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whereabouts of the muse 2

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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whereabouts of the muse 1

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sculpture and the Jews

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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leisure living

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I’ve heard it said that life these days is more intense and hectic than it once was. People are constantly running from one thing to another, trying to get more things done in a day than they can possibly do. I’m not sure, though, if it’s just these days. I’ve seen the same behavior all my life, and there were periods when I lived that way myself. I remember hearing a song back in the sixties. It was called ‘modern day fish’ and you can listen to it on youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TL-T0I5nLPU . I tend to agree with the message. And if so, it’s not the contemporary life style. It’s us.

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When I was in my middle age, I had a business that kept me busy from morning to night. But I still made time for teaching. And then I had a number of side projects that I had to fit in, one way or another… not to speak of family… plus friends and associates. I was busy all the time. But I remember that there was one situation that was always rewarding. When standing in the shower, with the water cascading over me, I would come up with some of my best ideas, with solutions to problems that had been frustrating me. And the next best thing to that, was taking a walk. And I don’t mean walking to somewhere I had to be. Just walking for the pleasure, to enjoy the day or night, would provide the freedom to let thoughts float by… without purpose or intention.

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And that is the condition when we are most able to digest what we’ve learned… the new things we’ve experienced… or think of the many ways by which we might solve a problem. It’s good to work hard, both physically and mentally. It’s good to run or jog or work out, pushing ourselves to extremes. But there has to be a balance. And the quiet time is when we do our internal filing and put our lives in order.

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It’s getting to be summer time these days. Nice and warm. With a taste of spring still in the air; wild flowers, and new sprouts to be seen. It’s really a pleasure to take a long walk in the morning. And since moving to my new home, there are a great many places to explore; gardens and parks and hidden corners where I can sit in the shade and contemplate the good life.

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But it’s not only the new neighborhood, that’s been providing inspiration lately. The other day, Chana remembered that we had passed a sign a couple of times, pointing to Joel Springs. She suggested that we visit the place. The road we found seemed to be the sort that only a jeep could traverse, but there was also a foot path going there. We decided to walk, though we didn’t know how far away it might be, and we didn’t have a water bottle with us. After a good bit of walking under the hot sun, we decided to go back without having seen the spring. I have a feeling that we’ll still get to see it one of these days. But the path was beautiful, and we enjoyed the walk. On our way back, of course, we saw certain sights we’d missed while going in the opposite direction. It’s all a matter of perspective.

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And one of the things I especially like about taking a trip in the country, is coming across the wild flowers. As the season progresses, they show up in their own particular order. There are those that come in the beginning of spring, and by mid spring, only a few are left, and there are new and colorful flowers to replace them. I love the cistus flower especially, which covered the hills a month ago. And these days I stand in awe, looking at the different versions of Queen Anne’s Lace.

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On our way back by car, we stopped at a country restaurant and ordered a vegetarian Indian curry for lunch. I hadn’t eaten curry for years and years, and was a little disappointed because it wasn’t at all like what I remembered. And it was served lukewarm. But we also ordered some local beer made in Jerusalem, and it is wonderful. Looking at the bottle, I saw our famous lion drinking beer. It reminded me of some of the comments on my last post. I thought I’d post it for your enjoyment.

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reward

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the emblem of Jerusalem

We human beings see ourselves reflected in all living things… primarily in animals, but in plants and flowers too. The symbol of my beloved Jerusalem is the lion of Judah, going back to the days when our capital was established on the seam between the tribal lands of Judah and Benjamin by King David. Our sages used to say, it is better to be the tail of a lion than the head of a fox. When I was young, you could still encounter the big cats outside of the city. You don’t see them anymore. They have disappeared in the face of modern civilization.

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And though I identify with the cats, I have always had a special fondness for frogs and butterflies because they appear on this earth in their second incarnation. I saw them as a promise to those who wish to build themselves beyond the circumstances in which they were born. The frog is first a pollywog, and the butterfly starts out as a worm. The case of the swan is more an allegory than a reincarnation. He wasn’t really an ugly duckling. It was just the ducks who thought so.

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fleet footed

But when reaching for fulfillment, there’s no taking it easy. The higher we want to go, the more we have to be prepared for the depths. There’s a balance in this world between pain and pleasure. But there’s also blind luck that doesn’t make sense to our logical minds. Lions and elephants are born to be big. They don’t have to crawl on the ground like a worm before spreading their wings, and soaring through the air. And there are some artists too, who are born with the promise in their eyes. All they have to do is learn their tools, and play those rough cat games in their youth. Of course, they too have their share of pain, and humility… left alone at times, beaten, scratched and slapped. It’s all a part of growing up. And woe to the cat who indulges in self pity, or seeks out consolation for the traumas he’s had.

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Woe to the pollywog who found it so hard to be a little fish in the big pond that he didn’t want to grow up ever… We live in the age of compassion, of special needs, of nurturing… Wild animals have been hounded to death, and our garden hedges look like well manicured poodles. Every handicap has been categorized and is compensated for by the big mama of social services. Still, the wails resonate in the halls of learning these days. Though the sad sacks are given wheel chairs, and the confused are given multiple choices, despair floats in all directions like low hanging clouds that block the view. Don’t look for sympathy, my children. Don’t look for instant pleasures, eating till your bellies drag along the floor. Better to be a lean cat with sharp nails trained and tested on the acacia tree than a fat pig, grateful for his good life, and unknowingly on the path to slaughter.

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father and son

The artist, the poet, and the musician labor long hours striving for perfection… for a straight line, for an effervescent color, for a rhyme that won’t be confused with a knee jerk, for the whisper of infinity on the horizon. He doesn’t look for breaks or for presents, or for recognition or fame, nor for honor or love. The true reward doesn’t come as prizes or compliments from sycophants. Forget the awards. The only reward worth knowing is personal satisfaction.

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the fountain of creativity

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all pictures on this post by Stefano Spinelli

My friend Bob mentioned the spark of creativity in his comment on last week’s post. Some see it as the muse. Some have described it as a gift from god. There have been many efforts to analyze and study what allows an artist to bring something out… sometimes from the depth of his soul… that at times, is greater than the artist himself. The illustration that I like of dipping one’s toes in the water, is the image of a person talking on the phone, or some such thing, and starting to doodle on a piece of paper. Sometimes that innocent doodle can become intricate and deep. I had a dear friend who sometimes started drawing on a piece of paper, and as the picture would grow, he would attach his first drawing to the wall with masking tape and then add a sheet of paper or more, and the drawing would grow far outside the original frame.

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There are two major stages in the life of an artist. In the first, as a student, it is beneficial to him or her to receive feedback and critique. He can learn from the comments of others. He or she can discover what reaches others; what is understood of his work; what works. But in the second stage, when he or she has matured as a creative artist, there is a need to discount many of the influences outside of himself. He has to dig deep into his soul, and find content that is an expression of his unique personality and awareness. It goes without saying, that the deepest understandings are often engraved as scars on the heart, forgotten memories in the subconscious, of great pain, embarrassment, guilt, and loss. But there is a process of elevating these primal experiences from the heartbroken depths to an enlightened awareness, and this process is called sublimation. It can be a deliverance, a great release, and a source of joy to the same person who once suffered inestimable pain and distress.

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There are many ways to deal with these primal wounds and scars. One can go to a psychologist and do the work of excavating the memories that have been buried or put away. The artist does the same work that a person might do with the help of a psychologist. But his work is not to resolve issues… but to take the raw bleeding truth in his arms and bear it as a mother would a new born child, bare to the world. You may ask, what does this have to do with a painter painting a landscape seen on the steps of a mountain, or a poet writing of the rain under dark clouds in autumn? It doesn’t really matter what the painter paints, or the poet sings. An artist has to be a human being too. The greater he is as a human being, the more sensitive he is… the more empathetic… the more he identifies with the world around him, and is aware of the subtleties of life… the more he distills the essence of what was once drowned in noise and conflicting emotions, and pain and misery, and then puts the rags and the torn bits of life in order, the more he grows and matures as an artist, the better he is able to whistle in the crisp air of the mountain top, and see to the horizon, and the air around him transparent, and the expression pure.

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For as we said earlier, each person is different… both the artist and the art appreciator. But the artist, in order to express himself with the clarity of art must eliminate the noise, the distractions, the defenses, and the rationalizations which so many of us use to survive what is too painful to think about or to remember. The lies we’ve invented to help us forgive ourselves, and the rationalizations, just get in the way. Those stories may win the compassion of a dear friend, but they aren’t really unique. They are tainted by sickly motivations. It is only when the expression is clean of all foreign influences, and true to the soul of the artist, having the reverberations of a string or a reed on a musical instrument, that the artistic voice can transcend the context of personal experience and join the tree and the wildflower in drinking from the roots and bathing in sunlight, releasing oxygen to the air around us.

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The secret of the artist’s fruitfulness is the immense pleasure he receives from the work itself. That is the antidote to writer’s block and the desolation of not knowing what to do. It is the sheer pleasure of work that motivates the artist. He, she, awakes and is stimulated at every step, by every sight and sound. The very experience of life is heard in the reverberations of his soul. He is happiest when he is in conversation with the world and all that surrounds him. And he brings to the conversation his bare soul. He can relate to good and bad. There are times when he confronts the terrible. But it is no longer as a frightened child or victim. He is as strong as a tree or as delicate as a wildflower, but he is secure in his presence as part of the entirety.

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The illustrations accompanying this post are the works of a dear friend of mine, Stefano Spinelli http://www.stefanospinelli.ch/welcome.php . These are photographs of Jerusalem, taken when he was living in our city. He is not Jewish, and came to our city not knowing any Hebrew. He had fallen in love with a woman who came from here. He photographed using a little single-use plastic camera. You usually would shoot one film with the camera, and then it would be thrown away. But he would reload it each time, and he developed the film and printed the pictures by himself. He is a true artist, and his photos are among my favorites of Jerusalem, my home town. I am moved and awestruck by the way he reveals the most intimate aspects of this city that I know as well as my mother’s face.

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