Back in the old days…

Three months ago my life suddenly took a stressful direction causing, amongst other things, the first halt in my literary outpourings for 12 years.

In March we eventually returned to our home in Jerusalem after a two and a half year absence. We found ourselves faced with a long list of things that needed fixing which took ten weeks to resolve, following which we caught covid and two weeks later decided to leave the Israeli heat and returned to London where, ironically, we experienced an unprecedented scorching temperature of 41 degrees – imagine this with no air conditioning! Living in London our main concern was mostly about trying to keep warm rather than worrying about high temperatures.

We survived, however Charles then suffered a stroke and for the last ten weeks has been hospitalised. It has been a very stressful time that continues, but in life, however bad things seem, there are always good things to be found, In this case the love and help I have received from so many people.
Thanks to their support I am managing to cope and trying to return to some semblance of normality – in this case to start writing again.

In the past I chose not to write about myself or our family, but after requests from my grandchildren wishing to know more about their heritage I decided to make a start in this direction and see how it goes.

My maternal grandparents, Joseph and Betsy Berdichevsky

My maternal grandparents Joseph and Betsy Berdichevsky arrived in the UK from Berdichev in the Ukraine to settle in Leeds in the early 1900’s. On my father’s side the Bernstein and Berkovsky families came from Poland a generation or two earlier to Sheffield, making me the fifth generation to wave the British flag. I have a newspaper cutting from the Sheffield Weekly News dated June 9th 1906 writing about the top hatted guests witnessing my grandparents wedding as ‘a picturesque Jewish rite’.

Both my parents were Jewish, but theirs was considered a mixed marriage – mother being from Leeds and father from Manchester. In those days there was a healthy disregard by Mancunians towards Jews from the other side of the Pennines and we weren’t too keen on Liverpudlians either…

We lived in Cheetham Hill. When I was 4, I began school at the nearby Notre Dame Catholic convent, then considered the best girls school in the area. At the beginning of each day the nuns marched us into the chapel and en route the girls would dip their fingers into a sponge in a stone niche on the wall and make the sign of the cross. I remember that I, not wanting to appear different, would dip my fingers in the sponge, but then look at my hand and say “I shouldn’t do this because I am Jewish” and wipe it off on my skirt.

I have happy memories of my four years there, in particular when I was selected to be an angel in the Christmas play. I was placed on top of a high metal grey filing cabinet and had feathered wings that reached up to the skies. I still maintain that I have never felt quite so ethereal and that this was the closest I have ever been or am likely to be, to heaven.

Another invaluable fact I learned there was that if I ever lost anything I could appeal to St Anthony to help me find it. He was infallible and still is, despite Charles’s efforts to persuade me to put my faith in Rabbi Hananiya who, he said, provides a similar service. Some months ago I lost my hearing aids for six days and was on the point of getting new ones. As a last resort I tried the rabbi, but he didn’t respond, perhaps he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids, but whatever, I returned to my old faithful, St Anthony, and miraculously in five minutes I found them. Stick to what you know works, is my motto.

When I was 6 yrs old the convent advised that on reaching 8yrs I would have to leave the school as they would begin intensive religious training. This coincided with our move to Prestwich, North Manchester, where there was a growing Jewish community but I continued at the convent for a further year.

To reach there from Prestwich I walked 20 minutes to catch a bus at Heaton Park, travelled half an hour to Cheetham Hill and then walked a further ten minutes to the convent. I was always unaccompanied.

It is interesting to reflect that in those days, rather than today when parents take their children absolutely everywhere in cars, no-one was concerned about letting young children go out alone. I am sure this contributed to making us very independent.
Perhaps we were naive about the world. I recall my mother saying that she never knew anything about homosexuality until she met my father. This could be construed the wrong way. What she meant was that it was he who first told her about it. Not so surprising as it was 1937 when they married. It took 30 more years, to 1967, for homosexuality it to be legalised in Britain and until the 1980’s in Scotland and Ireland. Another memory is when my father received the gift of a gold tiepin with his initials V.D. ( for Vic Daniels) decorating it. I never understood why he immediately changed it to D.V.

Whilst living in Cheetham Hill I remember going into our air raid shelter during WW11 bombing raids. Later, when the war ended, our street party was held when effigies of Mussolini and Hitler hung from lampposts and were set alight. My parents took us to London to celebrate D Day and I can still recall my indignance as a six year old having to sleep in a baby’s cot at the Cumberland Hotel.

Life was very different in those days. First there was food rationing. Every Saturday morning I went with my sister Joyce, to Mrs Kittle’s sweet shop. We had a weekly allocation of four ounces between us and would spend at least half an hour trying to decide what to choose.

OUR FIRST TELEPHONE

a copy of our very first phone

I remember the day we got our first telephone. local calls were fine but If we wanted to call abroad, in our case to Uncle David in New York, who sent us regular food parcels during the war, we had to book a time and wait several hours until we were connected.

Phones were never allowed to intrude into living rooms. Instead they were located in the entrance hall next to the front door. When I see the obsession people have today with their mobiles, permanently glued to their hands, I yearn for those far off days.

Prestwich was a different world. Kings Road primary school was a mere ten minutes walk from home through the ‘farm path’ adjoining a pig farm close to our home. It was a regular occurrence to see the little piglets escaping and running all over the road.

One unforgettable occurrence at school was when, aged 9 or 10, I was summoned to the headmistress’s office and caned three times on each hand. My misdemeanour? I had inadvertently entered the boys playground. I was too ashamed to tell my mother about this until, when she was 91 I mentioned it. She was furious saying “if I had known about this I would have come and caned the teacher!” I was delighted with her response, despite its tardiness.

Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip, London 1953

In 1953 my parents invited some of my teachers to our home to watch the wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip on our television set. We were one of the very few families in Manchester to have one, as my Dad, who could turn his hand to just about anything, built one from scratch In the little workroom where he spent most of his spare time.

PIC OF CATHODE RAY TUBE

Early Cathode ray tubes for tv’s

In those days t.v.’s were built using a cathode ray tube, a small screen with a long glass protrusion at the back. A week before the event I went into Dad’s workroom room and clumsily knocked into the tube smashing into pieces. I was horrified at what I had done, but fortunately, he managed to get another one and the planned visit of our guests to watch this historic event took place. From then on, however, I was banned from going into his sanctuary.

But I wasn’t always useless. My parents had market stalls where they sold textiles and clothes, in Sheffield, Preston and Graymare Lane, Manchester.

I would sometimes go with Dad to help on a Saturday. I loved the colour and lively banter of the markets. However Mum would get upset with Dad as he was impatient and could be rude to the customers, hating it when they rummaged through his neatly laid out stock. I remember one occasion when a woman was doing just this he could stand it no longer.

“Can I help you? he asked her tersely. “No, it’s not for me,’ she said “I’m just looking for my sister” “Well you won’t find her in there!” he retorted’.

At 11 yrs I moved up in the world and went to Stand Grammar School for girls for the next five years.

Our gang of four, at the Cotswolds. from left, Beryl, Maureen, Ruth, Merle.
Me, Merle, Maureen, Beryl for our 70th!

Two friends from Kings Road, Maureen and Merle, moved to the school with me and there we met Beryl. The four of us were inseparable. Our friendship continued over the years. For our 60th birthday year we gathered from all corners of the world to meet up in the Cotswolds for a memorable five days. For our 70th birthday year we met up again, this time in the Lake District. Our 80th get together was scuppered by Covid, but saying that, Beryl ( in California) and I ( in London or Jerusalem) have managed to zoom each other for an hour every Sunday. It is unmissable. There is nothing quite like ‘old friends’. Just see below some of the illustrious writers who have commented on this for many many generations…..

THE BOOK OF PROVERBS (circa 700 B.C) ‘A sweet friendship refreshes the soul’

ARISTOTLE ( 384 B.C.) ‘What is a friend? a single soul dwelling in two bodies.’

CICERO ( 106 B.C.) – ‘Life is nothing without friendship’

SENECA (4 B.C.) – ‘One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood’.

MARCEL PROUST (1871) ‘Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.

A more recent quote and one that appeals to me is from Bernard Melzer – an American radio personality.(b 1910) ‘A true friend is someone who thinks you are a good egg even though he knows you are slightly cracked!’
Well all I can say now, as a slightly cracked egg is that I hope you enjoyed this tale – to read about what happened next, watch this space…

Be happy! Ruth

My Tale of Two Cities

After a two and a half year absence, my visit to Jerusalem this year generated a variety of feelings, experiences and memories making me realise how connected I am both to Israel and my birthplace, England. I have absolutely loved being back in Israel, every day finding something to make me smile with gratitude that I am back home.

….more rain

I left London at the end of March delighted and determined to get away from the cold, damp and eternal grey skies. This I achieved, only to realise that the alternative, that of endless hot dry sunny days is something that I am simply not suited to.

it is well known that we Brits are obsessed with talking about the weather, a fact that has puzzled outsiders for decades.  Recent research shows how 94% of us admit to having conversed about the weather in the past six hours, whilst 38% say they have done so in the past 60 minutes. Well, at least I am performing true to type.

It appears that the reason for this preoccupation is more to do with the intrinsic character of the English, combined with the fact that the weather in the UK is constantly changing and therefore unpredictable.

Brits tend not to talk to strangers. This is evident on public transport, if you venture to chat to the passenger next to you, more often than not they will move nervously away or bury their heads in their mobile phones or newspapers.

The internet is loaded with sites advising `’How to get into conversation with the English’ and recommending that the surest and most acceptable way to do this is by discussing the weather.

Looking through the websites made me feel profoundly grateful for having been born and brought up in the UK. The English language has an immense vocabulary of descriptive phrases, idioms and metaphors using words to do with weather, that we simply get used to using these without thinking. I cannot imagine what a struggle it must be for a non-English born speaker to make sense of it all.

Take ’RAIN’ as an example – something I am particularly aware of, having been born and raised in Manchester in the north of England renowned for its wet weather. The industries that developed there were reliant on a damp climate particular cotton manufacturing. Low levels of humidity caused dryness in the fibres and created static electricity through friction with machine parts which made the fibres to stick to the machines creating production problems.

Not surprisingly the area spawned many manufacturers of rainwear, a lot of them Jewish emigres from Europe. One shining example was our next door neighbour in North Manchester Michael Fidler. Uncle Michael, as I called him, had a stellar career, both in the rainwear business and later in politics, becoming MP for Bury and Radcliffe and in 1974 founding the Conservative Friends of Israel. Quite coincidentally, our next door neighbour in London, Lesley, is also a descendant of one of the major Manchester Jewish rainwear companies, Pakamac. But I digress, lets get back to RAIN.

There are many ways to describe the English weather and below are just a few of the phrases that the beginner will have to master. First of all the subject of ‘RAIN’

It’s Raining Cats and Dogs! It’s Chucking it down!

t’s Tanking down! It’s Torrential! It’s raining buckets!

It doesn’t rain but it pours! It’s raining pitchforks!

To complicate matters the student of English has to try to comprehend additional expressions which have no connection with matters of climate.

take a rain check
come rain or shine
saving for a rainy day
to be rained in
as right as rain
It’s rained off

under the weather – not feeling well
weather a storm – cope with a particular trouble
storm out – leave somewhere angrily
take by storm – overcome in battle
the calm before the storm – a period of peace before something dramatic happens.

Every cloud has a silver lining

Every cloud has a silver lining – everything negative has a good side
Be on cloud nine – be as happy as one can be

THUNDER
Steal one’s thunder.
Blood and Thunder
as black as thunder,
a face like thunder
Thunder across
Thunderthighs

Thunder and Lightning

SNOW
to be snowed under ( loaded down with too much work)
to have snow on the roof ( to be grey haired`)
to roast snow in a furnace ( a pointless exercise)
to snowball into something ( to develop )

and a few more below, to just confuse one even more.

as fast as lightning ( very speedy)
chase rainbows (seeking the impossible)
Have ones head in the clouds ( not thinking sensibly)
to be a breeze ( easy)
as if the sun shines out of his backside (always pleased with himself )
to get wind of (to hear about something)

I fear that by now most of my non English readers will turn have turned off in despair, but I cannot end without mentioning my very favourite ‘weather’ joke from comedians Morecambe and Wise.

“Two old men were sitting on the beach on deckchairs – one turns to his friend and says “It’s nice out isn’t it”? to which the other replies “Yes but put it away, here comes the deckchair attendant” ( please do not ask me to explain this).

Putting words aside, my other major English distraction during this visit was watching clips from the celebrations that took place in early June to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s 70 years on the throne.

She seems to have been here for ever. I remember as a young child watching her wedding ceremony on T.V. in Manchester. I must add that my father had built the first domestic t.v. ever to are seen in the city and so it was quite an experience to see these moving black and white images in our living room. Some of my schoolteachers teachers were invited.

I have never felt myself to be a royalist, questioning why some families should be so privileged through heredity, but watching the celebrations here in Jerusalem on u tube I was very moved.

I am sure that part of it was rejoicing when seeing how, after two and a half stressful years of covid, the British were out in their hundreds of thousands actually having FUN! It could not have come at a better time, pushing, as it did, all thoughts of viruses into the background. Saying that I succumbed to covid on 3rd June here in Israel and didn’t see the actual event, but managed to watch it later in the week and am so glad that I did.


The crowds celebating the Queen’s Platinum event on The Mall. June 20

The pomp and ceremony that we do so well in the UK and the magnificent staging erected outside Buckingham Palace was outstanding, the military drummers beating time to welcome the artists onto stage was magical, and for me one of the high spots were the videos – in particular the one of Queen Elizabeth entertaining Paddington Bear to tea. If you haven’t seen it- you simply must!

HRH Queen Elizabeth 11 at her Platinum jubilee Celebrations invites Paddington Bear to tea

In my eyes she is worth every penny that we contribute to her reign. She has led her life with a dignity that few others could have achieved, which cannot have been easy living it, as she has, in the constant glare of the public eye.
She is an example to everyone. Thank you Ma’am – as the Jewish expression goes, may you live to 120!

Coming Home

It was only five weeks ago that Charles and I were able to return to our home in Jerusalem after an absence of almost two and a half years because of Covid.

During that time we have sadly lost some good friends here, including our beloved friend and taxi driver, David Yakobov, who for 38 years was always  waiting at Ben Gurion airport to greet us on arrival.  We felt it could not be the same without him  to welcome us.

Our dear friend the late David Yakobov, 2011

  However David’s three brothers also drive taxis, so when we eventually arrived, there was Moshe who, in his true family tradition greeted us with a smiling face and a hug.      I had never realised how similar they were in appearance until that moment – it was very moving for us to get together again.

During the drive to Jerusalem I  had to pinch myself to make sure that I was not dreaming and when  we eventually arrived at 1.00am and I saw the  illuminated walls of the Old City close to our home,  I found myself in tears of joy.

Next morning however reality kicked in when we realised that our apartment had truly resented our absence. Almost everything needed fixing. But we were fortunate, as our plumber Shaun together with Chaim, the carpenter, came to our rescue, turning up at 10 a.m. on our first day back.

Shaun greeted us with a cake and a hug – something we have never once experienced from our plumber in London. Shaun is calmly efficient – a true Mr Fixit who went round checking everything that needed doing. Chaim too in his quiet and professional manner demonstrated his skills deciding what to do with some rotting doorframes. They are both men after my own heart, so similar to my father who never went anywhere without his tool kit and could always sort out practical problems. Having these two to help us felt more like having very good friends to our rescue.

The same goes for Valentina. She has helped with cleaning the flat for some time. She sensed my stress at having so many things to deal with and after she finished work I received a phone call from her. “Can I come round this evening with my son – he is great at fixing things”. I told her that I didn’t want to bother him, but she insisted. Her son sorted out the t.v., phones, hoover and more. He then sat with Charles for an hour and a half to fix his computer problems during which time Valentina made me sit on the sofa where she gave me the most amazing foot massage I have ever had. It was heaven! Both of them refused to accept anything from us as thanks for their sterling work!

Charles and Avraham

Another star in our firmament is Avraham – Charles’s physiotherapist and it has become clear that the exercise regime he recommends is working. Charles can now march happily around and even seems to be getting taller and more upright. I think it is because he is determined to be able to look Avraham directly in the eyes. Here I should mention that Avraham is the tallest person I have ever met at 6’ 5” (almost two metres). Having someone like this living with you must mean you would never ever need stepladders.

Another crucial person in our lives is gardener Meir Levi. He cared for the small patio garden during our absence and I was delighted to see how well the plants were coping. As gardening is one of my passions, I set to work, made six visits to the garden centre and brought even more colour into our life. To sit in the cool late afternoons and observe the wildlife – tiny lizards and a variety of butterflies and listening to the song of the tiny brilliant blue Palestinian sunbirds is one of the most tranquil activities you can imagine. (images of our garden below)

Palestinian Sunbird

Each day we are greeted by shafts of sunlight beating in through the windows. Unlike London where one’s spirits lift on seeing a bit of sun – but it is often short lived as gloom returns. The downside here is the heat. For me anything above 25 degrees becomes uncomfortable. I would love to think that there is a slight chance that I can acclimatise to this…..but my being a northerner ( ex Mancunian) makes it unlikely.

our living toom, early morning
our front porch

A further pleasure is catching up with the people we had lost contact with. It is touching that friends in the supermarket, hairdressers, coffee shops and plant nursery remember us and welcome us back. Particularly Mohammad who cares for the public gardens nearby and will join us for coffee now that Ramadan has ended. Erez, the genius at the phone shop who so patiently helps me with anything technological – and of course Tsaduk, manager of the supermarket, who always greets us as long lost relatives.

As for our neighbours there is a very positive community spirit, in spite of the fact that some residents live abroad. A weekly get together is held and everyone offers help if needed. We are especially lucky as Tina and David, who we have known for almost 40 years, live next door. Without his help you would probably not receive my stories or emails – he is a whizz regarding the computer! The small synagogue here is 50 metres from our door, so Charles has an easy walk to get there, not like the 30 minute slog he has in London.

Yemin Moshe is where we live, is a popular spot for tourists where I constantly chat with visitors from every country you can imagine. They all have stories to tell – I learn so much from them and of course many become my readers and keep in touch.

This is also a favourite location for both Arab and Jewish families to take photos. Every day brides arrive in full regalia and children dressed in their best outfits whilst relatives and friends take endless images to provide memories of the happy time they spent here.

In general life seems to be getting more back to normal, people are socialising, some still wearing masks, and we have been able to accept invitations for lunch and reciprocate by inviting friends to our home. It may take us some time to confront large crowds, but as the old English proverb says ‘slowly slowly catchee monkey’ (meaning meeting your objective) rather than slowly slowly catchee covid…

Friends abroad have asked us if it’s safe here. I can understand their concern if they follow the news, but all I can tell you is that we have been out everyday, to the local mall which is crowded and the converted old railway station, filled with cafes, stalls and children having fun at the fairground. Not for one minute have we felt anything but perfectly safe.

The Temple Mount is only a twenty minute walk from here, but we have neither seen nor heard anything disturbing. Quite the reverse – from everyone we receive smiles and friendship whatever their ethnic background. It is sad that the media tends to cover only the negative aspects of life. For example I doubt many of you know about the 103 Arab teenagers from Israel who went this year with their Jewish friends to Auschwitz to take part in the March of the Living.

Also for the first time the march included an official delegation from the United Arab Emirates and a ceremony in Arabic. Delegates came from Syria and Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, and East Jerusalem.
A group of Muslim influencers also participated, part of a group called Shakara, that aims to strengthen the bond between Israel and the Arab world following the Abraham Accords.

One good news item that I read is that 70 years ago a Syrian Druze officer was one of the thousands of Syrian forces who invaded the new state of Israel. However he made a move that affected hIs future and that of his family – he switched sides and became an officer of the Israel Defence Forces. Today his grandson has risen to be one of the highest ranking Druze in the IDF.

The second story tells of the discovery of an inscribed amulet found recently at Mount Ebal dating back to 1200BCE. This is the oldest ancient Hebrew text ever found indicating that there was literacy among the ancient Israelites many hundreds of years earlier than conventional academic thinking. It’s a good feeling to share positive news with you.

Our stay here has taken place during the busiest period of the year. Easter coincided with Ramadan and Passover.

Traffic halted during sirens to commemorate Yom Hashoah

We also commemorated Yom Hashoah ( Holocaust Memorial Day) when after a siren is heard all traffic stops for a minute of silence. This is observed by absolutely everyone. Pedestrians, and car drivers who stop their cars and stand as a mark of respect to remember those who died. Then followed Yom Hazikaron, the day of remembrance for those who died in Israel’s wars and terror attacks.

Again everyone halted what they are doing and stood respectfully for a two minute silence. Almost everyone here knows of someone close to them who died for their country. The siren went off whilst we were in the supermarket. The hustle and bustle of trolleys, checkouts and customers suddenly halted – it was deeply moving.
After all of this came Israel’s Independence Day. People were out having barbecues and picnics with everyone happy and smiling. It provided a time to celebrate that we are still here despite all the chaos that is in our world at the moment.

After only five weeks here, my head is whirling with all that is going on. There is one sure thing, you can never be bored in Israel!

Families celebrate Israel’s Independence Day in park

Put on a happy face!

keep smiling

This month I decided to change direction and write about laughter and  smiling, investigating the beneficial effects they can have on one’s health.

Why, you might ask, should I choose such a topic.   Partially because during the covid crisis articles have appeared daily in the press telling us how to manage the stress that so many feel at the moment.

However I had an additional reason. For the past two years I have had medical issues which, whilst not life threatening, were uncomfortable.       I endured multiple tests with many different doctors and after each one was told there was nothing to be concerned about. But symptoms continued until eventually yet another specialist suggested it might be helpful to speak with a ‘psychological therapist’ to resolve these problems.

Having studied psychology at university I had no problem with this and was interested to see what it involved.  I was to be guided by a local NHS hospital  team and after an initial introductory meeting was told that I was waitlisted for an appointment.

And so  I waited…… and waited.  For five months I was telephoned  twice monthly by a girl at the hospital to enquire how I was.  Eventually I asked her when I might see someone.  She replied “ Oh I don’t know that, all I have to do is ring to ask how you are.”    My reaction was to burst out laughing and at that same instant make the decision to sort it out for myself.

Instinctively I felt that to be happy and cheerful despite what is going on around us was the direction to follow and began looking at my average day, trying to identify stress and negative feelings and work out to avoid them.

The first area I identified concerned my pilates exercise classes, cancelled during covid with the result that  instead I was doing 45 minutes daily exercise at home.  I had grown irritated with this, but then thought ‘No, this is the wrong attitude’ and lectured myself on the benefits such exercises have for body and mind.  Amazingly it worked! I felt happy doing them!

I also determined to remain cheerful, no matter what. Never to watch depressing, violent or  political T.V.  – especially the news – instead selecting programmes focusing on humour, creativity and suchlike.     I began vigorously walking and now achieve  8000 – 10,000 steps daily.  I find being outdoors, regardless of the weather, essential for my well being – not  just observing nature – but also giving me the chance to chat with passers by. 

 Also on my ‘To Do’ list is meditation (well, ok, ten minutes of deep breathing), gardening and  writing my stories. I began singing, 20 years ago, completed all the grades at Trinity College and continue until today with  a weekly zoom lesson. The only way I can describe the feeling singing gives me is ‘pure unadulterated happiness’. It should be prescribed on the national health.

Eventually two NHS staff arrived at my home for a consultation.    After talking with them for an hour, they said “Ruth, there is absolutely nothing we can do to help you – you are doing it all yourself.   You are an inspiration, may we quote you”.  Praise indeed! thanks to positive thinking!

Around the same time a friend sent me a poem, by Spike Milligan, a talented British comedian who died 20 years ago.

Smiling is infectious, you catch it like the flu,
When someone smiled at me today, I started smiling too.
I passed around the corner and someone saw my grin.
When he smiled I realised I’d passed it on to him.

I thought about that smile, then I realised its worth.
A single smile, just like mine could travel round the earth
So, if you feel a smile begin, don’t leave it undetected.
Let’s start an epidemic quick, and get the world infected!

Spike Milligan

This spiked (excuse the pun!) my interest and led to the discovery that both smiling and laughter have been studied extensively for centuries, such as why humans smile, what does it mean when we do and so on – very complex, very interesting. 

SHARE A GOOD LAUGH AND LOWER THE RISK OF BAD HEALTH! – (The Times 19.1.22)

One study in 2010 showed that genuine intense smiling is associated with a longer life. Whilst more research is needed to discover why this happens, it is generally agreed that maintaining  a happy, positive mood is an important part of a healthy lifestyle.   The same goes for relieving stress and reducing pain and it certainly elevates ones mood.

What is even better to know is that in medical terms smiling strengthens the immune system and can reduce blood pressure.  To achieve this it triggers the release of dopamine which activates the immune system, creating a greater number of antibodies in the blood.

To say that ‘laughter is the best medicine’ is not just a popular proverb but is true wisdom, to the extent that even when someone fakes smiling or laughter it also works – a message goes to the brain, the brain is tricked, thinks you are happy, releases dopamine and good things begin to happen.

Many people are today becoming more aware of this through Laughter Yoga. I had heard of it, but had no idea how widespread it has become.    Look on the internet – there are  hundreds of photos of laughing, smiling people having fun and even just seeing them makes you feel good…

This form of yoga  is now acknowledged as one of the therapies in the field of GELOTOLOGY  (a new word for me and possibly for you) being the study of laughter and its effects on the body from both psychological and physiological perspectives.

Another recommended activity closely linked to the above and equally important is socialisation.  We humans are social animals by nature and tend to function better as part of a community.  Sadly loneliness and isolation has been one of the factors affecting many during covid.

People are being urged to make an effort to talk to those they encounter throughout the day. This not only staves off feelings of loneliness but can also sharpen memory, cognitive skills and lead to a longer happier life.  This applies even if the communication happens via mobiles and computer.

When we  have positive social interaction, our bodies release oxytocin, a hormone  which lowers anxiety, improves focus and concentration and makes us feel good.   It also boosts our immune, cardiovascular and neuroendocrine systems.  Social interaction is today considered as important as  having regular exercise and avoiding high blood pressure, obesity and smoking, leading to a longer fitter life.

I have long been aware of the need to talk to others.   Moving from Manchester to London years ago was a real shock to the system.    Up there we talk to everyone, here in London most people don’t.   I felt as though I was from another planet when I first arrived.   However during covid there has been a marked increase in the number of passers by  smiling and chatting to me and others – let’s hope it becomes a regular habit…

The need for this has been recognised, particularly by supermarkets where today one can easily do ‘automated shopping’ – buying everything and even paying  for it by phone without the need to interact with anyone.   For some this may be fine, for others, those whose weekly shopping trip is an event, sometimes the high spot of their week, chatting with the check out girl is one of its pleasures.

In Holland the Jumbo supermarket chain launched ‘slow checkouts’ last year in 200 stores in an effort to tackle loneliness, particularly amongst the elderly. This has now been copied by the French Carrefour chain who have installed ‘blablabla caisses’ – or ‘chit-chat checkouts’ in 150 of their stores.

Chit-chat checkouts offer bags of joy to the isolated (The Times, March 2022

These “chat checkouts” are primarily intended for the elderly or socially isolated, but they have also been designed with cashiers in mind, some of whom will no doubt appreciate some extra human contact in their workday.    I know what I prefer – and hope Waitrose and Marks & Spencer  will read this and take note!

Whilst on the subject of humour, in December 2017  I wrote a moving story on my blog called ‘Send in the Clowns’- Working Their Magic’ about the Dream Doctors organisation in Israel, who have teams of clowns working alongside medical staff in 34 Israeli hospitals.   Since then I have seen these purveyors of happiness go from strength to strength demonstrating the effectiveness of their role in cheering up patients of all ages and backgrounds, supporting them emotionally and enabling them to relax before, after or during medical treatment.

(DuSH ( the founder) is holding zoom training sessions on the skills and techniques needed for working in disaster and humanitarian areas for clowns who are in Ukraine and other countries hosting refugees …
They also have clowns at the JNF Center in Ness Harim, Israel which is caring for women and children from an orphanage in Ukraine.

Only last week I received an email from them telling me of their latest response to this crisis “This morning a team of Dream Doctors began a 5 day relief mission to support the Ukrainian refugees in Moldova, involving direct hands-on work in the Kishinev refugee camp as well as travelling to the Ukraine-Moldova border passage to assist in the front line of incoming refugees.  Another team will leave in a few days.”

Dream Doctors provide vital trauma intervention and innovative therapeutic clowning techniques to the many children and adults who were forced to flee their homes following Russia’s invasion.  The Dream Team is on a mission to reach as many as they can of the vast number of refugees flooding absorption centres in Chisinau, as well as thousands more who are still stuck at the Moldova-Ukraine border crossing area. 

Dream Doctors depart on another mission

 

Dream doctors clowns in Ukraine

Their remarkable devotion and professionalism has contributed hugely to humanitarian relief efforts all over the world.  Wherever there is a disaster or crisis, they respond immediately.   If you feel you would like to help them in their efforts, today there can be no finer way of helping the thousands of desperate people in need because of this tragic war.     to find out more please contact: 

contact@dreamdoctors.org.il

http://www.dreamdoctors.org.il

and by the way, keep smiling

Truly a man of the earth….

I first met Alon Galili in December 2010. My son Richard arranged a family outing in Israel with ‘a brilliant guide from Sde Boker’ and asked if we would like to join them. We jumped at the chance and some days later found ourselves entering another world, exploring the outstanding Ramon Crater with two of my sons and five grandchildren and Alon as our guide.

from left, Charles, Roni, Richard, Ariel, me, Ella, Charlie, Avigail, Maya and Alon.

It was a revelation. I had never been keen on ‘desert scenery’ being brought up in England where beauty meant ‘green’ as in the Lake District, but Alon had the capacity to open our eyes to so many new wonders around us. I told him I would love to learn more about the geology, archaeology and nature of the country and for the next three years he became my guide, friend and inspiration.

grandchildren in caves
walking in a canyon
Alon and me

But before I tell you about our adventures, I must first give you some background about this very special person.

Alon was born 1938 at Kibbutz Dan, his parents Meir and Bilha arrived from Poland in 1932 filled with idealism, working the land as pioneers and developing the new country. Bilha trained as a nurse in Jerusalem, then as a child-care expert in the kibbutz movement, her advice being sought by doctors throughout the country.

Alon’s early years were peaceful. Relations with local Arab and Druze communities were good. He played football with them and learned how to throw sticks at mulberry trees, dislodging their succulent purple berries.

His father Meir worked on the kibbutz with an old tractor. One day, it burst into flames but he courageously quelled the fire, avoiding a serious explosion. Later the tractor was sold to the Druze village of Harfa in Syria. He drove it 25 kilometres to their village, advised them how to care for it, explaining that only the best oil must be used and the water should be checked regularly. Instead they filled the tractor with their finest olive oil, it seized up and ended life abandoned in a field.

Serendipitously, 30 years later, during the 1973 War, Alon found himself in Harfa where, in a field, he spied a tractor. He immediately realised it was his father’s old machine when seeing there the original instructions written in his father’s hand.

As World War 11 drew to a close, it became apparent that a war with the Arabs would be inevitable. The Haganah ( forerunner of the Israel Defence Forces) began secretly collecting weapons in defiance of British orders. These were hidden in various kibbutzim. At Dan they placed the weapons in bee hives with a rope attached. Alon remembers how, if British soldiers approached someone from the kibbutz would pull the rope, the hive opened and the bees swarmed out deterring the troops. He also recalls people coming nightly to hide guns in the roof of his kindergarten.

In 1948, aged 10, had his first experience of defending his country. Milk churns were used to transport the weapons. Some had milk on the top but beneath lay a secret chamber for guns. Alon’s task was to sit on the churns and should a British soldier approach, he was told to began screaming and crying as loud as possible to create a diversion to warn the kibbutz members. Alon is convinced that this ‘mission’ totally ruined his vocal cords, causing his lifelong inability to sing. He said “I hated the British and loved them – hatred for what they were doing to my countrymen, but admiration for their nobility.”

At 18 he enrolled with the Israel army in an elite parachute group, after which he returned to his kibbutz, caring for cattle and driving a truck. In 1966 he joined the National Parks Service, helped to set up the the Hai Bar Nature Centre in the south and for five years co-ordinated the activities of all game wardens. He later established other nature reserves, dealing with with government offices and eventually became Head of the Green Patrol dealing with all aspects of environmental protection. You can see how all this experience made him the best possible guide.

And now for our adventures…….

I asked him to show me lesser-known places in Israel, a challenge he enthusiastically welcomed. For three years we took long, bumpy rides ‘off piste’ in his 4 x 4, from Rosh Hanikra in the north, to Eilat and Nitzana (on the Egyptian border) and everywhere in between.

How to find fresh drinking water
Alon showing asfodel root
Alon peeling asfodel root

We explored the desert often. I asked how people existed in such an extreme climate so we had a ‘survival day’. He taught me to collect water by attaching a bag to a broom plant leaving it for an hour and returning it to find it full of fresh drinkable water. We dug up asphodel roots to make ‘coffee’ and Alon created sparks from a flint (his party trick) to create a fire to boil the water, and sought the most suitable wood ‘sira cotsanit’ (prickly burnet) which burns rapidly. It was used traditionally for lighting beacons and Alon had used it to sleep on during his army days, it being comfortable and springy.

For ‘dessert’ Alon found succulent dates to end our day and demonstrated how to find our way back using nature’s ‘compass plant’ – Khatsat Hamatspen the leaves of which always point north/south – easy to navigate if you are good at reading leaves.

Sira cotsanit ( prickly burnet)
Alon making sparks from flint
Compass plant ( Khatsat Hamatspen)

Pure white rocks, said Alon, are found throughout the entire length of Israel – from Rosh Hanikra in the north where we saw spectacular grottos, underground caverns at Beit Guvrin in the Judean lowlands and finally at the spectacular white chalk rocks at Nitzana on the Egyptian border. The setting sun cast long, glowing pink shadows in contrast to the darkening sky and created an unforgettable photographic experience. It was one of those rare occasions when words are totally inadequate.

White cliffs at Rosh Hanikra
White chalk caves at Bet Guvrin
White chalk hillocks at Nitzana

Another memorable occasion was when we visited his friend Sheikh Suleiman for lunch. Suleiman, from the most important Bedouin tribe in Israel, worked for the British during the Mandate and later for the Israeli government, collecting taxes in the Negev.

Salman, the musician
Pounding the coffee beans
Sheikh Suleiman, our host

We arrived in a heat wave to be welcomed by a village elder playing a one string instrument whilst our host prepared coffee on a blazing fire in the centre of the room. This ritual involved pounding the beans with a long pole. The rhythmic sound produced was the traditional way of telling neighbours he had guests. I was the only woman present. We sat on the floor drinking his coffee until a mountainous dish of rice, vegetables and chicken arrived with everyone taking handfuls of food, rolling it around in their fingers and lifting it to their mouths.

Sheikh Suleiman brewing coffee
Salman, village elder, with Alon
our traditional meal

I cannot describe the mess I got into. Food scattered everywhere. Without thinking I found myself licking the greasy fingers of my left hand – recoiling in horror when I remembered having been told to only use my right hand, the left being reserved for more earthy bodily functions.

You must understand, I was raised in a middle class Jewish home with Mother constantly admonishing me “Don’t eat with your fingers! and here was I having to do precisely the opposite to be socially acceptable.

I sat opposite Suleiman observing how an ‘expert’ did it. He lifted his right hand slowly and deliberately, placed it carefully in his inside pocket and to my surprise pulled out an enormous tablespoon with which he began eating. His other hand held a mobile phone as he began a lengthy conversation. He was, however an impeccable and charming host.

Mariam
Dried herbs for medication

We also visited a Beduin village where I met Mariam who, after studying at Manchester University, returned to Israel to start making and selling soaps, oils and other beauty products from local plants. Her mission is to create jobs for Beduin women to give them self respect and independence.

group of camels
fishing ‘clothes, Ginossar
Tariq, shepherd, with his flock

Alon and I rode on camels and met goat herdsmen. We visited fish farms in the Negev using geothermal water from deep sources which is later recycled for growing crops with the added organic waste from the fish. We visited a research station at Ginossar focusing on maintaining fish stocks in Lake Kinneret and at Kibbutz Dan, Alon’s birthplace, met their experts breeding sturgeon to produce world renowned caviar for export.

Yigal at Kibbutz Dan with sturgeon

Leopards were at one time common in the country with many places being named after them. In 1994 Israel minted a coin and printed stamps featuring these animals.

Alon took me to Bikaat Uvda to see a Shrine of the Leopards where worshippers prayed from 6,000 – 3,000 BCE. In a roughly marked out unprotected patch of sand were 16 depictions of these animals created from triangular stones embedded in the earth forming their outlines.
It was magical to walk unsupervised, marvelling at their creation with not another soul in sight.

Leopard image in sand
another leopard image in sand

Today there are only a handful of leopards in the Middle East. Sadly they have been destroyed by generation after generation – We visited a Cave of the Leopards near Tyre in the far north where villagers once trapped them. The Crusaders totally destroyed lions and even in the last century the Brits hunted them for trophies. The few that now remain are protected and in reserves. Since 2010 all hunting is banned in Israel except when protecting livestock.

I asked Alon if I could meet one. He took me to Hai Bar where, behind a heavy glass panel, a magnificent leopard came to within 12 “ of my camera. I understood immediately why this creature had been held in awe for so long.

Me meeting the leopard

Trees figured significantly in our travels. The first incident to arouse my curiosity occurred near the Ramon Crater where I saw a sign ‘Ammonite Wall’. “ You want to see fossils,” said Alon,“ I’ll show you fossils”. Half
an hour of bumpy sand dunes later we came across a group of massive petrified trees. They lay in a copse, each trunk measuring 3 – 5 metres in diameter. I had expected to see something small, but these massive
trunks lay supinely on the sand – majestic reminders of an age long ago. It was unbelievable to think that this vast desert was once a dense forest, populated by a genus similar to sequoia trees. Petrified trees are found in the U.S. mostly in forested areas, whereas seeing them in an arid desert in Israel, made the find all the more dramatic.

Fossilised tree – about my height when I stood next to it!
Another fossilised tree

Alon related another tree story of how, in 1968, the Ministry of Transport decided to construct a new roadway but, directly in its proposed path stood a group of four enormous and ancient Shikma
(sycamore fig)trees that they intended to uproot and destroy.

Shikma have held an important place in Jewish history since Talmudic times. The Mishna says ‘a criteria for determining Israel’s boundaries is wherever shikma trees grow’. Also for every newborn child a tree should be planted, for a girl, it must be a shikma.

One of Alon’s Shikma trees
Alon and his tree
Fruit of the shikma

The Parks Authority where Alon worked, fought the plan fiercely, eventually reaching a compromise. The trees were carefully uprooted and after a week of complex engineering were transferred to a safer resting place where Alon worked to ensure their survival. The Hebrew root of the word Shikma, means to restore, regenerate and re-establish, which happily was the end result of this exercise.

We visited them near the Lebanese border. The trunk of one measured nine metres. I said to Alon, “Seeing them must be like visiting one of your children”, he replied “I have many such children in Israel”. He remained with the Parks Authority for 25 more years during which time he and his colleagues ensured the safety of this and other protected species. A wonderful legacy to leave behind.

Alon was a gifted storyteller – a man of the people, loved by everyone for his warmth, generosity, kindness, great sense of humour and encyclopaedic knowledge in many fields. He never failed to stop to greet strangers, offer camel herders or shepherds a bottle or water and fruit. He is the only person I have ever met who chatted to people more than I do! Sadly this January I heard that this vibrant personality died. He enriched my life in so many ways, I bless the day we met and am privileged that he was my friend.

Thanks to Alon I wrote a huge treasury of stories and feel that the best way of dealing with my sorrow would be to write this as a tribute to him. I could only include a handful of tales here, but five are published in full in the blog archive: Meeting Ada, Beduin Hospitality, Scents of History, The Leopard and Water Water Everywhere.

I learned and wrote so much – Camels the Ship of the Desert, Falafel, Bird Migration, Friendship, Garinim, Goats, Bees, Into the Wild, ( conservation Ibex and ostriches), Ein Feshkha – Oasis of Tranquillity, Pilgrimage to the River Jordan, Scents of History (Balsam), Treasure Revealed (Timna), Wild Flowers, The Lido at the Dead Sea, The Story of the Disappearing Carrot – and more….

I hope reading this enriches your day. If you want to read additional stories about Alon, just get in touch. Ruth

The story of the disappearing carrot
Alon at the Lido, Dead Sea
True friendship

Fingers Crossed!

If anyone had ever asked me if I was superstitious I would most likely have laughed and professed that old wives tales about avoiding bad luck and other such beliefs were not for me, having always seen myself as pragmatic par excellence.

Unexpectedly, however, I found myself questioning this after writing my last story about the artistic talent emerging in my family. I felt a slight sense of unease after proudly telling of their achievements, recalling that when I was young, should anyone say anything complimentary about a relative, grandparents would respond saying “tfu, tfu, tfu’ and spitting three times to warn off the ‘evil eye’, ‘ayin ha’ra’ in Hebrew.

Also when my mother sewed a button on my shirt whilst I was wearing it she would insist that I chew on a piece of thread. When asked why ,I was told it was so that my brains would not be sewn up. Another explanation for this ‘bubbe meise’ (old wives’ tale) is that the only time Jews should have something ‘sewn’ on them is when burial shrouds are sewn around their body. Thus by chewing on a thread while someone sews their garments whilst wearing them, Jews demonstrate that they are very much alive and not ready to leave this world. 

Jews have several other ways of finding protection against bad spirits.

Wearing a red knotted string
Madonna, Demi Moore and Ariana Grande, despite not being Jewish, but having studied the Kabbalah, popularised the wearing of a red knotted string on their left wrist. This practice was adopted by Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, during his six hour testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform in February 2019. I wonder if it helped?

Madonna
Lawyer Michael Cohen

Never leave a religious book lying open. If you do, evil demons will steal the holy knowledge and use it for diabolic plans and you may also forget what you learned from it.

Sprinkle salt to scare off demons At one time Jews were so scared of demons living in their houses that when buying a new property, they would sometimes pay others to move in first for a day or two to check everything was fine. They next put salt in their own pockets and in areas of the house where demons might hide, believing that salt had powers against them.

Mezuza on door post

Mezuzah One of the 613 commandments of Judaism is to fix a Mezuza on one’s doorpost. It contains a roll of parchment with hand written lines from Deuteronomy ( part of The Five books of Moses) protecting whoever goes into the house and keeping out what is bad.

A gift of jam. It was customary to bring a gift of jam to a housewarming party, as it was considered to serve as a distraction to demons who demolish the jam instead of wreaking their usual havoc as guests celebrate.

Never put a hat or shoes on your bed. The origins of this are unclear, but its not only Jews – cowboys would absolutely never put their stetson on a bed…… very bad luck!

Sneezing was taken very seriously in Lithuania and Galicia where Jews would tug their ears after sneezing and recite a yiddish phrase ‘To Long Lucky Years’. The Midrash states that when someone sneezed they were going to die. Other Jews believe that if someone sneezes whilst speaking, whatever they were saying will come true. However beliefs about sneezing are in every religion and every generation from the Ancients until today right across the globe, mostly concerned with what others say about them.

Wearing a metal pin on clothes for a new trip. Jews saw metal as protective, it being a product of ‘civilisation’ and therefore capable of warding off evil spirits. But not only Jews. Only last week I saw a programme about Luciano Pavarotti, the world famous tenor. He would never go on stage without carrying a bent nail for luck so theatre staff sprinkled his dressing room floor with nails before his arrival to ensure he had one. This was so well known about him that a special fountain pen with a gold nib inscribed with the nail was produced in his honour. You can buy one for a mere £2,000 or so

Mirrors and Mourning
When it comes to death, Jews must ensure that all mirrors are completely covered during the seven day ‘shiva’ mourning period in their home. The belief is that when someone dies, evil spirits come to fill the void and such demons can only be seen through a mirror. Having always thought this was a Jewish custom, I was interested to read that Irish Catholics, English Victorians and non Jews in the American South also covered their mirrors, convinced that otherwise they would trap the souls of the deceased.

I was always cautious about mirrors since childhood, being told that if I broke one I would have seven years bad luck.   I assumed that my mum was trying to stop me being clumsy but apparently there are those who believe that it doesn’t just reflect your image, but also holds part of your soul.

Jewish mourners are advised  to wash their hands after attending a funeral, never take a direct path home from the cemetery  and make sure to walk all over the graveyard grounds to shake off any demons.

Jewish wedding customs The smashing of a glass wrapped in cloth by the groom at the end of a wedding ceremony is one of the most recognised Jewish customs. One explanation is that it commemorates the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. A second reason concerns the Jewish demon, Lilith – known as the incarnation of lust – breaking the glass is to ward her off. At some weddings the bride circles around her groom under the Chuppah (wedding canopy) several times to build a magical wall of protection against temptation (other women) and the evil eye.

Groom breaking glass

Sick? Change your name
When seriously ill, Jews are advised to change their Hebrew names This confuses the angel of death who would not be able to find you if you had a different name. I suppose a bit like going ‘ex directory’.

Hamsa This hand shaped charm with an eye in the centre is probably the most recognised Jewish amulet, but its origins are not exclusive to Judaism — it also has Christian and Islamic roots. Some of the Jewish talismans have images of fish and the Star of David, icons that also serve as protection against evil.

tashlich-tel-aviv

Casting away sins The Talmud recommends that when Jews perform the ritual of Tashlich — symbolically casting their sins away at New Year by throwing breadcrumbs into water — it should be running water containing fish as they are considered incapable of being affected by the evil eye –  possibly as they were the only species not to be affected by the Great Flood.

Where these rituals emanate from is sometimes a mystery, going back thousands of years and not exclusively Jewish.

Burning Sage I had never heard of ridding a new home of demons until I was told by a neighbour that before she took possession of her new home she burnt sage in every room. This spiritual practice was common amongst native American peoples to clear negative energy, promote wisdom and healing and was used by ancient Egyptians and Romans to treat digestive issues, memory loss and sore throats.

Today it has been somewhat hi-jacked by New Agers with a proliferation of websites advising how to ‘smudge’ (name of the process) and what to recite whilst doing so. Further sites explain the Ethics Of Burning Sage – calling it cultural expropriation for non-natives to engage in this activity, not surprising in our woke society – I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Whilst researching this month’s story I found myself drowning in an vast sea of do’s and dont’s. Take food, for example.

If you spill salt you must throw some over your left shoulder with your right hand to blind the devil. Never cut a banana or noodles with a knife. Don’t put milk in your tea before sugar or you’ll never get married and handing a hot pepper to a friend will destroy your relationship.

As for the world of theatre – never eat peanuts at a performance – it is bad luck for the cast. Don’t wear blue, light a trio of candles or bring peacock feathers or mirrors onto a stage. To this add no whistling backstage and absolutely never utter the name of Shakespeare’s ‘M’ play in any theatre. To wish an actor good luck say ‘Break a leg’ – an ancient English term meaning to bow. By saying this you are expressing your hope that the actor will reach the end of his performance, take a bow and receive applause.

To convert negative incidents into positive you could try snapping a chicken’s wishbone, make your request and hope it is answered. You can ‘knock on wood’ or ‘cross your fingers’, both widely used activities and expressions in everyday conversations. You might get lucky and find a four leaved clover, hang a horseshoe over your door, but never walk under a ladder, open an umbrella indoors, or stand on a line in the paving stones – a Daily Mail report estimated that four in ten adults never risk doing this…

Another common fear is of the number 13 particularly Friday 13th. Husband Charles relates how one of the senior partners of his law firm would refuse to come to work on that date. You may not fear it but will perhaps recoil on hearing the name describing such sufferers – they are friggatriskaidekaphobics, or the equally tongue twisting ‘paraskevidekatriaphobics’.

At this point it’s time to draw a line under my exploration of esoteric facts and avoid getting into the world of another irrational activity – phobias. However I cannot resist telling you about Archybutryophobia, ( fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth) Plutophobia (fear of money) or Xanthophobia ( fear of the colour yellow).

One more that has yet to stand the test of time but will surely be appreciated by many, is Nomophobia – the fear of being without your mobile phone. I wouldn’t care if I lost mine but then I am still trying to work out how to use it, after six years of trying….

Scientists are likely to scoff at all of this but why not follow tradition — just to be safe. Back in the 12c/13c the Jewish Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious) offered this wise advice:

‘One should not believe in superstitions, but it is best to be heedful of them.’

Words and Music

Two activities I enjoy hugely and which have kept me (moderately) sane during Covid are singing and writing.

I started both very late.  Years ago I recall telling myself that I was sure I had an artistic side but as I worked full time in those days it had no opportunity to develop.

I guess my creativity began emerging when, as Director of the British Israel Arts Foundation I worked with painters, craftworkers, writers, dancers and musicians. Something must have rubbed off!  I then ran my own art consultancy for 15 years, and started my first book in 2004 – the biography of photographer David Rubinger, published  2008 in New York.  My first solo photographic exhibition was in 2007 Tel Aviv  as part of the 40th Anniversary of the State of Israel.  My blog started in 2013 and the book ‘Unexpected Israel’  was published in 2015. 

 Singing, which I practice daily,  is another means of dealing with our crazy world.  It was in 2004 that I was lucky enough to meet Camille who brought the richness of music into my life with her tuition and encouragement which continues weekly.

Camille

But why mention this?  Because recently I realised more and more just how blessed  I am with the impressive musical and literary talents in my family.

Charlie, my eldest, had a close relationship with my uncles Burt and Ivor, both renowned jazz musicians in their time – bass and guitar.  Charlie started playing guitar aged 15.  In his 20’s he played in a band called ‘In Case of Fire’, being  joined there by Richard, my youngest, playing the drums.  It took David, my middle son, longer,  in fact he has only just decided to take singing lessons when he retires from work. However  Anna, his daughter, enjoys playing the piano, but as she is at Uni in Manchester with no piano,  she has to wait until she can play music back home.  His younger son Jacob, when in his mid teens began organising ‘Underground Dance Music Events’  with him acting  as DJ ( disc jockey).  They became hugely successful thanks to his drive and organisational abilities.

Charlie singing
Charlie in action

Charlie, living in Israel, has played with several bands and six years ago became a founder member and bass guitar  of the ‘Achim Brothers’, today considered one of the best in Israel.  He writes  and composes original songs for the band which will be promoted on Spotify next February. His musical career was almost ruined  a few years ago by a serious bike accident when he broke his wrist in several places, but such was his determination that he continued playing for 5 months wearing a huge plaster cast.

For the last 8 years he has also been repairing guitars and became a luthier (creator of string instruments) making guitars and one-off custom-made mandolins.Tali, his wife, has played mandolin for 44 years, initially with the Rosh Ha’ayin Mandolin Orchestra, and more recently the Israeli Plectrum Orchestra, performing both in Israel and abroad to great acclaim.  Tali  also teaches mandolin at schools and academies in Jerusalem.

Four of Charlie’s mandolins

And now for some family history – In 1988, as Director of the British Israel Arts Foundation, I was invited to visit the Rosh Ha’ayin Mandolin Orchestra, established in the mid sixties to teach classical music to children of immigrant families from Yemen. (Yemenite Jews had always believed that eventually they would travel to Israel on the wings of an eagle – this materialised as  Operation Magic Carpet  – in the form of an El Al plane in 1950)

 The orchestra’s chosen instrument was the mandolin, being relatively inexpensive yet having musical arrangements creating full and rich sounds.  The girls, with their dark hair and huge expressive eyes were a delight as was their music. I invited them to the UK  where they played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London and several regional cities. 

The original Rosh Ha*ayin Mandolin Orchestra 1988

 The tour turned out to have happy and unexpected consequences. I arranged hospitality for the 40 musicians with local families.   Tali, her sister Edi,  the conductor and the tour manager were to stay with us. When I met them off the bus, Edi announced that she would not stay with us –  I had a memorably difficult time arguing with this truculent teenager, but finally succeeded  and they came.  

Charlie joined us for Shabbat dinner, met the girls and was attracted to Tali.   A year later they married and began their life in London. The end result? – a wonderful extended Yemenite family – three grandchildren and now four great grand daughters.

 

Charlie and Tali, wedding photograph

As for literary achievements, my boys have each shown a talent for writing. Charlie through his music,  David published several books about sport and is currently planning a series of stories about the Olympics and Richard has had many articles published in trade and other magazines and has written his first book.  

Charles David Richard

I’d love to think that even an iota of genetic transmission came from my side of the family, but the reality is that the person with the most  creative influence is Dawn, David’s wife.  Nothing I have achieved can compare with her career as a journalist.

She started working for newspapers in Yorkshire and later Surrey.  After moving south she joined a team of professional journalists at the M & S head office  writing for their in house magazine  ‘St Michael News’ and later worked as a Court reporter.  When freelancing she had regular columns on a family page – The Dawn Chorus.

Newspaper articles about Dawn and her adventurous activities. Flying a bi-plane, diving and learning martial arts.

Readers related their interesting stories  to her – one memorable caller being utterly convinced that he was the reincarnation of Elvis Presley – Dawn and her colleagues can never forget the ‘experience’  listening to his musical outpourings.    

Another series involved her seeking exciting things to do – piloting a two seater biplane, playing underwater hockey at a local swimming pool, learning martial arts and spending a day with  the fire brigade.   She is invincible  – once whilst travelling home by bus, she saw a building on fire and immediately jumped off to investigate.

Outside a house in flames a distraught woman was screaming – Dawn saw the woman’s husband arrive….he patted his wife’s back to comfort her saying ”Dinner’s burnt then?”   lovely little cameo – very Yorkshire!

Reporting  at the courts could also be dramatic. Once while attending a  hearing she was assaulted by a group of girls who shoved her up against the wall in the ladies toilet, threatening that should she write about the case she would suffer.  Shaken, she reported the incidence to her editor who said “Don’t worry lass, Big Phil from photography will look after you and walk you to your car  everyday”,  but he omitted to tell her that the paper had already published a report on the case  giving Dawn’s name as the journalist.  

And now I move on to Dawn and David’s boys, Sam and Jacob following their entry into the world of words.

Samuel Kohn

After his degree Sam left Sussex University uncertain about his future.     He spent time exploring various options but with the onset of Covid it became virtually impossible for graduates to find jobs, so Sam and Georgia, a childhood friend, took matters into their own hands.  They had energy and initiative and together created a copywriting agency called WIZARD  OF CONTENT.

Today they have 75 writers on their books who are producing high quality web content for clients across the globe. The finished work is delivered in three days, prices are competitive and business is booming.

Sam says that one of their most reliable writers is his brother Jacob. I am not surprised. Since an early age he has demonstrated a mature capacity for language.   I recall the day David was telling him a story about someone who lost something and then, amazingly found it.    Jacob, aged 5,  responded saying “How serendipitous” – I had to rush to the dictionary to see what it meant.  Jacob was born on the autistic spectrum with Asperger’s Syndrome.   Dawn relates how, when collecting him from school with another little boy, she overheard Jacob telling him about his condition. The boy said  “I haven’t got it” to which Jacob replied “Well you probably have, but your mother hasn’t told you yet”.

In primary school the teacher once asked her class to draw a bar chart.   Jacob said, “What’s the point? and was told to sit down.  The teacher then asked them to draw a second bar chart next to the first one.   Jacob stood up declaring, “When you asked me to do the first one I thought it was a waste of time, now you ask me to do a second.  Can you give me any possible explanation as to how doing these bar charts is going to help me in my future career?   and walked out of the class.

On one occasion we were out walking. Suddenly he turned to me saying “Nana, you know I have Asperger’s Syndrome – this means I get obsessive about things and have to talk about them. You don’t need to listen, but just pretend to”.  He then talked for an hour solidly about Buzz Lightyear.   As we walked I listened,  hardly believing that  this complex and involved language came from such a youngster.  

Jacob with sister Anna

After completing a Degree in Creative Writing at UWE Bristol, Jacob continues to impress. His writing is perceptive, analytical and original, with great self awareness.   Despite the problems that autism creates, it can be a rich gift, something that many famous people in history had, similarly in today’s world.

Michelangelo, Mozart, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, poet William Yeats were in this category.In the business world – Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX), Bill Gates (Microsoft) and Steve Jobs (Apple Inc.), In the art world – Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Andy Warhol and many more.  Their contributions to our world are something to celebrate.

On concluding this story, there is another significant person – my late father Victor Daniels,  who certainly influenced me, my sister Joyce ( photographer and painter) and her son Daniel, who served with the Israel Army Radio.Now living in California he is an amazing guitarist with an enormous collection of records and music memorabilia.

Dad was a professional jazz musician, watchmaker, jeweller, and talented artist. He met my mum when one day she sang ’Mean To Me’ with his band. He was Mr Fix-It in our family. When I first married (aged 19) he regularly arrived at my home with his toolkit to see what needed repairing. Everything interested him.  He built the first t.v. set in Manchester, produced beautiful drawings and paintings, played the keyboard for the ‘old folks and made some installations for the Manchester Jewish Museum. He never lost his curiosity for life.   How he would have loved to have seen the achievements of his grandchildren and the great grandchildren he never met.  ……..   thanks Dad!!!

Dad, centre back, in his band 1940’s

Dad, Feb 1992, sketched by me. (two weeks later he died)

For more information:

JACOB – blog. kohnwords.wordpress.com

SAM – wizardofcontent.com

enjoy!

A Touch of Nostalgia

Driving In Israel

Traffic in Jerusalem

In Jewish tradition, before embarking upon any journey, it is customary to recite The Traveller’s Prayer, to ask the Almighty to ensure that you arrive at your destination safely. Nowhere is this prayer more necessary than when driving in Israel.

A friend going back to Israel after three years in London confessed that she was terrified of having to drive again on her
return. “Israeli roads are a nightmare and I am not sure I can cope with it any more!” she said. I would add that she was no shrinking violet, having been an Officer in the army and used to high stress situations.

Read any travel book or website about Israel. All state that driving there is not for the faint hearted. “Drivers are brash, aggressive, drive like maniacs and extreme caution is needed”.

Impatience is the order of the day. Pity the driver who does not immediately accelerate at traffic lights when they turn green. The definition of ‘a split second’ in Israel is the time it takes from when the lights change to when the horns of the cars behind start honking.

In general the rules of the road are ignored. Drivers overtake in suicidal situations such as going uphill on a blind curve or when a massive truck is careering directly towards them. This macho attitude is similar to Russian roulette but played with vehicles instead of bullets.

‘Road rage’ directed at our driver who remained infuriatingly calm, much to the other man’s annoyance

One disillusioned visitor drafted a list of basic recommendations when driving in Israel.
1) Never leave a safe distance between you and the car in front – if you do, the space will be filled by another car.
2) Pass either on the left or the right – either is fine.
3) Practice swerving from lane to lane.
4) When faced with verbal abuse and rude hand gestures, return them immediately.
5) Never get into an argument with the driver of a car in a worse condition than yours He won’t care if you collide.
6) Respect the fact that Israeli drivers always have to get to their destination first.

An average day in town

It has frequently been observed that more people have died on Israel’s roads than in all the wars since 1948. A sobering thought. A more benevolent comment heard was that ‘Israelis drive with Mediterranean creativity’.

However, in spite of the fact that the roads are a war-zone, should you ever break down in Israel and need help, there are few places in the world where people will come to your help more readily. This I experienced personally when travelling with my friend and guide Alon in the Negev. After driving all day, it was late at night as we headed in the direction of Eilat when there was a sudden ‘phut’ and we careered dramatically off the road.

By now it was pitch black, the darkness punctuated only by the headlights of infrequent and fast moving traffic that passed us on the main highway.

Back in England when you get a flat tyre, you phone the RAC or the AA. Out they come and fix the car – and off you go. But here we were in the middle of nowhere, or so it seemed, and this was no ordinary car tyre, but a mammoth version that looked to my inexperienced eye like it would need a team of muscular navvies to change it. Alon struggled patiently with this enormous wheel but had no light whatsoever to see what he was doing. The problem was exacerbated as the only tool available to him was a jack that would have been perfect for a kiddies’ wind up toy, but not much more.

There are very few times in my life when I wish that I was a man, or failing that, at least someone with even a modicum of knowledge about how to fix things. It is a well known statistic that most Jews and DIY are notoriously incompatible. However in my case my ineffectiveness was compounded by the fact that my Dad and my sons had always been quietly confident in this area of activity, leaving me piteously dependent.

So there I stood for what seemed an age, shivering in the desert night, an object of total inadequacy, making facile offers of help. Suddenly a car pulled up. Out stepped five young people, three men and two girls who were on their way to work at Eilat airport. They had seen our plight, turned their car around immediately and came to our rescue.

There are not many places in the world where this happens. Most people will drive past a road incident – but here they were, these nameless angels of mercy on their metaphorical white chargers. They came, they cheerfully helped to replace the tyre, and then insisted on leaving us with a bottle of cola and some cakes as a parting gift.

Bad things, it is said, are often sent to test us. The up side is that one can usually find a positive element in  every crisis – in this case it was the way these wonderful young people went out of their way to do us a good turn.

Another incident was related to me by a friend recently. Travelling back from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv he stopped his car on the side of he road in order to look at a beautiful sunset. At least five cars pulled over to check that everything was ok. Work that one out!

Sunset en route to Tel Aviv

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SHOPPING DOWNTOWN, JERUSALEM

Many years ago as a small child I remember shopping with my mother at one of the fashionable dress shops in Manchester. There was nothing in the window except one gown. Inside no clothes were on display. One was invited to wait in a private room whilst a smartly dressed haughty assistant brought a selection of clothes that she deemed suitable.

In Jaffa Road, Jerusalem is a shoe store. There is no sophisticated window display, and when you enter there is nothing to see except stacks and stacks of shoe boxes, or occasionally a jumble of shoes all mixed up. You sit down. An assistant asks your preference of colour or style, and then finds something amongst the thousands of boxes that she thinks you will like, or rather what she thinks you ought to like.

It feels somewhat anachronistic that this method of shopping exists today.

Shoe shop, Jerusalem
another shoe shop, Jerusalem
hardware shop
shop doorway
clothes and accessories

At other stores you descend perilously steep stairways into what can only be described as burrows in the ground stacked to the ceiling with goods.  How anything is ever found in this chaos escapes me but should you request a specific item, the shopkeeper will tell you that it does not exist rather than admit that he does not stock it.

There was a time when the mantra in commercial transactions was ‘The Customer Is Always Right’. In Israel they have modified this code to ‘The Shopkeeper Is Always Right’. Basically if they do not have what you want they will persuade you that what they do have, is so much more suitable.

A friend visited a store to look for furniture. She found what she wanted – chairs and sofas in bright purple and red. She called an assistant whose response was “Oh no, you can’t take those! What you should buy are these”, indicating something in neutral tones. “So much nicer!”Twenty minutes later my friend was still trying to insist to the salesman that she really did know what she wanted. After a lot of fruitless discussion he eventually conceded and reluctantly took her order, but as she said to me his disapproval was evident.

In Jerusalem, I guess they see their role not just as ‘shop assistant’ but ‘specialist adviser.’ Perhaps one should just do as one is told and graciously accept the fact that they always know best. Despite the fact that in London I can go to M&S and similar well organised stores, in a funny way I quite miss shopping as I experienced it in Jerusalem……..perhaps I can’t resist a challenge….

Let The Bells Ring Out…

Less than five minutes walk from our home in Jerusalem is one of the most interesting buildings in the city – the Y.M.C.A.  (Young Men’s Christian Association)

Jerusalem YMCA

It was around 100 years ago when Dr Clinton Harte worked tirelessly to raise funds for a magnificent new  complex designed by Arthur Loomis Harrison, the architect of the Empire State Building in New York.  In April 1933 this new home for the Jerusalem YMCA was completed and  dedicated by General Edmund Lord Allenby.    It was he who had commanded the British troops to a decisive victory against the German commander of the Ottoman forces culminating in the 1917 Battle of Jerusalem.   At the ceremony he declared “Here is a spot whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity be fostered and developed.” 

The YMCA is today one of the landmarks of Jerusalem, with its beautiful architecture and a magnificent tower rising to 50 metres.   I had passed it hundreds of times and often entered the building but never thought of ascending the tower.    

However in November 2019 whilst walking by, I heard music coming from on high -‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ from the Wizard of Oz.   My curiosity  was aroused by this choice of repertoire, so I decided to enter. At  the reception desk I  was advised that  for a five shekel entry fee (£1) I could climb the 195 stairs or take a very small lift  up to the Bell Tower.  Unfortunately neither option appealed – I didn’t fancy the idea of walking up and sadly have never been able to travel in an elevator since, aged 16, I was trapped alone in one for three hours  until I was rescued.    I  explained  my dilemma to YMCA’s  lovely receptionists  Sabreen and Alalyan, who both readily agreed to accompany me holding my hand tightly in the coffin sized lift as it whisked us up towards heaven.

curving stairway to open terrace
View from top of bell tower
YMCA’s lovely recerptionists

It was certainly worth the effort! On arrival we climbed up a winding stairway to reach an open air observation platform giving spectacular views over the whole city and beyond. Below this, however, was the real treasure I had come to see – the Bell Chamber. This houses a ‘Carillon’ comprising 36 bronze bells – varying in size from 8 to 1,500 kilos. These were cast at Gillett & Johnston – a traditional foundry based in Croydon, London from 1844 – 1947 – and were dedicated in honour of King George V. This Carillon is the only one of its kind in the Middle East.

Bells in the Bell Tower
The Carillon in the Playing Room
Engraved bell, Gillett & Johnston, London 1931

The floor beneath the Bell Chamber is the playing room, in the centre of which stands the ‘bell console’ which looks like a mix between a weaving loom and an organ. An oak frame houses 36 pegs and from each peg a metal cable rises up through a hole in the ceiling to the bell chamber where it connects with a bell clapper. Sounds are created by knocking the peg with a clenched fist and also by using foot pedals that produce sounds from other clappers in the bells.

I found it difficult to understand the process in order to explain it to you, but it was evident how physically demanding it was for the musician who had to beat down on the wooden pegs with his fists. When I entered the playing room it was filled with students and their teacher, from a local school. They were given the opportunity to play some notes which they obviously found lots of fun – perhaps encouraging them to become professionals!

On the door I noticed an Armenian decorative tile with a name written in Hebrew, English and Arabic, Gaby Shefler – Carillonneur. On enquiring I was told that he was renowned for his expertise in playing the carillon. I was intrigued to find out what type of person would choose to play such a rare instrument.

I discovered that he was born in Jerusalem 1947 to a family of music lovers and had studied the piano since the age of 5. He also attended the Hebrew University, receiving a BA (1972), an M.A. in 1977, and a PH.d in Clinical Psychology. Somehow he also found time to be a Captain in the Israel Defence Forces from 1974-99.

He began work as an intern at Hadassa and Eitanim hospitals, being appointed Clinical Psychologist at Herzog Ezrat Nashim Hospital and clinics (1976) and Chief Psychologist there in 1983. He served here until he retired after 44 years of service. He is today Professor of Psychology and Psychoanalysis and served as the Head of Clinical Psychology Training at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem where he was nominated as Freud Professor in Psychoanalysis.

Over the years he has served in senior positions of most of the leading organisations and committees both in this and allied fields of research which continue until today. He is currently Dean of the School of Advanced Studies at the Acharya Academic college.

How on earth, I wonder, did such a dedicated, committed individual in the medical field find the time to engage in other activities such as becoming an expert carillonneur. For those of you who, like me, had never heard of such an occupation, a ‘carillonneur’ is someone who masters the art of playing this complex instrument. For Gaby it began in 1973 after attending a course for Bell players at YMCA. He developed a passion for the instrument, travelling to bell towers in Europe and the US demonstrating his skills. He has never looked back.

Since 2006 he has given regular concerts at Jerusalem YMCA. His enthusiastic audiences gather outdoors in the YMCA’s gardens from where the sound of his bells can be heard four kilometres away. He has played at Bach and Chamber Music festivals plus many other major events such as the Jerusalem Festival and the Israel Festival. His eclectic repertoire includes popular Israeli songs and well known French and Russian melodies. A highlight of the year is Christmas when regulars come to brave the cold and join in singing xmas carols. A unique event that I hope I can attend this December, covid permitting! After almost two years of being ‘isolated’ in London it gives me something special to look forward to.

Audience outdoors at YMCA

It takes a a virtuoso like Gaby to produce such a wide range of melodies and create ethereal other worldly and delicate sounds, particularly as the bells are sensitive to climate changes. Heat and cold both affect them and unlike other instruments, there is no way they can be protected from this or re-tuned.

Arrival of new bell from Holland

IN 2018 the keyboard underwent a complete overhaul since its installation in 1933. Originally it had 35 bells instead of the planned 36, as the money available at the time ran out. However three years ago YMCA decided to renovate the instrument and it was the Dutch foundry ROYAL EIJSBOUTS (founded1872) – that undertook the huge project of casting the missing bell which they generously donated to YMCA. It weighed 850 kilos, was shipped to Israel and hoisted up to the bell tower by an enormous crane. It was this same company that restored the bells at Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, on the occasion of its 850th anniversary.

Gaby was honoured for his years of devotion, by having his initials ‘G.S.’ engraved inside the bell. I know of no one else who can boast of such recognition! Apparently, according to the cognoscenti, the sound is now infinitely better and it is also easier on the fists of the players to produce the subtle range of sounds that they seek.

New bell with initials G.S.
Gaby at the console with two of his grandchildren

Over the years I have been privileged to meet quite a few inspirational people. One common thread that is identifiable and intrigues me is how they can be at the top of their profession and can then add to this by branching out in a completely different direction with great success.

In Gaby’s case, for years he has made a huge contribution to the well being of his many patients through his practice and research enabling them to lead happier lives. Added to this he does the same, but this time by playing the carillon and bringing his music to his many audiences. I know personally from my singing the joy that music can bring – there is nothing quite like it and It is difficult to explain but for me it is quite simply pure and unadulterated happiness.

Gaby Schefler at his console delivering his video message

Only this week I saw a short U Tube video called MAKING JERUSALEM HAPPY and there was Gaby with his warm and welcoming smile saying

“ Good evening to everybody from the Jerusalem International YMCA Bell Tower. We decided to play some beautiful music for you in order to knock down the corona virus! good health to everybody!”

When I watched this it gave me a warm glow and made me smile – I hope it does the same for you.

We need more people in the world like Gaby Shefler….

To see him in action, click DOWNLOAD below

Recalling the Past, Empowering the Future

This month I introduce you to another remarkable individual – the happy result of yet another unexpected encounter.

Some three years ago whilst walking home from Finchley Road Tube station I noticed a distinguished looking gentleman laboriously making his way up the steep slope of Netherhall Gardens, walking stick in hand. “Have you noticed, I said, “how this hill seems to get steeper each year?” He nodded his assent and, puffing we reached the top.
“Do you live nearby? I asked. “Yes” he replied. “At the top of Maresfield Gardens: “Can I give you a lift- here is my car”, I offered. He accepted gratefully.

This was Simon Majaro, a surname familiar to me as I knew a Leah Majaro in Israel. It was his sister. On returning home I told Charles of our meeting. He had met Simon and his late wife Pamela, when they were all studying law at University College, London in 1954.

Simon was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn – joined a ‘start-up’ group of companies as a legal adviser, in the plastics and chemical industries where, after rapid progression in various managerial responsibilities, the Group was acquired by Uniliver and he was appointed Managing Director of one of their subsidiaries in Europe. At the same time he studied for an MBA at the International Management Institute, Geneva. He then left industry, returning to academia as Professor at IMI-Geneva, and later for 20 years as a Professor at Cranfield School of Management.

But I race ahead. Of great pride to Simon is his family background. He can trace it back six generations, unusual for most Jews as in the past data was not always efficiently recorded, plus over the years many synagogues and their records were destroyed. I can only trace my family back three generations, as when they arrived as immigrants, ship manifests were not always well maintained and names were frequently altered on arrival.

My maternal grandparents came to England in the 1880’s speaking no English and the port authorities spoke neither Russian nor Polish. The only word identifiable was Berdichev – grandpa’s birthplace in the Ukraine, so thereafter he was known as Josef Berdichevsky, later changed to Berd.

Coincidentally the earliest recorded member of Simon’s family, Israel Bak, was born in Berdichev, in 1797. It is curious to ponder whether our families were neighbours in those far off days…..

Some 150 years earlier the Khmelnytsky uprising took place, one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history when the number of European Jews massacred by the Cossacks varied between 100,000 – 500,000, exceeding even the catastrophes of the Crusades and the Black Death in Western Europe.

So it is hardly surprising that some Jews turned their thoughts towards returning to the Holy Land, the place of their origins. Israel Bak owned a printing press in Berdichev. This closed down in 1831 prompting him to emigrate to the Holy Land, where, settling in Safed, he resumed printing books in Hebrew, but in 1834 both his press and his farm were destroyed in a peasant revolt.

However Israel Bak was imbued with a strong desire to develop agriculture there even before the birth of Zionism. He, together with 15 other Jewish families moved to Mount Meron establishing the first Jewish farm owned and worked by Jews in modern times.

Bak also had a widespread reputation for curing illnesses, despite not being a doctor. He was summoned by the Turkish Governor of the country, Ibrahim Pasha for advice. Pasha recovered, and Bak was rewarded by being given a plot of land near Peki’in. Today Peki’in is mostly populated by Druze but allegedly always had a few Jewish families living there since the destruction of the Temple.

However in 1837 fate had other plans for him when a massive earthquake occurred, followed a year later by a Druze Revolt during which his farm and printing press were again destroyed. In 1841 he moved to Jerusalem establishing the first, and for 22 years, the only Jewish printing press in the city.

In 1863 he diversified, publishing and editing the second Hebrew newspaper in Eretẓ Israel, ‘Havazelet’, in which he wrote “I constructed houses, gardens and planted crops for food. We acquired sheep, goats, horses and donkeys but still managed to keep the Sabbath and the Festivals respecting both the laws of the land and our religion.”

Bak’s daughter Miriam married Itzchak Rokach – the link that, five generations later, led to the marriage of Simon’s mother Hannah to his father Leon Majaro. Leon admired his in-laws so much that he wrote their history ‘The House of Rokach’ – later translated into English by Simon to celebrate his own 80th birthday.

Hannah and Leon on their wedding day.

Reading the history of Simon’s illustrious antecedents is like a Jewish version of ‘Who’s Who?’

Israel Bak’s grandson Shimon Rokach (1862-1922) moved from Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1884 as the official collector of toll taxes imposed on vehicles travelling between Jaffa and Jerusalem, a post that he and his father had leased from the Turkish authorities and which they held for many years. In addition he founded the Ezrat Israel Society to assist new immigrants and also strenuously sought suitable land for a much needed new cemetery, walking miles over endless sand dunes. He found what he wanted for the Trumpeldor cemetery and purchased it – a deserted sandy plot then – today it is in the very heart of Tel Aviv, near Dizengoff Centre.

He also established the first modern Jewish quarter in Jaffa – Neve Tzedek. He unified the Sephardi and Ashkenazi residents in 1890 and served as president of their community. He was also one of the first to establish the citrus trade in the country – in every way Shimon Rokach was truly dedicated and innovative leader.

His son Israel, born 1896, dedicated his life to the Tel Aviv municipality, initially as a council member and later as Mayor. During his tenure Tel Aviv tripled its population to become the largest city in the country. He held several major government posts, and was buried at the Trumpledor cemetery 1959. In 2008, the Israeli government commemorated him on a postage stamp.

2008 commemorative stamp for Israel Rokach

And now to Simon’s mother and father Hannah and Leon, both exceptionally gifted and whom he acknowledges as the guiding lights of his life.

Leon grew up in Odessa in the late 19th century. His father was a lawyer and part owner of a local newspaper, his mother was a piano teacher. Leon describes their life vividly in his book ‘From Odessa To Jerusalem’. He studied medicine and in World War 1 was recruited into the Russian Army as doctor in a Cossack Brigade on the Turkish front.

the Argenfels launched 1901, Newcastle.

When war ended in 1918, the country was in chaos with the onset of the Russian Revolution. Leon returned home where his father warmly welcomed him saying “This country will become a hell on earth for many years – you are young, pack and go – anywhere”. Leon left for Constantinople where he managed to get on the ‘Argenfels’ – a ship taking exiled Jews back to Jaffa. This boat had been built in Newcastle on Tyne in 1901 and regularly took returning Jewish to Palestine after WW1 when the Turks had been defeated and the British ran the country.

Several on board had typhus and whilst caring for them he contracted it himself, fell desperately ill but was lucky enough to be taken to Shaar Tzion hospital where he made a miraculous albeit lengthy recovery.

But ‘Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining’ – in his case one of the founders of the hospital was Shimon Rokach. When Leon recovered, he was invited to the home of Meir Dizengoff, Mayor of Tel Aviv and here he met Shimon Rokach who was aware of Leon’s situation when he was hospitalised. Rokach invited him to Neve Zedek to meet his daughter Hannah who played the piano. He came. They married. The rest is history.

In order to work Leon had to master the three official languages, English, Arabic and Hebrew in order to find work in Arab and Jewish villages as the local doctor.

He later moved to Jerusalem serving for many years as the Director of Bikur Holim hospital in the Old City. His reputation was legendary and and the age of 90, the Municipality of Jerusalem honoured him by awarding him the title ‘Dr Leon Majaro, Jerusalem Doctor of the Poor’. Simon has spent most of Covid lockdown writing a detailed and moving book about his father.

My own contact with the family began 40 years ago on meeting Simon’s sister, Leah Majaro Mintz. It was memorable. She lived in the reconstructed Jewish Quarter of the Old City,Jerusalem where her sculptures of women became an integral part of her home placed – on floors, shelves and in the garden. She was hugely talented a delightful companion, and full of enthusiasm. I later visited her in Jaffa,- at the family home built by Shimon Rokach in 1887 on the street bearing his name, in Neve Tzedek. Leah restored the house – now a beautiful museum and art gallery and most definitely worth a visit.

Shimon Rokach street, Neve Tzedek, Jaffa

Israel Rokach
Interior of Leah Majaro’s home

Figures by Leah Majaro

Meeting Simon has been a joy, taking me on a fascinating journey of exploration. Since getting to know him better, I can safely say that there could be no finer standard bearer to continue the traditions of his illustrious ancestors.

What astonishes me is how he has managed to combine highly successful business and academic careers with an impressive contribution to the art world. Undoubtedly his parents, both accomplished musicians, planted the seeds, but in my experience it is rare to find someone who can display excellence in such diverse fields.

He always loved music. It was this that prompted him, and his late wife Pamela, a talented pianist and painter, to set up Cavatina – a charitable foundation to introduce children to chamber music. For this they were both awarded MBE’s in 2010.

Pamela and Simon Majaro

Only this month Simon received the following letter from Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, Chief Executive of UK Music.

“I grew up in a single parent household on a council estate in north London. My mum had tried to get me to learn the violin, but I had no interest or passion for classical music. However, when aged 17, Cavatina gave me a ticket to a string Quartet at the Wigmore Hall. When hearing the Ligeti Metamorphosis Nocturne it blew my mind and completely changed my life. It was a transcendental experience sparking an obsession with classical music that inspired me to study music at University. I definitely would not be doing what I do today had it not been for that concert, and Cavatina”.

But this is by no means all that Simon has achieved in the art world. His father instilled in him the philosophy ‘You work, you earn – if you have a trade you will always find employment” Accordingly, aged 14 he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker for a month each year during school holidays.

Simon’s drawing 1

simon’s drawing 2

Replica copy of violin by Stradivarius, made by Simon
Work in progress by Simon

With his earnings he bought a set of drawing instruments, and started a weekly course on draughtsmanship in which he excelled. He proudly showed me his workbook of hundreds of meticulous drawings, kept carefully from his early days. This skill led to him becoming a luthier. (maker of string instruments) when years later he attended a violin making summer school in Cambridge.

Viola in style of Maggini, made by Simon

Muslim chess set, turned wood made by Simon

Over the next 25 years he spent one day a week producing fourteen violins, violas and cellos modelled on those of Stradivarius, Amati, Maggini and Guaneri. Many of them are played by professional musicians and he continues to have work in progress. His apartment is a joy, filled with art created by both him and Pamela.

As for this story, I feel I only scratched the surface as there was so much more of interest to relate. For those of you who may want to know more, I recommend reading his book below.

Simon said to me recently, “You know the day we met was the only time I have ever been picked up by a woman in her car and accepted”. I assured him that it was the first time I have ever done such a thing and am unlikely to repeat it, but am glad that I did, otherwise I would not have experienced this voyage of discovery nor made such a special new friend. Thank you Simon!

Bibliography: Jerusalem’s Doctor of The Poor. by Simon Majaro.
contact: simon@cavatina.net. All proceeds go to the Cavatina Chamber MusicTrust.