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Perhaps by chance, or maybe because it’s spring, and we’re all tempted to leave the computer behind and go out and enjoy the fine weather, and the rebirth of nature, I’ve read two articles about writers’ block in the last week. And I was reminded of a fine post I read a few years ago, by a painter I like very much, and whose blog I read regularly. Her name is Janet Weight Reed, and she gives courses in water colors. You can see some of her work here: http://www.janetweightreed.co.uk/index.html. She wrote about the need to warm up, when we start to work. Since she likes apples, she spends about 15 minutes warming up before painting, doing a sketch or a quick painting of an apple. I like to warm up too. But after reading her post, I started using an apple for warming up as well. I don’t always use the apple, but I did find that there were more than a 101 ways to describe an apple, and that it’s a very good warm up exercise. I would recommend it for artists and writers alike. Even if you have an idea… and all the more so, if you don’t know what to write about… Take 15 minutes, and just write (or sketch, or photograph) something that’s right there, right in front of your eyes, and you’ll find it’s a great way to get into the swing of things.
In response to my post on Jerusalem, I received a few questions about the wailing wall, which I had mentioned in passing. There is so much I could tell you about the wall. But here’s a quick explanation. The first holy temple of the Hebrews, who are now called Jews, was built around 1000 BCE. That is about 3000 years ago. It was a very central institution in Jewish life, and provided religious, psychological medical, and cultural services for our people. It was destroyed during a war with Iraq, and was rebuilt again after some 70 years. And then the second temple was established for another 550 years in the same place.
About two thousand years ago, it was destroyed again, by the Romans, who conquered our country and then burnt the temple. Most of the Jewish people at that time were forced into exile, and left our country, leaving a small community behind.
All that was left of the temple, was one wall built of massive stones, that weren’t cemented together. The building techniques of the time were so fundamental that they did not use cement to keep the stones together. For the last two thousand years, Jews have come to the wall to pray… and some have written little notes and pushed them between the stones as messages to god. But when thinking about what had happened to the temple, and to the Jewish people, since the temple was destroyed, many visitors couldn’t help but cry out loud. This has been so common, that the wall got the name, ‘wailing wall’. Nowadays, the modern state of Israel prefers to call it the ‘Western Wall’. Our prophets have assured us that the temple will once again be rebuilt.
Music was a very important part of the temple, and there was an entire floor reserved for the orchestra, and the music was heard all around when they played. For hundreds of years after the destruction of the temple, Jews refrained from playing music as a sign of their grief.
This evening, we begin celebrating the holiday of Pentecost, which marks the day on which we received the laws and precepts of our religion. As always, our day begins in the evening, and carries through the night, and the following day until the next evening. Pentecost is one of the three holidays of the year, in which Jews would make a pilgrimage from all over Israel, to visit the holy temple. Those of you who are interested in the holiday, can find other posts I wrote about it here:
My best wishes to all my readers and friends.
One of my great pleasures, on my morning walks, is observing wildlife, and occasionally meeting with them face to face. Living in a suburb on the very edge of Jerusalem, I have more meetings with animals than I did years ago, when I lived pretty much in the center of town. There are numerous reptiles, and small mammals, and of course, many birds. There are a great variety of birds in Israel, because aside from our local residents, there are many exotic birds who visit us as they fly to and fro, from Africa to Europe in the summer, and then back to Africa as winter approaches. And strangely enough, it seems there are more birds in the center of town than in the suburbs. One of their favorite hang outs is in the vicinity of the Bikur Holim hospital, right in the center of the city.
More often than not, I don’t know the English names of the animals I meet. And when I look them up in the dictionary, I find names that no one has ever heard of. And this is particularly true of an animal I wish to tell you about today. The rock badger is a very common animal in Israel, and is found across central and southern Africa as well. In our country, they are considered similar to a rabbit, and rabbits are often called by the same name. but in studying them, I discovered that they’re not of the same family, and not even distantly related. In fact, the only animals they are related to biologically, are elephants and sea cows. They are light brown in color, about 40 to 50 cm in length, and weigh about 4 kg. In our country, they are known as the most timid of all animals, and they’re noted in our culture for being wise.
It’s because they’re so shy, that I’ve been drawn to them. When I was young, they were always afraid of me, and used to scamper away as soon as I saw them, perhaps because I was often accompanied by my children or cats when out walking in nature. But in recent years I’ve had repeated meetings with them, and some of these meetings have been very pleasant. I’ve sat with them for 15 and 20 minutes at a time, and even had the questionable pleasure of having them talk to me. I say questionable pleasure because I didn’t understand them at all. But last week I sat with one of them for quite a while, and neither of us talked. And only after some time had passed, I took his picture, for in the past, opening my camera usually caused the badger to leave my company.
These animals live in groups from 10 to forty in number. They choose to live among boulders and rocks, and post sentries who give an alarm when seeing animals or humans who might threaten the group. Though famous for rock climbing, I have seen them climb trees with great agility. It is said, though, that they spend most of their time resting. What is interesting about them, is that they have many different vocal calls, sometimes referred to as ‘songs’, and one gets the impression that they have some sort of language based on different tones. They can be quite talkative when among their own, and not bothered by other animals. On rare occasions, I’ve met with two or three at a time. Usually, with one coming forward to meet me, and the others watching from behind. But most of the time it was one on one. Up until recently, I had met with them in their natural habitat, usually in a small forest close to my home. But last week, I spied one fellow in the park. And when I sat down and waited patiently, he came up close.
When you love a woman, and you wish to tell a friend about her, it’s no simple thing. The first thing you might say… there’s this woman and I love her… but that’s just about yourself. So you try to describe her. She’s not the most beautiful woman in the world… but for you, the moment you see her, you smile… you’re happy. She’s intelligent… but you really don’t care just how much… She wears dresses down to her ankles… she has these little ear rings on her ears… She has black curly hair… but a lot of other women do too. You try to describe her and realize, that it could be any other woman. How do you explain how very special she is for you… how do you explain the way your heart dances when she’s close, looking through the window with you… and you’re not even touching…
Well, it’s something like that, when I talk about Jerusalem to those who don’t know her… She’s not the most beautiful city in the world, and she’s not the easiest town in which to live. She’s got problems, and she’s got hang ups… she’s got too much traffic, and it’s not that well mannered considerate traffic. And when foreign dignitaries come to visit, the police close down streets just so the VIPs can go around without waiting at intersections the way we have to.
They say that Tel Aviv never sleeps… well Jerusalem never sleeps either, but no one talks about it. It’s not thought of as some special quality around here. When people think of Jerusalem… visitors, who come from out of town… they think of the wailing wall, or the biblical zoo… they think of the orthodox Jews dressed in black suits… or the colorful Arabs who are willing to negotiate a price in the market place… they think of churches or mosques… or synagogues… or the parliament of Israel, which is called the Knesset. And of course the museum, where you can get lost for days, learning all the time… though they don’t like people to photograph there. None of these things come to mind when I’m out of the city and longing to be home again.
I don’t care much for the pomp and ceremony. And though I love the stores and the market places, and the different malls that can be found in the city, I don’t spend much time there. And many of the libraries that were my second home in years past, are no longer as popular as they once were… after all, the computer has changed our life style to a large degree. I’ve never been at the sports Stadium, named after our legendary mayor, Teddy Kollek, who was elected five times to the job, and served almost 40 years.
What I love about Jerusalem, are the people, with whom I share a common culture, and a common tongue, and the spirit that lingers and floats through the city, through the day and night. The many book stores, and the study halls, and the ‘hole in the wall’ prayer rooms, and the coffee shops, and the bars, and the night clubs and music halls, and the streets with laundry hanging out the windows, and poster boards where everyone can pour his heart out about what matters to him or what’s bothering him, and the parks, and the trees… and even the dead end streets that no one sees except the locals… and yes, the Jerusalem Forest which is sort of attached to the city right at the western edge of it. And the cats who are as much citizens as we are.
I like riding in the buses, or on the tram, and listening as other people carry on intricate and emotional conversations with their friends and relatives in front of everyone else while others read the newspaper, a good book, or even pray… not at all self conscious about the fact that they’re exposed and everyone can see them in their private moments. I love the many ice cream stands, and the vendor who cooks hot corn on the sidewalk and sells it hot to passers by in season, and the musicians who play for small change on the promenades… and the tourists who are so impressed by things we take for granted, and take pictures of everything. And now that we have cell phones, everyone seems to take pictures of everything…
It’s Jerusalem day today. People from all over the country have come to the city, and there are all kinds of activities connected with the day. Some folks have even come from abroad… and so I thought I’d write something about Jerusalem. Though those of you who read me regularly, know I mention my beloved city quite a bit anyway. Trying to write about it as the subject of a post, though, was a bit harder than I expected.
We take culture pretty much for granted. It has been with us for a long time. Ever since man turned from gathering wild fruit and roots, and hunting wild animals, and started growing his own food. The word culture is similar to cultivation, as in agriculture. It was only a few hundred years ago, in the 18th century, that it began to be used as a description of human social behavior. For as we progressed in the establishment of society, we have adopted a series of disciplines regarding human behavior that resembles in many ways our method of raising food. If once we were satisfied with a vegetable patch in the back yard, or a farm that a family, together, could operate, we now have huge farms operated by large companies using heavy technology. And parallel to that, our young move from one class to another absorbing education for 12 years, and then are expected to continue to higher education for a few more years in order to merit some worthwhile employment.
But at the same time, there are other forms of culture growing around us, and influencing our consciousness. If Vincent van Gogh revolutionized the expectations of the art world, I believe that today, graffiti is doing the same thing. And it is no surprise that so many people reject it and are disgusted with the way it has insulted our vision of civic order. I was reminded of this when walking through an old neighborhood in Jerusalem. The neighborhood of Mamila had deteriorated to the point where many of the houses were abandoned, and no one wanted to live there anymore. At that stage, the city decided on a gentrification process which turned the ruins into an attractive hub of activity. I have some interesting photos of the old neighborhood, and might post them separately one of these days. The place is completely different today. And all the graffiti is long gone.
In some ways, the graffiti found in our city has an international flavor. You can see the sort of artwork, and lettering that you might see in other major cities of the world. Some are satisfied just to leave their name or initials. Others paint rather intricate and artistic murals, and it is not rare to find English words and lettering. But you can also find messages unique to our language and culture. I like the human touch. It reminds me in a way, of wild animals who urinate where they’ve been to leave their mark. But it can be more than that. Sometimes it’s a comment on what’s happening in this world. It can be a political statement. And some folks actually try to amuse us. But at it’s best, it’s art.
The most common graffiti found in Israel, is a written line in memory of a much loved Chassidic rabbi, Rabbi Nachman. He died in 1810, but he is remembered very fondly by a lot of people to this day. The line is a series of combinations of the letters of his name. Some believe there is mystical importance to these variations.
He was a charismatic rabbi, with a following and students too. He told stories that were parables about the human condition, and preached happiness as the path to serving God. He was the great grandson of the founder of Hassidism, and believed that one should converse with the creator as you would with a close friend. He visited the holy land for a couple of years but lived most of his life in Russia and the Ukraine. Many books have been written explaining his famous stories, and studying the depths of his philosophy. His followers are recognizable in our country by their very large white skullcaps, and their long earlocks.
When he heard of the terrible pogrom in the city of Uman, his heart filled with grief. When I die, he said to his friends, I want to be buried with the Jews of Uman who were slaughtered for no reason by bloodthirsty bullies. Some people still go to visit his grave… especially on the Jewish New Year, and on the day of Atonement. But many more people celebrate his philosophy, and remind themselves and the people around them that the way to God is happiness. I remember once, during the entifada, when we were suffering a lot of terrorist attacks here in Jerusalem, and many had witnessed body parts and blood splashed across the streets of our beloved city… A lot of people were walking around depressed. Tourists had stopped coming to visit our town. And then, one day, I saw this van pull up to a major intersection, the Zion square, and a number of young men got out with musical instruments in their hands. A few of them set up in the middle of the square and started playing this happy music, and a couple of guys got on the top of the van and started dancing and singing. People just happening by, like myself, drew near to observe the spectacle.
I was reminded of them again when visiting Eish Kodesh, that beautiful little village where I went for Passover. Because on the refrigerator of the apartment where I was staying, was a post card that had been handed out in honor of some wedding… of people I don’t know. The message on the card says: It is an important ‘good deed’ to be happy always. And underneath, it tells us that this is a souvenir from the wedding of Tamar and Nachshon Shacham.
We used to have quite a celebration here in Israel on the first of May… back when we were a socialist country. There were red flags everywhere, and lots of flowers. People wore flowers on their lapels, and gave each other flowers. Long ago, I had a red cat that I loved. He was about twice the size of the cat above, and about the same color. And he was the most intelligent cat I ever had… and as devoted to me as Nechama is these days. I called him Fidel, in honor of Castro, who had just recently taken over Cuba at the time. You know, it seemed like a good name for a red cat. And on the first of May, he would get a nice big bowl of cream to celebrate.
But Israel is a democratic country, and in the 1980s, the public decided that socialism wasn’t such a good system after all, and slowly but surely, we changed direction. People liked the American system, and now we have a free enterprise economy, though there are still some remnants around of the way things used to be. But no one celebrates the holiday anymore. Now it’s just another day. On my walk this morning, I remembered the red flags… but there are none these days.
Still, if I want to, I can give you a flower. So here’s a wild orchid I found on my walk on independence day. Enjoy.