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A pianist in Israel: day two

Here’s the second episode of Peter Donohoe’s diary in the Holy Land:

I kept myself to myself on the first evening, and ventured outside only to a local late-night supermarket. (I wrote a lot and watched TV, which, other than the local Hebrew stations, by and large comprises the same American mix as – in fact pretty well identical to – that which I saw in Bogota, Seoul, Auckland and in the UK on Sky, some of which is entertaining, some of which makes me lose the will to live and my toenails curl.)

However, on the second day, after our rehearsal with the orchestra (the Israel Symphony Orchestra based in Rishon LeZion near Tel Aviv), the conductor (the Australian, Kynan Johns, who studied conducting here with the founder of this orchestra, Noam Sheriff, some years ago) and I went off to Jaffa Old Town to eat.

What an extraordinarily beautiful place. I am not good at verbal descriptions, but imagine an American skyline of high rise buildings (Tel Aviv) on the other side of a bay from where you sit after dark in an ancient enclave of restaurants and bars by the side of a small harbour in a temperature of about 35 C. And great food.

Then there is the sea – the eastern end of the Mediterranean somehow reminds me of what I imagined as a child when I read the part of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth when the explorers reach the Lidenbrock Sea – I am sure you know the bit. It may be fanciful and stimulated by foreknowledge of where I am, plus the late-evening haze, but I felt it very strongly.

The first impression that I can guarantee not to change with the days I am here is of the extreme openness and friendliness of most people. I don’t mean just people who know who I am and what I am here for, but almost everyone – in the supermarket, at the restaurants, the hotel – everywhere. Even the immigration guy at passport control smiled a welcome. I absolutely do not want to give the impression that I cannot see any problems, or to be obsequious about the place, but so far, it has been a real pleasure to be here.

To feel the history is particularly thought-provoking. People mention Jerusalem, Bethlehem, The Sea of Galilee, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Dead Sea in the same way as we in the UK mention Brighton, Burnley, Loch Lomond, Chichester Cathedral, The Cotswolds and the Lee Valley Reservoir – of course they do; they live here, and those places are present day living and working environments to them. My comment may seem silly to those readers who are either Israeli themselves, or who have visited. But to encounter for the first time such places in the present day real world, as opposed to either on the media or in the Bible at Sunday-school is spine-tingling to me. I felt it for slightly different reasons – as the history is so totally different – when I first crossed the Iron Curtain into Hungary 35 years ago, and in particular when I later first visited Siberia.

It makes me realise how lucky traveling musicians are to experience such things. Of course, we can all visit them on holiday, but I promise you that it is not the same as working together with the people in such diverse places as we do. The reality of actually living and working permanently is obviously going to be even more different to the impressions we have, and visiting musicians are for sure shielded from that. However, we get closer than any tourist – partly because we work with the locals at least temporarily, and partly because music is such an emotional experience that it opens up peoples’ hearts and one feels close even to audience members one doesn’t meet – in some places more than others.

Silly interlude: One of my wife’s favourite jokes, going back to her childhood: Q. ‘What do you call a male teabag?’ A. ‘A He-brew’. [Yes, I know it’s terrible, but it is so terrible that it keeps coming out at parties.]

Israel is a very small country, compared to the UK, and seems to be surrounded on all sides by enemies. However, it is protected to some degree by the democratic West – particularly the USA. It also has an extremely aggressive element itself, and contains hugely diverse cultural and political views; Zionism is one of them, and there are many different forms of that alone. Its Secret Service – Mossad – has the reputation of running rings round the CIA and MI5 and of having even given the KGB a run for its money. And it has what they called ‘nuclear ambiguity’. The less ambiguous countries are USA, Russia, China, UK, France, India and Pakistan. In all cases it is a good thing the others are in a position to fight back, and the same applies to Israel. But God help us all if Iran tries to put into action the ravings one hears about on the media – ambiguity or otherwise.

I cannot help but respond positively to Dorothy’s comment that the Jewish musical traditions and tomatoes comprised a good reason to live here; both of those items are wonderful. And some Halloumi I had yesterday was to die for, as was the avocado (I know they are not specifically Israeli, but they were very special). But the political, religious and historical significance of any country, plus the way it is regarded by the rest of the world, are things I am always aware of wherever I go, including the UK.

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  1. Peter, I can top your wife’s joke.

    There is a craft beer sold in high-end supermarkets around the US called, I kid you not, He’Brew. (tagline: “The Chosen Beer”) It’s brewed by the Shmaltz Brewing Company.

    The six-pack carrying case has sort-of-Chagall-meets-comic-book drawings of an orthodox Jew in fedora and earlocks dancing around, with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

    Their first offerings were called Genesis Ale and Messiah Bold (“It’s the beer you’ve been waiting for”). They’ve since changed those names a bit and added to their product line with, for example, Funky Jewbilation and Hop Manna.

    They’ve even gotten a product endorsement they put on t-shirts:

    “Christ, that’s good beer!”
    – God

    Look for it in Whole Foods next time you’re in the States.

    • Peter Freeman says:

      We won’t need to be there, MWnyc, as Whole Foods Market have five stores in London where I reside (as well as one each in the small English town of Cheltenham and a particularly Jewish suburb of Scotland’s largest city Glasgow). Although a teetotaller I shall investigate out of curiosity whenever I next pass one.

      • Oh, I know that Whole Foods is in London now, but I’d be surprised if the Shmaltz Brewing Co. is exporting its beer overseas yet. (If I’m wrong about that, well, good on Schmaltz!)

        Great letter from Tel Aviv, by the way – thanks for writing it and sharing it with us.

  2. Corrected version:

    MWnyc – thank you for that. Most amusing.

    I must say that I hope the beers have better taste than the company’s line labelling policy, but I am not averse to a bit of tastelessness myself – witness some of my reviews.

    I will indeed look out for it when I get the opportunity, but I cannot promise to buy any.

    Just a small question before I get onto a more serious observation: do they put the word God on the tee-shirts, or is that an expression of your own despair at the marketing campaign? I suppose the lack of an exclamation mark is the clue, but I thought I would check.

    Talk about marketing over product – God!

    Anyway, my serious point – much though I enjoyed reading about this ridiculous beer, it is extraordinary that the only part of part 2 of my Israel piece to ellicit a comment from anyone is my wife’s childhood joke. The second comment on part 1 was what appeared to be an entirely irrelevant diatribe against someone else whose story is quite obviously much more complex than we can possibly know, leading to waves of resentment on all sides.

    That is not what Norman asked me to do this for, and it is a genuine surprise to me. Is it a sign of the times maybe? Or a general weakness in the culture of the internet? It does rather put me off bothering, but today or tomorrow will see a 3rd page all the same – this time with a few more serious points and no jokes.

    • Oh, God is definitely on the t-shirt. It’s meant to be a pull-quote.

      Don’t worry about the lack of written response to your post. I know (from experience) that it can be hard to accept this, but silence from readers usually means assent. It’s a compliment, in a way.

      Generally readers are only motivated to write a response if they disagree with something enough to want to respond. (Or, as in my case, if they have some bit to add that might be interesting or amusing.)

      I think that if an average blog reader sees a post and enjoys it, she/he won’t just post a comment simply saying, I liked this. Saying that and nothing else seems (to the person writing it) banal – like it would add nothing to the discussion and be a waste of space and bore the other readers. We tend to forget that even a very simple “I enjoyed that” comment would gratify the author, even if we find such a comment dull.

      But your post was excellent, Peter, and I’m grateful to you for taking the time and trouble to write it.

      If you want a good measure of response to your post, ask Norman for page-view stats.

  3. Ivor Solomons says:

    Thanks to Norman, I can read about a classical musician interested in the world and not just his wonderful art.

    I would be interested to hear more about the music therapy.

    As for the poor response, the internet doesn’t have editors in the same way as print, broadcasting and so on do. So there’s bound to be a huge amount of negativity and ignorance. We’re not all like Socrates. “All I know is I don’t know anything.”

    Keep up the good work. [Now looking forward to your performance of the wonderful Busoni on disc. Hearing enough is s-o-o-o-o-o-o expensive.

  4. Martin Bookspan says:

    Peter, I agree fully with you concerning the curious response to your second day’s blog. But please know that there are many readers who eagerly await your future reactions, impressions and experiences.

  5. Bravo for the concert by the way!
    was a pleasure!

    the cymbals and glockenspiel player

  6. Daniel Jaffe says:

    Please don’t be put off by a lack of response, Peter – I am very much enjoying your posts, and I’m sure many people are too without necessarily leaving a comment.

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