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My dear friends,
I consider myself very lucky to have lived in this period of time. I had some very fine opportunities. For the most part, I enjoyed my life. I learned a number of languages, studied history, morality, philosophy, art and science. And during my lifetime, I’ve seen major changes in the world around me. I am grateful to the frivolous nature of fate that offered me the opportunity to learn the English language, and so, to be able to write you a bit about our lives here in Jerusalem, and to share with you some of the things I’ve learned from life. One of the many reasons I started blogging, was to overcome the many misunderstandings that exist between the Jewish people and other cultures and peace loving peoples. I had the hope that those things we loved, considered sacred, and shared would enable us to bridge differences and afford us communication.
At the present time, we in Israel are engaged in a war we didn’t choose. As many have declared, war is terrible; it is hell. I carry scars from previous wars, and don’t know if I will survive this one… don’t know what sort of person I will be, if I do survive it. But I can’t go on about my usual business while this is going on. I did try. But I just can’t anymore. I remember, as a young fellow, reading the letter of a Jew in the Warsaw ghetto who wrote of his experiences and then secreted the letter in a bottle, which was plastered into one of the walls of his home. These are different times, and I have been free to write my story by way of the internet, transcending borders and crossing from one continent to another. But I know next to nothing about countering lies. And the immensity of the conflict has weakened my broken heart. Perhaps some day, this blog will be my ‘letter in a bottle’.
At this point, I feel I have no choice but to retreat to the safety of my own little home. I would like to thank the friends I have met in the blogging world for what we’ve shared, and for what I’ve learned from you.
Our national anthem here in Israel is called ‘the hope’. I still have hope. I hope that this parting will be more of a ‘see you later’ than a goodbye. I might continue to post a picture now and then, just to let you know that I’m still alive. But I don’t think I’ll be writing anymore, until this is over. If I manage to survive it, I might write a little about what I’ve gone through. My best wishes to all of my readers, and my gratitude to all of you who’ve shared your lives and interests with me.
Shimon Z’evi, a citizen of Jerusalem.
Always had this romantic love for the country… It was half a century ago, and I was on my way to visit a friend in a little village up north. I was used to buses that ran every few minutes, back in the city. Hadn’t occurred to me to check the bus schedule. So here I was, out in the country, after the big intercity bus had let me off… waiting… and no bus came by. I slipped my bag over my shoulder and started walking along the country road. What did it matter if it took me an hour… or even three. I was young, and the day was beautiful. I could walk.
After I’d walked for about a half an hour, I heard the sound of a tractor coming down the road. It wasn’t moving fast, and you could hear it a long way off. I turned around and watched as it approached. Made the sign of the hitch hiker, and he slowed down to a stop. “Where you going?” he called out to me over the noise of the tractor. It was a big one, and it towered over me. I told him the name of the village I was headed towards. “I’m going to the same place,” he said. “But you’d have to sit on this dirty fender, and you’ve got your Sabbath suit on”. I’m not worried about that, I said, and with a smile, got up on the fender and rode the rest of the way. It was like visiting heaven. There was nothing I didn’t like about the place.
In the years that followed, I never got over the love I had for that beautiful piece of country. We even lived there for a while. But my darling wife couldn’t appreciate it the way I did, so we went back to the big city. That wasn’t hard for me, because I was part of Jerusalem too, as she was part of me. But there was something about living in the country that left me with a great longing for that kind of life.
This was long before people started having ‘virtual’ experiences, and living the virtual life. But even back then, the difference was profound. I felt an intensity in the country life that made the colors more brilliant and the earth under my feet more immediate. There was an intimacy with nature that was always with me. I could listen to the plants growing… hear the flies as they flew in the air. I always had the feeling that it was a better place to bring up children. When you live in a village, you get to know a lot of people, all of whom are contributing something to the welfare of the general population.
It isn’t as abstract as living in the city. You actually get to know people and the way they work… what they do all day. That’s the benefit of a real community. When you grow up with people you meet every day, you get a more realistic example of what can be gained in this life. You might get to know the garage mechanic and the barber, the horse trainer and the scholar. You see them working. You see a working man or woman on their feet from morning to night, and the farmer repairing fences. When you try helping with the chores for a neighbor or a professional in town, you get something of an idea of whether their work would interest you, whether you could really figure out the sort of problems that they have to deal with all the time.
The photos here are from the same village… taken just a few years ago. Time moves a little slower there. The society I got to know there has changed a lot. But the village itself still carries traces of its past. And the people too, aren’t quite as up to date as we are in the city.
As I mentioned in my previous post, one of the features of that walk through the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem was the examination of the graffiti found there. I enjoy street art, and have grown more tolerant of the scribbles and the name inscriptions that are also included in the category. But I’ve noticed that even in those cases where I was really impressed by a painting appearing on a street wall, after a short while I tend to take it for granted, as I pass by again and again.
But sometimes, the unexpected can spark a greater interest. That is, if a picture has been moved or changed, or one that I especially liked has disappeared or been blocked by some other structure. Then, there’s that chase after old friends. And part of the chase is always the discovery of new contributions unnoticed before. Many are difficult to photograph because of limited space in the small alleyways of our city.
There is a series of very special miniatures that I like… they are in a place exposed to harsh nature and may not last all that long. Another series of paintings I especially enjoy, have something to say in the way of morality and self criticism. They are on a wall that seems almost too public. I worry that they will soon be replaced by advertisements. I remember some biting messages that had a short public life before being painted over by someone who didn’t care much for what they said.
On my walk last week there were the big paintings, colorful and full of life. And there were also some very modest ones that you could easily miss, if not looking for them. Some seemed like footnotes to those ‘in the know’. One of them said, ‘sex now’, and I suppose it was meant as a retort to the many banners of ‘peace now’ that can be seen around the country. The drawing under that title was unexpected, and wide open to interpretation.
One of the most interesting series I’ve encountered here might have been produced by three separate artists. As they appeared, I imagined two artists adding their works to the original inscription, though it could have been produced by the same artist who came back to the scene and added yet another and then another. All of the illustrations speak of a longing for Jerusalem by the Jews of the diaspora.
There are these closed metal boxes that one finds all around the city, containing electric meters and connections of sorts. It is common to find paintings on their sides. Sometimes it’s a very abstract composition of form and color, and sometimes a picture of a butterfly or bird. It seems a lot of work was invested into this rendition of the inside of a refrigerator filled with drinks.
Reading biographies helps one regain perspective regarding the long run in life. Especially these days, as we find ourselves overwhelmed with news from all of the world, instant messages, and social networks. We live in the middle of constant social ferment and never ending noise and chatter. The radio and TV amplify the sound of advertisement, and the telephone signals that a new message is waiting for us while we try to study texts from the internet, or converse with a friend. We are constantly in the ‘now’. So much so, that we lose sight of the slow movements characteristic of the progress of nature, and the affairs of man.
The biography of Gertrude Stein, brought me back to thoughts on the movement towards ‘new art’ in the period between the two world wars at the beginning of the last century. Among many other important artists and thinkers of the art world, I was reminded of Picasso and Hemingway, both of whom influenced my own attitudes towards art and writing. But the scene that played out in the biography, especially in the salon of Gertrude Stein, with all the fine artists around her and Alice B. Toklas, was very different from my memory of the scene, based on the many stories I had heard and read over fifty years ago.
I had read Hemingway with great enthusiasm at first, and grown a little tired of him after a while. Decided it was about time to revisit, and picked up ‘Moveable Feast’ where he describes his first flowering as a writer of literature, after starting out as a journalist. He relates to some of the same scenes and people that appeared in the biography of Stein. Once again, I loved the way he wrote. But a lot of time had passed since I first read his writing, and I had changed. The world had changed too. We have different expectations from a thinking man today. But there is a description in that book, of how the writer went about his work. He contemplated his subject, determined to write one sentence that was completely true. And after studying the words and the composition… when finally satisfied that he had written a good sentence, he went on to write another. His descriptions of the creative process, and the way he went about writing, sounded just right, even after all this time. Reading his conclusions about how to write were up to date even now, regardless of the sport he enjoyed… his cruelty to animals is no longer acceptable. But I found personal inspiration in rereading his work.
Some of my blog readers may remember the two posts I wrote a little over two years ago, contemporary fine literature, and contemporary literature part 2, which dealt with my search for new reading material. After spending many years with a heavy work load, during which I pretty much abandoned reading for pleasure, and lost touch with what was happening outside of my own country, I was hoping to find those who had emerged as the outstanding men of letters, and what was considered fine literature in the world today. Especially in English language literature. But after reading some ‘best sellers’ and some of the recommended reading in the critiques of the top journals, I found it very hard to relate to what was popular today. I was going to search further, and I asked my readers for recommendations. Well, I got some interesting comments, and quite a few mails. I checked out the critiques of different recommended books, and went on to read some of the books. I read quite a few. But many seemed negative to me. I realized that this was the age of the ‘flawed hero’ or the anti hero. And in many popular narratives, the stories concerned victims. or people who had surrendered to the caprices of fate. I was seriously considering going back to classical literature, but hadn’t given up completely, when my internet friend, David Lockwood, shared a quote by Robertson Davies, and I looked him up on the internet.
I read the Deptford trilogy, one book after another. It was good. There were some weak moments… at times the narrative just sort of coasted along. But the story was woven with the same threads through three volumes, and there were some very fine passages along the way. His themes reflect the nature of life and human awareness and sensitivity. Each of the three volumes present a part of the same story with some overlapping, as seen from different perspectives. And one realized along the way that what is seen from different points of views can seem like different stories even if they relate to the same cold facts. The focus was not on heroes or villains, but on those who live their lives between the raindrops, characters who are usually part of the background when the narrative is focusing on heroes. I liked his style very much. I enjoyed reading his books and wanted to read more.
These books helped me to divert my attention from the horrors that had invaded the day to day life around me. I was inspired to consider the general nature of human beings and the lives we live. It was possible to dismiss the extremism that had been forced upon us, and had influenced my judgment regarding all I saw or heard. When I finished the trilogy, I recommended it to Chana who reads English. I wanted to recommend it to other friends of mine, and looked for a translation into Hebrew. But to my disappointment, I discovered that none of his books had been translated. What a shame. I hope that someone does take on the job. I’ve already started to read another of his trilogies. This time, the Cornish trilogy. It concerns the academic life, and so far it has been very interesting.
The photos published here were taken yesterday, on a sunny day between bouts of winter weather, while walking around the Nachlaot neighborhood in central Jerusalem. I started my walk feeling sad, but I so love this town that I was soon awake with appreciation. I found my consolation in literature. But this city of mine is my own personal inspiration, even in bad times. Found some excellent examples of graffiti, yesterday, and enjoyed the images of the local modest housing which has attracted many artists and students. Spent time in the shuk, which is the market place, and watched people going about their business. As the hours passed, I grew more positive and encouraged. Came back with many more photos than could be printed here. But I might share some more on a future blog. May it be a good year for all of us.
There is an adage in Hebrew that says, ‘the muse disappears when the canon roars’. As a rule, I don’t have trouble finding my muse. She finds me most of the time. It’s not that I never have trouble writing or photographing. Sometimes it’s hard to get what’s on my mind onto the paper. But usually, I get to work after something has caught my fancy. I don’t have to go looking for inspiration.
And yet, at times of war or tragedy, my thoughts are on the tragedy. And I lose touch with creativity. This time, with the start of the violence, I had thoughts so terrible that I couldn’t bear them. Not just thoughts… dreams too. I would wake up in the middle of the night after a particularly depressing dream, and couldn’t fall asleep again. And often, during the day… I would find myself staring out… not focused on anything… or through my window… and my heart would be filled with sorrow. After a while of this, all I wanted, was not to think. But that’s a bit of a problem for me. Because I’m used to thinking. I think just about all the time. So I tried to find a way not to think of those specific things that bring on overwhelming unhappiness. And one easy solution presented itself to me. The situation in which I am least likely to think my own thoughts is when I am studying, or reading the thoughts of someone else. So I started reading.
In the past few years, my primary reading interest has been current fine literature. I’ve been trying to find new writers who have the impact of the literary giants I loved in the past. I thought it would be a good way for me to keep in touch with what concerns the generation that is dealing with the current problems of life. And to better understand the problems and the challenges of those people who are starting out now, living their adult lives, and those who’re right in the middle of it all. I have to admit that I did not have much success in my quest. But in the last half year, I started getting the feeling that I understood the issues of the day better than I had before I started this project.
But now, with this new intention of redirecting my own thoughts, reading fine literature did not do the job. If I read about the problems of others… or even a page turning mystery… my thoughts would often return to the problems of Israel, and to the threats to my own safety, and the safety of those I loved. For each day there was news of some pal who had suddenly knifed an innocent victim, waiting for a bus, or walking down the street, lost in his or her own thoughts.
So I moved from fine literature to biographies. I always have a few books around that I haven’t yet read. Sometimes I will read a review that interests me, and buy the book ‘for later’. I used to have quite a pile of books that I kept for ‘retirement’. But I have been retired for some time now, and I’ve read most of those books, starting when I had my first heart attack some years back, and had nothing to do while I recuperated. But recently, there has been a new fashion of ‘give and take’ public libraries. A stand or a closet… sometimes even a number of closets that are set up in the public domain, and the public is encouraged either to take a book for free, or invest a book for which one has no need, and so these little public libraries offer free reading material to passers by, and are continuously being replenished, without any official staff to maintain order. I have run into quite a few such libraries and occasionally found interesting books.
The first biography I started reading was the autobiography of Arthur Miller, who had always interested me, since his first plays were being performed. It was one of the books I had on my bookshelf, waiting for the appropriate time. His recollections were very interesting and I felt I got to know him quite well through the autobiography. His attitudes and choices made fascinating reading. Moreover, he seemed honest and straight forward, and I felt I was getting to know the real man, which was quite different from his public image as I remembered it. I underlined many sentences as I made my way through the book, and even read some of those selections to my friends. And after that, I went on to read a biography of Gertrude Stein. These books really did help me to redirect my thoughts.
While still reading the book on Gertrude Stein, I saw an autobiography of Isaac Asimov in one of those free public libraries. I read that one after reading the very impressive Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant. He served as president of the United States during the 1870s. And previous to that, was the chief of staff of the U.S. army during the civil war between the states. I had first become aware of this volume when reading praise of it by Bob Dylan, who had read it in the 60s. Though I have always found interest in history, and had read a bit of American history, this book helped me to understand the US civil war better than anything else I had read before.
Isaac Asimov was an American professor of biochemistry, who became famous as a writer of science fiction, and later as a popular teacher of science. He was one of the most prolific writers ever. He wrote or edited more than 500 books. He was famous for offering the reader historical background in the explanation of scientific concepts and inventions. Reading his autobiography, I was delighted by his modest description of his own life, his learning processes and the way in which he worked. In fact, as I read about certain questions he had about the Jewish religion… questions to which he did not find answers, though he himself was Jewish, I deeply regretted that he had already died, and I was unable to write to him and explain a mysterious ceremony that he had seen, and never understood. As I read about these lives, I was surprised by the difference between their public image, and what I thought they might be like when I read their works as compared to my impression when reading of their actual lives. When I was younger, long before the invention of the internet and Wikipedia, I was not that interested in the private lives of writers and thinkers. I had the feeling that I had gotten to know them through their work. Nowadays, when I run into a new writer or painter or photographer, I often look them up on the internet. It seems that I know a lot more about the people whose work interests me than I did in my youth. Such knowledge was less available then to the casual reader.
Usually, I like to write what I have to say in a single post. But this time, I have to conclude with a ‘to be continued’ bottom line. I want to thank those who’ve commented on previous posts, and those who’ve written me mails. Thanks to Chana for these pictures of me, here on this post. The situation here in Jerusalem right now is so difficult for me, that I find it hard to write… I am trying to get back on track again. I hope to answer some of the questions I’ve been asked in further writing.