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Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.
The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.
Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.
A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…
We are by nature very self-centered. At every stage in our lives, we look at those younger than us as being ‘young’. And those who are older than us are ‘old’. People from other countries, or other cultures, are ‘alien’. But we’re okay, we’re ‘normal’.
When relating to the animal world, I myself have a special regard for butterflies and frogs. Both of them have two incarnations, and I can very well identify with them. I have a feeling that we too have more than one incarnation, so to speak. The butterfly starts out as a worm, and the frog as a pollywog. Anthropology has always fascinated me because of both the similarities and the differences between people around the world.
I remember reading an article many years ago about the life of species. I don’t remember who it was that wrote it, and don’t remember the name of the article. But what impressed me then, was that some researchers had found a type of snail that had lived slightly off shore of a Greek island, and they were able to evaluate the age of the shells by carbon dating. They came to the conclusion that they had before them the history of that species; from when it was a very young species till it had grown old, and was nearing extinction. As the species became more mature, the form of the shell became more beautiful. But at a much later stage, some of the round areas became more angular. The species was getting decadent.
This same process is seen in individual people, and in societies… and in nations. Sometimes it evokes sadness. More often contempt. Life at the height of its development, has contempt for weakness… but even in decadence we often see ourselves as superior to others, more aware… more connected to the truth. It takes a rare wisdom to be aware of the world as a whole; to leave our egocentric point of view and start searching for the wonders outside of ourselves.
Why do it? Because we are connected to all of the world, and the more we learn, the more we understand the world around us, the richer this life of ours becomes.
I’d been working hard all day Monday, and was just about to take a walk with Nechama in the park behind our home, when Noga came, and was happy to join us. It was the first day the temperature had gone down a bit, after a week long heat wave. An opportunity to stretch my legs and release the tensions of work. As we walked around the park, I felt lighter and freer. What a pleasure. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any dogs along the way. Nechama doesn’t care much for dogs, and usually hides behind bushes or climbs the nearest tree if we meet a neighbor walking his or her dog. Turns out, this new neighborhood I live in has a sizable population of dogs… most of whom are attached by leash to their human friends. But this time it was an easy walk for all concerned.
Then, as we got to the edge of the park, Nechama decided to take a shortcut back to the house. Noga and I remained on our own, looking out at the beautiful scenery in the late afternoon. A cool breeze blew. We watched the local ‘light train’ as it came into the station, a bit down the hill. Noga said, ‘you know, we could just get on that train, and continue our walk downtown, if you’re in the mood for it’.
Well, the idea hadn’t occurred to me, but we had no plans. And the days are still long. It sounded like a good idea. The ‘light train’ is a relatively new addition to our lives in Jerusalem, and it really does make transportation easier. I said sure. And down we went to the station. The train goes by every ten minutes or so. We knew we wouldn’t have long to wait, and we didn’t. It was all very easy. We caught the next train downtown. We found two seats together. It was quite pleasant. Noga asked me if I’d ever taken pictures inside the train, and I told her yes. I’d even posted a few in earlier blog posts.
The train took us to Jaffa street, and from there we made our way to Zion square, which brought back many memories. But things have changed in the last few years. Jaffa street, which was always the main thoroughfare through town, is no longer open to motor vehicles. Only the train operates on that street, and the side walks have been widened to accommodate pedestrians. It doesn’t resemble the street we knew and visited for so many years. Ben Yehudah str., another important avenue has also been closed to vehicular traffic. It is completely reserved for pedestrians. Which is actually a good thing, because those streets which are still accessible to cars are so overloaded that one often moves at a slower pace than a horse’s gait, and it’s irritating.
We chose to walk down Yoel Moshe Solomon, ‘cause I’d heard that they’d decorated the street. There were colorful umbrellas above, and I’d been looking forward to seeing them. It was getting a bit dark though, by the time we got there. We’d spent a bit of time in a department store first, looking for an electric grater, which we didn’t find. I had doubts that I’d be able to photograph the umbrellas that I’d read about. All the same, I gave it a try.
The shops and restaurants looked pretty much the same as they’d always been. We saw quite a few people enjoying the evening. Locals and tourists. Most of the shops were open. I thought I might want to visit a record store I remembered on Hillel street. I was careful to use the words music discs instead of records when I told my plan to Noga. But even so, I was out of date. She explained that the store had closed quite some time ago. People don’t buy a lot of records anymore. But she did tell me of one place that had survived. You still can buy a disc there.
Cats’ corner was still there, though, at the bottom of Yoel Moshe Solomon, and I did see a few cats there. But all the little booths where you could once buy jewelry and hookah pipes, and incense, and colorful clothing from the far east had disappeared. It looked like they were building something new there. The cats had grown a bit shy. We continued up Hillel and then down through Ben Yehudah. Aside from meeting some people we know, we also had the pleasure of listening to an impromptu performance of a choral group in the middle of the pedestrian mall. While going up Hillel str., I noticed that the building that used to house the video store had been converted to a restaurant and music venue.
The place is called Jerusalem’s Port. Jerusalem, a landlocked city, has a water complex. We often dream of having a stretch of beach. Tel Aviv went to the trouble of calling one of their stretches of beach, ‘Jerusalem Beach’, in our honor. And now it seems we’ve gone one step further and invented our own port. There were posters on the wall describing different performances scheduled for the coming weeks.
It turned out that there would be a performance of flamenco music and dancing that very evening. We decided to go. It was only after I’d bought the tickets that I realized the performers were Israelis. That was a bit of a let down. I’ve always enjoyed flamenco music. But the idea of Israelis playing flamenco music, and dancing… I just couldn’t imagine how that might sound…
As it turned out, though, I was too much of a pessimist. The music was fantastic. There were two men, each of them playing guitars. And two women who danced some of the time. One of the men sang as well. Not all of the time. But he was electric. His voice pierced through any reserve I might have had. When we left, a few hours later, in the middle of the night… the music stayed with us in our heads. The dancing was good too. I’m not really a connoisseur of dance, but what I saw impressed me. The food was good too. The only problem I had, was that I had to take advantage of the few breaks, to go outside and have myself a smoke. Can you imagine that? A performance hall where they don’t let you smoke. It almost makes a person prefer listening to a record… but then… records have gone out of style, I heard.
Many years ago, while enjoying the hospitality of America, and furthering my education in the US, I fell in love with American music. First, I discovered the blues… and that led eventually to jazz, which is my favorite music to this day. What I loved about the blues was that they offered a catharsis and perspective, both to artists and listeners, often including a hint of humor. For one of the most difficult challenges we face, is trying to work our way out of sadness and depression.
There are so many great artists and fine songs in that genre, that one could easily spend his whole life studying the culture. Being an outsider, I wouldn’t take it upon myself to be your guide. Yet I do remember one song that I consider an excellent example of the genre because of two lines that have amused me since I first heard them. And that’s ‘I Will Turn Your Money Green’ by Furry Lewis first recorded in 1928. They are: ‘If the river was whiskey, baby, and I was a duck, I’d dive to the bottom, Lord, and I’d never come up’. And later in the song, he sings, ‘I been down so long, it seems like up to me’. This line served as the name of a novel written by Richard Fariña, published in 1966, and was later the title of a song by the Doors.
What had me thinking about the blues was a combination of listening to bad news on the radio here, all of this week, and reading a touching blog post by John Hayden, called Retirement, Depression, And Blogging. The week before that, there had been an incident here in my country, of a man biting a dog. Now, those of us who’ve studied Journalism 101 know that such an incident is a legitimate news item. But our local journalists who fear that the public has grown tired of exposés of the dire poverty of half the population, and intimidated by the encroaching competition of the internet, fell upon this story as if they’d just discovered a gold nugget in the drain of the kitchen sink. The story was seen as an example of the fallibility and decadence of mankind, and we were berated on countless in-depth studies of what happened, from morning to night, day after day.
Of course, most folks swore up and down that they had never bitten any dog… but others, like myself you know, who don’t have such a good memory anymore, just weren’t sure. There are things you don’t think about till you’re accused. One of my friends, for instance, when asked if he’d ever spoken out against biting dogs, remained silent for a few seconds more than might be expected. And then, when the reporter mentioned that while males were 40% more likely to bite dogs than other members of the population, he was seen blushing. So hell yes, I was thinking of the blues… I was even thinking of maybe writing a blues song…
And then I started thinking about how to get up. It’s been unusually hot here in Jerusalem for the last week. Like today, they said it would be 36° during the day, and then go up to 37° at night! So while it’s been that hot, I haven’t been walking that much. But I know that a brisk walk can really improve my mood. It usually stimulates a stream of consciousness which in turn improves my perspective. I thought if I’d go out towards evening and have a long walk, I might have more positive thoughts. Another thing I’ve noticed, is that though I don’t really like getting together with people when I’m down in the dumps, sometimes it is encouraging to see others having a good time, oblivious to the evils of this world.
So I called up a very tolerant friend of mine, and asked him if he’d care to accompany me in my blue black mood as I walked from Talpiot to the German Colony and back. Despite the heat, it was really a beautiful day. The grass was green, and the sky was blue… and after we got back to the ‘First Station’ in Talpiot… I noticed that the beer was yellow. On our way, we stumbled across a ‘street library’ which was offering free books. You remember how I told you about finding those bus stops in Tzur Hadasah, where people donated their old books, and anyone could just pick one up for free. This street library was much the same, only more elaborate… with a lot more books. I tell you, I’d gotten kind of used to being blue, but after I found a weathered copy of ‘The Island’ by Aldous Huxley, I couldn’t help it… I was starting to feel better.
The ‘first station’ is what they call the old railroad station in central Jerusalem. It was abandoned when they built the new one at the edge of town. But in the last few years it’s been redeveloped as a popular entertainment center, including bars and restaurants, toy stores, art galleries and jewelry and vegetable stores. We were sitting at the outside tables of a bar restaurant listening to some good Greek music and drinking that yellow beer when the waitress suggested we try their Arak. And would you believe it, it went well with the beer! In fact, I had another. And though I had no appetite to begin with… after a while… it occurred to me that it might be nutritious to eat something.
Now if that hadn’t happened yesterday evening, I might be as blue today as I was most of the week. I might even have written a blues verse or two for the blog today… and I certainly don’t know what sort of pictures I would have published today. But now, you’ll just have to wait for that, ‘cause right now, ‘it looks like up to me’.
In my previous post last week, I mentioned that the study of sculpture had been neglected in our culture because of the prohibition of idol worship. And this raised the question of why. Many in the west have accepted the concept of monotheism. And many are atheistic or agnostic. Because of the free thinking attitude towards faith and belief, many believe that the issue of whether it is proper or not to pray to, or worship an image seems irrelevant in our time.
My dear friend Janet reminds us often that ‘everything in this world is interconnected’. This is the basis of monotheism, and one of the most important tenants of our religion. There are those who see powerful forces in this world as gods. The sea is a god to some, and there is a god of reproduction to others. Some people have a need to relate to an inspiring picture of a saint or a prophet in order to remind themselves of the virtues they believe in. There are so many pictures of saints, and medallions, and symbols of all kinds, that we have become accustomed to seeing such things. But our sages warned us that focusing on an image might distract us from our awareness of a god who is an intricate being reflected in all we sense in the world around us.
I believe that those who coined the expression, ‘the almighty dollar’, meant to laugh at the phenomenon. But there is no doubt that a large portion of the population in the west has raised the importance of money to god-like proportions. Is it important? To some it is. To others not. For those of us who believe in god, it is important to consider what we receive from him, what sort of inspiration or example we envision when contemplating his presence in this world of ours, and how or if we choose to worship him.
I have studied a bit of other religions, and found wisdom that has enhanced my own beliefs and worship of god in my religion. I have also found things that I cannot accept. Today is Friday, and this evening my Sabbath begins. And an essential part of my religion is not to work on the Sabbath. That is a day of freedom and appreciation of life, and it is set apart for contemplation and joy. This Sabbath is called the ‘Sabbath of consolation’, for on this last Sunday, we remembered the destruction of our holy temple. It was a very sad day for all. My best wishes to my readers for inspiration and delight from life. We all have our ups and downs. And how important it is, to maintain our perspective, to remember that there is beauty and pleasure in this life, despite the disappointments and pain.
We have a problem with art. In Hebrew, art and craft are almost the same word. They come from the same root, which is also the root for the word ‘faith’, from which the English word ‘amen’ is a derivative. Amen simply means ‘(I) have faith’. It is a Hebrew word. And though sculpture of a certain kind was found in the holy temple, it has most been associated with idol worship. And there are specific laws found in the bible prohibiting making reproductions of men or women, animals, or even objects found in nature. Throughout our long history, the plastic arts have been avoided by most of our people and those artists who did produce something, were always the exception to the rule.
During the 18th century, there was a movement that gained some popularity among our people who were living in Europe, called ‘the enlightenment’, which tried to import some of the cultural standards and the knowledge which had been accepted in the west into our own culture. Despite the opposition of most of the religious leaders of the time, the movement became quite popular, and is credited with easing some of the anti-semitic laws which severely restricted us, as well as promoting greater integration between Jews and non Jews in Europe. It also brought about the modernization of a great many Jewish communities. Scientific and literary texts were translated into Hebrew, and absorbed into our common culture.
But influenced by cultural prejudices an ingrained attitudes, even the non religious, secular, and highly educated creative souls among us were reluctant to express themselves in the arts. And when they did, they often chose some sort of abstraction or embedded a flaw in the image so as to make it clear that the work could in no way be interpreted as idolatry.
The concept of one god who could not be represented by any image was in direct opposition to art as understood by other cultures. Sculpture suffered the worst. And to this day, one can find numerous abstract works of sculpture on some of the streets of Jerusalem, but the more realistic, representative pieces are hidden away in private spaces.
One of the most interesting sculptures in modern day Israel was created as a memorial to the holocaust, and is hidden away in a forest, and completely unknown by most of the citizens of Jerusalem. It presents images from the history of our people and particularly from the holocaust in a series of reliefs found on a large column.
Aside from the religious injunction prohibiting idolatry, modesty is considered one of the most important virtues. This too, has dissuaded many artists from using nude images. Even so, the restrictions inspired a creative spark as well, and I have seen fascinating two dimensional sculpture, and other variations on the use of three dimensional media by a number of our local artists.
The conflict between the arts and our traditional view of the world is felt in other areas as well, including music. I hope to write about that one of these days. And because I feel limited regarding how many images to show on a blog post, I might add another post regarding the many ways Jewish artists have tried to express themselves in sculpture while still respecting the prohibitions of our culture.