Latins, love and liturgy

In my search for lesser known aspects of Israel I decided to visit the Italian Synagogue in Jerusalem. This turned out to be a joyous experience for me in more ways than one. On arrival I heard music coming from two talented singers entertaining the crowds outside the synagogue with selections from Italian operas and Neapolitan folksongs. This was a great treat for me, as, having been singing for the past eight years, I am familiar with most of the arias and could not resist joining in discreetly, hopefully unheard and unseen.

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But the real treasure awaited me when I entered the tiny Synagogue and found myself gazing in awe at the richness of this totally unexpected discovery.

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Ark of the Italian Synagogue Jerusalem

Conegliano Veneto is a small town situated between Padua and Venice and it was from here that this architectural gem originated. Jews had lived there since the 16th century and prayed regularly in front of its ornately carved golden ark. As an indication of its origins one of the carved panels is dedicated to a Rabbi Ottolengho, who died in 1615. Most of the interior fixtures and fittings were moved to a ‘new’ synagogue in 1701 which continued to function until the First World War. The last service was held there on Yom Kippur 1918 for Jewish soldiers serving in the Austro-Hungarian army.

From then on it was no longer in use and it was only in 1951, thanks to the initiative of a group of Italian Jews led by Dr.Umberto Nahon, that the interior of the synagogue was carefully packed up and transported to Jerusalem. Italian Jewish residents of Jerusalem had been praying together since 1941 in the City.  It  therefore seemed fitting for the Conegliano Synagogue to find its resting place in central jerusalem on Hillel Street at the Schmidt Compound, built in 1875 as a Catholic school and hostel for pilgrims from Syria, but more recently used by other groups. However It was not until 1989 that  the synagogue  was finally completed   with the restoration of the women’s gallery – four of the latticework screens being originals and the others reconstructed.


Today the community holds social events in the magnificent octagonal room on the ground floor which boasts a splendid domed ceiling decorated with frescoes of religious scenes dating back to when it was part of the Catholic school. Their use of this room is a reflection of the eclectic nature of Italian Jewry, who, whilst wholly committed to their own traditions, have always been open and accepting to those of other cultures.


But the Italian synagogue is much more than a mere ‘tourist’ destination. It is unique in that regular services are held here following the Bnei Roma tradition – one of the most ancient in Judaism, dating back to the time of the Second Temple. The only other synagogues holding Bnei Roma services are in Rome itself where Jews have lived for over 2,000 years, longer than in any other European city. A Jewish community existed well before 139 B.C.E  which was the year that the praetor Hispanus issued a decree expelling all Jews who, he claimed, “were infecting Roman customs”. Not a lot has changed since then!

The complex on Hillel Street also houses the Museum of Italian Jewish Art, named after Dr Umberto Nahon who in the 1950’s collected not just the Conegliano synagogue but many other precious artefacts reflecting the richness of Jewish life in Italy from the Renaissance until today.  These he shipped to Israel with the help of Italian Jewish communities in both countries. In 1983 the Museum opened, creating a magnificent collection that presents the cultural legacy of Italian Jewry in all its diversity and creativity.lace_0158.jpgOn my recent visit I saw an outstanding exhibition called The Jewish Court of Venice -displaying Jewish Heritage 500 years after the establishment of the first Ghetto, (in Venice) in March 1516. It was breathtaking, especially the beautifully embroidered textile panels and magnificent lace items. Venice was the acknowledged centre of needle and bobbin lace from the 16th century continuing until the 19th century. Well-to-do ladies would practice this art, including Jewish women who made artefacts for the synagogue and also to adorn their clothing.

 2.jpsuccah croppedg.jpgThe exhibition also contained a delightful hand painted Sukkah decorated with Italianate landscapes.

I was welcomed warmly by Mirella a charming Italian volunteer who offered to show me around. I was delighted to accept particularly having been an italianophile since my teens when I began learning the language. Years later I studied Sociology at Durham University but somehow manage to persuade my professor to allow me to take Italian instead of ‘social policy and administration’ – a welcome relief for me. As a result, on leaving University I was asked to teach Italian evening classes. I had decided against it, however on visiting the college to reject their offer, I entered the appointed meeting room to be greeted by a room full of 40 or so eagerly expectant students to whom I was introduced as their new teacher. A case of fait accompll. Or in Italian, I suppose – affare fatto.

Three of the students wanted to take exams – so I suggested that they might fare better elsewhere. Of the remainder many were seniors who only wanted to know how to order meals whilst on holiday. Another was a young secretary who said “All I want to know is how to say ‘Are you very rich?’ in Italian.” I let her stay. These classes (using a language laboratory and earphones) continued twice a week for two years. Many of my students would fall asleep in their booths, but I never disturbed them as it seemed kinder to let them nap. We did have fun though, making spaghetti bolognese at Xmas and singing Funiculi Funicular in unison.

Notwithstanding this Mirella urged me to go to a Italian conversation session at the synagogue. I duly attended but, as I feared, I didnt understand a great deal, due to my hearing loss rather than my comprehension. An engaging speaker talked about Kissing In The Bible – which seemed an appropriately Italian topic, about which I will investigate more.

Overall what excited me about the Italian Synagogue and Museum is that, even after so many years, the Bnei Roma tradition is being maintained here not as an archaic practice, but as something relevant today.  The Museum has, through an imaginative programme of cultural events – language, music, lectures on many topics and fun activities for children – created a centre where everyone, Italian or not, can share in the richness that the Italian Jewish heritage offers in abundance.

For me this reflects the joy of being part of this multicultural society that has embraced so many diverse peoples over the years into the complex mosaic that is today’s Israel.


Digging Deep

ESTATE11.jpgHaving lived in London for more than 30 years I am reasonably familiar with much of the city, but for some reason have never once visited Canary Wharf.

Recently, however, I did, and what a revelation it was – like entering another world, surrounded by massive skyscrapers and canals – totally unexpected. The experience when you eventually emerge into the daylight at the top of the Underground escalators is similar to arriving in Manhattan, so it was no surprise to learn that this area has some of the largest tower blocks in Europe, including the second largest building in the UK, No. 1 Canada Square. Canary Wharf is one of the two main UK financial centres, the other being the traditional City of London. More than 105,000 people work at the European HQ.s of many international banks, finance, media and service companies – a melting pot of employees from many different countries.

Canary Wharf derives its name from berth 32 of the West Wood Quay, built in 1936 for the import of fruit from the Mediterranean and the Canary Isles. The area was once known as The Isle of Dogs. Samuel Pepys referred to it as “The Unlucky Isle of Dogs’ as it was prone to flooding, and gibbets, for public executions, were regularly erected on the foreshore near Greenwich.

Its proximity to the Thames led to the creation of shipbuilding and diverse maritime industries. In 1802 the West India Docks opened for trade, reaching its peak in the mid-19th century.  The area was massively damaged by German bombing during WWII, followed by a brief period of prosperity in the 1950’s, but between 1960 – 1980 all London’s docks were closed largely because the shipping industry had moved to deep water ports elsewhere, more suitable for the development of containerisation. The area went into sharp decline.

All this changed, however, when London Docklands decided to develop the area. The company had ambitious plans and severe critics in the early days, particularly those in the City, probably concerned with maintaining their monopoly. Many dismissed the project as a white elephant and companies were reluctant to venture into ‘the unknown’ where they feared they might face financial disaster. The logistics of getting there was a major problem, however the prophets of doom were proved wrong for, with the advent of the DLR (Docklands Light Railway), City Airport and the extension of the Jubilee line – the place is buzzing with activity.

My initial reason for visiting the area was to see the Museum of the Docklands. This opened in 2003 in a 19th century sugar warehouse. The museum is captivating and warrants a story of its own, though on this visit I was specifically attracted by their exhibition ‘Tunnel – The Archaeology of Crossrail’.

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Crossrail began constructing the new Elizabeth Line in 2009 – one of the largest engineering projects in Europe. Covering 118 kilometres from Shenfield in the east to Heathrow and Reading in the west, 42 kilometres of tunnels were excavated by eight massive circular drills – Tunnel Boring Machines (TBM’s). I smiled on discovering that, following mining tradition, each TBM is given a woman’s name – for this project Victoria, Elizabeth, Jessica, Ellie, Sophia, Mary, Ada and Phyllis were employed.

TBM.jpgI wondered why the female of the species should be selected for what is, quite evidently ‘man’s work’ . Surely Arthur, Angus, Fergus, Gabriel, Gareth or Samson (names which denote strength) might have been more appropriate. However, it was only when learning that ‘Ada’ ,whilst tunnelling from Paddington to Farringdon, came within 90cms of live Northern Line platforms and 60cms away from passenger escalators, but nevertheless passed through safely, I realised that perhaps brute strength is not everything.

This tradition for female names dates to the 1500’s when miners displayed statues of St Barbara underground to protect them from danger. The Barbara in question was a martyr who possibly lived in the 3rd century. Renowned for her beauty, she was locked in a tower by her father Dioscorus. Whilst there she secretly converted to Christianity. Her pagan father was so enraged that he tortured her cruelly, finally beheading her himself for her ‘transgression’. Instantaneously he was killed by a flash of lightning.Unknown-1.jpeg

Barbara was accordingly attributed with supernatural powers, becoming the patron saint of all those working with explosives – armourers, geologists, and artillerymen, plus, for some inexplicable reason, mathematicians. Today she is honoured in many countries and is the patron of the Italian navy – despite the doubts surrounding her history. These led to her removal from the General Roman Calendar, but she remains on the list of Martyrs and Saints.

In addition to technicians, planners and surveyors, Crossrail employs 100 archaeologists. Their role is working alongside the engineers, where they have the unique opportunity of examining the layers of history exposed by the tunnelling. Over 10,000 artefacts covering millions of years of history have been discovered.

The oldest items were found in Canary Wharf whilst the dock was being drained including a fragment of amber estimated to be 55 million years old and a bone from the jaw of a woolly mammoth from the Ice Age. At North Woolwich evidence confirmed the presence of a Mesolithic encampment with remains of tools from 8,500 years ago.


Finds from the Roman period include coins dating from the conquest of Britain in AD 43 featuring Emperor Claudius, and everyday items of pots, tools and jewellery – including some in the form of phalluses, bringing good luck to the wearer. Remains of a Roman cemetery revealed skeletons, some with the skull removed and placed between the legs. Subsequent layers uncovered mass graves, probably from the Great Plague of 1665 when almost a quarter of London’s population died.

Amazingly archaeologists today can test for diseases, including the plague, and can also identify information on the diet, nutrition and stress of an individual and even where they came from – all from examining the teeth of the skeletons.

Other finds reflect the nature of industries in the area; 15th century shops which manufactured and sold bone and ivory items and later, 13,000 marmalade jars, mustard pots and glass stoppers were found in a pit from the Crosse and Blackwell pickle factory. This closed In 1921 when a journalist, grieving its departure, wrote “I can travel blindfold through London and recognise certain places just by their smell. This factory added a very distinctive pungency to its surroundings”.Pickle label.jpeg
Occasionally, noteworthy buildings had to be demolished to make way for Crossrail. The Astoria cinema and dance hall, later to become a venue for live concerts, was one such example. In all cases archaeologists kept scrupulously detailed records of each building, using laser scanning, surveying and photography as part of their work.

250px-LondonAstoria.jpgOverall I was fascinated to learn about the detailed logistical planning and the complexity that have gone into not just demolishing and reconstructing, but in protecting our heritage unearthed in the process.

The philosophy of sustainability is central to Crossrail. Historic building materials have been reused wherever possible and of the 7 million tonnes of earth excavated, 98% was used to create new farm or industrial land as well as nature reserves and recreational sites. Most of the TBM’s were sold around the world, but parts of Ada and Phyllis had to be buried close to where they dug their last tunnel. Perhaps they will be a legacy for future archaeologists to discover long after we are gone.

This exhibition continues at the Docklands Museum until 3 September, 2017.

To sum it all up……

mathematics-1044091__340.jpgEver since childhood I have been fascinated by the  idea of creating buildings,  but architecture always required a knowledge of maths,  a skill which for some reason has always escaped me.

At ten I received extra maths tuition to ensure my  passing the  11+ exam to enter grammar school. Cousin Ben, taciturn, serious and reproving, was press ganged into the role of tutor.   I  visited him weekly for my hourly lesson which I dreaded.

Sadly all that this extracurricular activity achieved was to instil in me a lifelong dislike of anything to do with numbers.

Despite my truculence, Ben somehow engineered my entry to grammar school where I was introduced to the complex world of ‘metry’s’ such as geometry and trigonometry plus algebra, fractions, decimals, square roots and cubes. All of which were and still remain a complete mystery.


Miss Hartill, our maths teacher, was to say the least ‘unusual’.  During lessons, she would suddenly put her hand to her ear exclaiming ‘listen girls!’ whereupon we rushed to the window to revel in the sight of a thrush, blackbird or magpie.  But to give her credit, I may have been a total disaster at figures, but  I became unusually adept at recognising birdlife.

I left school at 16 clutching nine ‘0’ levels including a failure in maths, having achieved 11%, presumably because I wrote my name and address correctly at the top of page one. This meant that the range of career opportunities open to me was limited, certainly no science or architecture.

This did not really register as a hardship, largely because  in those days we young ladies were not encouraged to go to university.  Our destiny was to become secretaries or hairdressers, find a husband and settle down. But my year at the Manchester College of Commerce was not wasted, for, when I eventually went to Durham University aged 31, I was one of the few undergraduates able to type as quickly as someone could speak – invaluable for taking notes and writing assignments.

My choice of subject was decided according to the length of the departmental queues on enrolment day.   Law was very long, so I opted for the shortest queue which happened to be Sociology, enabling me to get home to my children by 3.30pm. Thus are our significant life choices determined.

After year one, I had to select whether to continue with Psychology or Sociology.  I  chose the former, until realising that maths was essential for understanding statistical method.  A long suffering mathematician friend offered to teach me the basics of ‘long division’ but after four weeks he gave up in despair, declaring that I was a lost cause.

This inability has dogged me all my life. As Director of a Citizens Advice Bureau my heart sank when clients arrived  with debt counselling problems or tax issues.   Any mail I received such as bills or bank statements,  was immediately consigned to the waste bin.

Imagine my joy therefore  when, very recently, I learned of a condition called DYSCALCULIA.   It sounds like an exotic flowering plant, but is in fact a disability suffered by the  6% of the population who have difficulty in comprehending arithmetic.

The sad thing is that this never existed when I was young – not one single person in my school was ever diagnosed with Dyscalculia, Dyslexia,  Dyspraxia, ADHD, Autism or any of the conditions that today seem almost mandatory.  They had simply not yet been invented. Instead we were classed as ‘slow learners’, ‘late developers’ or just plain ‘thick’.

But somehow my love for architecture flourished.  In 1985 I organised an  exhibition from Israel called “Build Ye Cities’ at the Royal Institute of British Architects.   A week of lectures was  followed by tours to six UK universities where visiting architects, included luminaries such as Moshe Safdie, Michael Levin and  Arie Rahamimoff, spoke about Israeli Architecture in the 30’s, Planning in Jerusalem, Solar Energy Architecture and Kibbutz Design. I was hooked.

Today, now that I accept that I might be Dys-whatever, I welcome the challenge.   Six years ago I mastered the art of sudoku and am now  totally obsessed and up to ‘Super Fiendish’ level.    Yes, I know it is logic and not maths, but it is still numbers as far as I am concerned and is something that gives me an enormous sense of achievement.

pythagoras-1271942__340.jpgMaths dates back 3,000 year or more but it was Pythagoras (with his theorem) who stimulated centuries of discussion among physicists and philosophers, and later Galileo who, in the 16th century, declared that the universe is a ‘grand book’ written in the language of mathematics.

I nod sagely, but to be honest, remain mystified.  Some of my scientific friends try to explain that maths is everywhere, including art and nature, so some time ago  I gingerly ventured into the world of ‘The Fibonacci Spiral’  – nature’s numbering system that determines the positions of leaves on stalks and the arrangement of seeds on sunflowers – all organised in a precise mathematical way. It was an eye opener.

Therefore recently I decided  to try  and extend my knowledge by visiting  the new maths pavilion at London Science Museum designed by the late architect, Zaha Hadid. She wrote “when I was growing up in Iraq we played with math problems as we would play with pen and paper to draw – it was like sketching.”

On entering the pavilion the first sight you encounter is a magnificent ceiling sculpture swirling around a 1929 Handley Page aeroplane- built using ground breaking aerodynamic research to produce a safe aircraft. Hadid’s sculpture represents the mathematical equations that describe its airflow – it is a an unforgettable sight. 

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Beneath it cases display some of the seminal inventions that have transformed our lives.  

1666 calculator.jpg A 1666 calculator which Samuel Pepys described as “Pretty but not very useful”, and  another  huge calculator built the year I was born, brought home to me how much can change in a lifetime.  Calculators have become smaller and smaller until now you add up using your iPhone.  The same goes for the progress of computers since pioneer Charles Babbage originated the concept of computing way back in 1791

Calculator 1939.jpgcalculator born same year as me!

Next the Astrolabe – not just a new word to use in  scrabble, but an instrument used in astronomy to measure altitudes and aid navigation.  Their use goes back to Classical Greece – it was said that “if you hold an astrolabe you have the universe in your hands.

astrolabe.jpg  An astrolabe, 17c.

Something more prosaic to hold in your hands is a pint of beer and the museum displays standard measures for this purpose. It is quite touching in these days of decimalisation to know  that a  UK regulation was passed specifying that draught beer and cider may be sold by the imperial pint in perpetuity. Yippee!  how reassuring it is  to know that some of our great British traditions remain untouched.

.PINT measure.jpg  British beer measures 

There is also a World War 11 German  Enigma machine – famously decoded by Alan Turing and his team at Bletchley Park.  You can also learn of Euclid’s contribution to geometry (2000 years ago) and see JWTurner’s sketches from his Royal Academy lectures on perspective.   (see below)All this and much more.Turner sketch.jpg

So where does this leave me? My visit was a revelation and for the first time I began to feel disappointed that all my life I had chosen to dismiss maths as irrelevant.  Only now am I beginning to comprehend its fundamental role  in underpinning so much that we take for granted both in nature and science.   Perhaps had I known this earlier, I might  have exceeded my 11% mark. This we shall never know.


The Urban Village of Nachlaot

One of the most fascinating areas in Jerusalem is Nachlaot close to Mahane Yehuda Market.   Its winding lanes and alleyways reveal a variety of architecture, hidden courtyards, artists’ studios and a proliferation of synagogues.

The original residents arrived in the late 1870’s to escape the overcrowded  and unhealthy living conditions in the Old City. The first community built was there was Mishkenot Yisrael.  Sir Moses Montefiore, the British Jewish philanthropist, established  the first community outside the Old City  walls at  Mishkenot Sha’ananim. He then created two Nachlaot communities, Mazkeret Moshe, for  Ashkenazim followed by  Ohel Moshe  for Sephardim in 1882. Three others  were also named in his honour. In 1900 Jews from Syria arrived and 1925  the Yemenites established Nachalat Achim. Nachlaot ultimately comprised 23 groups including Kurds, Greeks, Persians, Italians, Armenians, North Africans plus Ashkenazim from various countries.

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Dedication to Sir Moses Montefiore at the entrance of  Ohel Moshe.

Walking through the narrow cobbled streets one can readily bring to life the rich tapestry of cultures living together harmoniously from the photographs and texts mounted on the house walls telling of the families that once lived there.

Daniel Senior’s family were expelled from Spain in 1492, fled to Turkey and eventually came to Jerusalem. He lived in the Old City, running a vegetable shop in partnership with an Arab. As one of the first to move to Ohel Moshe, then surrounded by fields, he was regarded as the Mukhtar (Head of the Village).   His home comprised one room, on top of which he built a second and then a third – the ground floor eventually becoming a store. 

Rabbi Binyamin Halevy’s family fled from Spain to Livorno Italy where they remained for 240 years, coming to Jerusalem in 1732. Halevy’s descendants became scholars, rabbis and community leaders.  One was Chief Rabbi.  It was he who supervised the re-building of a water and sewage system for Nachlaot damaged by earthquake. He made a huge contribution to Jewish life  and was an ardent Zionist. Another was an emissary who, in 1882, travelled to India to investigate the Black Jews of Cochin whose history dates back to the 12th century.  He returned declaring that they should be allowed to convert to Judaism although it took until 1950 for the majority of them to reach Israel. Halevy’s descendants are ninth generations Israelis.

Others commemorated in the plaques are  Rabbi Shalom Hadaya,  who chose to live there because “They speak Ladino, which I do not understand, so I will not be able to hear slander” (Lashon hara), and Avraham Cohen – the Dairyman for Nachlaot – whose family have now lived in Israel for ten generations.Navon familyG_9419.JPG

Photo and text of Navon’s family.

The first Sephardi Israeli president, Yitzchak Navon, was born in Ohel Moshe in 1921, descended from Spanish Jews who settled in Turkey after fleeing Spain. They moved to Jerusalem in 1670.   As well as being a diplomat and academic, Navon was an accomplished author and reminiscences of his childhood in Ohel Moshe  provided the inspiration for his play Bustan Sephardi ( Sephardi Orchard) in 1970.

Written in Ladino, (a Spanish based language spoken by Sephardi Jews) it is the longest running play to appear at Habima Theatre where it ran for 28 years.  It celebrates, through stories and songs, the vibrant life of Ohel Moshe in the 1930’s.

At one time there were 300 synagogues in Nachlaot, probably the largest number to be built anywhere in the world in such close proximity. Some were simply a room to accommodate the 10 men required for communal prayers. Today there remain around 100  offering a choice of  prayer services to suit all tastes.

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Interior of Ades Synagogue     

Jews from Aleppo built the Ades synagogue, renowned for its unique liturgical style and baquashot (pleas) – a cycle of Cabalistic poetry sung at 3am Shabbat mornings during the winter months. Apparently it plays to full houses and for one brief moment I considered going to the service, but common sense prevailed, added to the fact that I have never been known to rise before 9am.   Instead I visited the synagogue at a respectable hour, found the door open and  was permitted to enter and take photographs.  The interior is exquisite – the Ark  occupies the entire eastern wall and is made of carved walnut inlaid with mother of pearl.  It was brought from Damascus over 100 years ago.  A mural adorns another wall, created by one of founders of the the Bezalel Art School.

ADes aron kodesh..jpg  Ark of the Ades Synagogue

The Or Zarua synagogue (1926),  in Spanish North African style, is now a historic preservation site, and nearby is the Chessed Ve Rachamim ( Kindness and Mercy) Sephardi synagogue, with its richly decorated interior and depictions of the Twelve Tribes and the Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valour) poem on  its frontage.  The building is eclectic, resembling something from Grimm’s fairy tales, but it was still surprising to discover that it had once been a pub. Not something that one normally expects to find in Jerusalem, akin to the fish and chip shop that I discovered in Mahane Yehuda.

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Front of Chessed ve Rachamim Synagogue

90 years ago a local butcher, Isaac Emosa, persuaded the pub owner to vacate the premises immediately  with an offer of £10 sterling.   One of Emosa’s descendants, Cantor Mori Emosa leads the services today – it is said that his  ‘utterly precise cantillation’ is operatic aria.(quote:Jacob Solomon)

After WW1 6,000 people lived in Nachlaot. New immigrants arrived in the 1920’s but many preferred the newer neighbourhoods and Nachlaot became home to those who rented properties – the area became neglected.  Following the establishment of the State of Israel (1948), more arrived, including Jews who had been thrown out of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City by the Jordanians and Jews fleeing from North African countries.

After the reunification of the City in 1967,  the population increased rapidly but then fell to 4,000 by 1988 as it had  become a slum. Fortunately in 1991 the area was selected for renovation with grants available from the municipality.  This created a new lifeline for Nachlaot and today it is a melting pot of artists, musicians, new age hipsters and health gurus who mix seamlessly with traditional religious  communities.

Exploring and researching Nachlaot demonstrated just how fortunate it was that those early visionaries followed their dream, crossing continents,  often trekking across mountains and deserts to reach their promised land. One cannot imagine their trials and tribulations en route, but they arrived, and in doing so contributed significantly to the development of the country.

It was also invigorating to meet some of the impressive young people who are today dedicating their lives to regenerating a love of Zion in the hearts of their contemporaries.

They aim to restore some of the values and joy in Judaism that for many has  been lost. I spoke with David Abitbol for whom the  Abrahamic  tradition of hospitality to strangers is ‘a cultural imperative’.  He and his wife Ayo invite visitors to their home each Shabbat where up to 20 or so people are hosted by this warm, energetic and intelligent couple.  The bonus is that they are both excellent cooks who spends much of their time exploring the world of food with the emphasis on nutrition and health. David is an avowed ‘foodie’ who set up a website called ‘Jewlicious’.

Ayo (studying for her Masters in natural resource management), recently hosted a chocolate making workshop and gives yoga lessons (not at the same time) and the couple help to organise music and cultural events.

Music however  is not new to Nachlaot – well known performers Ehud and Yossi Banaiand Aaron and Yonatan Razel, lived there. On my last visit whilst walking down a peaceful lane I heard fascinating sounds emanating from a building – this turned out to be ‘Ethnic Musical’ a studio specialising in  promoting Central Asian music from countries such as Persia, Armenia,Turkey and Azerbaijan. They sell a beautiful range of locally made ouds

2017-01-11 16.06.28.jpg ( see above) and I also learned about the Kamanche, the Persian Tar and the eight stringed Tanbur (instrument of lovers) – all new to me. I also met some musical devotees who,  when asked why they chose to play these instruments, responded – “the instrument chose me”. Several of the customers are descendants of the original Kurdish Jews for whom this music would have been familiar.   It was moving  to see how the owners of Ethnic Musical  are revitalising traditional music from the original dwellers of Nachlaot and simultaneously enriching the lives of the vibrant  young community that now lives and works there.

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Water, water everywhere and quite a lot to drink….

I was born and bred in Manchester, a place where more often than not it rained. This climate had certain advantages. Without it the cotton trade would never have begun, damp weather being essential for cotton spinning. ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ appeared all over Lancashire and Liverpool was nearby to facilitate the import of raw cotton from the States and to export Lancashire’s textiles world wide. A second successful industry created by the weather, not unexpectedly, was the manufacture of raincoats and umbrellas.

It was something of a shock to my system therefore, when, in 1976, the UK was subjected to a heatwave and drought that lasted for months. The earth became rock hard, reservoirs and rivers dried up, trees perished, grass was no more to be seen and forest fires could not be extinguished because of lack of water. 15 consecutive days in June and July exceeded 30C and five days exceeded 35C.


Water standpipes, one for every 20 households, were erected in many parts of the country where residents queued patiently to fill their buckets, recreating a national spirit not experienced since the Blitz. 20 million people were subjected to a hosepipe ban forbidding the watering of gardens or cars. Those with dirty cars were seen as patriots, but heaven help anyone who secretly contravened the rules and crept out at night to water their flower beds. Vigilante groups were constantly on watch.

Unknown.pngA Minister for Drought was appointed who urged everyone to “Bath With A Friend” provided only five inches of water was used. He also consulted aboriginal rainmakers who instructed him how to perform a rain dance on behalf of the nation. This evidently worked, as in late August there were massive thunderstorms followed by endless rain throughout September and            October.

Around this time I made my first visit to Israel. I travelled to a land that was sixty percent desert. I recall how responsible Israelis were about conserving water. Army reservists were ordered to save it and I was regularly admonished by friends not to wash dishes or brush my teeth under a running tap. To this day Israel’s continuing concern about water is evident by the daily press reporting on the current level of the Sea of Galilee.

Israel’s expertise in water management goes back to the 1930’s and to one person in particular, Simcha Blass. As one of the founders of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, it was he who planned the first modern aqueduct in the Jordan Valley and the first water pipeline to the Negev in 1946. The pipes installed were previously used by the London Fire Brigade during the Blitz and were bought by Blass after WW2.

Israel’s nascent economy was founded upon agriculture. This produced considerable economic growth, but ironically this success, in tandem with a tenfold population increase, placed a massive strain on the country’s water resources. Traditional methods of irrigation involved flooding of fields, but the downside was that much of it evaporated. Some reached the aquifers but as use of pesticides increased, toxic waste entered the food chain through the water.

Blass’s major contribution was undoubtedly the early work he did on drip irrigation which proved to be one of the most outstanding inventions to emerge from Israel. His early experiments led to a highly sophisticated system, patented in the early 1960’s when, In co-operation with Kibbutz Hatzerim, the Netafim Irrigation Company was established. Using this system, minute amounts of water are dripped onto each plant. Crop yields increase, food prices drop and the aquifers are unpolluted. The system is so finely tuned that sensors can identify a plant’s water stress and accurately regulate the levels of water it requires. Today Israel’s desert is the only one in the world that is shrinking and Ben Gurion’s dream to see ‘the desert bloom’ has become a reality.

However, in 2006 Israel faced its worst drought for 900 years and by 2010 the Sea of Galilee, upon which Israel relied for fresh water, dropped almost to the ‘black line’ at which point salt infiltration would have permanently harmed the lake. Israeli hydrologists and agronomists took measures to dig deeper wells, repaired leaks as they occurred and developed ways of reusing sewage for crops. Today 85.6% of sewage is recycled.

But the area in which they made massive strides was desalination. This was originally an expensive option until the Sorek Plant – the largest reverse-osmosis desalination plant in the world – made huge advances in both design and materials – in particular in membrane technology.

Sorek have established further plants in Israel with more to follow. 55 percent of the country’s domestic water now comes from desalination at a cost of 58 US cents per thousand litres. According to an Massachusetts Institute of Technology academic, the Sorek Plant is the cheapest in the world.

Israel is now in a position to assist other countries facing water problems. The implications for its economy are evident. Israeli produced desalination plants have been constructed in California, and their hydrologists have proven that, in spite of climate change, it is possible to harness Mother Nature to transform a country from one suffering from drought to one with more fresh water than it needs.

In 2018, a ‘Water Knows No Boundaries’ conference will take place where scientists from Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza will share experiences. Hopefully this will create a bridge where joint ventures can bring peoples together working for the common good.

Writing this reminded me of how central a role water is in so many cultures. Some years ago I went to Varanasi in India and watched the devoted burying their dead and bathing in the river Ganges.


Bathing at the River Ganges, Varanasi

I also visited the river Jordan where Christians braved the cold to be baptised. On both occasions their devotion was palpable and a truly significant experience. The same is true of other cultures – Baha’i, Buddhism, Hinduism,Islam, Shinto,Sikhism, Rastafari and Zoroastrianism.


Scented Holy Water from the River Jordan.

In Judaism, washing goes back to the Torah, the intention being to recreate a state of ritual purity. Hands must be washed before meals and also after visiting a graveyard. The Mikveh – a bath containing living water – from river, spring or sea – is where women are cleansed after their monthly periods. Converts to Judaism use it as part of their conversion procedure and it is also used for washing newly acquired utensils. The ceremony of ‘Tashlich’ is another occasion when at New Year observant Jews symbolically cast off their sins into flowing water.

Living in Jerusalem we are accustomed to seeing religious observance in many guises.
However, one event that I found deeply moving was watching a group of ultra-religious schoolboys rushing fully clothed into the fountains at the Teddy Kollek Park. For twenty minutes they ran in and out, splashing and squealing with delight and having a rare old time, watched over by their benign teachers. It was heartwarming to see that, despite the strictures that religion can sometimes place on people, there is still room to permit a show of exuberance as demonstrated on that cold March day. My main concern was how the children, now soaked to the skin, would manage to get back home without catching pneumonia. Perhaps an indication of my abiding concern as a Jewish mother!













The other side of Chelsea…..

London is, of course, steeped in history and a key role in that history has been played over the centuries by its large number of trade Guilds ( associations). The first guild to receive a Royal Charter were Weavers in 1155.

In the 14th century more trades received Charters and by 1515 forty eight ‘Worshipful Societies’ had been established. These ‘Guilds’, each with its own Coat of Arms and distinctive regalia (livery) became known as Livery Companies with their own Headquarters in the City of London. The London Guildhall was the most prestigious. Construction began in 1211 and took 30 years to complete. Miraculously, it survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz (WW2) with only partial damage. It is the only secular stone building from before 1666 still standing in the City.

These Guilds played a pivotal role – approving membership, maintaining professional standards and establishing strict rules of conduct. Anyone frequenting taverns to excess or attending wrestling matches could be refused admission. In the early 14th century no one could set up shop, join a trade, take on apprentices or vote unless they belonged to a livery company.

Their list of 120 occupations makes fascinating reading – such as Playing Card Makers, Fan Makers and Carmen that I could recognise, but others were unknown to me, such as Loriners (horse’s stirrups, bridles), Girdlers (girdles and belts) and Horners (horn drinking vessels). Interestingly this traditional practice of establishing Livery Companies continues until today,  recent additions being Hackney Carriage Drivers, International Bankers, Management Consultants and Airline Pilots. I trust they were all closely vetted regarding their propensity to drink or attend wrestling matches.


view of the Chelsea Physic Garden

It was my discovery of a unique place in London – the Chelsea Physic Garden – that sparked my interest in Guilds, for  this Garden was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries (pharmacists) in 1673 to train apprentices in identifying medicinal plants. Its first benefactor, Hans Sloane, provided land at a rent of £5 a year in perpetuity, on condition that 50 species of new plants were submitted to the Royal Society annually.

The location of the garden by the Thames was crucial, for this was the Age of Exploration when adventurers travelled the world seeking anything new in the botanical field, returning with their finds and mooring their vessels alongside the garden. One of the most famous explorers was Captain James Cook who, in his ship The Endeavour, discovered Australia. During a three year odyssey, accompanied by leading botanist Joseph Banks (adviser to King George III) he returned with over 3,000 plant specimens of which 1,000 were previously unknown.

My own somewhat tenuous link with Captain Cook is that he was born in the Yorkshire village of Marton. A monument dedicated to him is close to Roseberry Topping. I had a perfect view of this local ‘mountain’ from my Middlesbrough home. I walked up there often, including one occasion when I careered down its snow covered slopes on a toboggan to encourage my unborn first child to make his appearance! He chose to wait another six days.

On my visits to the Chelsea Physic Garden I was fortunate in meeting two wonderful guides, Anne and Michele, who brought the place alive with their unending enthusiasm and extensive knowledge. They explained how it had developed as an important centre of learning for apothecaries, maintaining its medicinal plant collection until today.

The Garden of Medicinal Plants contains hundreds of plants from all over the world. The Madagascar Periwinkle is now recognised as something of a miracle for its treatment of childhood leukaemia – increasing life expectancy from 5% to 95%.

Another plant – the Chaste Berry, was traditionally sprinkled on the food of Monks  to  suppress their sexual desire.  Pliny the Elder wrote about it in 77AD as did Chaucer in the Middle Ages. However subsequent researchers claimed it to be both anaphrodisiac and aphrodisiac. Somewhat confusing, but no more than today’s tabloids telling us how certain foods and medicines are good for us one day and then  bad the next.


The large leaved castor oil plant

The Garden of Poisonous Plants contains a Castor Oil Plant – dramatic in both appearance and usage. It grows to almost 10 feet with huge leaves. Castor oil has many medicinal uses, best known as a laxative, but it was also an effective lubricant for aircraft engines in WWII. It does however have a ‘black’ side as the source of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons.In 1978  it gained notoriety when a Bulgarian dissident was assassinated by a poison tipped umbrella on London’s Waterloo Bridge.

Flourishing in the Garden of Edible Plants is the Carolina Reaper – reputedly the hottest pepper in the world and now grown in Bedfordshire.. The Scoville Scale for assessing peppers’ heat, had to be re-calibrated to test it as it measures 2,200,000 units compared to cayenne at 50,000 units. Customers are advised to wear gloves when handling them. In my view it should carry a health warning as chilli of any strength is absolutely top of my ‘no eat list’. I personally question its inclusion in the ‘edible’ section!

Here you will also find  the largest outdoor fruiting olive tree in Britain and the most northerly grapefruit tree in the world. In 1945 a local lady wanted a house plant and placed a grapefruit pip in a pot. It grew and grew until eventually she had to extricate it from her home and offered it to the Garden.  It settled in happily, but took 50 years before it would bear fruit. Today it blooms abundantly, so much so that its grapefruits are made into marmalade each year. A niece of the lady who planted the seed visits the garden regularly to check on its welfare.

Two other trees that cannot be missed are a pair of huge Gingko Biloba, (Maidenhair), one male one female. This variety of tree dates back 270 million years. They adapt well to urban settings, being resistant to both pollution and pests, and are frequently used to provide shade in cities. Miraculously four gingko trees survived the 1945 atomic bomb at Hiroshima, despite being only 1 – 2 kilometres away from the blast. They flourish to this day which perhaps explains their capacity for survival since the Ice Age. There are those who believe that Gingko Biloba is effective for memory enhancement. A good friend of mine started taking this herb and continued for a year, at which time he said that he must buy some more, but had forgotten its name. To this day I cannot but be astonished that he never once questioned its efficacy.IMG_8284.JPGpart of the ‘Tea’ garden growing many varieties

The Garden was also important in developing trade – cotton being sent to the southern States of the US, tea seedlings were shipped from China to India and the rubber industry was developed in Malaysia. Britain can be justifiably proud of its involvement, however King James I’s attempt to break down the French monopoly of silk manufacture was not so successful. He imported 10,000 mulberry trees from Europe, ordering every English landowner to plant them. However he made one fundamental mistake in purchasing black mulberries instead of white ones – the latter being the preferred food of silkworms. His project failed.


White and black mulberries.

There are more than 5000 species of plants in the Chelsea Physic Garden. I cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the richness and stories that you will find there. Suffice to say, go and see for yourselves – it is an utterly enchanting place where I unearth (not literally!) something new every time I visit.

Designs On London



591_N2732_large.jpg  The Olympic Flame 2012 (Edmund Sumner)

For those of you who watched the London Olympics  opening ceremony in 2012 there is little chance you will have forgotten the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. One member of each of the 204 competing countries entered the arena carrying a copper torch which, when when lit  and combined with the others, formed a massive flame symbolising peace and the unity of the Games.  This unforgettable  event was created by British design  studio Heatherwick studio, of which Thomas Heatherwick is founder and design director.

He has an interesting background.  His grandfather, Miles Tomalin, was a communist and musician who volunteered to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. His Jewish grandmother, Elisabeth Tomalin, fled from Nazi Germany and worked with emigre architect Ernö Goldfinger in London, subsequently setting up and directing Marks and Spencer’s textile design studio.

His parents were also creative. Stefany Tomalin, his mother, was a jeweller and painter and his father, Hugh, the son of a servant at  Windsor Castle, played the piano, was a member of the Royal Marines band and a boxer.  He was also pivotal in developing the Heatherwick Studio.

In 2013 I heard Thomas speak at Jewish Book Week. The designer, Sir Terence Conran, calls him the ‘Leonardo Da Vinci of our Times’ and, after hearing Heatherwick’s presentation, I understood why.  My curiosity was aroused  and I determined to visit as many of his creations in London as possible.

bleigessen Bliegessen sculpture at the Wellcome Trust

I went first to the Wellcome Trust  biomedical charity which commissioned Heatherwick to produce a sculpture  for  the eight storey atrium of their London headquarters.  This spectacular  30 metre high artwork can be viewed at 2pm on the last Friday of each month.   I duly attended and was completely taken aback,  particularly after learning of the complex process that resulted in 142,000 glass spheres suspended on 27,000 high tensile steel wires – comprising 15 tonnes of glass and just under a million metres of wire.  My rule of thumb when viewing art is whether it has the ‘wow’ factor – this piece undoubtedly does!

img_7971-copyThe latest Routemaster bus.

Moving from the aesthetic to the practical, I next ventured onto the new Routemaster bus. In 2010 Heatherwick studio joined a team to design a new bus for London – the first since 1968 when the old Routemaster ceased production. This new version entered service in 2012 but differs from the original being 3 metres longer and having  three doors and  two staircases.

IMG_7973 copy.jpg   Interior of the new Routemaster

Initially the  new bus had fixed windows which proved to be a problem in hot weather – but travellers’ concerns were addressed and in future all buses will have opening windows.

At the back of the bus is an open platform, similar to those I remember hanging off as schoolgirl.  Today, ‘customer assistants’  (no more conductors!)  stand at the back to stop people hopping on and off at will, which spoils all the fun –  although I concede that it probably improves passenger safety.  I learned all of this from John and Liden at the Hampstead terminus.  They were not only happy to tell me proudly about their buses but also agreed to photograph me sitting in the driver’s seat. No doubt they assumed I was just another Hampstead eccentric.

My next stop, travelling by bus, of course, was to Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s Cathedral.  This area had been the centre of the publishing trade before its total destruction during the  WW2 Blitz.  Amazingly, St Paul’s itself remained unscathed.  Since the end of the war the area has been redeveloped, one scheme being championed by Prince Charles, and today the area is thriving.   The London Stock Exchange is a major tenant and the place is alive with cafes, bars and shops. In fine weather city workers can play outdoor table tennis or relax in deck chairs during their lunch break, watching old movies on an open air screen.

The developers commissioned some impressive sculptures, including ‘Bronze Paternoster’ –  Shepherd with his Sheep, by Dame Elizabeth Frink.  Nearby stands a 23m high corinthian Portland stone column, boasting a covered flaming copper urn topped in gold leaf which is lit at night. Unexpectedly, this column also has a practical use, serving as a ventilation shaft for an underground service area.  Another part of the Square houses a subterranean electricity station requiring the construction of air vents for  its cooling system.  Heatherwick Studio were commissioned to  find a harmonious solution – functional yet aesthetic.

vents-1-copy-2    Paternoster Vents

They produced a breathtaking 11m high construction comprising stainless steel isosceles triangles. It is hard to believe, but  this impressive sculpture was inspired by a  design created by folding paper, so before you visit the Square, you absolutely must look at the u tube video of the paper folding process! It is fascinating to learn how great designs originate.

iguys-1jpg-copy   Guy’s Hospital new frontage

I then continued south of the Thames to Guy’s Hospital to see another example of Heatherwick’s original approach. Previously, this was a derelict area, made worse by an unsightly and decaying old boiler house. Heatherwick again wrought his magic, wrapping  the building in a specially designed cladding system of woven stainless steel.

However, of all Heatherwick’s work, my favourite has to be  the Rolling Bridge at Paddington Basin, where his studio designed a bridge spanning an inlet of the Grand Union Canal to allow access for pedestrians.  At noon every Friday the bridge rolls up until it stands, like a hamster’s wheel, on one side of the canal. The process takes minutes, following which it unwinds and returns to its use as a footbridge.  It was built on the Sussex coast, floated up the Canal and attached to its hydraulic lifting system on site.

IMG_7933 copy.jpg

The Rolling Bridge, beginning to roll up.

img_7944-copy   The Rolling Bridge, rolled up.   

A surprise treat for me was to discover that at 12.15, only 100 yards away, another bridge, the ‘Fan’, this one designed by Knight Architects,  transforms and opens up like a ‘fan’ across the water. Then, just as elegantly, it reverses back to its original position. Another magnificent feat of design and engineering.

IMG_7920 copy.jpgThe end of the ‘Fan Bridge’ before moving.

IMG_7957 copy.jpg   The Fan Bridge, opened up.

I introduced myself to Sameer and Narayan who control the bridges.   Sameer held a small insignificant key in his hand  to start the hydraulics. Knowing my propensity for losing keys, I asked  what would happen if he lost it. Pragmatically, he replied that its value was £10,000 for which he would be held liable. He then showed me a pair of larger keys, valued at £65,000 –  for which he is also responsible –  definitely not a job for me!  Watching these bridges operating was mesmerising, beautiful and moving. Some youngsters standing with me were equally enthralled, reliably informing me that it was ‘totally cool’.

IMG_7950 copy.jpg £65,000 worth of keys!

For those of you wanting something different in London, I recommend following this trail. It is free of charge, and provides an different and cheaper  alternative to visiting Oxford Street.  Heatherwick’s work is quite exceptional. Many of his pieces have won major awards and he has received Honorary Doctorates from four universities, is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and in 2013 was awarded a CBE for his services to the design industry.

I look forward to hearing of his future projects – one in particular being the construction of a Garden Bridge over the River Thames between Temple and the South Bank – the brainchild of actress Joanna Lumley. The initial designs show it to be a magnificent and unique addition to the London scene. With a bit of luck, as well as help with the funding, this bridge may open in 2019.

However  yesterday questions were raised in Parliament from one M.P. urging Heatherwick to consider the bridge as a sanctuary for mammals, in particular hedgehogs – an endangered species. He requests that access points (which are currently lifts and stairs and definitely not hedgehog friendly), should be modified so that our spiky friends can get on to the bridge and enjoy its benefits. The organisers say they will be happy to discuss this and also where saucers of food should be placed for them. It is comforting to know that our government is paying attention to such significant matters in these days of Brexit. Let us hope that they will extend these privileges to other endangered species and will not establish quotas for the numbers of them who can use this facility.

1.816_Garden-Bridge-view-D_CREDIT_Arup.jpgPhoto:  Heatherwick Studio