Tuesday 24 April 2012

A Bit of Drama

The Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv has an international reputation for staging high quality, cutting edge drama and some innovative takes on selected classic musicals. Over the years I have seen a number of great plays there  - Ghetto, The Warm Family, Was it a Dream, Havdala and a fantastic Hebrew production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Before you get too impressed, please note that I attended performances with English surtitles.  The Cameri has a couple of performances with this facility most weeks, which is great for those of us who are not (yet) fluent in Hebrew. On my recent visit to Tel Aviv I managed to see two performances - a revival of the musical Cabaret, immortalised in Bob Fosse's 1972 movie version, and Aristocrats, an Israeli drama by Edna Mazya. Mazya incidentally also authored the aforementioned Was it a Dream - perhaps the best play I have seen at the Cameri.

Cabaret was staged in the theatre's main auditorium and is one of Tel Aviv's current hottest tickets. I have seen two other productions of Cabaret - the 2006-8 London revival with Tom Dreyfus and Sheila Hancock outstanding as the Emcee and Fraulein Schneider, and a student version in Bangkok (!) in 2001, which was surprisingly good if a little "displaced" with the songs being sung in Thai.

The current Cameri version is a triumph. For me it compares very favourably with the London version referred to above, with excellent performances from newcomer Ola Schur-Selektar in the role of Sally Bowles and veteran Miki Kam in the role of Fraulein Schneider. (Hear Ola singing a Leah Goldberg lyric here). Ola Schur-Selektar was convincing as the self-obsessed, lonely, thoughtless and ultimately sad Sally Bowles. Her voice is extremely powerful and worked especially well in the big show stopping number "Maybe this time" (hear Liza Minelli's performance here), which was heartbreakingly sad as those of us who know the story knew that "this time" wasn't going to end well either. Miki Kam was endearing in the role of the, not quite prim and proper Fraulein Schneider and I am told that some years ago she played the Sally Bowles role, so this was a nice touch.

Aki Avni as Cliff Bradshaw, the erstwhile narrator in the movie, and based on Christopher Isherwood, author of the two novels that the play references "Goodbye to Berlin" and "Mr Norris changes trains" was good, but the real star of the show was Itay Tiran, outstanding as the Emcee. By turns amusing and  threatening, captivating throughout, his character holds a mirror up to German society in this period, showing the acceptance and approval of, or compromises it made with evil and the devastating finale of this period. He is not a character for good, but is the only one facing up to what is really happening around him.

Another good performance came from Motti Katz in the role of Max. We see Max at the beginning of the play, using Cliff to smuggle goods into Germany and are encouraged to think of him as a good hearted villain as he helps Cliff secure lodgings and shows him a good time in Berlin. But we also witness his slide into acceptance of Nazism, taking advantage of the opportunities it offers him for financial gain and the vicious turn this takes as he moves on to visiting violence on former friends. This descent into darkness is also played out at the engagement party of  Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz, who happens to be Jewish. When Max realises that Schultz is a Jew he tells the Fraulein the she can't and mustn't marry him, whilst Fraulein Kost (convincingly played by Irit Kaplan), lodger and hooker, leads the party in a chilling rendition of the Nazi song "Tomorrow belongs to me". Chilling, as she begins singing alone and one by one the guests step forward to join her in the song, leaving Schultz, Schneider, Sally and Cliff looking on. All this whilst they drink the wine, eat the food and enjoy the hospitality of Herr Schultz.

As ever, the songs are truly great and all are well performed, with a few clever plays on words, inserting Hebrew rhymes into songs sung partly in German and English. For those of you who know Hebrew, you might be amused by the witty rhyming couplet of one of Sally's songs "Farewell my liebe herr, lehitraot haver (להתראות חבר) which seemed to catch the attention of a large part of the audience. And speaking of the songs, the "chorus", that is the dancing girls and boys of the kit kat club were truly excellent, glamorous, funny, raucous and convincing in their roles as "entertainers" for which read prostitutes. (That's meant as a compliment by the way!). Anyone living in or visiting Tel Aviv during the run of this production MUST go to see it!

Aristocrats was something very different. A fast moving, one act play lasting just 90 minutes, it told the story of the Ben-Canaan family from the 1950's through to the 1970's. Parents Yair and Hagar are committed Zionists, working hard to build the state, serving in the army, representing the country overseas to raise much needed funds and in the case of Yair eventually serving as a government minister. All laudable you might say, but playwright Mazya shows this to be at the expense of their children - Oz and Debby who are left on the kibbutz whenever the parents are away (which is often) and also Yair's gay brother Rudi.

Rudi is a failed business man, trying to recreate his former Berlin fur business in steaming hot Tel Aviv, running up debts and getting into trouble with gangsters. Persuaded by Hagar, Yair eventually bails him out but only on condition he marry and live a "normal" life, so as not to embarrass the family. Married off to the inconvenient and unstable Helena, a young Holocaust survivor, he is unable to cope and commits suicide. Yair forbids his name to be mentioned or for him to be discussed ever again.

Wind forward to the 1970's and Yair is at the height of his career in Government, son Oz (extremely well played by Ido Rosenburg) is gay, living in America and has a career as a dancer and daughter Debby is a left wing journalist campaigning for Palestinian causes and in conflict with her father. The denouement of the play comes with a what could be seen as a double act of betrayal as Debby becomes involved with a terrorist organisation and Yair, turns her in to the security services. Yair is struck down with a stroke that removes his ability to speak and although reconciled to his son, turns his back on his daughter.

The play deals with issues on a macro and a micro level. The problem of communication between generations is clearly played out as is the challenge of communication between political enemies, but I found the issues presented a little too obviously and without acknowledgement or examination of the motives of the parents. Hagar, the mother, has a moment of truth when she admits that she thought of her children as an inconvenience, which is brave and probably true, but I felt that the play dealt harshly with the generation that had to literally, fight to establish a safe homeland and to develop a modern society from very little. Worth seeing but I left feeling I needed more explanation.

One of the quirky things I like about the Cameri is that if you go to an evening performance, when you leave, there is almost always a bagel seller outside, shouting "bagelim, bagelim" which is infinitely nicer than being assailed by the dreadful stench of hot dog and hamburger carts in central London late at night. There are also often extremely good musicians playing in the square after performances. I have a lasting memory of leaving a play a few years ago to discover many couples - several of them in their 60s and beyond - dancing to the trad-jazz/ kezmer inflected "Midnight in Moscow". I'd like to stand in Red Square at midnight and listen to this...but then I'm a bit of a romantic.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Last day in Tel Aviv - fresh fruit, antiques and a bit more Bauhaus

I wrote earlier about Bialik, my favourite street in Tel-Aviv. A close second has to be Ahad Ha'am Street. This very long street runs from Ben-Zion Boulevard parallel to Rothschild Boulevard, crosses Sheinkin Street (amongst others) and runs on across Allenby Street before petering out near Neve Tzedek.

Ahad Ha'am features some of the best Bauhaus buildings in the city as well as retaining some wonderful buildings in the earlier Eclectic, levantine influenced style. I particularly like numbers 120 and 138. Number 120 features several Magen David (Stars of David) as decoration on the front of one wing of the building, whilst 138 is a very large structure, with a recessed entry and barometer window on the staircase. Both have had some restoration and both look truly stunning in the Tel Aviv sunshine. Number 49 was one of the first buildings to be successfully restored on this street and the restoration remains faithful to the original curved frontage, making some of the interior spaces odd shapes. The original architect was Zaki Chelouche and the building went up in 1933.

Ahad Ha'am was an important essayist in the early Zionist movement, but opposed some of the key ideas of Herzl, splitting off from the main movement. Born Asher Ginsberg, near Kiev in 1856, he was a champion of the renaissance of the Hebrew language. Cafe Ginsburg at number 55 is named for him but the street has some other serious literary links too. Number 89 is the former home of Shaul Tchernikowsky. Russian born to a religious family, Tchernikowsky was an accomplished poet and philosopher as well as a doctor and worked for a time in the 1930's as the official doctor of Tel Aviv's municipal schools. It is somehow appropriate that part of number 89 now serves as a doctor's surgery. Sadly the building is somewhat neglected and in need of renovation.

Number 37 is the jewel in the crown of this lovely street. Built in 1924 and designed by architect Dov Hershkowitz, the former Municipal Boys School is one of the last buildings in Tel Aviv to feature original Bezalel ceramic tiles on its exterior. The images include Raban's cities of Eretz Israel (Haifa, Hebron, Jaffa and Tiberias), pomegranates, scenes from Jerusalem, winged lions, menorahs, Tablets of the Law and most strikingly, a vision of Judgment Day over the entrance. That must have concentrated the minds of pupils wonderfully each morning. I understand that restoration work is to be carried out on the building which is good news, but was shocked to see that two tiles from the ceramic sign on the front of the school appear to have been broken off in an act of vandalism.

Ahad Ha'am Street has some great places to eat and drink. The already mentioned Cafe Ginsburg at number 55 is a good coffee and sandwich or cake stop and has a beautiful tiled floor and friendly service. For something more substantial I like Cafe Noir at number 43 which has an "international" menu with good pasta, meat and fish dishes (if you like fish -  I don't) and a fantastic poppy seed strudel on the dessert list. If you are heaving the strudel make sure you either leave enough space for it, or enough time, because its no small matter! According to the most recent edition of the Tel Aviv City Guide, they serve the best schnitzel in Israel. Now that's some claim, but my friend Yonah tells me its good, which is a good recommendation. It comes pounded thin, crisply fried in breadcrumbs and accompanied with mashed potatoes. Viennese style I believe. The restaurant itself is very comfortable with old fashioned decor, good service and warm lighting.

My own favourite is Mezze at number 51a which serves levantine influenced vegetarian food. I like to get a few dishes - the sweet potatoes with herbs and tzatziki is fantastic as are the slightly spiced chick peas and all of the salads. They also have malabi, a delicious middle eastern milk pudding made with vanilla, rosewater, cream and nuts. There are variations on this throughout the middle east, but I like Mezze's take on it the best. You won't be surprised to know I like it with very strong coffee.

Technically not in Ahad Ha'am Street, but right on the corner of the junction with Sheinkin is Cafe Tamar, a Tel-Aviv institution since 1941 and run by the formidable Sara Stern since 1956. Tamar retains its old furnishings - the chairs are said to come from Turkish and Mandate times, the tables are formica covered and the pictures, posters and photographs on the walls date back years, several showing Queen Sara herself as well as the trail of politicians, writers, actors, musicians and other important Tel-Aviv characters from  the last 60 years or so. The clientele is very mixed with artists, writers, business people and politicians rubbing shoulders with local workers and residents. Stern is a bit of a Tel Aviv legend having been born at the original moshav at Nahalal where Moshe Dayan was married, whilst  Tel Aviv Mayor, Ron Huldai gave a party for her 85th birthday.

Taking a slight detour from Ahad Ha'am Street to walk down Sheinkin you can find Cafe Sheah (pronounced See-ak) at number 50. Sheah has two meanings - one is a type of bush the other is a conversation. I made my first visit here earlier this week to sample owner Charlie's excellent coffee and one of those very acceptable individual, circular, crumb topped cheesecakes that Israeli cafes specialise in. The cafe is very cosy with a good range of coffees imported from Guatemala, Ethiopia, Costa Rica, etc. and ground on the spot. There is also a good menu of light meals, a selection of books and magazines to pass the time away with and a very impressive coffee grinding machine on display. This is a great place to have a coffee break away from shopping on Sheinkin Street or if you are out for a stroll in this part of town. You can also buy packs of freshly ground coffee to take away. Originally from Jerusalem, Charlie loves Tel Aviv likes a chat and promotes a "green" approach to business. Pay him a visit.

Still on food, Tel-Aviv has hundreds of juice bars - something we don't really have in London.  The idea is very simple - pile up lots of fresh and colourful fruit, invite your customers to choose what they want, squeeze the juice in front of them and send them away happy. Dizengoff and King George streets in particular have many juice bars, but the best one (in my experienced opinion) is the Juice and Smoothies Bar at 99 Dizengoff.

What makes it special? The great choice of fruits (and vegetables) - oranges, mangos, strawberries, bananas, various kinds of melon, papaya and whatever else happens to be in season, but also celery, beetroot, red cabbage, ginger, carrots and several vegetables I don't know the name of! You can have whatever mixture you want, in one of three sizes - at a good price - and its all natural, no junk added, juice.

The Juice and Smoothies Bar at 99 is very well known in this busy part of Tel Aviv as owner Sagi Arnon spins vintage vinyl discs on his drinks counter, entertaining customers waiting to be served as well as passers-by. Sagi's taste is eclectic - Rick James, Bob Marley, Ella Fitzgerald and sometimes old time big band music from the 1950's. He's also very friendly and has links to London (his wife is a north London girl). And, as if all that isn't enough, he has a loyalty card scheme so you can get a free drink after you've bought a few from him. What are you waiting for?

My three weeks in Israel has now drawn to a close - time flies when you are enjoying yourself. I gave myself a final treat - though not involving cake this time. Ben Yehuda Street has many antique and art shops of varying quality. One of the best is the small but beautiful Perry Gallery at number 110. Owned by Israel Perry, the gallery is packed with lamps, metal objects, ceramics, posters and other items of Israeli art. Many of the items are in art deco, art nouveau or the early Israeli arts and crafts style. I went in just to look. I came out with a beautiful Bezalel picture frame. It was a difficult choice between that, the Gur Arie designed ceramic tiles and numerous other delights. The gallery staff are knowledgeable and friendly  and can look out for items that collectors particularly want.

Back to London where the weather has turned wintery again. Where's that hot chocolate I bought in Amsterdam. Wonder what happened to Dudi...

For more photos from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Akko and elsewhere in Israel please visit my flickr account here.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Jazz maestro at Levontin 7

Wow wow wow! Just back from this evening's jazz set at Levontin 7 in Tel Aviv. Billed as the Shai Maestro quartet, Mr Maestro on piano, Amos Hoffman (electric guitar), Gilad Abro (bass) and Amir Bresler (drums) showed us that there were four maestros in this edgy basement bar in a quiet side street in South Tel Aviv.

We were treated to about 90 minutes of great jazz in a single set which included interpretations of some standards - Sunny Side of the Street, Body and Soul and a heart stopping version of Misty. There were also some new(to me) numbers including a fantastic swing piece that showcased each of the quartet with a lengthy solo. The encore (again unknown to me) was again a showcase for each of these excellent musicians with some teasers thrown in - a riff stolen from George Benson's version of On Broadway and what I swear was the killer piano riff from the old Linx track - Intuition.

The intimate nature of the venue means that you are never very far from the stage and although they had "packed them in" and things were very cosy, it was still possible to watch the different facial expressions of each musician and their different ways of engaging with their instrument. Shai Maestro seemed in extremely happy mood as he practically danced across the piano keys; Abro is all fury and passion,  grimacing, grunting and teeming sweat with the effort of it all; Bresler is a study in concentration with occasional outbursts of laughter at the interplay between Hoffman and the others,whilst Hoffman himself is the "elder statesman", solid, relaxed and a bit cheeky leading the quartet and keeping them guessing about the end of the number! He is also the joker in the group telling funny stories about each of the others to the extent that Abro had to hide behind his bass in embarrassment. I must improve my Hebrew so I can get more of the jokes!

Hoffman is an accomplished recording artist with several albums to his name. As well as playing guitar he is also known for being a great oud player. Maestro has his first album out any day now (I am assuming its not out yet in Israel as none were on sale at the gig - shame). I have seen each of these musicians perform before in different line-ups, two of them, Maestro and Bresler  with the king of Israeli jazz, Avishai Cohen at gigs in London. All four are leading lights in Israel's world class jazz scene and have played widely overseas.

Levontin 7 is a great venue. No frills, but cosy, good acoustics (to my untrained ear at least), a ground floor bar that feels as cosy as someone's lounge and interestingly a young audience. All of this for just 50 shekels entry fee - which is less than ten quid. Can't beat it. Who's on next?

Thursday 12 April 2012

Back to Tel Aviv - Bauhaus, Bialik and Blumenthal

There are many reasons to visit Tel-Aviv. One of the biggest attractions of the city, and the magnet that first drew me here, is its collection of Bauhaus buildings.  There are more Bauhaus/ Modernist buildings here than anywhere else in the world and it was this that secured Tel-Aviv UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2003.

Many of these wonderful buildings are now crumbling, but steps have been taken to preserve them with protected status preventing demolition and governing restoration. The reason for this embarrassment of architectural riches is that during the 1920's and 1930's, many central European Jewish architects came to Eretz Israel either through choice or as refugees, forced out of Germany, Austria and the former Czechoslovakia. Europe's loss was Israel's gain as these architects defined the way Tel-Aviv would look for decades, and indeed the way most of it looks today.

Bauhaus was a design school and philosophy founded in Germany in 1919 until it was forcibly closed in 1933, although it is known that some of the non-Jewish designers co-operated with the Nazi regime and worked throughout the war period. The school's main principle was the unification of arts and crafts in order to achieve "total" works of art. As well as producing interior design items, the Bauhaus style was extremely influential in the architectural world. Although the style developed over a number of years, its key components embraced functionalism and rationalism. Ornament was (generally) rejected but individual character was given to these, almost universally white buildings, by the addition of features including ribbon windows, thermometer windows, balconies, roof terraces and some internal flourishes on staircases or with lighting.

Some buildings feature beautiful curves, perhaps with no better example than the former Cinema Esther, now the Hotel Cinema (pictured below) on Dizengoff Kikar and its sister hotel the Center, directly opposite. Fully restored these buildings give a hint of the grandeur that was Tel Aviv in the 1930's. The architect for the Cinema was Yehuda Megidovich. Work began on the building in 1938 and was completed the following year. Mr. Megidovich was responsible for a number of outstanding buildings in Tel Aviv including the Great Synagogue on Allenby (see it here) and the smaller Moshav Zkenim Synagogue opposite (see it here).

Israel by Yekkes

The Cinema is the larger hotel and retains many original features including the dramatic main staircase, movie posters, old cameras and assorted cinema paraphernalia. I must confess a slight prejudice in favour of these hotels as I always stay at the Center when visiting the city. The staff in both hotels are excellent, the location is great and the recent refurbishment of the rooms at the Center is another reason to keep coming back.

Another favourite building of mine is the former home (pictured below) of the great Israeli photographer, Avraham Soskin at the Neve Tzedek end of Lilienblum Street. The house is easy to find and has a commemorative plaque to Soskin. Architect Ze'ev Rechter was responsible for the building which was constructed in 1933. The house includes classic Bauhaus features of asymmetry, roof terrace and a small balcony facing Lilienblum. It stands out as a real jewel on this once very elegant but now somewhat neglected street.

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

There are many other Bauhaus gems in this most vibrant of cities and its great to discover them by walking the streets. But, if you don't have much time in Tel-Aviv you may prefer to have a guided tour of the key Bauhaus sites. If so, you can do no better than to visit the wonderful Bauhaus Centre on Dizengoff. The centre is owned and run by Micha and Shlomit Gross, and offers tours lasting about 2 hours for a very reasonable 60 shekels. They are real experts in their field and can tell many interesting stories about the city too. If you are more independent you can pick up a self guided tour from the Centre, which is also a great place to see changing exhibitions, or to pick up books, postcards and souvenirs to take home. The current exhibition focuses on Brno in the Czech Republic, which is now on my long list of cities to visit. The Bauhaus Centre also inspired my visit to Eritrea back in 2010 (see here and here) after I saw their excellent exhibition on Asmara. There is also a branch of the Bauhaus Centre in Kikar Kedumin in Jaffa.

A good place to visit for more of the Bauhaus experience is Bialik Street. As well as having some lovingly restored Bauhaus buildings, it also houses a small Bauhaus Museum (pictured below) of interior design items. Exhibits include architectural drawings, Marcel Breuer chairs, Wagenfeld lamps and other Bauhaus classics. The museum is small, but entry is free and its definitely worth a visit. A catalogue is available, price 100 shekels.

Israel by Yekkes

Bialik Street has many other delights.  These include my favourite building in the city - Beit Bialik, the former home of Haim Nachman Bialik, generally acknowledged as Israel's national poet. The house was closed for several years for restoration but is now open for visitors. The exterior is in eclectic style rather than Bauhaus and has a distinctly levantine appearance.

The interior is truly stunning. On the ground floor, you can visit the reception room with its beautiful fireplace, deep blue walls and Ze'ev Raban designed ceramics, whilst the lobby is a dramatic deep red. The colours are based on images of the original decoration. The dining room is more subdued but includes some original furnishings. There are also a number of paintings on display from Bialik's collection. these include original works by Reuven Rubin (Hassid from 1933, Rabbi, 1925) and one by Mane-Katz (Jewish couple at a feast, 1928). There are also works by Hermann Struck, Yosef Budko and Pinchas Litvinovsky in various parts of the house. Bialik's study and library have also been restored and are open to visitors.

No photographs are allowed in the Bialik House, but you can buy some very good postcards with excellent images of the interior as well as one showing the original plans of the building. There is currently no English language publication about the house in the small shop and ticket office. This is a shame - a well illustrated guide book would certainly sell, but better still would be an English translation of the fantastic little book they sell about the history of Bialik Street. The pictures alone are very tempting!

There are two other museums on Bialik Street. - The Rubin Museum featuring highlights of the works of Reuven Rubin, a reconstruction of his studio, a short film and a number of interesting documents and artefacts. For me, Rubin's work epitomises the aspirations of the pioneers of the state - showing the beauty of the landscape as well as scenes from urban life. I can almost feel the heat of the hamsun and need to shield my eyes from the hot middle eastern sun when looking at his work. Like several of the early modern Israeli artists (Gutman, Janco, etc) he also acknowledged the Arab presence in his work viewing them in a slightly romantic way but clearly with hopes for an optimistic future. I have another Tel Aviv confession, and that is that Rubin is my favourite artist.  Two of his works hang in my lounge at home - poster format reproductions of course. As well as being a great artist, he was also Israel's first ambassador to Romania when independence was declared in 1948.

You can also find the Tel Aviv City Museum on Bialik Street. It is located in a renovated eclectic style building at the kikar end of the street, opposite the fountain in what was once the Tel Aviv City Hall. There are regular exhibitions of contemporary art - currently an exhibition of the work of Tel Aviv University fashion students. There is also a permanent display of photographs collected from city residents past and present, to mark the city's centenary year. The pictures are grouped into themes such as "the beach" "parks" "festivals" and give a fascinating glimpse of Tel Aviv in its glorious formative years. The museum also has the reconstructed office of the city's first mayor - Meir Dizengoff who was responsible for so much of the development and innovation of the early years.

As if this wasn't enough, just across from the City Museum you can find the Felicia Blumental Centre (pictured below). Established by the famous pianist of the same name. the centre offers several concerts each week, mainly classical but also including jazz, Ladino and other music forms. The Centre also regularly showcases young musical talent with youth performances. There is also a library and a small cafe here, but the cafe is only open for performances.

Israel by Yekkes

I went to a concert here some years ago to hear Ari Erev, a local jazz artist, playing a tribute to the deceased piano maestro Bill Evans. The concert was very good and I have since acquired Mr Erev's two CDs, but I also met an interesting character at the interval - an octogenarian named Yehuda. He asked me where I was from and commented that my accent was similar to that of Newcastle - its a little further south than that, but he was close. He told me that he had studied in England in the 1930's and then when war broke out had been unable to return to Eretz Israel, had spent several years living and working in Newcastle and asked me if they still use expressions like "hinnie" and "bonnie lad". I was able to reassure him that they do. Strangely, he also remembered that Newcastle folk are very sociable and some of them like a few drinks. He told me, still somewhat shocked all these years later, that often on the last bus home in the evenings "about one third of the people would be drunk". I was able to reassure him that this tradition has also been maintained although I wouldn't like to guess what the percentage is today. Small world.

Bialik Street also boasts a good cafe - Cafe Bialik at the Allenby end of the street. The interior is cosy and features Gaudi-esque mosaics and a good menu of light meals (Hebrew only last time I went but staff are happy to help). There are tables outside for those who prefer to drink in the fresh air.

Cafe Bialik also offers regular musical performances. One of the great things about Tel Aviv (and Israel) is that some of the smallest places can give you the biggest surprise. I went to Cafe Bialik a few years ago to hear a new young girl jazz singer to find she was the protege of Edna Goren. Not only that, but Ms Goren was present that evening, and not only that, but after ten minutes of resistance to the crowd's cheering, she took the floor herself (no stage here) and led a rendition of La Vie en Rose - a bit different to Yonatan Avishai's version (see here), but nonetheless excellent.

Ah yes, I love Tel Aviv.

Oh, and no news of Dudi...http://www.flickr.com/photos/yekkes/6949547772/in/set-72157627865097166

Monday 9 April 2012

A postcard from Jerusalem

Israel by Yekkes
Street scene near Mahane Yehuda Shuk

Visiting Jerusalem at Pesach is both interesting and frustrating. It is interesting because there is a particular mood here with Pesach and Easter falling at the same time, and the city is even busier than usual. It is frustrating because it's hard to tell whether places will be open or closed. That's because there are a range of interpretations of the Pesach holidays across different businesses. As other seasoned visitors to Israel will know, the only way to avoid frustration is to go with the  flow, accept that you won't be able to get into some places and enjoy those that you can. And there will be plenty to see. Just walking the streets here is walking through history.

A note of caution. You won't read about major tourist sites in this post and you won't read about the political issues that plague the city, but you will read about some of my favourite places and a get a glimpse of the stories of some of the people who live and work in this wonderful city.

It is easy to eat well in Jerusalem and there are many excellent restaurants and cafes. I am a creature of habit and tend to stick to my tried and tested places, occasionally adding somewhere new to my list. These days I usually stay in the Harmony Hotel in Yoel Salomon street in the heart of downtown West Jerusalem. One of the attractions of this street is the wonderful cafe, Tmol Shilshom which is located up a flight of stairs in a courtyard and overlooks the busy Salomon Street below. Tmol Shilshom has an eclectic customer group, ranging from young Orthodox Jews out on dates, to tourists, writers and people who live or work in this part of the city.

The food at Tmol Shilshom is excellent. It works as both a cafe and a restaurant with hearty soups (I HAVE to have the sweet potato soup every time I visit Jerusalem), great pasta, salads, damn good cheese cake and other desserts. Tmol Shilshom is also a bookshop with the book shelves spread around the walls of the cafe, offering mainly second hand books in Hebrew and a smattering of European languages. There are regular literary events here, with book launches and poetry readings (usually but not always in Hebrew) as well as occasional musical evenings.

The cafe is named after the novel by Shmuel Yosef Agnon and roughly translated means "those were the days". Israel's literati have appeared here including Amos Oz, David Grossman, A.B. Yehoshua and the sadly departed and much missed Batya Gur. It's open from 9am until 1am, is kosher (closed on Shabbat) and has al fresco eating and drinking above the courtyard.

Another favourite is Barood, a Sephardi restaurant located in the narrow Jerusalem Passage that joins busy Jaffa Street to the bar-studded Rivlin Street. Barood is a bit of a Jerusalem institution. The restaurant revolves around the owner, Daniella, who appears most evenings and sits at the bar talking to customers old and new. Barood is popular for a number of reasons. The food is good - I like the roasted egg plant in yogurt and also the fried halloumi (feeling hungry just writing about it actually) as well as the fabulous cinnamon ice cream with espresso poured over it. Core blimey. There are regular live music performances at Barood, ranging from Greek traditional music, to Ladino songs, chansons, jazz and just about everything else.

The decor is idiosyncratic to say the least. The walls are adorned with vintage posters, photographs of old Jerusalem, foreign currency, mottoes, aged advertisements, a fascinating collection of cork screws(!) and many other interesting items. But the star of the show is Daniella herself. She once told me that during the first intifada many of her friends left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv because of the daily suicide bombings. Despite losing a very dear and close relative herself in an attack, she persevered and continued to open her restaurant day after day, often with no customers. Her family have been in Jerusalem for eight generations and she wasn't going to be forced out. Perseverance worked and the customers eventually came back. Barood is a bit special - and its open on Shabbat too (not kosher).

As well as eating in Jerusalem, I like to shop. Jerusalem is a bit of a shoppers paradise for me with some great places to rummage through books old and new, a really good music shop and a shuk well worth visiting just to look around even if you don't need to buy anything. I have written about Trionfo before here, but its worth another mention. Father and son Abraham and Gali run this business together having purchased the shop from an Italian book seller some years ago.

The shop is a treasure trove of antiquarian books, old posters, documents from the Mandate period (and even earlier), "objets" and various other paraphernalia. More recently, Gali has begun selling second hand vinyl records - attracting an additional, younger audience to the shop. Abraham and Gali will track books down for customers if they don't have them and I have them to thank for my small (but beautiful) collections of Raban's and Lilien's works. I always manage to find something to buy and never fail to be surprised or delighted by something in the shop. Trionfo is at 9 Dorot Rishonim Street off the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall.

Ben Yehuda is a pedestrianised street with a tragic history including major bombing incidents in 1948, throughout the 1970's and into the current century. Nevertheless, its extremely busy and for me, offers much better opportunities for people watching rather than shopping. As well as Jerusalemites and tourists promenading, it attracts some of the more colourful characters in the city. Last night I saw a group of young Hassidim singing and dancing at almost midnight - I saw the same group here much earlier in the afternoon and if anything they were more energetic earlier on. I suppose this is Jerusalem's version of the Hare Krishna street experience in London.

Ben Yehuda also attracts many street musicians, some of whom are excellent and may well have played in orchestras at some point. Many Russian immigrants who were professional musicians in the old Soviet Union have been unable to find similar work in Israel. At the other end of the scale, just around the corner where Jaffa Street meets Kikar Zion, you can here the worst "singer" in Jerusalem if not in all Israel. I use the term "singer" loosely. He turns up almost every day, armed with a microphone through which he mumbles strange noises in a sort of "sub-crooner" style. I suspect he thinks he is a successor to Sinatra, but the only likeness I can imagine is that he sounds like Sinatra sounds now. If you know what I mean. Still, he seems to get money - perhaps for the humour of it?

Around the corner from Ben Yehuda in Ze'ev Raban Street, is another little gem, the Eighth Note music shop. Located in a side street basement, this is a treasure trove of music and movies. I love the freshness of Israeli jazz and the Eighth Note has a great collection. Even better, you can listen to the music before you decide to buy. The staff are excellent, very helpful and extremely knowledgeable - it's great to find a shop staffed mainly by young people who are so enthusiastic about what they are doing. They are also great sales people and I never leave empty handed. This time I also found a DVD that I intend to watch as soon as I get home - My Sweet Canary - the story of Greek rebetika singer Rosa Eskenazi. Obscure maybe, but I almost passed out with excitement when I saw it! You can here her perform here.

Israel by Yekkes

Above - detail of panel in Ze'ev Raban designed original doors of the Bezalel school of arts and crafts

Some readers will know I am a big fan of the Israeli artist Ze'ev Raban. I couldn't miss an opportunity to have another look at some of his designs whilst I am here and paid a visit to the West Jerusalem YMCA where he was responsible for some of the interior designs and some of the external ornament. The building, which opened in 1933, is a real cracker. The architect was Arthur Louis Harmon who also designed New York's Empire State Building. It references middle eastern architectural tradition as well as featuring arts and crafts and art nouveau relishes. The lobby and restaurant are Bezalel/ Raban designed masterpieces with fantastic blue arched lobby ceilings and an Ottoman style heater in the dining room. There are 12 cypress trees in the grounds, referencing the 12 tribes of Israel and 40 pillars in the courtyard to remember the 40 years the Jews spent wandering in the desert.

Israel by Yekkes

Above, bar in the YMCA with Bezalel designed features

The building is a symbol for co-existence in the city as set out in the legend on the external staircase by which the building is entered "Here is a place whose atmosphere is peace, where political and religious jealousies can be forgotten and international unity can be fostered and developed". We still have a long way to go with that, but this exquisite building facing the King David Hotel is a real landmark in the city. It also has a very elegant patio cafe complete with fountain where you can sample ok food or just relax with a drink.

Still on the theme of Raban, the little streets around the original Bezalel building, close to Schatz Street and leading up to Bezalel Street itself have come alive since my last visit with extra good quality cafes and daytime craft stalls. There are also some interesting independent stores here, including the Book Gallery on Schatz Street which has a sizeable basement that can't be seen from the street. Another place to browse. There are amusing signs in English and Hebrew asking customers to replace books EXACTLY where they took them from. Some hope.

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

Above  - tempting baker's stall in Mahane Yehuda

No visit to Jerusalem is complete for me without a visit to the Mahane Yehuda shuk. If you want to see real Jerusalem go here. The covered shuk and the surrounding streets are packed on week days with Jerusalemites of all descriptions buying, selling, searching, talking, arguing, shouting, laughing, drinking coffee, sampling food from the myriad stalls or just wandering and browsing. All Jerusalem life is here - Sephardi stall holders, young Ethiopian workers and shoppers, Orthodox men and women doing the family shopping, tourists taking pictures and the odd schnorrer trying to persuade the gullible to part with hard earned shekels.

I love the smell and the colours of the spice mountains, the calling of the stall holders trying to tempt shoppers away from their competitors, the irresistible aroma of coffee and the halva stall to which my shoes are magnetised. I love watching Orthodox Jews shopping beside scantily dressed Israelis who wouldn't look out of place on a Tel Aviv beach with neither batting an eye lid. And most of all I love the idea that this most authentic of Israeli experiences continues to attract thousands of customers five and a half days each week in order to feed Jerusalem and to keep bread on the stall holder's table too - aside from Pesach that is.

Thursday 5 April 2012

A day in Akko

Akko (or Acre as its sometimes called), is a small city just 30 minutes train ride away from Haifa. I made my second visit there yesterday after a gap of about five years. The city is little different to the way it was then, but I discovered some places I'd missed before and revisited some favourites.

There are two Akko's - the old city and the "new" city. The old city is where everyone makes for and this is because of its well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The city boats a number of small but bustling khans where you can buy just about any food stuffs, but especially herbs and spices, fruit, fish, meat and brightly coloured sweets. 

There are also many excellent and cheap cafes tucked away in the khans selling probably the best hummus in northern Israel. Humous Said is the one to go for - I confess I went to a more touristy cafe - Abu George, as there was a big queue at Said's and I was too hungry to wait. However, Abu George was also very good - the foul (a type of bean, pronounced "full" so skip the jokes) topped hummus with a couple of warm pitas hit the spot and as many of the Akko cafe owners do, George throws in a free Arabic (or Turkish if you prefer) coffee if you buy a meal here. Abu George is one of the many small restaurants adjacent to the Al-Jazzar mosque. It is interesting to watch how one restaurant fills up while the others are empty or sparsely occupied and then a different one fills up whilst the busy one empties out - for no obvious reason!

The Jezzar Pasha mosque is one of the jewels in Akko's crown. Ahmed al Jezzar Pasha was the Ottoman governor of Akko in the late 18th century. He was a bit of a card, routinely mutilating his subjects and his retinue, apparently to test their loyalty, even going so far as to have them kill members of their family to prove their devotion to him. History remembers him for preventing Napoleon from taking the city in 1799, holding out against the combined forces of the French and the English. He died in 1804 and one can assume there were some fairly relieved mourners at his funeral.

Construction of the mosque began in 1781and it is still in use for prayers. Anyone can visit for a small charge (10 shekels yesterday - about two pounds). If you arrive during prayers you will have to wait for them to finish before you can enter, but this normally only  takes about 20 minutes, so not too long. The mosque is entered by a stone staircase which gives onto an open courtyard with a small fountain, decorative gardens and an arcaded area which can be used for prayers during hot weather. The building is extremely striking with its green domes which dominate the old city, its many coloured ceramic facade and its cool, light interior. Visitors can go into the first part of the prayer hall, see in and take pictures, but you must remove your shoes before entering, dress modestly and in the case of women, cover your head.

Interior, Ahmed al Jezzar Pasha mosque
Just around the corner from the mosque is another link with Al Jezzar - the Turkish bath or hamam, which forms part of the Municipal Museum. The hamam was built as part of the mosque complex in the 1780's and is no longer used for its original purpose. Visitors can see the three rooms built on the Roman model of the dressing room which served a social function and where tea and food could be taken, leading to the tepidarium with warm steam and finally the caldarium with hot steam.

Visitors are treated (or subjected depending on your taste) to an audio-visual presentation with a re-enactment of the days of "the last attendant". Very kitsch but perhaps a good way of introducing visitors to the social aspects of the hamam as well as the more technical side of things. The hamam has been lovingly restored with highlights being the skylights in the dome of the first two rooms which let in rays of light from outside, and the wonderful ceramic tiles that cover parts of the walls throughout the museum. You can buy a combination ticket for the hamam and several of the other sites in the city, but entrance to most places is very cheap.

There has been a Jewish presence in Akko for a very long time - the city is mentioned as part of King David's realm and was given to Hiram, King of Tyre, by King Solomon as a gift for his help in building the Temple. Crusaders took and held the city in 1104, renaming it Saint Jean d'Acre, until it fell to the Mamluks in the 13th century. There are still echoes of this period with St. John's Church serving the local Arab Christian community and it is possible to visit the Crusader tunnel linking the port with the Citadel.

Then followed a period of decline until 1749 when Bedouin Sheik Daher el-Omar took the city and commenced a period of redevelopment that reached its zenith under our old friend Al-Jezzar. The city thrived as an important port until the advent of the steamship and more modern naval technology which necessitated moving most of its business to the larger port at nearby Haifa.

There are two very different synagogues in the city - both well worth a visit. The Ramchal synagogue can be found at the end of a very narrow alley in the old city. It is named for Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, a rabbi and kabbalist who came to Akko with his family in 1743. This Italian rabbi also authored the "Messilat Yesharim", or Path of the Just. The then Jewish community lost its synagogue to Dahar el-Omar who converted it to a mosque, giving the small, plain building that is now the Ramchal as compensation. Luzzatto turned it into a synagogue and services continue today. It is a tiny building but with a very warm and welcoming atmosphere. The shammes (a bit more than a caretaker), Eliyahu is very friendly and welcomes visitors but doesn't speak English so brush up on your Hebrew if you want to ask questions.

Entrance, the Ramchal synagogue
The second synagogue couldn't be more different. Built only in 1965, the Tunisian  synagogue is located in the new city and occupies four floors of a stunning building. All four stories are decorated internally and externally with colourful mosaics from Kibbutz Eilon. The mosaics together with the stained glass windows show scenes from Jewish history, ranging from Biblical times to today, as well as flora and fauna of Eretz Israel. There are some oddities too - the leaning tower of Pisa is depicted on one of the staircases!

It wasn't so easy to visit the Tunisian synagogue. The tourist information staff in the old city provided me with the contact number of a woman called Yafah (meaning beautiful). She helpfully told me I could visit at 5pm. By 5.30 no one had arrived and the gate was locked. I called her again and a very flustered Yafah said she would come herself, immediately.

Sadly, I never did get to see Yafah, but at 5.45 an elderly man turned up with a key and let me in. Although he didn't say, I am fairly certain he was the shammes. Like Eliyahu he was very friendly and gave me the run of the synagogue and told me to take as many photographs as I wanted. We spoke Hebrew with each other and I also found myself speaking in French when Henri, a Parisian whose daughter lives in Akko arrived to visit. Henri was extremely friendly and gave me a lift to the station after my visit so that I could catch my train back to Haifa.

My experience in visiting the Tunisian synagogue reminded me of everything I love about travel - the sense of achievement in finally getting into a building you really want to see (sometimes against the odds!), working with whatever words in whatever languages you have to make yourself understood and also those chance meetings with people from sometimes very different backgrounds and their unsolicited acts of kindness.

Detail, Tunisian synagogue
Perhaps the most important Jewish site in Akko is a building that is not "Jewish" at all. It is the Akko fortress which during the British Mandate period served as the largest prison in northern Israel. It was here  that many members of the various underground movements - the Haganah, the Irgun and the Lehi were held. It was from here that one of the most episodes of the Mandate period took place in May 1947 when 251 prisoners managed to escape with the help of the Irgun. The escape is featured in the film Exodus.

However, not all prisoners were so lucky and eight Irgun men were hung here by the British in the last ten years of the Mandate. Most of them were in their early 20's. It is possible to visit the hanging room. I could not bring myself to visit on this occasion having been before.

Finally, no visit to Akko is complete without walking along the seaside promenade which includes the remaining ramparts that made the city difficult to attack in days gone by. The breeze and the smell of the sea are great for cooling down after having strolled in Akko's hot narrow streets. Also great for cooling down is Endomela, a new home made ice cream shop, linked to the well know restaurant, Uri Buri. The ice cream comes in many tempting flavours...and the coffee is good too! 

For more information on places to visit in Akko go to http://www.akko.org.il/english/main/default.asp
For more pictures of Akko, view my flickr account at http://www.flickr.com/photos/yekkes/

Monday 2 April 2012

A postcard from Haifa

Haifa is really three cities - the Carmel with its modern housing, shopping centres and the world famous University; the Hadar - still a very busy shopping area despite its long period of decline and then Downtown the old Ottoman part of the city which also includes Wadi Nisnas and the German Colony.

Haifa is a faded beauty. There are many once magnificent buildings here but too many have fallen into disrepair. The once vibrant Hadar area is a shadow of what it was in accounts from the 1960's and earlier and the Downtown area is crumbling. But despite all this, Haifa is still a great city to visit and to spend time in. I have a soft spot for Haifa. It feels more homely than Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. And like Tel Aviv, Haifa is full of stories and memories.

I like visiting parts of the city I am not familiar with and yesterday, for the first time, I walked the full length of the "Nordau pedestrian mall". This is not an American style indoor mall, but a long pedestrianised shopping street full of some of what were once (and could be again), some of Haifa's finest modernist or Bauhaus buildings. It was late afternoon when I took my walk and most of the shops were closed, but honestly speaking, its hard to see how many of them make a living. The street has a number of hairdressers, travel agencies, jewellers, a few cafes, a few old style tailoring shops, some very old fashioned ladies outfitters and a number of businesses of no obvious function from the outside.

The street is planted with trees along each side and I am told the city fathers wanted to replicate the success of Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem, another pedestrianised city centre street. I have to say I am not a big fan Ben Yehuda. It lacks character and is full of low quality tourist stores, so I am not sure why Haifa would wish to emulate that.

Nordau does have a few delights tough. There are some wonderful shops fronts dating from the 1950's and earlier. I especially like Buchsbaum ladies outfitters at number 7, Rosenblatt jewellers and Gloria, another ladies outfitters with somewhat risqué underwear in the window at number 3. These and a few other shops have retained the original fascias and the elegance, even if dated,  that the rest of street must once have had.

It is difficult to see some of the more interesting buildings clearly from the street, as many of the trees have overgrown, blocking views of the upper levels. However, there are several Bauhaus buildings and many retain their original balconies and rounded features that I find so attractive. It is not difficult to imagine that this street must have once been full of shoppers looking at and buying high quality goods, ordering new clothes from tailors, selecting jewellery for special occasions and enjoying coffee and cake in a stylish cafe. Its not too late...many of these buildings could still be saved but someone needs to act soon if this important part of the city's built heritage is not to be lost forever.

At the Binyamin Gardens end of Nordau there is a public square with a cement "amphitheatre" and a small park full of children playing and of old people sitting and chatting. Yesterday there was a group of older Russian speaking men playing dominoes at great speed, with great excitement and at great volume.

Rina Frank's book, "Every house needs a balcony", a fictionalised account of her upbringing as the child of Romanian immigrants during the 1960's gives some idea of what the city was like then. It might also explain why I have so many photographs of buildings with balconies! If you look for it on Amazon, ignore the couple of spiteful reviews it received. It's definitely worth a read. My advice.

Regular readers will not be surprised to learn that I have some favourite cafes in Haifa. My very favourite is an old fashioned bakery that doubles as a cafe - Spiro in Jaffa Street. They make their patisserie on the premises and I especially like their individual cherry pies and their version of baklava. The coffee is nice and strong and its easy to find a seat, relax, read and take a few quiet moments. Spiro has very helpful and friendly staff including Shoshi who went beyond the call of duty to help me with my Hebrew studies, corrected my grammar and told me some interesting stories about Haifa. She also allowed me to sample one of the flour-less biscuits being prepared for Pesach. Thanks Shoshi!

I also like a small cafe called "Goodies" on Hanassi Boulevard on the Carmel. It is located in one half of a very well preserved Bauhaus building and offers a great range of cakes and pastries with coffee just the way I like it - nice and strong. The cafe has recently been taken over by Ronen, who is also very friendly and told me how difficult it is in Haifa these days to make money from a small business. Like Dudi in my post card from Tel Aviv, Ronen also had a successful business until the first intifada in 2000. From that time he explained that business is very tough and that many Israelis think of leaving the country at least for a few years to be able to make some good money and to re-establish themselves.

Whilst on the subject of food, no visit to Haifa is ever complete for me without at least one meal at Fattoush. Located in an old Templar building on Ben-Gurion Boulevard in the German Colony, Fattoush has excellent humous, great salads (big and tasty - my favourite is the halloumi) and a good choice of other dishes. I like to sit outside in the evening and if you sit by the garden wall facing Mount Carmel you can see the Baha'i Shrine in all its evening splendour, lit up against the night sky. Incidentally, whoever chooses the music has great taste - they normally play a selection of lounge type jazz, some chansons and a range of traditional and more modern Arabic music. Keep up the good work.

But Haifa isn't just historical buildings and restaurants. The city has a number of good museums. I especially like the City of Haifa Museum on Ben-Gurion Boulevard, (you could combine a visit with lunch at Fattouche!) located in another refurbished Templar building. The current exhibition is called "Magical Theatres" and it looks at the history of cinema in Haifa. Cinema became extremely popular in Haifa and in Israel generally during the 1930's, when some stunning cinemas were built, many in modernist or art deco style.

Many of these cinemas have now gone - victims of falling attendances and of eventual demolition. Most Haifa cinemas are now in out of town shopping malls. Of course, its great to have the choice of seeing several different films in one cinema, but I can't help but think I'd much rather see a movie at the now gone Armon Theatre, designed by architect Shmuel Rozov and opened in 1935 seating 1,800 people.  The Armon had a sliding roof that would be opened on warm summer evenings allowing the audience to watch the movie under the stars. It also boasted silver coloured walls and windows that the ushers would close with a long stick before the beginning of each show, apparently provoking cheers of excitement among the children in the audience.

Sadly, the Armon is now gone, but this excellent exhibition allows the chance of a glimpse into that wonderful world through photographs, movie posters, architects drawings, cinema tickets and a re-created cinema showing newsreel, old trailers, adverts for local shops and film clips.

The exhibition also includes detailed reference to the Ovitz family from Romania, small people who survived Mengele and Auschwitz. Before the second world war they had achieved fame in Romania as accomplished musicians. Coming to Eretz Israel after the war, they ran two cinemas and a cafe. They were immortalised in the recent Iraeli film "Pa'am Hayiti" (shown as "The Matchmaker" in the UK)

The catalogue is excellent and includes a reasonable amount of text in English if you don't read Hebrew, but its worth it for the pictures alone.

The Mane-Katz Museum on the Carmel is another favourite. The current exhibition "Sanctity - art - aesthetics" traces the attempts of early modern Jewish artists to use folk motifs from their original context as religious elements, integrating them into secular items. As well as being a great artist, Mane-Katz also collected Judaica and the exhibition includes many items from his collection.

I found the room featuring books and prints particularly interesting. It features examples of the works of Ryback, Altman, Chagall, El Lissitsky and others, including examples of short lived art magazines from the 1920's and 1930's. A couple of items by Nathan Altman and Joseph Tchaikov also show how Jewish artists contributed to the creative explosion that accompanied the early years of the Soviet Union, before the great purges and suppression that was to follow, resulting in many of them going into exile or worse.

 The exhibition features a number of quotes to illustrate the different issues it covers. The Yerachmiel Radison quote from 1920 still rings true and not just for Jews but for all people "It is important to collect beautiful and useful art for the Jewish masses, for the new Jewish folk-culture". Art for the masses, now there's a thing.