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Thursday, 20 November 2014

‘Who by Sword and Who by Beast’?

There are days when even the best wordsmiths are reluctant to write.

“Really”, confessed David Horovitz soon after the slaughter at the Bnai Torah Yeshiva Synagogue in  Har Nof, Jerusalem, “the last thing any of us wants to do on a day like this is write. All we want to do is grieve  …. We want to mourn for the families, the worlds torn apart”.

Zidan.SaifBut the editor of a large, international news site like The Times of Israel could not indulge  his  dysgraphia for long and went on to craft 863 words of quietly agonised thought that were still being read  by scores of people 24 hours later, even as his colleagues described the funeral of Druze traffic policeman, Zidan Saif  and the throngs of ultra-Orthodox mourners who travelled to the northern town of Yanuh-Jat to pay him homage.

The ceremony was also attended by Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin. He believes, contrary to other public figures, that the current violence marks the start of a third intifada (Arab uprising) with a religious dimension. However, he insisted during a television interview:

“We have no dispute with Islam, we did not have, we will not have, and today, too, we don’t have … We need to make it clear to everyone”.

Meanwhile, the death of Saif, an engaging son, husband, father and now national hero will indisputably strengthen the existing bonds of friendship between Israel’s Jewish and Druze communities.

No wonder Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telephoned Saif’s father, Sheikh Nuhad Seif, saying: "Your son's brave action prevented many casualties. On behalf of the citizens of Israel, I would like to express condolences over his falling in the line of duty”. 

He then wrote separately to the dead man’s wife, Rinal, telling her that she and Zidan had “established a splendid Israeli family … go forward, develop and always contribute to society and the state”.

But what a shame that there are already divisions as how best to prevent something similar happening again. Even – and especially – the state’s two chief rabbis are arguing as to whether security should be enhanced at synagogues.

Ashkenazi Chief  Rabbi, David Lau said: “We cannot allow for the spectacle we see overseas -- armed guards in every synagogue -- to happen here, in our country”.

But his Sephardi counterpart, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef argued: "Until such time as the situation changes, we cannot pray in synagogues that do not have guards”.

Rarely do I agree with opinions emanating from any Orthodox source. But I also suggest that all Israeli synagogues, no matter their location or size, should have some form of security. Less wealthy communities could organise volunteer rotas, where congregants take turns to man a locked door to ensure no unwanted intruders enter during services. It’s a precaution most people would surely view as plain common-sense.

That aside, the way and the speed with which the tightly-knit, inordinately strict community began to recover from the massacre, says as much about local culture as it does of  those who form the community.

In the same time-frame that I mentioned above,  the synagogue building must have been cleansed, because people  soon returned there to pray and study while a young couple used it to celebrate the brit mila – Jewish circumcision – of their infant son. It was vital, they said,  that the boy’s covenant with Jewish tradition be bound as soon as possible.

How different from the U.K., where too many untimely deaths are mourned with drifting, decaying piles of  bouquets, cuddly toys and in the recent case of Jewish-born actress Lynda Bellingham – a church funeral with a fireworks finale!

I’ve often observed that events happen very fast in Israel and most  do not last for long. Wars are usually brief and so  this past summer’s 50-day IDF campaign, Operation Protective Edge seemed to last forever.

But what never goes away is the endless round of arguments, counter-claims and the sympathy that too many in the outside world have for mindless terrorism. I am sure they will laugh like drains at this animated clip - Hamas’s new hit song in Hebrew - Zionist, You Are About To Be Killed by a Car – a jolly homage to the men who have killed and maimed one baby and several adults in what is currently described as ‘the car intifada’.


But I’m not supposed to be bitter. Better that I imitate the attitude of the  widows and families of those butchered at the Kehillat Bnai Torah Yeshiva in  Har Nof.

They won’t use their computers again until the conclusion of this Sabbath day, but they have asked that it be “dedicated to 'ahavat chinam' – ‘love for no good reason’.

So I conclude with their letter of ‘love’- and another video clip. This  features the Manchester-born Portnoy Brothers, Sruli and Mendy, now in Jerusalem, singing Learn to Love the Ones Who Love You Less.

A very difficult lesson indeed.


“With broken hearts, drenched in tears shed over the spilt blood of holy men – the heads of our families.

“We call on our brethren wherever they are – let us come together so that we may merit mercy from Heaven, and let’s accept upon ourselves to increase love and comradery, between each individual and each community.

“We ask that every person accept upon himself …. to set aside the day of Shabbat as a day of unconditional love, a day during which we will refrain from words of disagreement and division, from words of gossip and slander.

“May this serve to elevate the souls of our husbands and fathers who were slaughtered while sanctifying God’s name.

“God will look down from the heavens, see our suffering, wipe away our tears and put an end to our tribulations.

“May we merit seeing the coming of our Messiah speedily in our days. Amen.

“Signed with a torn heart.

Mrs Chaya Levin and family
Mrs Bryna Goldberg and family
Mrs Yaacova Kupensky and family
Mrs Bashy Twersky and family”

*(The title of this post is drawn from the Unetanah Tokef prayer, read during Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement services).

© Natalie Wood (22 November 2014)

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The High Priest of Modern Song.

Among the forests of words devoted to the life and work of Canadian singer-songwriter, Leonard Cohen is a website that takes a wry look at his many      nicknames. 

But I prefer my own - the ‘High Priest of Modern Song’.

How else to describe an artistic renaissance figure whose output – like his family name – is informed wholly by his Orthodox Jewish roots?

But  how may we also describe a very human individual who’s wedded to his Jewish faith, bolted to his art, but now aged eighty, has never committed to a steadfast relationship with any of his lovers – even the mother of his children?

Cohen’s work and life form part of the mental landscape of so many ordinary people, it is difficult to discuss him without being accused of either repetition or cliché. But here, nothing daunted, is my own view of him as a fellow Jew.


The cover image on his latest album, Popular Problems, cuts a lean, lupine figure, dressed as I’ve seen a thousand other elderly Jewish gentlemen, walking gamely to and from synagogue several times during a Sabbath day.

So I can imagine his arriving at morning services, then removing his trilby to reveal a skull cap,  reciting the traditional blessing as he wraps himself in his prayer shawl and then reading the Ma Tovu prayer - which he also recited at his 2009 concert in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, Israel.

But artists don’t think like ordinary mortals! So we have the cerebral and elegiac  Cohen wrestling with an  erratic, even  raffish existence in a private world off-stage.

His Wikipedia entry  reminds us how often he has used the Hebrew bible (Torah)  and Jewish cultural imagery as   sources for his work,  citing by example songs  like Story of Isaac and Who By Fire and also his second collection of poetry, The Spice-Box of Earth, whose title alludes to the Saturday night rituals performed as the Sabbath concludes.

The entry also devotes a separate section to the famous 1984 song, Hallelujah. I venture further that it remains Cohen’s most popular single song because it examines his unending personal struggle - the clash of  religious devotion with sexual temptation, symbolised by conflating the two stories of King David and Bathsheba with that of Samson and Delilah, then blending them most magically with his musical expertise.

Here he gives those new to Jewish thought a look at the distinction between the temporal and divine or ‘the holy and the broken’, as described by music journalist, Alan Light in his book about the song.

But there are two further interesting side issues I  want to discuss.

The first is Cohen’s involvement in Zen Buddhism and that he sees no split from his Jewish faith but rather, he insists, that “in the tradition of Zen that I've practised, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief”.

The other – superficially - has nothing to do with his Jewish faith but is how  he referred to Kelley Lynch, formerly his manager, friend and even briefly his lover after she was jailed for harassing him. They were not the words of a plaintiff but the sermonic admonition of a priest.

Cohen’s florid romantic life is well-documented. He remains unmarried, but while the mother of his children, Susan Elrod is Jewish it seems that Adam, a fellow singer songwriter and Lorca, a  photographer and videographer do not take their heritage as seriously as their father.  It remains to be seen whether any of Grandpa Leonard’s descendants will yet don his mantle.

Meanwhile, even at 80, Cohen continues composing and performing and his birthday album took only a few weeks to hit No. 1 in 29 countries on the iTunes chart.

I close with the promotional video clip for Popular Problems and the lyrics to Almost Like the Blues which Cohen wrote with Patrick Leonard:

Almost Like the Blues

I saw some people starving
There was murder, there was rape
Their villages were burning
They were trying to escape
I couldn’t meet their glances
I was staring at my shoes
It was acid, it was tragic
It was almost like the blues

I have to die a little
Between each murderous thought
And when I’m finished thinking
I have to die a lot
There’s torture and there’s killing
There’s all my bad reviews
The war, the children missing
Lord, it’s almost like the blues

I let my heart get frozen
To keep away the rot
My father says I’m chosen
My mother says I’m not
I listened to their story
Of the Gypsies and the Jews
It was good, it wasn’t boring
It was almost like the blues

There is no G-d in Heaven
And there is no Hell below
So says the great professor
Of all there is to know
But I’ve had the invitation
That a sinner can’t refuse
And it’s almost like salvation
It’s almost like the blues


Mark.Ulyseas_thumb10This piece first appeared in the December Vol. 3 2014 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

© Natalie Wood (13 November 2014)

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

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Friday, 31 October 2014

Karmiel’s Secret Tweetie!

Birdsong09After a summer of  hysterical anti-Jewish hatred in many areas of France, it’s astounding to discover that Karmiel has enjoyed a twinning arrangement with the French town of Metz since 1986.

The friendship, now cemented with the installation of a series of sculptures at Galilee Park (the Quarry Park) to mark the Israeli city’s 50th jubilee, was unveiled today by Mayor Adi Eldar during a thunderous cloud-burst!

Sculptor and artist, Jean-Christophe Roeiens, a resident of Metz, has created a series of ‘music boxes’ from which bird song may be heard. The plaque explains that in order to symbolise human fraternity, Roeiens has created an “open, living, developing and changing work which invites random, harmonious meetings of joyful song”.

The music, Epode, is from Chronochromie a work by the modern French classicist, Olivier Messiaen, and is performed by soloists from the Lorraine Region National Orchestra.  Epode is written for 18 strings, each one playing a different birdsong and my illustrative clip was conducted by Pierre Boulez in live concert.

Boulez was among Messiaen’s greatest admirers and supporters.  The work’s title is also interesting as Messiaen suffered from the condition, ‘chromesthesia’, a form of synesthesia that associates sounds with colours.

I can’t resist ending on personal note by recalling how in the early 70s I was at a Halle concert at Manchester’s old Free Trade Hall when the programme included a piece by Messiaen.

“Is Messiaen still alive?”, I asked the music student whom I had invited to accompany me that evening.

“I hope so”, he retorted. “He’s here - sitting barely three rows in front of us”.

But Messiaen did die in 1992 while the jazz singer, Ella Fitzgerald was with us until 1996.  I conclude with her singing – what else?- Lullaby of Birdland!



© Natalie Wood (31 October 2014)

Friday, 24 October 2014

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