AA Photograph by Frederic Brenner
Four old men from Saloniki
Each holds out a numbered arm
Their faces formidable as stone
The frame cannot hold them.
Three wear defiance like a shield,
But the fourth dissolves the others.
I see him alone,
Everything lost in the caverns of his eyes.
Hand against his face, his grief
Has become entirely mine,
Drags me into the interminable
Sorrow in every fold.
originally published in Voices, Israel, 2009
Nothing like this, not river, not cliff.
From the forest floor a surge of rust
Bursts from a tempest of paroxysmal arms.
Around it fir and pine dissipate,
The sequoia remaining, broad as a house
High as a bird's flight
Grips the Sierra in defiance, claims all your senses
Knocks the wind out of you.
Mariposa Grove, California, 2007
originally published in Voices, Israel, 2009
Sea Lions on Pier 39
Done in from a day's fishing, slick as rubber they heave
Onto timber floats, find a spot, flop their wet black bulks, Seeming to expose a fraud of underwater grace
Yet they know to slap a rival, shove him overboard
And yelp delight in victory, then sink back into whiskered sleep
Or lift their dog-heads, yawn, sneeze, bark and bite.
Come upon through crowds along the pier they are
So many cheerful clowns, these antics
Might imply frivolity
But seen again, black heads rising and falling
In the tossed water off Monterey,
Their yelping carries infinite sorrow.
Pilot and plane in one he wears
Vast puce goggles stitched
Into a leathery flying cap, his wings
Dulled quarries held with fine black cames,
His iridescent armour, seven turquoise plates
Each finely hammered, each
Adorned with fierce black quills.
Soft and naked at birth, supurb now
In metallic hardness, barbed iron legs
Spread like a threat, he walks
In weightless inversion, seeks
What we avoid, feasting off our repugnance,
Will mate on wing, then on his back will spin
Erratic circles, gather dust and die.
Two days passed. The fields
Emptied out, the battle moved away.
The quiet of natural things returned, Mist hung about him at dawn,
At night he smiled at the moon,
A poppy opened its red bowl,
His shirt fluttered, a cricket
Whirred across the field,
Birds tore his eyes, his cheek,
Exposed his teeth, he grinned,
Stared emptily, his hair
Soft and black as coal, a button
Hanging by a single thread,
His fingers poised, hesitating,
A letter in his pocket, unread
A spider leapt
In tiny bounds across his sleeve.
The waves of grass bowed,
Clouds gathered a shower,
Ink ran on pages in his pockets,
Water filled his eye-sockets
Ran down his temples.
On the sixth floor the curve of window held
forest and houses stacked
like steps to a winter sky.
We were in the middle
of a conversation I cannot recall
when the walls, your bed, my chair
lost their roots, like when a second glass
had taken my feet from under me.
You laughed - Look at this, Johnny!
everything interested you.
But I was being swept from the shore Oh, god...
How to hold on, my insides dropping all six floors
as when the fat Jumbo lifts off the tarmac and I
squeeze my eyes closed.
And when I open them will everything be right?
Feather-fingered, the hawk hangs in the shining air,
The reed-river coils like a lock of desert hair,
Dung beetles blunder among the bones and shards,
The sycamore holds against the wind its wind-torn arms,
The water flasks are shattered, the well is dry,
The ribs of the desert exposed against the sky.
An almost erotic electric blue, a faience game piece,
Small pod of tropical water beamed into gum-leaf space.
The Emperor Gum flaunts its gaudy adolescence.
Pimpled, tasselled in hairy fire
Scares off birds with its venomous rig.
With admirable tenacity it grips a falcate world,
An oily moon, gorges its world, eats
The ground from under its feet, tears
With iron jaws and shoves
The shreddings into turquoise depths,
Distended with pubescent lust
Nothing can satisfy this glutton,
Not all the gum trees in Australia. It sees
Nothing but leaves, does not stop
To ponder, but eats past its own birthplace -
A row of small, white, broken eggs
On the edge of a crescent blade.
Where will it go from here? Will it ever stop?
The sun cuts a shaft between the trees
And paints the new leaves a bloody red.
A clear, hard, cloudless blue, the first in days.
Into the open space between the roofs
An endless pool sweeps across the sky,
A vast and flawless sphere
In orchestrated unison, like fish
That twist in schooled masses under the sea,
An immense ball that sweeps,
Rolls, stretches, ovals out and plunges down,
No single bird breaking the edge,
Falls into itself,
Rises again, still all as one
It peaks, it veers, then vanishes as it came.
originally published in Voices, Israel, 2008
The Eve of War
A corrugated iron lean-to, a few goats.
Already the desert is cold,
The hills are a torn strip of paper.
We lie gazing up. The sky is a map.
A sudden meteor shower, gone
Almost before we are aware,
Subdued voices behind rocks,
A theatrical flash above the mountains,
A bleat, a crackle in the thorn...
Something is going to happen.
Born of a ghost movie - haunted tree,
Carved by a wild wind off the bay,
Dreadful sculpture of fear, wracked
Against the dull rock and leaden sea,
Salt-bleached, torn alive and dead,
A chord of the soul, an ocular screech,
In multitude, writhes like a worm,
Endures all the world's pain.
17 Mile Drive, Monterey, 2007
He has curled up under the oleander.
Ants in his fur are impatient
At this slow journey into death.
The fleas have already abandoned him,
Falling like black drops of rain from the thin,
Matted pelt over bone.
He will no longer eat. Milk held out is sniffed
And touched with a pink tongue,
Then turned away from. His occasional moan
Is not regretting the approaching end,
But rather a protest of
The present taking far too long.
The ice is gone, and the Indian.
We are left with the silver stone
(So wet, so fresh, the knife seems only
Just put down),
And the trees
Flowing through the valley...
And the river...
Another cord has snapped - nothing can fill
The void that plunges into the roots of the city.
The image remains like the sun behind closed lids.
Faces and flags tatter and fade, the rivers
Slip by unnoticed and the sky remains open
Whiter than this page, weightless.
To hold it is to hold air, its fluting
An ocean's pulse.
I finger the surface, imagine
Moonlit waters, rigged schooners,
See flying fish skim the surface, taste,
The salt, rise and dip. It is
An unanticipated gift, a treasure that placed
By a window will set sail, fly in the air and shatter
Like the end of a dream.
18 May 2020
I am reading Japanese novels and I delight in their smallness.
A palm tree outside my bedroom window, one of those tall fan palms with broken off brackets of old branches forming a crisscross pattern on the trunk. And there, between the brackets is a perfect tiny brown head. I have just noticed it - nose, eyes, jowls, perfect - like a medieval carving.
The sharav has arrived, the sirocco. There is barely a breeze. The sky is iron grey. The heat is thick and heavy like a great overcoat that weighs you down. S and I are nonetheless braving the garden. It seems unfair that the spring is so short and should be interrupted by these impossible days, just when the garden is at its finest and the mosquitoes have not yet become bothersome. A week ago, we had showers and this week the temperatures are soaring at the high thirties and with no prospect of change till the weekend. So here we are, S curled on the floor of the tiny patio and I at the table shaded by a heavy canopy of fig and ivy leaves, morning glory not yet in bloom and honeysuckle full of flower. Inside is air-conditioning but I cannot work indoors, and I refuse to. My garden is what my mother used to call a postage-stamp garden. It is narrow and long, and fenced off from the busy street by a virtual jungle of bay trees and vines. Three small fountains muffle the sound of passing traffic. It is tiny, but it is a tiny paradise, inhabited, other than by myself and S, by a continual flow of visitors: yellow and white butterflies, a variety of insects, an occasional stray cat (until it notices me or S) and most noisily by birds coming to bathe; thrushes, bulbuls and the occasional purple sunbird.
I rarely read a book. It is always six or seven. Is this evidence of my fickleness, impatience, lack of what my mother referred to as sitzfleisch? I prefer to think of it as proof of an inquisitive mind and broad interests, but it is probably those other things as well.
Books were always around in our house. My mother was an avid reader of novels (modern and classics) and cookbooks. As she was American her tastes were largely American, but she liked British works as well, and from her I discovered Theodore Dreiser, Edgar Alan Poe, Melville, Twain, Hemingway and the wonderfully wordy novels of Thomas Wolfe, but also Hugh Walpole, Robert Louis Stevenson, particularly Treasure Island, which she loved to read out loud, and modern works like The Magus by John Fowles. Her cookbooks held no interest for me, though her cooking certainly did, but she also had a book of first pages of the New York Times, and that, I imagine, fed into my growing love of history. My father had inherited some of his grandfather’s vast collection of Shakespeare, which included such gems as Animal Lore in Shakespeare’s Time, Hard Knots in Shakespeare, Where Shakespeare Set his Stage and other such titles. I don’t recall him ever reading them and they were, I suppose, regarded as an inheritance rather than as something to open. But there were others; Kipling, Samuel Pepys, Dickens, and books of humour such as It all Started with Eve, 1066 and All That and Schoolboy Bloomers. In his old age his interests turned to religious books and cheap romance novels about doctors and nurses, mainly, for some reason, from New Zealand. Many of his books were on engineering, which might have been dull reads for a child, but sometimes contained wonderful illustrations. One, for example, had photographs of oil wells burning in the desert, and was about controlling disasters in oil refineries. Another, the contents of which has left no residue in my mind, had wonderful illustrations in the flyleaves - drawings filled with fat little men in a factory or some similar setting, each of whom was unaware that he was about to cause a disaster or series of disasters by knocking something over or tripping up over something. Mostly, at the age of thirteen or fourteen, I preferred those book club volumes from the Reprint Society that my Aunt, Bette, who lived with us, received at regular intervals – The Wind Cannot Read, by Richard Mason, The Flag by Robert Shaw, and similar, largely forgotten works.
In short, my reading material as a teenager was eclectic certainly, and with a lot that might best be labelled “trash”, but also with a few items that exposed me to fine writing.
I love to read and I love books. The book and its contents are two distinct things. A book is physical; the actual volume, leather or paper bound, with its pages and print and perhaps illustrations. It has a colour, a texture, a smell. But a book is also abstract; an intellectual and emotional creation fashioned by the author’s combination of ideas and thoughts transmitted through words. I love books as objects and as ideas.
Somewhere nearby there is a tree producing puffs of cotton-like material that comes floating down into my garden in tiny clouds. I look across through the trees and see that the air beyond is full of them. This brief spring with its bursts of burdensome heat and coolness is the most vibrant time in the garden. Everything is involved. Some evergreen trees are shedding masses of leaves and bell-shaped flowers that drop like little bombs, the strawberries and blueberries and lemons are swelling daily. The oleanders are blooming, the roses already fading, but a few pink and white cyclamen are still there, looking as if they are about to lift off their stems into flight. One variety of jasmine, that with the twisted propeller-like flowers is at its height, the others are still only sending up new branches and leaves. The garden is never dull, even in the winter, but now it is impossible to keep up with it. In this heat, watering and raking the leaves has become Sisyphean work.
I remember the springs of my childhood. They were very different; softer, brighter. Here they are harsh, extreme and brief. The winter ends and for a few weeks everything is bursting with renewal; birds are nesting and singing, the air is full of insects darting and fluttering, wild orchids and anemone rise like jewels in the long green grass, the black branches of almond trees are filled with delicate pink and white blossom. Then comes the first heat. Overnight the almonds scatter their petals like snow, and in a week the hills are golden and dry. By the time of the sharav only the watered gardens bloom.
Y detests pigeons. She regards them, as many do, as a sort of feathered rat. For me they are a favourite bird. Not for their appearance for in truth they have little beauty, nor for their cleanliness for in that they are worthy of the rodent comparison, but for their cooing, gurgling song, which is among the most pleasant sounds I know. Sometimes, when I awake in the morning, they are singing and I am reminded of Sunday mornings long ago when there was no school and I could lie in bed late, the sun coming through the window, turning the yellow curtains to gold, and the smells of freshly mown lawn and burning gum leaves in the air.
One of the first things I noticed when exiting the old Lod Airport terminal building on a warm day in May, fifty-one years ago, was a stand of tall eucalyptus trees. That very first image of something so familiar has always stayed in my mind. It was enormously significant. In fact, I am rather certain that it was what enabled me, with some ups and downs, to come to terms with the extreme change I was to undergo. Imagine if you were hurtled through space and crash-landed on Mars. If you were to emerge from your spaceship and find ants crawling across the ground, normal earth-type ants, you would think… “Well, this can’t be all that different.”
Mamilla. The grass in the cemetery is knee high and already has turned to white gold. The black trunks of carob trees and peppercorns are in stark contrast to the pale grasses and the light grey soil. Above are masses of dark green foliage and sparrows dart between the trees. The air is full of their chirping. The tombstones struggle to be seen. There are so many of them: stepped shrines and box-like small versions of Hiram’s Tomb, and those with pillars rising on either side like two slim guards watching over the deceased. Some are decorated with carved circular geometric patterns of the type found over the doorways of old houses and others have inscriptions in beautiful Naskh script. But most give no clue as to whom their subterranean residents might be. They are like so many unknown soldiers. What was their history? No one will ever know and their bones lie cloaked in anonymity and silence beneath the memorials that should have spoken for them but have fallen into an Alzheimer haze of forgetfulness. The tombs are scattered randomly in the long grass. Here is one on its own, here is a group, and all but a few dissenters are swung like the arrows of great compasses, as if by some powerful magnetic force into a north-south alignment so that the long-forgotten inhabitants might face another Holy City far away in the desert to the south.
The power of the senses as memory-triggers is remarkable. Most of what we experience in our lives rapidly vanishes forever from our minds like the dissolving of dreams within seconds of our awakening from them. But come across a particular taste or smell and you can be transported back over decades to a time when you previously experienced that same smell or taste, even though almost all the things external to that experience remain lost. The sense does, however, shed a tiny amount of light around it so that, smelling a freshly opened carton of milk you might recall not only the taste and smell of milk in the thick glass bottle that you were handed from a crate sixty years earlier, but also you can recall the feel of your finger and thumb as you peeled back the thin silver aluminium seal, pushing down onto it with your thumb, and the touch and weight of the thick glass rim as it once came into contact with your lips.
There are places in which beauty is all around, and overwhelming. Here there is beauty, great beauty indeed, but one has to look for it, and it is often hidden among plain or homely things, so that you might not see it at all, until suddenly and unexpectedly you do. It is like a person with an unexceptional face who, when suddenly smiling becomes stunningly beautiful. Walk through Talbiya, there are some fine old Arab houses, some nice gardens, but you might not see beauty as such until you look away to the east, through the houses and trees, and there you catch a glimpse of it all of a sudden. And it has always there, and always beautiful, but you hardly ever notice it, until you do - the pink hills with their blue shadows, the blue and pink hills of Moab.
Five days of exceptional, record-breaking heat and then today a heavy rain that sent a gathered week’s dust in white waves down Gaza Street. And now, all afternoon the wind is churning the trees, the branches bending in all directions at once, the leaves shivering, and the sky is once again the deepest blue.
I once shared an apartment on Rome’s Via Tiburtina with two friends. I had never before lived in such a place. It was in a dilapidated old apartment building, but you could see that it had once been quite fine, and it was still full of ageing but attractive pieces of furniture that suggested that it had indeed seen better times as well as better tenants. When we moved in we were asked to come around to the landlady to pay our respects, and perhaps an advance on the rent as well. She occupied another apartment in the same building. She was a countess, and I had never seen one before, so I was duly impressed. And she behaved like a countess, which impressed me all the more. A man, a servant or perhaps friend, opened the door, showed us in and promptly disappeared, and we entered an elaborately furnished room where we found the countess reclined on a sofa. She was tiny and as thin as a child, and although she was plainly dressed her white hair was tied back with a ribbon in an elegant fashion and something about her manner reflected nobility even onto her simple cotton dress and found expression in the manner in which the folds of cloth lay carefully and precisely placed along the length of her frail reclining body. She did not get up to greet us but gestured for us to sit and spoke to us in a broken but reasonable English. She seemed to be ancient, far older than the building, so old in fact that you were led to think she might almost have had in her youth the opportunity to exchange a few words with the emperor who once owned the villa at the distant end of this road.
Places of great history can make a powerful impression on us for what they possess, whether it be preserved traditions or physical remains, and usually it is a combination of the two. But sometimes we go away from these places with a remembrance that has nothing to do with the monument or its history. In 1974 I travelled through the Peloponnese with a friend and a group of newly acquired acquaintances in a hired car. There were many places we visited that impressed me for their history, and for the beauty of their location. But if I am to choose a single profound impression of that excursion, it has nothing to do with the places themselves.
We had arrived at Olympia after the sun had set in the wake of a long drive. It is very many years ago now and I cannot recall precisely where we were, perhaps we had found a hostel, but we were outside and it was a beautiful warm night and the sky was awash with stars as is only a sky far from the city. The night was still, even the murmur of my friends had died down. Quite suddenly the silence was broken by a distant baying of a dog. As there was no other sound it caught my attention and it continued steadily for some minutes. Then, quite unexpectedly the sharp crack of a rifle shot rang out and was immediately followed by a pitiful howling that began loudly, then dropped away and stopped altogether. The whole thing was over in a minute and the silence returned. I had seen nothing but the black shape of the hills and trees, yet image was so clear that I might have actually observed it myself from close at hand. I had no doubt what had happened though I knew not why. It was cruel and incomprehensible and pitifully sad. If I think of that trip long ago, and of all the wonderful things I saw, it is this unseen image that always come back to me most strongly.
Above the fig with its large fingered leaves like green dinosaur footprints, and the finely shaped emerald leaves of the bay, so gently fluted and coming to such precise points, there is a tree that usually puts on rather poor show, its leaves a mere paltry pale green and its trunk and branches smooth and shapeless. As it is not very robust it often breaks or rots and the result is a tree the overall shape of which is not particularly pleasing. And of late it has been losing leaves and flowers en masse, which has given me a great deal of work and has not in any way made it more agreeable in my eyes. The flowers too are rather unimposing. Let me pick one up and describe it for you. It is a little bell, about the size of a thumbnail, with four pointy petals curling back out against the bell's exterior. It is pale yellow green on the exterior with no markings and on the interior the same pale green but with bright red markings which I have never noticed before. At its centre like the clapper of the bell is a short stamen ending with a small brown ball. The stamen’s base is encircled with the same red. In detail it is in fact quite remarkably beautiful but seen from even a short distance loses all its charm. This tree that I generally ignore, and in this season, for the unending shedding of leaves and blooms I am inclined to curse, now as I gaze up at it against the plate blue sky is remarkably beautiful. Many of the pear-shaped leaves are turning yellow and about to fall, others are still pale green and a scattering are turning to an orange brown, and the combination in the last sunlight of this day with the paler brighter green of a wisteria which has trailed up into it, has a beauty that is quite unexpected. I shall tone down my curses as in the coming days I sweep away the ever renewing carpet of fallen leaves. A single bee is hovering up among the bell flowers and a swallow with its black bow-shape moves swiftly across the blue far above.
Yilan. The outcrop of dark rock rose out of the plain – a pair of pointed, volcanic-shaped hills. On the higher of the two stood the castle. From a distance the curtain walls and towers seemed to be a natural part of the hill, almost indistinguishable from it. The humidity from which we were cocooned in the air-conditioned car dissolved the edges, and washed out the colours, and everything; rock, fields, sky; blended together and appeared uniform in substance and hue, with only variations in the intensity of the greyness. But the shape of the rock was dramatic and foreboding.
We were on the highway east of Adana and we could find no turn-off to the castle. In vain we re-examined the road maps but could make nothing from them. I had already discovered the capricious temperament of the Turkish cartographers. No two maps were the same. Even the more up-to-date maps had roads that were not there and lacked others that were. And the names varied from map to map. You got the distinct impression that whoever had made them had done his work in a dank little office in Ankara or Istanbul and had never been here, nor had ever considered the possibility that it might be a good idea to go out and check if there was any vague relationship between what he was drawing and what actually existed. There was not.
We approached the castle and drove past it continuing east. There was no turn-off. Would we find ourselves shooting all the way across Turkey to Gaziantep without being able to get off the highway? Suddenly this new road that had seemed so promising was looking less and less appealing. We did finally find the exit, though by that time the castle had long disappeared in the rear window and I had quite given up the prospect of seeing it.
I have in my possession a large studio photograph of my mother that I had framed a number of years ago. It is a sepia image of her, aged I would think about 25, perhaps a bit more, so that it would date to the late 1930’s or early 40’s. It is just the head and shoulders. Her head is slightly tilted and her hand rests against her chin. She is looking away (the photographer's instruction?) and slightly up to one side. She is wearing white, a cardigan perhaps, and her hair is covered with a scarf that is tied under her chin. She looks like a 1940’s Hollywood actress in this photograph, her full lips, almond eyes, slightly prominent nose, carefully made up in the period fashion. Of course, my earlies memories of her are from later on - when I was born, she was 35. But whenever I look at the picture, I am a small boy again and I want so much to take her hand. I had this photograph framed a few years after she died. For a long time she had been a little old lady; frail, bent and extremely thin, white-haired, the skin on her arms paper thin, her face full of wrinkles and unwanted hairs. But this photograph, from the moment I hung it up wiped all that away. She was young again, and beautiful. Today I feel more attached to that young version of her than to the old woman she had become and been for so long.
The room was not small, but not very large either. Do I remember it correctly? Three walls were all of windows and there was a door out into a small balcony leading into the garden. Our bed was against the one solid wall where there was also a door. My younger brother slept in the lower bunk, I above. On the three window-covered walls my mother had hung bright yellow pattern-less curtains, and when the sun rose and the light entered in the mornings, these came ablaze with their sunflower colour and bathed the entire room in it. A room so full of windows and the brightness of the curtains was special. Perhaps it had been an annex, added on to this early century house with its half lit and dark rooms, and I would imagine it to be a ship, about to drift off from the rest of the house and sail away. I wonder of this idea might not also have its roots in a winter storm, when flashes of lightening at night revived for a second the same bright yellow, and when, in the morning, after a whole night of unceasing rain I looked out one of the windows and saw that the footpath below and all the garden beds had vanished under a pool of surging water and it seemed we had indeed broken loose and set sail into a wild and raging sea.
The almost pitiful chirping of a single, small cicada abruptly stops as it senses my presence below. Such a minor performance compared with that of the million, huge green creatures that shattered my childhood nights and left their monster shells clinging to the base of the old magnolia tree.
The morning sun peaks through the gate bashfully. The green gate is open. I like it that way. I like to look out onto the street and see the people passing. I like the buzz and hum of the traffic. My garden is enclosed in an ever expanding mass of foliage, a green womb that is steadily encroaching into the tiny space where I like to sit, and I am certain that if I do not take care I will one day find that there will be no space left for me, or perhaps that I will become absorbed into it, and myself become part of this mass of vegetal life.
It is four o’clock and I have given up on sleep. There is however, an advantage in my losing battle, as I am able to hear the sounds of the city waking. At first there is an almost pure, holy silence, broken only now and then by a dog howling somewhere far off or a very occasional passing car. The transformation from night to dawn is very brief. It is before five when the crows begin their debate, no doubt discussing important civic business, and with them the rustling wind comes to life. It shakes the trees, as if the city is shaking off sleep. And then, as suddenly as it began it ceases and the intermittent early traffic begins, and I hear the voices of early risers and the banging of car doors. Then more frequent sounds of traffic, and the noisy rattle and clang of the garbage truck accompanied by shouts of the garbage men and the sounds of the plastic bins being raised, emptied into the truck’s cavernous mouth, shaken, carelessly and noisily lowered back down onto the pavement and pushed back into their places. The truck lets out a metallic groan as it crushes and swallows its meal, then rumbles off and repeats its noise more distantly, and then again more distantly still. All this commotion appears to have awakened the songbirds and they begin, individually at first and then all at once with their various melodies, catching a tune, then repeating it with slight variations. The pigeons add their deeper, repetitive hoo hoo hoo hoo and a steady mass of smaller chirping fills in all the sound-space. More and more of them join in, with more and more variations, like the instruments of an orchestra; each a small individual voice, together a symphony, until the whole world is asong. By now the cars are passing at a steady rate and the crows, who had fallen silent in all this avian commotion are again adding their caws. Then the whole concert seems quite of a sudden to tone down, as if someone has turned a dial. Even the traffic ceases and when it returns it is more sporadic. There is left in the spaces between a sort of continual, almost unnoticeable but steady background of human and animal activity, and the city is awake for another day.
In 1978 I fulfilled a long-held dream and moved to Jerusalem. At the time I had been living in Rome and had returned to Israel in order to be close the girl I wished to marry. I rented a room in a residential building used as a lawyer’s office on Ben Maimon Boulevard in the central neighbourhood of Rehavia. The name of this suburb means “spacious” and it was established in the 1920s as a garden suburb in the fashion of the Berlin suburb of Grunewald. It was built on land purchased from the Greek Orthodox Church and settled by German Jewish settlers. As is so often the case, these emigrants desired to recreate in their new homeland what they had left behind, though probably few of them had resided in the elite Berlin neighbourhood. But of course one can never really do that. Every place has its own qualities and these always come through, all the more so when the climate and circumstances are so different from the place of origin. Rehavia is no European garden suburb. For one thing it is not particularly spacious, at least, not in a European sense. The streets are narrow and the houses small. But it would certainly have seemed luxurious for the locals when compared to the cramped neighbourhoods behind the old city walls. In old photographs taken in the thirties Rehavia can be seen to consist of a few older structures; the Ratisbonne monastery, the Terra Sancta college, the second Temple period Tomb of Jason with its restored pyramid roof, a windmill, a scattering of Bauhaus style apartment buildings and a few more ambitious villas, all constructed of the local pinkish limestone, with small gardens, narrow streets, a few small parks and a great deal of empty and treeless land in between. Garden suburb seems far too grand a title. But after nearly a century Rehavia has at least softened and filled in. The gardens are often uncared for but are indeed green and with the vivid splashes of colour; reds and purples of bougainvillea, delicate pinks of oleanders, the paler greens of peppercorns, chinaberry trees, lemons, almonds and pomegranates and the dark greens of carobs, palms, pines and almost black cypresses. The neighbourhood is changing in other ways. The German immigrants have gone. Once a suburb known for its high proportion of doctors, today it is steadily being resettled by orthodox Jews from America and France, or, perhaps not so much settled as purchased. With increasing antisemitism in those countries many of these people have purchased and renovated the old houses but have then gone back to their home countries, returning only for the holidays. This has had two outcomes. American English is heard today almost as frequently as Hebrew, particularly during the festive seasons, and many buildings in the neighbourhood are sealed up and empty for much of the year. It has also had a physical effect in that houses that were formerly two or at most three storeys high are now often five or six. And the cost of housing has skyrocketed. These facts are much condemned by the older residents who feel their neighbourhood has been taken away from them. Many will tell you, Rehavia is not as it was.
I had longed to walk off towards those grey mountains in the east. They seemed, from the road towards Lod to be not so very distant and, I thought, they might be reached in a few hours of brisk marching, by early afternoon perhaps, and the idea of taking to the road strongly appealed to me. But I never did it, for fear I suppose of the unknown, of going beyond a certain point; the same fear I had felt when walking off the road into the primordial forest as a child; a fear of what dangers might be if I were to pass Wilhelmina and cross the fields beyond. Probably it was a sensible fear, and the road here was pleasant enough for walking. The double row of eucalyptus and their perfume in the sharp morning air reminded me of a lost childhood and set me singing. But the desire remained nonetheless, remained unfulfilled, the desire to go beyond, to take a risk, to let go.
It is a lazy morning, the first in some time when I do not have enough urgent to-dos to make the obligation to get up overcome the compulsion to remain just a little bit longer in bed. The curtain is open, bright sunlight streaming in and the sharp line of the wall frames a small but vibrant bit of the world that greets me every morning but never fails to stun me with its beauty - a simple triptych: a cypress, a palm, a pine. The cypress is closest, its dusty, dark heart revealed behind the gold-brown of dead branches and last year's leaves. Of the fan palm, only its truck is visible in this cut-off view; a work of art, complex in the weave of its cut frond stubs. And further back the tall canary island pine stretches out its long dipping branches like gestures of query. The cypress has recently developed small fruit and the fresh emerald of its new growth is sharply contrasted against a patch of exquisite, deep blue sky. A climbing rose, long past its peak, its leaves covered with fine dust, has given a last effort, producing a single red flower high up, an even bolder clash of ruby against the blue.
We are so often tied up to distractions, expectations and commitments, that we miss the beauty around us. I thought of this the other day when observing how when the sunlight struck an old, cracked, green glass windowpane high up on the wall of the synagogue. It suddenly bursting into a heavenly light that transformed part of the pane to a glare with no edges, no form, but at the same time it picked out the brilliant jewellike emerald hue of the glass. The building's age, its cracks and cobwebs momentarily dissolved. The intensity of this phenomenon, so celestial, was yet so prosaic that it is rarely noticed, and of such magnitude that it made me look at everything around me in a different way.
It is mid-October and suddenly the garden is a pleasure again; the mosquitoes have moved on, the sun is rising later and is softer and kinder. I can sit out now by the little pool and delight in the warmth of its caress on my arms and cheeks. Everything is growing in a final burst after being weighed down by the heavy heat of the summer and before the cold weather arrives. The garden is slowly evolving in a tropical mass of large-leaf plants – banana, pawpaw, bamboo and bird of paradise, elephant ear, the pink-flowered trumpet plant, spreading fig trees, the feathery jacaranda - a gift from the birds. The cat slinks through the leaves like the tiger in a Rousseau painting, a yellow-breasted bulbul fumbles in the bay tree and alights on the edge of a fountain bowl, a butterfly flitters like a winged flower and the water trickles and dribbles noisily in the fountains.