Tag Archives: tradition

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celebrating lag b’omer

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as time goes by

In my youth, a classic education included the obligation to learn how to draw. It was part of the curriculum. There was no mention of creativity. That was a characteristic of god. But drawing was considered by some as learning to see; taking  notes as it were of what we saw. We started with a tree, a horse, or a flower. It was a pleasure watching someone as their eye traveled from the subject of their drawing to the paper in front of them and back again. We called it a study. In those days, it was common, especially for those who were not satisfied with their renditions on paper, to put a flower in a book and press it. Life did not start with the digital age. There were delights that disappeared at every stage of progress.

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the type of library I remember and love

For the young, change is exciting and enlivening. It’s a challenge, and healthy people enjoy challenges. And it’s an opportunity to see the world created anew within our own lifetime. I remember the words of a sage who said, ‘the creation of the world wasn’t finished in those famous six days; god continues to recreate the world every minute… and if that were to stop, our world wouldn’t exist’. I didn’t understand it at the time. It seemed a poetic phrase, an expression of the praise of god. But in old age, the phrase has returned with understanding. Change is an integral part of both our world and ourselves. To deny it or to fight it is to stop our inner world.

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As a student, I spent most of my time in the study hall of the seminary, where I was fascinated by history and philosophy in the holy books. I didn’t just sit and learn. I stood at times, with my book on a reading stand (a lectern), and took walks now and then to digest what I had read. It was an adventure for me to walk to the local library, which was my second home for many years. Many of the writers I read mentioned other books, either to agree or disagree with them, and so I always had notes in my pocket, reminding me of books I wanted to open. But sometimes while visiting the library, I would wander through the aisles and gaze at the stacks, picking up a book just because of its title or the way it looked.

My father was a scientist, which gave him access to a computer as early as the 50s of the previous century. In those days the computer was as large as a couple of rooms in a house, and belonged to the university. He used it for complicated mathematical computations. But as he explored the possible uses of this relatively new instrument, he managed to translate the image of my mother to a printout using the letters of the alphabet to provide the shadings of her face. The printout had the standard holes on both sides of the page, and the paper was cheap and discolored as it aged. Enthusiastic about the ‘human aesthetic’ captured by a machine, I hung the picture on one of my walls. And when it grew old and ugly in my eyes, I threw it away. I regret that now. As a matter of fact, I can’t understand how it happened that I, known to hold on to used shopping bags till they become an obstacle in the laundry room, could possibly throw such an article away. In any case, that mechanical portrait heralded the digital age for me.

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the newer libraries look like this… not too many books
and open for just a few hours

Now, as a photographer, I am often asked for my opinion regarding smartphone cameras. People often suspect that one still needs a ‘real’ camera to attain quality photographs. I don’t use my smartphone camera for a number of reasons. But I really like them; they’re wonderful. For the sort of work I used to do, every camera was a part of a set of working tools. For an enthusiast, the choice of one camera demands compromise. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. I am one of those people who walk around with a Swiss pocket knife in their pants’ pocket. I’ll admit it can be bested by someone who carries two knives, two screwdrivers, a can opener and bottle opener around with him, plus scissors, a corkscrew, a punch and a few other items. I came to photography because I loved it, but it was a lot of hard work. Aside from taking the picture, there was the endless choice of possible emulsions, chemical processes, developing films, and printing on paper. Digital photography made most of the techniques I learned and mastered over the years irrelevant. It was cheaper and easier, and it soon became available to almost everyone, thus greatly reducing the need for professional photographers. And as amateurs began to take advantage of the new tools, they demonstrated that imagination and invention need no diploma. But still, easy isn’t enough. When things get a little easier, we unconsciously search out difficulty. For instance, I’ve noticed that with the digital camera, it’s so easy to take a picture that people amass an infinite number of them… and then go through the agonies of hell deciding which ones to show their friends.

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this basket of books was found on the street, asking for adoption
some folks just can’t bear to throw a beloved book away

After moving to my new home, I started taking long walks to get to know the neighborhood better. Found the public library, a beautiful new building with large windows and a very modern design. It was a little hard for me to visit, because it was only open from 2:00 to 7:00 pm. I usually rest from 2:00 to 4:00, but no matter… I finally got there when it was open, and looked around. It was very clean and orderly. They had computers there too. The isles were wide, and the rooms were brightly lit. But strangely enough, there seemed to be less books than I expected. I searched out subjects that interested me, and was disappointed to find the book choices few. It turned out that the library was relatively new. The head librarian with whom I spoke seemed a very congenial woman.

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this is the newest type of library here; run by volunteers and offering
free books to anyone who wants them

For the first time in my life, I started thinking of what would happen to my own sizable collection of books. It occurred to me that I could leave them to this library in my last will, and contribute something tangible to my neighbors after my death. But when I asked the librarian if the library would be interested in a gift of books, I saw embarrassment in her face. Well, she said, they were always pleased to receive a present but the library was only interested in new books. New Books? I asked for clarification. Surely people still read Tolstoy and Shalom Aleichem? Well, of course, people are welcome to read whatever they choose, she explained, but the library only accepts books that have been published or printed since the turn of the century. Yikes!

A Christmas Greeting

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Merry Christmas

For the last three months or so, it has been very hard to for me to write my usual Friday blog post. What has been going on here in my country… a post modern war… has provoked thoughts and feelings that I’ve been unable to share with any but my closest friends who live here and understand the paradoxes that are part and parcel of coexistence with a hostile minority that takes advantage of all the many comforts of our free and modern society, while trying to destroy the state at the same time.

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Especially, because my view of how to deal with the situation differs from the policy of our government, and because I know that the ‘enemy’ is listening, I dare not discuss the issues while we are still at war. And I won’t hide the fact that what’s been happening on the streets of my beloved city cause me great pain and sadness. This too, limits my ability to express myself… to the extent that I didn’t even reply to the generous comments of my friends on my posts. Last week, I had intended to post an article about how I deal with this depression and sadness. But then there was another insane attack, and once again I was struck dumb. I just posted a picture I had composed during the week, and let it go at that.

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I see my lunch… how’re you doing?

This week too, there have been a number of news items that radically influenced my state of mind. Not just on the subject of the war. There were a number of subjects I could have discussed, had I been in a more positive mood. But unhappy as I felt, it seemed best to say nothing. I thought I’d just publish a photo I like to let my friends know that I’m still alive. But then, this morning, I looked at the calendar, and realized that it was Christmas day. Unexpectedly, I desired to send my heartfelt good wishes to my Christian friends for a very happy holiday.

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we see the spirit of creation in all nature

You know, I’ve spent some time in Europe, and in the Americas, where Christianity was the religion of the majority, in many of the places that I visited. And I was aware of certain characteristics that might be criticized, when the establishment is identified with religious morality. But this was half a century ago, and since then religion has become much less imposing, and many young people pay it no mind regardless of their cultural heritage. And that is even further complicated by the commercial abuse of the traditional holiday. But in my country, Christians are a small minority. And those I’ve gotten to know exemplify forbearance and modesty as well as a desire to do good deeds and act out their love for their fellow man. They remind me a bit of an animal who is native to our country, but seldom seen because he’s shy; the rock badger, of whom I’ve written on a number of occasions.

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cuddles from Jerusalem

Since my neighborhood is at the very edge of Jerusalem, rock badgers often come and visit. And when I go off to meditate or collect my thoughts in a park or nature preserve, and sit quietly for a length of time without moving, I have the opportunity to see them and watch as they relate to one another and to the wild life and lush vegetation in our fair city. They are exceptionally intelligent, and different members of their community have different roles to fulfill within the framework of their organized life. I am often amused at the thought that they are related to the elephants, for they are quite small, between the size of a cat and a dog, and have very small ears compared to those of an elephant. In any case, I’ve chosen to share some pictures of them together with my wishes for a Merry Christmas.

Succoth 2015

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At the synagogue in Mazkeret Batya

going back to school

Since I like to think that a great many of my readers are students in elementary and high schools around the world, it seems only appropriate for me to dedicate this blog post to ‘going back to school’… an international phenomenon, usually timed for September 1st. And it seems fitting to start out with a prayer. ‘Cause you know, whether it’s allowed by the courts or not… the school year usually starts out with a prayer. It’s called ‘the prayer of pupils’. And even if it’s not mumbled into the mustache, as we say… even if it only goes from the heart to the mind, and from there to god almighty.. what’s said is this: “please don’t let me die of boredom.” No matter if the proverbial notebooks have been replaced by laptops or tablets. Nor is there salvation in the classroom just because half the students have gotten their daily dose of Ritalin. You sit in a class with 30 other human beings who have been randomly assembled on the basis of the date of their birth, and try to absorb the wealth of information offered by the teacher at the head of the class… a person who has had only minimal exposure to the entertainment industry.

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fish may swim in a school… but these fellows don’t

The clever kids catch it the first time around. But then… they have to listen to the good news explained over and over again, in a variety of ways, till the second from last dumbbell understands. Now that can be boring, no matter how hard you’re trying to keep a positive attitude. And those at the back end of the bell curve have given up long before the classy illustrations come into play. Listening to a teacher talk can be like your first taste of meditation. It can work like hypnosis. Your mind wanders freely. You watch the light refracting on the very edge of the nose of the girl in the row in front of you, a little to the left… as the words continue to flow meaninglessly, on and on. It’s soothing. If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep. Then teacher asks a question and someone drops whatever gadget it was they were playing with… and the sudden noise is a distraction. You look around to see if folks are smiling or sleeping. A few have their hands raised. Bob asks if it’s okay to go to the bathroom. There’s a lone fly moving slowly through space overhead. It makes you wonder if nano technology has developed a tiny camera which is strapped to the chest of that fly… and recording right now… you scratching your elbow… or something else. Time is relative, you think. Who said that? Einstein or Muhammad Ali? The class lasts less than an hour, but it can seem like three hours if you take it seriously. Muhammad Ali is 191 centimeters tall.

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portrait of a graffiti artist; extra curricular activities

Students in Israel have it easy. The first of September usually arrives just before the High Holidays. You meet your teachers and your fellow students and get reminded of all the rules, find out where you’re going to sit… and then it’s vacation for the Jewish New Year. You come back and listen to a few introductions to subjects you’re going to be learning, and then it’s time to take off for the Day of Atonement. If you happen to belong to a religious family, you know that atonement is mainly for adults. Children get to do whatever comes into their heads while the adults are busy all day in the synagogue. You can just play around. Or if you like to read, that’s fine. It’s a great holiday for reading. And you get to eat while the adults are fasting. If you come from a secular family, it’s even better. For seculars, the day of atonement is national bicycle day. Everyone gets on a bike and rides around on the freeways. Because no one drives a car on that day. And there are no buses or trains either. Just an occasional ambulance, coming for someone who’s fallen off his bike. And then you can always throw rocks at the ambulance for disturbing the peace. You’re not supposed to, of course… but since most of the police are atoning too, it’s not very likely you’ll get caught.

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a weed in a meadow; worth looking at

A few days after the day of atonement, comes Succoth, the holiday of booths. We move out of our homes and into temporary shacks with fancy adornments on the inside, to remember just how frail and temporary life itself is. That lasts a week. For those who don’t like temporary shacks right outside their homes, there’re always tents and camping in nature, so long as a little rain doesn’t bother you. The whole business called ‘the holidays’ lasts about a month. And just a few days of school, all that time. You get a whiff of it, that comes and goes. And you break into it easy. Of course, once the holidays are over, that’s really it. No getting around it. School every day. No teachers’ strike till towards the end of the school year. But you keep hoping for something that’ll break the routine. And you know, that can happen too. We’ve got to think positively…

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a man eating his lunch in a temporary booth in honor of the feast of Succoth

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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for the love of books

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Around this time, towards the beginning of summer, we celebrate books. It’s called book week, or the book fair. And it’s a long standing tradition here. But this year has been a little different. There’s been a lot of discussion about books and the way they’re sold for some time now. And because I’m one of many who feel a personal connection to books, I’ve been following the public discussions and debate. Books are very important in Israel. I believe there are more books published and translated from other languages here, per capita, than anywhere else in the world. And I would guess that Jerusalem houses more books than anywhere else in the country.

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When I was young and traveling abroad, I remember learning what mattered to other peoples just by noticing the proliferation of certain types of shops or stores in a particular city. There was this one town in the far west, where I saw filling stations on every street corner. Well, at the time, it was hard to find a petrol station in our town, but there was a bookstore on almost every street.

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you can still see the rails in the old train station

In recent years though, there’s been a change in the way books are sold. For one thing, instead of the many Mom & Pop bookstores, each one with a certain expertise and interest, catering to a specific customer base, we saw the rise of chain book stores. It was a bit like MacDonald’s. Steimatzky, one of the major booksellers in our city, and known for its wide collection of English language volumes, first sprouted a few offspring, in different neighborhoods of our city. Following that, they spread across the country. Then publishers started selling their books retail, setting up chains of bookstores countrywide. They would sell all kinds of books, but pushed the volumes that they’d published themselves. As the competition increased, you could hear advertisements on the radio. Books were offered to consumers in the same commercial way that they had sold us movies in the past.

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It’s commonly thought that competition improves the market place. But what started out as playful sport between people of like pursuits and tastes, eventually turned into the fierce competitive spirit of commercial giants. By the time stores were selling 4 books for a hundred shekels, people started wondering if this was really advantageous. True, books used to cost between 70 and a 100 shekels. But what if you’re only interested in buying one particular book? Of course, you can always buy one for a friend… Still, that’s only two, and you had to buy 4 to meet the provisions of the deal. In your mind you’d already reduced the price to 25 shekels… it was a nuisance. And then we started hearing what the authors of these books were earning per book.

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Needless to say that the store owners were recompensed for their trouble. And so were the publishers. But the authors couldn’t even buy a pack of cigarettes for what they got from the sale of a book. I know what you’re saying; the author should stop smoking. But I’m just bringing this up as an example.

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Last year, parliament passed a law which insured that the author would receive a decent part of the income derived from the sale of his or her books. It prohibited the bundling of new books in sales campaigns. But the results weren’t that gratifying. It turns out that during the last year, less books were sold than in previous years. And it’s harder than ever for a new writer to break into the business. Aside from that, one has to keep in mind that there are not that many people in this world who’re looking to read a good book in Hebrew. Not to speak of the fact that there’s always more reading material available on the internet. Newspapers are going out of business. We wonder… are books the next to go?

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blues for women

The book fair this year was a great celebration, despite the controversy over sales methods. All the stores and publishers set up booths in the old railroad station, and most of the books were available at discount. Local bars and restaurants set up shop on the perimeter of the fair. A big tent top was erected pretty much in the middle of the area, and all comers were invited to listen to some of our finest native talent. At seven we heard blues for women. And by nine, we were listening to a wide variety of musical offerings played by some of our favorite musicians. The sound was great. We were entertained by some really excellent local versions of blues, hard rock, psychedelic rock, folk and jazz. It was wonderful.

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In fact, it was close to what I imagine as heaven. In the old days, I used to go to nightclubs to listen to fine jazz, while eating a light repast and having a couple of drinks. But since they outlawed smoking, I just don’t enjoy it as much, and hardly go out anymore. In this fine arrangement, smoking was allowed. Because most of the places were outdoor affairs, on balconies or patios. Even the music was considered outdoors, with just the tent top to give us some protection. And here I was, surrounded by books and friends, listening to music that just swept me away, drinking beer and smoking as much as I wanted. Just like heaven, don’t you think?

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Shimon in heaven by Chana