Tag Archives: creativity

objectivity

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My dear friends,
Back in the days when I was alive, we used to view objectivity as something to be expected from every intelligent and educated person. The news media included more than a score of newspapers which represented all the different political views, but the one state radio station, and afterwards our only TV station did their best to give the impression of objectivity. In fact, our first local media star was this affable newsman who told us the news almost every evening on the one state owned television station, broadcasting from Jerusalem, and all of us… the religious and the irreligious, the left and the right, the rich and the poor, we all believed him and liked him, if just for the fact that he was willing to enter our homes, and let us know what the heck was going on. Of course, we knew he didn’t tell us everything. If a certain well known general was having an ecstatic affair with his secretary, we didn’t expect to hear about it in the news. That sort of thing was whispered to us by our next door neighbor. But we made do with just the essential bad news which was summed up at the end of the day.

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This week, one of our pioneer journalists passed away. Or as we say it in Hebrew, went to his own world. That’s a nice way to say it; nicer than ‘dropped dead’, or as the cynics would say it in our own tongue, ‘turned into a corpse’. Uri Avneri was one of the front line newsmen back when we first re-established the Jewish state, editor and publisher of the first innovative newspaper in our land, a politician, and a man about town in Tel Aviv, hobnobbing with celebrities on first name basis. He was such a lover of peace, that he had no reservations about getting together for hugs and hot coffee with a known murderer.

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He wasn’t a ‘New Journalist’ like Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer. He was a provocateur who liked to break the toes of clay idols and didn’t find fame any more attractive than infamy. The ‘new journalists’ tried to present the story they found from a subjective view point. They shared with us the very personal way they captured and understood the story. He wrote as if he were imparting facts, but he was so wrong that most of his contemporaries didn’t even bother to knock holes in his arguments. They were obvious. He mixed facts, lies and fantasies with abandon. He would cook up stories which included social rumors he heard in the local clubs and bars, a few pictures of naked or half naked women, and a full rack of accusations and revelations of corruption, whether true or not, about any member of the establishment and especially those he saw as his enemies; that is, his brothers and his sisters.

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Though I belonged to the opposite camp from his, I loved him for his childlike innocence. He seemed to me as if he was starring in his own hand made movie, and a wonderful hero to himself. Though he had almost no sense of humor, he had a vivid imagination, and it was most amusing to see the ways he found to offend his fellow citizens by provocation arm in arm with absurdity. He wrote his own story, and if it didn’t make me chuckle , it often made me smile. Of course, now that the news media keeps pounding away at their agenda, his newspaper would not stand out or be noticeable. But a lot of his ideas became popular among the lunatic fringe, and I believe there are still some parliament members here who quote him without the bother of attribution.

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As we get old we watch our own familiar crowd thin out, drop out, and disappear till there are just a few of the old crowd left, and then they too get frail and eventually die and are buried. He was one of the last who had something unique to say or something memorable to contribute to the society I enjoyed so much when my country was just getting on its feet. In those days, I felt affection for many who had different political leanings or worldviews. But these days the hostility and the belligerence of the opposing camps has alienated me, and it is hard even to listen to their arguments. When there was just one fellow like Avnery, he contributed to a sense of balance to our society. Maimonedes said you can’t really call a place a city unless you have at least 10 bums around. I say, what’s the point of having a king if you don’t have a court jester.

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book fair blues

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This week was the first time I ever went to the book fair and came away without buying a single book. There are some annual experiences that engender a sense of permanence. But going to the book fair these days is a bit like Grandpa’s birthday. There is always the thought that it may be the last. Here in Jerusalem we have a strong attachment to books, so it took me a while to realize that something was amiss. The signs were there. The crowds seemed thinner lately. And this year there seemed to be less young adults. Children and old folks are still interested.

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With the average book costing around 70 shekels normally, there were some fantastic deals offered; 4 books for a hundred shekels. 3 books for a 100. There was one published who offered 1 + 1; you buy a book, and you get another as a present. Now this should be a very tempting opportunity. But it means that if you want to take advantage of the 4 book deal, you have to find 4 books produced by the same publisher that you would like to read.

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This was no small challenge for me. I’ve been reading book reviews of new books for the last three weeks so I’d be prepared for the fair, and even so, I didn’t have a list of books I wanted to find. In the old days, I didn’t have to make a list. Yes, I had a better memory then, but what was more important, if I saw a book I hadn’t read, on a subject that interested me, I would buy without hesitation and read with glee. But there’ve been some changes since then.

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Sometimes the name of the book has been changed without thought for the innocent. For instance, that old classic, ‘I Went To China’ is now called, ‘A Drop in the Bucket’ and bears the subtitle, ‘how a Jewish Intellectual tried to tickle the armpit of a sleeping giant’, with a beautiful cover showing an abstract photoshopped collage of far eastern headwear. The cookbooks that were once so popular are no longer in the central display. It turns out that any food you want to prepare can be found instantly on the internet with alternate recipes for gluten free diets or kosher as you wish.

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But that isn’t the only problem. I’ve always enjoyed a good novel, but nowadays novels start with the hero lying in a hospital bed, unable to speak or to move his arms and legs, with a series of pipes and electric cables attached to some life-saving device, and though no one can guess that he has more presence of mind than a turnip, he can hear what his visitors are saying. And so he listens to them discussing the challenge of finding available parking as near as possible to the hospital. And then, just when you’re hoping that some mischievous grandchild will pull the plug, the narrative begins pulling you back and forth along a zigzag route of flashbacks and forwards that leave you dizzy by the time you want to go to the kitchen and get a snack. It is hopeless trying to figure out how the plot will be resolved or who the villain or the hero is, because there are no heroes nor are there villains. It turns out that they all suffered from unhappy childhoods and have since vacillated between ADHD and the acdc gender disposition.

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If you, like me, have a fondness for history, there are a number of new volumes on the display table each year. These fall into two major categories:
1) the historiographic, which critically examines flotsam after the deluge in order to synthesize the particulars into a narrative that will uphold the agenda of the day; or
2) demythification, in which the author will tell the story exactly as it would have happened if we were living in an alternative reality in which the Nazis won in Europe, and the Indians in America, after which Marxist literature became viral, coming out of Rio de Janeiro. The two Americas unite, and live happily ever after in an ideal egalitarian state that provides people who have low self-esteem with life-long compensation because love is what matters.

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And I have to mention that the very nicest people in our town are managing the book stalls, and you’re acquainted with about 30% of those over 40. Not to speak of the real live authors scattered among the book sellers to personally sign their works for the reading public. Think about it, what a terribly anti-social disgrace it would be, to come to the book fair and not buy a book… or four.

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To make the experience all the more enticing, this exhibition takes place right at the edge of the old train station, which has become an entertainment compound featuring bars and eateries, a small railroad museum, a series of stalls selling handicrafts, and stands selling popcorn and cotton candy for the children and the nostalgic. So I visited a few book stalls, talked to a few people, tried to find four books, three books even two books that I really wanted to read and didn’t have in my own library. There was one book that I thought might be interesting, but it seemed such a provocation to buy a book at full price when they were offering all these deals that I preferred to wait till my next visit at the local bookstore.

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Noga and I did our best to retreat unobserved from the book fair to Restaurant Row. where we managed to get outdoor seating at the Asian Eatery. That’s right, the old Chinese restaurant I loved has gone out of business, and I don’t eat sushi because I worry that the raw fish might come back to life and swim away from my plate. The Asian Eatery offers selected highlights from any country east of Israel, and actually, we had a tasty dinner to conclude our adventure.

a Jewish lion

You remember that picture of the modest mermaid that I’ve already posted here twice over the years? There are certain examples of graffiti, signs in stores etc’, that I treasure… for me, they are examples of the Jerusalem spirit even though they are sometimes so marginal that most people don’t even notice. And they are more precious to me, if I get the impression that they’re not going to last long… like the two-dimensional sculptures I once found on the roof of a school. Those sculptures did disappear quickly… they were probably just an exercise… but I enjoyed the work.

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The concrete or plaster lions are lasting much longer than I expected them to. Someone had the idea to cast a lot of lions, and then let different artists paint them as they pleased for decoration. The lion of Judah has been the mascot of Jerusalem for more than a thousand years, and he is found on every manhole cover in town, as well as park benches and other city properties. But these plaster lions were neither traditional nor did they resemble the animal in nature. The city moved them around a bit after a few were posted in town… and then they were moved again… and recently a number of them seem to have found their niches in stations of the light train. I particularly like this lion because he’s wearing glasses… even though he’s the king of the jungle. As a boy I had to wear glasses, and there are quite a few young scholars in our town with the same handicap.

serendipity

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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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