Israel Stories

Monday, December 25, 2006

The Cave

Everyone needs a safe place. Some people have a safe place deep inside their psyche, some people use alcohol or drugs. All men need a cave. I have a basement and Beethoven.

After a particularly harrowing bath-time, I retreated to my cave, made myself comfortable in my big fake leather chair, warmed my hands on a cup of herbal tea, slapped in Ludwig's 8th and closed my eyes. Nothing, not a sound, not a note. I opened the CD draw and closed it again. Nothing. I took the CD out and polished it, nothing. Then I noticed written across the underside of my beloved CD was a scratch like none other. Actually this scratch was a signature, written in year-one handwriting, bearing the name of my eldest daughter. "Oh dear," I said, "but how sweet, she’s so clever," I thought; then remembering I wasn’t her grandparents, went on the warpath.

A good argument in the morning always gets the blood flowing. But my little darling was asleep, so I resolved to discuss the matter over breakfast.

But that wouldn’t bring my CD back, so I decided at the earliest opportunity I would need to shop for a new one.

My first stop was my local music shop in Bet Shemesh. “Do you have a classical music section?” I asked hopefully. “Yes we do, it’s in the corner.” So I went to the corner but there was no classical music, not a Beethoven to be seen. “I thought you said the classics were in the corner.” “They are, classic Carlebach, All Time Great Classics of Hassidic Music, Chaim Moshe Classics.” “Never mind,” I said, and left the shop.

Ok, so Jerusalem was my next stop; bit further afield, and in retrospect should have taken the left fork and gone to Tel Aviv. Life is much easier in retrospect, but getting there is harder (I don’t really know what that means either!).

I remember my favorite Israeli record shop: Piccadilly records. It reminded me of the small record shops in Camden (London). But when I arrived at the shop, to my dismay, it had closed down; "for some time," I was told by a neighbor.

I went home despondent. The next week I had a meeting in Tel Aviv so I looked up record shops in the area and found a small shop very close to Rothschild. I called them and asked if they had a copy of Beethoven’s 8th - they did, and whether it was the Berliner Philharmonic - it was. Wonderful, and was it conducted by Karajan? It was. Jackpot, the exact copy. I asked them to save it for me.

After my meeting I went straight to the shop. I Asked for Moshe and reminded him of our conversation the day before. “Yes, yes, I remember I have your copy right here.” I picked it up, the cover read Andre Previn conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Ok, also very good, but it was Beethoven’s 5th.

“Look,” I said, “I asked you for the 8th and this is the 5th.” So what do you think he said to me? What’s the most Israeli answer you can think of? Well he could have said, "no, no Beethoven never wrote an 8th," or "this is better, buy this one," or, "you asked me for the 5th," or "what’s wrong with the 5th , not good enough for you?"

Well none of the above. What he actually said to me was that although the CD and cover say it’s the 5th it’s really the 8th!

So I asked him to play it and it started with the classic ‘da da da daaaaaaa.’

“That’s definitely the 5th," I said, “do you have the 8th?” He looked at me like I was asking for one of his kidneys. He got out of his chair and brought me a selection of CDs. He dropped them on the counter between us. “These are all I have,” he growled.

So is sorted through them. Apart from Kate Bush, Etnix, Talking Heads and Abba, there were only 3 remaining CDs. The first was Mozart, second was Vivaldi and the third was Beethoven. I checked the cover and the CD, it was the 8th. I couldn’t believe it.

I wanted to be sure it wasn’t scratched; it looked like a second hand copy to me so I asked him to play it and guess what, it started with the classic ‘da da da daaaaaaa.’

“This is the 5th” I complained. “Oh that’s the one, I got confused,” he looked at me and smiled, “I knew one of the Beethovens’s got mixed up. Still what’s wrong with the 5th, don’t you like it? I tell you what, I’ll give you a discount.”

“I just want my safe place,” I murmured. “You want a safe place, I’ll tell you about safe places, my family escaped from Poland in the war, running from hiding place to hiding place, pretending to be Greek refugees, never safe, and we arrived here in Israel with nothing, and now you want to share your safe place with some German!!!!”

“But Beethoven wasn’t in the war,” I feebly answered. “Yes that’s what they all said,” he shouted, “I wasn’t there, didn’t see anything, just following orders, you’re all the same.”

“Don’t you mean 'they’re’ all the same?”

“You listen to them, pay money to buy their works!” Then, a voice from heaven, actually from the back office, shouted, “Moshe Reuveni, will you stop shouting!”

“Reuveni, that doesn’t sound very Polish…” He looked at me and lowered his voice, “it's not it's from Persia, but a good argument in the morning always gets the blood flowing. My wife calls me a cantankerous old man; I say if the birds are allowed a dawn chorus I can always have my midmorning symphony.”

I left the shop thinking about the Iranian music shop owner who had an identity crisis thinking he was a German-hating-Pole disguised as a Greek refugee and accusing me of being a collaborator for listening to a German composer who lived in Vienna.

Everyone needs a safe place.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Bookseller

“So what type of book are you interested in?” I looked at the bookseller, must have been half my age, acne ridden and the air of one who I suspect has never read a book in his life. I turned to my friend.

“Er, preferably made of paper, maybe a cardboard cover.” He stared at us blankly. Was my humour too English for him? “I like old books,” I explained, “I collect old books about Israel or Palestine, you know from the turn of the last century, travel books are the best”. He stared at us blankly. “Don’t worry,” I said sympathetically, “I’ll look for myself.”

The shop was very dusty, badly lit and so disorganized I thought I would need the bookseller after all.

“Can you explain your library system, I don’t seem to be able to find anything, and there is no consistency regarding genre or author.” He stared at us blankly.

So I continued searching among the books. Eco was next to Rushdie. History was mixed with Judaica. Old books sat next to new ones. I was ready to give up when I realized a pattern and asked the bookseller if I was right. Actually that was a lie I just wanted some sport.

“I think I have worked out your system. On this shelf are all the foreign authors divided into countries. Former British colonies are here, unless they are still part of the commonwealth in which case they are here. Of course American authors are not with the former British colonies and have been separated here. Books from the 19th Century and prior to the First World War are here. Post 1918 books are here, unless they are in German in which case they are here with all the foreign literature. Foreign literature is sorted according to international boundaries unless there is a dispute between nations. Poland is more or less in the middles and the other countries surrounding it. Scandinavian books are at the top and you work your way down accordingly.

My friend continued

Books in Turkish and Cypriot are not next to each other as explained. Middle Eastern books are here again according to geographical location, except for Israel which is separated on account of border disagreements. Jewish books in Hebrew are next to foreign languages as are Jewish books in English that may have Hebrew in the title. Books in Russian are with books in Greek and German because they use all those funny looking letters. All books from the former Soviet Union are in one bloc, pardon the pun, unless they are renegade states in which case they are here with the Turkish and Cypriot books.

We were really enjoying ourselves.

“If the authors surname starts with an E or R then they are placed in the medical section. If the ISBN numbers of the book start with 100, 999 or 911 then they placed with books to be read in an emergency. Of course if they are Egyptian Judaica books written by an African, published in the USA and only sold in Gibraltar then they are on the top shelf straddling former British colonies, protectorates and mandates.

I paused for air and saw the booksellers face, I thought he was going to cry but he just stared at us blankly.

We continued to look around. “I cant read,” said the bookseller, “I am dyslexic”. “I’m sorry to hear that I said. “What about the owner, is he dyslexic too?”

“No the owner is not dyslexic.” “So how is it that the shop is so disorganized, doesn’t he tell you what to do, where to book the books?”

“Yes, he does but he is blind! So he tells me and I guess and he doesn’t know so I don’t say anything!”

Astonished is not the word. But this is Jerusalem after all and anything can happen here. My friend was on the floor laughing. I picked him up and walked out of the shop into a cool sobering Jerusalem winter morning.

There is a book by Edward Whittemore called Sinai Tapestry. It explains how the original Christian bible was dictated by a blind man and written by an insane one. I always thought this type of idea only lived in the realm of stories.

I’m not so sure anymore.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Weather

That special feeling of cold icy air rushing through my body heralding the end of autumn only really served to remind me to shut the bedroom window before going to sleep.

Rhetorical question: How cold is it in the mornings? Mental note: Change over summer clothes to winter. Change summer duvets to winter. Decide on minimum temperature before the aircon switches to heating mode.

Kids coughing, their noses streaming endlessly, refuse to get out of bed. Yep, winter has arrived.

I am (was?) English I can take the cold, it’s a part of my culture, they don’t call us blue blooded for nothing (the Royals must really be cold, er, no comment).

And after all the initial panic, bracing ourselves for the change of season depression, the temperature shoots up, has a good laugh at us getting caught out in our winter woolies, and then plunges again. Another rhetorical question, why does it do that, I have a theory.

Sorry, I am rambling, but, in my usual ambiguous style, I am trying to get to the point.

Why do we find the difference between summer and winter so confusing? I know Olim who wear open toed sandals all year round. Despite the intense cold of a mountain evening, there they are prancing up and down Emek Refaim in their thick coats, scarves, and ‘sandalim’. Or the guys who wear T-shirts all through the winter, or at the first sign of rain even if its still 25 degrees will get out their winter apparel.

In the UK it was easy, when it was warm you wore light summer clothes and when it was cold you wore warm winter clothes. Why is it so confusing? What happens during the Aliyah process and even after years of living here that prevents us from understanding the simple formula of clothes = weather / temperature.

The other day, can’t remember which one, I walked through four different weather / temperature zones from wind and rain to hot and humid all in the space of about 15 minutes. By the time I had reached my destination I had removed three layers of clothing and flicked on the aircon.

Then I realized that in a small country where the landscape changes every 2 kilometers, where the political climate changes every 2 hours, where the only certainty is uncertainty, the weather just falls into line.

We have an Israeli culture and the weather just follows suit. Its the ‘I don’t care where you’re from, where you are going and what you’re wearing, I’ll do exactly what I want, when I want and how I want’ attitude.

I can just see it now, the new Ministry of Tourisms slogan:

Israel, Land of the Bible and Weather with Attitude.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Queue

The plane came to a safe stop and the usual round of applause emanated from the seats around me. Way before the safety belt sign had been turned off everybody around me was up on their feet opening the overhead compartments and talking on their mobile phones.

For once none of this annoyed me. In fact it amazed me. You see the people around me were mainly blonde, blue eyed Nordic types and the plane had just landed in Sweden.

So I got to thinking, are we really so different from the outside world. I mean if it’s good for the Swedes it must be good for us. They ignore the basics of in-flight safety, we do as well. They chat incessantly on their mobile phones not able to wait a few seconds longer and so do we.

That hazy naivety soon wore off as I saw the well ordered Scandinavian society obeying the rules of the road, being polite and ever helpful, making that special effort to please and always smiling.

But we have blonde blue eyed Israelis surely a throwback to some time in the distant past when we lived side by side with the Swedes, but history had the upper hand and shattered my illusions because as with every European country and beyond, Sweden burned its Jews.

Still it’s a pretty country, boring, but pretty.

I decided to do some souvenir shopping. After wading through the shops selling hats and scarves, wooden horses and gnomes, I found a beautiful little shop in the old town and waited in line to pay.

Now in this shop there were two lines, one very long and the other much shorter. Standing at the back of the long line I considered moving to the shorter one, but them wondered, why isn’t everyone else moving lines?

I decided to take the bull by the horns and switched lines, much to the disapproval of everyone else in the shop.

Awaiting arrest, I ignored the disgruntled people who regretted not plucking up the courage to move lines, when a woman switched lines and stood behind me.

Again, the sound of murmuring. I turned and smiled at, what turned out to be a typical Nordic beauty, even had her hair braided, not that I was paying that much attention or to the fact that despite the minus 3 temperature she still wore a very revealing top, not that I was paying attention or worried she would suffer from exposure.

She smiled at me, easy tiger, I thought. I wanted to talk to her but remembering the wedding ring, the kids and my happy life, decided to err on the side of caution and smiled politely back, that smile you give to a schnorer who comes collecting when you only have three shekels in your wallet, the sort of I really want to help but cant, smile.

She asked me how long I had been in Stockholm. She had seen my camera and figured me for a tourist. “Just two days”, I answered, “here on business.” “Tell me”, I continued, “what’s the deal with the queues?” “Well”, she smiled, “ in Sweden once your in a line you stay there but I’m a bit of rebel and I have been out the country for a while, been traveling seen new places new cultures, and I am fed up with this institutional behavior.”

“Where have you been?”

You guessed it…………….