fate or free choice

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blue skies and the snow beginning to melt away

I got the letter from goodreads this week, with the March New Releases. I found interest in a book called ‘The Bookseller’ by Cynthia Swanson. It tells the story of a woman in her late 30s who runs a book store with her best friend and enjoys her life and circumstances. But then she starts having this reoccurring dream in which she lives a different life, married to a wonderful man and the mother of three children. And as the story continues, she finds herself torn between the two lives.

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sculpted by nature; I see two birds facing one another

It reminded me of a poem I read many years ago, by a Chinese author, Chuang Tse, in which he tells us that he doesn’t know whether he is a man dreaming that he’s a butterfly… or a butterfly dreaming that he is a man. And strangely enough, the book, and the whole idea of alternative lives or alternative universes integrated well with some ideas I’ve been having about our national elections, coming up in less than a month.

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red anemones raising their heads between patches of snow

I have noticed in recent years, that the democratic contest at election times has become more and more desperate. Where once we listened to ideological arguments regarding the economic system, or the best way to insure the national security, we are now bombarded by insults and accusations coming from both sides of the barricades. Accompanied by hysteric claims that life won’t be worth living if the opposing side were to win the election. Charges of corruption are heard every day. And the mood that is felt in public seems less like that in the halls of academia, and more like that in the football arena, each side shouting their support for sporting heroes, and insulting the opposing side. I have seen this happening in England too, and in the US.

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cultured flowers whose seeds were blown by the wind… and came up in the middle of the park’s grasses

How and why this has happened, is interesting. And I have some thoughts on the subject. But more important to me, is whether we can overcome the urge to look at the political determination as a life and death struggle. The truth of the matter, is that when we live among friends or as a family, we have to accept that we are not all the same, nor are our desires identical. We make compromises. We forgive all kinds of irrational behavior, difficulties… even pain. My beloved cat Nechama, scratches me at times. She has bitten me. These are momentary outbursts; the expression of disappointment, or of frustration. Sometimes, frustration just because I didn’t understand her.

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clover amidst the grasses

Even within ourselves, we have to make compromises in order to live this life with some sense of wholeness. One of the most valuable lessons, is that which we heard as children, ‘you can’t have your cake and eat it too’. On a national level, we should keep in mind that our society is made up of a whole lot of people, some of whom have needs very different from ours. With great difficulty, we’ve tried, as human beings, to find the mechanisms which will reflect the majority, with care and insurance for the very small minorities as well. Nothing is truly guaranteed. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone sins now and then, And still, if we look back in time, just a few hundred years, we can see that the majority of people lived a much lower standard of living than we are living today. They had shorter life expectancies, and suffered more from disease and ignorance. Let’s not turn a blind eye to all the advantages we have today, and only focus on what we’re missing, and what we want for ourselves. How much happier we could be if we were to appreciate our riches and not envy those who have more than us.

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a little park in our neighborhood, with fantasy meant for children

Today, many of us tell our children, ‘you can do anything you wish if you just desire it enough, and work unceasingly towards your aim. But this too can be misleading. We can do anything, just so long as we understand our strengths and limitations. For our lives are a tapestry of fate and free choice. Chance has delivered us to the parents that raised us, to the country in which we were born… has given us talents and capacities at birth, certain physical characteristics… and perhaps certain mental and emotional dispositions as well. And within that framework, we have the ability to make choices, to learn or not to learn… to look and listen, or to crave attention. By way of our choices, we can direct our course in life. Or we can allow ourselves to be continuously buffeted by the winds of fate.

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And there is nothing so warm and so consoling as the love of our brothers and sisters, our friends, and our fellow human beings that have to face the uncertainties of life’s challenges the same as we do. These have been my thoughts as I watch the snow recede after the last storm, and listen to the excitement about the upcoming election. May we accept the choice of the majority, even if it requires compromise on our part. We are all part of the family of man.

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On a white Friday

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There are a lot of things going on around me these days, both in my private life and in the world around me. But as I write this today, looking through the windows of my living room, most of the issues of interest have lost their importance when seen in the context of the snowstorm that is now visiting Jerusalem. Last week I wrote about the dust that descended upon us… the difficulty of breathing… the depressing brown and yellow skies. Since then, we had a good rain that washed the city clean, and then a couple of days that were cold but clear. The air was a pleasure to breathe, and the visibility was perfect. But all the while, there were warnings on the radio that the snow was coming. And then it came.

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We had a few days to stock up on supplies, and to get ready. And now it’s here. Nechama does enjoy watching it all through the window, but she has no interest in going outside. And though I wanted to step outside and get to meet it intimately, the first try was a bit much for me. It was very cold and wet and slippery. The snow got into creases I didn’t even know I had… tried to pet my camera, and tickled my spine. Sneaked into my boots and gave me cold feet. So I went back in, and waited for the calm after the storm. The problem is that it looks almost docile when seen through the window. But it can be fierce when you face it. Finally, the sun peeked between the clouds, and I went out for a second time, for a nice little walk.

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the path from the park to my house

Still, there is something miraculous about the snow, as I mentioned a year ago. Especially in Jerusalem, which is not really equipped to handle such weather. Most of the shops are closed. The transportation is crippled. And for a few days, there’s a break in the routine. For a few days, people have to make do with what they have at home. Last year we had a serious electrical outage as well, and so many of our gadgets stopped working. The heating stopped and we had to stay warm with the help of blankets. And illuminate our rooms with candles and torches. But even so, it was a wonderful adventure. This year, the electricity has been reliable, and aside from a complete shut down of transportation, everything seems to be working well.

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But let me tell you of the picnic basket I found the other day. It was after the big rain, and while we were waiting for the snow storm. And it was found near the trash bin on the street, not far from the grocery store. A place where many people walk by. It was an old fashioned basket. Not made of plastic, but of woven straw… I opened it, and looked in. There was a nice collection of books… some of them, art books, methodically arranged. And a few video tapes. It reminded me somehow of the basket found by the Egyptian princess, within which the baby Moses was found. I could imagine the owner of those books, having realized that he or she no longer had room on his shelves for any more books, but not wanting to throw them in the trash, packed them carefully in the basket in the hope that some young student would find the basket and rejoice at the discovery of the books. It was a moving sight.

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Another image of this last week was the conjunction of some beautiful tulips that Chana brought over last Friday, warning me that they were beautiful but wouldn’t last long. Yet they are still beautiful after a week in my over heated home… and next to them, a bottle of tequila that my daughter Rivka brought when she came to visit, bearing enchiladas to cheer me up. The tequila was brought to get me into the proper mood to eat Mexican food. It was just right.

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eating an enchilada, Rivka

A blogging friend of mine, Corina, has posted that on this day, the 20th of February, a thousand bloggers plan to write about compassion, in concert with the United Nations World Day of Social Justice. So I would like to join the thousand, and ask that we have compassion for the snow. Here today and gone tomorrow… The snow first comes to us with pristine beauty… a pure white cloak that covers our world. And usually winds up looking like mud, and treated like an eye sore. Let’s remember that all of us are here on a temporary basis. And by the time we’re ready to finish our term, we’ve usually been stepped on a few times, and left a few puddles behind us. So here’s my vote of compassion for the snow. May you enjoy a warm and comfortable winter, with a bit of adventure to keep your spirits up.

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doesn’t snow look best with blue skies above?

the eastern wind

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Wherever we might live, and in whatever circumstances, there are always trials and challenges. Even when our lives seem wonderful when seen from outside, we on the inside know the difficulties and the tests. When hearing about a tornado approaching the Florida coast, I tremble at the thought of what those people have to bear. Or I read about the collapse of a glacier in Switzerland. That sounds terrible. Here, when we have snow, it’s usually over in about three or four days. But we have something else. And the older I get, the more difficult it is for me to endure that type of weather. We call it hamsin.

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Usually, it’s a hot eastern or south eastern wind that gathers dust over the desert in Africa, and blows it in our direction, filling our skies with dirty brown air that makes it hard to breathe and leaves houses, cars, and park benches covered with dust until it rains. When it happens in summer, it often doesn’t even rain afterwards, and we have to wash everything ourselves. Hamsin means 50 in Arabic, and it’s said that somewhere… doesn’t seem like it would be so in Jerusalem… but somewhere… there are 50 days like that a year. There’s an old folk tale I remember hearing many years ago. According to this story, in one of our neighboring Arab countries, if a man killed someone after a week of such weather, he wasn’t prosecuted. It was taken for granted that the weather had driven him out of his mind. Hamsin refers to the hot wind. In winter, when the wind is cold, it’s called a sharkiah, but it brings the same terrible air pollution.

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We get warnings on the radio that the old, the very young, and people with heart or lung ailments should not go outside! When I was young and healthy, such announcements didn’t catch my attention. But now that I myself am suffering from a heart disease, I don’t even have to be warned. Just once or twice outside in that weather, and I knew it wasn’t worth the effort. It’s hard to breathe, and it wears you down very quickly. Some people become irritable, while others become unhappy just having a brown sky overhead.

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We’ve had it this week, for a few days now. Started out hot, and then turned into a cold wind. The dust is still here in Jerusalem, because it hasn’t rained yet. In most of the country it’s already raining. That washes away the pollution. So we’re waiting for rain. I like to take a walk every day, but for most of this week, I haven’t even thought about it.

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Just a few years back, I wouldn’t have stayed at home because of the weather. I had commitments, work, and people I’d scheduled to see. So I went out and took care of business. Even in the car, though, it was oppressive. I remember once, on a day like this, in a café, asking the waitress (whom I knew from previous visits) what sort of a day she was having. ‘What sort of a day?’ She asked me back, raising her eyebrows with comic despair. ‘What kind of day could it possibly be with all this dust?’ And the café itself was half empty.

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I took the pictures in this post on that sort of a day in February of 2009. I was visiting my mother, and had some free time, because I’d arrived early after being invited for tea at 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. So I walked around the neighborhood a bit, near where she lived. Strangely enough, though the weather was terrible, the photos bring back good memories. It was nice being able to visit my mother late in life. She lived to be 101 years old. And it was a pleasure watching my stubborn, fellow Jerusalemites doing their best to ignore the conditions of the day.

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Nowadays, there is one place where you can escape the hamsin. Not the sort of place I visit often, but the shopping mall is unaffected. There, in a completely artificial environment, and constant air conditioning, one can walk around, go from one shop to the next, without really being bothered by such a primitive thing as weather. The sky is always a blue tinted high glass ceiling; the colors always pleasant. The lighting is easy on the eyes. I do visit once in a while, just to marvel at the work of man. It is an allegory of the city. But most of the time, I prefer to be in the city itself. And so, I’m waiting for the rain. On the radio, they said there was a storm coming. In fact, it’s already snowing again in northern Israel. And there are rumors it’ll soon be snowing here. I don’t know..

Never Ending Meeting

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Written in Hebrew by Nathan Alterman 1938
Free translation by ShimonZ 2015

I was taken by storm while singing to you
those stone walls stood in vain;
my passion is yours, your garden is mine
dizzy, without hands, how could I open doors

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Let the sin and the judgments languish in books
while suddenly and forever my eyes are shocked
through the warring streets and raspberry sunsets
and too, you’ve bound me in bunches

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Don’t ask for the bashful to approach
alone in your country I’ll go
I ask for nothing
my prayer is that you’ll take from me

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From the ends of my sorrow
in the black of night
on the long, empty, asphalt streets
my god has sent me to offer the little children
raisins and almonds to console my poverty

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How good that your hand still grabs our hearts
have no pity on us when we’re too tired to go on
don’t let us crawl for refuge to a dark lonely room
leaving the stars that still shine outside

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There the moon is shining; sends us a smiling kiss
and the damp heavens thunder and grumble
the sycamore dropped me a branch it could spare
and I’ll grab it up for my support

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And I know that while the drum keeps beating
to the pace of the city and the issues at hand
I’ll drop one day with my head bashed in
and find our smile… between the parked cars

cows in the sun

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This morning, while listening to the hour long news roundup, I heard an item that might have been sensational, had it come from any other place in the world. But being local news, it didn’t seem to have the same effect. A skull was found in a newly discovered cave in the Galilee. And this skull has been dated as coming from someone who lived some 55 thousand years ago. In fact, the cave, which was completely unknown until 2008, contains many items which may teach us about the living conditions and life styles of prehistoric man. What is unique about the skull, is that it could be seen as a typical skull of modern man. And so, we now have another opportunity to try and understand the history of our species; whether man originated in Africa, and then moved out to the rest of the continents on the planet, as well as theories about evolution.

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But such a story is less sensational here in Israel, because it seems as if every time someone digs a deep hole in the ground, he comes up with ancient history. And over the years, it has become so common, that we hardly turn our heads when such a news item is reported. I am reminded of a story I heard about in my youth. A friend of ours decided to build a basement in his house here in Jerusalem, so as to add an extra room for his crowded family.

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As he was excavating, he came across numerous items that could only have come from ancient times. He showed them to his friends, and most of them thought that these finds had to be over 2000 years old. So a number of the guys got together to help this fellow out. They gathered at his home one night, with carts and wheel barrows in their possession, and quietly, quietly, they moved the dirt, rich in archeological finds, to a vacant lot in the neighborhood. A secret operation in the middle of the night.

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And why? Because if the authorities would have found out about this discovery, they would have declared the ground under his house a historical site, and he would have had to put off building his basement for years… probably till his children had grown up and left home. He just couldn’t afford to do the ‘right thing’.

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For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been posting about winter, and the way I relate to the cold weather. But as I mentioned, we do get some breaks in winter, After a week or two of cold and rain, we’ll have a few days or a week of sunshine. And that’s all it takes for the wild flowers to arrive on the scene, bringing with them the spirit of spring. This is the season of the anemone, which are very popular flowers here in Israel. They grow in the fields, and among the olive trees and the cacti… and songs have been written to celebrate them.

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Seeing the anemones in the fields, some gorgeous little blue flowers, yellow and white flowers that come and go, I was inspired to go out and enjoy these signs of life stirring. Thought it might be an opportunity to revisit the cows in the light of day. Walking through the fields, in search of cows, we came across many beautiful flowers and plants… among them, the very first of the almond flowers, which are just beginning their season now. Soon they will be seen all over the place… exotic white blossoms with pastel hints. The almond trees in bloom, when seen from a distance, look snow covered.

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When finally I found my cows, they were relaxed and enjoying the winter sun which warmed them on this otherwise chilly day. The contrast between the sunny spaces and the shade was almost blinding. They were gathered in the general vicinity of a low pool of water that had been constructed to provide them with drink. I watched as a few of them ambled over to the pool to enjoy the water. There were a few who seemed to look at their reflections in the pool, as Nechama sometimes gazes in a mirror I have in my work room. Though she’s familiar with the mirror, she’ll always stop for a minute, as her reflection registers in her mind. Sometimes, she’ll voice a meow… and I never know if the meow is meant for me, or meant for the possibility that there’s another cat just like her… on the other side of that glass surface.

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And gazing at the cows, looking at their own reflections in the pool, I was reminded of a painting by the wonderful Israeli painter, Michael Kovner. It is not really typical of his work, but it is a painting, that after I saw it, was etched in my mind forever. Here it is:

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cows in the rain

In last weeks post, I spoke of my discomfort in winter weather; the difficulty I have trying to find artistic inspiration in the rain. But as I told you, when looking for pictures I photographed in the cold, rain and snow, I came across a number of old images I thought worthy of sharing. The photographs shown here are part of a set, called ‘Bashan cows’, and were photographed some 30 years ago, on negative film, in northern Israel on a cold and rainy day.

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My readers are aware of my love of cats. I have lived with them almost all of my life. I have learned from them, and built lasting friendships with them; more than I could count. But there are other animals as well, that I have learned from and loved. And from early childhood, I have had a very special regard for the Bovinae family, commonly called cows or cattle. I enjoy watching them graze; enjoy their moderate temperament, and learned a bit of meditation in their company.

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I first met them on a dairy farm, and afterwards spent time in their company in Switzerland, where they chewed the mountain grasses in summer, without a care in the world, appreciating nature. The voices of cows and bulls have a timber that makes its way to our hearts. And humans who enjoy the company of cattle are known to sing to them. Both in Switzerland and on the grasslands of Texas, in the western US, you can hear cowboys yodeling to these massive four legged domestic animals. And it seems to me, that as much as their herders influence these fine animals, they are themselves influenced by the spirit and the character of the cattle they live with.

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Not so long ago, I had a dream in which I’d fallen in love with a cow, and she had come to live with me. Her behavior in my dream was much like that of Nechama my cat, in real life. And when I’d be eating or working at my table, she would jump up on the table, to sit by me. But her weight proved overwhelming for the table, and again and again, the table would be smashed to smithereens, ending flat on the floor as a pile of wood. I would try to explain to my cow that this wouldn’t work, but she would just nuzzle up against me, and assure me that she was motivated by love.

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At one point, the carpenter came to repair the table, and I pointed out a large pile of wood on the floor of the salon, telling him he could use any of the wood he found there… explaining that those boards were what remained of three previous tables. When I awoke, I was laughing.

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The cows depicted in this series accepted the weather conditions with equanimity. And because of the heavy fog, one sensed their presence more than the details of their features. In art, as in dreams, the message comes through by way of hints, more often than not. Though I have photographed cows many times, in a great variety of circumstances, this series is most loved, because it doesn’t go into the details. It just tells the story by way of impressions.

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If you’re interested in seeing the whole series, your welcome to check out the following link, where you’ll find the pictures in larger dimensions. You may enjoy a slide show by pressing the play button at the top of the Flickr page.
https://flic.kr/s/4dhc

when it rains

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Yesterday morning, while taking my usual morning walk, I couldn’t help thinking about the cold and rain of winter. Though I had dressed warmly, I felt the cold nibbling at the skin of my face, and it was a challenge. My fingers ached. I hadn’t put on gloves because I thought I might want to photograph some nice winter scene. And though my camera hung from my shoulder, in a very nice camera bag which has its own clever raincoat tucked away in a pocket, there were no pictures. As I’ve written in the past, I seem to lose all interest in photography when dealing with winter weather. I’ll admit, that there is something about snow that attracts me visually. But the cold has a decisive negative effect.

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My dear friend Noga, used to try and inspire me to take pictures of cloudy or rainy days. She would speak of the beauty of low visibility, and sometimes point out scenes that had a mysterious or romantic nature. And listening to her, I could appreciate the wonder, as seen from her point of view. I have seen photography of winter weather that I found very beautiful. But when trying to do it myself, I am usually at a loss. It seems as if the dark clouds overhead cause me to close my eyes. Yet, at the same time, one of my objectives in writing this blog is to share with you what life is like here, in Jerusalem. And it’s not just sunny days. As I was thinking about this difficulty of mine, to see the beauty of winter weather, I remembered a photo taken long ago, that I liked.

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the photo I remembered

It was a rainy day, and a group of us had gathered in the home of one of my friends. The room was dark, but it was warm inside. The conversation was animated. We were sitting around a table… drinks in front of us… and an ample supply of snacks and sweets. And suddenly I asked one of the guests if he would please give me his seat for a few minutes. My request stopped all conversation, and a few of the guests looked quizzically at me. But when I pulled out my camera, there were laughs all around. ‘Ah, the photographer has an inspiration’, said someone across the table. The man I’d asked, gave me his seat, and I moved over next to the window.

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This happened over thirty years ago. Now, I wanted to find the picture. But how was I going to do it? I do have a catalogue of my photography, but mostly, it refers to commercial jobs. And back in the days of negative film photography, I would often have a camera with me that I had used for some job… and I’d add a couple of extra shots to a film that had been part of work. Sometimes, there’d be a number of different subjects on a film, which provided 36 shots. There was a time when I remembered every shot I took… remembered the aperture and shutter speed… and more or less remembered when I‘d taken the shot. But my memory isn’t as good as it used to be. I started looking for the photograph yesterday afternoon, remembering only a few of the folks that had been there at the get-together. It took quite a while, till I tracked the photo down. And while looking for it, and checking out many, many contact prints, I saw quite a few photos that could easily provide stories for my blog.

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I realized that I’ve mostly taken the easy path in writing this blog. For it is much easier to use a digital file, than it is to hunt down a negative, and scan it. And negatives have to be worked quite a bit more than digital files. But now that I’ve been reminded of several good stories from the old days, I think I will go back occasionally, and share with you some of those photos that were captured on film.

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Meantime, going through the catalogue, and looking at contact prints, I did find quite a few photos of winter weather. But looking at these images with the detachment that is characteristic after a long gap in time, I could see that the photos were more a reminder of the conditions on a given day… and not a record of my appreciation of the specific scene. I know that many think of Israel as some desert country where rain is a great rarity. Well, we do have some deserts. But the country is blessed with a large variety of scenery. Jerusalem is on a mountain, and has real winters. And I do desire to represent it honestly. But in my efforts, I realize that my choices reflect my personal taste and preferences.