Armchair tour: A travel writer embarks on a voyage of discovery in the world of comments

November 4, 2020

My trip to the afterlife of stories began with a simple question at the dinner table:

“What was the name of the city in Albania that Cicero visited?”

A typical question in our household. My husband is the history buff and great synthesizer of historic events; I’m the one who remembers names and dates—usually.

I knew which place he meant: the ancient Roman city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, at the southern tip of Albania. But the name escaped me. I knew it wasn’t Gjirokaster, the birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, and that it wasn’t Kruje to the north, the home of the national hero, Skanderbeg.

The quickest way to find out was to check my story about Albania that had appeared in Hadassah magazine in 2012. In a trice I found the name: Butrint. And then I scrolled down and discovered that my travel story had taken on a life of its own, long after I had moved on to writing about other places. It had never occurred to me to look for comments years after a story had appeared. Thus began a journey of discovery, particularly interesting now that other kinds of travel are but a memory or a dream.

The comments section on Albania began with posts three years after the story appeared. In May 2015, Leonie Lachmish wrote to ask, “Do you know how one can see the ancient synagogue in Sarande?” Then, in connection with the Albanians’ protection of Jews during World War II, she raised an issue that has been discussed elsewhere online. “I wish there were trips for Jewish tourists who believe we have a pleasant duty to visit countries that acted righteously and saved Jews’ lives in the darkest of times. I would so love to meet descendents of families who saved Jews.”

Leonie’s wish was followed by proposals of ambitious projects. In December that year, Anton asked about Berat, another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Albania. On the outskirts of the town, according to one tradition, the 17th century mystic and false messiah Shabbetai Zevi lies buried in Varri i Çifutit (Tomb of the Jew).

“I am going to Berat… and I like to see the Tomb of the Jew! (Varri I cifutit),” Anton wrote. “It may be interesting to even find out the DNA inside it. Can be the tomb of Sabbatai Z. there maybe.”

In January 2017, Migena wrote, “I always thought that language bridge[s] nations closer. Albania-Israel relationship must not be stopped at…WWII: why not bringing Hebrew language in Albania?”

Migena added that she comes to Israel every year to attend an ulpan and hopes eventually to be able to translate Hebrew literature into Albanian.

Handrim had a similarly ambitious project. In November 2018 he wrote about rebuilding the ancient synagogue in Sarande: “There are so many levels why this would be great…It is not only a dream. It is a project. Maybe my life project. If anyone of you have an idea, please contact me!”

The comments were both moving and intriguing, stirring the fondest memories of a beautiful and hospitable country (albeit with impossible roads). Then I wondered whether others of my travel stories had a similar afterlife.

So I looked up my article on Macedonia, which appeared in October/November 2013 and in which I mentioned in passing that the country’s “name—identical to that of a neighboring region in northern Greece where Alexander the Great was born—and its claim to Alexander as its own national hero have generated a dispute between the two countries that is threatening Macedonia’s entry into the European Union.” Prior to the country’s recent name change to Republic of North Macedonia, it was known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).

A year after the story appeared, Nick the Greek riffed on the dispute about the name and the history in a 532-word tirade, including the following:

“Macedon is Greek Kingdom same as Sparta is Greek Kingdom – Both are Dorian, and both Greek. If minor Slavic country today, stepped on to world stage and claimed the name of Spartan Kingdom for country-name…sovereign state-name, nationality, language and ethnicity – How should the West react to such anti-Hellenic action?”

But Nick couldn’t let it go at that, and in December and the following January he continued flogging the point at length. Radio silence ensued for six years, until JR, in June 2020, saw fit to set Nick the Greek straight about where his fulminations were appearing: “This is a post about the Jewish population that lived and still lives in the current Balkan region. This is not about Greece.”

Most comments, however, were benign. Some were attempts to play Jewish geography (sorry, I’m not related to your relatives in La Jolla or San Diego). Some even revealed a sense of humor, such as the welcome correction by Tammy Schneider to my article on New Hampshire (April/May 2016) in which I had mistakenly located Nashua southeast of Portsmouth:

“Nashua is southWEST of Portsmouth,” she wrote. “If you went southeast of Portsmouth, you’d be riding the whales in the Atlantic Ocean!

Others had fascinating information to add. Don Perlgut, a Dartmouth alumnus, expanded on that college’s history of restricted Jewish admissions. “The post-war period is the interesting one, [when] there were no official Jewish restrictions [but rather] an official – and publicly stated – “geographic diversity” policy that actively and openly discriminated in favour of young men…from places like Wyoming, Montana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Idaho, Kentucky, etc. [and] against people from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, etc: a de facto Jewish quota.”

Concerning neighboring Vermont, Martha Ginsburg Roditti had the following to add to my story that appeared in July 2017: “I was born in Granville, NY [on the border of New York and Vermont] and heard stories of the Poultney Cemetery. My father and Grandfather were very active in the small Granville congregation. My father had the honor of keeping the Torahs in our house for the High Holy Days (which were conducted in the Grange Hall).”

With regard to Milwaukee (November 2019), Rachel Krug recalled that her father immigrated to Milwaukee “and had often bragged how with his Heder training [he] was able to assist one Golda Meyerson [Golda Meir] with her Hebrew.”

But my favorite discovery on this electronic journey was a comment on my article that appeared in February/March 2014 on the 100th anniversary of a daring and seemingly impossible mission: the attempt by two brave Turkish pilots to fly more than 1,500 miles from Istanbul to Jerusalem and ultimately to Cairo and Alexandria. They never reached their destination: Their flimsy plane, made of wood and fabric, crashed near Tiberias. Yerach Paran, a member of Kibbutz Ha’on, has built a garden surrounding the memorial to the pilots at the site of the crash and tends it every weekend.

In June 2020, six years after my article appeared, the comments section, which up to that point had only occasional posts from former volunteers in Kibbutz Ha’on, showed a trackback—in Turkish. It turned out to be another story about the two pilots, highlighting the
Turkey–Israel connection, that appeared in Avlaremoz, an online publication covering Jewish and minority topics in Turkey. It included a link to the announcement of the 2001 Turkish documentary on the expedition, made with planes of that era. Seeing the story of the brave pilots again (which I read with the help of Google Translate)  of a time when travel involved perils very different from those of the novel coronavirus.

As so often, I have my husband to thank for sending me on this virtual journey and I have the readers to thank for the comments I discovered. May the conversation continue!

Copyright 2020 by Esther Hecht. No part of this post may be copied or used in any way without written permission of the author.

A holiday is born, or, Parting is such sweet joy

April 22, 2019

Five days before Passover, minds and bodies bend to the approaching festival: ritual cleaning, massive food shopping, gargantuan feats of cooking. In Israel, this seven-day holiday is followed in quick succession by the Mimouna (a North African Jewish holiday that has been adopted by nearly all the country’s ethnic groups), Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day, Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen and Victims of Terror, and Independence Day. Hardly a shortage of festivals and days of national solidarity.

But for some, these are just not enough. Last week, a visitor to the West Bank could witness a Jewish-nationalist holiday in the making. The site is Qasr al-Yahud, the part of the Jordan River near Jericho where tradition says Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist (Matthew: 3:13-17). At this very site to which Jewish tradition also lays claim, several miraculous events took place. On the tenth day of Nisan, that is, five days before Passover Eve, the waters of the Jordan parted miraculously to allow the Children of Israel to enter the Promised Land (Joshua 3: 14–17). And it was here that the waters parted so that the prophets Elijah and Elisha could cross on dry land, before Elijah ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2: 6–10).

Like so many religious sites in the Holy Land, this one belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, but monasteries and churches of various denominations dot the landscape. Israel administers the site under its Parks and Nature Authority, with a shop that sells bottled Jordan water and white gowns for those who want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and be baptized in the river.

The border between the Israeli-controlled West Bank and Jordan runs through the middle of the river; Israeli soldiers provide security on the western side while their Jordanian counterparts patrol the eastern side, and on both sides busloads of pilgrims arrive in a steady stream. Israeli sources say there were 750,000 visitors last year on the Israeli-controlled side and that they look forward to having 2 million visitors annually in the future.

According to one source, the name of the site, Qasr al-Yahud (in Arabic, Palace of the Jews) derives from a name given to the Church of John the Baptist there because of its splendor. Another explanation is that this name is a corruption of the Arabic Kasser, meaning “breaking,” a reference to the parting of the waters for the crossing of the Children of Israel.

Maj.-Gen. (res) Uzi Dayan, now a Likud member of Knesset, and his like-minded friends take credit for organizing the celebration of a Jewish/national holiday at Qasr al-Yahud. This year they brought in 17 busloads of Jews from all over the country to mark the tenth of Nisan, with an emphasis (repeated many times) on the land that God gave the Children of Israel, repeated especially by the keynote speaker, former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau. Next year Dayan’s group plans to bring more. There was no explanation of where the money for the buses came from.

The busloads also visited nearby Jericho—which Israel has closed to its citizens except for this one day a year—to see the mosaic floor of a seventh–eighth-century CE synagogue and to see the walls that came tumbling down (accompanied by an ingenious explanation of the location of those walls—which most archaeologists agree have never been found).

Jericho is considered a “quiet” West Bank town, but this incursion did not sit well with all the residents. As we were leaving, a few children flung stones at our armored bus, hard enough to damage one of the windows.

Perhaps that was proof, if any more was needed for this audience, that Israel should annex the West Bank.

My visit to Qasr al-Yahud and Jericho was provided by the Government Press Office.

Text copyright 2019 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


Dead in the womb

January 23, 2019

A headline in yesterday’s paper brought tears to my eyes, but the more I thought about it, the proper response seemed anger. The news was that Israel’s Health Ministry now requires hospitals to remove a fetus from a woman’s womb within 72 hours after it is diagnosed as dead. Moreover the dead fetus must be buried within 10 days. Hospitals must also provide psychosocial services to the parents during this difficult time.

I was appalled at the thought of women being forced to continue carrying a dead fetus for up to several weeks because the medical establishment did not consider their situation medically urgent. I felt deep sorrow for the women.

It took a while, but then I felt the anger. Where was the Health Ministry until now? Is it perhaps because it is run by men, and hospitals are run by men, that they could ignore the suffering and the horror?

In their stead: Seeking forgiveness of the dead

September 26, 2017

Cousin Gus once wrote to me that someday he would tell me the story of how my parents and older brother were able to escape from Belgium to the United States in 1940. Gus was 84 when he wrote to me. But though he lived to be 100, he never followed through on his promise.
He had, however, fulfilled a much greater promise in his lifetime: to get my parents and brother out of Antwerp and safely on a ship headed for the United States. And this week, Gus’s son Lewis told me what he knew of the story.
My parents were living in Vienna when the Germans invaded in March 1938. Like many other Jews, they had good reasons for staying and hoping for the best. My mother was six months pregnant; precarious travel was out of the question.
But my father was arrested on November 9, 1938—Kristallnacht (known in English as the Night of Broken Glass)—a pogrom against Jews throughout Germany and German-held areas. He would have been deported to a concentration camp had not a guard let him escape in exchange for a gold watch.
Unable to return home, my father hid in the home of a non-Jewish employee of my grandfather. And as soon as he could, he fled Vienna, making the exhausting trip on foot to Antwerp, which was still free. My mother and three-month-old brother remained behind.
Eventually, my mother received false papers provided by British Quakers, enabling her and my brother to travel to Antwerp and join my father. There my parents wrote to all their relatives in the United States, asking them to provide an affidavit, the document without which they would not be admitted to the country.
They waited in Antwerp for more than a year. At last, it was cousin Gus who came through for them. I still have two copies of the original affidavit. They show that Gus worked in the film industry, had a very good salary, and owned two cars. If necessary, he could support them and they would not be a burden on the state.
But an affidavit was not enough. Everyone was trying to get out, and my parents’ papers were low in the pile of requests. And this is approximately what Lewis told me this week: Gus knew an executive in Columbia Pictures who was in Antwerp, and he knew the U.S. ambassador, and the ambassador knew another diplomat. Gus asked the film executive for a favor, the executive asked the ambassador, and the ambassador asked the diplomat. And so, through this chain of favors, my parents’ papers were moved up in the pile.
My parents’ names appear on the passenger manifest of the S.S. Pennland dated March 21, 1940, as does the name of my brother, already then anglicized to Harry. The Pennland was the last passenger ship to leave Antwerp before the Germans overran Belgium. Had my parents not been on it, they and my brother might have been murdered by the Germans and their henchmen, as were nearly all the members of my father’s family. I would not have been born.
And now I can’t help but wonder whose places my parents and brother took. Did those unlucky people survive the Holocaust? I will never know, but it is not very likely. This week that ends with Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement, when one must ask forgiveness of people before seeking forgiveness from God), I Read the rest of this entry »

Last-minute Reprieve for Endangered Music in Jerusalem

June 20, 2017

Jerusalem’s Etnachta series of chamber music concerts concluded its season on a high note: Yesterday’s concert was the first to be broadcast by Kan, Israel’s new public broadcasting corporation. The previous concert, on May 22, which was not broadcast, had ended with the announcement that the series’ continuation was in doubt. The popular free series was produced under the Israel Broadcasting Authority, Kan’s predecessor, and no provision had yet been made for the concerts’ survival.

Yesterday’s offering was full of verve, perfectly matching the upbeat news. Pianist Gila Goldstein and pianist, composer, and arranger Tal Zilber premiered one of Zilber’s works “Out of Order,” a lively piece for two pianos. Even livelier was Zilber’s arrangement of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 (based on a czardas) with a salsa beat. The program also included Bach, Arensky, and Poulenc, as well as Zilber’s arrangements of three Israeli songs.

Hayuta Dvir, who has produced and presented the concerts since 1989, introducing each performer and work with knowledge and passion, also announced that she would be presenting the series when it resumes in the fall.

If you visit Jerusalem, save Monday afternoon at 5 for the concerts, at the Jerusalem Theater’s Henry Crown Auditorium. Arrive at least 15 minutes early to pick up a free ticket.

Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author

What would you do for peace?

June 18, 2017

A man sits for six endless days, fasting, near the house where the prime minister reportedly enjoys fine cigars and his wife allegedly chugs pink champagne from a questionable source. The fasting man is Avi Ofer, of Kibbutz Ma’anit, 69 miles northwest of Jerusalem, who decided he had to do something to prod the country’s leaders to make peace.

Ofer, an archaeologist turned techie, is no stranger to activism. In the past, he took green paint and painted the Green Line—the ceasefire line drawn in green ink following the 1948 War of Independence. Maps in Israeli geography text books omit the line, as do the maps in Palestinian text books. Israel remains a country without permanent borders. How do you know who you are when you can’t define where you live? And how can you make peace when each side says, “It’s all mine”?

This time around, four kilograms (about nine pounds) of body weight, a hunk of will power, and physical presence were Ofer’s contribution in the name of peace. His ordeal concluded last Friday with a Sabbath-welcoming ceremony. Gaunt but flying with adrenalin, Ofer joined in the songs of peace, Sabbath peace, peace for Israel, peace for all dwellers of the universe, led by (Reform) Rabbi Nava Hefetz of Rabbis for Human Rights and accompanied on guitar by (Conservative) Rabbi Ehud Bandel. With them were about thirty supporters of Ofer’s initiative.

The Middle East is a lousy neighborhood, but I doubt that Uganda would have been a better solution to the Jews’ need for a safe place. (Like Ofer, I remain a Zionist, in the sense of believing in the need for that safe place, though not at the expense of others.) So we send our children and grandchildren, year after year, decade after decade, to kill and be killed. Our military cemeteries overflow.

Jordan and Egypt have made peace with us. What seemed impossible has been done. More than 50% of Israelis and Palestinians have said they favor a two-state solution. Before the 2014 Gaza war the percentage was even higher. But it’s not enough to know in your heart that a peace agreement—imperfect as it may be—is the only solution. Only action will make it happen. Miri Aloni’s “Song to Peace,” which Yitzhak Rabin sang at the peace rally at which he was assassinated, concludes with the words, “Do not say the day will come; bring the day!”

With all the government corruption and growing fanaticism in the country it is so easy to slip into the paralysis of despair. Ofer’s example is a welcome antidote. At least for a moment, at that Sabbath-welcoming ceremony, the gloom lifted, and I thought, what if we each did something to bring the peace?

Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.


End Looms for Musical Jewel in the Crown

May 28, 2017

One of Jerusalem’s best offerings—the free Monday afternoon Ethnachta series of chamber music concerts—is yet again in danger of being axed. The series was born in 1983 when the Israel Broadcasting Authority established Kol Hamusika (the voice of music), Israel’s classical music station that broadcast the concerts live. The featured artists include promising young Israeli musicians and older Israelis who have already established vigorous careers in Israel and abroad as well as artists from other countries. And the music is not all Beethoven and Brahms. Etnachta also features works by Israeli composers. Since 1989 the concerts have been produced and presented by Hayuta Dvir, who introduces each musician and each work with both passion and erudition.

On Monday afternoons, even in stormy weather, hundreds of local residents and visitors can be seen streaming to the Henry Crown Symphony Hall at the Jerusalem Theater, often filling the venue to the rafters. Last Monday, although there was no listing or announcement of the concert and though it wasn’t at all certain that it would be possible to get past the roadblocks set up for the visit of President Donald Trump (Dvir came to the concert hall on foot while the roads were still closed off), the loyal audience turned out en masse to hear the Israel Haydn Quartet. The group—Eyal Kless (piano), Svetlana Simanovsky (violin), Tali Kravitz (viola), and Shira Mani (cello)—played a lush program of Puccini, Mozart, and Brahms and was joined by clarinetist Eli Even for one of the works. I sat close enough to watch Mani’s often facial expressions as she wielded her bow. She seemed enraptured, and that added to the pleasure of the sublime music.

But whereas previously listeners at home could have tuned in to their radios or streamed the concert on their computers, this time—ominously—the music was not broadcast live (though Dvir managed to organize a recording). And when the final applause came to an end, Dvir told the audience that the next concert, scheduled for June 19, would be the last…unless the public used its power to influence the new broadcasting corporation, which has already wreaked havoc in the lives of so many journalists and technicians.
So please let the corporation know that the public wants the Etnachta concerts to continue. And I would add that I would like them to continue with Hayuta Dvir, who is their heart and soul. Here is an e-mail address:, and here is a phone number: 072-390-5555.

Text copyright 2017 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Journey to the Old City and Back

February 13, 2016

No matter what the political situation, there’s only so long we can go without humous (hummus) from Lina’s and knafeh from al-Jafar. Lured by a benevolent sky, today my husband and I decided on an excursion to the Old City. It’s a drive of about ten minutes on a Saturday when most Israelis are out of town, trampling each other in their search for wildflowers. We even found a decent parking space.

As we drove up to the parking lot, we already saw signs of revival after this miserable winter. Bus after bus came our way, after dropping off pilgrims and tourists eager to see the holy sites. At Zion Gate we stopped to chat with some Assyrian Christian shopkeepers we know. They sounded a tad more hopeful than on our previous visit, about a month ago.

And indeed, the atmosphere everywhere seemed more relaxed, but perhaps what we noticed was simply resignation to the roller-coaster existence in the Middle East. We did see tourists, and at the eighth station of the cross we saw a woman carrying a heavy wooden cross that was taller than herself, with a group of Polish pilgrims.

At our favorite humous restaurant, Lina’s, where in normal times there is a line of Israelis out the door at lunchtime on Saturday, we were among just a few diners. A pity, because the food is excellent and inexpensive. The humous is smooth and creamy, and the falafel, thanks to the rich addition of chopped parsley, is flavorful and grease-free. Once when we were there for lunch I asked who Lina is. There is no Lina, I was told. Previously, the restaurant was call Linda and was owned by two partners. When the partners split up, one of them reopened the restaurant but had to change the name. He simply dropped the “d.” (And no, they didn’t tell me who the original Linda was.)

The last time we were in the Old City I was a little nervous about going near Damascus Gate, where some attacks had taken place, so we skipped dessert at al-Jafar (“the eagle”). This time, however, we couldn’t resist the call of the knafeh, a pastry with a cheese base and a shredded semolina topping, all of it steeped in syrup. We were already full, so we split a portion–a plateful so big you have to be hungry to eat a whole one.I overheard the Muslim woman sitting next to me say “Mish ader” (I just can’t) to her husband as she pushed the uneaten portion of her knafeh toward him.

On the way back through the covered bazaar we bought a jar of al-Jemal tehina (tahini), the best you can get here, and freshly ground coffee at Sandouka, where the proprietor recognized my husband and greeted him with a big smile.

At least for one sunny day in February, it felt good to be in Jerusalem.

Text copyright 2016 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.



Under our very feet: Digging up trouble

February 10, 2016

Besides all of Israel’s troubles stemming from its geopolitical situation, the country has a sackful of home-grown problems. Cynically, Israelis sometimes refer to the latter as the “J. vs. J. wars”—the wars of Jews against Jews. This internal strife, especially as it pertains to archaeology, was the inspiration for Ilana Berner’s debut novel Cover Up in the Holy Land.
These wars include the never-ending skirmishes over graves uncovered in excavations: Some members of the ultra-Orthodox community insist that the digs be halted and all the remains receive Jewish burial, even when it is obvious that the bones are of people who were not Jews. Other conflicts concern the monarchy of the biblical King David: when the historical monarchy existed and whether it was as large and powerful as the biblical account portrays it. And some disputes are simply the tension between developers and the Israel Antiquities Authority, because whenever antiquities are uncovered in a construction site (and in Jerusalem, especially, this happens very often), by law work must stop until the archaeologists have carried out what is called a “salvage excavation.”
But some of these battles are over finds that have ramifications that extend far beyond the internal concerns of the Jews—particularly discoveries touching on the family, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. Jerusalem already has two tombs of Jesus: one in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which is actually a complex of churches of many denominations inside the Old City, and the other known as the Garden Tomb, revered by Protestants, outside the Old City walls. New theories about the burial site arise periodically.
The novel opens with the inadvertent discovery of a burial cave during excavation work for the construction of a parking lot in East Jerusalem. Many burial caves have been found in the area; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher itself is built over caves that were part of a vast Jewish cemetery in antiquity.
Then we learn that Dana Lotan, a professor of archaeology in Beersheba, is passed over for a promotion because of her controversial theories about the size and dating of David’s kingdom and because of rumors that she is a lesbian, though she has been careful to conceal her sexual orientation at a time when Israel had little awareness of, and no tolerance for, same-sex love. To Lotan’s chagrin, her protégé, who is an even more closeted homosexual than she is, gets the appointment.
The plot is set in motion when Lotan is asked to perform a salvage excavation at the newly discovered burial cave. There she finds a burial box with a Hebrew inscription that she deciphers as “Joseph of Arimatea.” According to the New Testament Gospel of Matthew, this disciple of Jesus begged Pontius Pilate to let him have the body of the crucified Jesus and buried it in his own tomb. This cave, she realizes, could be the original burial place of Jesus. And that, she also realizes, means that the government will seal the cave in an attempt to avoid a run-in with the Church. Lotan, however, is determined to let the truth out.
The author is a licensed and experienced tour guide, who has studied history and archaeology, as all Israeli guides do, but who has also participated in excavations. This knowledge and experience enables her to bring alive the excitement of digs, which also involve much tedious, dusty, and boring work. Her training as a tour guide also comes through in set pieces, like her explanation of the Western Wall as a retaining wall built by King Herod to support the Temple Mount (and not, as some people mistakenly believe, a part of the Temple itself).
It is not by chance that same-sex love is an important theme in the novel. The author came out as a lesbian long before others did in Israel.
The novel is set in 1970, partly in the desert town of Beersheba, which was then a sleepy town with a university just beginning to take shape. I remember this period well because I taught at the university in a temporary bungalow from 1970 to 1973. Today, Beersheba—the capital of southern Israel—is a city of nearly 200,000 with a buzz of development (about which I wrote recently).
Cover Up in the Holy Land is available through Amazon. A sequel is under way.


At Masada, even Tosca has a Jewish angle

June 2, 2015

Police chief Scarpia (r), Tosca, and her tortured lover, Cavaradossi, in Puccini's 'Tosca'--at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

Police chief Scarpia (r), Tosca, and her tortured lover, Cavaradossi, in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’–at Masada. (Yossi Zwecker)

In 1800, an opera singer in Rome is duped into believing she has been betrayed by her lover, a painter who is hiding a political prisoner on the run from the police. All come to a bad end.
That, in a nano-nutshell, is the story of Puccini’s Tosca, the highlight of the fifth Opera Festival at Masada, opening this Thursday.
At first glance there seems to be no Jewish angle to this opera—except, of course, the venue, the Israeli Opera performers, the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion, and conductor Daniel Oren, not to mention the huge production crew. But seek and ye shall find.
Start, for example, with the setting of Act Three: Hadrian’s tomb, better known today as the Castel Sant’Angelo. This round stone building was built in Rome as the mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian (76–138 CE). Rabbinical sources, in contrast to some historians today, accuse Hadrian of having tried to destroy Judaism. In response to his actions, Simon Bar Kokhba led a massive four-year rebellion that ended in defeat in 135. In Jewish sources, Hadrian’s name is always accompanied by the expletive “may his bones be crushed.”
After Hadrian, his family, and other emperors were buried in the tomb, it had many uses. At the time in which the opera is set, it was a papal prison, undoubtedly a place of terror for the persecuted Jews of Rome.
The opera’s action takes place on a single day—June 14, 1800—during the Napoleonic wars. On this day, Napoleon’s army battled the Austrians in Marengo, in northwestern Italy. In Act One, news arrives that the Austrians have routed Napoleon’s forces. But in Act Two, a very different outcome is announced: The Austrians have been defeated.
What Napoleon’s victory meant for the Jews of Italy, and Jews throughout the European areas under his control, was a respite, albeit brief, from persecution.
Act One, which is set in the church of church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, ends with the singing of a Te Deum (a hymn of praise), celebrating the apparent Austrian victory. In the Masada production the singers include the Moran children’s chorus and the Israeli Opera chorus, dressed as nuns and priests. But anyone who looks closely can see that some of the “priests” are wearing T-shaped, “kosher” crosses.
“It’s a known ‘patent’ [trick] in Israel” to accommodate religiously observant performers, explained Michael Ajzenstadt, the artistic administrator of the Israeli Opera, at a dress rehearsal this week.
That final scene of Act One, in which several large crosses are displayed and black-clothed figures prostrate themselves on the stage, made at least one observer uncomfortable.
“It reminds me of the Inquisition,” she said.
“But [the scene] takes place in a church,” Ajzenstadt said, somewhat dismayed by the reaction. “Three years ago, in Jerusalem, we did Jérusalem of Verdi, which is about the Crusades, and there was no problem.”
That, of course, led to the question of the performance of Carmina Burana, the second fully staged work that is part of this year’s Opera Festival at Masada. This work, by German composer Carl Orff (1895–1982), was very popular in Nazi Germany, and his relations with the Nazi regime are the subject of debate.
Commenting on the fact that it is permitted to perform Orff’s works in Israel but not Wagner’s, Ajzenstadt said simply that “[for Israelis] Wagner—and it’s not logical—equals the Holocaust, even though he lived before the Holocaust and even though there were a lot of Nazi-era composers.”

And now for more Tosca-related Jewish tidbits:
• While Italy was undergoing political and cultural unification, the press initially portrayed Puccini as the ideal Italian composer and the ideal Italian man, but then, when his operas failed to support this view, attacked him as a polyglot, a traitor, a Jew.
• Puccini’s opera is based on a five-act play, La Tosca, by the French playwright Victorien Sardou. Sarah Bernhardt played the title role in the 1887 premiere and then toured the world in that role.
• The Canadian-Jewish baritone George London (born George Burnstein in 1920) sang the role of the sadistic police chief Scarpia opposite Maria Callas in 1956.
• Cantor and opera singer Jan Peerce, born Jacob Pinchas Perelmuth, sang the part of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, with the Metropolitan Opera of New York in the early 1940s.
• Australian bass Joshua Bloom sang the role of Angelotti, the escaped political prisoner, with the Los Angeles Opera in 2013.
• Dmitri Jurowski, 35, who comes from a family of Russian-Jewish musicians, conducts the Moscow City Symphony Orchestra and has led the Bolshoi Opera. He made his US podium debut in Chicago, on January 14 this year, with Tosca.
• The German-Jewish novelist and playwright Lion Feuchtwanger, author of the 1925 novel Jud Süß (Jew Suss, published in English translation as Power) had this to say about the Nazi film industry’s adaptation of it: “By adding a touch of Tosca you have transformed my novel, Power, into a vile anti-Semitic movie à la Streicher and his Sturmer.” Feuchtwanger was referring to a scene in which Dorothea comes to Suss to plead for her husband’s life, just as Tosca comes to police chief Scarpia, only to hear his cries as he is tortured.
• The following item was sent out by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on March 29, 1937: “Principals of the Jewish School of Music in Pinsk face court proceedings because students sang in Yiddish the first act of Puccini’s opera ‘Tosca’ which takes place in a Catholic convent, according to a press announcement.
“Police halted the performance after the first act, according to the reports. The principals are accused of having ‘outraged Christian feelings and profaned religion.’ ”
• John Bell’s production of Tosca at the Sydney Opera House in January 2015 sets the events in 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome. A shepherd boy wears a yellow star, and in the final prison scene the audience realizes that the group of people sleeping outdoors are Jews in transit to an extermination camp. When this production opened a month earlier in Melbourne, chorister Sitiveni Talei was visibly shaken by having to give the Nazi salute. He is the son of a Jewish mother and a Fijian father and learned he was Jewish only at the age of 16.

Text copyright 2015 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. Photo courtesy of the Israeli Opera.