Monday, March 15, 2010

Leon and Leo

Where we last left off: We had just watched tens of thousands of common cranes take off, flock by flock, in military precision from the feeding areas in the Hula Valley bird sanctuary. Tired from a full day of standing around and squawking, they were presumably asleep. It was now getting dark, and we had two extremely important activities on our agenda before the four of us, Barbara and I, Jeff and June could rest our own weary bones: eating dinner and checking into our rooms at the tzimmer. Back in The States, if you were in the middle of nowhere, you would be in serious trouble if you needed or wanted a kosher restaurant. We were near Kiryat Shemonah, and there we had a choice of restaurants, winding up at a place where the four of us had a fine meal for about $70. Finally, we headed off to our tzimmer, really a series of cabins on Kibbutz Gonen. The place was somewhat off the beaten path; in fact, the middle of nowhere would have seem crowded by comparison. But our accommodations were fine (we even had a Jacuzzi in our room which we were much too tired to deal with). The next morning, we were up bright and early for breakfast, stopping first at the little ‘zoo’ to check out the baby lambs. Our morning repast, kibbutz style, was certainly an improvement over what we had been fed at the Tel Hai guest house on the earlier tiyul which I chronicled in these pages; at least the eggs weren’t powdered. (My financial secretary tells me that the retail prices were comparable for both these places; Gonen was definitely a better value.) It was hard not to notice the large group of developmentally disabled adults who were also staying there. I wondered to myself if any of them on their own could do what the cranes do, negotiate a journey from Europe to Africa using their innate ability to form mental maps.
Speaking of Tel Hai, that was our first stop of the morning. Not the guest house, but the national monument nearby – another place we had not yet been to. Here is the tribute to a small group of men who died in the 1920’s defending the small Jewish settlements in the northern Galil against marauding Arabs, the most famous defender being the renowned Yosef Trumpeldor – he who allegedly uttered something like “It is good to die for one’s country.” (itself a paraphrase of an old Latin quotation) with his last breathe. Those who actually knew him were convinced that, if he said anything at all, it would have been something like the Russian equivalent of “Oh ________.” There is a small statue there of a lion with his head tilted, ready to roar, probably as well known to Israelis as the MGM lion is to many of us. (Here’s a phenomenal factoid to impress your friends. What’s the name of the lion who appears in the MGM movie logo? The most recent one is named Leo [how’s that for being original], although there were four predecessors: Slats, Jackie, Tanner, and George.)
Jeff hit us with some information that may seem more relevant to our lives. The original agreement between England and France carving up this region left France in charge of Lebanon and the northern Galil. However, after the on-going fighting between our guys and the Arabs, the French washed their hands of the whole business and turned the area below Mount Hermon over to the British. If the French had not done so, a decent chunk of the Galil would probably be part of Lebanon today.
Enough of lions and semi-mythic heroes. Our last scheduled stop was the official Hula nature preserve, very close to the bird sanctuary. A very quiet, peaceful place, except when we passed the small screening room where they were showing a film about migratory birds. I wondered out loud: who can make more noise, fifty thousand cranes or thirty Israeli school children? The preserve is a place for people to wander around and get a sense of what the Hula Valley must have looked like back in 1950. There are trails, a lookout station, and a long boardwalk, some of it enclosed. Lots of different birds, water buffalos (not native), turtles, enormous catfish, maybe two foot long (also not native). We walked and walked and came back to where we started so that we too could see the film. No wonder the kids were screaming! The movie is about eighteen minutes long, and it’s in 3D with amazing effects: things shoot out at you; you get sprayed with water, the seats shake. Not only do they get your attention, you get a good sense about the trials and tribulations of the migratory bird, avoiding death by gunshot, poisoning, destruction of their resting places, and the many vicissitudes of traveling thousands of miles virtually non-stop.
Speaking of traveling, we all needed to get back, so we headed south, stopping in what passes for a mall in Beit Shean for lunch and then retracing our path (except that this time we took the road on the east side of the Kinneret instead of the west side), arriving in Maale Adumim a little before four in the afternoon. Just enough time to take a nap and get ready for the concert.
I didn’t tell you about the concert??!! OK. Shortly after we arrived in The Land in 2007, we found out about ‘Etnachta’ (nothing to do with the trope for the Torah reading), a series of chamber music concerts held at 5PM on Mondays throughout most of the year. IT’S FREE. You show up half an hour or an hour before the concert to get your tickets. Oh yes, it’s at the Jerusalem Theater, or should I say the Jerusalem theaters, because it is actually a complex of theaters, for music, for drama, for films, all in one very large building – with a book and music store, a cafĂ©, and lots of room for visual artists to show their work. We don’t go all the time; it depends on our availability and what’s being performed. The only down side to the concerts is the woman announcer who comes onstage and goes on f-o-r-e-v-e-r about the composers and the piece being performed and the musicians and where they studied and where they have performed, remembering to repeat the names of the players and what they are performing at least four times before and after – all in very high Hebrew which I may or may not understand – which is just as well.
Anyway, we were there about six weeks ago only to discover our friends Bernice and David at the same concert. At the intermission, we all looked at each other with the same thought. Did you hear what I just thought I heard? Are they giving away FREE tickets to the concerts that week of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leon Botstein in which they will be playing the Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. That’s what it sounded like. So we went down to the lobby and, sure enough,, that’s what they were doing. So we wound up hearing a very fine orchestral concert, sitting in about the sixth row on the left, and it didn’t cost us a shekel.
The Monday of the week I am describing brought us again to the Jerusalem Theater with David and Bernice, and the nice lady again announced that there were tickets available for the concert on Wednesday and Thursday, the same performers doing Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – OK, this time it would cost us fifty shekels per, but $26 for two tickets was still one heck of a bargain. Our friends wanted to get there early to meet family members so they picked us up about 6PM, two hours after we got back from the north, which turned out all for the best because while our friends were hanging out with their family, we got to walk around and look at the art. Surprise! Of all nights to be there, we happened to arrive in time for several official openings for the art exhibitions; the artists themselves were there with lots of people, and wine was being poured as if it were water. Now I’m not proud; you offer me a glass of wine and I’ll take it. If there’s a refill in the offing, my glass is as good as anybody else’s. And as I only need one hand to hold a wine glass, that left the other hand free for the cup of coffee I went and purchased at the concession stand.
I had always wondered who gets to show their work on the walls of the Jerusalem Theater; and then Barbara told me from someone she knows who knows the situation, that it’s mostly a matter of money. If one is willing to pay the several thousand shekels fee, one can show one’s work – which might account for the wide variety and quality of art we’ve seen there. One will certainly be assured that a lot of art lovers will see the work, but still, that’s a hefty sum to shell out. Fortunately for all concerned, this night there was some excellent work for us to see. Right by the entrance was Yohanan Lakicevic, the creator of Kluv Hazahav, a play on words which works better in English “The Golden Cage,” pun definitely intended. His watercolors were inspired by the “warm relationship” he developed with his grandfather’s two armchairs, brought along when the family emigrated to Israel from then Yugoslavia in 1951. The artist created a series of pictures, many of which depict an elderly couple, perhaps married just a little too long, sitting in these armchairs and saying out loud to each other things which they shouldn’t even have been thinking. I enjoyed the framed illustrations so much that I shelled out a hundred shekels for an autographed copy of his book. How was I going to carry it?; both of my hands were already occupied. That’s what we have spouses for!
Around the corner and up the stairs was a group show of work by students of the Jerusalem Studio School, whose director, Israel Hershberg, is my kind of guy. I picked up a handout, a copy of an article entitled “The New Realism” from a year old issue of The Jerusalem Report, in which the journalist Anne Sassoon wrote: “Hershberg’s enthusiasm for the art he loves is only equaled by his disgust for the art he despises. After a few decades when art critics, curators and historians have been ruling the roost in the art world, intimidating artists and buyers alike – and only now, perhaps, being toppled by the gallerists, who are overpowering even them – Hershberg is a vehement and refreshing voice of opposition.” Oh joy! Someday, I’ll devote an article about my forays to various museums and galleries in Israel and some of what passes for art in them, and being totally stymied by the verbiage used ostensibly to explain the art but which actually creates an artificial universe of its own to keep normal people out. But not now; that’s another topic. I was more interested in the work on the walls. What Hershberg does is give his students reproductions of ancient sculptures and renaissance or baroque paintings to study and absorb. The students work on producing large (two and three feet high) charcoal drawings, black and white reproductions of the originals, not timid, stilted copies, but renderings done with brio and panache (wasn’t that a vaudeville duo?). I was truly enjoying this student work,, but……… the chimes began to ring. The concert was going to begin in a few minutes. Time to go to our seats, this time dead center, in about the sixth row. At times like this, I wonder how much two seats like this would set me back at Carnegie Hall – if I had to pay for them.
In a venue like this, it doesn’t matter where you sit as far as hearing the music is concerned. But when there are sixty to hundred musicians on stage, the closer you are, the better you can see each of them: the short redheaded woman all the way in the back who is the principal percussionist; the tall blonde woman next to the conductor’s stand who is the principal violinist and therefore the concertmaster. You can look at each and every violinist on the left side or violist on the right side, seated in pecking order; and you can think about being the last two violinists out of thirty and how good you have to be to be in the ‘backest’ row of a symphony orchestra. You can look at any one of the musicians and wonder about his life and imagine where he will go after the concert is over. You can try to match up the musicians with the list of names in the program. There is Vladimir and Olga, probably trained in the Former Soviet Union, and Rami and Sigal who were born in The Land, where classical music is less emphasized in the school system (much like the U.S.). You can look at the aggregate as they come on stage and listen as a hundred musicians proceed to tune up. And you can think about a day like this, where in the morning you were looking at twenty or so slate-grey turtles huddled together on a sunny spot on a log, and now you are seeing a hundred musicians dressed in black spread out on the stage of a large auditorium.
At that point in time, the conductor, Leon Botstein, (who is also the president of Bard College in his spare time) made his appearance, wearing his conducting jacket, replete with tails. He proceeded to give a long scholarly dissertation about Mahler and his music – in English, of course. It’s easy to spot the native-English speakers in such an audience. Just look to see who is reading the program on the English side, and who is reading it in Hebrew – like the people on my left. How much did they, or others like them in the audience, understand of Botstein’s academic presentation? That’s how I feel very often: I understand the topic (Oh, he’s talking about so and so), but somehow the nuances of the matter are lost in my mental translation. (Was the answer yes or no?) But not being fluent in Hebrew here in The Land is my problem. Should, however, the audience in the Jerusalem Theater need to know English to go to a concert? I’m assuming that everyone in the orchestra knows enough of my mother tongue to follow their Anglophonic conductor.
Leon Botstein finished his introduction, turned and signaled the orchestra that it was time to begin (everyone has had ample time to tune up by now). Mahler’s ninth symphony which lasts about an hour and a half would be performed without intermission. Plenty to listen to; plenty to consider; plenty to think about. For one thing, Mahler is much more difficult to perform than either Tchaikovsky or Berlioz, and I could detect passages which were a little ragged. Overall though, well done. At some point, I began to wonder what the musicians themselves would make of the program notes: “Gradually bits of aggressive motives start to infiltrate the lyrical intermezzo, and the descending scales in the harp signal the beginning of the end of this part and the return to the rondo. The coexistence of contrasts fighting an eternal war reaches in this movement its maximal expression……” Who would have thunk it? If I had only known……….
Poor Mahler! Overwhelmed in today’s Jerusalem by excess verbiage. Despised in Vienna while he was alive for who he was, a “Jewish dwarf,” even though he had converted out – at least on paper – for the sake of his career (no ‘imperial’ positions in the Austro-Hungarian Empire could be occupied by Jews). A man not blessed with good health who wrote symphonies in his spare time when he wasn’t conducting other people’s music. I wonder if he could have negotiated a journey from Europe to Africa using his innate ability to form mental maps.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Overnight in the Hula Valley Part 1: ISLAGIATT

Even from an exceptionally out-of-the-box person like me, this may seem a bit odd, but I remember those days so many years ago standing for an hour or more in front of a large enclosure where the deer and the antelope played, part of the African Plains exhibit at the ‘Bronx Zoo,’ and beginning to think about animal behavior and the subtlety of Divine intervention. One may wonder about the thought processes of people, but take it a step further, how and what do animals think? And how does that relate to a universal intelligence? I remembered those conversations with myself as we were watching flocks of common cranes (that’s what they’re called) in the Hula Valley last week. But how we even got up there is a story in itself.
Instead of being up north on Wednesday, we were supposed to be in the Negev from Thursday until Monday, but our friend Richard, who had planned that trip, did something nasty to his ankle, so the Sunday before we had to call off our trip. Fortunately for us, we were all able to cancel our reservations at the local tzimmer (guest house) without any penalty. It just happened that on Monday (are you following this?), Barbara called our friends Jeff and June to arrange for us to meet for lunch some day, and June mentioned that they were planning an overnight trip to the Hula Valley. When Barbara responded, “That sounds wonderful,” June invited us to come along. We were able to make a reservation for a room at the same tzimmer where they were staying, so we were good to go. Wednesday at eight in the morning, they picked us up in their rented car, and off we went.
There is a burgeoning cottage industry here in The Land to train tour guides, and part of that is to train English-speaking guides for the Anglos here, as well as those of you from abroad who visit us from time to time. Jeff decided to take the course, even though he does not expect to make his livelihood as a guide. But it’s a great way to learn about the history, geography, and archeology of the region which he can then pass on to his family, local friends, and visitors. The course is not cheap and it’s time-consuming, but you get a lot out of it. Certainly it was worth it for us to have Jeff around!
We have taken this route before: east on route 1 from Jerusalem until the road ends near Jericho, and you either go north on route 90 to Tiberias and from there up to Kiryat Shemona, or you can go south on the same road to the Dead Sea and down to Eilat. But each time we have traveled this way, we get to see different things – depending on the guide. In all the times we have been this way, nobody thought to stop at The Lido, an abandoned hotel built by the British, which is smack dab at the crossroads. However, Jeff had learned about this place in his course and was eager to show it to us. Talk about a modern archaeological site! There are quite a few abandoned buildings, in varying degrees of decay, along this road, ignored except by graffitists, but nothing quite like The Lido. This must have been a swell place in its day, with a mural going all around the ballroom. I am convinced that if one came here at the right time, say a summer evening when it was quiet and there was no one else there, and one listened very carefully, one could still hear the clink of glasses and possibly the faint conversation of British officers and their wives stationed in the area. Oh yes, and the muffled music coming from the bandstand. But when we where there it was morning, and there was a full tour group there, as well as two armored cars worth of soldiers looking out into the desert beyond. Actually, one could look at the mural and, from the gaping holes in the wall, see the countryside at the same time.
Going on, we found the gas station with the huge model of the Jordan valley which we had seen with Ezra Rosenfeld on an earlier tiyul. Jeff had heard about this place and wanted to check it out. Now if one is discussing the Jordan Valley – from a geological point of view, that is – one is talking about the Syrian-African rift (which could be, but isn’t, a metaphor for the politics of the region). Let me explain this to you graphically: find yourself a map of the Hudson Valley (or something similar for those few of you who don’t live in New York or New Jersey. Cut the map in half so that the each state is on a different piece. Reassemble the two pieces and, slowly, slowly, move one side up and the other side down, and keep doing that so that Washington Heights and Fort Lee stop being opposite each other but are now miles apart. In fact, Fort Lee is now opposite Ossining. Your new map might seem peculiar, but there are no consequences otherwise – to your two dimensional model. In real life when this happens, as it did here, shifts in the tectonic plates cause all sorts of movement, so that – I can’t say suddenly because we are dealing with huge numbers of geological years – the earth has buckled and there are now are mountains and plateaus – like the Golan Heights – where there had been flat land before. Plus we are dealing with other interesting phenomena, like most of the northern area being under water so that the Kinneret was once connected to the Mediterranean. You learn about good stuff like that in a tour guide school.
I also realized along the way that you get a different perspective sitting next to the driver in a car from what you notice on a bus. Obviously you’re closer to the ground, but you are more likely to be paying close attention to what is passing by. For one thing, you’re less likely to take a nap when you’re the one who has to make certain that the driver isn’t taking one. Anyway, we kept going, past certain landmarks that are starting to look familiar, stopping for lunch at Beit Shean (we still haven’t been given the time to explore the ancient ruins there), and for pit stops, until, sof sof (finally) we arrived at the Hula Valley and the bird sanctuary there.
Now there’s all kinds of information you need to know, both geological and zoological to appreciate what was in store for us.. First of all, there’s the matter of bird migrations because five hundred million of our feathered friends make their way back and forth from Europe to Africa every years and cross over Israel along the way (that’s part of the charm of The Land). Why? You ask. Because Israel is in a way the narrowest part of a two way funnel; it is a convenient and hospitable bit of land right in between the vast areas of these two continents, a perfect landing place for the weary avian traveler. And what would be the equivalent of The Lido for these visitors, where there are plenty of fish, insects, and plant life to eat? The Hula Valley, the low-lying area between the Galil and the Golan Heights. Much of the area was a shallow lake never more than ten feet deep which, even though the birds loved it, was considered a large malaria-rife swamp; until the early 1950’s, when the newly formed Zionist state undertook an enormous ‘reclamation’ project, draining the area to eliminate malaria, and turning a lot of land in a small country into extremely fertile fields for farming, to grow food for an ever-increasing population.
Not so fast. As the saying goes, “You can’t fool ‘Mother Nature.’” There’s also, ISLAGIATT, ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time.’ The world is filled with similar examples of ecological hubris. For example, the headlines to an article in a recent Wall Street Journal says in most succinctly, “Green Revolution in India withers as subsidies backfire.” Then “Overuse of one type of fertilizer degrades the soil, causing crop yields to fall and import levels, food prices to rise.” At first everything seems great, but slowly, year by year, ‘nature’ starts to get even. Once the Hula Valley was drained, it began year by year to lose its fertility (don’t ask me to explain the process; this is not one of my areas of expertise.) The point is that we can consider ‘Mother Nature’ as an ally or an implacable foe. After almost fifty years of essentially battling with the Hula Valley, recently the Israeli government began a strategic retreat and re-flooded a small part of what had been the lake and the swamp. With the prompting of some people or groups who knew what they were doing, an agreement was reached between the nature preserve and the neighboring farmers, so that the preserve would feed the birds and the farmers would stop using toxic chemical pesticides. The birds continue to feast on the rodent population but leave the crops alone. Everyone is happy, especially the birds.
If you have seen the Hitchcock movie, The Birds, you may think that you have seen a lot of these winged creatures, silly person, you. As Al Jolson (and if you don’t whom I’m talking about, we have a serious communications problem) was wont to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” We arrived at the bird sanctuary in time to take a leisurely stroll around part of the premises. Then the real fun began. We joined a large group of people for the 4:30 ‘show.’ We went aboard what I can only describe as several rows of stadium seats on wheels, enclosed on several sides, pulled by a tractor, and we set out to meet and greet the birds. At this time of the year, the place is overrun with Grus Grus, known to friend and foe as the Common Crane. When I say overrun, what I mean by that is that if you assigned each of these creatures its own seat in a large stadium (and you found a way for them to take their assigned seats), you wouldn’t have many empties. There were tens of thousands of them hanging out in or near the shallow water, each flock in its own area, all making a considerable racket. And it was feeding time, which meant that another tractor, pulling a combine, was passing in their midst, scattering tons and tons of corn seeds. The birds were used to the tractors and ignored our presence, fairly close to where they were hanging out. We were fortunate enough to be on the best trip of the day because it would soon be time for the birds to abandon their day time areas and fly where they spent the nights. Sure enough, one group of cranes took off; and then another; and then another, each flock waiting its turn, not going until the sky was clear of the previous group. Soon it was dusk, and soon it began to get darker and the sky began to change colors; and the birds kept taking off, flying low to the ground, until every bird was gone and the whole area was eerily silent. In another two weeks, we were told, every last crane would leave for their summer habitats in I-don’t-know-where. If you took the time to notice and think about it, you might come to realize that you were looking at perfect flying machines. No human engineer could develop a more ergonomically sound craft than these birds.
There’s a lot to think about. Having seen a film documentary entitled “Winged Migration” several years before, I had some basic knowledge of the extraordinary flying habits of these migratory creatures, traversing a predestined route of thousands of miles twice a year, leaving from the same place and returning without fail (assuming they survived the journey) to the same place. The obvious question which any thinking person would ask is, how do they do that: how do they know just when to go, where to go, how to return, what route to take? There are some standard answers: genetic programming, for one; or the ability to detect magnetic fields; hormonal changes; the ability to recognize habitats and form mental maps. Having been told all that, have you learned anything? Seriously. When you are told that a bird with a brain the size of the top half of your thumb forms mental maps, might you want to inquire how that is possible? When you observe dozens of flocks of cranes figuring when to take off for their nighttime resting place one flock at a time – which is essentially what controllers are paid to do at airports, using sophisticated equipment – and someone tells you that birds are genetically programmed to do that, maybe, just maybe, you’d want to know how that works. Was Shakespeare genetically programmed to write plays? When we talk about something being programmed, that sort of implies the existence of a programmer, doesn’t it? I’m not writing this to prove a point, any point, because there are some things you can’t really prove. But let me quote from parts the opening paragraph of the prologue to a book entitled “The Hidden Face of God,” by the scientist and author Gerald L. Schroeder, which I believe is relevant to this discussion:
“A single consciousness, an all-encompassing wisdom, pervades the universe. The discoveries of science, those that search the quantum nature of subatomic matter, those that explore the molecular complexity of biology, and those that probe the brain/mind interface, have moved us to the brink of a startling realization: all existence is the expression of this wisdom…. Every particle, every being, from atom to human, appears to have within it a level of information, of conscious wisdom….. There is no hint of it in the laws of nature that govern the interactions among the basic particles that compose all matter. The information just appears as a given, with no causal agent evident, as if it were an intrinsic facet of nature.”
Consider that and form your own conclusions. On that tantalizing thought, I will join the birds and conclude part one of this article.