Archive for June, 2011

Viva the cottage cheese intifada!

June 30, 2011

One of my sons maintains his sanity by allotting less than 1 percent of his attention to Israeli and regional politics. But when I returned from a trip overseas last week he chided me for buying cottage cheese.
“Don’t you know there’s a cottage cheese boycott?” he asked indignantly. “Dairy products are grossly overpriced.”

I must admit that news of what our local media call the “cottage cheese intifada” did not reach me in Albania. The Albanians have their own problems and interests, such as finding out what an Israeli journalist visiting their country thinks of it. Less then 24 hours after I’d set foot in the southern city of Saranda I was interviewed by the local TV station. Six days later, a half-page article with my picture, all based on the TV interview, appeared in what I was told is the country’s “serious” newspaper.

Albanians don’t have time for cottage cheese wars. Nor do our Egyptian neighbors, 1,000 of whom were reportedly wounded this week in the continuation of their uprising in Taghrir Square, or our Syrian neighbors, hundreds of whom have been killed, on orders of their president, while protesting.

It’s nice to know that Israelis will rise up for a cause, after being glued to their armchairs for so long. But for cottage cheese?

They also serve who stand and sing

It was okay for Israel to send the transsexual diva Dana International as its representative this year to the Eurovision song contest—watched by some 125 million people. And that was not her first time at Eurovision.

Now there’s a flap over the scheduled performance of singer Harel Skaat as part of a salute to National Service volunteers. Most of the volunteers are young women who declare that they are religiously observant and thus are exempt from compulsory military service. Skaat came out of the closet in 2010.

The daily Ha’aretz reported that a rabbi and a Knesset member said they had received many complaints from women in National Service about Skaat’s scheduled performance. But Sar-Shalom Jerbi, the director of National Service, was unmoved. Apparently, finding a singer who had completed military or national service was no easy task, and that was Jerby’s main criterion.

According to Ha’aretz, Skaat’s PR commented that this would not be his first performance before the women of the National Service and that he was delighted to be doing so again.

And now for something positive: Book your ride

Bus stops in the northern city of Haifa now have a delightful addition: shelves with free books. Ha’aretz reports that artist Daniel Shoshan, a senior lecturer in the Technion’s Architecture Faculty, and recent graduate Amit Matalon have been putting up the shelves for the past few months in the hopes of creating a free lending network.

The artists plan to continue the project in other cities around the country, and requests are already pouring in.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Carousel takes a wrong turn in Jerusalem

June 29, 2011

Jewish dietary laws were very far from my mind when I booked tickets to a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, in which much of the second act takes place at a clambake in Maine. The musical came to the Holy City courtesy of Encore, a local amateur theater company whose enjoyable production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore I wrote about on January 10. The company includes Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews, as one might expect in Jerusalem. The audience at the matinee I attended was largely Orthodox.

Perhaps someone in the audience flinched when the company sang “Real Nice Clambake,” which describes in great detail a codfish chowder with ribbons of salted pork (I distinctly heard the word “meat” substituted for “pork”), clamshells and red hot lobsters slit down the back, peppered, and doused in melted butter.

But I took it all in stride because, having read the program before the show, I had seen the following disclaimer:

“All the food products used on stage in this production have been certified kosher/pareve under rabbinic supervision. Although reference is made to shellfish, the items in question are only to establish the New England locale of the play and do not in any way constitute an endorsement of such eating habits.

“For further reference, please see Leviticus 11:9–12 and commentaries thereon.”

What Leviticus and the commentaries thereon have to say about clambakes in New England I do not know. What I do know is that no one would have considered a disclaimer like this necessary in Jerusalem 20 years ago. Holy mackerel. When they put on the Mikado again, will they need to write that actors seen bowing to the Japanese potentate are not really worshiping false gods?

From one flotilla fiasco to another

On the morning of June 26, 2011, Oren Helman, director of Israel’s Government Press Office, sent out the following warning to foreign journalists: “I would like to make it clear to you and to the media that you represent, that participation in the flotilla is an intentional violation of Israeli law and is liable to lead to participants being denied entry into the State of Israel for ten years, to the impoundment of their equipment and to additional sanctions.”

That evening, Helman gave a pathetic defense of the policy when grilled by two veteran Israeli journalists, Yaron London and Motti Kirschenbaum, on their nightly TV news show. How could we expect reliable coverage of the event if journalists were not allowed to witness it, London and Kirschenbaum asked. Helman had no answer. But he did say that the policy was the outcome of a series of meetings of top-level government officials. All of them suffering from a severe shortage of cortical neurons, he failed to add.

The following day, however, the light must have gone on in someone’s brain, because the GPO rushed to send out a new announcement: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu today (Monday), 27.6.11, instructed the responsible authorities to formulate a special procedure regarding foreign journalists that participate in the flotilla and arrive in contravention of the Entry into Israel Law. When the matter was brought to his attention, the Prime Minister directed that the regular policy against infiltrators and those who enter Israel illegally not be implemented. It has also been agreed that members of the Israeli and international media will be attached to Israel Navy vessels in order to create transparency and credible coverage of the events.”

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Everybody needs a guide – II

June 13, 2011

You may never have to get from Zakynthos, the southernmost of Greece’s Ionian Islands, to Corfu, the northernmost of those islands, in a single day. But I had to do just that last week while on assignment; the two islands were part of a single story. Flying was not an option, and renting a one-way car involved an astronomical drop charge.

Getting information on-line about public transportation from Zakynthos to Corfuwas nearly impossible. The ferry sites were unclear. Bus information was even murkier.

A clerk at the Zakynthos bus terminal had no specific information but assured me I could get to Corfu in a single day. It seemed to make sense and gave me hope.

The bus that left the Zakynthos terminal at 8:30 a.m. brought my husband and me to the ferry; the ferry ride to Kilini was smooth enough, and we continued on the bus to Patra. It was nearly noon when we reached Patra and discovered that the bus (which was continuing to Athens) was dropping us ten long blocks from the bus terminal.

When we finally got there—a building that reminded me of Greyhound terminals in the southern United States in the early 1960s—we were in for a much bigger surprise. Though there are several ferries daily from Igoumenitsa to Corfu, the only bus to Igoumenitsa would be at 10:15 p.m. Arrival in Corfu would be at 4:30 a.m.  Not what we had planned at all. There is no train service to Igoumenitsa.

But the helpful clerk at the bus terminal suggested another option: a ferry directly from Patra to Corfu. Another ten-block walk brought us to a brand-new ferry terminal where we learned that yes, there was a direct ferry and it would be leaving at … midnight. Earliest boarding was at 9 p.m. and we would arrive in Corfu at 7 a.m.

Returning to the bus terminal was so unappealing, we decided to stay put. At least the ferry terminal had air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, a café, and shops.

The ferry itself, the Europa Palace, was quite luxurious, but in the cheaper section, which had airplane-style seats, it looked as though we had unwittingly stumbled on an international convention of the homeless. Young people from many countries were stretched out on the floor in sleeping bags, their heads tucked inside or covered with jackets.

The lone consolation was meeting a very bright student from Hong Kong who had just graduated from a university in Holland and planned to spend the coming year as a volunteer teacher in a village in rural China. He said he hoped to change a child’s life, just as one of his teachers had changed his.

This Zakynthos-to-Corfu story has a happy ending: Corfu more than made up for the difficulties getting there. More about that soon.

Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Esther Hecht.

Everybody needs a guide – I

June 12, 2011

Somewhere in the Greek town of Zakynthosthere is a Jewish cemetery. It served the small Jewish community that existed on the island of the same name from the end of the 15th century until 1955. But finding that cemetery turned into more of an adventure than I anticipated.

A newspaper report gave its location as the Rouveli area, near Bohali. Finding Bohali (pronounced BO-ha-lee) was no problem. One just walks uphill 2 kilometers toward the fortress at the top of the mountain. That Jews would have carted their dead so far for burial did not make a lot of sense, but inGibraltarthe old Jewish cemetery was also high on a hill, so the location didn’t seem that strange.

The road passed houses surrounded by large gardens. Tiny olives were just beginning to appear, and figs were still ripening; but lemon trees had orange-size fruit, and one tree had lusciously fat apricots. Wildflowers, including brilliantly orange poppies, lined the roads. And there were spectacular views of the town and the sea.

But near and in Bohali people had either never heard of the nekrotafia evreo or had various opinions as to its location.

One person pointed in the direction of the fortress, which turned out to be locked and which had no sign of a Jewish cemetery. Another insisted adamantly that it was 2 kilometers down the mountain, near the Palatino Hotel, more or less where my husband and I had set out.

Somewhat discouraged, we headed down the road we’d come up, but then spied steep steps that appeared to shorten the way down. At the foot of the steps, we again asked about the cemetery. A woman who appeared to be about 40 answered in good English.

“It’s right up there,” she said, pointing to the top of the steps.

“But we just came from there,” I replied, sure she was another expert on where the cemetery isn’t.

“It’s right behind the house facing the top of the steps,” she said, and gave us precise directions. “It’s just three minutes from here.”

So we trudged back up the steps, continued right about 100 yards, took the first left and then the first right. And there we were, as she said we would be, at the black gate with the Star of David, next door to the Agios Filikon church.

The gate was open, though it appeared that the cemetery keeper was away. Like the gardens we had passed on our way up the mountain, the cemetery had an olive tree, a fig tree, and a lemon tree with fruit. Wildflowers grew in profusion among the graves.

Apart from one clearly new stone in the entrance, which had a Greek inscription that I believe refers to the one family on the island that was killed by the Nazis, the gravestones were old and eroded. A few, set a little to the side, were ornamented on top with a garland-like relief. Some had been coated recently with white stucco, and each of these had a headstone with a Star of David on it, but no inscription. A few appeared to be graves of children; I put a stone on one of those. There were stones on a few other graves, indicating that the cemetery is not forgotten.

I was relieved that we had accomplished our mission, and had we not been searching for the cemetery, we would have missed the gardens, the fruit trees, and the views of the town and the sea.


Text copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No portion of this text may be reproduced without the express permission of Esther Hecht.


When opera rang out in no-man’s-land

June 4, 2011

Sublime music rose from the valley that in biblical times was filled with the cries of children sacrificed to the Moloch.

Stefano Secco wows the audience; sopranos and tenors get the best roles.

The late-afternoon sun had set the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City aglow, and as I walked down toward Sultan’s Pool the sounds of opera rose from the Hinnom Valley. The gala concert of arias that was to kick off the Opera in Jerusalem festival—an extension of the Opera at Masada festival—had not yet begun, but recorded music filled the valley, and I was already enchanted by the setting.

The concert began with a super-spirited rendition of the overture to Rossini’s opera William Tell. Never did the Lone Ranger gallop as quickly and vigorously into the sunset as did the Arena di Verona Orchestra, under the baton of Giuliano Carella. This is the official orchestra of Verona’s annual opera festival and it has had a succession of famous conductors, including Zubin Mehta and Lorin Maazel.

All four soloists from the Arena di Verona opera, including bass Luiz-Ottavio Faria, were impeccable, but the greatest crowd pleasers were Svetla Vassileva, a svelte soprano (they don’t build divas like they used to), and tenor Stefano Secco. Sopranos and tenors seem to get the best parts in operas, but it was their voices that wowed the audience.

Mezzosoprano Mariana Pentcheva put some pizzazz into her role as Mistress Quickly in a duet from Verdi’s Falstaff Reverenza!, and the audience responded with appreciative applause.

The Jerusalem events are to include 30 concerts in various venues, including churches and the Tower of David Museum. The highlights are Verdi’s Requiem and his rarely performed opera Jerusalem, both at Sultan’s Pool.

Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat is justifiably proud of helping to bring these world-class performances to Jerusalem, but his efforts were almost derailed at the last moment by National-Religious and ultra-Orthodox deputy mayors who wanted the city to withdraw its support because the concerts would bring Jewish audiences into churches and some events would be held on the Sabbath—as if either of these factors was a novelty in the city. Fortunately, the forces of darkness were defeated and the show went on as scheduled, even with a greeting from the mayor.

The warm afternoon turned into a windy, chilly Jerusalem night and as the audience drifted in (the concert began half an hour late) vendors did a brisk business in scarves. Still, many people were uncomfortably chilly (some even left during the intermission because of the cold) and I shivered for soprano Vassileva who came onstage bare-shouldered.

The columns and huge rosette of the stage set evoked ancient ruins, colored by turns red, blue, purple, pink, and yellow. But they could hardly compete with the real setting: David’s Tower, Mount Zion and the Old City walls on the east, and the 19th century buildings and windmill of Yemin Moshe on the west. It’s an incredible and almost ideal location.

There was a little humor in it too. The announcers in French and German seemed to think that the Ottoman sultans who built Sultan’s Pool used to cavort in it; amusingly, they referred to it as piscine and Schwimmbad. Actually, it was a giant reservoir for rainfall trapped by a dam across the Hinnom Valley, and it once supplied Jerusalem with water.

Long before that, the valley was the site where children were sacrificed to the Moloch, and the name Hinnom is said to be linked to the cries of these martyred innocents. Between 1949 and 1967 the valley was no-man’s land between Israel and Jordan. And since 1967 the pool has been a venue for summer concerts, though never for opera, until now.

Today, busy roads run along the east and south sides of the pool, and the musicians and audience had to contend with the blare of horns and the squeal of brakes. But the traffic grew quieter as the evening progressed, and the wonderful music and the beautiful setting made the distractions fade to insignificance.

When the concert ended in a lively quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto, the musicians received a standing ovation. It was a fitting conclusion to a week of ceremonies marking the fiction of a united Jerusalem. Though the city that pretends to be united is still divided, at least the valley that separates the two parts was filled with the sound of sublime music.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.

When the Nile flowed at the foot of Masada

June 1, 2011

Kirstin Lewis has a luminous soprano voice and is personable both onstage and off.

A river of rippling blue light flowed diagonally across the stage.

Yesterday I fell in love. American soprano Kristin Lewis swept me off my feet. In the role of Aïda in Verdi’s opera of the same name, performed last night at the foot of Masada, she was elegant, beautiful, and pitiable. Her voice, so clear and luminous, called to mind a friend’s description of fine opera: “It takes your heart and gives it a pat.”

Lewis was personable offstage too. When asked before the performance about how it felt to sing such a sad role, she responded, “Most of the roles I sing are sad.” Then she laughed lightly. “But I’m good at that.”

The performance was a dress rehearsal for the second annual Opera at Masada event. Last year, more than 50,000 people, including 4,000 tourists who had come specially for the musical events, saw the Masada performances of Verdi’s Nabucco and a gala concert by Jessye Norman. This year, similar numbers are expected for the four performances of Aïda, a concert by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli at Masada on June 12, and more Verdi and other concerts in Jerusalem in early June.

Bringing the Israeli Opera from its Tel Aviv home to the foot of a mountain in the desert, in the lowest place on earth, is a huge challenge.

“Opera, wherever you do it, is a larger-than-life genre […] and in the desert, it has to be even grander,” said Michael Ajzenstadt, the Israeli Opera’s artistic director. “You have to have larger numbers of everything. So if you need a choir of 80 in the opera house, you need 150 in the desert.”

It was certainly grand last night. Though conductor Daniel Oren walked in with a towel draped over his right shoulder, as if setting a casual tone, the music was sublime and the soloists were superb.

Even the plot unfolded with inexorable logic: Ethiopia and Egypt are at war. Aïda, the daughter of the Ethiopian king but now a captive slave in Egypt, is torn between her love for the Egyptian hero Radames and her duty to her father and her people. It is an impossible choice, and the end is tragic.

But the romance of it! Imagine Radames singing, in the opening scene, “Heavenly Aïda … mystical garland of light and beauty,” and at the very end, Radames and Aïda in duet, “Brief dream of joy condemned to end in woe! / See brightly opens the sky, an endless morrow!”

The costumes were light and breezy, designed by Denise (Katia) Dufolt for desert conditions. Last night the wind kept blowing, billowing the gowns in a way that added drama to the scenes, though at one point Amneris, Aïda’s rival in love, had to beat back her full and flowing robes.

The set was suitably majestic, with two sphinxes on either side of the stage and an enormous bust of the pharaoh at rear center. In one act two obelisks rose on the stage.

Opera is spectacle, and there was plenty of it, including a brief burst of fireworks and a scene in which Aïda arrives onstage mounted on a camel, with camels also passing in the background. In another scene, Amneris arrives in the royal barge, the waves created by dancers repeatedly flashing the shiny blue lining of their full skirts.

But the overwhelming winner in terms of spectacle was the lighting, by Avi-Yona Bueno, who also created the effects for Nabucco. Bueno “carpeted” the stage with light patterns. Most effective was the Nile, which “flowed” diagonally across the stage with convincing ripples in the back. Even the 1,400-foot-high Masada was bathed in rippling blue light.

This was, however, a rehearsal, and at two points the conductor’s comments broke through the high drama. For the triumphal march in the beginning of Act II, the trumpeters came onstage a few seconds late.
“Who gave you the signal?” maestro Oren asked with annoyance. It turned out that one Gadi was the culprit.
And then the maestro warned both the trumpeters and the troupe of Bedouin dancers who were still not up to scratch, “You’re not going home yet!”

By the time of Aïda’s Masada premiere, Saturday night, I’m sure the kinks will be ironed out and Verdi’s masterpiece will do its magic. Last night, even with the kinks, Aïda was magical.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photos may be used without written permission of the author.