in the holiday spirit

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three of my grandchildren eating matzot (unleavened bread)

I’ve no idea if this happens in any other country, but for a week here, everyone is off for a holiday. We visit friends and relatives, go off to commune with nature… and because all of the nature reserves, the beaches, and the usual holiday sites are full to overflowing… some take off and travel abroad. But wherever you go, you find your fellow countrymen enjoying the holiday.

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granddaughters

Walking down the main street of my new neighborhood, I saw a few stores that were exhibiting portable barbeques. It is quite common for families to go out to nature for a picnic. And in that context, we have been hearing good news this week. According to reports heard on the radio, campers and picnickers have been taking their garbage home with them, leaving the public camps and forests cleaner than they were in years gone by. In the past, at the end of the holiday we would always learn how many tons of garbage were gathered in recreation sites, left behind by lazy tourists.

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Hillel plays us a Passover song

All the major highways are filled with vacationers. Those with little children visit the amusement parks. And there are festivals, and musical get togethers. Only the restaurants suffer. Because of the restricted diet, many eateries close for the holiday. Others provide food that is fitting. But even so, there are less people who eat out… especially here in Jerusalem, where the dietary rules are very strictly observed. The bakeries offer special cookies prepared just for this holiday, which are made of peanuts and coconuts, and cakes made of potato flour, because flour made of grain is not used.

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cookies prepared especially for the holiday

Spring is in the air. All the fields are decorated with flowers. It brought me such joy to see large patches of wild mustard flowers in the nature preserve where we visited last week.

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wild mustard

When I was younger, I often planned a photography expedition for this particular time. But as it happens, the change of seasons usually brings with it a haze, or winds from the east or south which stir up sand and dust, resulting in poor visibility. I had many disappointments on that score, but learned to appreciate some of the unique possibilities even if landscape photography wasn’t always possible.

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Hagit and Tamar

I’ve been going to bed late this week. There is so much happening every day. But I do take a nap in the afternoon. And I’ve been reading a really fine book that I picked up at a bus stop. Yes, picked up… I didn’t buy it. In Chana’s village, they’ve started a program of voluntary book donations. And every bus stop has a couple of shelves filled with a wide selection of books. The passer by is encouraged to take some reading with him. I found one that was just to my taste, and have been reading it all week.

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playing cards

This Sabbath Passover will be a very special day, offering the special holiness of the Sabbath, and the joy that is characteristic of this holiday of freedom. My best wishes to all my friends and readers. It is my hope that you will be able taste something of the holiday spirit from the photos offered here.

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the grandchildren’s cat, jinjit

fermentation

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Each of our major holidays has a theme. The theme of Passover, which begins on Monday evening, is the emergence from slavery, and the journey to freedom. And strangely enough, the most impressive thing about this process, is the awareness that we have to be willing to sacrifice some of life’s pleasures in order to attain freedom. Usually, when people think of freedom, they think about the good things… the luxuries that are enjoyed by free people. And the bill of rights, so to speak. But our history tells of giving up some of the things we loved… meat and watermelon, for instance… And going out to the desert for forty years… having an entire generation die in transit so that their progeny could build a free society.

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The holiday starts with a great banquet which is probably our most famous meal. It has many courses, and entire families get together to celebrate the occasion, telling the story of our exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the process by which we became a unique people. We tell our children of the cultural foundations of our people, and how freedom demands responsibility, discipline, and caring for the weak and incapacitated within our society. But the characteristic most identified with the Passover tradition, is the prohibition of the use of fermented dough.

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For us, fermentation is a hint of spiritual awareness. We sanctify the Sabbath by blessing it before drinking wine or eating bread. Both wine and bread are what they are, thanks to the yeast that move in and add that certain something beyond our control. We don’t actually see the yeast… but we know its there… and it’s our allegory on spiritual awareness. There is something to be learned from those unseen microorganisms that live alongside of us in this world, interacting with us in many ways. Some even enable us to live richer lives. It is estimated that there are more than 100 million different species. But we have a special relationship to the Saccharomyces cerevisiae which convert carbohydrates to carbon dioxide used in baking, and alcohol which provides the magic in wine.

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Yet when we were led out of slavery in Egypt, Moses our teacher told us to move swiftly. To get out in one night. There was no time to let the bread rise, so we took unleavened bread with us to make sandwiches. And to this day, three and a half thousand years later, we remember that rule: to move decisively, by not eating leavened bread on Passover. We call the flatbread that is prepared without yeast, matzot. And that’s what we eat in the place of bread for the seven days of the holiday. The instruction regarding fermented grain is one of our most unyielding rules. And we are prohibited beer and whisky among many other grain products that usually embellish our lives. All the same, there is no need to worry about us. Over the years, we have developed countless recipes by which to enjoy both food and drink, without the use of fermented grain.

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Before the holiday, we clean our houses and our kitchens in order to remove any traces of fermentation. Each and every community provides ‘flour for the poor’. This is a very important part of the holiday, and those who do not have the means to prepare the banquet, are given all the components needed… flour, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Then we prepare the great banquet, in which all participants will be seated like royalty round the table. It is common to invite single people to join us in the feast. That first banquet is called the seder, because seder means order, And there is an order to our ceremony. Children are encouraged to ask questions. And we adults respond by telling them of our exodus from slavery. The children have a role to play at the end of the banquet too, and this keeps them involved and awake throughout the evening’s function.

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The holiday lasts a week. The first and the last days are like Sabbath. And on the Sabbath that falls on Passover, we read the portion in chapter 37 of Ezekiel that refers to the dry bones. For just as we had assimilated in Egypt, and were living the life there, and accepting values that were not our own, so we were brought back to life and led to salvation by our teacher and leader, Moses. And later, when we were dispersed among the peoples of the world, in exile from our beloved country, we prayed and hoped to return to Israel, to be a living nation once again. And this great miracle happened again in my very own lifetime.

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The holiday of matzot; this holiday of freedom… is also a celebration of spring. After the first day which is a full holy day, a Sabbath, the intermediate days are often celebrated by going out to nature, and appreciating the signs of spring around us. And it is with this in mind, that I chose to illustrate this holiday post with photos taken in the Begin forest, a short distance from Jerusalem.

out in the country

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One of the strange paradoxes of living in Israel, is that though ours is a very small country, there is such a great variety of landscapes here. Our first chief rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook taught us that the best way to celebrate independence day was to walk four paces in the country, where we have never walked before. There is something very charming about this modest ‘good deed’. Four paces is so little. And yet, we are in no way limited to just four paces, and each step we take after those first four is our own… our own initiative. And the four paces seem commensurate with the length and breadth of our small country.

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But despite the small area, we have snow capped mountains, and the lowest land point on the face of the earth. We have a length of sea shore, with warm water (in the summer) lapping on the beaches, and we have more than one desert… forests and meadows and fields of wild flowers and wild grasses. Birds of all sorts stop by and visit us, from Europe and Africa too, enjoying the plant life, the crops in the fields, and occasionally the fish in our ponds.

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Our forefathers walked great distances, from one landscape to another on foot, often with a donkey to carry their load. The ever changing landscape offered inspiration, especially of a religious nature. And so it seems very natural that our land should be seen as the source of three of the major monotheistic religions. I myself have experienced such inspiration in the desert. It is so quiet when one first encounters it, that there is a lot of room for thought and appreciation. But as we look closer, we discover plant and animal life of great variety. And while the sands might look parched, those who frequent the desert can reveal to us many sources of water, hidden from the unfamiliar eye. If we follow the wild animals, they too will reveal worlds unknown, filled with sustenance and color, and even drama, the likes of which we many not have dreamed of.

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To celebrate the onset of spring, Chana and I took the car a few kilometers north of Jerusalem, on a day filled with hints of rain. Though there wasn’t any real rain… there was drizzle from time to time, and occasional droplets, felt on our shoulders as we walked, or appearing on the windshield of the car. A mild haze thickened at times, and then retreated, allowing us to photograph the territory of Samaria.

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The hills and valleys, and the little communities to be found nestled between the hills or atop of them, could easily illustrate myriad stories. The many scenes we saw seemed to tease the imagination, stories and fantasies sprung from the hills, begging to be heard. The pictures in this post were all taken from that area on that same day. And there are many more, sulking in the background because they haven’t been chosen.

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Of course, it’s not just the physical nature of our country that exhibits such variety. One can see the diversity among the population, and in the many sub cultures, religious beliefs, and customs. From one city to another, there are worlds of difference, and between the cities there are so many towns, villages and hamlets, each with its own customs and personality. And as you might have heard, there’s the joke about the freedom of expression among our people… it is said, when two Jews get together, you can hear three opinions at least.

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relativity and legitimacy

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Listening to the news yesterday, I heard the story of a secretary of an infamous local scoundrel, who agreed to serve as a witness for the state at his trial. At first, I was frustrated and disappointed that the secretary, who was his partner in crime, would be able to avoid punishment. But then, I realized that this was part of the game, and what had to be done to successfully prosecute the senior criminal. This brought to mind thoughts I’ve been having lately, about the values of our society. It seems everything is relative these days.

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I often wonder about the character of this age of ours… what it is that characterizes our particular period of history. Historians and philosophers refer to this period as ‘post modern’, but I see that name more as a place keeper, until historians looking back, will give it a name worthy of our time. Certainly, the great leap forward of present day technology… the move from analogue to digital instruments and memory has influenced our world to such a degree that it is the first thing anyone thinks of, when contemplating the unique qualities of our time. But there are other characteristics too, that are worthy of consideration.

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Pluralism is the hallmark of the politically correct attitude in the west. After ideological wars, and the cold war of the previous century, we are trying to exercise tolerance and understanding in our meetings with different cultures, traditions and languages. We’ve learned that there are an infinite number of grays between black and white… and in fact, have embraced color too, in an attempt to reach a higher level of awareness. We acknowledge the possibility of many variations on any theme. It seems somewhat ironic that this philosophical attitude has become popular at the same time that our world is being restructured through the use of digital technology based on the binary code, a series of two letters, 0 and 1. On the one hand we have a language which is rather black and white, and on the other a culture that reflects an infinite spectrum.

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The same can be said regarding our social mores. In principle, we are tolerant of deviations from what was once the standard of social behavior. We are willing to accept differences between people. But at the same time, because of our desire to legitimize every sort of behavior, we have begun to categorize almost every deviation from the norm, often as a syndrome which hints at some sort of genetic accident. For some time now, a child having difficulty reading is categorized as dyslexic. With the passage of time, we’ve learned of the growing ranks of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), bipolar disorders, ADD (attention deficit disorder), and ADHD (attention deficit hyper activity disorder). Why the need to label every departure from the norm?

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As it happens, the proponents of democracy tend to embrace the idea that all people are virtually the same. The belief in this thesis promotes empathy towards our fellow man. And if someone just happens to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, he can’t be judged for his inability to keep up with the class at school, or to produce as much at work as his fellow employees. Yet at the same time, the very classification of the syndromes makes society more aware of a growing variant citizenry. Like the apocryphal family that has two and a half children, we may eventually realize that there are very few normal people around. And then we may finally find our salvation in the recognition that it is normal to be different… maybe even different without a label. But let us leave such thoughts for tomorrow.

gardens on kibbutz

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I’ve written in the past about my experiences and what I learned on kibbutz; the most successful attempt I know of, to create a truly democratic and egalitarian society. I was a relatively young man at the time… this was more than forty years ago… and influenced by the many ideas that were going around in the 60s. I wanted to know if it was possible for people to live happily in a commune, where the wealth was shared, and where each person received what he needed to live a wholesome life, and contributed to the collective according to his abilities. The idea was simple. It appealed to my ideals. And there were many such villages scattered around Israel where that was actually happening.

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We had heard of the abuses of power in the communist states of eastern Europe, and in Asia. The cold war was being fought along ideological lines. In the west, communism was considered synonymous with tyranny. Was it possible that such a system could work in a free society? I felt I had to try it out. I had a family at the time; a wife and small children. I came from a rather conventional background, with the talents and the education of a typical 20th century intellectual. And so I felt that I could easily test the viability of the system on myself. Most important, I had a desire to see a better world; a world in which society was able to compensate for some of the unfair distribution of talent and physical strengths by nature.

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When I went up north to visit my friend, last week, I visited that same kibbutz where I had spent a couple of years, long ago. It was a visit that brought back memories that had almost faded away… memories of people and of situations… What had once seemed as critical and important as life itself, was barely relevant today. Many of the people I had loved and befriended were no longer part of the society now. Some had died, and some had moved away. The kibbutz itself was no longer the same society in which I had chosen to live. The people there, had chosen democratically to change the rules. There had been a process of privatization, in which individual members of the commune had been given more freedom of choice, and the right to work at whatever they wanted to do, and to own personal belongings without obligation to the collective.

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The place is still called a kibbutz, but it operates along different lines altogether. The one social characteristic that remains the same after all the time that has gone by, is that the society there is governed by a direct democracy, in contrast to the representative democracy that we enjoy today in most democratic societies. That means, that instead of being governed by representatives who are elected by popular vote, all major issues are decided by a direct vote of the entire population, or at least those who care enough to express their opinion.

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I remember that when I first arrived there, I felt as if I had landed in paradise. It was almost too good to be true. And strangely enough, after those many years… when I visited the place again, it still seemed like the garden of Eden to me. The ideas might have changed. There was a different generation of people living there. People owned their own homes or rented. The houses were more individual, many of them different from their neighbors. In many ways, it was a village just like any other in my country. But when I looked at the gardens, I felt the difference.

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The gardens are an example of integration. For the most part, the grass is not mowed like it is in most suburban neighborhoods. Wild flowers and cultured varieties grow side by side among the grasses, dotting the lawns with color. One doesn’t feel that that human order has been imposed upon nature. On the contrary, wherever you go, there are pleasant surprises. When I lived there, there was a central dining room where everyone ate. There were children’s homes where all the children lived. The children would visit their parents for afternoon tea, and then return to their children’s houses. And the parents would visit with their children in the evening. Now people make their own dinners in their own homes, and children live with their parents.

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In the old kibbutz, there were committees that decided where people would work, and all the people took part in producing those yields which the society had decided were most advantageous for the community. Now people get into their private cars and drive off to work in the morning. And these residents come home whenever their work is done. One man or woman may earn twice as much, or even four times as much as his or her neighbor. And yet, there still is a collective responsibility for the poor, the weak, and those who’re ill. For the most part, the kibbutz has turned from a communistic society to a socialistic one. People still seem happy, but they are far less involved in the community.

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sheep in pasture

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Nechama looks out at the rainy day

Well, it’s winter again. I’m sitting opposite the window, watching the rain come down, and it’s cold outside. And because of all the windows here in my living room, some of that cold is getting in, despite the fact that I have double windows here. But I’ve added an extra heater to my arsenal, and have still another one ready and waiting if necessary, so it looks like I will be able to withstand the winter cold. But it’s not just a question of temperature. Looking out at a gray world has its effect too. It brings a somber mood.

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the light of winter

My thoughts go back to a week ago… and the trip we took, Chana and I, to the south. Though it was warm then, the skies were gray then too, because of the dust that had blown in from North Africa. That dust was uncomfortable, but there was fresh grass in the fields, brought by a spell of sunny days, and flowers all around. We visited a flower farm, and saw some beautiful flowers, meant to be placed on my table or yours, in a vase for decoration. That was the day we visited the book barn. And that was the day we saw the sheep grazing on the green grass that had come with the premature spring.

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rainy day seen through the window

Watching the sheep graze on the newly sprouted grasses was a great pleasure. I felt like I could easily spend a day just watching those sheep, and be satisfied. I watched the shepherd for a while. He sat comfortably with an eye on the sheep… not doing much… watching them eat and play. I thought of shepherds, and of those mentioned in the bible.

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goat trying to climb a tree

Jacob was a shepherd. So were Moses and King David. From the biblical standpoint, being a shepherd is considered good training for a leader of men. Jesus spoke of himself as a shepherd. Watching the sheep graze, though, I thought it much easier to take care of sheep. They didn’t seem to be nearly as troublesome as human beings. A little mischief here and there, but not much. And not many wolves to threaten the herd either. But there are livestock thieves around. I suppose that’s the worst threat to the shepherd these days. The characteristic that is most connected with the shepherd is that of compassion.

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sheep in the field

I watch the birds take advantage of a short break in the downpour, moving as a group from one roof top to another, down the street. The trees sway in the wind. The skies are getting darker, though we are still in the middle of the day. The cars on the nearby highway have their lights on. Nechama seems to enjoy watching the world go by from our elevated windows. And it’s warm here, behind the windows, I too enjoy the winter scene. I remember that only recently I spoke of not finding inspiration to photograph when it rains. Now I wonder if my new circumstances might not lead me to a new appreciation of winter.

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grazing sheep

The telephone rings. News of a friend with health problems in the north. Not the best weather for a trip. But life is full of surprises… and I see some large birds on their way to the horizon. Maybe there will be some interesting images along the way. Wishing my friends a joyous Sabbath, and a very happy Purim holiday.

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an alien I found on my table… it’s a date

a new chapter

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Those of my readers who follow me regularly have read of my odyssey from my old home, staying with a dear friend, and then in rented apartments, till I finally moved into my new home as described in last week’s blog post. I shared with you my agony and my bliss… sometimes the blues, and sometimes the wonder of a youngster who looks around him and is amazed by the beauty and the endless possibilities of the world around him. Being uprooted from my old world was painful. But coming face to face with new environments and conditions taught me to appreciate what I had taken for granted. And I discovered I was more flexible than I had thought. And that as long as I was alive, I could learn new things, and new ways of dealing with life. As rooted as I was in old habits, I discovered that even habits could change.

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Though I worked in a number of fields, most of my career was spent as a professional photographer. Towards the turn of the century, everything I had known about my profession changed, as we moved from film to digital photography. It wasn’t easy. I had to learn new skills and acquire new tools. But somehow I managed to learn the new system.

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Now, moving into my new home, I’ve had a similar experience. Not so much, in having to learn new skills and standards. For I, like everyone around me, have made many adjustments as our world changed over the years. But in moving into my new home, I came face to face with all that had changed over the years. I see those changes reflected in the physical reality of my living space.

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Two of my great passions have been the written word and music. The first recordings I bought were 78rpm records. After some years, the 33rpm records made their appearance, and then there were ‘long playing records’ and stereo. The quality of the recording improved in stages, and each time, I bought the latest devices so as to appreciate the added element in recorded music. I had a very fine record player which allowed for minute adjustments of the weight of the ‘needle’ on the groove of the record, so as to avoid excessive wear on the vinyl. Because after a while, one could always hear the sound of the needle in the groove, and sometimes there were bumps and scratches on the record that spoiled the purity of the sound. It was for that reason that I was so excited when the stereo reel to reel tape recorder became available in electronic stores, and backed up my favorite recordings with copies on tape. A few years later, the cassette player became the player of choice. Eventually, many of my favorite pieces were recorded again on to cassettes, joined by original recordings which were sold in cassette versions. This system was replaced by the CD, and over a number of years I bought several CD players as well as a sizable collection of discs.

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With the advent of the digital age, it became possible to transfer recorded music to digital files, and to play them on the computer or on an MP3 player. A few years ago, I started converting many of the records, and taped recordings to digital files. Today, I listen either to internet radio, or to recordings that have been converted to digital files. But in my old home, I still had an extensive collection of records, reel to reel tapes, and recorded music cassettes, as well as the instruments made for playing these old recordings. That old record player with diamond needle whose weight could be adjusted still stood on the top of a music chest in my old home, within which were stored musical recordings on a number of different media. No sign of any of that in my new home.

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The walls of my old living room used to be covered with book cases and shelves, bearing more books than I ever counted. It was a great pleasure for me to access many of my favorite books at a moment’s notice, and to reread a thought or piece of information. I remembered the place of each book on the many shelves around me. The books are still with me. They have been moved to my new library. But they are no longer as crucial as they once were. Because now I often read digital reproductions of books on my computer or Kindle, and when I want to review a quote or a poem, they are often available on the internet, and it’s even faster to find them on the computer than it is to locate the book and bring it to the table.

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This week, Chana and I visited an old barn in the northern negev, where books have been donated and collected from people in the area. We met two very charming people who are doing their best to organize these treasures of a previous generation. A visitor may buy any of the books for ten shekels, regardless of size or topic. The price is between one seventh to one thirtieth the original price of the books, but there are not that many customers. We heard the young man singing as he worked. The young woman, Adi is her name, offered to help us find any particular book we might be looking for. We told her we were just looking. I saw many books I have read and loved… and some I have never encountered. I didn’t expect to buy any. But as it happened, I did buy two: ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ which had impressed me greatly as a young man, and ‘Prey’, a delightful book by Michael Crichton, which I gave to Chana as a present. I was touched but not saddened by the great array of books. For though they told of the conclusion of an age, I knew they had been replaced by a fine new method of enjoying the written word.