Sunday 31 March 2013

Eclectic city - eclectic architecture, Tel Aviv

So, here I am back in my second home, Tel Aviv. On my first day in the city I found a fantastic new  book - Sand and Splendor: Eclectic style architecture in Tel-Aviv by Tami Lerer and suitably inspired I decided to revisit some of my favourite buildings in this style and to track down some I wasn't familiar with

First a note about the Eclectic style. Everyone knows that Tel Aviv is famous for its truly stunning collection of Bauhaus buildings from the 1930's but few people know about the equally impressive collection of Eclectic style jewels from the preceding period. Eclecticism was a worldwide style that gave consideration to the component parts of other styles, going on to create a new architectural language. In Tel Aviv it was a vehicle for creating a new city with a particular identity, making use of a number of architectural elements in order to do so

This included extensive use of Jewish motifs in the first modern Jewish city for two millennia and  symbols such as the menorah and Magen David, rarely seen on the exterior of buildings in the diaspora began to appear as decorative elements on many Eclectic buildings. Unlike Bauhaus, the Eclectic style makes great use of decorative detail and of colour using it to add depth and shading. A  number of recently restored buildings have included a return to the original colours, often green, yellow, blue and even orange

The Eclectic style also makes reference to classical architecture with its use of symmetry, sub divisions and various structural motifs including hanging balconies, arches, domes, bay windows and corbels. Furthermore, it is possible to "read" the facade of the building with the range of uses between floors being easily discernible, often with commercial use at ground floor and residential above

And so to the buildings, 800 of which currently benefit from the protection of preservation orders. I will write about a few of my favourites here. Allenby Street is not one of Tel Aviv's fashionable streets these days. In fact you could say its downright unfashionable, gritty with cheap shops, crumbling buildings and the occasional beggar. However, I rather like Allenby and if you look carefully you will   see that it holds some architectural treats. Number 46 is the site of the Mann House, built from 1929-1930. It has been cleaned and undergone some restoration since I was last here

The most attractive feature of the Mann House (pictured below) is the unusual brickwork, especially the panels above and below the balconies where the bricks lay lengthwise rather than widthwise. The corner of the building is also striking with small triangular balconies and again, interesting brickwork 
that projects from the building rather than forming a flat surface. The ground floor retains its original 
.commercial function with the upper levels divided into apartments

Israel March/ April 2013 by Yekkes

Still on Allenby at number 89 is the now closed Moshav Zekenim Synagogue (pictured below). Built in 1928 and designed by Yehuda L. Magidovitch, I have tried unsuccessfully to get inside for several years. Thanks to one of my good contacts in Israel the synagogue will be open in May this year as part of an Open House season - unfortunately I will be back home then. Another time maybe. But what about the building? The most striking feature is the richly detailed facade which features beautiful  Bezalel ceramic tiles as well as three arches. The middle arch is the star of the show with decorated pillars, stained glass windows featuring the Magen Dovid and Hebrew lettering above the door bearing the synagogue's name

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

Magidovitch was born in 1886 in Uman in the Ukraine, now the site of annual pilgrimage by thousands of  Hasidim - not because of Magidovitch having been born there but because it is the site of the  burial of Rebbe Nachman, the Bresler rebbe. Magidovitch studied architecture at the Odessa Academy and graduated in 1910, emigrating to Eretz Israel in 1919. His experience as an architect earned him the post of Tel Aviv's first city engineer in 1920, a post he held until 1923 but he continued to make his mark on the city's built legacy for many years after that

Staying with Magidovitch, a new favourite building for me is Pensak's Passage at 16 Herzl Street.  Herzl is another street that is not the beauty it was in its younger days but I detect an upward turn in its fortunes as when looking for a couple of the buildings for this post I was struck by the number of new and busy cafes it now hosts. The Pensak Passage (pictured below) built in 1924 was the the first Tel Aviv building planned for commercial and office space. It has an imposing facade displaying some of the key elements of the Eclectic style including symmetry, balconies and other decorative elements such as the building's name in both Hebrew and English. The inner courtyard is accessed through a narrow   gate at the centre of the building. It was locked when I visited and I was about to walk away disappointed  until I realised that the man behind the juice bar further along Herzl, waving and calling, was waving and calling to me to tell me the code for the entry panel! What a stroke of luck

Israel March/ April 2013 by Yekkes

Climbing the stairs I noticed that some of the original features remain although the interior is somewhat shabby now. The signs on the wall directing visitors to the country's first elevator are still there, as are  some of the original decorative elements on the floor.   However, the most amazing site of all was the remaining elevator shaft (pictured below) still standing proudly in the light and airy courtyard and visible from every level. I would never have imagined that this lay hidden behind the facade of the. building which now appears to be mainly residential. I want an apartment here

Israel March/ April 2013 by Yekkes

Further along Herzl at numbers 72 and 74 stands the Mograbi House, the work of our friend Josef Berlin. Built in 1925, it displays a number of classic elements of Eclecticism. The ground floor is given over to commercial use with residential space above. The building consists of two symmetrical blocks  each with a pair of bay windows and slender balconies. But perhaps the most interesting features are the corbels, or brackets some of which support the balconies whilst others have a purely decorative purpose. The Moghrabi House has become another favourite of mine - I think it might be because of  those unusual and coquettish window blinds that remind me of very large false eyelashes (pictured below!). Berlin was born in what is now the Ukraine in 1877 and only came to Eretz Israel at the age of 44. He was responsible for many buildings in Tel Aviv, opening his own practice in 1924 with architect Richard Pasovski and training some of the major architects of the Bauhaus period including Zev Rechter, Arieh Sharon and Joseph Neufeld

Israel March/ April 2013 by Yekkes

 Another  stunning Josef Berlin building is the art deco influenced Ravnitzki House  at 80 Ahad Ha'Am   Street at the junction with Mazeh Street. The most immediately striking features are those around the wooden doors which are decorated with fan-like brickwork set at an angle and making a clear reference to art deco.  Although not visible from the outside the difficult site, which is trapezoid in shape and has height differences, allowed for the construction of a basement with a garden below street level.  The  garden is quite mature with well established trees that make it easy to miss this wonderful example of the eclectic style - so look out for it. This is possibly my favourite Eclectic building in Tel Aviv and I can understand why its serene attitude would be a good place for the poet Ravnitzki to live and work. Like Berlin, Ravnitzki was also born in the Ukraine, but in the cosmopolitan city of Odessa. He went on to become the founder of the Moriah publishing house, was a founder member of the Hovevei Zion organisation  and worked with national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik

Finally, the Palm House at 8 Nahalat Binyamin Street designed by Yehoshua Zvi Tabachnik and built in 1922 (pictured below).  This very large building is located on one of the city's best known streets which is host to a large craft market, street theatre and other attractions at weekends and is a place where long established businesses rub shoulders with new and edgy cafes and bars. The building itself includes references to art nouveau, art deco and classical styles whilst also carrying several Jewish motifs with Magen Dovids, a menorah and a harp amongst others.  Unlike many other Eclectic buildings, the Palm House is not symmetrical, and the designs of the doors, windows and other features are many and varied. The House was restored a few years ago but it would already benefit from some more work - in particular a new paint job - and it would be wonderful if this could be the one building in Nahalat Binyamin that was not targeted for graffiti. Tabachnik came to Eretz Israel in 1919 on the same boat as the poet Rachael, but stayed only a few years - emigrating to the USA in 1925. Interestingly, in the last few days workers renovating the building at 5 Nahalat Binyamin, another Tabachnik building, have uncovered murals from 1921 which were long covered up and forgotten. Now begins a struggle to preserve them

Israel ישראל by Yekkes

Tel Aviv is known as a modern, edgy, "eclectic" city, it always has been and its wonderful Eclectic
architecture is evidence of that

Saturday 23 March 2013

Modernist Riga - architectural treasures from the 1930's

Riga is well known for its wonderful collection of art nouveau treasures, but less well known are its modernist buildings from the 1930's that are scattered throughout the city. On my recent visit to Riga, I was lucky enough to be able to have a close look at a number of the city's modernist gems and to make a photographic record of them.

1940 saw the end of Latvia's first short period of independence and the first of three occupations - the Soviets, the Germans and then the Soviets again. The Soviets stayed until 1991. Latvia had gained its independence in 1918 following the collapse of the Tsarist Russian empire. During those 21 years of freedom, like many countries in eastern and central Europe, there was an explosion of creative activity with artists, architects, musicians and writers all making contributions to this artistic flowering.

There is still a built legacy from the 1930's, some of it in exceptionally good condition, especially the buildings in the centre of the city. One of my favourites is located on the busy Valnu Street at number 11, (pictured below) just a short walk from the main Dom square. It was built in 1930-31 by the German architects, Alfred Karr and Kurt Betge, with the Bank of Latvia taking up residence in 1931. This excellent example of functionalist architecture underwent partial reconstruction in 1996 but luckily many original features and decorative elements were retained. I love the colours, the clean lines and the feeling that it looks so good it could have been built yesterday! It also reminds me a little of my beloved Ibex House in London.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

Another great building by these architects is the Office of the Trade Union for Publishers at Lacplesa Street 43-45, built in 1930 (pictured below). The Trade Union commissioned a whole complex of facilities including offices, shops and apartments in this six storey masonry building. The shops and communal spaces occupy the two lower floors with apartments above. There is a through drive way at ground floor level. As with some of the other 1930's buildings in Riga, I was reminded of the Marcel Janco apartments I saw in Bucharest last year, whilst those winged balconies on the apartment levels of the block would not be out of place in Tel Aviv. Karr and Betge did not win the original commission for this building - it went to another German, Dresden based firm but their practice was the most successful in promoting the modern movement in Latvia during the 1920's and 1930's and they eventually saw the project to completion.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

I came upon a number of modernist buildings by chance. However, I had to make a concerted effort to visit two particularly interesting examples of this style as they are located a good twenty minutes drive from the centre of Riga in an extremely run down and visibly poor part of the city. I decided to hire a taxi to make best use of my time and soon realised that there was no way I could have found these buildings using public transport. The driver was happy to wait whilst I had a good look and must have done this before, but the locals stared uncomprehendingly at the odd foreigner taking pictures of old and in some cases decaying buildings. The most interesting response came from an elderly woman who cranked open the door of the Institute of Organics to shriek at me (in Russian?) that photography was not allowed. I smiled and said I was English which provoked a twisted facial expression, not unlike tha of someone struggling with indigestion, a sound that went something like "ugh" and a banging of the door in disgust as she went back in.

Back to the buildings. The architect for the 1930's villa at Laimdotas 30, pictured below, was one E. Betkher. It reminds me very strongly of Janco's work in Bucharest and again has more than a passing resemblance to some of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus treasures due to its curves, balconies and the decorative porthole window on the upper floor which contributes to its somewhat nautical appearance. I am not sure when the surrounding houses were built but if they came afterwards, I suspect that the residents of Laimdotas 30 would not have been impressed.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

A short drive away is another structure with a distinctly Bauhaus look. In much better shape than its near neighbour at Laimdotas. Zamgalu Street 1(pictured below) has clearly been renovated and seriously cleaned. The driver explained to me that this former private home is now used as a wedding venue. It stands out from the drab housing surrounding it both because of its design and its brightness. It was built in 1936, the work of architect N. Makedonskis.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

Heading back to the centre of the city, there are many more modernist survivors, including two I found quite by chance in Gertrudes Street. This is a typical Riga street where it is possible to find rationalist architecture from the 1930's next door to ornate art nouveau structures, just 25 years older. This not only demonstrates how quickly styles and tastes change and develop but also shows the richness of Riga's built heritage. Number 20 (pictured below) began life as a tenement building but today is home to a spa on the ground floor. It has a number of features found in the streamline version of modernism with accentuated windows, corner curves, horizontal rows of windows and small balconies. The exterior would benefit from a  good clean but this is a building that could have graced any European capital in the 1930's and as a tenement block it must have been pretty high class.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

Just across the road at number 27 is another tenement block. Adjacent to a beautiful art nouveau palace currently undergoing restoration, this is an extremely striking building, due primarily to the accentuated triangular shaped windows at all levels above ground floor. I had great fun playing with the angles of this building and taking pictures from beneath the protruding windows. Built in 1934 and designed by architect Teodors Hermanovskis, I am advised that this use of geometric heavily cubist shapes, was typical of his work (detail pictured below). This six storey block with granite plastering makes clever use of design details to give an impression of high quality design. As with many buildings from the 1930's commercial use was made of the ground floor, which still has a cafe. Interestingly, Hermanovskis was also a leading Latvian politician during the brief first period of independence, whilst his son later became an architect in the United States.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

Finally, a little touch of Miami! The Daile restaurant and cinema (pictured below) is another Hermanovskis building, dating from 1936 and located at Barona 31, just a short walk from my hotel and one of Riga's busiest thoroughfares. It is closer to art deco than the other buildings considered here and has contrasting arrangements of vertical and horizontal elements. There is still a cinema and a cafe as well as numerous shops inside this large complex. It is not difficult to imagine Riga's citizens dressing up in 1936 to attend the grand opening. Riga was desperately cold during my stay, but this  building brings a touch of sunshine to the Latvian winter!

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

I must note my thanks to Ilza Martinsone of the Latvian Museum of Architecture for her help in providing some of the details for this posting as well as to Gali-Dana for helping find out more about Valnu 11. Thanks very much!

Thursday 21 March 2013

Anat Cohen Quartet at Pizza Express

Anat Cohen - Weintrob

Anat Cohen played her first ever UK gig last night at Pizza Express Jazz in London. The final concert of her quartet's European tour played to a full house that was left wanting more after two brilliant sets of    
compositions mostly taken from her current album - Claroscuro, which she explained means clear and dark, just like the music!  

This was a world class quartet with Jason Lindner on piano, Daniel Freedman on drums and Joe Martin on bass. The evening opened with a rousing version of Artie Shaw's Nightmare, a thumping, threatening tune with Anat setting the standard for the evening with warm and deep to cool and high playing of the clarinet and later the saxophone and more than ably supported by her quartet. This is the same quartet that played on the afore named latest album and the playing was tight indeed with lots of smiles and laughter, some apparent mind reading between Lindner and Freedman in particular and a very democratic approach from Anat, with lots of long and lovely solos from her boys.

There was a bit of a Brazilian theme to the evening with Pixinguinha's Um A Zero and Lo and Marcio Borges Tudo Que Voce Podia Ser being well received - the latter being my favourite of the evening together with an astonishingly long, varied and beautiful version of La Vie en Rose (which you can hear by clicking on the video below) which included some reggae influenced piano! This Edith Piaf classic was also the source of a little humour with Anat explaining it was a number she had written herself...laughs all around. Still in a Latin mood, she treated us to Siboney, a classic Cuban number, this time from an earlier album - Notes from the Village, again with a good long work out featuring some great solos from each of the quartet.

This was a great first London gig from Anat Cohen and hopefully the first of many. Ms. Cohen comes from an illustrious musical family. Her brothers - Avishai (trumpet) and Yuval (saxophone) are also extremely accomplished musicians. I had the pleasure of seeing Avishai perform in Paris last December as part of Omer Avital's ensemble, so now I only need to hear Yuval play and I've met the whole family! Together as 3 Cohens, they have recorded three albums - One, Braid and Family - all well worth checking. 

Although resident in New York these days, Anat Cohen is one of a growing number of world class Israeli musicians, including the other Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital, Shai Maestro, Ilan Salem, Eli Degibri, Daniel Zamir and a whole lot more who are producing some of the most refreshing and innovative jazz around at the moment and several of whom are performing in the UK. Lucky us.

PS. Thanks for the autograph Anat!

Monday 18 March 2013

Return to Riga - art nouveau, national romanticism and some pretty good cakes

It is eight years since I was last in Riga. Much has changed and much has remained the same. The city will be Europe's Capital of Culture in 2014 and compared to eight years ago it is not difficult to see why. Much of Riga's architectural legacy has been, or is being restored or cleaned up - although much more remains to be done; there are many more good quality restaurants than in 2005 and service generally is better - although scratch a little and its still relatively easy to find a fair amount of grim, glum Soviet style service.

I spent last weekend in Latvia's capital city, with the intention of having another look at the wonderful collection of art nouveau buildings, of sniffing out as much modernist architecture as possible and seeing some of the art I hadn't known about before. Despite seriously cold weather - minus 16 at one point during the weekend, I managed to achieve almost all of this. Oh, and kudos to the city council for clearing the footpaths of snow, all of which has been moved to the gutter in what has become a huge black glacier made of compacted snow and which will be interesting once it melts. Great for walking but maybe a little more attention to the ice on the cobbles in the old town. Losing my footing, I managed a passable version of River Dance trying to stay upright before crashing to the ground. Ouch! Those cobbles are hard. Good thing I had lots of extra clothes on.

So, about the art nouveau. The city has hundreds of such buildings as well as many in the local Baltic/ Scandinavian version - national romantic architecture, which I also like very much. During the four full days I was there I managed to complete four well planned self-guided walks that I found on this website. For this post, I will concentrate on some of my favourite examples of the city's art nouveau and national romantic buildings.

What better place to start than Alberta Street, a treasure trove of the two styles and home to one of my absolute favourites, the wonderful Boguslavsky apartment building at number 2 (pictured below) dating from 1906 and designed by none other than Mihails Eizensteins, who was responsible for some of Riga's most outstanding examples of art nouveau.  The building is guarded by two sphinxes at it's entrance whilst the exterior of the apartment block is decorated with geometric and stylised ornaments with the facade boasting bands of glazed red tiles. The upper parts of the facade, through which the sky can be seen,  feature mascarons and assorted geometric ornaments emphasising the self-importance of this stunning building. To add to its grandeur, the historian of ideas and philosopher Isaiah Berlin once lived here and there is a plaque to commemorate this.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

The apartment building at Alberta Street 11 is an outstanding example of the more locally influenced national romantic school of architecture. Designed by another superstar architect of his time, Eizens Laube and built in 1908, it is not in good shape. Neglected, paint peeling and in need of a blooming good clean, this must have been a stunner when it was first built.  Its facade has decorative detail that would be at home in Helsinki or Stockholm, as well as screw like turrets, whilst the amazing cylindrical towers in the rear courtyard (pictured below) were an unexpected find as I wandered in to this slightly forbidding space. I hope someone comes up with a sensitive plan to restore this gem before it deteriorates further. 

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

Just around the corner from Alberta Street is Elizabetes Street, one of Riga's main boulevards and home to two more buildings associated with our Mr. Eizensteins. Number 10a (pictured below) is perhaps the best known of all of his buildings and the one that features on many of the postcards being sold around the city. It really is a stunner. Actually, the original architect for this building was Konstantins Peksens, another big name for the genre and the time, but it was Eizensteins who decorated the facade. The aloof, stylised female figures at the peak, the serpents and the screaming male heads refer to themes explored in symbolist art - conflicts between the calm and the chaotic and between good and evil. In the excellently illustrated book"Mikhail Eisentsein themes and symbols of art nouveau in Riga 1901-1906", Solveiga Rasa compares these figures and symbols to those that appear in the art of Knopff and Munch. I see the link. This is one of the better condition Riga art nouveau treasures and the facade has received tender love and care, its blue and white colours remaining crisp and clean.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

Eizensteins was an interesting character. If the name is familiar it might be because his son was one Sergei who became one of the all time great directors or Russian (and world) cinema  famous for that Odessa steps scene with the baby in the pram and the massive crowd scenes in the movie Battleship Potemkin. Sergei described his father as good natured and jovial with a sense of humour but also as pedantic with a passion for order, hard working and authoritarian. Despite the family name the Eizensteins were not Jewish - although Mihails' paternal grandparents had been German Jews who converted to Orthodox Christianity. 

There are a number of places for the hungry traveller to refuel here. I really liked one of the new cafes that have sprung up - VinoMetr at Antonijas 13. Very cool and "modern Baltic" in its style and approach, it offers a business lunch from 12-4 on week days - 1, 2 or 3 courses for 3, 4 or 7 lats which is a little more than those numbers in sterling for good portions of good quality food. I had a very tasty leek and potato soup followed by raspberry cottage cheesecake and strong coffee. Recommended. 

The area around Elizabetes Street and Alberta Street is the main focus for visitors wishing to experience art nouveau but there are also some excellent examples of the style in the old town - the other magnet for most visitors. As in many places, you have to look up to notice them as in many cases the ground floor has been altered to accommodate shops and other businesses. One such example is the lovely building at Skunu Street 10/12 (pictured below). Designed by architects Heinrihs and Fridrihs Sels and built in 1902, this highly decorative building was originally owned by a successful local businessman called Detmann, one of the owners of the Union stock company. Mr. Detman's initials can be seen on the facade, which is decorated with stylised plants including reeds, poppies, narcissus and chestnut leaves. The show stopper here though is the magnificent two storey bay window again decorated with floral motifs. Skunu is a very narrow street and it can be dark there even during the day. You need to stand a little way down the street and on the opposite side to look up and see a humorous feature - a dog above the bay window, obviously on guard duty!   

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

For those inclined towards the finer things of life, such as great coffee, cakes and (passable) hot chocolate, there is a great pit stop just around the corner from Skunu Street -  the Rigensis bakery, patisserie and cafe at Tirgonu Street 8. Don't be put off by the slightly grumpy Kat Slater look-a-like, who was actually very nice after some initial frostiness and do try the excellent cheese pastry, cheese cake or cherry strudel. Nice surroundings too. I went twice.

Back to the buildings. Still in the old town centre at Kaleju 23 (pictured below), you can find possibly the most colourful building in the city. Designed by Jewish architect Paul Mandelstam as a rental building with shops and built in 1903, it stands out from its neighbours due to its ornate facade which includes a bay window encircled with flora, a gilded representation of the sun symbolising life and restoration and a riot of colour above the doorway. Mandelstam designed many buildings in the city. Born in Lithuania, he was murdered during 1941 together with several other Jewish notables - a precursor to the devastation that the occupying Germans would inflict on Latvia's Jews. The building is currently undergoing some internal renovation and is therefore not in use. The ground floor was previously a cafe.

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

There are yet more examples of art nouveau and national romanticism in the streets running from the opera house beyond Elizabetes Street including Lacplesa Street. My favourite example of the national romantic style can be found in this street at number 51 (pictured below). A huge, imposing corner building by Eizens Laube dating from1909, it has a riot of decorative features on each facade including geometric designs and balconies. I especially like the wedge shape on the corner of the building that has more than a passing resemblance to some of the modernist buildings that were to come in the following decades. Nice one Mr. Laube!

Riga, March 2013 by Yekkes

The city really does has a magnificent, possibly the best collection of this much loved genre, but Riga has a lot more than that. More posts to follow on my modernist discoveries, some fantastic artists from the 1920's and 1930's and a little about the former glories of Jewish Riga. You know I might even go back next year for the Capital of Culture celebrations! 

You can see many more examples of Riga's art nouveau, as well as other pictures of the city here. Riga  

Friday 8 March 2013

Picture post number 16 Marvellous mural at the Rockefeller Centre

This beautiful art deco piece completed in 1933 was the work of American muralist Barry Faulkner. It sits in the lobby of the former RCA Building, now the GE building and part of the wonderful Rockefeller Centre complex, at 1250 Avenue of the Americas on Manhattan Island, New York City.

Entitled "Intelligence Awakening Mankind", like much of the art at the Centre it is allegorical. Its theme is the triumph of knowledge over ignorance and the central figure (not shown here) "Intelligence" is seen presiding over all activity.   The idealised male and female pictured here representing a healthy and forward thinking humanity, welcoming figures representing "Thought" and "Science" whilst turning their backs on "Poverty" and "Fear" - horned creatures seen disappearing into the flames. Interstingly, "Philosphy" "Hygiene" and "Publicity" are also represented - showing the importance of getting your message out (publicity) and of a clean body as well as a healthy and stimulated mind! The mural also has figures representing science and literature and encourages creativity, new ideas and intellectual effort as the way to create new knowledge and to advance civilisation. Interestingly, the male and female figures would probably have been at home in either Soviet or fascist architecture of the period - note the salutes they are giving to the bringers of knowledge. It was the 1930's after all.

I love the bright, vibrant colours of Faulkner's mural with its wonderful deep blue background and gold elements. The stunning effects are achieved through the use of one million small glass tiles in 250 different colours -all of them hand cut and hand set. The material is glass tesserae and the mural is an impressive 79 feet long and 14 feet high. I spent a long time studying the detail of the mural on my trip to New York last year - almost being left behind by the guide who led the tour of the Rockefeller Centre. Its worth taking the tour to access some of the behind the scenes parts of the complex and also to pick up on some of the many interesting stories attached to the place.

I especially liked the story about the Rockefeller family (staunch and tea-total Baptists), having campaigned for prohibition, then changing their minds and campaigning for its repeal. This was because the underground drinking resulting from prohibition was accompanied by a range of other illegal, sinful and often dangerous (to participants and passer-by!) activity controlled by the mob. A salutary tale and one that may demonstrate the theme of the mural - the triumph of knowledge over ignorance!

You can see more detailed images from the mural here, here and here. The Rockefeller Centre is probably my favourite tourist attraction in New York. Everyone knows about the fantastic views form the "Top of the Rock", but the highlight for me is the wonderful collection of murals inside and outside of the buildings, the stories that go with much of the art and the wonderful record of 1930's American art deco that the Centre represents. Oh, and there's a great bakery called Bouchon, just across from the Centre too. More New York stories here. I can taste that sweet cheese pastry and strong coffee already.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Eli Degibri quartet at Pizza Express

Saxophonist Eli Degibri shone tonight at his quartet's first ever London gig at the famous Pizza Express jazz club in the heart of Soho. Joined by piano maestro Aaron Goldberg, bass player Barak Mori and drummer Ofri Nehemaya (who looks even younger than his nineteen years), Degibri was warmly received by this, one of London's most knowledgeable jazz crowds.

Working his way through a number of his own compositions, we were treated to an excellent display of  "saxophony" and some great musical conversations particularly between Degibri and Goldberg who was outstanding. The first set included a nameless bossa nova-ish number that had hints of oriental piano to it as well as Story for Roni, a song Mr. D wrote for a previous girlfriend, and Big Fish from the movie of the same name. Big Fish included a lengthy work out for each member of the quartet allowing them to show off  a little. And very nice too.

During the second set, Eli spoke a little more and told us that he tends to refer to his songs by a number - according to the order they were written in, as well as by a title. He explained that this was a result of his having been a member of a big band as a teenager back in Israel and the band leader used to direct the musicians by calling out numbers rather than song titles. Eli has 53 songs in his repertoire so far - several of which appear to be named for former girl friends. Mika was one such piece and a showstopper it was too with the urgent and insistent piano intro, flailing sax playing and able support provided from bass and drums.

Jaffa born Degibri has recorded five albums now and played two tracks from his very first recording "In the Beginning" recorded back in 2003 - In the Beginning which he said was inspired by Chopin(!) and Painless which describes the feelings experienced when the pain of a heartbreak heals. His 2010 recording "Israeli Song" features jazz luminaries Brad Meldhau, Ron Carter and Al Foster, demonstrating how respected our host for the evening has become in the jazz world (you can hear the title track by clicking on the clip below). And although still not 35 years old, he is also the current co-director of the Red Sea Jazz Festival.

A cheeky semi-improvised encore and the show was over - two great sets and another chance to see him on Thursday. Go if you can.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Israeli TV drama takes the world by storm

Over the last few years Israeli television has produced some of the world's most innovative and imaginative drama including the international hits - Hatufim and B'tipul (clip below), re-invented in the USA as Homeland and In Treatment respectively. It has also seen a string of other high production value and very well received drama and comedy series examining a range of Israeli experiences.

At Saturday night's Jewish Book Week "Israeli TV drama takes the world by storm" Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub, writer and producer Daphna Levin and Simon Schapps of ITV discussed the phenomenon and tried to identify the reason for the success. This was not the advertised panel which had included Sayed Kashua and Ron Leshem. However,  Taub who has produced a successful mini-series called "In the Rabbi's Court" and Levin who wrote several episodes of B'tipul and has a number of other series either in planning or already produced were excellent replacements and extremely engaging.

As ambassador Taub noted, Israel came late to television. Ben-Gurion wasn't keen, worrying that the Israelis might spend their time watching the box rather than building the nation and it wasn't until 1993 that commercial television began there. In just two decades a vibrant high quality home grown industry has developed with quality drama protected by government quotas of air time and requirements placed on the industry to reflect Israel's many communities and ways of life.

This commitment to reflecting Israel's diversity has resulted in the religious communities being sympathetically represented in series such as Srugim - (clip above) described by the panel as an Israeli version of Thirty Something or Cold Feet with religion whilst Taub described In the Rabbi's Court as Dallas in Stamford Hill or Dowton Abbey in Bnei Brak! Neither description does justice to these series. Srugim tackles serious issues about differences between religious and non-religious communities, the struggle of many modern Orthodox Jews to find a partner in what they call the Jerusalem dating "swamp" and the pain of trying to sustain friendships when the formerly religious leave the community. I was not familiar with "In The Rabbi's Court" but a clip was shown at the event which gave a flavour of what the series might offer - a very human look at Haredim facing the personal issues -  in this case loneliness - that everyone else faces. Shocking!

Of course the Haredi communities do not officially watch television so its hard to know their response to all of this, but Taub reported that it is widely known that these shows (and others) are watched secretly. One piece of evidence he quoted was a story about a Haredi woman who called the TV company to say she had stopped watching In The Rabbi's Court because on Yim Kippur in the synagogue, she had found herself davening (praying) for one of the characters  from the series!

Another successful series in Israel is Arab Labour - created by the laready mentioned successful Israeli Arab author Syed Kashua which follows the life of an Arab family with modern teenage children, the father of whom attempts to be more Israeli than the Israelis and which has proved hugely popular. Some episodes of these were shown at last year's London Jewish Film Festival and were well received.

The panel expressed concerns about the growing commercial success of game shows and reality TV in Israel but felt that the current safeguards in Israel would control this to some extent. Levin is at the more edgy end of the market having produced a series called Euphoria which followed a group of young people one year on from having witnessed a fatal gangland style shooting in a nightclub. The series dealt with some very sensitive issues - drugs, violence, trauma - and sparked a great deal of discussion and debate. Indeed, Levin reported that not only was the series screened only on cable TV but that it was shown at restricted times and at one point was threatened with complete withdrawal.

She has also produced a series called Bastards, based on a story by Yoram Kaniuk which features two old men, veterans of 1948 now old, ill and resentful of the modern world who hatch a plan to take revenge on the young people they so killing them. A little dark as Daphna said, but then it is Yoram Kaniuk. I loved the opening line of the clip we were shown - "It started right here at a coffee shop...". Doesn't everything?

The panel gave us a tip off for the next big Israeli TV success - Pillars of Smoke about a cult movement living in the Golan. Sounds interesting. My own recommendation to add to those above, is Ramzor (clip below) or "Traffic Light" - a situation comedy series and Emmy award winner, that includes Yael Sharoni of Srugim fame and film star Adi Miller. 

When asked why Israeli TV is so successful, the panel spoke about the high production values, the availability of great actors, great technical teams and the many stories Israel has to tell with its diverse population, unresolved conflicts and rapid development. I get the feeling there will be much more to come!

Friday 1 March 2013

Stories of return, the loneliness of the Poles and the importance of reading - Jewish Book Week 2013

Moving into the middle part of this year's Jewish Book Week, I have been struck by the theme of "return" running through a number of events. This includes the return of individual Jews to cities such as Vienna and Prague as Holocaust survivors or as former refugees and an idea about a return of Jews en-masse to Poland. 

More of the Polish issue later, but I want to start with two events from last night. Helga Weiss was just 13 years old when she was deported from her home in Prague to Terezin with her mother in December 1941. Like many Czech Jews, her family were fairly assimilated, attending synagogue just three times a year and mixing happily with both Jewish and non-Jewish neighbours. However, unlike many Czech Jews they did not celebrate Christmas. The young Helga, desirous of a Christmas tree made one for her dolls, reasoning that "the dolls were not Jewish".

Helga, now in her 80's, described the gradual falling away of friends as anti-Jewish measures were enacted in the lead up to deportation. These, as well as her experiences in Terezin and later in Auschwitz are described in her book "Helga's Diary" which she kept during her time in the Czech camp and then again following liberation. The diary is illustrated with her own paintings and one is included below. She is an accomplished artist. She described the importance of having been able to stay with her mother during her time in the camps and also how being able, against all odds, to write when in Terezin, she used this activity as a means of having privacy in appalling conditions.

Following liberation she returned to Prague, managed to get back the family apartment and has continued to live there until now. When asked if she had considered emigration at any point, she revealed that she had twice considered it - once in 1948 when she had thought of leaving for Israel and again in the 1960's when her husband, a musician, had offered her the opportunity to leave for Denmark, where he was working. She decided against leaving both times, not wishing to separate from her mother. 

A member of the audience asked her if her writing was a form of healing. She replied that psychologists have said that writing about strong feelings helps to get rid of them. She went on to say "I don't much believe psychologists". Eminent Holocaust historian David Ceserani chaired the panel and noted that at the end of her book, Helga wrote "I never left Terezin" describing the impossibility of true return after such experiences.
 Standing in the Queue in Front of the Kitchen.
After Helga's session, I moved on to hear Edmund de Waal speak with obvious emotion about his grandmother, Elisabeth, who born into an extremely privileged Viennese Jewish family in 1899 went on to achieve much as Austria's first woman lawyer but whose first love was really books and writing. Astonishingly as an 18 year old girl she commenced a correspondence with the poet Rilke who sent her copies of his works, one of which de Waal held on the stage during his session. 

Elisabeth left home for a Bohemian lifestyle in Paris, mixing with artists and writers until the late 1930's and the Anschluss of 1938 when Germany annexed Austria to the approval of the vast majority of Austrians. Persecution of the Jews began immediately with arrests and imprisonments in Dachau and other camps, exclusion from public life, violent assaults in the streets and confiscation of Jewish possessions. At great personal risk, Elisabeth, now married with two sons, returned alone to Vienna to bully, bribe and cajole Nazi officials in order to secure the exit of her family from Austria. They eventually made their home in (of all places), Tunbridge Wells in England where Elisabeth saw out her days, having converted to Anglicanism but continued to surround herself with books in the nine languages in which she was proficient. 

Elisabeth wrote fiction throughout her life. We are aware of three novels in English and two in German - none of which were ever published. de Waal spoke about his amazement at having been handed the manuscripts of her books by his father and the journey that this resulted in, taking him across Europe looking for clues about his family history. Elisabeth's unpublished book "The Exiles Return" is the story of Jewish exiles returning to post war Vienna looking for the life they knew before, in some cases finding people they had once been friends with, but facing rejection, embarrassment and in most cases downright lies about the activities of the Viennese during the war years, with no-one willing to admit their very recent Nazi past. 

de Waal spoke about his anger at the publishers' rejection of his grandmother's manuscript but also understood the odds stacked against its being published in the 1950's - the work of a woman, with a foreign name and at a time when very few people want to talk about the impact and aftermath of the Holocaust. Something not examined in the session, but which struck me afterwards was that Elisabeth's book and her experiences (which are obviously those of the book's characters) reflect the continuing inability or unwillingness of Austria and Austrians to face up to their culpability for the Holocaust. Instead, for the most part, choosing to hide behind the facade of victimhood as "Hitler's first victims". Footage of the entry of the Germans into Vienna in March 1938 and the cheering, saluting crowds give the lie to this. Elisabeth's book was eventually published due to de Waal's perseverance and the commitment of Persephone books. I began to read it yesterday and am already hooked.

Earlier in the week I attended an unusual event called "And Europe Will Be Stunned". It involved a screening of a short trilogy of films by Israeli born film maker Yael Bartana, and then a panel discussion. The films can be viewed on a number of levels but at the heart of them there is a plea for "the other" to "return" to Poland. We see a classic, dictator-like blonde Pole in the centre of a deserted and overgrown football stadium making a plea for 3.3 million Jews to come to Poland as Poland "needs them" (see clip below). He says the Poles are lonely in their homogeneity and that they were wrong in pursuing an entirely "Polish" nation for so many centuries. The empty stadium, the ghostly setting for his speech symbolises the absence of Poland's Jews - either murdered during the Holocaust or driven out by subsequent waves of state sponsored anti-semitism.  

The second and third films show the partial realisation of this dream of return and are filled with symbolism and historical and political references. A group of returning Jews construct a model kibbutz in Warsaw next to the site of the Ghetto Fighters Memorial. Instead of flying a blue and white Magen Dovid over their new home they fly a new flag with the Magen Dovid superimposed over a red and white Polish eagle. The strangely familiar music played during parts of the second film turned out to be Hatikva being played backwards and we see Hebrew being replaced with Polish.

The panel discussion afterwards which included the main actor from the films,  Slawomir Sierakowski, author Eva Hoffman and Polish Jewish intellectual Stanislaw Krajewski, debated the meaning of these references - some seeing them as an attack on Zionism - the backwards playing of Hatikva and the learning  of Polish as an undoing of Zionism. Others recognising the red and white flag as a reference to the Jewish blood shed in Poland whilst the barbed wire around the new encampment was recognised as a reference to the extermination camps of the Second World War. The panel also debated how much the films  were about Poland with at least one strong opinion that the film was really more about Israel. The films are easy to find on the internet so you can judge for yourself.

On a completely different note, one of my highlights of the week so far was listening to Fania Oz-Salzburger talk about"Jews and Words" the book she co-authored with her father, Amos Oz. In their book they argue that text rather than blood is what kept the Jews together through centuries of dispersal and that the dinner table conversations that helped conceive this book are the continuation of a long history of Jewish disputation between generations. Furthermore, she argued that it is essential to have books at the dinner table in order to support these arguments. This too is a Jewish tradition reaching back many generations where the father and children would sit at the table reading or being read too whilst the mother was preparing food before she too joined them in this bookish atmosphere, often despite extreme poverty.

Ms Oz-Salzburger reminded us of the image of the fleeing Jew - leaving home and possessions at a moments notice, clutching a child in one arm and the precious books in the other, with the child and the texts ensuring Jewish continuity. She described books as "our Noah's ark" - the things that rescued Jewishness, although not necessarily religious Judaism. She believes Jews remained Jews because of a shared story and law set out in the Torah, Talmud, Mishnah and other texts, that can even speak to atheist Jews such as Oz and her father. I liked her description of the texts as "our pyramids, our Chinese wall and our gothic cathedrals".

She is from a literary dynasty, her father being perhaps the greatest and best known living Israeli writer and she is conscious of being part of a great tradition. This has not prevented her from embracing modernity. She loves the internet, Facebook, texting and all of the technology that now supports the spreading of words. She reported that her father hates it and becomes annoyed when he sees his work being read on an i-pad! Fania described the internet as being a Jewish text, offering the opportunity for disputation, learning and passing on stories for future generations. 

It was interesting to hear that the book has been attacked by both the anti-religious left who are unable to understand why the Oz family would engage with such a subject and the ultra religious right who think they don't have the right. She joked that she was happy to have helped bring these two groups together on at least one issue! Another must read I think.