before they headed off in another direction, were going on about relative qualities of some men they both appeared to have been “friendly” with. The conversation they were having was at full volume so much so that I was tempted to ask them to turn it down a little but I wasn’t sure what the reaction might have been.
As I turned into the port, the guy in front of me seemed to be having some problem controlling the two dogs he was walking (or who were taking him for a walk). They had both spotted a cat, which had spotted them as well. But as the cat seemed to be hoping that the angler s/he was sitting beside might actually catch a fish from which s/he might benefit, it backed off first. The dogs, in contrast would have preferred a fight but might have lost an eye apiece had they succeeded. The three animals were almost as noisy as the ladies above.
Walking through the port, I came across this man at the entrance to a store which had not yet opened to the public for the day’s business — a case of itchy feet if ever I saw one though it might have helped him had he removed the sock!
Exiting the port, and waiting to cross the street, this couple were having an intense conversation but it was only when they moved ahead of me that I noticed the cut of his trousers. Smart!
Then, turning into Nordau Boulevard, there was this image which is common enough in Tel Aviv. The sea was rough and there was a lot of surf and this young man was obviously off for a morning’s entertainment, surfboard in hand.
A little further along the street, the man below asked me (yes, he asked me) if I’d like to take his picture. So I did because I thought he had an interesting face and, for once, I had the right lens on the camera. Unfortunately, he had neither a smartphone nor an email address so there was no way of sending the pic to him. Later in the day, my granddaughters (aged 6 and 7) were convinced that it was a self-portrait but that might have been because I hadn’t shaved that morning! I checked in the mirror and remain unconvinced of any resemblance! Mind you, Gali and Lily were smiling at one another when they told me of the imagined similarity.
On my way home, I passed a food store and looked at the arrangement outside the shop and thought to myself that, yes, they’re absolutely right. Money does indeed flow like water!
Finally, passing the Conservatory on the way home, these two young men were sitting on a bench. Jazz musicians, one was a saxophonist and the other a contrabassist. They were obviously on their way to a performance somewhere and had booked a taxi to take them there and the vehicle had arrived.
However, it looked and sounded as if the taxi driver (or the person who took the order for them) had no idea what a double bass was and the driver was having some difficulty wondering how on earth he would manage to get the thing into or on top of the car along with the two musicians, a saxophone in its case, a suitcase and a suit.
Eventually, they gave up trying and the saxophonist obviously thought it best to try and explain to the taxi company that they needed at least an estate car or a minibus.
And then I was home, and this Friday made up for the previous weekend deficiency in pictures.
Happy Hanukkah to all those to whom it applies and have a great week everyone else!