Friday, March 28, 2008

I Walked from Jerusalem to a McDonald's 10 Miles Away

I didn't actually eat there. I've been banning McDonald's for years, partially for how badly their arches go with places like the outskirts of Jerusalem, but hell, it makes for a good story.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Famous Last Word

Legend has it that Gustav Mahler's last word was "Mozart", or rather: "Mozart!" I read somewhere that he opened his eyes, half rose from the bed, cried out the name of his compatriot composer, and passed on. some would say that this came a bit late, since Mahler's work shows so little Mozart influence.

This story came back to me over the final, Mozart-rich stages of the Rubinstein pianist competition, which I'm covering. I got ample time to reflect on how much I love Mozart, and how happy I am to have realized this early enough in life.

However, since I delve here so often over classical composers and how much I love them, let's let that go and concentrate on the other aspect of the Mahler anecdote. Mahler proved that a true artist knows how to be concise at a critical moment. Here are a few final utterings with three words or less. No experience was more morbid and delightful than seeking them out.

"I'm bored." (Gabriele d'annunzo)

"Such irrepairable loss!" (August Comte)

"I'm a pianist. (John Field to the priest's question: "Are you a Papist or a Calvinist?")

"Why not? Yeah." (Timothy Leary, a-propos nothing)

"Never felt better." (Douglas Fairbanks)

"Don't mourn. Organize!" (Joe Hill)

"Pardonnez-moi, Monsieur." (Marie Antoinette, upon accidently stepping on the executioner's foot.)

"Write! pencil! paper!" (Heinrich Heine)

"What's this?" (Leonard Bernstein)

"This is unbelievable" (Mata Hari before the firing squad)

"On the contrary." (Henrik Ibsen, upon overhearing the nurse remark to someone that he was feeling better.)

"O, holy simplicity!" (Jan Huss)

"Nothing but death." (Jane Austen. Her sister asked if there's anything she wanted.)

"Wait a second." (Madame de Pompadour, she then applied rouge to her cheeks and died.)

"Shakespeare, I come!" (Theodore Dreyser)

"Drink to me!" (Pablo Picasso)

"Yeah." (John Lennon, to the cops' question on whether he was John Lennon.)

"More light." (Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe)

"This is funny." (gunslinger John Henry Holliday, presumably about the fact he found himself dying in bed.)

"I'm losing." (Frank Sinatra)

"Codeine... Bourbon." (Tallulah Bankhead)

"Good night." (Lord Byron)

Friday, March 21, 2008

Cellphone Purim

Such a fool I am! I left home without my camera on Purim! I really should have had something better than my phone on me when I ran into Che Guevara (alias Flashki) on Herzl St.

Or when downtown lover and I tried to dress up as a stuffy French couple and ended up as two goofy Marcel Marceaus

(though a wig left behind by someone at a party saved at least one of us from complete ridicule.)

I should have had it today in Jerusalem, where the ultraorthodox kids dressed up as Elijah the Prophet and as the Grand Priest of Solomon's temple (top left is what they usually look like)

and certainly, certainly I should have had it today at Maayan magazine's top notch party, when at last the Guevara hat reached the head it was meant for.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Holy Week

Lemme tell you a story. A couple of years ago an editor of mine suggested that I disguise myself as a foreign backpacker, check into a Tel-Aviv hostel, make friends with other guests and travel the country with them. The article, she anticipated, would give an interesting point of view on Israel. "For one week, go wherever they go," she proposed," Tiberias, Akko, The Dead Sea..."

The backpackers with whom I made friends never went to any of these places. Having left Tel-Aviv, they checked into a run down hostel in Old Jerusalem and stayed there for the entire week, doing very little besides playing cards in a messy room overlooking the dome of the rock. They were sweet, though, and I truly enjoyed being with them. They guessed me to be South African and I went with that.

Four days into the project I found myself on the rooftop of the hostel at sundown. Before me was a view unmatched: The dense rootops of the Old City bore the golden Dome of the Rock. The church and tombstone-dotted Mount of Olives rose pink and calm to recieve the sun's last rays. Clasping the dark domes of the Holy Sepulchre were so many towers: that of the Terra Santa institute, with its black pointy hat, that of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, romanesque and elegant, mosque minarets, slender and pculiar...

Flags were waving in the wind, speaking of a hushed war, of tense subterranean waters. The hum of the two new cities: Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian Musrara, coming from afar, spoke of life. I was at work, doing nothing. I was a tourist in my own city and a foreigner looking at the house where he grew up (It was indeed visible, atop French Hill). This was a very strange moment and I felt both calmed and moved by its beauty.

I'm not a religious man, rather, I'm a Tinkebell agnostic. I'll except that there may be a god, since I can't prove otherwise, so long as everyone else accepts that Tinkerbell may exist - they can't prove otherwise. I am mad at the religions of the world for promoting simplistic thinking, for being irresponsible and offering bad politics such readily available, dangerous fuel. Than again, I cannot deny: I had a true spiritual moment in Jerusalem, and isn't Jerusalem God's hometown?

This week, twixt palm and Eater Sundays, I went back to Jerusalem as guide for a small group of French tourists. We saw a big group of African pilgrims in flourescent green robes covered with images of Jesus and Mary. We saw a man bearing two crosses down an alleyway (why?). We saw children playing in Mea shearim courtyards who have never seen a television set and know nothing of the world outside. The light in their eyes is centuries old.

We saw stone. The British, while in control of the city after 1917, decreed that evey wall built in it must be covered in stone. Jerusalem, old and new, is consequently as heavy as stone. It is a city constantly on the verge of tears. It impacts the visitor ceaselessly, with every step, with every encounter. That moment on the rooftop never passed, it's still going on.

So Jerusalem isn't only God's hometown, it's also my hometown, which may account for my sentimentality, but the intensity of scores of African pilgrims wearing green altar pieces certainly contributed to my small epiphany. I thank St. Helen and the Umayyad Caliphate for building those domes, I thank those who kiss the stones for kissing them, I thank the possesed street musicians for singing American accented has-been Hebrew hits along Ben-Yehuda Street. Screw Tinkerbell, I believe in Jerusalem. Happy Easter, Happy Purim and a lovely springtime to all.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Missing Eire

As much as I love beer, St. Paddy's day is about music.

This brief post is dedicated to Jake Montwieler who gave me the first holiday cheer of the morning. Sláinte chugat, Jake!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Weekend in Review

It kicked off with our evening of erotic poetry (pictured: master of the genre Aaron Shabtai)

Then a bunch of us went and squatted at the back of the Prince.

Near the Riffraf bar there was a party and it poured out into the street.

Adam joined me the following day for lunch. He is seen here with the famous Abu Hassan queue in the background.

Then it was time to buy pickles and cheese at the delis on Jerusalem Ave.

A lazy efternoon of newspapers followed.

Saturday Jaffa was a motorist's hell

And a paradise for all who love the smell of roasting meat.

Italian soda was served at Paul's Cafe

And at home: halved petrucian sausages done in wine, mint, portabellos and yams. Peace and a great new week to all.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


I have a few rules for living:

1. When offered candy, pick the red.

(clause: if there isn't a red one, do what you will but don't pick the green. it's disgusting).

2. If there's a bar, sit by the bar

(clause: if there's Guinness on tap, drink that, even if you don't feel like it).

3. When you get a chance to listen to Tchaikovsky, do.

There's no "clause" to the third rule. There is nothing that would make listening to Tchaikovsky a bad idea. I learned this during this year's first classical music festival in Eilat. The Marinsky opera house came from St. Petersburg to perform the opera "Eugene Onegin". It wasn't even an operaic perforamnce but a concert one: The soloists stood on stage before the orchestra and sang. When the libretto calls for Lensky to get shot in the heart and die, he just stood there, them calmly stepped off the stage a few minutes later.

My life was altered.

When walking out of the venue I texted Vizan: "There's nothing more sublime in this world than Opera". I attended three opera performances since and I understand that this is incorrect, there's nothing more sublime in this world, for me at least, than Eugene Onegin. It's simply so much better than the rest.

Pushkin is responsible for that. He wrote the coldest, most unromantic love story ever. Harsh and realistic, it's devoid of operaic cliches and thus makes for superb libretto material. Tatyana falls for Eugene. He rejects her, only to come crawling back to her on all fours years later and have her reject him. When she does, He does not commit suicide as would a true operaic protagonist, but walks offstage (and off the rhymes of the literary masterpiece) in pain.

Eugene Onegin's message can be summed up as: "C'est la vie". It is sounded twice: first, in Eugene's reply to Tatyana's love letter.

His days and dreams what man recovers?
Never shall I my soul renew...
I feel, if not indeed a lover
More than a brother's love for you.
Be patient then, as with a brother:
One cherished fancy for another
A girl will more than once forego,
As every spring the saplings show
New leaves for those the tempest scatter.
So heaven wills it, your young soul
Will love again. But self control,
My dear, is an important matter:
Though I was worthy your belief
Impulsiveness may lead to grief.

(Chapter four, Sonnet XVI, trans: Babette Deutsch)

It is sounded again in her rejection of him. There, the "c'est la vie" is directed not only at him but at herself. She is not happy in her marriage to Prince Gremin, but chooses to accept reality, and asks Eugene to do the same.

"And happiness, before it glided
Away forever, was so near!...
But now my heart is quite decided.
I was too much in haste I fear;
My mother coaxed and wept, the sequel,
You know, besides, all lots were equal
To hapless Tanya... Well, and so
I married. Now I beg you go.
I know your heart, I need not tremble
Because your honor and your pride
Must in this matter be your your guide.
I love you (why should I dissemble?)
But I became another's wife;
I shall be true to him through life.

(Chapter eight, sonnet XLVIII)

Notice that both rejections contain expressions of love. Isn't that familiar? This is exactly what life is like. Which is what opera is so seldom like.

Composing an opera which is about life, and which uses the finest literary source thinkable, allowed Tchaikovsky to break musical ground. I especially feel that in his work on Tatyana's initial letter to Eugene (Act I, Scene II). The music's role is to make us forget that the letter is silly and futile, and to be carried away with Tanya's feelings. What begins as a normal, albeit wonderful, aria, using Pushkin precise wording of the letter, turns at one point extraordinarily soft. A gentle air is sounded by the clarinet and strings, followed by tatyana's first expression of doubt.

Are you a guardian angel to me?
Or but a tempter to undo me?
Dispel my doubts! my mind's awhirl;
Perhaps this is a mad delusion
the folly of a simple girl
Fate plans a different conclusion...
So be it, now my destiny
lies in your hands, for you to fashion;

The sweet air is now played with gusto by the entire orchestra. It is tatyana's love. Tchaikovsky managed to isolate the pure sense of desire and obsession and turned it into music. Any wonder I'm stunned by his feat?

This scene is to be found here on Youtube, done wonderfully by Renee Fleming. Downtown lover, overwhelmed one day that I cleaned her bathroom after the boilar fixer turned it into Hiroshima, bought me the classic 1974 recording, with Solti conducting and Teresa Kubiak as Tatyana. That's a gift that easily beats the red candy and the Guinness and even my beloved bar.

Alright, that's enough Russian for now. Don't forget that tonight (Thursday) at 20:00 there's a poetry event, planned by Flashki and myself. It'll take place next to "Poema", the poetry store at Dizzingoff Center, and will center around Erotic poetry. Each poet was asked to bring one of her or his own and one written by a favorite poet, since passion loves company.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tel-Aviv's Inimitable Nights

Last night at the "Prince" Dana Guidetti was giving an impersonation of herself. It came out fairly convincing.

Vizan then impersonated me: "You won't believe it, Vizanov!" he yelled impassionedly, "There are eighteen Japanese composers here!"

Flashki, usually the man of many guises, was not at his best, but pulled out another party trick: he stopped his breath and flushed his face till his skin turned all violet.

Give us all a break, dear readers. It's been a tough day.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

The Finest in the Middle East

A few days a go I signed a book contract for my novel "Inuit Underpants". Now I'm reediting it for publication and this means that a bottle is sitting beside my computer. For a long time, while I was not writing "literature", that spot on the desk was taken up by other things: documents, business cards, little tins full of mints. Journalistic writing does not tolerate drinking, but literary writing goes quite well with it.

Since I ran out of whisky the other day, tonight I must have do with beer from the fridge, but it's good beer: the "golden" variant of Taybeh, produced east of Ramallah. This is indeed, as the label states, the region's finest. Brewmaster Nadim Khoury studied with the Sam Adams crew in Boston, so there's an American microbrew twist to the flavor: a few more hops than your Israeli lager, an underlying sweetness and texture that is neither Belgianly heavy nor overly light.

I drink to peace and justice, brothers and sisters. This brewery is a wonderful example of why we need both. Fonuded in the early nineties, it thrived during that decade. Then, as the second intefada began, found itself secluded from the Israeli buyers and bereft of local clientele. Taybeh town, where the beer is produced, is the only heavily Christian community in the northern West Bank, the rest are primerily Muslim, and even had they not been, deteriorating economic conditions in Palestine made commodities like microbrewed beers a laughable concept. Foreign markets responded weakly, and getting the goods accross the great rift to Jordan and beyond became intolerably difficult due to movement restrictions imposed by Israel.

Good beer is beauty. Good beer is poetry. A shortage of good beer is one damage done by political conflict that I find hard to forgive. Nearly three years ago I attended a party in Jerusalem, a launch for Hebrew underground magazine "Dor Gimmel". Taybeh beer was served there and consumed to the sound of absolutely rocking Jewish klezmer music. That combination is how I want to see my country.

Since that night, Taybeh beer became for me a symbol of my political aspirations. The very existance of fine brew (not to mention an annual Oktoberfest celebration) in this beat and punishing landscape is a somewhat surreal testament to the ultimate triumph of humanity. I'm drinking Palestinian pride tonight, infused with hops and hope. I'm drinking what this place could be like. It tastes great and gives me inspiration.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

Over the weekend, Israel killed 109 Palestinians in Gaza. At least half of them, according to Israeli human rights organization Betzelem, were not involved in combat nor in shelling Israeli territory. Meanwhile, downtown lover and I spent a daylong vacation across a hostile Middle Eastern border, in once inaccesible Aqaba, Jordan.

Granted, the Middle East is not simple even when you do your best to ignore blood. The only place DL could give her legs a bit of sun was aboard a pink paddle boat, drifting a few hundred meters offshore. We got a good view of the world's second tallest flagpole (the tallest is in Amman), and the locals got a very limited view of us.

...which was a blessing. Consider that while I briefly crossed the street to immortalize the above tableau of mountains and logos, downtown lover got harrased by no less then three drivers, including a taxi driver with a car full of passangers. All stopped to get a better view of her in her deliberately conservative but nonetheless western attire.

But all in all Aqaba is lovely and friendly and we had a good time there. Our Hebrew was well recieved and cigarettes were dead cheap. The town's prime advantage over neighboring Eilat, where we came to attend a chamber music festival, is in its more decent urban fabric. It actually has a market, complete with skinned lambs hanging on hooks with their furry heads unremoved.

Travel is in the details. The two towns sit by the water like mirror reflections of one other. Closer inspection reveals different clothes, different music, different attitudes, different sidewalk curbs. In Arab countries curbs tend to be exceedingly high, stranding those on wheelchairs while pleasing visitors by reminding them that they're somewhere different. The beauty and tragedy of Israel's westernness both reveal themselves in this pleasure. We travel 5 kilometers east and feel engulfed by the exotic.

Fans of the exotic may also enjoy Aqaba's hooka pipes

and herb gardens along the corniche

and of course the old fashioned soda can tab! That in itself is good enough reason to venture into troubled territory anyday. Lets hope some sort of stability is maintained in the region so we get to pull at them again soon.