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Extracts from the Aug 2014 Journal

Jews in the First World War

This month marks the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, arguably the most important turning point in modern European history. The Great War destroyed the old European order that had lasted since the settlement reached at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The war also ushered in a new and dangerously volatile era of insecurity and conflict, creating the conditions for regimes that were bent on violence and conquest and were prepared to practise mass killing on an unprecedented scale. The First World War was the Urkatastrophe, the original catastrophe without which the great dictators and mass murderers of the mid-twentieth century - Hitler, Stalin and their imitators - would not have been possible.
Whereas the fate of the Jews of Europe became a central issue during the Second World War, given that Nazi Germany, the power principally responsible for launching that war, wished to destroy them in their entirety, the role of Jews in the First World War is at first sight harder to pinpoint. Nevertheless, the Jews who fought in the armies of the chief European belligerent powers numbered around one million, to which must be added some 200,000 who served in the American forces from 1917. The attitudes of these combatant Jews varied from country to country. In Tsarist Russia, which contained the largest concentration of Jews in the world, Jews were subject to severe discrimination and persecution. Jews had long sought to escape conscription into the Russian army and, though many fought loyally even in the face of the ingrained anti-Semitism of the Tsarist officer corps, others were disaffected; after the enormous casualties suffered by the Russian armies in their unsuccessful campaigns of 1914-15, Jews were among those who turned towards the parties hostile to the war and the Tsarist autocracy.
Russia’s enemies benefitted from that country’s record of reactionary excesses. In Germany, the Kaiser’s government portrayed its decision to go to war in August 1914 in part as a defensive measure justified by the expected onslaught of the ‘Russian steamroller’ from the east. Russia was the natural enemy of the Jews and of the liberal, democratic institutions on which their gradual integration into the more advanced societies of Western Europe was predicated. Many German Jews allowed themselves to be persuaded that the preservation of the civil and political rights they had been granted over the decades was bound up with the struggle against Russia. It is, however, undeniable that Germany’s Jews were mostly motivated to flock to the colours by pure patriotism. It has long been known that German Jews equalled, or even excelled, their gentile compatriots in their eagerness to fight for their country in time of war.
While their parents sank their savings into German government war bonds, young Jews like the writer Ernst Toller, who was studying at the University of Grenoble in France when war broke out and only got back to Germany with difficulty, proved their patriotism by joining up, inspired by the mood of national euphoria in August 1914. About 100,000 Jews served in the German forces during the First World War, and some 12,000 died. The writer Thomas Mann, whose attitude to Jews had previously been somewhat ambivalent, movingly recorded in his diary the shock he felt when, after the war’s end, he saw how many men with the name Cohen were listed among the fallen. In recognising the patriotism displayed by Germany’s Jews, Mann was, however, an exception among non-Jewish German patriots and nationalists. As early as 1916, the belief that Jews were failing to support the German war effort was so widespread in right-wing quarters that the Prussian Ministry of War undertook its notorious Judenzählung (census of Jews in the German forces), pandering to the swelling tide of war-fuelled anti-Semitism; when the census showed that Jews were serving in proportion to their numbers in the population, its findings were suppressed.
Many AJR members will have had fathers, uncles, grandfathers and other relatives who fought in the First World War and kept their decorations and certificates as proud mementoes of their service to the country of their birth, even though no amount of Iron Crosses could save a Jew from discrimination and persecution after 1933. Before 1914, Jews had not been admitted to the German officer corps; but by 1918, some 2,000 Jews had been commissioned as officers, and a further 1,200 served as medical officers. This was a source of great pride to the individuals themselves, to their families and to their entire community. Herbert Sulzbach, a German-Jewish refugee who served with distinction in the British army in the Second World War, reaching the rank of captain, remained equally proud of having attained the rank of lieutenant in the Kaiser’s army in the First World War. Geoffrey Perry, born Horst Pinschewer in Berlin, who also distinguished himself in the British forces in the Second World War – he captured the traitor William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw) - had as a child had to listen so often to his father’s patriotic stories of his First World War exploits in the Kaiser’s army that he refused to talk about his own wartime experiences until well into the 1970s.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg has recently written movingly about the deep-felt patriotism of his grandfather, Rabbi Dr Georg Salzberger, who served as a Jewish chaplain in the German army in the First World War and, after emigrating to Britain in 1939, was for many years the minister at Belsize Square. Salzberger, argues his grandson, saw wartime service as the ultimate proof that German Jews had, through their patriotic contribution to the national cause, achieved equality of status with their gentile compatriots. This Jewish patriotism reflected a belief that, as Germans, Jews and Christians shared a set of moral, social and civic values that bound them together in the name of distinctively German ideals. That form of patriotism could also descend into virulent nationalism: it was a German Jew, Ernst Lissauer, who penned the notorious Hassgesang gegen England (Hymn of Hate against England) in 1914.
The situation in Austria-Hungary, with its many competing national groups - almost all of them hostile to Jews - was different. Here Jews felt loyalty to the Empire and the Emperor, Kaiser Franz Joseph, who had come to symbolise the supranational character of the Habsburg Monarchy, standing above the ethnic strife that threatened to engulf the Jews and acting as guarantor of the civic rights that they had been granted under the constitution. In Austria-Hungary, the army, like the monarchy, transcended ethnic divisions, at least to the extent that some Jews were admitted to the officer corps. Jews had little problem in fighting as loyal citizens of the Empire for they feared, all too presciently, that the defeat and disintegration of the Habsburg Empire would endanger their position across Central and Eastern Europe.
In 1914, Russian armies advanced into Austrian Poland, taking cities like Lviv (Lemberg) and Przemysl and causing a mass flight of Jews. While the Germans concentrated on the western front, Austria-Hungary bore the brunt of the fighting against Russia in the east, a cause with which its Jewish population could readily identify. However, partly thanks to the incompetence of Habsburg strategists, the Empire also found itself fighting on two other fronts. Unable to overcome the stubborn resistance of the Serbs, Austrian forces became bogged down in a campaign that ended only in autumn 1915, when Bulgaria invaded Serbia. In May 1915, Italy came into the war on the opposite side, involving Austria-Hungary in a long and costly campaign conducted on the mountainous terrain of the Alps on the frontier between the two warring states. The huge losses suffered by the Austrians on this largely forgotten front, principally in the 11 battles fought on the river Isonzo, were in large measure responsible for the war-weariness that eventually swept the Empire away.
Probably the most significant development affecting Jews during the First World War occurred in the Middle East, where British forces faced the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally. As General Allenby advanced from Egypt into Turkish-held territory to capture Jerusalem, the British government issued in November 1917 the Balfour Declaration, in which it made its celebrated promise of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, previously under Ottoman rule. The First World War thus created the conditions under which the foundations of the future state of Israel were laid. But it also created the conditions for the Holocaust, and not only through the fateful rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, a society radicalised and traumatised by its defeat in 1918 and by subsequent political and economic instability. The Turks had already practised genocide against the Armenians in 1915. In the wake of the collapse of Tsarist Russia in 1917, large-scale killings, notably of Jews, occurred across Eastern Europe as rival national and political factions, Poles and Ukrainians, Reds (Bolsheviks) and Whites (anti-Bolsheviks), sought to assert themselves, often by the radical means of eliminating en masse the groups they perceived as supporters of their rivals.

The remarkable story of the Jewish film-makers in Germany during the early sound years, 1929-33

Jewish film-makers in Germany, especially writers, directors and producers, had been prominent throughout the silent era – during the 1920s in particular, when Germany stood out as the leading film-producing country in Europe. And although major figures such as the directors Ernst Lubitsch and Paul Leni, and the producer Erich Pommer, had left for the USA in the mid-1920s, the beginning of the sound era in 1929 provided new opportunities for a new generation of young Jewish talents. During the relatively short period between 1929 and 1933, when Jews were blacklisted, shortly after the Nazis came to power, the Jewish contribution to the German cinema was exceptional. This is despite the fact that UFA (Universum Film Aktien Gesellschaft), the largest film studio in those years, was headed by the right-wing media baron Alfred Hugenberg and this collided with the rise to power of the Nazi Party.
In Between Two Worlds: The Jewish Presence in German and Austrian Film, 1910-1933 (Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford, 2005), Professor S. S. Prawer draws attention to the fact that ‘by 1929 there was a noticeable increase in anti-Semitic comment on films and their Jewish personnel in right wing and (of course) in Nazi controlled journals.’ And the deepening of the Depression from 1930 onwards hit the film industry hard. Despite this, the coming of sound opened the way for many Jewish actors, song-writers, composers and writers of dialogue, along with assorted directors and producers.
In fact, the leading Jewish producer, Erich Pommer, had returned to Germany in 1928. And, although he was no longer the production chief, he was put in charge of his own production unit at UFA and given a free hand to carry on with his mainly Jewish production team up to 1933. In addition, he was very much at the forefront of the early German move into sound filming in 1929.
Pommer’s first sound film was a popular movie ‘operetta’: Melodie des Herzens (Melody of the Heart), directed by Hanns Schwarz, scripted by Hans Szekely, with music by two Jewish composers, Werner Richard Heymann and Paul Abraham; it even boasted a new Jewish star in Dita Parlo.
Melodie des Herzens was followed immediately by Liebeswalzer (Love Waltz), released early in 1930, from a second Jewish team of director Wilhelm Thiele (born Isersohn), scriptwriter Robert Liebmann, Werner Brandes behind the camera, and the music again supplied by Heymann.
At the same time, Pommer made a major breakthrough with his other early talkie: simultaneously in production late in 1929 was the most famous early German sound film, Der blaue Engel (The Blue Angel), which told the familiar story of a middle-aged professor infatuated with, and eventually destroyed by, his love for a cabaret singer. The Austrian-born Jewish director Josef von Sternberg had been especially brought over from Hollywood, the script was loosely adapted from the Heinrich Mann novel by Liebmann, and the brilliant Jewish composer Friedrich Holländer provided the music and songs (with lyrics by Liebmann), and arrangements by Franz Wachsmann. According to Sternberg biographer Joan Baxter, ‘Although Lola-Lola’s songs became one of the film’s most memorable features, they were almost an afterthought, dashed off in a few days by Holländer, who skilfully exploited the deficiencies of Dietrich’s voice.’
Another big musical hit at the time, Der Kongress tanzt (1931), was directed by Erik Charell, scripted by Norbert Falk and Liebmann, and photographed by the Czech-born Franz Planer. Here the music of Holländer was blended with songs by the prolific Heymann, lyrics by Robert Gilbert, who also supplied the songs for other Pommer productions: Liebeswalzer and Die Drei von der Tankstelle (The Three from the Petrol Station) were both directed by Thiele in 1930, while Ich bei Tag und Du bei Nacht (I by Day and You by Night) was directed by Ludwig Berger and scripted by Szekely and Liebmann in 1932. Even a low-key thriller such as Der Mann, der seinen Mörder sucht (The Man Who Seeks His Own Murder) included a couple of songs by Holländer, with lyrics by Billie (later Billy) Wilder. The film itself was a useful follow-up by three leading members of the Menschen am Sonntag team of 1929 - director Robert Siodmak, script by Wilder and Curt Siodmak. As Prawer notes, ‘Jewish directors and scriptwriters showed themselves adept at combining thriller elements with comedy.’
In addition to the new composers and song-writers, the large number of talented Jewish newcomers who first made their mark during the early sound years ranged across the entire spectrum of movie-making. This included some who had been attracted to the cinema during the late silent years but whose careers received a large boost in the talkie era - for example, the directors Siodmak and the Russian-born Anatole Litvak, who had previously worked as editors, while Hermann Kosterlitz (Henry Koster) had started out as a scriptwriter.
From the theatre came two experienced stage directors. First, Max Ophüls had been employed as a dialogue director by Litvak in 1930 before he launched into a long and distinguished directing career which would take him to Austria, France, Italy and the USA, then back to France after the war. Second, in 1931 Leontine Sagan (née Schlesinger) directed the one film for which she will always be remembered: Mädchen in Uniform (Girls in Uniform) was a brilliant and original critique of German authoritarianism and sexual attitudes. Well acted and effectively filmed, this ‘study of emotional pressures in an authoritarian girls’ school created an uproar because of its frank handling of a lesbian theme’, according to the Film Encyclopedia, while Time Out referred to it as ‘the first truly radical lesbian film in the history of the cinema’. Among the scriptwriters, Robert Liebmann and the Austrians Billie Wilder and Walter Reisch soon demonstrated that they could handle the new type of movie dialogue. They were joined by the Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, who contributed to the early talkies of Siodmak (Abschied (Farewell, 1930)) and Ophüls – his first short feature - but would later form a memorable partnership with Michael Powell in England in the 1940s-50s.
Experienced actors such as Peter Lorre, Elizabeth Bergner, Fritz Kortner, Franz Lederer, Curt Bois, Max Pallenberg, Anton Walbrook and S. K. Sakall clearly enjoyed a new lease of life on screen in the talkies. Among the cameramen, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and the Czech-born Otto Heller would, like Pressburger, become fixtures in the British cinema after they left Germany in 1933.
In a short piece like this it is possible to draw attention to only a few of the many and varied films which included a notable Jewish involvement. Thus, the superb Jewish actor Fritz Kortner starred in a dramatised treatment of the notorious Dreyfus case, directed by Richard Oswald and co-scripted by Heinz Goldberg in 1930. And Kortner went on to direct Der brave Sünder (The Virtuous Sinner) the following year, produced by Arnold Pressburger, co-scripted by Alfred Polgar and the cabaret artist Fritz Grünbaum, who also played a useful supporting role in the film. But the real star was the legendary, Austrian-born stage actor Max Pallenberg. Here he was given his one and only opportunity to demonstrate his special quality as a movie actor, referred to by S. S. Prawer as a ‘virtuoso performance by one of the great Jewish stage-personalities of the era’. (Sadly, he died soon afterwards, in 1934.) Also in 1931 Curt Bois made a welcome appearance in his first talkie, a Jewish comedy appropriately entitled Der Schlemiel (The Loser), directed by the Polish-born Max Nosseck. In marked contrast was director Hans Behrendt’s historical drama Danton (1931), notable for its Büchnerian take on the French Revolution. Scripted by Heinz Goldberg and Hans Rehfisch, it featured Kortner as Danton, Lucie Mannheim as his lover and Alexander Granach as Marat, while Robespierre was stiffly played by the (non-Jewish) Gustaf Gründgens. Of special interest also were two 1931 films set in contemporary Berlin, both with background scores by Allan Gray and based on well-known novels by Jewish writers: Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, which he co-scripted, and Eric Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives), scripted by Billie Wilder with contributions from Kästner and Emeric Pressburger.
Among the new group of Jewish producers were Arnold Pressburger and Joe Pasternak, both Hungarian-born. Pasternak teamed up with writer-turned-director Henry Koster in 1932 and they continued to turn out entertaining but lightweight comedies and musicals in Hollywood, where so many of the German film-makers ended up in the late 1930s. Most important of all, however, was producer Seymour Nebenzahl with his Nero-Film AG film production company. He had first made his mark with two memorable films released in 1929: Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) from the (non-Jewish) director G. W. Pabst and Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday), notable for its young Jewish production team. He went on to produce a remarkable group of early sound pictures in 1930-31. Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) had a brilliant score and songs by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Brecht, whose original play, based on John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, was adapted for the screen by three Jewish writers, while the supporting cast included Valeska Gert, Vladimir Sokoloff and the half-Jewish Reinhold Schünzel as police chief Tiger Brown.
Ariane was the first talkie to star the brilliant, Polish-born actress Elizabeth Bergner - a sound revelation, her voice heard on screen for the first time, co-scripted by Carl Mayer, production design by Alfred Junge and directed by Paul Czinner.
But most memorable of all was M, the first talkie directed by the leading German (though Viennese-born) director of the era, Fritz Lang. It starred the Hungarian-born Peter Lorre (Laszlo Löwenstein), who gave a quite extraordinary performance as the tormented child murderer of Düsseldorf, hunted by the police and members of the underworld, who finally capture him and put him on trial. And this was followed by Das Testament des Dr Mabuse in 1932, also produced by Nebenzahl and directed by Lang in 1932. A fast-paced and original thriller, it follows the efforts of the police to hunt down a sophisticated underworld gang engaged in wide-ranging criminal activities. The film was banned by the Nazis, while the half-Jewish Lang quickly departed for France before moving on to the USA. (Producer Pommer, writer Liebmann, composer Wachsmann and cameraman Rudolf Maté all joined Lang in Paris in filming his French production of Liliom early in 1934.)
This familiar trajectory was also followed by Nebenzahl, Wilder, Siodmark, Litvak, Emeric Pressburger, Richard Oswald, Kurt Bernhardt – the list goes on and on as the remarkable Jewish contribution to the early German sound cinema came to an abrupt end in 1933. Others, of course, went to England, including the directors Leontine Sagan and Paul Czinner with his actress wife Elizabeth Bergner, cameramen Otto Heller and Mutz Greenbaum (Max Greene), production designer Alfred Junge, and composer Josef Zmigrod (Allan Gray). The writer Emeric Pressburger and actor Anton Walbrook arrived in England a few years later. Whereas the French cinema only benefitted briefly from these talented newcomers, who virtually all soon moved to the USA, those who arrived in Britain generally settled here and made a major contribution to film-making in this country. (Pressburger, Junge, Gray and Walbrook, for example, were all part of the Michael Powell production team in the 1940s.)
Lastly, sadly, Prawer mentions a few of the Jewish film artists who failed to escape the Nazi ‘killing machine’: Kurt Gerron, Paul Morgan, Fritz Grünbaum, John Gottowt and director Hans Behrendt, also producer Moritz Seeler and actors Otto Wallburg and Georg John. [link]

Art Notes

The late-life blossoming of an artist can be full of surprises, as demonstrated by Henri Matisse, who, following a colon operation in 1941 at the age of 71, spent the last 13 years of his life wheelchair-bound and doomed to abandon the easel.
But the fighting spirit of one of the most imaginative artists of the 20th century turned disability to creativity. As we see from Tate Modern’s Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs (until 7 September 2014), a new oeuvre began to take shape with the help of assistants prepared to do the heavy work.
Dance, colour and movement had always fascinated Matisse. In 1937, he designed the scenery and costumes for a ballet by Shostakovich; now, he used scissors instead of brush to cut into coloured paper. He admitted that the conditions of the journey were 100 per cent different, causing the artist to use different criteria for observation.
And the figures he created from this medium flow with an unending fluidity. His gorgeous blue nudes, 1- 1V, are divided and yet synchronised by space and jagged line. He called this ‘cutting directly into colour’. Contours are carved into the outline of the figure. The limbs intertwine as his technique seems to blend drawing and sculpture, celebrating the nude sculptures he created in earlier times. These too are on display, a reference to his genius with shape, movement and space. His assistant, Lydia Delectorskya, describes his cut-out figurers as ‘modelling it like a clay sculpture, sometimes adding, sometimes removing’.
There are birds, fishes, flowers bursting out or floating into kaleidoscopic colour and even humour, and the cylindrical shapes of the limbs have a pleasing co-ordination, even where details of hands and feet blur into nothingness. And what is interesting is that the colour is always primary: few muted tones find their place on the wall.
There are other discoveries. In designing the décor for the Vence chapel in 1941, Matisse created one of the most vivid and deceptively simple versions of the Madonna and Child I have ever seen. The charcoal drawing is almost womb-like, with the infant Christ’s hands suggesting the cross.
In Matisse’s late flowering, there is a sense of the sheer pleasure he takes in endless colour and harmony, whether flowers, nudes or blocks and strands of colour. Everything moves with the relentless and innocent majesty of a child. The simplicity is disturbing, suggesting that after 60 years as an artist, this has become the Matisse line: a return to first principles, to the basics of what art is really all about. In rediscovering that first joyous thrust of youth which marked his ascent as an artist, he has gifted us his vision of eternity.
At the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition (until 17 August 2014), I was impressed by Frank Bowling RA, who moved to London from Guyana in 1950. His colourful abstracts achieve vibrancy through complex layering, taking the works to the very edge of the canvas, one colour leaving the next exposed. Two acrylics, About Recent Weather and Fire Below, give you the idea. Anselm Kiefer’s Kranke Kunst, with its historical references, demonstrated his usual energy and dynamism. [more...]

London’s ‘Borscht Belt’ - Jewish hotels in Bournemouth

In 1956 I met my wife-to-be in the Ambassador Hotel in Bournemouth, one of the eight Jewish hotels there at the time. There was the Cumberland, Majestic, Langham, Normandie, East Cliff Court and East Cliff Manor. There was also, if you were very rich, the Green Park, the first Jewish hotel that had en-suite bathrooms.
These hotels were not just Jewish, they were kosher and under Kashrut supervision, serving good heimishe food: chicken soup, chopped liver, gefilte fish, salt beef, latkes, and loads and loads of chicken! Each had its own ‘synagogue’, with services on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings, usually conducted by a rabbi.
The Kiddush was magnificent; the tables overflowed with the amount of food offered. In fact, food was overflowing everywhere. Breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner - and not forgetting the midnight repast! We Jews can eat but we don’t drink. At the Normandie, the bar takings were £2,000 per annum. At the Spider’s Web, a hotel near Bushey Heath often frequented by us younger Jews, the takings were £1,500 per weekend!
Most Bournemouth hotels had swimming pools and gardens; some even had putting greens. Entertainment was put on most evenings. The Ambassador was probably the favourite hotel among Continental Jews because of its ebullient German manager/MC, Mr Rubinstein. (I don’t know Mr Rubinstein’s first name. It was very formal in those days – first names were used only for family members and your very closest friends. I called him Mr Rubinstein; my parents, who also went to the Ambassador, called him Herr Rubinstein!) Famous stars appearing in London’s theatre-land like Howard Keel from Oklahoma and Dolores Gray from Annie Get Your Gun were driven down to the Ambassador to entertain us.
But the real attraction was for the older visitors to make new friends, or meet up with old ones, and for the younger ones to meet members of the opposite sex. There was a dance or a quiz in one of the hotels every evening. I remember the first time I danced with my future wife was not at the Ambassador but across the road, at the Langham. The Cumberland was, I suppose, the most fashionable of the hotels for us youngsters. It was really difficult to get in to one of their dances, they were so crowded. Not much drinking went on. A beer for us chaps and, perhaps, a naughty Babycham for the girls!
The poshest hotel, as I mentioned, was the Green Park. The Bentleys and Jaguars outside were mind-blowing. I had just graduated from Oxford. I didn’t know there was so much money around so soon after the war. Not being religious, I was also amused by the number of men who slid out of their hotels after their Friday-night meal to stroll up and down the East Cliff, on which all these hotels stood, smoking their cigarettes furtively and walking, in typical Jewish fashion, with their hands on their bottoms! I feel great nostalgia about Bournemouth’s East Cliff. I stole my first kiss there and also, being Austrian-born, yodelled to my new girlfriend. She must have thought me mad but, realising there were far more girls there than boys, she stuck with me – for 55 years now!
As with the ‘Borscht Belt’, the Catskill Mountains just outside New York, all good things had to come to an end. Jewish families were discovering foreign air travel. Here in the UK, the younger ones tended to go to Majorca or the Costa Brava while the older ones were flying to the South of France, the Italian Riviera and, of course, to the countries from which they’d fled.
The heyday of the hotels was the 40s through to the 70s, though some lingered longer. The Green Park closed in 1986; the Ambassador (later the New Ambassador) lasted till 2005. The only hotel that remains - but only just! - is the Normandie, which is currently closed but will open for High Days and Holy Days. (I noticed that the Langham, now called the Queens, did offer kosher deals for the Jewish holidays too.)
The ‘Borscht Belt’ has gone; so have the Bournemouth Jewish hotels. My wife and I visited Bournemouth a few weeks ago. It was upsetting. The Ambassador is now the Britannia – horrible! Except for the Langham, the others have all kept their names but they’re nothing like they were. However, we can take comfort that the East Cliff is still there - as are our memories of that kiss and my yodelling! [more...]

LETTER FROM ISRAEL, Fifty years of living in Israel

It is now almost exactly 50 years since I came to Israel to live. So I suppose you could say that I came on aliya in September 1964, though I didn’t get my official status as a new immigrant until June 1967 - but that’s another story.
When people ask me why I left England’s green and pleasant land to come and live in what they imagine to be an arid desert in one of the most dangerous parts of the world, my answer consists of two words: ‘climate’ and ‘men’.
But of course I must have had weightier reasons than those. The fact that I grew up in a home where Zionism was a fact of life, attended a Zionist youth movement, and had relatives in Israel played an undeniable role in my decision. My first visit to Israel, in 1959, within the framework of a youth tour organised by the Jewish Agency, was an eye-opener for me, an impressionable teenager. I had never experienced anything like it before. Six weeks of touring sunny Israel, visiting sites, cities and kibbutzim, finding smiling bronzed faces wherever we turned, and being welcomed into people’s homes made a deep and lasting impression on me. In addition, the climate really did serve to lift my spirits, which seemed to have been perpetually dormant in the grey and rainy London streets in which I’d grown up.
I visited Israel twice in my vacations from university and managed to make contact with people in the Sociology Department of the Hebrew University, so that when I came for my second visit I was given a holiday job and even earned some money (which I found to my chagrin that I was unable to take home). As a result of those visits, I was offered a position as a research assistant in that department when I decided to continue for an MA after graduating in London. So I suppose I can be said to have had one of the easiest transitions imaginable in moving to a different country. I had employment, albeit with minimal income, I could stay with relatives until I found a place to rent, and I was meeting intelligent and pleasant people. I didn’t know much Hebrew and was too busy working and studying to go to an ulpan, but I managed to get by with the little I knew. There were organisations catering for English-speaking people and there were student parties, so my social life was not totally uninteresting.
Israel was a very different place 50 years ago, and this was especially the case with Jerusalem. Before the Six-Day War it was a small, intimate place where everyone knew everyone else and the central ‘triangle’ formed by the three main streets was where one went to eat falafel, meet friends or just enjoy the cool evening air: ‘The third time we meet on the same day we’ll go and get ice cream,’ was the slogan of the day. Religion played a part in some people’s lives, but nothing was extreme and everyone appeared tolerant of everyone else.
The political atmosphere was one of socialism, idealism and mutual support. Today it is capitalist, entrepreneurial and right-wing. Those early days of naiveté and perhaps even innocence are long gone, due to both internal and external processes. Personally, I find that regrettable, but it is foolish to try to stem the tide of change.
What about men, I hear you cry. I found the love of my life at a student party in Jerusalem, got married and produced three children. We lived through times of peace and war, sickness and health, poverty and relative prosperity and now also have seven grandchildren, all living in Israel.
All in all, Israel has been good for me, and I hope I’ve been good for it.

Letters to the Editor

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