Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Building over the past

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

At 3:30 this afternoon four of us packed into a car and drove off to the outskirts of Modi'in, the site of the rapidly expanding new Buchman neighbourhood.

Turning off the main road towards a sign marked "No Entry: Work Vehicles Only", the little car bounced along a dirt road through a building site, eliciting quizzical looks from a few workmen before arriving at a pastoral hillside. The scars of the building work had already gashed one side of the valley, but the slopes ahead of us were still in their natural state. Bright red tapes marking two archaeological sites were easy to make out against the vegetation and stone.

It's a cliche here that everywhere you walk is an archaeological site from some period, but the Modi'in area is especially rich, with continuous human settlement going back at least 6000 years to the Chalcolithic period. We are lucky enough to have the dawn of modern human civilisation in our backyard.

On the ridge above us in the distance, giant drills and diggers were visible, their din breaking the pleasant stillness of the place. They warned of the fate awaiting these hillside archaeological sites, slated to be built over in the next phase of the construction project. This may have been our last chance to see them before they are destroyed.

We tramped up to the first site, a field strewn with primitive flint tools, the kind we learnt about when we did a project on prehistoric man in school. This site was indeed Chalcolithic. The area is scattered with strange shallow dish shapes, gouged right out of the bedrock, flowing into each other to form some kind of complex.. The people who made this vast network didn't even have chisels - the rough marks of their flints are still visible.

The layout of the basins reminded me of a primitive olive press. The eastern Mediterranean is after all the cradle of the olive civilisation, the region where the olive tree was first domesticated.

Above some of the Chalcolithic remains are rough stone structures, dating from the Early Bronze period, a strange network of curved walls rather than a regular shape. In the centre is a circular

structure, perhaps the base of a tower. No one has quite worked out what this is yet, but a chill washed over me standing so close to something so ancient.

A short walk from there is a second excavation of a much more recent settlement from "only" about 2000 years ago. It dates from the Hasmonean period, the dynasty of priestly kings who made Modi'in famous as their home town and the scene of the Hannukah story.

This site is even more impressive, with more easily identifiable stone ruins. Though it is still millennia old it is much more familiar. Here archaeologists found coins, jugs, pottery - everyday objects familiar to modern people.

I was most struck by the mikve, a ritual bath which is at the centre of every religious Jewish community to this day. Unlike those I've seen at other archaeological sites, this one is generously sized with wide, boldly carved steps leading down to a vaulted room, traces of the original plaster still just visible on the walls. Next door is the cistern used to collect rainwater for the bath.

Other than a large fortlike structure above, though, there are no dwellings in the immediate vicinity, save possibly for some cave homes, still under excavation. Why the huge mikve then?

The answer seems to lie in the industrial olive oil press at the heart of the site. The grindstone alone must weigh several tonnes. The thought of carving and transporting such a
massive object without the aid of modern machinery is awe inspiring. The adjacent basin for collecting the oil is equally huge. Our guide noted that it is one of the largest found in the region, even though olive oil production was a major industry in ancient Israel and Judea, and large presses have been uncovered across the country, including several in and around Modi'in.

Modi'in is known to have been on the major ancient highway to Jerusalem. A hill close to my home in Modi'in is covered with over 100 water cisterns and several columbaria (dove cotes) - far more than would have been needed for a single town at that time. It also features a couple of large, though not as impressive, mikve baths. The site appears to have been some kind of pilgrims' rest stop where they prepared and purified themselves for the last leg of their journey, Modi'in being about a day's walk to ancient


The Mishnah, the ancient book of Jewish law, mentions that Modi'in is the first town along the route where pilgrims could buy earthenware for use in Temple rituals as it was close enough to Jerusalem that local potters kept themselves and their vessels in a permanent state of ritual purity.

It is possible that this giant olive oil press was also producing for the Temple, hence the adjacent mikve and bath, so that all those working the press could keep themselves ritually pure. Likewise this would explain stone utensils found at the site - according to Jewish law stone could not contract ritual defilement the way pottery could, and thus was often used for ritual purposes.

Could this site have belonged to the Temple or to Cohanim, priests who worked at the Temple? Could this have belonged to the Hasmonean monarchy, who were themselves priests? It would perhaps explain the fort guarding the site.

It is still early days and there are many questions to be answered. Artifacts from the site are still being dated to determine which part of the Hasmonean era they are from. Already one silver coin has been found from the late Hasmonean period. Other coins need to be cleaned and studied. The archaeological report on the site has yet to be issued.

Time is not on the side of the researchers though. As in many parts of Modi'in the Ministry of Housing and the powerful contractors who greatly influence development policy in Modi'in have brought pressure to bear on the Antiquities Authority, and, like so many other interesting sites in the town, this too is slated for a new housing


Dr Ofra Auerbach, a local conservationist, has seen this story play out too many times. A resident of the neighbouring older town of Makkabim, now annexed to the Modi'in municipality, she has watched the new town of Modi'in swallow up the rocky hillsides on her doorstep.

She has seen countless emergency excavations, required by Israeli law before land can be developed. Several of these digs uncovered fascinating finds, including a Canaanite watchtower and a Hasmonean-era industrial zone and farmhouse, all of which were filled in and built over. Not far from the site she showed us today, one of the most ancient synagogues in the world was discovered, alongside a town square, a luxury villa and a row of alley houses. Only the synagogue and adjacent alley were preserved, and though protected by fencing, they are being rapidly hemmed in by roads and construction work, parts of the site already buried by the widening of a key Modi'in access road.

This time though, Dr Auerbach is determined to put a stop to the eradication of Modi'in's heritage. How can modern Modi'in, named for the ancient Modi'in of the Hasmoneans and the Hannukah story, be so blase about blotting out its own Hasmonean history? With all the parks in this town, surely some of the archaeological sites could be preserved, the town plan slightly altered to make room for historic Modi'in to find a place within the fast growing "city of the future"?

To date, her pleas, and those of fellow conservation campaigners have fallen on indifferent ears. Several members of the town council have taken up her cause and citizens are organising a petition to be sent to city

hall and the Antiquities Authority.

The growth of Modi'in may bring in more money for the contractors, but it also means more concerned citizens, shocked to discover that their homes were built over, rather than alongside, such rich archaeological sites. A savvy municipality could surely develop a thriving tourist industry around these finds which are of particular interest to Jews and Christians around the world.

We don't know if this story will have a happy ending. If once again the influential building lobby wins, at least some of the town's residents will be able to show their children photos and tell them the story of what was once here.

Residents of Modi'in are rooting for Ofra though, and her dream that generations of Modi'in school children will yet learn about olive oil making and the Hannukah story at this very site.

We certainly hope so.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Seam Lines

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Driving home from the Judean desert recently, we stumbled across an English-language oldies station calling itself Mood 92 FM. It didn't sound like any Israeli station we knew of, so we guessed that it was Jordanian. Jordan used to have an English language music station a few years ago. We stayed tuned out of curiosity.

Suddenly and without warning, another station cut in on the frequency. Strident, Arabic martial music blared out, with heavy male voices bellowing a defiant song. My Arabic is extremely rusty, but I could pick out enough words to figure out the gist: "our people", "revolution", and, finally, "Hamas".

We were tuned to a pro-Hamas radio station.

And then, just as suddenly, the mellow tones of Mood 92 returned: "All we are saying is give peace a chance."

We couldn't stop laughing. Half-seriously I looked around for the hidden camera. Surely this was someone's idea of a practical joke?!

We drove through the French Hill junction, with Arab Jerusalem neighbourhoods to one side, Jewish Jerusalem ahead of us, and heavily-guarded bus stops full of Jewish travellers by the side of the road.

Too soon, the Hamas station regained control of the frequency. More martial music, which faded to an enraged orator. I picked up the word "Palestine" over and over again, interspersed with assorted vocabulary words from my old Arabic newspaper reading homework: "homeland", "nation", "army". The speaker worked himself into a frenzy. Then a woman's voice came on, apparently identifying the station by the name Al-Manar - also the name of a TV and radio network run by Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of the organisation's propaganda vehicles against Israel. I wonder if they're connected.

And then it was back to Mood 92. Gloria Gaynor was belting out "I Will Survive". If only it were always this easy to get rid of Hamas.

We were returning home from a day trip to Ein Prat, just east of Jerusalem, a little Garden of Eden hidden away in the Judean desert, a refuge of water and greenery amidst the rocky barrenness of the desert cliffs.

The nature reserve is a narrow valley with a refreshing stream trickling through its floor, fed by springs which gush year round. Lush figs and shady eucalyptus trees grow here and there, seemingly from the middle of the stream. A hiking trail leads up to the rockier end of the wadi, towards the springs themselves. Emerald patches of natural grass - a rarity here - are dotted between sections of the streams.

Pools form between natural rock pavements, and agile fish glide and leap in the water, glinting and gleaming in the mellow gold glow of the afternoon autumn sun. They share their home with tiny black water snails and an occasional river crab, both creatures making their homes by the rocky ledges of the pools.

A gentle breeze stirs the luxurious foliage in the damp canyon bed, rustling the dried grasses on higher ledges, remnants of the fertility brought by last winter's rains. In a small meadow, white stalks of squill flowers wave meditatively, heralds of this year's approaching wet season.

It was Friday, part of the weekend for both Jews and Muslims. Several families, Jewish and Arab, were picnicking separately under the trees by the stream. Teenage Palestinian boys basked in the sun just beyond the glade, while a religious Israeli family found a shady spot right by the water under a huge fig tree.

Suddenly one of their young boys let out an excited cry, pointing to the water's edge: "Scorpion, scorpion! A big one! Here, here!"

It was, of course, a crab, desert scorpions not being especially fond of ponds. And with that settled, peaceful relaxation returned to the reserve.

I found my own personal paradise up by the flat stone slabs at the narrow end of the valley. Above I could watch hyrax, small furry brown mammals, nimbly scrambling over the rocks and grazing in the trees. Ravens soared overhead and small flocks of Tristram's grackles, a common local bird, congregated along the cliff, their characteristic whistles echoing down the canyon as they swooped across it in a flash of orange wings.

Below me a religious Israeli family was enjoying one of the larger, deeper, rock pools, an odd elliptical shape caught between flat sheets of bare stone. The teenage girls climbed in to the water fully clad, trousers under billowing skirts to protect their modesty. The father joined them, leaving his gun on the bank within easy reach.

Above us on yet another ledge an Arab family had laid out a large picnic, and they nestled together on the small promontory, slightly too many of them to fit comfortably onto their scenic, breezy perch.

Some Israeli teenagers clambered over the steeper rocks at the head of the canyon, moving on from there to inspect one of the many caves in the cliff walls.

A young secular Israeli family ambled along the edge of the stream, the mother with her baby strapped to her chest as she negotiated the stepping stones.

In the distance, a black-robed, pony-tailed, Russian Orthodox priest made his way up the path with a bag of groceries, heading towards the steep stone steps where a small, ancient monastery balanced on a high vantage point, a relic of the many hermits who inhabited this region in the early years of Christianity.

On the hiking trail skirting the valley side, a pair of IDF soldiers in dusty combat fatigues and floppy army-issue sun hats patrolled the reserve, regularly pacing up and down the path, protecting the peace of this idyll, keeping watch for any sign of trouble.

For this is also a "seam" between Israeli and Palestinian areas. The Israeli village of Anatot is clustered haphazardly high above the reserve, while further along the road lies the Palestinian village of Hizmeh.

Walking back to the car I paused for a photograph, trying out my new digital camera. I suddenly found a small hand thrust into my face. It belonged to a smiling twelve-year-old girl clad in a red tracksuit, a short dark braid at her neck. "Hello," she greeted me with a thick Arabic accent, keen to shake my hand. Behind her another girl stood shyly looking over her shoulder.

Their eyes were focused on my head, just above my face. Ahhh, the hat. My trusty broad brimmed brown felt tiyul hat. It is a fraction on the cowboyish side. I'm not a John Wayne impersonator, but it does keep the sun off my easily scorched skin.

"Do you speak Arab?" she asked me. I don't know which was worse, my basic college Arabic or their rudimentary schoolroom English. They didn't know Hebrew. Somehow we managed a brief conversation.

They had hoped I was a "real" American. I was sorry to disappoint them.

They giggled and pointed to the stream: "Fishhhhh?" And then something I couldn't make out. "Yes, fish," I replied. "Fishhhh," they responded.

I asked where they were from. One of them pointed in the general direction of Hizmeh, though she might have meant to indicate Jerusalem, hard to tell. Then we shook hands again and bade one another farewell, as they frolicked off to play by the stream with their picnicking family.

Note to self: I must brush up on my Arabic. You never know when it will come in handy.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Music of prayer

Friday, September 24, 2004
Erev Yom Kippur

The holiday prayer book, though devoid of notes, is like a musical archive, each verse conjuring up the tunes which frame it.

We each have our own, deeply ingrained, "home" versions of the High Holiday prayers - arrangements and melodies we heard as children which will forever be our ideal yom tov davening, no matter how far we later roam.

I find there are so many that I can't remember, fragments of melodies for the Yamim Noraim and Shabbat davening which refuse to be recalled, which nag each time I see the familiar text. How did my grandmother sing that? What was my grandfather's nigun? Melodies that I fear may now be gone forever.

The modest, but moving service at our local synagogue in Israel is a far cry from my childhood's elaborate choral services, the prayers there dramatically framed by the cantor's operatic voice and the choir's harmonies.

Ashkenazi services in Israel tend to prefer functionality over passion or pageantry. Few synagogues of any sort retain a traditional chazan, and few congregants have the patience for the drawn-out cantorial melodies. Professional chazanim are a dwindling breed, their craft today reaching more people in the concert hall than in the synagogue. True, some chazanim do drag the service out too much, but so many more bring out the meaning of our prayers with their beautifully tailored melodies.

Even the recent growth of Carlebach-inspired singalong services remains a fringe phenomenon, and their melodies tend towards the modern rather than the traditional styles. At least they infuse the prayers with a depth of feeling often absent in ordinary synagogues. Still, it seems to me a shame to reject the rich musical tradition of the Ashkenazi synagogue in favour of the new and populist. Increasingly, even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur only a few of the most classic old melodies continue to be universally sung.

My mother and her mother, a chazan's daughter, were both blessed with inspiring voices. In the build-up to the Days of Awe our home was filled with melodies for the Yamim Noraim: Old tunes, now long forgotten, which my grandmother learned in her youth in London's East End; Sfardi tunes from her schooling at Bevis Marks Jewish day school; Ashkenazi pieces from her home; and the traditional mainstream nusach of British Jewry. The nigunim of Shlomo Carlebach and Modzitz, Yossele Rosenblatt, Malovany, the Malevsky family and Koussevitzky - all were equally at home.

When my grandfather passed away over twenty years ago my family stopped singing the melodies from his shtetl, Sassov. When my grandmother passed away two years ago, my mother found it hard to sing the chazanut pieces she had adored so much. I can understand them. Last year it was hard to see the words and hear in my head my mother's voice, my grandmother's voice.

This year I find it's different. It's a comfort to think of those words in my grandmother's voice. At home I put on a classic chazanut recording of "her" music and listen to some of her favourite prayers. Somehow, instead of the deep voice of renowned Chazan Zawel Kwartin, I hear my grandmother's beautifully high soprano soaring over the notes in a style half-song, half-wail: "Haneshama lakh, vehaguf po'alakh...", the soul is Yours, and the body is Your creation.

I don't even have a recording of my childhood chazan, Moshe Korn, z"l, who formed my concept of what a chazan should sound like. He had a fantastic voice, rich and powerful, but more importantly, he had soul, and that, more than anything, was what made him an inspiring chazan. Each word, each oy, each trill, came from the heart. Sadly professional recordings were against his contract with the synagogue, so that wonderful voice was never properly captured for future generations.

Yom Kippur is a whole night and day of aural reminders of all that is now gone. In the last two decades of her life my grandmother's arthritis prevented her from walking up the hill to shul. She would spend Yom Kippur in prayer at home and we would take it in turns to join her, so that she wouldn't spend the day alone. I was often there for the end of Mussaf, Minha or sometimes Neila and she would go through the prayers aloud, singing in the mournful, plaintive voice she reserved for the Days of Awe. The amount of soul she packed into that prayer must surely have burst open the gates of heaven.

During her final few years she ended up spending a lot of time in hospitals. Gradually losing her sight, unable to read or watch TV, she would sing, and all the nurses would come running to find out where the incredible music in a strange language was coming from. They would stand in shock and awe at the door to the room, stunned at this frail little old lady who in her 90s could still melt hearts with her passionate song.

The week before she passed away, I was visiting her in hospital, more accurately singing at her bedside. My DH had just phoned to say that he'd been accepted to our local chazanut choir. As I told her the news, her withered, wan face lit up, glowing with pride. Finally, another man in the family to continue the tradition.

Once again my DH has been asked to be one of the chazanim for Yom Kippur in our neighbourhood synagogue. This time he will lead the morning prayers, and he has been busy practicing a selection of nigunim, inspired by his own very different synagogue heritage, but also by that of his sojourn with mine.

May we all merit this Yom Kippur to be stirred to a complete and sincere teshuva.

Gmar hatima tova and shana tova,

Monday, August 30, 2004

Horse Route

Sunday, August 29, 2004

The more I see of Israel, the more I discover the surprises hidden away in this tiny country. I had no idea what was in store last Friday when my friend invited us to visit her new place of work.

Driving into the village outside Netanya, the scenery reminded me of a typical Nahum Guttman painting: fields of ruddy terra rossa soil, citrus groves and shady eucalyptus-lined lanes with pastel stucco houses nestling under terracotta tiled roofs. There are hundreds of places like it all over central Israel.

Arriving at our destination the scene was more John Constable than Guttman. Though flanked in typical Israeli fashion by fuchsia bougainvillea, the barred metal gate bore a green English language sign: "Horse Route".

Beyond it a short path led to an immaculate paved farmyard. A small brown Welsh pony leant inquisitively over the half-door of his loosebox. Bales of hay were stacked nearby. A pair of towering majestic horses were being led away from the spacious paddock by efficient stable girls wearing jodhpurs and knee-high riding boots, their hair neatly tied into plaits and buns.

We entered the very English-looking stables, complete with a welcome sign adorned with horseshoes. Three large farm cats lounged in the shade of its eaved roof and a shaggy muppet-like guard dog ambled out to greet us.

Indoors, a neat tack room was well stocked with black velvet riding helmets and English saddles. Spacious stalls housed the sort of impressive horses you see on the professional European show jumping and dressage circuit - evocative breeds such as Westphalian, Holstein, Wurrtemberg and Trakehner.

If you shut your eyes to the adjacent orange orchard, you could have been in England.

Only instead of being called Charlotte or Imogen, the stable girls had names like Anat and Noa, and their language was biblical, not Shakespearean.

A pair of wild mongooses had taken up residence in the straw barn. Good for keeping snakes at bay, as anyone familiar with Rudyard Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi knows.

In general, the scene reminded me of Kipling. Surely the British imperial India that he knew must have been something like this, incongruous slices of England implanted in an oriental land, native creatures intruding on the semblance of Britishness. The English romantic poet Rupert Brooke came to mind with his visions of English rural idylls. I felt as though I'd happened upon a remnant of the British mandate.

As a child I had devoured books about such places, so exotic to me in their goyish country Englishness. Places where girls named Jill and Kate competed at the village pony club, treating their mounts to Polo mints from the village shop, while their parents went along to the local foxhunt.

I never imagined that my first visit to a prim and proper rural English riding school would be around the corner from Netanya.

My mind spun with a flood of pent-up horsy knowledge, untapped for years - obscure vocabulary, breed details, correct saddle posture - never mind that I've never had a riding lesson in my life.

I chatted in a Hebrew peppered with foreign jargon to the very English-looking - yet Israeli - proprietor. Her mission is to promote the discipline and elegance of English riding, in particular that most refined of equestrian arts, dressage. Akin to ballet on horseback, this dignified sport requires a perfect fusion of horse and rider to achieve the appearance of effortless coordination.

Israel, I learnt, has a small but devoted dressage community, competing in events in Israel and abroad. We even had an entrant in this year's Olympics, though injury to his horse prevented him from competing. While Israel is nowhere near western European standards, we have won tournaments within our regional group, which includes Cyprus, Egypt and Turkey.

I was taken aback to discover that dressage even exists here. Its formal style, with horses with plaited manes and competitors clad in smart tailored jackets, trim breeches and sleek boots, seems utterly at odds with the regional culture.

I knew there was a thriving Western riding scene in Israel, and even rodeos. The small beef cattle industry supports a modest group of professional Israeli cowboys, which has inspired a growing culture of recreational Western horsemanship. This easygoing style, with its macho overtones, gung-ho vocal commands, casual riding attire, and big, comfortable saddles seems to better suit the rough and ready Israeli character.

There is apparently little love lost between advocates of the English and Western schools in Israel. The stable's proprietor bemoaned the pervasiveness of the Western style here, how uncouth it was, how unaesthetic. She ran her stables as an example of how she thought things ought to be.

As Herzl said, "If you will it, it is no dream".

And as Rupert Brooke wrote, "There is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England."

Shavua tov.

Sunday, June 27, 2004

Farewell Naomi Shemer

Motzaei Shabbat, June 26, 2004

Israel is mourning the passing of its most loved songwriter, Naomi Shemer. The author of anthems such as "Jerusalem of Gold", "Tomorrow", "Lu Yehi" and "Al Kol Eleh", she seemed a legendary figure, the unofficial chronicler of a nation's moods, fears and hopes.

Her music, her words have accompanied me my entire life, from the children's songs my mother taught me, to the patriotic and memorial songs I sang in my school choir, to the jaunty hit playing on the radio when my future husband first talked about marriage.

On hearing the news of her death, her songs flooded my mind. Over twenty years ago, "Emtza HaTammuz" foresaw her own death:

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
Just when the peaches are plentiful
When all the fruit is laughing in its basket
And upon your summer and your harvest, hoorays have fallen.

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz
But in the middle of Tammuz I shall die
Towards the orphaned fruit-gardens
Hooray after hooray will surely fall
And upon your summer - and your harvest - and upon all -

It's sad to die in the middle of Tammuz.

(excerpted from Naomi Shemer, "Emtza HaTammuz", 1979 - my free translation)

Just as she predicted, Naomi Shemer died this morning, on the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, just as the orchards and markets are overflowing with the juiciest summer produce - peaches, plums and nectarines smiling invitingly from their baskets.

For me the bittersweet heartbreak in that song typifies Shemer. Throughout her work, her passion for life, her desire to grab it with both hands, is clearly apparent. Yet throughout, she seemed unafraid of death, even her own death, only rueful that she would miss life.

She wrote the most optimistic, uplifting, sad songs I know of. Even her most mournful lyrics usually contain a kernel of hope, of consolation, of continuation, even after the worst tragedy of all.

Looking back it is striking how many of her most well known songs touch on her own mortality. In the early days of her career, back in the 1950s, she had a hit with the semi-autobiographical song "Noa":

Noa was born in a field between stones and grass
Noa washed her face in the dew
And plucked a daisy from the field...

Noa wandered far from the grass, from the stones
The dew wiped away from her curls
A hundred daisies watched after her....

Noa is there in the field between stones and grass
The dew sings her a final song
And the daisies of the field with their beautiful petals
Weep for her...

(excerpted from Naomi Shemer "Noa", 1958 - my rough translation)

To me it seemed that she was simply someone who was comfortable with the natural cycle of the world. Just as she was inspired by the landscape and by nature, so she could accept that each life had its end, part of that simple, eternal way of the world, and this is where her optimism came from.

Perhaps encapsulating her view of life and her understanding of her legacy, is "To sing is like to be the Jordan":

To sing
Is like to be the Jordan:
You start up top in the north
Young, chilled, bubbling and cheeky
You hear birds in the thickets
And each one of them is
A bird of paradise
To sing
Is like to be the Jordan

Your days
Rush like the Jordan
Like it you flow south
On the banks wild grasses grow
But onwards-onwards-onwards
Flow your waters
For your days
Rush like the Jordan

Your end is
To perish like the Jordan
To be gathered slowly into the Dead Sea
In the lowest place on earth
At the peaks of the snowy mountains
In a jubilant tumult
After you
Your songs are trickling on
To sing is like to be the Jordan

(Naomi Shemer "Lashir Zeh Kmo Lihiyot Yarden", 1972 - my free translation)

Shemer was born and grew up in Kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. From the kibbutz you look over the lake and see the towering Golan Heights and snow capped Mount Hermon, and nearby the River Jordan flows south from the lake, down through the Jordan Rift Valley. The region features in many of her songs, most famously in 1963's "The Eucalyptus Grove".

It was a landscape she felt at one with, one which shaped her love of the Land of Israel, her closeness to nature, but also her view of the world, her feeling that life was stronger than everything, that just as the seasons constantly renewed, so even after we are gone, our legacy, our mark on the world, will continually renew itself and feed new life.

This closeness to the natural cycles of the Land of Israel, coupled with her deep knowledge of the bible, its text also steeped in natural imagery, is part of what made her work so Israeli, so uniquely part of this country and so closely tied both to ancient Israel and to the modern state.

In part this is why she touched such a chord among Israelis, becoming our unofficial "national songwriter". In her prolific career she wrote just about every type of song: bright nonsense songs for army entertainment troupes and musicals, simple children's songs, patriotic epics, translations of French chansons and Yiddish ballads and acres of whimsical love songs. But the lyrics which most touched the nation were usually these bittersweet, optimistic songs about living in this often unpredictable part of the world.

The refrain of "Emtza Tammuz", "And upon your summer and your harvest, hoorays have fallen", comes from Isaiah 16. Yet it blends seamlessly with the modern Hebrew imagery, just as she herself, a secular Tel Avivian from a kibbutz, was nevertheless equally at home with the bible and the teachings of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav or Reb Menahem-Mendl of Kotsk.

For me her crowning glory was the way in which she used Hebrew language. The most able poetic translator, let alone my poor attempts, cannot do justice in trying to convey her work to the English reader. A member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, she was one of our nation's most capable wordsmiths, her words strong enough, deep enough, to stand as poetry in their own right, even devoid of the beautifully stirring melodies she composed for them.

I saw her live in concert many times. As a child my mother took me to several of her one woman performances. Just Shemer and her piano looked very small on a huge stage, yet filled the entire auditorium with the most vibrant energy.

A few years ago, despite her ill health, she went on tour again, accompanied by three other performers. This time she was clearly weaker, remaining seated, letting her companions sing many of the numbers. Yet still, when she spoke, when she sang, you felt invigorated by her bright enthusiasm, her passion for life, her frank straightforwardness, that humorous twinkle with which she faced illness and death.

I cannot but help thinking of her with joy, of her tremendous joie de vivre, someone who knew how to live. In 1988 the State of Israel celebrated its fortieth anniversary, but the first intifada was at its height. A mood of national depression cast a damper over the festivities. Shemer responded with the following song:

My celebration went out
To perform in the streets
At high-noon

They caught her,
The guards who wander the town.
Why do you dance
And why does your voice rejoice?

Better that you should sing protest songs
That's what goes these days
That's what goes

My celebration replied -
I will dance and sing
Until my soul departs
Because my joy
Is my protest
And that
Is the real

(Excerpted from Naomi Shemer, "Al Rosh Simhati", 1988, my free translation)

May her memory be blessed.

Have a good week.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Swimming with the fish

Sunday, June 6, 2004

Yes, we still exist! We've had a rather hectic few months, between work and moving to a new apartment, but thank God, things are working out. We may be exhausted but for the most part it's a positive kind of exhaustion.

Good thing my darling husband's company has renewed their annual weekend in Eilat for employees and their families. A whole weekend, all-inclusive, zero responsibilities, all we had to do was enjoy. We didn't even get in one of our usual hikes or drives off the beaten path. For once we just did the seaside holiday thing. Even my birdwatching was done from a beachchair. I can't remember the last time I had three days of total relaxation like this in a row.

The drive down to Eilat is part of the vacation. The highways this time of year are lined with meadows of cheery ripe sunflowers. Every so often we passed labourers harvesting fields of watermelons, or peach and nectarine orchards bursting with fruit.

As we proceeded south the landscape changed, the roads now bordered by grain fields, some still waving golden ears of wheat, others reduced to stubble after reaping.

Only an hour and ten minutes into the drive we were already passing Be'er Sheva, the "capital of the south", a city perched between scattered fields, sparse woods and barren desert.

Once you've hit the desert, you know that you've finally really reached the south.

That desert just stretches on and on and on through grim looking badlands and acacia dotted wadis, red craters and breezy highlands. Eilat is still nearly three desert hours south of Be'er Sheva. The more you plough on through the ever changing desert the more you start to think of Be'er Sheva as "north". For Eilatis, it certainly is.

Arriving in Eilat after driving half the length of the country - a gruelling four hours - we treated ourselves to an elegant dinner out at a beautiful Thai restaurant we've been meaning to try for years. It's down on Eilat's south beach (yes, south again!), away from the gaudy glitz of the north beach where we were staying. The restaurant belongs to a Thai-themed hotel built entirely of exquisitely carved wooden lodges imported from Thailand. We sat on the veranda of an imposing pagoda, overlooking the bay.

The food was delicious, but the full moon stole the show as it rose above the Edom Mountains in neighbouring Jordan, its silvery light reflected in the glittering waters of the Red Sea. Below us the wind ruffled the palm trees and the air was filled with the soothing lapping of the waves on the nearby beach. Who said kosher restaurants can't have it all?

The weather was as cooperative as the moon, warm and windy during the day with cool breezes at night. Pretty good going for June.

It was so cooperative in fact that for the first time in years I actually felt like hanging out at the beach on a summer's day. I can't remember the last time I actually waded in deep enough to practice my butterfly stroke. The water was cool and so crystal clear I could watch schools of small fish swim alongside me. I'm pretty sure I've never swum with the fishes before.

Unlike previous years in Eilat, this time I noticed how quiet everything seemed. Our late Friday night walk along the canal and seafront was almost serene, with barely a trace of the raucous party scene which three or four years ago made Eilat's north beach a rather uncomfortable weekend destination for religious folks like us. Most of the other people out for a stroll were families with kids or young couples. Was it the collapse of foreign tourism, or stricter enforcement of municipal noise regulations? Maybe the more adventurous types were out on party boats on the bay?

Our own little cruise that morning was pretty sedate, just down the coast to view the coral reefs from a glass bottomed boat. We saw some spectacular fire corals, but much of the reef looked as though it had seen better days. Whether it's due to the tourist boats or the fish farming up the coast I don't know, but there it is.

The fish however did not disappoint. I think all the exotic stars of Eilat tourist brochures were there: schools of zebra fish, lion fish needlefish, sea cucumbers, purple fish, green fish, one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish (apologies to Dr. Suess). It's kind of like birdwatching, but under water.

All too soon we had to return home, back to the usual routine. Still, my hair smells of salt, and my sandals are full of, well, sand, and there are seawater-soggy clothes drying on my balcony. I'm not usually a seaside person, but somehow I think we'll be planning a few Friday mornings at the beach this summer for a change.

Have a good week.