Author Archives: ShimonZ

tools of the trade

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I was a young man when I first began writing professionally. It was what I expected to do… what I’d set as my personal goal. I had been so grateful for the advice and friendship I had received from writers in my childhood and youth, that I felt a personal debt to them, and in this way I hoped to repay them. I wrote long pages in blue-black ink from a fountain pen on white linen bond paper. That same pen is still in one of my drawers. The act of writing was as gratifying to me as the possibility of conveying thoughts to paper. I could smell the ink. I enjoyed watching the trail of blue-black ink slowly drying on the page as I continued to write. I had a number of different pens, and numerous nibs which enabled me to write in different styles as well as different languages. I preferred a fine line, but used wide nibs as well… sometimes to emphasize something in the text, I used italics as well. To me, good writing meant no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and the ability to organize my thoughts in such a way that they would be readily understood by the reader. This was so important to me because if I (or my editor) found a mistake, I would usually rewrite the page. Which took some time. Such work was drudgery.

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My first typewriter was a present from an aunt. I was greatly moved by her gesture. It seemed such a personal and appropriate gift. And strangely enough, I received another three typewriters through my life, from very close friends. But as much as I enjoyed typing, I felt most comfortable and most natural writing by hand with pen on paper. Though I felt no need to study journalism or creative writing, I did take a typing course so as to learn to put my thoughts on paper as quickly as possible. Typewriters could only write in one font, which meant that I needed separate machines for Hebrew and Latin letters.

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The machines stayed with me for decades, and became part of my physical presence in this world from my point of view. In a way, they were more an extension of my body than the pens I used, maybe because I typed blind. The Royal portable traveled with me across the world on ship and in airplanes. I used to feel a sense of intimacy in my relations to tools. But since the start of the digital age, tools come and go. The life expectancy of a computer is so short that I haven’t really gotten attached to any of them. Software programs change and become more complicated. I would discover that I didn’t have enough RAM, and by the time I moved on to a new computer I was glad to get rid of the old.

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Language too, is an intimate tool. A tool of the mind by which we communicate our deepest thoughts and feelings. And that too is changing. When I was young, our ancient language was sacred. Educated people went to great pains to conform exactly to the rules of grammar. The language we heard on the radio was elegant. When a word was added to our vocabulary, it’s addition was decided by The Academy of the Hebrew Language, and though we laughed sometimes at the new inventions, they were necessary for scientific and technological subjects that hadn’t existed when our language first flowered. But then slang appeared in the army, and folks were amused by these new additions and used them. Foreign words were included in our speech as well, and slightly changed to correspond to our rules of grammar. Slowly, gradually, the slang increased, and nowadays when conversing with the young, I have to ask the meaning when hearing an unfamiliar phrase. It makes me feel less grounded.

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The pictures on the store front windows, were found on Jaffa Str., here in Jerusalem. They represent visual illustrations of Jerusalem slang and expressions unique to our town. The artists involved in this project wished to decorate the city with local expressions.

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little ones

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I’ve been working on a post, and just haven’t managed to complete it yet, so I’ll let it wait. Meantime, I’ll share a picture taken this week when some of the cubs joined the adult hyraxes at the park… or should I say manger?

I think it was last year… maybe two years ago; a little later in the year… at the end of summer. I watched the adults teach their cubs how to climb a tree. An adult would take a running start and sort of continue up the tree. The cubs tried, but they would fall down. This continued for a while till everyone was tired, so they had a bit to eat and went home. I wasn’t able to take a picture. I’d been sitting for a time with my back against a tree (which they studiously avoided), and I knew that if I raised the camera to take a shot, that would be the end of the exercise. So I just sat there and watched. This time, all they were interested in was the grass. And I did manage to get a shot for you. The cubs are so cute.

old as the hills 2

for readers with time to spare
this is fiction

My first impression of the new place was emptiness and quiet. The landscape seemed to continue on and on to the horizon. There was the big house and a barn. But mostly, what I could see of this world… new to me… was heaven and earth. Aside from the two structures, and a few sentinel and shade trees, everything that wasn’t in the heavens was found close to the ground. The few people that I met spoke little, with little intonation in a language that was so far unintelligible. The landlady took us to our quarters, We were shown what to do by example. The first familiar voice I heard was the crow of a rooster, It was reassuring, recognizable sound.

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Time seemed to move slower than ever before. the newspaper which I saw passed from one person to another, was foreign too. Very likely, even if I could read it, there’d be nothing there that’d interest me. My bible and prayer book had been pulled out from between the shirts and the socks in my suitcase, and were now on a little table next to my bed. but I hadn’t brought pages to write on, and I longed for some connection to my parents. The one phone in the house, hardly ever used, held no promise for me. In those days, international calls were a rarity and expensive. Such things were beyond me. The radio too, which was turned on for about an hour, or an hour and a half in the evening, seemed like a special luxury, and it occurred to me that the classical music we listened to, in chairs arranged around the radio, might have been especially for my benefit. For I was asked more than once if this was the music I liked. Music was a word that I knew.

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As the days passed, the shock of landing in an unknown environment receded leaving the door open to curiosity. I began to notice that there were sounds, mostly subtle and of lower intensity, but sounds all the same, which seemed to be interwoven with the landscape. Daytime sounds and the sounds of night. A bird that sang at the approach of sundown. People here seemed to get up with the rising sun, and went to their beds not long after night had fallen. Little by little I began to realize that my first impressions had been incorrect. The quiet that at first had overwhelmed me was merely the absence of sounds I was used to. My eyes began to register distances as my feet mapped the territory from the house to the farm and from there to the fields. By way of my feet, through socks and shoes, I sensed the land. My nose and ears became sensitive to this new reality. The hair follicles on my head could recognize a gentle breeze when it came. washing face and hands was less a ritual and seemed a necessity. Some of the vile smells which at first I had tried not to smell (that was impossible) became pleasant after a while.

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In my parents’ home, my earliest associations had not been defined. Home was a medley of familiar voices and smells; routines that I expected without ever thinking about them. The warmth and good cheer of mother. I thought she knew everything, and I trusted her implicitly. Singsong voices wrapped around me like a comfort blanket. Home was familiar and protective though I often discovered new objects or signs that bore meanings, were there for me to learn. There were orders, requests, and instructions from parents to children, usually in a matter of fact voice without emotion. Punishments were so rare that I can remember only one example. But it was quite easy to read the faces of mother and father, and a message of disapproval or disappointment even if unspoken, was punishment enough. The word that could best express my relationship to parents and teachers was awe. A person who could be completely trusted was usually described as a person having awe of heaven.

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Our sages used to say, turn your home into a meeting place for the wise. This advice had been so thoroughly absorbed by the adults I knew that it never needed mentioning. As much as human beings were an integral part of our home, so were books. They could be scrolls, or pages sewn and bound together. There were holy books and there were kosher books. These were the scrolls on parchment. And there were secular books too.

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There was often a book or two on the dining table, and occasionally a group of books, some of them opened to a particular page, if someone had searched for an explanation or information regarding some obscure subject. On all the doorways of our home, except for the toilet, there was a little box made of wood, attached to the frame of the door. I had once seen this box opened. Maybe it had been opened especially for my edification. Inside was a tiny scroll. And on the scroll there was writing, black square letters on white parchment, crying out to all of Israel that god was one, and he was all encompassing. This was followed by a few paragraphs from the bible regarding how one should or could relate to that.

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This tiny scroll looked much the same as the torah scrolls which were read in the synagogue on Mondays, Thursdays and twice on Saturdays, except for the fact that the torah scrolls had two poles and the tiny scroll was rolled into a cylinder without any pole at all. There were scrolls without poles, with just one pole, and with two poles, depending on how much parchment there was to read or study from. They were all called books. In my new home I found only one book, obviously a bible though I couldn’t read the writing. It was kept on the same shelf that carried numerous ceramic figures.

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Later, a teacher once told me, ‘we’re not here to teach you facts, but to teach you how to learn’. I wonder if I knew that then, or if it was a natural reaction to an environment completely new, but soon I was learning from the bushes and the trees, and from the vegetables whose leaves were still anonymous. How thrilling it was to discover that there were carrots, radishes and onions growing under those leaves, and a little scary to observe the tomato bugs trying to get to that fruit before we were able to enjoy them at the table. I learned to fold leaves or rub them to intensify their smell; to check the taste of leaves; to smell the barks of trees… to hold dirt in my hand. Dirt, which had always been an unwelcome intruder in my parents’ home, and whisked right out… had joined the assembly of characters who now occupied my new world.

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The language of the locals was my biggest challenge. No one talked to me, so when I heard others talking my mind would stop and stand at attention. I would try not to think at all. I would let the words enter my head like waves at the sea shore, reverberating sometimes back and forth till they were replaced by others. I would watch the faces of the speakers, discerning expressions that accompanied the sounds. It was difficult at first to know when one word ended and another began. The faces were more expressive than the sounds. Occasionally there were familiar sounds. Now and then there was a word that I thought I recognized. And then there were more. I was in no rush to speak. I knew I was different enough without spilling broken and twisted words in front of everyone.

all photos here from the Makor Baruch neighborhood
in Jerusalem

old as the hills 1

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this is a work of fiction, no flash intended; any similarity to persons living or dead must surely be coincidental

“I was about your age”, said the old man, looking at me as if he was searching for something in my face, “and we were suffering through the previous war then… my parents worried whether we could make it through. We’d seen sights in the streets…” he paused. I knew he was thinking maybe it was best I didn’t hear what he’d seen in the streets at that time. He was still looking at me with that big question in his face, but I figured I might have to wait a long time till I figured out the question. Maybe he was wondering if I’d cry when he finally got around to telling me what he had to say. I knew it wasn’t about the sights he’d seen in the last big war, because he never talked about such things… and I knew that no matter what he said, I wasn’t going to cry… because it was hard for him to bear, and we didn’t have too many of these heart to heart talks. They usually came when there was bad news in the offing. I’d tried now and then to initiate a conversation with him. But I really didn’t know the things that interested him. So I just did my best to hold up my side of the conversation. The contact… the communication was precious. This time, he wasn’t telling me something that I was supposed to have known before he even started talking. No, this was about getting a piece of news. And my part of the interchange was just waiting for it to get out there; the less I said, the easier it would be for whatever it was to get out.

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We were heading towards another war. That I knew. He said he didn’t think it’d have to be as bad as the previous one… though you never can tell. Still, there might not be much food around for a while. And food is very important when you’re growing. Children, he explained… didn’t see any of them around… have all kinds of needs. They make noise, even without realizing it. I couldn’t help wondering about that. I knew children made noise. But it seemed to me that they were aware of it. Didn’t say anything myself. Because I knew that such facts had been assembled to let me know what was coming… this wasn’t about sharing mutual experiences.

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It turned out that we children… me and my sister, and the next door neighbor’s boy and a few other kids were going to be sent far away, though it wasn’t really that far… to a farm, where there’d be all kinds of animals, and nice people who weren’t like us at all, and chores that we could do, to help out on the farm. Maybe there were children there too, that we could get to know and play with once we learned their language, and it was a lot easier to learn a new language when you were a kid. We’d have plenty to eat, and lots of new things to learn. We’d see where food comes from.

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Now, here was a new idea… my first thought was I knew where food came from; from the market, from the green grocer, from the bakery… but his words told me that I didn’t. It sounded interesting. For the first time since he’d taken me aside to ‘talk’ I realized that the news might be seen as an opportunity. I didn’t like the idea of going far away… nor all the rest of the things that had been mentioned… terrible things to be seen in the streets, or nice people that spoke a different language… it didn’t seem like I’d want to go far away, even to see animals. I’d seen my share of animals. But none of them had been quite as intelligent as my cat, and he was always here with me. mmmm… I wondered if my cat could join us on this trip. But I had a feeling I knew the answer to that one. No. All the same, it would be interesting finding out where food came from… before it got to market.

for better or worse

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We may have been born blind or ugly, with a twisted body. or a body that turns out too short, or too long, or with skin of the wrong color. We may develop disadvantageous habits such as eating too much or biting our fingernails. We may have some borderline personality disorder or be Bipolar or have one of the many different mental diseases that are still part of the human landscape. We could get some terrible illness like Degenerative Muscle Disease or Alzheimer’s Disease. Some of these disadvantages are a matter of luck. And others reflect on poor decisions, and choices. A person who drives a motor vehicle while drunk might pay for it with a lifetime as a cripple, much worse than any punishment the court would sentence. But that’s life. There isn’t much we can do about that.

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I could tell you about my own personal life, my bad luck, and my failures. But I’m a person who values privacy. When I go out into public, I prefer to be fully clothed. And when in social discussion, prefer to hear of what people enjoy eating and not about their bowel movements. But if I don’t mention them, it’s not because I want you to think that I don’t shit.

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We arrive here in this, our common world, each person with his own talents and limitations, and we have to make do with what we have. It’s our life, and it’s there for the taking from the time we reach maturity till our death. We can find inspiration in the choices of Helen Keller or Stephen Hawking who were able to overcome severe disabilities. We may read the thoughts of the great thinkers recorded in history since the invention of writing. But finally, it is up to us to find our own way and enjoy this period of time we have on earth.

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There was a time when I enjoyed mountain climbing, sleeping on the ground, eating minimal rations which I could carry on my back, and learning what I could about this world. I lived a good life… maybe even, a few good lives, from my perspective. But now, like Saul who put away his toys when he was grown, I’ve given up the pleasures of my earlier days, and have tried to enjoy the possibilities affordable to an oldster. I miss the libraries I used to visit, miss the high mountains, miss driving with all the windows open across the warm desert, picking a spot to make camp, and finding a universe hidden in the wide wild open. But the computer compensates somewhat for the loss of libraries, and I have the advantage of enjoying the parks, and the cozy corners of this city I live in. We even have islands in the midst of thoroughfares in which flower bushes, different greenery and vines are planted.

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Of course, in my city as in every city, there are better spots, and places which I try to avoid. Usually it’s a matter of choice. Even when I go from one place to another in this city, I don’t always travel the shortest distance. It’s important to me that I enjoy myself while traveling, even if it takes a little longer. I think, how good it is when it takes a little longer and I’m enjoying myself all the way there.

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When I hear the exploits of people richer than myself, how many cars and houses they have, airplanes and yachts, I’m happy for them. I wish them happiness and peace and satisfaction. I know it takes very little to live. And fortunately, I don’t see any hungry people here in the society around me. There are people driven by unquenched desires, but that isn’t hunger as I know it. When I see people living according to twisted values, what used to be called worshiping false gods, I know it’s not my place to steer them against their will towards the good. Everyone has to make their own choices. I tried to influence my own children, but I learned that those with the right stuff, eventually found the right way. And now I believe that it’s best only to give advice when you’re asked for it. Otherwise, it doesn’t usually help anyway.

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Since I feel I’m talking to friends on this, my page on the internet, I feel free to offer a piece of advice here and there, You can read it or skip past to find something more interesting. Some people prefer to look at the pictures without struggling through the text. That’s fine too. As for myself, I make an effort to find those places in which I feel best. Even in my own home, there are more preferable places and less. Outside of the home, there’s a whole world to be found in the city in which I live.

D2715_06this is my home, with clouds above… the room that juts out, with wooden boards between the windows and the roof is my living room

The olive trees posted here are found in the liberty bell park. The park was named in honor of the USA because we admire their aspiration for freedom. Olive trees are native to our land, and there are many stories about them and their wonderful fruit. I’ll share just one that I particularly like. There were priests in the holy temple whose job it was to extract oil. They would squeeze each olive just one time, and the oil from that squeeze was gathered in a vessel. It was called ‘pure olive oil’ and was reserved for the eternal flame. The rest of the olive was used for all the regular needs, as food and oil.
Wishing everyone a very good weekend.

pets

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Nechama taking a walk

We were talking about mysticism, enlightenment, and understanding life itself, a conversation with a friend that stayed with me and accompanied me as I went out to take a walk the next day, Nechama with me, taking her own steps in the park behind our home. She’s never on a leash, but sometimes she walks with me, by my side. This time she was smelling the flowers and the leaves of the plant life in the garden. There were no dogs about, so she was quite relaxed, and it was early enough in the day for the weather to be pleasant. The very best of summer weather.

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Now and then, I would get too far ahead of her, and she would run to catch up. But when we got back to walking, it didn’t take much time till she was sidetracked again by the pleasures of nature.

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These two dimensional iron cat sculptures have been erected in back of a local Arab-Israeli school

I’d been thinking of writing about the experiences remembered in last night’s conversation, levels of consciousness and intuition, as I watched Nechama investigating the familiar plant life, knowing that she was sensitive to signs and history that I didn’t see, and it occurred to me that I had not yet shared with you the great respect I feel for friendship between human beings and members of other species.

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Maybe because I myself am a city boy, born and raised… and having lived almost all of my life in the city, there’s always been an underlying fear that we human beings have distanced ourselves from other forms of animal life, and have become more and more complacent within the human bubble, surrounding ourselves with man made inventions, and often preferring two dimensional fantasy to confrontation with nature.

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Usually when we think of pets, we think of the companionship that they provide. Sometimes even when locked in a cage, or swimming in a small body of water in an aquarium. But there is more to relating to an animal, and as one grows closer to the animal one learns to feel the joy and the pain of that other species… and there is always that chance of finding answers to the very questions we ask ourselves.

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I believe that the dog is the most popular pet in the world, and he is known as man’s best friend. In Hebrew, the very word ‘dog’ means ‘like a heart’ when literally translated into English. I had already lived a full life when I first became friends with a dog, and though I had always treasured my many meetings with different animals, both domestic and wild, I discovered a new (to me) level of communication with that bitch.

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the mature hyrax keeps an eye on the territory. the young one has an adventurous spirit

My first relationship with an animal began when a cat took interest in me, and initiated friendship. I was a small boy at the time, wary of all human company, and had taken a chair and a book to read in the shade of a tree. When the cat approached, I was too shy to even pet him, so we locked eyes and looked at one another for the longest time. And that cat made the moves. Since then I have had similar contacts with many different mammals and birds. It has often been an awesome experience. Occasionally there have been misunderstandings or severe differences. I have experienced happiness and sorrow. I’ve learned from animals so, so much, and the most I’ve learned from cats.

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a painting on the curb, between the street and the sidewalk

When reading Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, I came across a couple of bear stories, including one in which the bear almost did him in. While reading that book I felt love and respect for Roosevelt, and so it was almost painful for me that I was unable to share with him (he died before I was born) my own confrontation with a bear in which we eventually sat down face to face in a forest at night, and shared the space in peace. Of course, Roosevelt had been hunting at the time, and it’s hard to get on even footing with another living thing once you’ve been hunting him.

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on my way to take the bus

I know that too from my own experience, though I never hunted an animal with a gun. But when I was still a very young man, I met a buck deer in the forest once. He was very cautious at first, but satisfied himself that I was not going to do him any harm. And so we stood there for a while, about two meters separating us in this small clearing. He might have been interested in food, but I offered him none. And then when I’d gotten pretty relaxed and figured he felt the same, I reached for my camera, and lifted it in front of my eyes. It was at that moment that he lunged forward and kicked me in the chest with one of his legs before running away. He knocked me down. I’ve been a little more cautious about photographing without permission since.

a commentator on the affairs of man

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Nechama and Shimon

A couple of weeks ago, on June 21, Charles Krauthammer, an American commentator and syndicated columnist died at the age of 68. In his senior year at McGill University he was editor of the school newspaper, the McGill Daily and this led him to define his political and social attitudes. He wrote that he disliked the politics of certainty and the politics of the extreme (Maoism was quite popular there in the 60s) and as an editor, decided to go the way of pluralism, which was not so popular then. After completing his studies he went on to Oxford, studying political philosophy. He later wrote, ‘…my muse for this prudential view of the possibilities of politics: John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty is the foundational document of classical liberalism’.

Krauthammer continued studying, becoming a doctor of medicine at Harvard, and afterwards specialized in psychiatry. His first introduction to real life politics was when he went to Washington, D.C., to direct planning in psychiatric research under the Carter administration. In 1980 He began work as a commentator, and joined the Washington Post in ’84 where he worked as a regular columnist till his death.

Though I was not a follower of his, and read only a few of his columns through the years, I was impressed by his rationality and his humor, and bought his book, ‘Things that Matter’, which is an autobiographical study of his thoughts and ideas through his working life. Though he has been labeled a conservative, or neoconservative, by my standards he seemed a liberal. He explained the seeming contradiction himself when speaking of his hero. ‘Mill held that truth emerges from an unfettered competition of ideas and that individual character is most improved when allowed to find its own way uncoerced’. That was the liberal view in the 19th century. But in the 20th century, ‘Modern liberalism’s perfectionist ambitions seek to harness the power of government, the mystique of science and the rule of experts to shape both society and citizen and bring them both, willing or not, to a higher state of being’.

While still a student, he deliberated whether to make his career in science or in medicine. ‘I had long preferred the graceful lines of physics to the ragged edges of biology. But at 16, I’d come to the realization that I didn’t have what it took to do important work in theoretical physics, namely genius. I chose medicine. I have no regrets. It was challenging and enlarging. I absorbed more knowledge in those seven years than at any other time in my life’. After that, as a commentator, he discussed a great many of the issues that confront contemporary man, and western society with a very open minded and self revealing attitude.

He criticized culture and art; the morality of stem cell research and genetic engineering; the Me Generation, the cult of the body, family and children; gender issues and abortion. He considered religion, and the religious characteristics found in idealistic secularism. In writing about individual and collective guilt, individual and collective punishment, he argued well against the conventional attitude towards collective punishment. He discussed the existential anxiety of man alone in the universe. He examined change and revolution, and the influence of technology on our common culture. He scrutinized racism, both in its classical forms and its derivatives in our society. He studied the problem of gun control. Through his running commentary of the philosophical problems confronting us because of social changes and technological and scientific progress he was aware of the irony that the arts, physics, music, mathematics and other manifestations of human genius are dependent on politics. As he said: ‘Because if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction’.

Regarding stories in the media about the personalities of politicians and social leaders, he wrote: ‘As a former psychiatrist, I know how difficult it is to try to understand the soul of even someone you have spent hundreds of hours alone with in therapy. To think that one can decipher the inner life of some distant public figure is folly. “Know thyself” is a highly overrated piece of wisdom. As for knowing the self of others, forget it. Know what they do and judge them by their works’.

He recognized that violence has become a serious threat to the well being of society, pointing out possible causes. ‘We live in an entertainment culture soaked in graphic, often sadistic, violence. Older folks find themselves stunned by what a desensitized youth finds routine, often amusing. It’s not just movies. Young men sit for hours pulling video-game triggers, mowing down human beings en masse without pain or consequence. And we profess shock when a small cadre of unstable, deeply deranged, dangerously isolated young men go out and enact the overlearned narrative’.

I believe that at his core, he was an optimist. He was constantly looking for solutions. He believed that America had become a democratic success because it aspired to the greatest possible freedom for the individual. Yet he realized that increasing public safety almost always means restricting liberties. In discussing the right of the citizen to carry weapons, he concluded by weighing the two alternatives, both of which were a loss of freedom. Which is better he asked, to outlaw weapons or to perform invasive searches on people going about their private business every time they enter an airport or a public building?