Thursday, 23 February 2012

More from the Jewish Book Week and a musical detour

I seem to have chosen the best events to attend at this year's Jewish Book Week. Following a great start on Sunday, the fun has continued with a journey into the Jewish Europe of the 1930's, a thriller set in Jerusalem and a look at the work of one of the world's greatest designers!

On Tuesday evening, Bernard Wasserstein gave a preview of his forthcoming book "On the Eve" which examines the condition of European Jewry in the late 1930's with his objective being "to capture a glimpse of European Jewry in its final moments".

He explained that his book focuses entirely on the Jews themselves, not their persecutors, enemies or would be rescuers as so many books looking at this period tend to do. His findings were interesting, and, he claims, show that European Jewry was in terminal decline before the war started. His evidence for this  included the emigration from Europe of one million Jews in the inter-war period, including 400,000 from Poland alone - leaving for economic reasons in the 1920's and for political reasons in the following decade. In addition to this the Jewish birth rate in many European countries had fallen below the rate of replacement with more deaths than births.

Also from Poland he cites the decline in readership of Yiddish newspapers and the increase of Polish language Jewish aimed journals. The driving force of religious Jewish life, the Yeshivot was also in decline, with a total of only 20,000 students throughout Poland in the late 1930's,  whilst census details from the Soviet Union in particular indicated the collapse of Orthodox Judaism. Writings from the period included those of Misnaged Rabbi Rodzinsky of the Agudath Israel community lamenting the "spiritual decline" of the community in relation to the laws of shabat, kashrut and marital purity. Newspapers in Salonika, the heart of Sephardi tradition in Europe included articles criticising Jewish mothers for bringing food to the synagogue for their children. On Yom Kippur!

Wasserstein faced stern questioning from some of the audience who drew attention to the fact that Jews in the Soviet Union may have denied being religious in order to protect themselves, and that Jewish culture wasn't collapsing, but was merely evolving or secularising through the works of Kafka, Freud and others.

Fiercest questioning came from a woman who cited the works of photographer Roman Vishniac as evidence of the shtetl communities being alive, well and thriving to the end. I love Vishniac's work and have taken the opportunity to reproduce some it here, but I have to agree with Wasserstein that the reason Vishniac took the shtetl pictures was due to his fear that this way of life was nearing its end. Although the lady in the audience was not convinced, there is further contemporaneous evidence of this fear in the works of  author Joseph Roth, especially in his books "What I Saw" and "The Wandering Jews" in which he expressed his fears that the Jews were on the edge of disaster and warning against the impending deluge.

The session was interesting and troubling - Wasserstein ending with the assertion that if the Holocaust had not happened, that a specifically Jewish culture in Europe may have all but disappeared anyway, due to emigration, low birth rates, assimilation and increasing secularisation. The book will be a challenging read.

On Wednesday I attended a session with Tunisian born, French based and sometimes Israeli resident Chochana Boukhobza who spoke about her book "The Third Day", recently translated from French into English. The session was conducted in French with translation from an excellent and thorough interpreter, whose name I missed, but who has a beautiful speaking voice!

The book is a thriller based in Jerusalem, examining themes of revenge, memory and everyday life in diverse Israeli society. The book has a strong musical theme and Boukhobza described the various characters as soloists playing alone and also as members of the full orchestra, making a full concerto when playing together. She continued the musical analogy describing a gentle beginning to the book as being a few "trumpet sounds", followed by "notes from other instruments" so that the notes appear in the mind of the reader.

I liked Boukhobza very much and was fascinated by her intense expression as she considered the questions as they were translated for her, pushed her hair backwards and forwards or from one side of her head to the author and smiled at the audience as her responses were translated back to us. I loved the way she described her book as a bus and the characters as passengers who get on the bus, and may stay for only one stop having reached the end of their journey, some may stay the whole route  and others may get off and then back on as the bus continues on its way. She also described them as bulbs, saying she didn't know whether they would develop into tulips or crocuses and that she "scrabbled in the earth to create a garden".  I bought her book and am looking forward to reading it.

Later the same day I went to an idiosyncratic session with be-hatted Israeli designer and architect Ron Arad. He took a full house on a journey through his personal history as a designer from his early days in London, including the development of the famous car chair, the book-worm (he made much of not being a writer and though this design piece might be why he had been invited to speak) and of course the wonderful Design Museum in Holon, Israel. He illustrated the hour with many anecdotes, some clearly tongue in cheek, but many that demonstrated the sometimes unusual circumstances in which great things develop. He told the story of the Holon municipality saying they wanted a "building we would be proud to put on a postage stamp". He also told the story of deciding to open his former studio door one Christmas holiday to a man with a French accent who wanted to buy some of his chairs who later turned out to be John Paul Gaultier. This was in 1981 and Arad explained he hadn't known who Gaultier was at the time! He used the full hour and said he could go on for at least five more...and I think lots of the audience would have been happy to stay and listen!

Once again a great series of events, this time with a perfect mixture of history, suspense, humour and art. And once again, lots of money spent in the bookshop (well I don't drink or smoke, although I do like cake). And I've still got Sunday yet!

As if this wasn't enough I dashed from Kings Cross to the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston to see Daphna Sadeh, an Israeli bass player and her band, playing a selection of Sephardi, Arabic, Gypsy and Jewish traditional or inspired music. The first set consisted of a number of pieces from her 2007 recording "Walking the Thin Line", including the title track, "The Voyager Song", "Aziza" and a fantastic version of "Debka" which featured a terrific darbuka performance from Guy Shalom.

The second set was equally tight and included work from a later recording "Reconciliation" which can be found on John Zorn's Tzadik label. The title track was one of the highlights of the evening with Stewart Curtis shining (as he did all night) on clarinet but also playing the flute and piccolo on other songs. Trombone, oud and baroque violin completed the line up.

All this on a Wednesday night!

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