Monday, March 7, 2011

Moshe Pinchas and the Make Believe Ballroom

It’s Make Believe Ballroom Time,

Put all your cares away.

All the bands are here

To bring good cheer your way….

(Theme music for Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom

Written by Martin Block/Harold Green/Mickey Stoner and performed by

The Glenn Miller Orchestra and the Modernaires)

Moshe Feldenkrais, or if you want to be precise, Moshe Pinchas Feldenkrais. That’s a name that probably doesn’t come up in the course of your everyday conversation, if ever. Maybe because he led a boring life, never did anything, never went anywhere. He turned up all alone in Palestine in 1919, when he was fifteen, worked as a laborer, got some education and worked as a mapmaker; went to Paris and got degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering, then his doctorate at the Sorbonne, after which he stayed in France and built a generator used for atomic fission experiments. He got to England before the Nazis arrived in Paris and conducted anti-submarine research for the British admiralty. He returned to Israel in 1951 to direct the Israeli army department of electronics. Ho-hum, just a typical day at the office. In his spare time, Feldenkrais mastered judo and jiu-jitsu, wrote books on self-defense, and started developing an eponymous method of bodily healing, which he devoted the latter years of his life teaching.

What does any of this have to do with our sheltered lives here a little bit east of Yerushalayim? It has to do with my wife and personal trainer (one and the same). Barbara has always maintained that I am worth more to her alive than dead. That’s true from a strictly financial point of view, but I have to hope her interest is deeper than that. She has noted that, over the years, my body has lost some flexibility – a natural consequence of the aging process. She had signed up for ‘Feldenkrais’ at the local Gil Hazahav and was anxious for me to join her. And so I did (although you knew that already).

Let me describe what goes on at ‘Feldenkrais.’ You and ten to twenty other people lie on the floor on a mat (not the same mat!). The teacher, Nava, goes through a long explanation about what’s going on, and then we begin a series of exercises in which all parts of the body go in different directions at the same time. Now all of this palavering is going on in Ivrit, which means that I understand precious little of what is going on. To be fair, most of the exercises are so complicated that I wouldn’t understand what she wants us to do – if she were speaking in English. As far as her explanations of the methodology are concerned, all I get out of it is that I’m supposed to remember to breathe.

The first session I attended, Nava, realizing my linguistic limitations, began explaining some of the basic points in my language of choice; whereupon a gentleman from the FSU piped up, “Let him learn Hebrew.” Thanks for your kind thoughts, Dmitri, I’ll remember you in my will. The teacher pointedly ignored him and went on about her business.

After the first few sessions, I realized what my problem was. I was so intent on translating the instructions that I was constitutionally incapable of relaxing – which is the whole basis of ‘Feldenkrais.’ So now I don’t worry about understanding anything beyond some reasonably simple directions. Whatever everyone else is doing, I do. Nava goes around and corrects everybody anyway. The first several months, Barbara was next to me back-mat driving. However, the class got switched to a different day – one which is not convenient for her – so now I am on my own. The bottom line is that if you were to ask me what the Feldenkrais method is all about, I still have no idea. I just figure that anything that gets you to relax and stretch your muscles has some value – even if you’re doing it in a ‘foreign’ language.

The moadon gil hazahav, the kind of community center that is found the length and breadth of The Land. The one here costs you 180 shekels a year to join (about a dollar a week) plus the cost of the classes (Feldenkrais is 70 shekels a month). If you understand that gil in Hebrew means ‘age,’ and zahav mean ‘gold,’ you know what the deal is. Outside the building, under a pergola, a handful of elderly guys are always sitting playing cards – in between conversation. For all I know, the game goes on around the clock, because they always seem to be there. This group is distinct from a slightly larger but similar group which is always sitting inside the mall at one of the tables near the ice cream concession or the group of Russians who crowd around one particular bench near the fountain in the older shopping area which is on our way to the center of town.

If anyone is wondering where all these guys’ wives are hanging out all this time, they’re probably the ladies hanging out inside the ‘clubhouse,’ sitting around tables in the ante-room, snacking on biscuits and instant coffee, having a grand old time in Hebrew or Russian – depending on place of birth. With some difficulty, one can wend one’s way through this mob into the large all-purpose room where ‘Feldenkrais’ goes on.

Except that today, we’re here for something different. For a while last year, Barbara had joined an additional exercise class and was anxious to rejoin and for me to go with her (but you knew that already). We had started the week before, and I quickly figured out that this class would be a piece of cake. The instructor, Chanah, led the assembled through a series of exercises, moving our arms or legs, squeezing a ball or stretching a rubber whatever-you-call-it (gumi in Ivrit). In the middle of the session, I had a flash-back: there was nothing going on that I wouldn’t be doing if we had a bunch of motivated geezers shooting the jump shots of our youth and going up for rebounds on a basketball court. But we don’t, so I persevered. Our teacher was standing, facing us, so all I had to do was duplicate what she was doing – remembering to do the mirror image, which seemed to be beyond the grasp of several of the participants.

Chana uses a musical accompaniment to get everyone relaxed and in the right frame of mind to move around. I do not remember what she played the first week, probably the kind of inane Israeli pop music that goes in one ear, travels through the brain at the speed of light, and exits out the other side, making absolutely no impression whatsoever ; but this day, all of a sudden, what was I hearing? “Love is a many splendored thing…..” It couldn’t be. Was this a tape of Martin Block’s Make Believe Ballroom on the radio? If you’re old enough to remember the song (music by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) from the 1955 movie of the same name, when was the last time you heard anybody perform it? And the original? There I was, dutifully mimicking the teacher’s motions, all the while trying to remember who the group was. The Four……Who? The Four Lads, The Four Tops? This is killing me. (I checked it out later; it’s the Four Aces – for anyone who cares.)

For the rest of the forty-five minutes, Chana’s Make Believe Ballroom kept on going. And I kept whispering to Barbara, “Johnny Mathis,” “I think that’s Vic Damone,” “That’s The Platters, one of their mega-hits ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,’” That’s either Joni James or Patti Page, I’m not sure which.” Finally, Cole Porter’s ‘True Love,’ in which Grace Kelly joins Bing Crosby for the final chorus. For some cruel and inexplicable reason, Chana turned down the volume for the second half of the song. Good thing I have excellent hearing. Now this music is not my area of expertise; I’m better off with material from two to three decades before. Still, I grew up with this stuff and there are impressions and memories…….

I was, all the while, trying to keep enough of my faculties focused on what Chana was doing so I wouldn’t fall on my face or otherwise look stupid. After all, all the bands were here to bring good cheer my way. Yet I couldn’t help but keep looking around the room at the assembled throng trying to keep up with Chana and her moves. As far as I could tell, there was nobody except me and the spouse from our original side of The Pond. Had anyone else ever seen the movie or heard ‘Love Is a Many Splendored Thing’ sung in any language or dialect? Did anyone else have a clue who The Platters were? If they did, they were keeping it well hidden; not a glimmer of recognition. For all it mattered, it could just as well have been Yosi and the Chevra. And why should it – matter, that is? Who amongst them had had the chance to grow up in The Bronx, watching double features at the Loew’s Paradise? Who amongst them have ever huddled in a tunnel or underpass, working on a doo-wop number like ‘Sunday Kind of Love’? Maybe they were too busy fleeing Arab monarchies or enduring Soviet tyranny to pay attention to such idyllic joys.

When people ask me what I’m doing these days, my stock answer is usually “Aging Gracefully.” So there I am in the all-purpose room at the moadon gil hazahav, bending, flexing, twisting, rotating, hoping that I can keep remembering who I am, where I’ve been, and what I know. Maybe that’s what everyone else there is hoping to do.