a Frothy Tale and Chic(k) Couture

For this story I decided to tackle the subject of Israel’s seemingly endless ability to invent – particularly in the fields of medical science and high tech. However, being a self-confessed technophobe my concern is that I probably would not understand what I am writing about. I decided, therefore, to select two imaginative innovations which, whilst maybe not world shattering in their impact, are nevertheless worthy of a mention.

My first choice must be the machine that originated in Prof. Shlomo Magdassi’s lab at the Hebrew University. What does it do? For those of you coffee devotees who like like your latte or cappuccino topped with foam, you can now choose to order it with a message printed in the foam such as “Good Morning Darling”, “Happy Birthday”, or even with a photograph of a loved one – all produced in less than 10 seconds.


The Israeli machine, called the Ripple Maker, was launched at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2016 where it won a major prize. It works by combining 3D printing technology with an ink-jet system that prints out natural coffee extract.

The people most likely to feel the impact of this are the baristas. Those coffee house employees who serve espresso and have over the past decade mastered the art of producing  ‘designer beverages’, illustrated with hearts or leaves, by pouring steamed milk into the coffee and etching designs with the use of a small pencil-like tool.


However with the Ripple Maker, the barista can elevate ‘Latte Art’, as it is now called,  to new heights and – to quote the manufacturers – “You don’t just get a beverage – you get a piece of artwork.” It seems almost a shame that you have to drink it.

Today there is a craze on social media for taking pictures of food and sharing them with friends. This has gone ‘viral’ with a high proportion of such photos featuring ‘photogenic coffee’. It is the second most popular subject for snapping after the selfie.

Statistics show that since 2015 photogenic coffee posts on Instagram have risen by 4500%. Of those who post, 65% are female of of these 68% are 35 years and older. China is the country that posts the highest percentage of food pictures on social media each week – 34% of the entire population. Frankly I am not quite sure what these statistics tell us and am personally  at a total loss as to why on earth anyone should want to share a photo of their coffee with a friend. My granddaughter attempted to explain this phenomenon to me, but as as I haven’t drunk coffee since 1956, am obviously of the wrong generation and am not hooked into social media, her message fell on deaf ears.

I do however clearly remember my first introduction to this food phenomenon. Eight years ago I received a Facebook message and photograph from a close friend, who incidentally, was an influential corporate vice president, telling me how, at 11am that morning she had eaten a chocolate muffin. After my initial feeling of puzzled disbelief I was tempted to reply “Thank you so much for informing me of your magnificent achievement – it has made my day” but decided against it.

However I fully believe that anything that makes you smile or lightens your day gets top marks in my book. The Ripple Maker is not only fun but has created a massive market for advertisers to display their messages in an entirely new area – one’s daily cuppa.

But this passion for foam has gone to ever more exotic lengths – this time in Taiwan. Here latte art has become three dimensional – where skilled baristas have mastered the art of sculpting an image of your beloved pet in the foam on your coffee and painting the details to get a truly life-like representation.

Crafting latte.jpg




I can almost understand the pleasure one might get from having such a representation of a beloved pet on top of one’s coffee, but what I can’t quite comprehend is how one must feel when demolishing and devouring it – does that not strike you as slightly cannibalistic – or am I oversensitive?


Another Israeli scientific development, this time involving animals of the feathered variety, comes from Avigdor Cahana an Israeli geneticist at the Rehovot Agronomy Institute. In 2002 his team began research to create a featherless hen by cross breeding a regular broiler with a species that has a neck without feathers.

20111101-featherless chickens.jpg

The objectives in producing a ‘naked’ bird were several. Primarily it was to create a bird that does not require constant cooling to be kept alive. In hot countries expensive cooling systems are necessary to breed factory farmed chickens. In heat waves these systems can break down with the result that many birds die which is both cruel and wasteful of resources. However a lack of feathers enhances the bird’s natural cooling system – similar to someone not wearing a coat as compared to someone wearing one. Thus with naked birds there is a saving of electricity and nor do they require plucking, a lengthy and costly process, before reaching the market.featherless-chicken-jalwah-facebook_orig.jpg

In 2012 after many trials and modifications, Professor Cahaner, confirmed his initial hopes, restating that his was not a genetically modified chicken, but rather one from a natural breed whose characteristics have been known for 50 years. These traits were transferred to quick growing broilers, and his scientists have demonstrated how this new breed grows larger as it wastes no energy on creating feathers. The chicken tastes exactly the same as before but is healthier, being low fat.

Not unexpectedly, the Compassion In World Farming Lobby claim that these changes make chickens’ lives unbearable. Males are unable to mate as they cannot flap their wings and lose their balance during the mating process. In addition featherless chickens are more prone to attracting parasites and skin infections through injuries and and will be more sensitive to temperatures, even getting sun burn.

Whichever side of this fence you stand, these birds are certainly somewhat shocking to look at.   I, as a vegetarian, gave up the benefits of Jewish Penicillin (chicken soup) many years ago and I must say I did not really enjoy writing about this topic, until discovering some surprising facts about the extent to which others carry their concerns for fowl.

8619620-3x2-large.jpgIn Queensland there exists a group of women who knit and sew coats for ex-battery hens that have lost feathers due to ill health and old age and are unused to outdoor life and cold weather. They create these outfits ‘with absolute love’ and their designers are encouraged to be creative and use bright colours because “ it’s important that the chickens are happy, as well as warm.”

Another coterie of devoted knitters in Sussex, UK, are also making fashion items for their rescued battery hens. They name their outfit the Chikini. And in Cornwall a mother and daughter team have spent the past year knitting to provide their 60 hens with winter warmers in a variety of patterns and shades.

knits-tiny-chicken-jumpers-battery-hens-nicola-congdon-cornwall-61.jpgThey say that their chickens really  like the sweaters and don’t try to remove them. Apparently requests have been received from all over the world from those wanting to buy these designer clothes for their own chicks  – and all credit to Mother and daughter, they have stipulated that the profits will go to an AIDS orphanage in South Africa.

In spite of this, one question remains in my mind – are all these conscientious knitters vegetarians, or do they, at the end of a day spent busily with needles clicking, nip out to the local take-away to get their chicken nuggets or creamy chicken korma?










Send In The Clowns – Working Their Magic

Clowns have been around for millennia. 5000 years ago pygmies, dressed in animal skins and masks, danced to amuse the Pharaohs. The Chinese Emperor, he who built the Great Wall, had his own personal clown attached to the Imperial Court. The Greeks put them in short tunics padded with huge grotesque phalluses strapped to their loins. The Romans had mime artists grimacing and pulling faces and others named ‘Stupidus’ (no prizes for guessing his speciality), Scurra ( scurrilous) and Moriones (moron). ancient_greek_clowns.jpg

Greek Jesters

In the Middle Ages it was customary for grand houses and courts to maintain fools. They were well treated, being considered endowed with special powers from the gods. They served royalty as court jesters with the right of free speech at a time when this was not permitted for the mass of the population.

220px-Rahere_Jester_to_Henry_1st.jpgJester to King Henry 1 – Rahere

The jester to King Edward IV in 1400’s was, unusually, an Oxford don. His maxim was “a merry heart doth good, like a medicine” – an adage echoed in many cultures. Earlier, In 1123 Rahere a courtier and jester to Henry I, became ill on a pilgrimage to Rome. He vowed that should he recover he would build a hospital for the poor to honour St Bartholomew. He survived. The hospital – Barts – has been one of London’s leading hospitals ever since.

Today’s clowns however, do not derive from this courtly heritage but rather from street performers. Professional improvised comedy known as Commedia Del Arte began in Italy at the time of the Renaissance. Harlequin, the central character, would chastise adversaries with his magical bat – his ‘slapstick’. It was also at this time that the word ‘clown’ entered our vocabulary, the first instance being in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.


Harlequin with his slapstick.

As circuses became popular centres of entertainment, clowns performed both there and in theatres – several becoming world famous such as the English actor, dancer and comedian Joseph Grimaldi (b.1778) and Charlie Cairoli (b.1910) – an English-Italian musician and impressionist. There were many others and the silent movie era heralded a host of talented clowns including Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy.


I guess that clowning was never really considered a suitable job for a ‘nice Jewish boy’, but we do have a couple of co-religionists in this field of whom we can be justly proud. Marcel Marceau, a Frenchman (b.1923) whose father died in Auschwitz, went into hiding during WW2 working for the French Resistance. He first began using mime to keep Jewish children quiet whilst helping them to escape to Switzerland. In 1988, he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur, and the Order of Merit in France. He was an elected member of the Academy of Fine Arts, Berlin, and declared a ‘National Treasure’ in Japan.


Marcel Marceau

Happily my research also led me to Avner the Eccentric, (Avner Eisenberg b.1948) hailed as one of the greatest clowns of all times in the US. I watched as many of his YouTube videos as I could find and he really is a great performer – hugely talented and very funny.

images.jpegAvner the Eccentric

His extensive and varied career has included hypnotherapy, developing silent theatre skills as a therapeutic tool and much more. He also sits on the Board of Directors of a synagogue in Portland, Maine. Having read quite a bit about synagogue politics recently, it seems to me highly appropriate to have a clown perform such a function.

The medical profession has long recognised the value of art and music therapy to alleviate the anxiety of patients in hospitals, but in recent years this has taken a new form – medical clowning. It began in the 1970’s, inspired by Patch Adams, an American physician, social activist, clown, and author. ( featured in the film starring Robin Williams.)

In Israel too an entirely new breed of clowns have professionalized ‘clown therapy’, now developed into a research-backed healthcare discipline. In 2002 the Dream Doctors Project started at Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem. Courses were eventually set up to train clowns to become skilled paramedics integrated with the clinical teams.IMG_6463.JPG

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Trainees must have a background in dramatic arts including acting, street theatre and physical clowning. I spoke at length to David Barashi (DuSH) whom I first met on his visit to London where he gave master-classes to English clowns. He explained that clowning is a more complex process than acting as it requires the subtlety of non-verbal communication, body language and empathy as to how ‘the other’ may feel and react.

The clown develops this added dimension in order to decide whether to approach patients with gusto, or quietly and gently to gain their trust. Non-verbal communication is often more explicit than words, particularly useful in Israel where much of the population is a mix of peoples speaking many different languages.

Dream Doctors undergo five months of intensive training including theory and practical studies – expressive art therapy, psychology, nursing and medicine as well as physical clowning and acting. During an average year over 100 Dream Doctors, working in 29 hospitals, have contact with approximately 200,000 patients and work closely with physicians to assist with more than 40 medical procedures.

I visited Hadassah and following DuSH around the wards. It was a truly moving experience to observe how sensitively he judged the state of mind of each patient to decide how best to be accepted by them. Everyone he encountered became at ease and was left smiling. After seeing him in action it was no surprise to learn the extent to which this work has had such an impact.DuSh Hadassah.jpeg   DuSH

Research results demonstrate how the presence of a medical clown reduces anxiety in patients and their families. It can reduce pain, lessen the need for sedation in certain procedures and also alleviate depression. Surprisingly in vitro fertilisation patients experiencing clown therapy immediately after implantation, are 40% more likely to become pregnant. Add to this the feel-good-factor experienced by the hospital staff themselves, who report on the changed atmosphere in their wards.

Little known is the fact that these dedicated Israeli clowns also work abroad in disaster zones including Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Angola, Ethiopia, China, Germany, Greece and the USA. In Haiti and Nepal they have worked longer term as an integral part of the IDF field hospitals.

IMG_6202-min.JPGFor the clowns theirs is a hugely emotionally challenging vocation, one that at times can be joyous but at other times sad beyond belief when dealing with terminally ill children.

There can be no better gift in the world than love, giving it to someone and seeing them smile. This is even mentioned in the Talmud. Two men in the marketplace were approached by a Rabbi who asked their occupation. “We are jesters who go about cheering up people who are sad,” at which the Prophet Elijah appeared and declared “They are truly worthy of the world to come”.

I leave you with the following quote from Daisy D. Dots – an American clown.

A clown brings happiness where there is sadness, an ear to those who need to be heard, a tear when someone needs to be sad. Their clothes tell you that they are not ordinary, but people whose big shoes and red noses are small in comparison to the size of their hearts.   They make you feel you are the most special person in the room, giving of their heart to make you feel better…and somehow before you know it, it does.


Not by Bread Alone

One of the most iconic places to visit in Jaffa, is the renowned Abulafia bakery established in 1879, located on Yefet Street, an area where Jews and Arabs run businesses cheek by jowl.the-restaurant.jpg

I assumed that Abulafia was an Arabic name – Abu meaning father, affia meaning health or well being. But apparently the name was also used by Sephardi Jews from the time when much of Spain was ruled by Arabic-speaking Moors from 711 – 1429 – the so called Golden Age when Moslems, Christians and Jews could follow their own religion and everyone lived in harmony. (The Convivenzia)

Several prominent and influential Jews living there bore the name Abulafia. Meir Abulafia was the scion of a wealthy family and a renowned Jewish scholar so highly regarded that when his father died in 1225 he was honoured by receiving his father’s title of Prince. (‘Nasi’)

Abraham Abulafia, born in 1240 in Zaragosa, learned Bible and Talmud as a child but at 18 began a life of wandering after his father died. His first trip was to the Land of Israel where he hoped to begin a search for the Ten Lost Tribes, but owing to the chaos and lawlessness following the Crusades he got no further than the port at Acre. Back in Europe he once more immersed himself in study and, being articulate and charismatic, attracted many followers, eager to learn of his writings on Kabbala and philosophical matters.

On returning to Spain he concentrated on the study of mysticism and began having visions. In answer to an ‘inner voice’, he left for Rome with the intention of converting Pope Nicholas 111 to Judaism on the day before the Jewish New Year, 1280. The Pope ordered ‘this fanatic’ to be burned, but then died suddenly from an apopletic stroke. Abulafia was imprisoned for only four weeks and then released after which he started claiming to be the messiah. He continued writing until around 1291 after which all trace of him disappeared. However his esoteric works are still read and were published in full as recently as 1990 in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem.

A third Abulafia of note was Samuel Ha Levi, member of an illustrious family that served the Castilian Christian kings for generations. In 1356 he was permitted to build a family synagogue, the El Transito in Toledo. He defied all the laws that synagogues must be undecorated and no larger or higher than any church, presumably with the tacit consent of the King. El Transito was famous for its rich stucco interior, being compared to the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville. After the Expulsion in 1492 it became a church, then a national monument in 1877 and in 1910 it was restored to the Jewish community and is known officially today as the Sephardi Museum.


El Transito, Toledo

Following the Expulsion, some of the Abulafia family settled in Safed in the Land of Israel where they established a rabbinic dynasty and later in Tiberias, where Rabbi Haim Abulafia helped to found the community. The Sephardi synagogue bearing his name remains the main one in the town to this day and his tomb is a place of pilgrimage.

In 1907 his great-grandson Shlomo built a house in Neve Tzedek at 2 Rokach Street. Around this time a young man named Shmuel Yosef Czaczkes arrived in the country and rented a small attic room in their home. He later became known as Shai Agnon, the writer. From his five bedroom windows Agnon described the views of the sea, the train, the desert, the orange grove and Neve Zedek. He also caught glimpses of the beautiful Margalit Chelouche in a window opposite, but got nowhere with his courtship as the Chelouche family did not feel that his occupation was respectable enough for their daughter. One wonders whether they would have had second thoughts had they known that he would one day become Israel’s Poet Laureate winning the Nobel Prize for Literature and honoured with his portrait on the Israeli 50 shekel note.

Israel 50 New Shekels banknote 1992.JPG

Shlomo Abulafia was one of the first people to build a home on land close to the port of Jaffa purchased by a society called Ahuzat Bayit. On 11 April 1909, 66 Jewish families gathered on a desolate sand dune to parcel out the land by lottery. White and grey shells were collected. Each member’s name was written on the white shells and the plot numbers on the grey shells. A boy drew the names from one box of shells and a girl drew the plot numbers from the second box. This event is considered to be the birth of the city of Tel Aviv.
Whilst Shlomo Abulafia is regarded as one of the city’s founders, another Abulafia, Said, of Arab descent, began to make his mark even earlier, when in 1879 he established the now famed iconic bakery in Jaffa, which his descendants have continued to run for 140 years. His great grandson, also named Said, lives in Jaffa, a city he is proud of as being a truly multicultural society. The touching story related below concerns his grandfather and illustrates this aspect of life there.

In the 1970’s Rabbi Shlomo Zalman owned a shoe factory next to the bakery. During the Jewish holiday of Passover it is forbidden for Jews to eat bread, so all Jewish bakeries close. However Abulafia’s, as an Arab run business, remained open, much to the distress of the Rabbi who saw many non religious Jews queuing there to buy bread.

The Rabbi approached the bakery’s owner, Said, asking him how much profit he made during the week of Passover. It was a substantial amount, but the Rabbi offered to pay him this money if he would close during Passover. Said consented.

For the next five years the agreement continued, but on the sixth year Said visited Rabbi Zalman a week before Passover. “My family” he said, ”has made so much profit during the past five years thanks to the blessings from Allah because of our merit in closing during Passover, that we do not want to accept your money any longer”. The agreement was terminated, with Said promising to continue to keep the bakery closed during Passover. So it continues to this day. Below is a photograph of the grandsons of the two parties to the contract holding the original agreement.

abpic abulaf and rabbi's son:xontractulafia pic.jpg

This old style bakery operates for 24 hours a day, using huge brick ovens to produce an amazing range of delicious products. One recommended speciality is a folded pastry called Sambusak, filled with silky smooth mashed potatoes, onions, mushrooms and cheese. It is served hot with the addition of a hard boiled egg and lots of black pepper. The desserts on offer can only be described as yummy!


Today the original owner’s great grandson, Said, combines his work as a lawyer with running the family’s real estate and a new branch of Abulafia in the Tel Aviv port. In 2007 being passionate about American football, he acted as President of the Tel Aviv Sabres – the local football team. It was unique in its composition of Muslim and Christian Arabs, local Jews, non Jewish Americans and even a Filipino Israeli. The players, despite being from very varied backgrounds, all worked together towards the same goals – literally.

What Said has achieved represents the ethos of this melting pot called Jaffa. It is another example of which there are many in Israel, of how people from different traditions, contrary to popular belief, can successfully work and play together, much as they might have done so many generations ago in Al Andalus, Spain. Viva the Convivenzia.


Flight to Freedom

One of the unanticipated joys of writing my stories has been the feedback I receive from readers all over the world – some known, but many others unknown to me. As a result I have been led on unexpected journeys and met some memorable characters._MG_7583.JPGOne such person is Shlomo HIllel. The day I first met him was the high spot of five years work on my book. Two years ago I wrote a story about the bullet factory (The Ayalon Institute), built clandestinely by the Hagana at Rehovot in 1945 during the British Mandate. It appeared in my book Unexpected Israel and on my blog.

Shortly after it was published I received a phone call from a quietly spoken formal gentleman saying “Thank you for writing about the Ayalon Institute. It is a very important story”. His name was Shlomo HIllel. I asked why it interested him, to which he replied “I was there”.

We arranged to meet at his home. I sat captivated for over two hours as he told me how, in 1945, aged 22, he was the oldest of a youth group and in charge of a dozen teenage boys and girls, one of whom would later become his wife. Together they built this secret underground factory, the size of a tennis court. I asked how they did it. “Like this” he said, showing me his hands. What they achieved defies belief. In the next two years over 2.5 million bullets were manufactured, to help the Jews defend themselves when the British left and the State of Israel was established in 1948.

After it was completed, Shlomo Hillel did not stay at the Institute. Instead in 1946 the Hagana sent him for a year to Baghdad, his birthplace, to plan the exodus of Iraq’s Jews. Between 1949- 52 he returned, working tirelessly to bring 130,000 of them to Israel – almost the entire community. Years later the story of this operation was published in his book ‘Operation Babylon’, it reads like a master spy thriller.


We keep in touch by phone. On my last visit to Israel we met again and I was fascinated to hear about his latest project as President of the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, involving the Atlit Detention Camp near Haifa. Constructed during the Mandate, it served as an internment camp for illegal’ Jewish immigrants captured by the British from 1939 to 1948, illegal inasmuch as they were attempting to defy the strict British entry quota. Shlomo HIllel also had a more personal connection as his late wife, Temima, was held there with her family on her arrival as a child refugee from Austria.

atlit-detainee-camp.jpgI visited the museum. At first sight it was chilling, evoking images of Nazi concentration camps. The original camp was 90,000 square meters – today’s camp is smaller but still lined with rows of wooden huts and the entire camp is surrounded by heavy barbed wire fences and watchtowers. I went first to see the disinfection building, where the arrivals undressed, showered and were sprayed with DDT.

One can understand the need for this, for when they eventually reached the Land of Israel they were dirty, dishevelled and carrying who knows what kind of parasites. But for those who had left the death camps it must have been traumatic to find themselves once again behind barbed wire. Men were separated from the women and children, another reminder of what they had endured under the Nazis.

However at Atlit the men and women were allowed to meet once daily and walk along a central ‘boulevard’. Archive photographs show smiling and hopeful faces – something never seen in Auschwitz.

P1080326.JPGThe accommodation huts contain rows of beds and domestic items such as a sewing machine, toys and books – evidence of a slow return to normality. The local community set up help groups to assist the newcomers whilst they waited either for their permit to stay or, sadly, to be deported.


P1080341.JPGAt the museum I watched a short film about the successful Palmach raid in October 1945 to liberate the detainees. it was powerfully moving and I was reduced to tears by the finale.

Most illegal immigrants (‘Ma’apilim’) arrived by boat beginning in 1934 and the accounts of their hazardous journeys are recorded in the archives. Following WW2, in spite of their knowledge of the Holocaust, the British intensified their policy of restricting the number of Jews permitted to enter the country.

To counter this, a complex international Jewish network was established to get survivors onto boats and to the Land of Israel. Many eluded the British but several unpleasant incidents occurred. Refugees were dragged off boats and in some cases returned to Europe. Others were shipped to camps in Mauritius.

These stories made the world  headlines.  An Italian boat was detained in La Spezia on the orders of the British and all the passengers went on hunger strike. The Exodus left France carrying 4,515 survivors. The British fired at the ship, lives were lost and the boat was towed to Haifa where the passengers were forcibly returned to Germany.

Atlit was now so overcrowded that the British built camps on Cyprus. From August 1946 until the British Mandate ended in 1948 52,000 Jews were deported to and held there.

(When I grew up in England I remember the pride of believing that our British soldiers behaved better than others and didn’t engage in atrocities. It was only when I came to Israel for the first time did I realise that our troops were not exactly squeaky clean, nor was our government. A sad realisation!

The majority of refugees arrived by sea. To commemorate this, a boat from that era is installed at Atlit for visitors to enter and experience what life was like on board.

P1080340.JPGCuriously the British assumed that only boats would be used to bring ‘illegals’ to the country so Shlomo Hillel and the Hagana decided to bring some by air. In August 1947 the first flight took place with Hillel and 50 Iraqi Jews who landed undetected at Yavne’el in the Lower Galilee. A month later a second flight arrived from an unused airport in Italy, again landing secretly. The pilots then returned to Iraq and brought out 50 more.


Whilst these flights involving 150 refugees may seem insignificant numerically, it was a major development. Hillel wrote “We took great satisfaction from knowing that we were the first in the history of the Aliya Bet to successfully bring in Ma’apilim by air”.

Recently the museum spent years looking for a plane of the same type that was originally used. They eventually found one in Alaska. The story of how it reached Atlit is an adventure in itself. It was taken apart and reassembled in its original condition in Alaska, then transported to Israel via China. It now takes pride of place on the site and will soon open to the public to tell the tale of its exploits.

What I find quite remarkable is to know that Shlomo HIllel, the man who 70 years ago helped to save so many Jews, is still, at the age of 94, actively involved in projects such as this. His enthusiasm and energy never diminishes.

He is one of the true pioneers of this country, having served as a Member of the Knesset, Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry, Minister of Police, Interior Minister, Ambassador to five African nations, Speaker of the Knesset for five years and so it continues. He was also awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in 1998 for his special contribution to the society and the State of Israel.

Shlomo will not welcome this living eulogy, regarding it as totally unwarranted, (he being the most self effacing person I know.) When I asked if I could put a credit from him on the back of my book saying “Thank you for writing the dramatic story of the Ayalon Institute – I was there”,  he replied “Dont say that, it wasn’t dramatic, we had a job to do and we just got on with it.” This is typical of a truly special person. A role model for us all.



Mary – wor bonny lass

Life is not always about people achieving fame and success. More often it is about some unforgettable characters who may appear to lead ordinary lives – such as Mary.

We first met Mary 30 years ago. A down to earth Geordie she was our cleaner for ten years until retiring at 70 because of her ‘gammy knee’.

opcss9w.jpgMary was born in 1925, the fourth of five siblings in South Shields, a coastal town near Newcastle at the mouth of the River Tyne. Her family were Catholics who came to England from Ireland during the Potato Famine (1845-54) to seek employment. Small scale iron making had existed here since the 12th century but after the Industrial Revolution the Cleveland Main Seam was discovered locally at Skinningrove in 1837 which created a boom for the iron and steel industry, railways and shipbuilding. The town of Jarrow became known as ‘Little Ireland’ and the 1861 census recorded that 67% of Newcastle’s population were immigrants.

When Mary was growing up her mother worked in a fish and chip shop and her father found occasional work at the shipyards when weather permitted the boats to dock. He mostly worked on the ropes of cargo ships – a dangerous job. On one occasion he fell into the docks. He was wearing a dirty white mackintosh which his wife had been urging him to throw away – this saved him as he was seen floundering in the water and rescue



WW2Bomb damage in South Shields
Mary was 13 when WW11 began. She remembers clearly the night that all eight
bridges in Shields were bombed, leaving massive craters in the road. The area suffered constant raids from enemy aircraft targeting the iron and steel works, chemical plants and shipyards. Over 1,000 civilians were killed or maimed by Luftwaffe bombing raids. Her elder brother was called up to serve in the prestigious 51st Highland Division – the only Englishman recruited.

Mary left school at 14. She and her siblings had to support their parents struggling on a small pension. Her siblings worked in munitions factories and Mary’s first job was at Carricks Catering with 100 cafes in the north east. She stayed four years until the company was bought out just before the war ended and everyone lost their jobs.

Social life was a weekly visit to the ‘pictures’ and going to the beach in summer, although this was often out of bounds because of the land mines that had been buried there to deter the Germans.

Mary never married. “I was too busy working for the family to bother”, she said, though she once got engaged to a Irish pen-friend from Belfast. He came to meet her family but, whilst on the train, she saw him take a purse out of his pocket and was instantly put off. “I couldn’t marry a man who used a purse!” she told her mother, a forthright and direct character, who agreed, saying he might have been alright as a pen-friend, but was much too sedate – not rough and ready like our real men. Since then Mary never met anyone she fancied.

Post-war there was even less work available in the north so in 1945 she tried her luck in London, finding a job with the BBC in Bayswater where she spent a year working in their staff canteen. She earned £4 a week with £2.12s.6d deducted for bed and board.

It was about this time that she met Moira, who became her dearest friend and with whom she lived for the rest of her life. Moira was ‘adopted’ by Mary’s family – her mother regarding her as a daughter – the only one whose cooking she would eat.

They met whilst working for a Miss Drew who who ran a small hotel in Fitzjohns Avenue, Hampstead just 200 yards from where we now live. Moira was the housekeeper and Mary a waitress. One day the unimaginable happened – Miss Drew committed suicide, (Man trouble, says Mary). For Moira, a devout Catholic, this act was an unforgivable mortal sin so she left her job and Mary followed suit – “Moira didn’t have a soul in the world and I couldn’t bear to think of her managing on her own”. So they went back home for a month, returning to London courtesy of Miss Smith’s agency for young ladies.

Back in London their first night was spent in a Soho attic next to the boiler which was so noisy they couldn’t sleep. Next day they left early, spent the day trudging around London and finally found work and a room, but with little left for food after paying the rent. Their treat for the week was to share a bottle of lemonade on a Sunday.

Eventually they put their names down for a council flat in a block they watched being built and 15 years later moved into Weedington Road, (Kentish Town) where she remains today.

She and Moira travelled together to Ireland, Lourdes, Rome and Jerusalem when they came to stay with us for a holiday. She reminded me of the Independence Day concert we all attended and also recalls their visit to an area where all the men wore long curls ( Mea Shearim)

In London Mary visited ‘the bingo’ weekly, but now finds it too noisy and has transferred her loyalty to the Irish National Lottery. If she wins she says she wants to come back to Jerusalem.

Sadly Moira died in 2011 aged 95, Mary continues to live in the flat with Benjy her small white fluffy Bichon Frise who she found at the Battersea Dogs Home. Benjy is central to her life. He loves her dearly and sleeps at the top of her pillow with his head drooping down onto hers.

P1080294.jpgHowever Benjy is discriminating and refuses to eat tinned dog food. Every day they visit a local cafe – Benjy eats chicken nuggets or a bacon sandwich and she has a latte. I observed that he ate the filling but left the bread – evidently a gluten conscious dog. Mary meanwhile sits enthroned on her buggy surveying the world. Everyone passing by knows and loves her.

Mary is a regular Church-goer, but for some reason Benjy categorically refuses to go. We think he must belong to a different religion. He waits at home barking constantly until her return.

Mary gets on well with all the neighbours however ‘her upstairs’ complained about Benjy. Mary apologised, but the neighbour continued grumbling until Mary eventually said “Fine, I’ll get rid of Benjy if you get rid of that fancy man of yours who comes for fun and games with you four nights a week leaving his wife and children at home”. Nothing more was said. Since then the fancy man is off the scene and ‘her upstairs’ actually now loves Benjy.

At 92 Mary’s mobility is limited, but she compensates by travelling on the Rolls Royce of buggies – scarlet red with, as she puts it, a ‘saucy’ horn. She is critical of those pedestrians who incessantly use mobiles, presenting a hazard to her and everyone else on the pavements.

extra dry

IMG_7683.JPG  xxx.JPGThe first time Mary visited us on her supermobile, we were astonished by the speed at which she travels. “Don’t break the limit”, cautioned Charles, which prompted the response “why is it always the men that don’t like me to race around!”

Every day, weather permitting, she rides up to Parliament Hill where she reigns supreme for a couple of hours chatting to many of the friends she has made. She has become something of an institution in Kentish Town. On a recent visit I went the wrong way and asked a postman if he knew Weedington Road. I was maybe a mile or so away. I said “I’m visiting a good friend”Oh you must mean Mary” he said. “Give her my love”.

Her special long term friend is the local priest, Michael – no spring chicken at 86, but that does not stop him visiting her every morning at 9.am plus Wednesdays at 3pm when they have a glass of gin and tonic. They also take trips to Richmond or Brighton – put the buggy on the train and they’re off.

I have never met anyone with such determination and enthusiasm for life. For months she was housebound as the ramp to allow her buggy out of the flat was not fixed despite frequent pleas to the Council. Mary was frustrated but, true to form, she developed enduring friendships with the local squirrels who now visit several times a day for their peanuts. Mary hates asking for help, but she eventually overcame her stubbornness and the neighbours now get her in and out of the flat. She is ‘back on the road’.

Mary will tell that you she has had a great life. Thanks to her humour, stoicism and beliefs, she is the most uncomplaining person I know – an indomitable character, who has enriched the lives of many. Incidentally she is also the staunchest Conservative – as she says my mother would never have allowed anyone in our family to vote differently.

God bless her.

From pillar to post – a short history of the Royal Mail

Since childhood I have been fascinated by our postal service and still have that sense of wonder whilst placing my letter in a postbox knowing that it will be delivered to its destination, wherever that might be.

My interest came from my father – a dedicated philatelist who put together a fine collection of British stamps. Occasionally I was permitted to mount them in albums, using special tweezers for the purpose, and recall the excitement of being shown the Imperial Crown watermark on a rare edition.


Father said that the ‘Penny Black’ was worth a fortune, (£3 – 4,000 today) but he had other brightly coloured stamps from all corners of the British Empire which I found more attractive. In those days countries on the world map were highlighted in red indicating which bits were ‘ours’ – but Dad said these stamps were of lesser value. It was only recently whilst researching this article that I discovered that the British Guyana 1cent magenta had sold for $9.4 million. Ah well….400px-Map_of_the_British_Empire_in_the_1920's.png

Imagine my excitement therefore on receiving an invitation to the Press Preview of a  Postal Museum  being launched in London.

The Royal Mail began 500 years ago when Henry V111 kept three horses in each town for delivering his letters. Their stables were called Posts – and it is this name that has survived until today – the post. Charles 1 opened the service to the public and Oliver Cromwell created a monopoly over the Postal Services in 1654. Fixed charges and the date stamp were introduced – the General Post Office became a reality.

Royal mail carriage.jpg

The first mail coach, decorated with Post Office livery, travelled between London and Bristol. The journey was hazardous because of highwaymen, so drivers carried pistols to protect themselves. Similarly dedicated sailors fiercely defended their mail cargo in ‘packet’ boats. They were attacked so often by pirates that compensation was established for death, £8 for a limb and £4 for an eye.

The mail service was initially only for the wealthy who required that public servants should be properly attired, so uniformed postmen appeared on the streets and also on the River Thames. It was Londoner George Evans and his family that rowed for 142 years delivering mail to boats moored there.

One delight of research is that I am introduced to some remarkable characters, for example, Rowland Hill – a Kidderminster born campaigner for social reform, teacher and inventor.  It was he who highlighted the inequities in the postal service. Recipients had to pay for letters on delivery, the cost calculated by the distance travelled, its size, weight and even how much paper was used. This system proved prohibitively expensive for most people who often refused to accept their mail.

Hill transformed everything by inventing the first adhesive postage stamp – a penny black with a profile of Queen Victoria. From then on a standard charge of one penny was paid by the sender, provided that the letter weighed less than half an ounce. This scheme was instantly successful and he was knighted for his service, becoming Sir Rowland Hill.

This distinguished man lived his latter 30 years in Hampstead where we now live. A plaque commemorates him at the Royal Free Hospital. Hampstead has many ‘Hills’ – Downshire, Haverstock, Parliament and Rosslyn. I was really hoping there might be a Rowland Hill to add to this list, but instead we merely have the lesser known ‘Rowland Hill Street’ – What a shame!

Rowland Hill Street.jpg

He revolutionised the postal service, but the increased demand required more facilities where people could deposit letters. It was Anthony Trollope, working as a surveyor for the Post Office, who devised the idea of placing heavy iron pillars ( to deter theft) on the roadside for this purpose – and so the pillar box was born, the first erected in Jersey in 1852.

Pillar boxes reached London by 1855. They were originally green, but merged too easily into the landscape hence the decision to alter them to red. Today there are 116,000 boxes which are protected national treasures – iconic images epitomising the British way of life.

Green vict. p:box.jpg           Elm Walk Vic p:box.jpg

two Queen Victoria post boxes.

Over the years suggestions were made as how best to transport the increasing volume of mail, but conditions in overcrowded London produced their own solution. With traffic congestion and bad weather it was decided to construct underground tunnels where unmanned electric trains operated unseen by the public. 6.5 miles of track crossed London linking sorting offices with mainline stations. They operated 22 hours a day with 2 hours for maintenance. 220 staff sorted more than four million letters daily.

This ceased during WW1 through manpower shortages as  men joined the Army. But the tunnels continued serving a useful purpose, housing valuable artworks from London museums.The tunnels reopened in 1927, running without a stop until 2003.

It is easy to forget the significant contribution that Royal Mail has made to our lives. Post offices were the ‘heart’ of every village. During WW1 75,000 Post Office staff were released to fight. The Post Office Rifles Regiment comprised 12,000 employees who  fought and suffered terrible losses on the Western Front, where 1,800 were killed and 4,500 wounded.

The postal service performed another crucial role during WW1. Outbound letters to soldiers peaked at 10 million a week in early 1918, with 19,000 mailbags crossing the Channel each day, reaching half a million at Xmas. This was the only way families could keep in touch with their loved ones and letter writing became very popular. Some of these letters are displayed at the Postal Museum – moving testimonies of what life was like for those serving abroad and those remaining at home.

In 1919 the first airmail flight left  Kent for Le Touquet, France. This facility mushroomed to the point where in 1938 91 million airmail letters were delivered abroad.

This information and much more is available at the Museum where thousands of artefacts and photographs record Royal Mail’s fascinating and sometimes quirky history such as the early home deliveries numbering up to 12 a day. Also certain items could not be sent by post, such as James Joyce’s book  ‘Ulysses’, banned as obscene in 1920. Copies found by postal workers were promptly destroyed. Today they are available free on the internet.

Tibs_the_Great.jpgAnother esoteric item was the revelation that cats were on Royal Mail’s payroll. Tibs became one such feline celebrity. Born in 1950, he gave 14 years of his life to his employers for 2s.6d per week remuneration. In 1952 there was public outrage with questions asked in Parliament concerning his minimal wage and conditions of work. After lengthy discussion the conclusion was reached that he was protected under the Equal Pay Act. Where else could this happen except Britain!

mailrailjpg.jpg mail rail

Bend in the Tracks.jpg photo: Miles Willis

The highlight of my visit was the ride on the newly restored mail rail. This mini carriage travels for 20 minutes through the original tunnels and stations where interactive displays tell of its history. This and the museum are a must for visitors of any age. For seniors it is an occasion for nostalgia, remembering so much that was central to our lives but which we mostly took for granted – how many of us remember waiting excitedly for the postman to arrive on that special day with our birthday cards?

Today’s children know nothing of this. Neither I Phones nor I Pads can begin to replace that experience. The Royal Mail was fundamentally about people, community and communication in more ways than one. I rejoice in having experienced this but can’t help feeling a great sense of loss that so much of it is being consigned to history.

To visit this museum, phone 0300 030 0700 or book on line at PostalMuseum.org.   Not to be missed.


Making a world of a difference….

PICT0086.jpg  For the past thirty years we have been fortunate to have a home in Jerusalem in Yemin Moshe, opposite the walls of the Old City. But it was only recently whilst researching this story about Sir Moses Montefiore, that I discovered the fascinating history of the place that I now call home, for it was he who established Mishkenot Sha’ananim – the first residential project outside the the Old City to provide better housing for the Jews living in squalid and overcrowded conditions.

Seeking a suitable location, Montefiore approached the Governor of Jerusalem Ahmed Aga Dizdar in 1855 and asked him to sell a plot of land he owned. Dizdar replied “ You are my friend, my brother, the apple of my eye. Take possession of it at once. This land I hold as an heirloom from my ancestors. I would not sell it to anyone for thousands of pounds but to you I give it without any money; it is yours, take possession of it.” The Levantine bargaining then began and lasted all day, ending with an agreement that Montefiore should transfer ‘a souvenir’ of £1,000 to Dizdar.

The first building was erected on what was then a deserted hillside. It comprised 28 one and a half roomed apartments, a mikveh, (ritual bath), a communal oven and a water cistern with an iron pump imported from England. The construction money came from the estate of Judah Touro who was of sephardi descent, born 1775 in Rhode Island. The son of a cantor, he moved to New Orleans in 1801, opened a small shop selling soap and candles and from this modest beginning became a wealthy merchant and shipowner. In spite of this he lived modestly in a small apartment. Although he was 38, he volunteered to fight in Andrew Jackson’s army in the War of 1812 and was severely wounded. He eventually recovered and resumed his business and extensive philanthropical interests in The Holy Land and America, many of which bear his name to this day.

Sir Moses, living in Ramsgate Kent, commissioned a local architect/builder W J Smith to design Mishkenot Sha’ananim. Smith had worked for Edward Pugin, the son of the renowned architect Augustus Pugin, also of Ramsgate, who designed (amongst other things) the Houses of Parliament. Two years later the Montefiore Windmill was constructed alongside Mishkenot, with millwrights being brought out from Canterbury. This mill was intended to provide both employment and flour for the new residents.

The fortress-like design of Mishhkenot, with its crenellated walls, echoed that of the Old City. Its name means ‘Peaceful Dwellings’, however the first Jews to arrive only stayed during the day, scuttling back to the City at night to avoid Beduin marauders and wild animals. Despite its citadel-like appearance it could not provide them with security. It took another three decades until the adjoining land of Yemin Moshe was developed and the Jews came to stay. This part of the project was funded by Montefiore’s descendants.

I can only scratch the surface when trying to encapsulate Montefiore’s life and work, for he lived until almost 101 years of age, and from the age of 40 when he retired from work, was constantly engaged in supporting his co-religionists abroad, not to mention the many foundations he established and helped in England.

The Montefiores had lived in Italy since the 16th century. His grandfather came to England in 1758, successfully establishing the family business and their standing in society. In 1784 Moses was born in Livorno whilst his parents were visiting Italy. As a Jew he could not become either a professional or an academic. Instead he elected to pursue a career in commerce, being apprenticed to a counting house. Later he became one of only twelve Jewish brokers allowed on the London Exchange.

moses_5_portrait_L.jpgjudithm.jpgIn 1812 he married Judith Cohen, a relative of the Rothschilds – a link that undoubtedly helped him make his fortune before his 40th year. He claimed that his marriage was a ‘heavenly paradise’ which they enjoyed for the next fifty years. Judith was a remarkable woman, who spoke fluent French, German and Italian, could translate and read Hebrew and was talented in the arts. She was Ashkenazi – he Sephardi. Such was his belief in the unity of his people that whenever a couple married in his synagogue he would give them money and if it was a ‘mixed’ marriage, like his own, he doubled it.

They were both deeply committed to Judaism. They never had children, but were lifelong companions travelling extensively to further their philanthropic ideals. He entered the international scene with his intervention concerning the Damascus Blood Libel. On other journeys he met the Sultan of Morocco, the Pope, the Czar of Russia, the Ottoman Sultan and others for the purpose of improving the conditions of suffering and oppressed Jews. He was universally respected by royalty and potentates. He was knighted as Sheriff of London, a title that went with the post – and later was raised to the baronetcy for his noble deeds on his return from Damascus.

He made seven visits to the Holy Land establishing many other projects. Today I complain about the inconveniences of travel by air, but I cannot begin to imagine the enormity of travel by horse and carriage which was his mode of transport. His carriage, on display at the windmill,was destroyed by fire in 1986 but restored to its former glory using fragments of the original.

Once back in London I realised that no story about Sir Moses could be complete without my paying a visit to Ramsgate, for in as much as he was passionate about his Jewish heritage he was a proud and loyal Englishman. Aged 26 he joined the Surrey Militia for four years during which time he learned to play the bugle and studied French.

07 EastCliffLodge.jpgIn Ramsgate he lived in East Cliff Lodge, formerly the summer residence of the then Princess of Wales. Queen Victoria holidayed there as a girl and was given a golden key by Montefiore to enter his garden as there was no space to walk and exercise her dog in the property where she was staying.


Interior or synagogue

It is difficult to imagine that this small seaside town, today somewhat more than past its prime, was once the epitome of elegance. His house no longer exists, but the synagogue and mausoleum he built can be visited. The synagogue services, being in the Sephardi tradition, were based on those at Bevis Marks, London where Montefiore prayed regularly and occupied most of the honorary positions during his lifetime. The synagogue was the first in Britain to be designed by a Jewish architect – Montefiore’s cousin David Mocatta, who was also appointed as the architect for the London and Brighton Railway, designing not only its HQ at Brighton, but ten other stations on the line.

The small synagogue, of Regency design, is delightfully intimate with marble lined walls, an octagonal glass dome, red plush upholstery and stained glass windows. One unexpected feature is the Montefiore Coat of Arms which, whilst conforming to British tradition, has certain elements depicting Judaism and Israel, in particular and the lion rampant and stag hold pennants with ‘Jerusalem’ written in Hebrew.



The design of the Mausoleum, which Sir Moses commissioned and where he and his wife Lady Judith are buried is based on the tomb of Rachel near Bethlehem. The original was restored by Lady Montefiore. In 2012 this tranquil setting became the source of controversy when descendants of Sir Moses proposed that both bodies should be exhumed and taken to Jerusalem to be interred near the Windmill. This idea was fiercely opposed in Ramsgate on the basis that Sir Moses expressly wished to be buried alongside his wife in Ramsgate. Despite visiting Jerusalem he never intimated that he might want to live or be buried there. To date he and his wife are still resting in peace in Ramsgate.


Interior of Mausoleum

The more I read about this eminent couple the more I was impressed by the astounding energy with which they pursued their objectives. Both wrote  diaries and Sir Moses wrote poetry at the beginning and end of each day and Lady Judith produced  a cookbook – “The Jewish Manual of Cookery by a  Lady”.  They displayed an industry and passion in everything they did and little time was ever wasted. The impact that they had on future generations was profound.   Were I to choose ‘special dinner guests’, they must certainly be at the top of the list.