This is the final instalment of the diary we asked Peter Donohoe on his first visit to Israel. Neither Peter, nor we, knew what to expect – except that he would tell the truth as he finds it, as he always does. There are few more honest musicians alive than PD, and few who enter every situation with eyes so wide open. What follows are personal impressions, not political statements.
And we shall build Jerusalem
by Peter Donohoe
I realised suddenly one day last week what the greatest difference was between my expectation and the reality of Israel. That it is the only country in the world with a majority Jewish government, and that is their official homeland is obvious. What is not so obvious is the way that gives the people living there the confidence to be simply people who happen to be Jewish, rather than being Jewish first and foremost and it becoming the chief aspect of their personalities. Of course the very religious Orthodox Jews are very open and visible regarding their faith; but the non-religious people are in the main just people – and on the whole very welcoming and tolerant ones at that.
I had worried that entering Israel might have been a little like entering a Synagogue where one was made to feel (or perhaps made oneself feel) inadequate and a lesser being for sharing neither the faith nor the racial background, but nothing could be further from the truth. It turns out that I myself do share to a degree the racial background, which is perhaps why I felt so at home, but I don’t believe that to be either important. The way all nationalities and members of different cultures seem to instinctively respond to being away from the origin of their traditions is to tend to wear those traditions on their sleeves much more than when they are in their homeland, and the Jews are no different.
I have been traveling regularly to other countries for my work over the past now forty years. During that time I have found that, on the whole, those countries that have political and economic problems galore, are in social chaos, and are often avoided by superstar artists and their managers, have been the ones that have got under my skin and made me want to return most. I think somebody said once (maybe it was me…) that you love people, places and things much more for their weaknesses than for their strengths.
That those countries get under my skin more is perhaps also because those countries cling on to culture much more ardently than comfortable affluent societies. I have felt extreme closeness with such diverse cultures as Russia (particularly in Soviet times), all parts of South America, Zimbabwe, Papua Niugini, Thailand and Kosovo. In different ways, those countries were all in a mess, but the people were so committed to working at understanding the nature of the music I was playing, and – perhaps most significantly of all – they were incredibly generous (not in the financial sense – nothing to do with money at all). They seemed to enjoy life a lot more than people in the ‘First’ World. I was always sad to leave and often had a feeling of desperation that I might never have the opportunity to return, although in the case of Zimbabwe has that actually come to pass.
Israel falls into neither category – it is not ‘comfortable’ in the Western European or North American sense, but neither is it disorganised and chaotic in the South American sense. What it is is extremely culturally aware, highly educated, very intense and exhausting, racy, somewhat dangerous in the sense of where it is geographically in relation to some very threatening neighbours, and maybe slightly hedonistic, but – most importantly – warm, generous and welcoming. I did love being in Israel even more than I expected, and I have always wanted to go but somehow never managed to make it work.
Jerusalem is a major capital city in the modern sense, where well over a quarter of a million people live and work – everyday lives and jobs – with shopping malls, cafes, bars, office blocks and all the other trappings of a modern city. At the same time, it surely has more historical significance to us all, whatever faith, race, culture or education, than any other place on Earth. The latter is why I felt that I had to visit, why I was somehow able to put my dreadful food poisoning (or whatever it was) to the back of my mind (see below), and why I felt tingles down my spine at the thought of being in this special place.
I was of course very sad that the visit was blighted by the continuous possibility of having to rush into the nearest public loo, and that I felt distended beyond description as I trailed after my two colleagues Kynan Johns and James Inverne* – climbing up the ancient steps as if I had walked all the way from Tel Aviv in the sweltering heat and had just celebrated my 115th birthday. But I am so glad I went, and I am determined to go again when the opportunity presents itself (*James Inverne was until recently editor of Gramophone Magazine. He was in Jerusalem at the time we went, and very kindly offered to show us round – his father-in-law is a professional tour guide in the city, so his knowledge was invaluable.)
It was in Jerusalem that I discovered how true the comment was made by ‘baruch’ earlier that I should realise that “Salam” in Arabic also means peace and that one fifth of Israel’s population are Palestinians, Christians and Muslims.’ [This was in response to my observations about the use of the Hebrew word 'Shalom' as a greeting.] It is in Jerusalem that the meeting and coexistence of all these faiths and races is at its most obvious and public, and a great eye-opener and food for thought it is too. The West Bank and Gaza Strip issues are far too complex for me to comment on – I have no knowledge of the facts, other than what I have gleaned from the ever-unreliable media. But away from those areas, it seems to be a miracle of mutual tolerance.
We visited the beautiful streets of the old city lined with thousands of stalls selling an unbelievable variety of food, wonderful arts and crafts, religious artefacts of every denomination and furniture, mixed in with an equally unbelievable variety of junk. We visited the Western Wall and its environs, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (which Catholics believe is built on the site of the Crucifixion, and in which I apparently touched the wood of the actual cross Christ died upon), passed the entrance to and looked into the Garden of Gethsemane, and took in the Mount of Olives by car.
We also experienced the Mamilla Shopping Mall – complete with large underground car park, Top Shop, Mango, Adidas, etc. etc, just to remind one that the USA – like plaster dust – gets everywhere. Having said that, the buildings of the mall were made to blend in with those of the old city, and it has been done very well.
OK. It is time for me to reveal the truth about the last few days of my Israel trip. I mentioned before that I had contracted mild food poisoning from one of the restaurants the conductor and I went to on our third evening in the country. In truth, I thought it was mild at the time I wrote that, but it got worse and worse – in fact, it was probably gastroenteritis, the source of which I will never know. The only eating activity I can think of that I didn’t share with the conductor was a ready-made salad from a supermarket. Israel seemed thankfully mostly free of mosquitos, but there were exceptions – during my third night I became aware of a single mossie in my room that seemed about the size of a small tractor, and which took a fancy to my left ankle – as they do – but I cannot imagine a stomach virus resulting from that. Towards the end of the trip I thought I would end up in hospital.
It didn’t, and it never does, occur to me, to cancel the concerts because I know from experience that the adrenaline flow a concert gives one keep the symptoms away. [I never did have much sympathy with people who cancel on a regular basis – at least if they are not singers – because a whole infrastructure that has taken months and sometimes years to put together is dependent upon you, and, because of the above-mentioned adrenaline flow, there is very rarely any real reason to cancel, save a family tragedy or a debilitating injury. The one time I did pull out of multiple concerts was when I had nearly lost the index finger of my right hand in an hotel window in the USA in 1994 – I had to cancel three months of performances because of a severed artery and multiple nerves – but that seems, even after sixteen years, to be a reasonable explanation of being unable to fulfil the engagements; with one of the fingers being unusable, the chances of a decent performance were zero.]
Anyway, I digress.
I gather that my conductor colleague Kynan may have contracted the same virus – a week later – just as he embarks on a vacation in Eilat to go diving. If it develops like mine, I don’t think he will be able to dive. It was as much as I could do to stand up. I feel terrible about that, particularly as he has been very patient and understanding of my tendency to be a dead weight socially. But hopefully, it will not develop – in fact, I have seen on his Facebook page that he is enjoying diving very much, so presumably he is made of very strong stuff and fought it off.
Thus far, I have avoided mentioning the concerts themselves, because it is not really a fair place to discuss them. However, I can reveal that the four concerts were very successful; the orchestra rose to the occasion, as everyone concerned had predicted they would when we rehearsed, and the conductor, Kynan Johns, is someone to really look out for. Not only was Kynan extremely able and mature with the music, and with my somewhat divergent approaches to the four performances of the Gershwin Concerto and with the demands of the rehearsal; he was also a great guy and we got along really well, away from the concerts as well as during them. The rest of the program comprised Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; I heard two performances of each of those works and they were really terrific. I also must mention a beautifully played and stylistically excellent trumpet solo in the Gershwin – a particularly difficult solo, and one that has, at least musically, tripped up many more great trumpeters than not.
The whole trip ended with the trip back to London Heathrow on an El Al 747. [It's a long time since travelled on a Jumbo Jet – the plane I always felt was the most impressive and awe-inspiring flying machine ever invented (next to Concorde, that is, which I was only ever lucky enough to fly once on a New York to London rather time-sensitive mission to get to an engagement in Copenhagen in 1983)] There seemed to be more Orthodox Jews on the plane than I encountered during my whole trip in Israel.
Before signing off, I just want to express some thoughts and theories that perhaps I don’t have enough knowledge to be very confident of; however, they are not so private worries about what might happen in the Middle East that would affect us all. The Western World, led by the USA, has in recent been directly involved in armed conflict in Afghanistan (separated from Israel by Jordan, Iraq and Iran), Iraq (separated from Israel by Syria), Libya (separated from Israel by Egypt) and Yemen (separated from Israel by Saudi Arabia). We, again led by the USA, are gearing up to at least become very heavy on Syria (immediate neighbour of Israel to the north), Iran (on the other side of Iraq from Israel), and Bahrain (off the coast of Saudi Arabia).
In all these countries the reasons for western involvement are, at least on the surface entirely justifiable (I realise that many are suspicious of the motivation behind these conflicts – quite rightly too), ranging from seeking out the perpetrators of 9/11 and other terrorist acts, quelling appalling and murderous civil war, unseating totally unacceptable dictatorships in favour of western democracy, and keeping a check on the development of nuclear capability.
However, the result is very startling when you look at the geography of the Middle East. With the exceptions of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Israel is surrounded by one aggressive country after another that is torn between its own government and the western democracies, and almost all of them seem to be openly hostile to Israel’s existence.
I can see why at a glance society in Israel is not only the religious antithesis of the countries that surround it; it is in so many other ways too – particularly in its work-orientated, religiously tolerant and fun-loving lifestyle. Every one of those countries must feel to Israel like a threat – not just Iran, whose President wants to ‘wipe Israel off the face of the earth’, and not just Syria, whose government seems to be happy to sacrifice anyone and everyone who has anything contrary to say. What is going on in the area is another Cold War; let us not forget that the earlier Cold War could have gone hot at any time – in fact it is a miracle that it didn’t. What will happen to the area, and to the rest of the world, if Israel decides to have a go at Syria or Iran, with US support? And who could blame it for doing so?
Just a thought….. Nothing much we can do about it, but I do believe we need to be extremely aware of it until peace finally reigns in the Middle East. We ignore it at our peril.
Anyway, it was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life to make my first trip to Israel, which I sincerely hope will be the first of many. I have enjoyed writing about it very much. Thank you for reading it if you have been, and thank you to Norman for inspiring the idea. This is me signing off for now. P