Saturday 29 December 2012

Yekkes 2012 - review of the year

I looked forward to 2012 for a long time. Mainly because the Olympics were coming to London and I hoped to be able to fulfil a childhood dream of attending the Games. I will come to the Olympics in due course, but 2012 was a year with many highlights for me.

Another childhood ambition was to travel and see the world. Growing up in a small northern town I would dream of visiting other countries, hearing other languages and seeing the world's most famous sites. I never throught it would really happen but I have been lucky enough to travel a lot in recent years. In 2012 I added some new countries to my visited list - Canada, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania and Azerbaijan as well as revisiting Israel, the United States and Russia. Then at the very end of the year, just last week, an impromptu visit to Paris reminded me of why I used to go there so much...and why I should go more often!
Bucharest by Yekkes

Above, the Russian Church in Bucharest

Blagaj by Yekkes

Above, alley leading to Ottoman residence in Blagaj

There was much to see, learn and enjoy in each country, but my absolute highlights were being invited inside an apartment designed by Marcel Janco in Bucharest and hearing the story of the elderly resident, meeting some Second World War veterans in Sheki, Azerbaijan, seeing the remaining Melnikov designed and other constructivist buildings in Moscow and sipping a "cafe shahur" (strong black coffee) in a tiny coffee house in the Mahane Yehudah market in Jerusalem amongst a group of coffee drinking, cigarette smoking and shush-besh playing old men!

Moscow September 2012 by Yekkes

Above - the remains of the Narkomfin building in Moscow

It was also a great year for music. I made several visits to Ronnie Scott's and enjoyed all of them but my musical highlights of the year have to be Avishai Cohen's concert at Ronnie's, the terrific Dee Dee Bridgewater's birthday concert at the Blue Note in New York, Shai Maestro's gig at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv, Sophie Milman in Toronto and of course, the pitch perfect, long-awaited (for me) Randy Crawford concert, with Ms Crawford being accompanied by piano hero Joe Sample. Add to this the Jean Carne, Mario Biondi, Yasmin Levy, Ilana Elia concerts and  its been a cracking year for live music. On a less positive note, I wish people would keep quiet during concerts (and also at the theatre and cinema) - having had several annoying moments over the last 12 months with people who clearly resented having their conversation interrupted by whatever was happening on the stage or screen!

I seem to have had a bit of a Russian theme running throughout 2012. I spent a few days in Moscow on my way back from Azerbaijan, read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita as well as seeing the play, was stunned by Vasily Grossman's epic novel set in the siege of Stalingrad - Life and Fate and started the year with reading Israeli novelist, Meir Shalev's book - My Russian Grandmother and her American vacuum cleaner. I continue to be astonished at the creativity of the Russians, from painting to architecture to writing to music. I have more Bulgakov waiting to be read and am tempted by Grossman's other classic work - Everything Flows.

I read a lot this year. The Jewish Book Week was great in its new venue - Kings Place, and I've just received the programme for the 2013 festival in February. I managed to read all of the books I bought at last year's festival so will no doubt be spending a whole lot more this time. I enjoyed Meir Shalev's already mentioned book very much and my other reading highlights of the year included the recently read Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, his fellow Turkish writer Elif Shafak's latest novel - Honour, Gordana Kuic's Scent of Rain in the Balkans, Naomi Ragen's Sotah and the fantastic I Am Forbidden - Anouk Markovit's first novel to be translated into English.

The Olympics in London. I managed to see lots of team sports - handball, volleyball, basketball - all women's editions and all extremely exciting. I can still feel the edginess I felt cheering Montenegro on, albeit unsuccessfully, in the women's handball final, in a stadium draped with Norwegian flags and overwhelmingly supporting Norway. Well the Norwegians only just made it, but the Montenegrins won the hearts of the rest of us. And speaking of winning hearts, I was privileged to spend a morning at the Paralympics athletics competitions and witnessed a real hero and true entertainer, blind Chinese triple jumper Duan Li of the velcro tracksuit trousers. He didn't win the gold, but again he won the hearts and admiration of the crowd. That morning was both inspiring and humbling and one I often think of. And of course, the rest of the Olympics and Paralympics, all of those British gold medallists - Jessica Ennis, two golds for Mo Farah - I watched him win his second gold medal on the big screen within the Olympic Park and will never forget the cheer that went up when he crossed the line, not to mention the people sliding down the slippery viewing hill in excitement! And then there were the cyclists, the rowers, the sailors...

London Paralympics 2012 by Yekkes

Above, ready to go at the Paralympics

London Olympics 2012 by Yekkes

Above - the basketball arena in the main Olympic Park - venue for the handball finals

I also enjoyed several screenings at this year's Jewish Film Festival, especially God's Neighbours, Suskind and Yossi. Ohad Knoller, star of Yossi also appeared in my favourite TV series - Srugim a kind if Israeli "Friends" for observant religious people, which is much more interesting and amusing than it sounds!

And a few more things. I began blogging on December 27th and became addicted. I continued to pursue my desire to speak, read and write Hebrew properly by attending Sunday classes. I kept going to the gym twice a week to prevent my stomach from getting any bigger. Bits of my blog and some of my photos were reproduced in the Spirt of Progress magazine.  I finally bought the blue Yoji Yamamoto shoes I had craved for months and looked at in both New York and London, as well as some extremely stylish shiny black "clumpy" shoes from Officine Creative at Liberty. Oh, and best of all, a visit from my daughter and two little grand daughters from Australia at the very end of the year as the grand finale!

2012. Now, that's what I call a year.

What's in store for 2013? More travel with visits to places I haven't been to before. Some great concerts coming up  - I have a ticket for Nicola Conte at Ronnie Scott's in early January, for Avishai Cohen (again) at the Barbican in May and have spotted the Gusto Orchestra's concert later in the year. Lots of books. Lots of films. Lots of fun.

Happy New Year.

Friday 28 December 2012

Paris - a tale of three architects, part one

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Paris is a city filled with architectural landmarks - the Eifel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame and many others. This is the Paris that all visitors know, but the city is also rich in architectural styles from a range of periods, including from 1900 - 1939, encompassing some fine art nouveau buildings and what survives of its art deco heritage.

This period is perhaps best exemplified through the built legacy of three architects. The best known of the three is Hector Guimard. Born in Lyon in 1867, Guimard is the central figure of French art nouveau. He studied at the Ecole Nationale de Beaux Arts in Paris where he was introduced to rationalist thought which led to his rejection of classicism in architecture and to his exploration of art nouveau.

He is perhaps best known for his metro station designs - more than 60 of which still survive today. The most well-known of these is the beautiful entrance to Des Abbesses in Montmartre (pictured above) with its curved lines, green metalwork and glass roof. This is not the original site of this structure - it was originally the entrance to Hotel de Ville metro station, but was relocated in 1970 to make way for a car park development (!). At least it was saved.

Guimard's period of designing metro stations ran from 1899-1904, but his legacy includes many more important Paris landmarks. His masterpiece (and my favourite) is the exquisitely indulgent Castel Beranger at 14 Rue La Fontaine in Auteuil, the 16th arrondissement. Built from 1897-98 in what was then the village of Auteuil, the Castel shocks with vibrant green, orange and blue metalwork, including its famous front gate (pictured below) with its asymmetrical sweeps and swirls. The facade which is a riot of materials and colours won the then prestigious City of Paris Facade competition in 1899.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

There are 36 apartments in the Castel and to get the full picture, walk into the small lane at the side of the building and see its depth and many different features. Materials used in the structure include glazed stoneware and ceramics, pale pink brick, wood, cast iron and steel. Unfortunately, Castel Beranger was  not to everyone's liking and in some quarters became known as Castel Deranger - as in deranged! However, a number of leading cultural figures loved it and artist Paul Signac lived here for a time. Guimard followed the tradition of other European artists such as Joseph Hoffman, Adolf Loos and Victor Horta, also  designing all of the interior features including wallpapers, door handles and carpets.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Across the road from Castel Beranger, at numbers 17-19 Rue La Fontaine, there are two more Guimard designed buildings dating from 1909-1911. The small alley at the rear of this block, Rue Agar also has a Guimard building at number 10. Numbers 17-19 are imposing corner buildings with heavy traffic on two sides and it is quite difficult to imagine what Auteuil must have been like when Guimard was at his productive peak. However, the ground floor of number 17 is home to Cafe Antoine (pictured below), a small but cosy place to stop off and sample their popular Dutch hot chocolate and to chat with the friendly staff who told me that the cafe was part of the original building so that residents could come downstairs take coffee or tea and talk to their neighbours. They also told me where I could see more Guimard buildings.

A photograph from 1911 is displayed in the cafe showing the building as it looked in its early days - and there is very little difference  now. I particularly like the window features on this building, again with those art nouveau curves and metalwork "balcony" features with floral motifs.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

The 16th arrondissement is home to a number of Guimard's buildings. Further along Rue La Fontaine, at number 60, you can find Hotel Mezzara (pictured below), designed as a private residence for fabric manufacturer Paul Mezzara and built in 1910. The building now belongs to the Ministry for Education and holds occasional exhibitions to display the work of young artists. Whilst I was photographing this building, an elderly lady stopped and asked me if I knew about it - in French of course. My French runs out very quickly but she had some knowledge of English and explained to me about how beautiful the interior is, that Guimard was a great artist and that for this building too he designed the interiors including the door handles. She was clearly very proud of Guimard's legacy and told me where there were other buildings of his not too far away. A lovely lady and one of those chance encounters that can make travel so fulfilling.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

There are many more Guimard buildings in this part of the city, including two next door to each other at 120 (Villa Flore) and 122 (Villa Guimard) Avenue Mozart. He designed Hotel Guimard (pictured below) as a home for himself and his wife, artist Adeline Oppenheimer and construction was carried out from 1909-1913. His office was on the ground floor and Adeline's studio on the top floor with a north facing window to ensure good quality light to paint by. Built on an extremely narrow footprint, he designed everything for the house including the door lock and the interior furnishings. Adeline wished to leave the building to the city as a museum but shamefully this was not supported and the house is now divided into apartments. The interiors have been dispersed and later residents appear to have made "improvements" to the windows by ripping out the originals. Sinful.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Villa Flore was designed for Michel Houyvet, a Parisian industrialist and was built between 1924 and 1927. It has a distinctive cladding on the front and side of the building with lighter coloured tiling providing a slightly more art deco feel to the design.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Interestingly and unusually, Guimard also designed the Agudas Hakehilos synagogue at 10 Rue Pavee in the fourth arrondissement (pictured below). The synagogue was constructed in 1913 and inaugurated on June7th 1914. Commissioned by the Agudas Hakehilos, or Union of Communities, an Orthodox Jewish society originating in Russia and headed by one Joseph Landau. The exterior features stylised vegetal decoration and is protected from the street by cast iron railings. It is the only religious building that Guimard designed. The occupying Germans dynamited the building on Yom Kippur eve in 1941 together with six other Parisian synagogues but it was subsequently restored and registered as an historical monument in June 1989.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Few details are known about Guimard's personal life - there are no major collections of correspondence or other papers in the public domain. He married Adeline in 1909 and from then on concentrated his efforts on more domestic residences. In the period leading to the First World Ward, art nouveau declined in popularity and art deco took its place. Guimard remained attached to art nouveau and amongst other things, he attempted to design furniture for mass production. Unfortunately this venture proved unsuccessful and he began a decline into obscurity. Worried by the growing power of the Fascists in Germany and also a nasty wave of anti-semitism in France during this period and the fact that his wife was Jewish, they moved to New York in 1938, where he died in 1942 in relative obscurity.

If little is known about Guimard's life, I have been able to find out even less about the life of Jules Lavirotte, his early contemporary. Interestingly, Lavirotte was also born in Lyons just a few years before Guimard, in 1864. He also studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, first in Lyons and then in Paris. He has nine buildings still standing in the city, but his most famous can be found at 29 Avenue Rapp in the 7th arrondissement. This building was responsible for one of his three victories in the City of Paris design facade award. His style was extremely flamboyant and his masterpiece on Avenue Rapp makes use of many different motifs from nature as well as an amazing range of materials and colours. Residents of the apartment block have a view of another Paris landmark directly across the road - the Eifel Tower!

The door at number 29 is the star of the show (pictured below). It is an art nouveau spectacular with exquisite glass panels set into a wooden frame and decorated with metal lizards as door knockers. The design of the glass panels set into the wood has been described as an inverted phallus, completing the display of bodies, pillars and other flamboyant and erotic features!

Lavirotte owned the building in partnership with one Charles Combes and lived on the 5th floor of number 3, Square Rapp just around the corner and well worth a look in itself.  Alexandre Bigot was responsible for the stoneware ceramics at the front of the building.

I managed to visit all of these buildings over two days as well as fitting in a couple of major exhibitions.  They are relatively easy to find, listed in several guidebooks and close to metro stations. Despite the rain on the day I visited Avenue Rap, these were two of the best mornings I have had in a long time. A real treat.

Part 2 of "A Tale of Three Architects" is coming soon!

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Below - facade, 29 Avenue Rapp.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

Monday 24 December 2012

Paris - Manger in the Marais, a bit of Bohemia and a story from Algeria

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

(Above - Murciano - boulangerie and patisserie in the Rue des Rosiers)

Paris was once the place I most liked to visit. I would go every year, sometimes twice and always loved it. But over time my passion for the city cooled. I travelled further afield, got braver about destinations and almost forgot Paris. But they say old friends are the best friends and attracted by Omer Avital's concert, I spent three nights there earlier this week to see if it was true.

I planned to visit some old haunts, some places that were new to me and of course, to get a big slice of culture with concerts and exhibitions. I stayed at Bastille, a very short walk from the Marais, which has always been my favourite part of Paris. I first visited the city 22 years ago with a good friend and we arrived at St. Paul le Marais without having booked a place to stay. We spent the first night in an Algerian owned place on the Rue St. Antoine. The beds were fine but there was a smell of death in the bathroom and at breakfast we were offered coffee, jam and butter - but not bread! We moved to a Moroccan owned "hotel" on Rue du Roi de Sicile. It was called Palais de Fez. Palais it was not. But it was a great location, very cheap and extremely character forming. Our room was at the very top of the building - 6 floors and no lift. The toilet was on the landing, was shared with the whole floor and offered a most unusual grey cardboard material as toilet paper. The owner told us we had to be back before midnight or sleep outside. As if. Once we got that sorted things went swimmingly and I went back there several times.

You are thinking I digress? Well actually no I don't. Palais de Fez is no more (I notice it is now Holiday Apartments Selma - so may still be Moroccan) - and that is my point. The Marais has changed much in the last decade and continues to change now. Many of the little cafes, boulangeries and other quirky long established places are gone, replaced by boutiques, new restaurants and stores selling "lovely things". My beloved Rue des Rosiers is a case in point. Twenty years ago, most of the businesses were still Jewish, now only one end of the street has  a majority of Jewish businesses with the remainder made up with some pretty uninspiring but expensive boutiques. Some trade on the former functions of their shops - the former Goldenberg's restaurant is now a clothes shop that retains the Goldenberg sign , whilst around the city a number of new shops have retained the old (and often beautiful) boulanger and patissier signs.

Rue des Rosiers by Yekkes

Some of the old favourites remain and I had my almost obligatory Hongroise (Hungarian strudel) at Florence Finkelstzajn's patisserie and cafe (pictured above), a slightly different version of it at rival Sacha Finkelstzajn's and a poppy seed cream cheese and tomato bagel (I hate salmon) at Korcarz bakery and cafe. I also had my favourite "choice of five" at Chez Marianne - humous, falafel, fried aubergine and tomato, halloumi and tzatziki with pitta. Some things never change. Except perhaps my waistline. That damn spiral staircase to the toilet at Chez Marianne's always was a nightmare to squeeze up and down, even before I grew into my clothes. And it won't be just me as devotion to falafel seems to have reached addictive proportions with some staggeringly large queues outside the take away places.

Paris, December 2012 by Yekkes

And still on the subject of food, I have a new favourite destination. Carette at Place des Vosges. It has a beautifully decorated, Belle Epoque stye interior with some pretty wonderful patisseries on view and possibly the best hot chocolate I have ever had - served in a silver pot no less, containing at least three cups! Not to mention a wicked cherry clafoutis too. A great way to pass an hour or so on a chilly winter evening. Sadly - the last of the dusty antique shops on the Place has disappeared. There were once several but now there are none. Not boutiques here, but private art galleries and posh restaurants and cafes (like the Carette!).

Enough with the food. What of the culture? I managed to squeeze in two concerts and three exhibitions as well as some serious leg work to look at some of the city's best art nouveau architecture and some modernist masterpieces too. I will post separately on the architecture, suffice to say for the moment it was tremendous and I spent one of my happiest days for some time on Friday walking through the 16th arrondissement admiring its majesty - but that's for another time.

I had planned to visit two of the exhibitions that I saw - the incredible "Bohemes" at the Grand Palais and "Les Juifs d'Algerie" at the Museum of Jewish Art and History. The third one was a bonus that I squeezed in on the spur of the moment. The Bohemes exhibition was truly inspired. It is a study of the use of the word "Bohemian" and especially its former use to describe nomadic people in Europe - collectively referred to as gypsies.

The exhibition includes early artistic representations of these people. Interestingly, they are displayed as saintly - sometimes as being connected with the holy family of Christianity (apparently during the middle ages there was a belief that gypsies came from Egypt and this may be how the link was developed) or as thieves and undesirables (see the Georges de la Tour painting above). Other artists showed them as people leading an idyllic lifestyle, at one with nature. Of course, none of this was particularly true and the Hungarian paintings from the late 1800's by artists such as  Karoly Ferenczy who took a more realistic approach showing gypsies looking after their children or performing everyday tasks. But my favourites are the works by German artist Otto Mueller who spent some time living with gypsies and painted a series of portraits in the 1930's - pictures later displayed by the Hitler regime as "degenerate art". (one of which is pictured below).

"Boheme" also tracks the involvement of gypsies in the arts, especially music (a wonderful soundtrack is played in the background as you navigate the exhibition - you can buy the CD in the shop) and theatre. This then trips over into portrayals of gypsies in the arts, especially the operas Carmen and La Boheme. The appropriation of the word "Bohemian" to describe a particular kind of "artistic" lifestyle follows, with references to starving artists in garrets and significant amounts of posing and posturing from writers and actors.Moving on,  the late 19th century saw the development of cafe society as a type of Bohemianism. There are even some cafe chairs and tables set out to provoke the imagination of the visitor.

Gypsies, like many nomadic peoples, have been persecuted over the centuries, culminating in the German attempt to eradicate them physically during the Second World War and this is referred to in the exhibition. It is also pointed out that France did not repeal all of its anti-gyspsy laws until the late 1970's. A great, stimulating exhibition with a wonderful mixture of mediums, well labelled - including with summary panels in English (thanks!) and hopefully one that will travel to the UK too. A word of warning. If you are going to see this exhibition. beware, the Grand Palais does not have a cafe - I was gasping at the end of my visit!

It is 50 years since Algeria secured independence from France after a long and bloody war. A numberof exhibitions have been staged in Paris this year to commemorate this anniversary. "Les Juives d'Algerie" is an excellent exhibition covering an often overlooked and sometimes purposely ignored part of Algerian history. Jews have been present in North Africa for centuries and Algeria had one of the largest communities. Always second class citizens (despite the romantic stories of a harmonious and equal society, much beloved by some commentators), the Algerian Jews had periods of relative peace and prosperity alternated with periods of vicious suppression and pogrom. These issues are well covered in the exhibition including footage of a series of anti-Jewish activities in the city of Constantine over a number of years, including pictures of knife wielding Arabs, bloodied ground and wrecked Jewish homes and businesses. It is also little known that during the French collaboration with the German occupation in the Second World War, Vichy France established concentration camps in North Africa where many Jews were persecuted and died.

Above - a Jewish family in Constantine, 1881.

The exhibition also examines the cultural life of the Algerian Jews. It contains many beautiful religious objects, clothing and household items as well as paintings and photographs of leading comment members and of everyday community life. My favourite part of the exhibition however, is the final room which features Algerian Jewish singers and musicians. This includes the wonderful female singers - glamorous and provocative Line Monty, Reinette L'Oranaise a blind Jewish woman and possessor of a big big voice and also Alice Fitoussi. Then there are their male counterparts - Salim Halali, Lili Boniche, Enrico Macias, Blond Blond and my favourite Maurice El Medioni who I was lucky enough to see twice in Israel a couple of years ago. There are interviews and live recordings of several of the artists as part of the exhibition together with some wonderfully nostalgic album sleeves on display.

Above - Jewish musicians in Algeria, undated.

I knew about the musicians but I didn't know about the tradition of Algerian Jewish boxers, with a number of champions coming from the community. Robert Cohen and Michael Atlan were national champions whilst bantamweight Alphonse Halimi (pictured) became world bantamweight champion in 1957.

So where are Algeria's Jews now.Not in Algeria. Systematically marginalised before and during the War of Independence and driven out afterwards, they went primarily to France and Israel although some also went to the Unites States. In 1948, it was estimated that 140,000 Jews lived in Algeria. Today there are none.

There are a number of good websites that carry information about the Jews of Algeria and of North Africa generally. Point of no return is an excellent site with frequent postings, illustrations and videos. Also of interest is Jewish Morocco which includes features on North African Jewish musicians from across the region. Click below for a taste of Jewish North African music from Lili Boniche.

My third exhibition was the small collection of Soutine works on display at the Orangerie. I love Soutine's portraits, slightly threatening landscapes and his series paintings of gladioli. The portraits are probably my favourite, showing a range of people employed in different pursuits, a waiter, a bellboy, a maid - all people who might be invisible to those they serve but in whom Soutine recognised hopes, dreams and ambitions and more often sadness, disappointment and resignation. His figures are often distorted with long thin necks, narrow heads, large and awkward hands - all adding to his description of the subject's condition.

I have to admit I have never been keen on his still lives of pieces of meat. I find them threatening and aggressive. I am disturbed by the thought (and sometimes image) of the blood of the slaughtered animal - which must mean his work is effective! There are just 22 paintings are on display but its well worth a short trip as the admission ticket covers the whole Orangerie and so gives access to the permanent exhibition too with its early works of Picasso as well as Cezanne, Derain, Laurencin and more.

So, what was my verdict on my return to Paris? Yes, some things disappointed me - the disappearance of old friends - Hotel Central in Rue Vielle du Temple which is now a jewellers and the final demise of Goldenbergs - whilst it stood empty I still had hope (!). But many more things delighted me - the terrific concerts of Omer Avital and then Eddie Henderson at the Sunset Jazz Club. The two cracking major exhibitions reviewed above and also, not yet mentioned, the seemingly super efficient metro - which has seen some investment in recent years. Most of all, I was thrilled with my architectural walks which I will write about separately. I even met some friendly and interesting people whilst searching out art nouveau and modernist gems. Will I be back soon? I think I just might.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Red hot and cool - Omer Avital Quintet in Paris!

The Omer Avital quintet - Mr Avital (bass), Omer Klein (piano), Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone), Avishai Cohen (trumpet - not the "other one") and Daniel Freedman (drums) were fantastic, formidable and מצוין (Hebrew for excellent) at the tiny Duc de Lombards club in Paris tonight.

Playing a short, four nights residency, with each gig sold out, Avital had an excited crowd waiting to go in for the second house - and we weren't disappointed. This quintet contains some of the finest jazz musicians in the world, with all five being worthy of headlining as was demonstrated through both the solo and ensemble playing this evening.

Opening with Top of the Mountain from his current Suite of the East album, Omer Avital led the quintet through a number of new songs - the brilliant Avishkes, dedicated to Avishai Cohen who particularly shone in this piece, Song for Amos, which is dedicated to Amos Hoffman, another great Israeli jazz musician,  and from the Arrival album of a couple of years ago (and which might just remain my favourite - especially the title track) and a new piece called Hafla. 

It was interesting to watch the different demeanour of each of the musicians. From my seat, Avital was the only member of the quintet whose face I couldn't see (!), but interestingly I could see his hands and was mesmerised by the elasticity of his fingers and the sounds that he produced from what seemed a mere touch of the strings. 

Avishai Cohen and Joel Frahm are of the stand and play school, squeezing some amazing sounds from their instruments. Seated right at the front of the club, I could see Cohen's lips squeezed unbelievably thinly around the trumpet. Omer Klein was in jovial mood. Some pianists grunt and make noises as they perform. Not Omer Klein, he almost dances his way through each piece, feet jumping and stamping, shaking and swaying on the stool and generally enjoying himself - including joking and laughing with Daniel Freedman in particular. And by the way, sartorially speaking Avishai, that was a great shirt you were wearing but overall Omer (Klein that is) took the prize for me for his "collars and cuffs" shirt and jeans turned up as a third "cuff". 

Back to the music. Each piece as given a through workout lasting anywhere between 7 and possibly 15 minutes, allowing a good stretch for each instrument and some terrific, loud and exciting interplay within the group. They came back for an encore and gave us Song for Peace, also from the Suite of the East album. They saved the best until last - that piano playing was red hot. It is amazing to think that a small country like Israel has managed to produce such a fantastic group of musicians and even more amazing when one realises that there are many more Israeli jazz musicians at or entering world class.  

Red hot and cool, or as they say in Israel םבבה (sababa - meaning cool). Oh, and P.S. - could you please come and play in London?

Sunday 16 December 2012

Orhan Pamuk - The Museum of Innocence

I must be developing a liking for big books. Having recently read Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, I have just completed Orhan Pamuk's marathon novel The Museum of Innocence. I have read other works by Mr. Pamuk. I enjoyed very much, but struggled a little with Black Book. I was spellbound by Snow set in Kars. I also enjoyed his memoir dedicated to his beloved home city of Istanbul. For me Pamuk almost "is" Istanbul and together with the black and white photographs of Ara Guler, his writing makes me feel I know the city very well - which of course, I don't only having visited twice!

So what about the Museum of Innocence? Set in 1970's and 1980's Istanbul, it is, on the face of it, a love story albeit an unusual one about the young, affluent Kemal and his relationship with Fusun who he describes as a "distant cousin". The political unrest of 1970's and 1980's Turkey acts as a backdrop, with growing violence between leftists and rightists, assassinations in the street, cafes being bombed or attacked by gunmen culminating in a military coup d'etat, supposedly to restore order. However, none of this really impacts on the main characters, other than the limitations and risks of the curfews imposed at different stages of the story.

The story is told in the first person, by Kemal who charts the development of his love for Fusun over a ten year period. His obsession with her is all consuming, to the extent that he amasses a massive collection of items that she has owned, touched or been fond of - sometimes without her knowledge other times almost brazenly taking things from under her nose. Kemal and his well off, middle class friends spend their time visiting fashionable restaurants and cafes, going to parties, spending summers in their yalis, whilst Turkish society collapses around them. However, although Kemal is privileged and can buy his way in and out of almost everything, things are not so simple when it comes to Fusun - but saying much more will give the story you need to read it!

There are some interesting themes running through the book. We see a society struggling with itself, torn between a desire for modernity, defined as westernness, whilst also clinging on to traditional views and attitudes. Much of this is played out around the sexual behaviour of women. We see most of the male characters either having affairs with very young girls and at the same time, although pleading modernity, rejecting the same women as marriage partners, demanding virginity from their wives.

Linked to this is a theme about authenticity. This begins when Kemal buys what he thinks is a designer handbag for his fiancee Sybil (as I said, you need to read the book - its complicated!) from a small boutique, where he is served by Fusun - seeing her for the first time since they were children. The bag turns out to be a fake and although crippled with embarrassment, he returns it. The theme continues with constant reference to a locally produced fruit drink - Meltem of which the Turks are proud, but few cafes, restaurant or shops stock it, preferring to sell coca-cola and other "western drinks". When asked why its not available, one waiter explains its almost impossible to get regular deliveries, hinting that the Turkish company cannot organise its own distribution and is therefore unreliable.

Kemal ponders at length on the mediocrity of the Turkish film industry of the time. His descriptions of the leading lights are far from flattering with sleazy, drunken, predatory men pursuing Fusun who has an ambition to be a film star herself, and leading ladies understanding that to progress to "fame" they may need to relax their morals a little. The story has a journalist (for which read gossip columnist) called White Carnation who delights in exposing secrets, damaging careers and causing scandals - very topical in the UK these days. There is widespread collusion with White Carnation and similar characters in the book, with even Kemal's highly respectable mother feeding him stories about her own family to secure attention - which she just may crave as a result of her own husband's long time affair with another woman. It is hard not to think that the fake bag Kemal purchased from Fusun is a metaphor for the society Pamuk writes about and just possibly for the relationship between the two leading characters.

The book is not all darkness. There are some very funny descriptions of film making and the use of cheap extras for crowd scenes. I was especially taken with the story about extras in a restaurant scene, getting up and walking away once they had finished eating the kebabs given to them to make the scene more authentic. Others would become rowdy and disruptive, causing more trouble than they were perhaps worth. Several of the film related scenes occur in "garden cinemas" once popular in Turkey but all gone now - open air cinemas with food and drink being served but with occasional audience participation from people hanging from the windows of nearby houses.

The descriptions of the streets and alleys of Istanbul are, as always in Pamuk's writing, exquisite. I can feel the cold of the winter, the heat of the summer, smell the food being served in the restaurants and hear the old time songs being sung in the night clubs of this book. Very few writers have this impact on me. At 728 pages long it is a big read, but it wasn't overwhelming, Maureen Freely's translation is extremely readable and the stories running in the book held me throughout. There is also a useful index of characters in case you forget someone.

Oh, and there really is a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul which displays many of the ordinary and everyday objects referred to in the book. The book even contains a ticket giving one free entrance to the reader should they be able to visit. Orhan Pamuk established the museum earlier this year. The picture below shows him welcoming guest at the opening.

Friday 14 December 2012

Picture post number thirteen - Hackesche Hof, Berlin

Berlin by Yekkes

The Hackesche Hof comprises of a series of Jugendstil (art nouveau) style courtyards in what was once one of Berlin's main Jewish districts. Badly damaged in the Second World War, this beautifully restored building is now a thriving tourist destination and is also popular with Berliners who go to visit the cafes, shops, art galleries, the Hackesche Hof Theatre and the Chameleon Cabaret.

Architect August Endell designed the courtyards and construction commenced in 1905. Endell was one of the forerunners of the Jugendstil in Germany and was a contemporary of, and admired by leading artists including Lovis Corinth and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Like many artists of his time, Endell was multi-talented and also worked as a teacher and writer, being co-editor of the literary magazine Pan from 1895-1900.

The original Hof housed a number of interesting organisations - an expressionist poets' association in 1909, a Jewish students' canteen in 1913, a Jewish Girls' Club founded in 1916, the Imperial Cinema in 1921as well as wine sellers and a department store. The legal owner of the Hof before the second world war, Jacob Michael, was forced into exile in 1933 and his heirs had to wait until 1993 to have the asset returned to them. Formerly part of the Russian Zone of occupation at the end of the war, the Soviet administration requisitioned the property in 1945. In 1951 the building became communally resident owned and the tenants' association opposed the proposed destruction of the original Jugendstil facade, but it was not until 1995 that restoration began in earnest.

The area is rich in history. The partially restored New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse is a testament to the once thriving Jewish presence here. Today it serves partly as a museum but also hosts services. The Synagogue's beautiful domes once again rise above this part of Berlin after the building was extensively damaged on the night of 9th November 1938 - Kristallnacht - when synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes were destroyed across Germany, Austria and the occupied Czech lands as the precursor to the Holocaust. One Otto Bellgardt a local policeman prevented complete destruction by holding the mob at bay with a pistol, saying that he was protecting an historical monument. The site of the former Gross Hamburger Strasse Jewish cemetery is very near. The cemetery was destroyed by the Gestapo in 1943 and one symbolic gravestone remains for philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Also close by is the small museum commemorating Otto Weidt, who employed and protected a number of blind and deaf Jews in his brush factory, bribing officials to overlook their presence and going so far as to travel to Auschwitz to secure the release of Alice Licht one of his workers after she was arrested and deported. His story is little known, but he was a real hero, who sadly died very soon after the war ended.

There are several coffee houses in the Hof and a number of good shops. I bought three very beautiful Jugendstil ceramic tiles from a shop called Golem(!) which now grace my kitchen wall and also enjoyed browsing some of the vintage furniture and household goods stores in the small arcade at the side of the complex. The Hackesche Markt (market) lies opposite the Hof and has several stalls selling (in my opinion) the revolting and recently invented "curry wurst" which my travel companion sampled. It consisted of a sausage coated in tomato ketchup and then thickly sprinkled with curry powder. I'll stick with the cakes.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Picture post number twelve - Odessa - the Atlases of Gogol Street

Odessa by Yekkes

I visited Odessa back in 2009. I liked it. I liked the relaxed atmosphere of this seaside, port city. I liked the remaining buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries. I stayed at the famous Londonskaya Hotel which I also liked with its interesting history, crumbling breakfast courtyard, my fantastically large bedroom and the jaw dropping staircase and lobby (which I understand have been "renovated" - which is a worry). Odessa has some fabulous cafes and patisseries, a surprisingly active Jewish presence given the devastation visited on the community both in the Second World War and under the Soviet period, a couple of good museums and a literary history that any city would be proud of.

A number of writers connected with the city are commemorated through having streets named after them. The two gentlemen pictured here live on Gogol Street and are known as the Atlases of said street. As well as holding up the earth,  they stand guard over a stunning apartment building constructed from 1900-01 by architects Lev Vlodek and Symen Landesman. It originally belonged to a German aristocratic family the Barons von Falz-Fein. Following the 1917 Revolution, the family fled and the building was nationalised. Vlodek was also responsible for another famous Odessa landmark - the Passazh (passage) shopping mall, built in 1899 and which links two important streets - Deribasivskaya and Preobrazhenskaya.

The city has many literary links. Gogol and Pushkin both spent time here and have streets named for them. I also ran into Pushkin in Eritrea of all places - his great grandfather was African and there is a statue to the writer in Asmara. Isaac Babel was born in the Moldovanka district of Odessa - the former Jewish quarter and setting for his wonderful "Odessa Stories" including the adventures of Benya, king of the underworld. Like many other leading Jewish intellectuals, he was executed in 1940 during one of Stalin's purges. A plaque to Babel can be found on one of the buildings he lived in, in Odessa. Other significant Jewish writers born in, or connected with Odessa include Chaim Nachman Bialik who became Israel's national poet and Vladimir Jabotinsky, who eventually became the leader of the more right wing "Revisionist" strand of Zionism and fore-runner of the Herut and Likud parties of later years. Jabotinksy's novel, The Five, is a great record of bourgeois Odessa during the late 19th century and includes scenes set in the building that now houses the Literary Museum.

Odessa still has a wonderful and active opera house, classical music concerts and theatres but the former cultured atmosphere of the city seems to have declined somewhat. I asked about classical concerts at my hotel's information desk one night during my stay. I receive an answer in perfect English "I have a list of night clubs that you would like". I declined politely pointing out that I was interested in concerts, to receive the reply "these clubs are very nice, English gentlemen always like them". I took the list out of courtesy and spent a nice evening reading in a cafe...

Sunday 2 December 2012

Dalston - another look

Dalston has never really been one of my regular haunts. I once worked in this part of London and in those days it was very run down, more or less forgotten and not on most people's list of places to visit. More recently friends, Time Out (what a disaster that is since it went free) and a couple of really good arts venues have persuaded me to give it another try.

Dalston now boasts an excellent jazz venue (The Vortex), a really good theatre with an interesting programme (The Arcola) - and more of those later, but the real jewel in the crown for me is the elegant art deco Rio Cinema on Kingsland High Street. Opened in 1937, the Rio has been entertaining Dalston residents since then, not only with Hollywood hits, but also with a range of less mainstream movies. It also boasts annual Turkish and Kurdish film festivals, fitting nicely with the very substantial Turkish and Kurdish speaking communities in and around Dalston.

The Rio replaced an earlier cinema - the Kingsland Palace established by one Sarah Ludski. Ms. Ludski was the proprietor of an auction hall which she had turned into a 175 seater cinema in 1913. The current building has seen mixed fortunes over the years, with periods of closure, periods of serving as an "adult movie" venue and even a brief time operating as a strip club (!) before a group of local people formed to rescue the cinema, raise money to refurbish it and opened it in its current form in 1997. The Rio is grade 2 listed. And it's lovely.

Entrance to the Rio Cinema, Kingsland High Street.

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Gillett Square lies just off Kingsland High Street. It is home to the Dalston Culture House, originally planned as a vibrant arts centre and at one point discussed as a possible location for a new library. I am not sure that the Culture House has fulfilled its original purpose, but it is home to the Vortex Jazz Club, which once "lived" in nearby Stoke Newington. The Vortex is an intimate space with an excellent programme of high profile jazz artists including Ian Shaw, Norma Winstone and a plethora of other UK jazz stars. There are also specialist nights with "world music" performances including a regular gypsy/ Eastern European gig.

 I saw the excellent Ms. Winstone perform there earlier this year as well as enjoying Daphna Sadeh and the Voyagers at one of the world music evenings. This is a little diamond for jazz lovers in this part of London. The crowd is quite mixed with a solid local base but also with people travelling from across London due to the quality of the programme. It is also a bit "old Dalston" and you can sometimes see the occasional person with short hair, dungarees and the de rigeur keffiyeh (yawn) asking for people to sign a petition against the Council before the concert starts!

The Vortex, Gillet Square

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Dalston Lane is a an area showing real signs of improvement. Much of this is driven by the fact that the new Dalston Junction London Overground station is located here - ending once and for all the pleas for the London Borough of Hackney to have a tube station. It has more than one now as there are other stations on this line that fall within the borough boundaries. Actually, Hackney always did have a tube station - one of the exits of Manor House station on the Piccadilly Line is on the Hackney side of the road. Admittedly not terribly useful to most Hackney residents, but Hackney nonetheless - I suppose it spoiled the story to admit to its existence.

Dalston Lane also boasts a new library - the replaced CLR James (the cricket and political writer - not Councillor James as many people seem to think) library, which is about 100 times better than the building it replaced and which has a good cafe. A little further along the road is an independent cafe that lacks a name (or at least a name sign - pictured below). Good coffee, great home made cakes and a nice atmosphere. Recommended.

Cafe without a name, Dalston Lane

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Just across the road from the library, you can see one of Dalston's best known and most iconic images - the Peace mural. Painted by Ray Walker and Mike Jones and unveiled by the former (and now deceased) MP, and one time GLC member, Tony Banks in October 1985, it is based on an image from the 1983 Hackney Peace Carnival. It depicts the Soviet Union - United States nuclear stand off and is very much of its time, even boasting a "nuclear free zone" sign. Of course as there were no nuclear bombs in Hackney, then  Hackney would have been OK should the Russians ever have turned up. However, it has given a much needed touch of colour and brightness to a part of Dalston that was blighted for many years. A narrow passage beside the mural leads into the Dalston Curve Garden - an open space with a small cafe, stone pizza making and open garden, providing a quiet and green oasis in this most urban of areas.

Detail from the peace mural

Dalston, London by Yekkes

Ashwin Street lies just off Dalston Lane. It is really a back lane that has become the focus of much of the arts driven activity of the new Dalston. The catalyst for this was the renovation of the old "Reeves and Sons ltd, artists colour manufacturers" founded in 1766. Lovingly restored, it draws visitors from Dalston Lane with its exquisite external decorative detail including blue and gold mosaic lettering and backgrounds. The building now houses a range of small businesses, a bohemian cafe and the Arcola Theatre. Interestingly, this building was also once considered as a possible new home for the library...its good to see something eventually came of all those discussions and that the two sites previously considered are also thriving.

Cafe Oto attracts a diverse clientele, with a fair share of plum voiced folk on the day I visited - sipping various types of coffee and pushing the very tasty cakes and cookies from one side of their plate to the other whilst speaking just loudly enough to let neighbours known they had "done the fringe" this year. Perhaps evidence of a changing community in the new Dalston or adventures staying close to the station - just in case. As I was getting ready to leave a lunchtime menu of Persian themed food was being distributed. It looked good and the prices seemed OK too. Might come back to try it. They also have a programme of performances and occasional exhibitions.

The Reeves building, Ashwin Street

Dalston, London by Yekkes

The Arcola Theatre is the main occupant of the old building, having moved from further up Dalston Lane. It has a good programme, often featuring new material as well as revivals, workshops and a small cafe-bar. I have seen two performances there this year Purge and The Smell of Sweet Success which I saw this weekend - and may yet write about. The theatre has undergone more renovation recently and the new auditorium is comfortable and worked well for what should really be a larger stage performance. In December, they are helping Kali Theatre celebrate their 21st birthday with two productions- Kabaddi Kabaddi, a new drama about sport and a revival of Shelley Silas' Calcutta Kosher which I saw a few years ago at Stratford East and liked very much. Both are scheduled for short runs - go and see at least one of them!

So has my opinion of Dalston changed? I went there a few days ago to take some photographs. I was enjoying myself until I stopped for a moment to take some pictures of the Rio Cinema. Within a minute I had been approached by an aggressive beggar who was so drunk he couldn't string a sentence together and he was followed by a young man who accused me of taking his photograph - despite being somewhat un-photogenic. Yes, things are much better than they once were...but still a little rough around the edges.

Monday 26 November 2012

Life and fate

A friend of mine once told me she could never bear to visit Russia because of its terrible history - the suffering, the death, the cruelty that Russians have endured for centuries. I take a different view. Yes, there has been immense suffering here, but the Russians have created some of the world's most beautiful works of art, literature, drama, music and architecture despite this. I have recently begun reading more 20th century Russian literature (in English of course) and have just completed Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, an 855 pages epic set around the siege of Stalingrad in the Second World War. This book illustrates perfectly the terrible suffering that my friend spoke about but also reminds the reader of the tremendous achievements of the Russians in the face of the most terrible adversity.

Although the central "event" of the book is the battle of Stalingrad, this is not a military history. Instead, Life and Fate introduces us to a wide range of characters and shows the waxing and waning of their fortunes over the period of the siege. The characters range from senior military characters (both Russian and German), to scientists involved in research to support the Russian war effort, to prisoners in the Gulag and in the German camps and to peasants and intellectuals all caught up in the horrors of the War. Many of the characters are members of, or linked to the Shaposhnikov family.

Grossman writes eloquently, not about tactical issues of warfare, but about the lives of his characters during this period. The battle is raging, but the cast still have romantic affairs, have children, read books, play the piano, denounce their colleagues, drink vodka and indulge in all of the petty jealousies of "normal" life everywhere. Grossman is particularly adept at capturing the underlying tension and fear in Soviet life - the continuous fear that no matter how bright one's star may be today, a careless remark or badly judged comment can land you in Lubyanka or worse tomorrow.

Stalin and Hitler make cameo style appearances - interestingly drawn as almost human with personal fears and concerns of their own. Hitler is seen walking in a forest and being afraid of the shadows, whilst Stalin is said to b worried about his appearance. Most interestingly, given the time the book was written, Grossman is openly critical of the regime and of Stalin, using his characters to criticise the appalling events of 1937 with the series of show trials and executions that removed the revolutionary generation of Bukharin, Radek and others. One of the main characters - Victor Shtrum, is required to fill in a questionnaire as part of a Communist Party investigation into his "activities". The questionnaire includes detailed investigation of his ethnic and social origins, those of his wife and also of his parents and other family members. He knows that identifying his ethnicity as being Jewish will disadvantage him. He is worried that some of his family are or were petty bourgeois and knows that this will disadvantage him. Some of his family moved abroad during the Tsarist period and have remained overseas. He nows that this will also disadvantage him. Grossman's point surely was to draw out the similarities between the Hitler and Stalin regimes, both of which were virulently anti-semitic and both of which made judgements about people based on their family history, network and ethnicity.

Grossman takes an "episodic" approach to the story - moving from one set of characters to another to keep us updated with the progression of the various stories running through the book. There are incredible acts of kindness and bravery - Sofya Levinton gives up the chance to avoid the gas chambers when doctors are asked to step forward (we are told early on that she is a highly thought of doctor), in order to stay with a small boy who has been separated from his parents. She knows that she will be earmarked for death but chooses to look after the child. This particular story includes a description of the gassing of Jews inside one of the camps from the point of view of the victims. It is impossible to know how to write about this.

There are other appalling acts of horror and random violence including the description of the torture of prisoners in Lubyanka. Some of Grossman's best writing comes near the end of the book with the astonishing scenes that accompany the eventual surrender of the German forces to the Russians as people make a range of behavioural choices that will stay with them forever. More than anything, Life and Fate is a stunning expose of life within a totalitarian regime where you can be shot for not having the appropriate permission to be in a particular city at a particular time, where despite the waging of the most horrifying war ever, there is still time for political commissars to question soldiers (and citizens) to establish their socialist orthodoxy and to ensure those who do not pass muster face the consequences.

Author Vasily Grossman was born in the Ukraine in 1905 and was both a writer and journalist. He worked as a war correspondent for the Red Army newspaper, Krasnaya Zvedz, in the Second World War and wrote firsthand accounts of the battles of Moscow, Stalingrad, Kursk and Berlin. He also wrote eyewitness accounts of the German extermination camps following liberation. Shaken by Stalin's move to overt anti-semitism after the war, his two major works - Life and Fate and Everything Flows were censored during the Krushchev period (Stalin died in 1953) and were classified as anti-soviet. Although he was never arrested, the KGB undertook a number of raids on his home - confiscating manuscripts, notes and even the typewriter ribbon on which Life and Fate had been written! Communist party ideologue, Mikhail Suslov said the book could be published - but perhaps in 200 years time! Grossman didn't live to see his work published, dying from stomach cancer in 1964 but copies were smuggled out by Soviet dissidents including Andrei Sakharov. The book was eventually published in Russia in 1988 - just before the fall of the regime he had criticised so much.

Vasily Grossman - war correspondent and writer

Life and Fate is a long and challenging journey, but one well worth taking. The Vintage Orange Inheritance edition is extremely readable and there is a helpful list of characters at the back of the book in case you forget anyone between episodes. It might also be worth a quick read up on Russian naming systems before undertaking the book in earnest - some characters are referred to by their patronyms whilst others may (also) be referred to by a range of diminutives!

I know now what my friend feels about the horror of history in this part of the world, but Grossman's work bears out my point about the incredible creativity of the Russians - much of it coming from this shocking experience.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Second week at the UK Jewish Film Festival - Holocaust stories, gangs in Bat Yam and a great Dutch movie

The second week of the UK Jewish Film Festival featured some great cinema. These were my highlights!

Here I Learned to Love is an extremely moving documentary about two brother - Avner and Izik, children in Poland during the Second World War. Separated from their parents, they were looked after first by their aunt Malka who managed to get them onto the controversial Kasztner train by throwing them on at the last minute before falling into the care of an unrelated young woman - Naomi who looked after them until they were liberated just before the end of the War.

The two men, both in their 70's had taken different paths to dealing with their history. Avner refused to talk about it and blocking it out in order to become a "Sabra" following their arrival in Israel just after the end of the War. Izik was more forthcoming and wrote about his experiences. The film takes them on a journey of terrible discovery, back to Europe, to Poland, to the death camps and on to Budapest from where they were taken to eventual safety - but not before a sojourn in Bergen-Belsen.

The love between the two brothers is obvious as is the trauma they feel at re-experiencing their childhood years. There is a particularly touching scene where we see them sitting talking and holding hands whilst in Europe and talking about their lives. Touching in a different way - devastating - is the moment when a Polish official manages to trace the records of their mother - Mindel - and Avner says "Mindele, there is so much I have to tell you".

Avner was present at the screening as was his niece and the film director - Avi Angel. A very dapper and sprightly gentlemen, Avi was clearly touched by the audience's reception and spoke clearly (and well, despite his protests!) in English in answer to questions from the floor. One member of the audience asked if he felt better now that he had spoken about his past and faced it head-on. He gave a hearty "yes" in response and it was easy to believe.

Security at this year's festival had been a little less obvious than in previous years. Until Saturday night that is, when following threats from Hamas to renew suicide bombings in Israel, security was more obvious and bag searches were carried out. Good, I like the idea of being safe in the cinema - but sad that its likely someone might want to blow me up because I've gone to see an Israeli film.

God's Neighbours, a new Israeli movie featured three young religious men living in Bat Yam. Avi, the most interesting character, is only recently religious but struggling with himself after the death of his mother and trying to find meaning in life through the Nachman, Breslov group of Hasidic Jews. His two friends are Kobi, the most extreme and who especially favours violence as a way of bringing people to religion and Yaniv, who is the least interesting and easily led of the three.

The film examines the clash between ultra religious and secular sections of Israeli society, Russian immigrants and to a lesser extent, the Arabs. Interestingly at least one of the panelists in the Q and A that followed the film seemed most interested in the short piece that featured the violence between the Hasidim and the Arabs, despite it being a relatively small part of the film and not the major issue.

Female characters are few and far between - this is a "a man's movie" but here is some love interest when Avi begins to fall for the very secular Miri and both begin to influence each other - perhaps indicating that there can be a dialogue and that there is something for both sides to learn - although the panelists (mostly) disagreed, instead viewing Miri's renewed interest in religion as capitulation.

One of the most interesting dimensions of this challenging and often violent film is that it focuses on a largely Sephardi community in Bat Yam, with the lead characters being of Turkish, Moroccan and Yemenite background. Avi and his father even exchange a few words in Ladino - I wonder how many others in the audience spotted this? Very interestingly we see that socially and culturally there is little difference between the different groups featured in the film with religious and secular Jews and Arabs all drinking coffee, playing shesh besh and eating Mizrachi food during the course of the film.

A great central performance from Roy Assaf as Avi. One for more general release please.

Suskind - by makers of Black Book is a heart breaking true story of Walter Suskind, a German Jew who had quit his home country to escape persecution only to get caught in the same trap following the German invasion of the Netherlands. We see the gradual erosion of  the rights of Jews and their separation from the rest of society. Suskind is faced with the challenge of co-operating with the oppressors or trying to subvert them, knowing it is unlikely either he or his family will survive.

There are some truly shocking scenes in this film. The vile collaborationist Dutch characters, (of whom there were many despite decades of telling a different story) - such as the "key man" who empties Jewish properties once the inhabitants have been deported and happily turns in anyone he finds hiding in return for money. There is the tacit collabariton of some of the leading members of the Judenrat whilst acknowledging whatever they did would be wrong - Suskind challenges them morally. And also the examples of those who didn't collaborate or stand by, like van Hulst who lived behind the theatre where Jews awaiting deportation were held or the "communist" policeman who helped spirit children away from the Germans.

Excellent performances from Jeroen Spitzenberger as Suskind, Nyncke Beekhuyzen as his wife Hannah and a suitably tortured performance from Karl Marcovics as SS boss Ferdinand Aus der Funten. Marcovits played the lead role in a film from the same period - The Counterfeiters, which was screened at the festival a couple of years ago.  It is still possible to visit the Hollandse Schouwberg (Dutch Theatre) which was the last stop for Dutch Jews and Jews who had fled to the Netherlands to escape Germany and Austria, before being transported to the holding camp at Westerbork and then, for the main part, to Auschwitz and death. 140,000 Jews lived in the Netherlands at the time of the German invasion. 75% of the total were murdered.

The Last Flight of Petr Ginz is a documentary telling the story of another Holocaust victim - talented Czech teenager, Petr Ginz. By the time he reached his early teens he had written a number of novels, (some of which survived the War) as well as being a talented young artist. Petr was deported to the Czech town (which became a camp) of Terezin, renamed Theresienstadt by the Germans and during his time there, managed to establish and edit a magazine for the other young prisoners. He was deported to Auschwitz in October 1942, where aged 16 he was gassed to death on arrival.

The documentary features his sister Chava (now Pressburger) who survived Theresienstadt. She speaks movingly about her older brother and how they played together and teased each other in the happy years before the Second World War. She spoke about Petr's passion for learning and for life, his talent for drawing, writing and inventing things and his desire to travel in space! Some of his art work has also survived and was featured in the film. His diary for 1941-42 resurfaced in Prague in 2003 when someone who had cleared a house in the Praha Mrodany area of the city discovered them in an attic and offered to sell them to Yad Vashem. Chava managed to acquire two of the notebooks and have been published as "The Diary of Petr Ginz".  An excellent documentary and another reminder of the great losses during that terrible period.

And so the festival comes to an end for another year. It passes by so quickly. My favourite films? I loved the documentary Life in Stills and I suppose my favourite drama was Yossi, although God's Neighbours and Suskind ran it very close. I missed some movies because of either clashes with other films or other commitments and particularly want to see Lea and Daria and the two old German ladies Oma and Bella so will be looking for opportunities to see them. 

Saturday 17 November 2012

Tigran Hamasiyan at the Wigmore Hall

I seem to be having a bit of an Armenian season. First there was the Arbovian Street in Yerevan Picture Post, then there was the Dijvan Gaspariyan concert, not to mention Cafe Ararat in Moscow and to keep the theme going I went to Tigran Hamasiyan's London Jazz Festival Concert at the Wigmore Hall last week.

I am not entirely sure how to categorise Tigran's music. There are clearly strong jazz influences in the work of this young piano maestro, but he also delves into electronica (which is less my thing), unusual use of his vocal talents and perhaps most of all, makes much reference to Armenian folk music. All of these were displayed during his Wigmore Hall appearance. Perhaps evidence of categorisation not mattering! He played several tracks from his recent A Fable album - a solo piano collection. Tigran performed some of his own compositions such as the title track, one all time great jazz standard - One Day My Prince Will Come (made famous by an earlier piano maestro - the late, great Bill Evans) and some songs inspired by classical Armenian poetry.

At his Wigmore concert he was joined by Armenian female vocalist Gayanee Movsisyan whose sang two of the tacks inspired by Armenian folk and religious music as well as joining Tigran on a short improvised session. Like many pianists, his playing is very physical, with lots of mumbling and grunting, much standing up and leaning in very close to the piano. I especially liked the title track of the album, which you can listen to by clicking on the video link above.

Tigran was born in Gyumri, Armenia's second city in 1987 and exhibited musical talent at a very early age, performing at the first International Jazz Festival in Yerevan in 1998 and again in 2000. At 16, he moved with his parents and painter/ sculptor sister to Los Angeles, going on to study at the University of Southern California and winning the prestigious Thelonius Monk piano competition. Still only 25, and having released probably his best album so far, we can expect many years of magical music from him. His appeal is wide and transcends the usual musical boundaries - evidence of this being the diversity of the audience at the Wigmore Hall - a much younger audience than mainstream jazz often attracts as well as being ethnically diverse.

The Hall itself is all worth a visit, with its wonderful symbolist paintings above the stage. Painted by Gerald Moria and Frank Lynn Jenkins in 1901 and restored ninety years later, they include depictions of the "Soul of Music" and "The Genius of Harmony" and would not have looked out of place in the Vienna or Budapest of the same period.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Picture Post Number Eleven - Jerusalem's Famous Sundial

Israel by Yekkes

This is a very familiar image to Jerusalem residents, situated just across the road from the wonderful Mahane Yehuda market on Jaffa Street. The sundial on the front of the building is a well known landmark although few people know the building's name - the Zoharei Chama (Sunrise) Synagogue and even less are aware of the history of the building.

Constructed in stages between 1908 and 1917, by one Rabbi Shmuel Levy, an Amercian taylor who came to  Jerusalem at the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1906 he purchased a small house in Jaffa Street with the intuition of expanding it to provide rooms for immigrants as well as to act as a synagogue. He financed his project through selling lottery tickets in the United States.

When completed, it was the tallest building in Jerusalem and included the ground floor synagogue and the Glory of Zion and Jerusalem hostel ono the upper floors, able to accommodate 50 people. The sundial was added to the fourth floor and was intended to enable religious Jews to accurately identify the time for morning and afternoon prayers and the lighting of Shabbat candles. The top floor was lost in an earthquake in 1927 whist a fire in 1941 caused extensive damage to the building. The Jerusalem municipality carried out a partial restoration in 1980 and the building still serves as a synagogue.

The sundial was a designed by Rabbi Moshe Shapiro a watchmaker and Meah Shearim resident, who taught himself astronomy and also made sundials for a number of other synagogues including the old Hurva synagogue in the old city, destroyed by Jordanian troops during the War of Independence in 1948 and recently reconstructed. The Zoharei Chama synagogue and its sundial is a much loved iconic presence in one of Jerusalem's most exciting and vibrant areas - Shuk Mahane Yehuda.