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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.

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 (more…)

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.


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.



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.

Ismail Kadare: In Search of Human Liberty

February 8, 2015

The 27th Jerusalem International Book Fair kicked off today with a press conference with writer Ismail Kadare. The Albanian novelist and poet is to receive a prize awarded annually to authors whose work emphasizes freedom of the individual in society. Previous recipients have included Arthur Miller and Ian McEwan. Kadare now lives in France.

I have wanted to read his novels ever since I learned about him while researching a travel article on Albania in 2011. My desire to read him was heightened after driving over an excruciatingly potholed road to visit Gjirokaster, the hometown of the author and also of Enver Hoxha, the longtime Communist dictator of Albania. Despite my best intentions, however, that hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think it happened to most of my colleagues at the press conference. None of us came up with a question that didn’t seem to bore or annoy the acclaimed author.

Perhaps to show off that I knew what Gjirokaster looks like, I asked whether the author saw any resemblance between Jerusalem, in which all the buildings are faced with stone, and his hometown, which hangs on the face of a craggy mountain and which he compares in one of his novels to a prehistoric creature with a stone carapace “clawing its way up the mountainside.”

“There is a resemblance,” he responded in French, which was rendered in English by an interpreter, “but it is a misleading one. They’re both stone, but that’s all. My hometown has given nothing to humanity except for literature. Jerusalem has symbolic importance.”

In response to the inevitable question as to whether Jews and Albanians have anything in common, Kadare responded that they both live with the threat of extinction, although one cannot really compare the fate of the two.

“I don’t think there is any country that has banned the writing of a language,” Kadare said. For the four centuries that Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire, writing in that language was forbidden. The language “was at risk of extinction” and thus the people feared that they, too, might disappear, he said.

Israeli writer, translator, and activist Ilana Hammerman, who has been awarded the 2015 Yeshayahu Leibowitz Prize for activism against the occupation, asked Kadare whether he was aware of the 300,000 people “living here [in Jerusalem] who do not have human rights.”

Clearly irked, Kadare responded, “I didn’t come here for this. I came here to receive a literary prize, not to deal with local problems.”

And what about a definition of freedom, which is a theme in his novels (and a reason for his being awarded the prize)? “I don’t think this is the place to discuss a topic that is so sublime, so complicated,” he said. Then he added, “In art, literature, philosophy you can talk about liberty, but humanity hasn’t arrived there yet.”

This year’s book fair differs from its predecessors both in its new venue—the First Station, one of the city’s newest entertainment areas—and its expanded program. According to Yael Sheffer, the fair’s artistic director, the five-day event is geared to young adults and young families. There will be cooking classes in the mornings, activities for children in the afternoons, and a full program for adults, including erotica and poetry, in the evenings.

And as for Kadare, who appeared relieved to be liberated from the press conference, I thought of D.H. Lawrence’s caveat to trust the tale, not the teller. More than ever, I wanted to read Kadare’s novels and erase the disappointment with this unfortunate meeting.

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

Around and Around and Around We Go

December 4, 2014

Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon:

Hora, Batsheva Dance Company, 2009. Choreography: Ohad Naharin, courtesy of the artist. Image by Gadi Dagon.

Culture is a circle of art forms, each one part of the whole that defines us and makes us human. That is one reason the art of dance need be no stranger in a museum devoted to material culture.
And that is why Israel Museum director James Snyder introduced a new exhibition there, Out of the Circle: The Art of Dance in Israel, as “the intersection of dance and all the mediums that record dance: photography, documentary films, and graphic arts.”
Suddenly the circle, the most simple and perfect of forms, was bursting with meaning. Think of the hora, that basic folk dance, brought to Palestine from the Balkans. The Jewish pioneers—who had come to create a new Jew, physically strong and connected to the land—followed their days of hard labor with ecstatic circle dances. The circle was a great equalizer that drew the pioneers together and laid the foundations for the culture of the kibbutz, according to Talia Amar, the exhibition’s curator.
In the agricultural settlements, between the two world wars, dances were combined with rituals, shifting holiday observance from the synagogue to agricultural celebrations in the fields. This was actually the completion of a historical circle, for the Jewish holidays were originally agricultural festivals. Photographs of the kibbutz celebrations typically are shot from near the ground looking up, giving the dancers’ bodies mythic proportions.
Meanwhile, expressionist dance, which was popular in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, caught on in Palestine, where it flourished and continued to develop long after it had waned in Europe. And Central European photographers who had come to Palestine, like Alfons Himmelreich, made this dance form their subject.
Some of these dancers sought local roots, which they found in biblical themes. And some turned to their own roots, like Sara Levi-Tanai, who drew on her Yemenite background. Levi-Tanai was the founder, choreographer, and artistic director of the Inbal Dance Theater—which Amar described as not a “folklore group” but rather “an art dance group” whose every movement had symbolic meaning.
As staged dance developed in Israel, the Batsheva Dance Company was founded by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and Martha Graham (and celebrated its 50th anniversary this year). The Suzanne Dellal Center for Dance and Theater, in Tel Aviv, whose director, Yair Vardi, initiated the Israel Museum exhibition, just celebrated its 25th anniversary.
The circle as a social ideal did not last, and the show’s title reflects that change. Works over the past few decades have shown the shift from the ideal of the collective to individualism; again and again, individuals try to break out of the circle, at great cost. The exhibition opens with a video of Ohad Naharin’s Anaphasa, danced to the Passover song “Ehad Mi Yodea” (Who knows one?), in which the individual who steps out of line keeps falling down.
In Peh Gadol (big mouth), by and with Niv Sheinfeld, Oren Laor, and Keren Levi, a woman dressed in the colors of the Israeli flag keeps falling out of step with the other two dancers, in a work that explores the tension between trying to remain part of the collective and exploring one’s individual identity.
Amar explained that the show “is not a historical exhibition encompassing the entire history of dance in Israel” but that it includes several major figures in that history.
Earphones synchronized with the main videos enable visitors to hear the music without disturbing others. Many of the other exhibits, however, contribute to a relatively high noise level in the hall.
Starting on December 23 and for the next ten weeks, dance performances showcasing contemporary Israeli choreographers will take place in the exhibition space and throughout the museum.
The exhibition runs through February 28, 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.

Where good health is next to godliness

June 22, 2014

Faith and healing have been intertwined throughout Jerusalem’s history. Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis—a new, thematic exhibition at the Tower of David Museum, inside the Old City walls—reveals some of the sublime and grotesque examples of that link in the Holy City.

Take, for example, the caduceus, two intertwined snakes on a stick, that has come to symbolize healing and the medical profession. Westerners usually think of the symbol as Greek, but it actually dates back to third millennium BCE Mesopotamia, according to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and the serpent as a life-healing symbol was commonly found in the Canaanite fertility cult.

In the exhibition we learn about the Nehushtan, a sacred object in the form of a bronze snake on a pole. The name of the object is a play on the Hebrew words for snake (nahash) and bronze (nehoshet). The Hebrew Bible tells us that the Israelites, after leaving Egypt, were afflicted by a plague of serpents because of their lack of faith, and it describes how Moses used a “fiery serpent”—a snake on a pole—to cure them (Numbers 21:4–9).

Later, the Nehushtan was set up in the Temple in Jerusalem. But when it became an object of worship in its own right for its purported ability to cure sickness, King Hezekiah—the anti-idolatry reformer—tore it down (II Kings 18:4).

According to Eilat Lieber, the museum’s director, Jerusalem’s historical connection to healing is largely a function of its being a city of pilgrimage. Medical services had to be provided for the faithful who flocked to the holy sites. And this city, where there has long been strife between the religions, was the only place, Lieber said, where each hospital provided services for members of all religions.

But hospitals in Jerusalem were also used for missionary purposes. On display is a podium that stood in front of the Anglican Hospital in the city center. To attract Jewish patients, the podium is adorned with a Star of David, and the hospital made it known that it served kosher food to patients. But the rabbis threatened the hospital’s suppliers of kosher meat and forbade Jews to seek treatment in Christian hospitals.

According to Lieber, a story is told of a Jewish woman in the nineteenth century who fell in the street just outside the missionary hospital next to Christ Church and was brought inside for treatment. She subsequently died there, and after she was brought to Jewish burial her body was exhumed by extremists who claimed that she might have converted to Christianity in the hospital.

Jerusalem is home to a thriving pharmaceutical company, Teva, which began as a small business started by the Salomon family. All pharmaceutical developments in the city were based on plants growing in this hilly area, Lieber said, and the Franciscan order of monks had the city’s first pharmacy. In the eighteenth century, when the city was beset by bubonic plague, a Franciscan monk named Antonio Menzani di Cuna concocted a remedy from forty-two Jerusalem herbs that was dubbed “Jerusalem balsam.” The list of ingredients and jars like those seen in an early photograph of the pharmacy are on display. A version of the remedy is still produced ( and marketed as a cure-all.

When, in 1860, Moses Montefiore built Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first neighborhood outside the Old City walls, no one wanted to move there, according to exhibition curator Nirit Shalev-Khalifa. It took the cholera epidemic of 1865 to spur interest in the new neighborhood.

But epidemics continued to beset the city. At the time, there was a Jewish belief that a “black wedding” could help. Two orphans, or two other individuals who could not afford a wedding, would be married under a black canopy in a cemetery, with the hope that the righteous dead interred around them would act as intercessors with God. On display is a reproduction of a 1909 photograph showing such a wedding of two Yemenite orphans, and the young groom appears so terrified that he has started running away.

The real answer to epidemics, of course, came in the form of modern hospitals. By the middle of the nineteenth century Jerusalem had three Jewish hospitals: Bikur Cholim, Misgav Ladach, and Meir Rothschild. Shaare Zedek opened in 1902; Dr. Moshe Wallach, who was strictly Orthodox, was its director until 1947 and lived there all his life, speaking only Yiddish or German. Records were kept in German, and on display is a page from a ledger during a typhoid outbreak showing, in neat German script, that twenty-five of the twenty-seven patients listed had a diagnosis of typhoid.

To this day, the hospital is run according to stringent Orthodox law and custom, though it is open to all Jerusalem residents (I gave birth to three children there), and although Wallach adopted a young Syrian girl who was abandoned there by her father.

According to Lieber, a story is told about a sick man who was brought in a carriage to Dr. Wallach on the Sabbath. After asking the man what was wrong, Wallach told him to wait until the Sabbath was over. The man died. Consequently, the rabbis excommunicated Wallach, then rescinded the excommunication. The true import of the incident was that it forced Jerusalem’s rabbis to clarify what was permissible on the Sabbath to save a life.

In 1888, the Rothschild Hospital relocated to what is today the center of modern Jerusalem, and in 1918 the Hadassah organization established the American Zionist Medical Unit, which took over the hospital. In 1925, when the hospital’s founder, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, made his last visit to Jerusalem at the age of eighty, the staff presented him with an album showing all the departments in the hospital. On the cover is an image of Henrietta Szold, the founder of the Hadassah organization.

One photograph in the album is of the hospital’s X-ray room, with a plaque stating it was dedicated to the memory of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, known as the father of modern Hebrew, who died of tuberculosis. X-rays were used to diagnose this illness, which was common at the time. In addition to the album, which is on loan from the Rothschild Archives in England, the exhibition includes an X-ray machine—with a US Field Army label on it—similar to the one used in Hadassah. As is evident from the photograph, the dangers of exposure to X-rays were not yet well known, and neither patients nor staff were protected against them. Today Hadassah is a medical empire with two large hospitals and schools of medicine, nursing, and dentistry.

Some 300 objects, many of which have never been shown to the public, are on display in this, the largest exhibition the museum has ever undertaken. The exhibition and related tours will run through April 2015.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.





Dying for Love and Beauty: La Traviata at Masada

June 13, 2014

The moon shone brightly as more than 7,500 people came Wednesday night to Masada, on the shores of the Dead Sea, for the dress rehearsal of Verdi’s La Traviata. For the moment, the desert had disappeared, and they found themselves in a reception area that evoked a Parisian street—complete with a boulangerie, brasserie, and charcuterie and arches suggesting the Arc de Triomphe. That was part of the magic of the Opera Festival at Masada, now in its fifth year. Only after tasting the delights of this transported milieu did the audience enter the glittering and colorful, but ultimately tragic, world of the demi-monde.

The opera’s heroine, Violetta Valéry, is young, vital, and beautiful, with an unusual capacity for self-sacrifice. But she is La Traviata (the fallen one), a kept woman. Hers was a position characteristic of mid 19th century France. And Violetta has consumption, another characteristic ill of the 19th century, especially of 19th-century heroines. To make everything worse, after she has given up her life of luxury to be with Alfredo, the man she loves, his father arrives to break up the relationship. After many complications, without which no opera could get by, and just as true love is about to triumph, Violetta dies.
There was a real-life Violetta named Marie Duplessis, who by the age of 17 was one of the most sought-after women in Paris. She also hosted a salon, where artists, writers, and politicians gathered. In 1844 an affair began between Duplessis and Alexandre Dumas fils, the poor and illegitimate son of the writer Alexandre Dumas. Realizing after a year that he could never have her all to himself, he ended the affair. She died of consumption two years later, at 23.
A few months after her death, Dumas fils wrote a novel based on their affair, La Dame aux Camelias, and after its success he turned it into a play. That became the inspiration for Verdi’s opera.
The role of Violetta, as sung by Aurelia Florian, is one of sheer beauty and memorable arias, for example, Ah, fors’è lui (Ah, perhaps he is the one). But opera is spectacle, and besides the many haunting arias and duets there were festive party scenes with the Israeli Opera Chorus and the Kielce Dance Theater in lavish, LED-lit costumes designed by Joanna Medynska. In one party scene the women wore skirts that consisted of colorful streamers hanging from the hip on a hoop.
And, of course, there were fireworks, and fire, and horses, and wagons, and acrobats on stilts—all the things that make opera fun for the masses. Looming behind the sparkling stage, like a harbinger of Violetta’s death, was the mountain itself, with its 2,000-year-old fortress and palace.
Daniel Oren, who has conducted all the opera productions at Masada, each time with the Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion, had this to say about the experience: “Year after year I stand in awe in front of this powerful and majestic mountain and sense in my very being the pure harmony between nature and music in a country like Israel which is full of traditions yet in which the opera tradition is still young.”
La Traviata was the first opera ever presented in pre-state Israel. That was in July 1923, in Tel Aviv. It was first performed by the Tel Aviv-based Israeli Opera in May 1987.
This was the fourth time in five years that the Israeli Opera Festival returned to Masada. Previously, the festival featured Nabucco, Aïda, and Carmen, drawing tens of thousands of spectators from Israel and abroad. These expensive productions involve trucking in many tons of equipment over winding roads, in essence setting up an entire “city” for backstage workers, extras, and the performers themselves, plus the themed reception area—all of which must be dismantled and rebuilt anew.
This year’s festival will extend to Acco, in the north of the country, with an all-Mozart program, including Don Giovanni, Requiem, and an abbreviated version in Hebrew (for the entire family) of The Magic Flute.

Text copyright 2014 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author. The image is by Yossi Zwecker, copyright 2014 by the Israeli Opera.