Tag Archives: work

moral qualms

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We live in different countries, different cultures, speak different languages, but the spirit of the time, the zeitgeist affects us all. When I think back to the 60s, I remember the strong feeling I had then, that people were reexamining their values, and that the world would never again be as it was before. A conversation comes back to me from those days. I was sitting with my parents on their balcony and my father was discussing the similarity of scientific research on both sides of the iron curtain. Perhaps this was after Sputnik, that first venture into space. I remember saying something about changing attitudes, especially on college campuses. My mother turned to me and said, “Every generation thinks that they’re going to change the world.” I remember thinking, but this generation is really different, though I didn’t say it. I respected her perspective.

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Back then there were folks coming from all over Europe to volunteer on kibbutz. Young people were rejecting the crass commercialism of the 50s, and even in America, there were new experiments in communal living. Free speech was the battle cry of youth. Forward thinking people were building homes and public facilities based on geodesic engineering. But looking back, the effect of that cultural revolution was short lived. What remains of those bright eyed and long haired revolutionaries is not much more than the obsessive use of the word fuck in Hollywood movies.

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Here in our country, a new law is being discussed in parliament which is intends to put an end to prostitution. Any person caught hiring the services of a prostitute would be made to pay a sizeable fine. If caught a second time, he would pay double the fine. And after that, might face criminal prosecution. As expected, there were protests from the ‘working girls’, and a television program pointing out the advantages of such employment for handicapped people who might suffer were it not for the release provided by such service. But most of the progressive people in our society support the legislation. Women too. Our Minister of Justice is a fine, intelligent and serious thinker, and she was for the law. And the head of our socialist leftist party, also a woman, was pushing for it.

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When Israel achieved statehood after being a colony of Great Britain, we inherited an English law prohibiting homosexual activity. Though I am a religious Jew, and we believe that male homosexuality is a perversion and contrary to the injunctions of the bible, I supported the repeal of this law. Believing in ‘live and let live’, I don’t think the state should get involved with a person’s private life. On the subject of homosexuality, it is interesting to note that the Greeks and the Jews disputed this issue more than 2000 years ago. The Greek standpoint was that homosexual relations were on a higher level than heterosexual love, because they weren’t necessitated by self-perpetuation.

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Nowadays, there are many examples of the state’s involvement in the lives of citizens. Compulsory schooling is already taken for granted in all western countries. We have recently seen the heavy handed approach to smoking, while at the same time there is a growing tolerance of Marijuana. In the past, the US made a great effort to prohibit the imbibing of alcohol, which caused havoc and the loss of lives. But these days, the common attitude is to encourage individual liberties.

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Prostitution is an immoral act, and has become an allegory for a great variety of distasteful behavior, including the self promotion of politicians, journalists, and business men. But if two consenting adults agree to have sex in exchange for money, is it our business to interfere? What if a rich man or woman suggests a date with a younger indigent person? Will that too be against the law? Will we allow discrimination against the obese? Israel already has a law against pimping. The law hasn’t been very effective, especially since the arrival of the internet. Because women looking for that sort of business can advertise without an agent. If this new law will work, it’ll deprive a minority of their freedom. And if it doesn’t work, it’ll demean still further the respect of society for law and government.

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I believe its important that laws are made to protect the society within a framework representing consistent values. It is very sad to see the constant growth of laws and ordinances to the point where an individual is easily strangled by the heavy weight of never ending paperwork, and where changing fashions dictate the lives of all, including personal preferences. Appearing before a court is an expensive enterprise and we are becoming completely dependent on lawyers for dealing with the judicial system.

The photos on this post describe a visit to my favorite market, Machaneh Yehuday, and dinner at a restaurant there with my dear friend Noga.

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a fence worth looking at

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As I have mentioned previously, Hebrew is a conceptual language. It is built on a great many roots which are found in all verbs. When the same root is found in different words they reflect a conceptual relationship. For instance, the words: writing, dictation, correspondence, letter, and reporter all have a common root. The very nature of the language hints at certain values which are part of our culture. And so, it’s interesting to find that the root of the word ‘definition’ is the same as that for ‘fence’.

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A fence, we learn, gives definition to an area. Which goes together well with a saying I’ve heard in English, ‘a fence makes good neighbors’. This fence was found in one of the two industrial neighborhoods of Jerusalem, Talpiot and Givat Shaul. Both of them accommodate factories and workshops. And since there are workers there, they also have restaurants and simple eateries, shopping centers and stores. And because no one sleeps there at night, you’ll find night clubs there too, so people can enjoy themselves as noisily as they care to, at all hours. And where there are fences, they are meant to hide an unsightly industrial property or designed to keep people from wandering into a construction sight.

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I was visiting some clients in Talpiot when I first noticed this fence. It was made of sheet metal that had been put up between posts in the ground, and was painted in three colors with black lines. Turned out that a few businessmen had put together the money to buy paint, and some students from the Bezalel Art Institute in our fair city had volunteered to decorate the fence. The unpretentious stick figures fit in nicely with the many examples of graffiti found in the area. The paintings have a somewhat humorous, minimalist approach. And in my eyes, it’s art.

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As for fences, their very existence is something of a provocation. One wants to trespass or transcend. But if they’re designed well, they might seem like the skin that surrounds and protects our bodies. Though Jerusalem was a walled city in ancient times, there are relatively few fences within the city. The housing is fairly dense, yet here and there are open spaces, which provide that very important taste of nature in the city. I hope to do a post very soon on some of those public spaces here.

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You can see the set of the fence pictures here:

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imperfection

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The strident cry of an ambulance siren on the freeway, coming in from the north… on it’s way to the hospital on mount scopus, not so far away… begs to remind the speeding drivers that at times, there are incidents even more important than their own intentions. The drivers slow for a moment, moving a little, left or right, to make way for the ambulance. It passes, and the traffic resumes its previous pattern.

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The sun is shining. The skies are blue. A few white cotton clouds floating up there. Blue and white above, and fierce geometric patterns of shadows falling from the corners of stone buildings opposite, across the street. In my pleasant room, there is a light breeze through the open window, and the sounds of overwhelming beauty from the guitar strings of Lanzboim coming through the speakers. The name of the album is ‘Beyond This World’. Life seems as beautiful as it can get. What happens now?

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In the garden of Eden, it seems that our first sin was rampant curiosity… or was it the temptation to experience the forbidden. And then came hatred, jealousy, and murder. I heard on the radio this week, of a young man who died from shooting some designer drug right into his veins. It had been intended for smoking. But he wanted a more intense experience. I hear of bungee-jumping. There are people out there looking for thrills. Sometimes it seems to me that the greatest sin is taking this world and the life we were given for granted.

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And on the other side of the street there are people struggling to overcome a handicap. Some were born blind, and others blinded by illness or accident, and are working hard to appreciate the world with their other senses. Despite their handicaps, they are trying to enjoy the world around them as much as you and I do. And it seems sometimes, as if a handicap can be a present from heaven, reminding us of how precious life is… how precious, that which we do have… and that which we can enjoy.

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A few weeks ago, we were on the balcony with Gila… on another beautiful day like this. We were drinking beer and soaking up the sun. Our friend Ilanit told me that she had heard somewhere that life is like riding a bicycle. If it’s easy, it means you’re going downhill. If it’s hard, it means your climbing. I liked that one.

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Yesterday, I had an early dinner with a friend in the Fortuna restaurant here in Jerusalem. It’s a modest restaurant. You would have trouble finding it, if you weren’t a resident of Jerusalem. The owner prepared the food, and carried it himself to our table. There were quite a few little plates with all kinds of different salads on them. The salads were wonderful… just as good as the main course. The photos on this post are from the machaneh yehudah neighborhood, where the restaurant is found.

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Sitting there, eating my meal, and talking with a friend… after having had my eyes examined by an optical cat scan, and thinking that even blindness might be an experience that could enable an appreciation of life… it occurred to me that we don’t really need a handicap to appreciate life… nor a bungee-jump for the thrill. It is enough to remember that life is a temporary experience. We’re here today, and gone tomorrow. And if we remember that, we should be able to treasure each day, and every experience that comes our way.

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Here in Jerusalem, we have another recipe for keeping life precious. Six days a week, we go about our work and play. And on the seventh, we take a break. A break from all the work and all the regular things; a celebration of life, of simple sensual pleasures like a good meal and a walk… of song… and reading a good book. It works most of the time. But, of course, there is always the temptation to break the rules. This evening, my Sabbath begins with the setting sun. My best wishes to my readers and friends.

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work at something you love

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… to Janne with love…

work at something you love
’cause work wasn’t meant to be a picnic
isn’t just highs and deep realizations…
but drudgery and pettiness, and remaining true
through the worthless moments…
going back to hoe another rut again
under the hot sun, breathing the gray fog
carrying meaningless loads… of something
that should have been thrown away last year
being kind to complaining animals
who think they have it coming to them,
straining at the ropes… barking through the fence…
remembering that those old tiles on the footpath
were going to be replaced long ago
looking at the salesman’s catalogues, thinking…
what’s the minimum that I can buy
to keep this old farm still going
and avoiding the glamour, and the color,
and the promised miracles…
getting up when you’re still tired
keeping on when it looks like hope is gone…
the horse has blinders, but you just have purpose
and a fading commitment that doesn’t make sense
if you love your work…
if it doesn’t come out right the first time… or the second…
who’s counting… when it’s been all day…
rubbing in that old stain… till you’re carried away
the doctor heals the sick… and there are more sick
from here to the end of life, than we could imagine…
facing sad eyed misery, again and again…
from the road cleaner to the laundry man
to the cook in the hash house who’s fried more eggs
than there are flies round the garbage can.
from the man on the assembly line to the boss himself
there are excuses and embarrassments and expectations
mistakes and retakes and going through the motions…

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so love your work and await the sublime
which makes up for what happened that other time…

days getting shorter

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The days seem to pass very quickly. There was a period in my life, when I had so much to do, I’d plan the day to the minute. And it was amazing, how much I managed to fit into a single day. I am reminded of those intensive times when I talk to my children. They’re still doing that. Have a number of projects running at the same time; often eat on the run; answer mails on their cell phones; pick up something from the store on their way from here to there. I admire their pace, and their many accomplishments. All the more so, because they seem happy. They have the pleasure of accomplishment.

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I start my day with a walk. It’s most beautiful shortly after sunrise. Talk to the neighborhood cats, and they share with me that which interests them. Each day is different. The light falls differently on the trees and bushes, and the neighborhood buildings. By the time I return to my studio to begin work, it’s already the middle of the morning. Time seems to move quickly. I often listen to music while I work. Music is a great inspiration, though. Sometimes, I have to stop work just to listen a bit better. A little after noon, I eat a modest lunch, and then take a nap. And in the afternoon, I spend the time studying and reading for pleasure. By evening there are often visits with friends and family. And at the end of the day, there are always things I planned to do, that I didn’t get around to. That’s the way it is at the end of the week, or at the end of the month… there are always things that I planned to do, and didn’t manage to get to.

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I like the summer, and enjoy the heat. It’s almost never too hot, here in Jerusalem. And since the heat is a dry heat, I can enjoy it without an excess of sweat. The other day, I returned, with a couple of friends, to the ‘Spring Garden’, where I’d visited in the spring of this year. It’s an ancient garden at the edge of the city that had been deserted and abandoned for many years. The plant life had grown wild. The terraces remained, but the water ways had become blocked, the furrows forgotten, and the place had lost its lively culture. But then about ten years ago, some neighbors got together, and revived the garden. The water ways were cleared, and new fruit trees were planted, and old ones nursed. Birds and animals soon found their way to the renewed garden, and it is once again a lush corner of our world.

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After a very pleasant walk among the flowers and trees, we returned to a pub, and had some beers in the patio, as we watched carefree people, many on vacation, walking along the street. The shadows grew long. The colors grew rich in yellows and orange. It was a pleasure to enjoy the long day, knowing that soon the days would get shorter. We ate pizza and a variety of salads. I especially enjoyed the stuffed mushrooms. They were delicious, and brought back good memories as well.

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Because of the spring we had just visited, I was thinking about water. A few years ago, here in Israel, there was a bit of a panic about running out of water. Since then, we’ve created a few desalination plants, and it looks as if we’ll soon be able to supply as much water as needed, for an acceptable price. But I was reminded too, of our ancient forbearers who designed collection funnels on the roofs of the buildings here, collecting rain water for all the necessary uses. There is so much we can do, so long as we look for answers, and don’t raise our hands in despair.

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dangling legs

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Nechama looking out the window, as Noga works on the computer

a study of work and rest

a professional portrait

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Catriel on the ‘Seat of Elijah’

I was asked to do a portrait, by an old customer last week. I first started working for him about 25 years ago, and I regard him highly. I have had a photography studio and lab for many years here in Jerusalem. I have worked with museums, industrialists, artists, and private people. I’ve had a number of employees who have worked for me over the years, most of them for long periods of time. And I have tried my best to maintain friendly relations with both customers and workers during all that time. But some of these people have made a lasting impression on me, and Catriel is definitely one of those.

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detail of peacock on the seat

When first I met Catriel, he was a craftsman; a woodworker who made exquisite religious objects out of wood, often employing rare woods from far away places, and embedding silver and gold and mother of pearl in the pieces he made. He designed the pieces himself, and his work was elegant. My job was to photograph the objects for his catalogue. Occasionally, my photographs appeared in magazine articles about his beautiful work.

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mezuzah made to look like a house

I can’t say that the photography itself was a great challenge, or especially interesting work. But I considered it an honor to document these wonderful objects, and when I photographed them in my studio, I felt as if I was handling holy objects. Each of them had a ‘presence’ that I couldn’t ignore. He made all kinds of things, from spinning tops for children to celebrate the Hanukah holiday, to spice holders used in the ceremony in which we mark the end of the Sabbath, and the beginning of the new week. He made the little boxes for the mezuzah, in which the parchment that declares our faith in one god is attached to the doorframe. And since this box is called ‘house’ in Hebrew, he made some that were in the image of a Jerusalem house, complete with solar panels on the roof, and a water tank. But there were bigger projects too. He made a model of the tabernacle in which we live outside the home for a week in the fall, called a sukkah. And likewise, made a model of a synagogue. And eventually, he made the most stirring model of all, a model of the holy temple.

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a little model of a synagogue as seen from the inside

In order to make this model of the holy temple, he had to study quite a bit about how the temple itself was made, and became an expert on the subject, and was invited to lecture in numerous places. In a way, this was the beginning of his turn from wood working to scholarship. He became a regular lecturer. And since then, he has turned his hand to writing, and this recent request for a portrait was because a book he has written is about to be published, and he was asked for a portrait to be included on the cover of his book, by the publishers. It was not the first time I had done a portrait of him.

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chalice for wine

Many years ago, he had built the seat of Elijah, a ceremonial chair that is found in most synagogues. When a baby boy is circumcised, he is placed on the seat of Elijah, or on the knees of his godfather, who sits on the seat. And this seat is usually somewhat ornate. But the seat that Catriel made, was so beautiful, that it couldn’t be compared to any other. On the sides, the images of peacocks were embedded in the wood. It was truly a work of art. I made a portrait of him seated in this chair he had made, and he was dressed in clothing from the time of the holy temple. I loved that chair, and loved the congregation that was so blessed as to have that chair in their synagogue. When I met him last week, I asked him where the chair was these days, expecting to hear that it was now in some synagogue in a wealthy neighborhood of New York, or somewhere else in the west. But to my disappointment, I was informed that it resided in a museum. I would have preferred it, if it was still in use, as a piece of religious furniture.

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spice box for parting from the Sabbath

In any case, when he approached me with the request that I do his portrait, and explained that it was for a book cover, I asked him how he would like others to see him. He answered, ‘genial and benign’. I was amazed. I have done many a portrait in my professional life, and I have often asked what the purpose was, or what the subject wished people to see in the portrait, but I had never been told that he or she wished to be seen as benign. But there is something aristocratic about Catriel. His beautiful work is a testament to his exceptional character.

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Catriel today

And I have to tell you, that I take a certain risk in publishing this post. For he is one of the very few Israeli readers of this blog. Most of my readers reside in foreign countries. And most of my Israeli acquaintances and friends don’t even know that I write in English as well. But Catriel has found my blog and reads it regularly.