Tuesday, November 25, 2008

:Daddy, they're punishing the paintings!"

There isn’t much to do at 4AM except let your mind wander. Of course you might wonder, why is this man awake at 4AM? For someone of a certain age, the first answer is “bladder.” But there is an additional reason. Younger people may have children to keep them up; we have Mimi the geriatric cat who is always awake at 4AM. Because she has lost a good part of her hearing, she no longer goes meow; she shrieks like a banshee. What is bothering her?, you ask. It could be that her food bowl is empty or that she is not pleased with what remains; she might have made a mess next to her litter box and is offended by the smell; she might have knocked over one of her three water dishes and needs to have it refilled; possibly she is announcing that she is about to upchuck a hair ball under our bed; perhaps she wants to curl up on Barbara’s stomach but my wife is sleeping on her side. At any rate, our cat is standing on my pillow, howling in my ear. Why? Go ask her. As I lie there, trying to go back to sleep, I have time to think about things, perhaps to consider what I would be writing next for my eager readers. And so on this one night I began to focus on The Underground Museum.

My first thought a year or so ago when Barbara had suggested that we visit this place was a visit to the bowels of the earth. Now it occurred to me that it also could have been an exhibit about the history of the London subway system, which is called “The Underground.” There is such a museum devoted to the NYC system in Brooklyn. I seem to remember Barbara telling me that she had been there. I never was. Haval (it’s a pity). There wasn’t so much reason for me to have gone there; I grew up in New York and I know I rode many of the subway cars that are on display. By the end of WW II, my mother was already taking my brother and me on the D train; we were still small enough to walk under the turnstile, meaning my mother didn’t have to pay the five cent fare (I come by my frugality naturally). My brother and I would stand in the front of the first car, looking through the big window next to the motorman, and pretend we were driving the train. The subway cars of that day had wicker seats and large ceiling fans – no air conditioning. The irony of the New York subway museum is that much of the system was never underground. Riding on the 3rd Ave El was like being in a living museum; the platforms and the cars were relics from the beginning of the 20th century, waiting to be torn down or sold as scrap metal. In some places, the tracks were laid directly opposite the windows of tenement buildings, sometimes so close that you could see a man in his undershirt brushing his teeth. We would ride down to 14th St, and on our way back, our final destination would invariably be a large coffee shop which had a conveyor belt which carried donuts from the back of the establishment all the way around to the display window in the front. In my whole life, I have never come across anything remotely as fascinating as that never-ending stream of donuts marching on a mechanical belt seemed to me when I was eight years old……

Back to a more scary and prosaic reality. Our museum in Jerusalem serves a testament and memorial to the Jewish underground, those groups (the mainstream Haganah and two other more extreme factions, The Irgun and the Lehi [The Stern Gang]) who defended Jewish communities from Arab attacks and opposed the efforts of the British to restrict immigration during the British Mandate. Barbara and I had visited this place before, built originally 150 years ago as a hospice for female Russian pilgrims to The Holy Land, and after 1917 served as a British prison. Here you can see the actual cells in which political prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, the infirmary where a doctor would dispense brightly colored placebos, the courtyard into which the prisoners would be allowed for an hour of exercise a day, the office of the High Commander, with furniture and equipment hurriedly left behind in 1948 when the Mandate ended. In one room there is a memorial with photographs and information about these brave men who died fighting to save Jewish lives.

But now this somber reminder of an heroic past would serve as the venue for a Jerusalem Art festival; and this would be our next scheduled stop on our Hag Hamoed itinerary. Needless to say, once we returned to Jerusalem from Beit Shemesh, we needed additional sustenance before doing anything else. And so we walked, as we have done so many times, up and Rehov Yaffa, considering which of the many local establishments we would patronize – all of them, it goes without saying, kosher, and all of them this time of year having a sukkah in the front or side – so that for entire blocks the sidewalks are festooned with festive booths. Any time I can, I steer people to the Coffee Bean, probably the only kosher version of an international chain. Why? First of all, they are fairly inexpensive (did you expect any other ‘reason number 1’?), most of the day serving a “businessman’s lunch” – a very popular item in almost every Israeli restaurant – in this case, half of a large sandwich and a cup of cappuccino or good tea for twenty shekels. You can sit at a table for hours on end without anybody bothering you; you can utilize their wireless internet connections; and people (lots of American students) do just that: sit for hours with their laptops, doing business, writing papers, talking long distance with their VOIP connections. And third, they have clean bathrooms – which I have availed myself of even when I wasn’t otherwise patronizing the place. Needless to say, we had our coffee there outside in their sukkah (number three for the day) – which I admit had very schvach schach – and then headed over to the Russian compound to the art show at the Underground Museum.

It just goes to show: how you can take something and turn it into something completely different. Normally, you would not use the word “cheerful” to describe a testament to brave men long gone and barely remembered (and the history of the formation of the State is replete with such people). But now the corridors, the rooms, he courtyard was filled with art from Israeli galleries. Some of these were first rate galleries with carefully selected collections: acknowledged first rank Israeli artists like Reuven Rubin and Nachman Gutman, a few small canvases by Utrillo or Pisarro, interesting work by “emerging” Israeli artists; then there were lesser galleries with more of a hodgepodge, whatever they managed to get their hands on; there was plenty of kitch on display: by-the-numbers paintings of bearded men dancing with torah scrolls, etc. There were a number of individual artists displaying their wares, some good, some not so. At one point, Natania came over to me and said to me, “Daddy, they’re punishing the paintings.” Sure enough, someone had had the most out-of-the-box idea: displaying paintings behind the barred windows of the solitary confinement cells (which contain some thin bedding on the stone floor and a chamber pot). Effective, but very disconcerting. Then it occurred to me. Many of the prisoners incarcerated and executed in this jail were from the Lehi, (a Hebrew acronym for ‘Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), the smallest, most extreme and controversial of the groups opposing the Mandate, called by the British ‘The Stern Gang’ after its leader, Avraham Stern. Here in these halls more than sixty years after Jewish men were hung in the courtyard, the Stern gallery was hanging its wares. If that’s not a kick in the pants, an eyeful of irony, I don’t know what is.

After having had breakfast in Yehudah and Arleen’s sukkah, refreshments in a sukkah in Beit Shemesh, coffee on Rehov Yaffa, the only thing left to do was have dinner. Natania was eager to try a new sushi joint on a nearby street called Shlomzion Hamalka, where again we found room in their sukkah. This place was “fancy” (defined as using table cloths), and the food was pretty good – although no better than at some of the “less fancy” places we had frequented. We had a leisurely meal; and when we left, there was suddenly a huge line of people waiting to get it. We started to walk back to Yaffa to get a bus to another bus to get us back to Maale Adumim (a little bit east of you-know-where). Every food establishment along the way worthy of the name was packed, with people waiting to get in. Then it occurred to me: I was hearing an awful lot of English. Yes! That was it! All the yeshiva and seminary kids here for the year, all the families here on vacation, they were free to go. Free to join the rest of Israel. Free to find a restaurant – because they hadn’t eaten enough over the last two days. Thee synagogues and hotels were emptying out. Hag Hamoed was over!

The next day, we would be visiting Sderot on a tiyul organized by the yeshiva there. But that’s for next time.

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