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City of Surprises

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 3, 2014 at 11:10 AM Comments comments (0)

Thessaloniki: City of Surprises

 

My guide to Greece has about 600 pages of which only 5-6 are devoted to Thessaloniki. The uninformed conclusion is that there is not much to be seen in the city. False!

 

"The cheapest flight to Greece is to Thessaloniki," Judy explained to me, "and the city has a rich Jewish history. Your favourite Yehuda Poliker comes from there. Let's go see!" We booked the flight. We booked a hotel in the central part of the city near the Jewish Museum. We arrived on a Monday evening towards the end of August - the temperature was just below the 30 *. I groaned. I hate heat. Why am I not cool cold Cape Town?

 

Soon we discover that we are in a city of the most friendly helpful people. The reception at the hotel, the woman who was cleaning our room, people on the street when we lost our way; the man in the Vodafone shop who helps us to install our new Greek SIM cards - so the list goes on and on. But not only is this a friendly city but filled with fascinating things to see and an informative on line guide to different walking tours. Our first port of call is the Jewish Museum which is excellent, organized according to the latest exhibition principles. In 1917, more than 50% of the population of the city Jewish; by the end of the Second World War, more than 90% of the Jews in Greece killed by the Nazis. Today there are again at least two active synagogues in Thessaloniki.

There is the ancient Roman agora, the Byzantine city walls with their solid strongholds from which there are endless views of the city lying before it and the sea beyond, the White Tower on the beachfront, an excellent archaeological museum and endless shops and bakeries and little tavernas and chic restaurants.

The Museum of Photography was for us the most glorious discovery: we were just in time to see the PhotoBiennale – or rather part of it. The last three Biennials form a thematic trilogy (Time-Chronos: 2008 Location - Topos: 2010-2011, Discourse - Logos: 2014) This year's theme focuses on the discourse or Word which is developed through various events (exhibitions, discussions, parallel events, performances, concerts) at more than 20 locations in Thessaloniki. The public has the opportunity to meet over 1000 works by 100 Greek and international artists from 23 countries around the world. These artists - some more natural, others less so – explore the interaction of text and image in their work. Besides these expressions found in the works themselves, many experts and individuals in the field of photography from different countries talked openly about the work and offered master classes and workshops. We only had the privilege to see the main exhibits.

 

"Logos manifests itself here in primary obvious manner. In many works it is used as raw material: the alphabet reserves as an object to be photographed, literally depicting logos. In other cases it presents itself with the energetic presence of language, in which the form of a text participates equally with image to form a conception of a whole work for the viewer, while many series refer directly to literary genres, such as diaries and autobiographies ". (Displays text)

 

This topic has fascinated me for some time. One could argue that Judaism is based on receiving an image and text - namely the two tablets of Moses with the Ten Commandments written on - while Christianity is built on the concept of the word "And the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us". The word thus became embodied in the figure of Jesus. Text / word are in a special relationship to image and in this exhibition this relationship is examined within the art form of photography.

 

I previously wrote about an exhibition in London where hand written and printed poems each on a similar white A4 pages by refugee youth form the ground material for an art installation on the South Bank. At the PhotoBiennale in Thessaloniki is based on similar concepts, but given the number of artists who participated, the variations on the theme have been wider and more extensively explored.

For example, the work of artists, Elena Sukhoeeva Victor Khmel and Sergey Lutsenko from Russia to construct an image of a work of art with letters in specific landscapes to create and then photograph the image for the viewer to see. Thus the original installation only by the three artists seen. The letter in the snow using other letters are formed and in relation to other images in the photo. Other artists used other techniques to connect image and text. The South African artist, Brent Meistre was represented and in his work words are the images that serve as objects to photograph. The pictures were during the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Grahamstown. The author focuses on words that at the time were abundant in the discourse surrounding the work of the commission. It was nice to be so close to South Africa is home image.

Less 'pleasant' perhaps, but surely as poignant were the images that portrayed negative experiences - with evidence of abuse and violence and the suffering of man. Already before we entered the exhibition, the ironic comment of the photograph on poster of the Biennenale caught my attention. It is a photograph of a woman whose voice has been silenced by taping her mouth shut with tape reading LOVE. As we studied these images I again realised how effective photography can be to tell a story - a story that may or may not be true. There was a series of photographs designed to reflect on the negativity of much punishment that is applied at schools including the practice of making students write out the same words over and over again – it brought back memories of writing out lines a hundred times. I wondered then and I wondered now as I looked at this brilliant expose of a stupid practice how such a stupid form of punishment became so popular. Then I did not know it was worldwide but now it makes me wonder even more: what’s the point of making a little child write out words hundreds of times? It can’t possibly teach them anything except resentment.

As we walked out of the cool dark building where we had viewed the last part of the exhibition into the warm late afternoon with the sun dancing on the water, we promised ourselves that in two years’ time we will be back in Thessaloniki to attend the next biennial event. There is still a list of other places we need to discover and enjoy. Watch this space….

 

Berlin, Birds and Memory

Posted by Egonne Roth on August 12, 2014 at 11:25 AM Comments comments (1)

I am not a birder and I know little about birds but I love photographing them: they are so pretty and often so elusive. Preparing for a visit to the Hula Valley in Israel through which thousands of thousands of birds migrate between their summer and winter homes, I was struck by a map of their migratory paths. As I studied it I asked, “How does a bird coming say from Germany know when to leave home so that it comes through the Hula at the same time as say another member of the species from Siberia (if such a combination does not exist, bear with me, at the time of the question I had the map in front of me and so it was easy to be accurate and sound vaguely informed)?” I can’t remember that anyone was able to answer me satisfactorily at the time and in the years since I first asked that question. It would seem that the answer has something to do with a bird’s subconscious “species memory”. That’s what they have been doing for so long that it is virtually impossible for them to behave differently. It is deeply inbred.

This half-answer led to a second question: Look how tiny that bird’s head is; look at how big mine or yours is: why is their instinct so sharp and ours so obtuse? What they instinctively do, we need computers to help us figure out. If the instinct of a tiny bird is so accurate, could we not develop our instincts so that our behaviour becomes more accurate and meaningful? If you study the path of one of those migratory birds and the way they fly in formation, it becomes obvious that nothing they do is superfluous. Can’t we learn from them? Do we as a species also have a “species” or “communal” memory? Some philosophers would say yes and this brings me to a letter a friend wrote to me last week in response to my Berlin blog. He wrote:

Berlin of course has many memories for me... I could see myself spending some time in Berlin; these days it has so much to offer... and yes, the shadows and the trauma are never far away too. The truth though, is that the shadows and the trauma are always with me, no matter where I am, and I was not even there, not even alive at the time. Crazy, completely crazy!

No, my friend, I don’t think it is crazy: I relate to Berlin in the exact same manner as you do – I respond to Berlin as though I have known it all my life; lived through its traumas as far back as when my great-great… grandfather Yehuda Roth was born there in 1785; as though I was there when the gate taxes were enforced but also when Jews became part of the intelligentsia and I attended soirees and drank champagne in the villas of Grunewald and Dahlem. Yet, I did not grow up conscious of this knowledge: my father did not tell us any real stories about his youth. Rather, I grew up with an inexplicable sadness that often rested on me like a smothering blanket. True, my maternal grandmother was inclined to melancholy and as young girl I sometimes sat next to her bed stroking her arm as she had done for me when I was little. Her melancholy did not disturb me – it seemed completely normal. I felt it too.

It was only when, as adult I discovered some of the truth regarding my father’s history and visited Berlin that this emotional memory inside of me, but that had not been shared with me, began to make sense. As my friend wrote, “the shadows and the trauma are always with me”: once I began to read Holocaust literature and the history of Berlin, I understood what had thrown the shadows over our lives all through the years and what the trauma was. My thoughts turned again to the Hula Valley and its migratory birds and my questions of long ago: when we allow ourselves to slow down and listen to deep inside, is it the same instinctive call that leads us down paths we tread as though familiar but which with our conscious mind we have never known? Is it the call of our ancestral memory that moves in us to make seemingly strange choices that cannot be explained? In fact, were my questions about the birds, actually questions about the paradigm shifts that I was experiencing inside of myself? I suspect so! And, I suspect this inbred memory will continue to guide my steps in years to come.

 

Berlin

Posted by Egonne Roth on July 30, 2014 at 11:35 AM Comments comments (0)

Berlin

My father loved the city of his birth, Berlin – a city of cabarets and cycling races and boating on the Wannsee and I accepted that was his Berlin. Later, after my father had died and I had begun to research his life, I realised that that had not exactly been his Berlin. His Berlin was one of political strife between the Social Nationalists and the Communists as captured in Christopher Esherwood’s Berlin Stories, the Second World War and ceaseless bombardment by the Allied forces, of the Russian invasion and of hunger and thirst and cold. Five years after the war ended he, his mother and his sister escaped to a new life in a new world, in Cape Town. My grandfather, Ernst Roth, as a full-Jew had had to leave earlier: he found passage on the last boat out of Hamburg carrying Jews to Cape Town in 1939. He left his blond Aryan wife to protect two obviously Jewish looking children – a ten-year old son and a daughter a couple of years younger. She did protect them and miraculously they survived both the Nazi’s and the Russians.

Ever since my first visit to Berlin in 1999 I had been looking for that Berlin where my father had grown up but of course, that is not really possible. Every once in a while I catch a glimpse or hear a tale that opens a window onto the life he knew there. But at the same time I am developing my own relationship with the city and have grown to love it, to feel at home there, to wonder if I could live there once we go into retirement.

A few years ago when I decided to buy an apartment in Berlin, my son and daughter-in-law joined us to look at an apartment we were seriously considering. Amid all the discussions, Ilze quietly asked me, “Ma, can you see yourself living here? Because that’s what counts.” We had been asking serious financial and other ‘important’ questions but in that little question she put her finger on the essence of buying a property. At the time we were not buying with the idea of living there but for investment purposes. Yet her question brought me up short. Could I live in Berlin? Could I live in that particular apartment? In that particular suburb? I walked through the apartment again looking at it with different eyes – not as an investment but as a potential home. I started arranging my most beloved pieces of furniture and suddenly I could picture it all. As that thought and those pictures kept floating through my mind in the weeks, months, and now years, I have also come to realise what I would keep and what I would get rid of. Judy and I have spent long hours imagining it and fantasizing about it.

So, last weekend when we drove down ‘our’ street and parked behind ‘our’ apartment building – a 1972 house renovated in 1979 into seven apartments – we looked at each other and simultaneously said, “It’s really nice, isn’t it?” We had not idealised the building or the setting in our absence into something it was not. (Of course this is not our first visit since we bought it: we try to come every year or every two years. On our last visit Berlin was covered with several inches of snow which gave it a stark pristine beauty.) No, rather, having now turned sixty and knowing that our retirement is the next big step, we are again asking ourselves if this could possibly be a place to live, if not full-time then part-time. And again the answer was an even more resounding YES. I suddenly so wished Ilze was with me so we could daydream together a little. I would like to show her the Treptow canal just down the street and the tiny slipway where we could let a small boat into the canal and putter-putter off to the Wannsee with the grandchildren. I would like to introduce her and my other children to our friends who live in Berlin, to some of the places we are already returning to and to discover new places with them.

I have always agreed with the Afrikaans poet-singer Koos Kombuis “Almal wil n huisie by die see he!” (Everyone wants a cottage by the sea). I have always wanted a home that is “looking out from land at the raging sea” (Loc 2614) and that Berlin certainly does not offer. So why Berlin? Maybe because it is in my blood. I have proof that my Roth family has lived there since the seventeenth century when my great great… grandfather Yehudah Roth was born in Berlin. My grandfather Ernst Roth’s name and address is in the 1933 Jewish Yearbook that I studied at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue’s archive in 1999. That day had been the beginning of my homecoming to Berlin – the day my father’s history had become a reality to me. A reality but also a driving passion to return to the roots I had not known I had.

On a very different level I discovered Berlin offers a wondrous interaction of city, water and green – even more than London does and I love this. I find it a friendly city with enough museums and art galleries, libraries and bookshops to keep me happy for a long time. But always when you least expect it, there is greenery: even in my favourite bookshop, Dussman’s on Friedrichstrasse there is a solid wall some 16 meters high of plants growing under running water. Here we sat with our newest purchases enjoying the ambience over a cup of coffee.

With each visit we explore some new area: this time it was the Charlottenburg Schloss, a wonderful Baroque palace with large grounds now in the heart of the city. As we rested on a bench in a quiet little forest, Judy held out her hand and two little LBJ’s fluttered above it, then sat down on it to look at her while a brown squirrel came to nibble her feet. It was a moment of pure happiness. Later we attended a baroque dinner and concert in the palace’s Great Orangery – very professional, very romantic. I have no illusions that my father may have experienced something similar during the war years but it helped me to understand his deep love of classical music, of beautiful architecture and fine food. He lived close to the Botanical Garden with its 16 kilometres of pathways, its forests and small lakes. Even in those days I am sure he often went there – it is so romantic and one can always find young couples sitting by the waterside, enjoying a piece of cake in the English tea-garden or exploring the palm house. I doubt whether the Botanical Garden was stripped of all its trees during the war like the Tiergarten in the city centre had been. Amazingly photographs dated from 1945 show areas that still had trees.

As a result it is easy to escape the hustle and the bustle of city life in Berlin. Water and gardens are always close and a ride on the Spree or sitting with your feet in one of the many pools is always an option. That is why we chose an apartment in a suburb that is known for its greenery; on a street that ends in a green swathe of trees and then water with ducks and little boots and with neighbours at a thoughtful distance. Again I will be able to place our bed in such a way as to lie and look at the light on the trees outside our window. In summer we will sit in the communal garden under those huge trees and eat al fresco. At the same time city life is close: a twenty minute ride on a bus that we catch 200 m from the house, gets us to the famous Kurfurstendamm and the heart of the action.

Who knows? Maybe Berlin is really part of our future. Only time will tell.

 

How to survive a visit to London

Posted by Egonne Roth on February 23, 2014 at 3:30 AM Comments comments (0)

“Where’ve you been?” asked a friend I bumped into in the street.

“London!”

“But it’s so expensive!” she said.

“Yes and No – I’ll tell you more over a cup of coffee.”

With a large café latte we settled down to exchange ideas about one of our favourite travel destinations. I began telling her and her husband how I set about organising my visits to London. I have been fortunate to go regularly over the last few years as my second son Joshua and his lovely wife were living there.

“The first thing you need to do is prepare well. I know this sounds obvious but people seldom do it. Study the websites – my favourite starting point is http://www.visitlondon.com/tag/free-attractions as it simply lists and describes free museums. All the top museums in London are free – the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate Britain and Tate Modern, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Science Museum just about around the corner from it. In fact as Joshua said, “one never gets enough of London.” He’s right – you can’t even get to see all the free museums if you tried! In all of these museums you only pay to see special travelling exhibitions – I just paid to see the Paul Klee exhibition at the Tate Modern but they accepted my student card.”

“You should write a blog with this info – who knows, you may even make some money,” said my friend laughing. And so I have.

I thought back of my two weeks in London in one of the worst winters in England’s history and how much I did and how little of what was available I actually saw. All these museums are so big and filled with such treasures and interactive displays that they are somewhat daunting, yet completely addictive. I did what I often do – I tagged behind groups on guided tours. The guides seemed not to mind and I stayed with each group as long as I was interested in what was being discussed and then wandered off on my own until I found another group in front of an exhibit that interested me. One of the things I love about all of these museums is that they have brilliant bookshops and unlike what I experienced in other countries the museum prices for books are not above the standard price. However, I must admit that on Book Depository prices are often below the listed price and deliver free - http://www.bookdepository.com/ This is useful if like me you travel with carry-on language only to save money. The other thing that most of these museums have – certainly all those I frequent – are good cafes and coffee shops, often several. So when your feet can’t take the pressure any more you can relax in one of these before tackling the next section of the museum or returning to things you need to review.

“Did you seen shows or concerts?” my friend asked.

“Oh yes! A visit to London without a visit to the South Bank is not worthy of the name.” The South Bank – a complex of theatres, galleries on the south bank of the Thames – is close to the London Eye which everyone knows about. I had promised myself I would go on it this visit but I had only a few days with clear skies and on one of those I followed Joshua’s advice and enjoyed amazing views the Emirates Air Line (http://www.emiratesairline.co.uk/ ) a cable car that crosses the Thames at the height of about 100m – the newest attraction to London. It is much further east along the Thames than the London Eye but also in an interesting area where I explored to The Crystal, a centre to promote and educate about designing environmentally responsible cities – it was fascinating.

Sorry, back to the South Bank. There are booths that sell same-day tickets at reduced rates just in front of the main theatre complex on the Thames promenade – on the section is called the Festival Pier. While you wait for the concert or play to begin there are numerous restaurants and pubs , a food market on land side of the complex on Belvedere Street, a large book market under the arches of the Waterloo Bridge and …. Well, just sit down on one of the benches under the trees and watch the crowds stroll past. I have yet to find a day there too long or boring. Of course tickets can also be bought via various websites – try http://www.timeout.com/london . Notice the special offers for shows and restaurants etc on the right side of the home page – some of them are very good and might introduce you to things you did not know about! If you do not insist on the obvious and are prepared to sit a little way away from the stage you can go to theatre or concerts for little more than £10. If you are prepared to queue early in the morning you can get same day tickets for the most sold out production at the National Theatre because every morning they release between 10 and 15 tickets at a very low price. To give you an example: King Lear has been sold out for months and tickets on the black market are apparently available at close to or over £1000 – yes three noughts!. However, if I had been prepared to get up and queue at 5.30am, I might have gotten two tickets at £12 each! It was too cold this time to bother and what we saw was stunning: the London Philharmonic Orchestra playing Grieg’s piano concerto and Dvorak’s Seventh Symphony also for £12 per ticket – no queuing and a wonderfully strange ballet by the Belgium choreographer and dancer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui – watch a bit on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=od_9QhMjJK0 – at £18 each.

As in any big city, food can be very expensive and often marked up on main thoroughfares. However, no matter where in London you are you can simply wander down the little streets and lanes till you find some small neighbourhood café or pub which offers tasty reasonable food. All the supermarkets sell ready-to-eat food and there are endless numbers of parks to sit in and enjoy a meal outside. It is well worth checking on your phone or map where the closest park is and eating there. Many of these little parks will have a board somewhere telling you which birds you might spot in that particular park and of course the big parks like Hyde park, Regent’s park, Green Park etc are large and green oases where it is easy to forget you are in the middle of the bustle and noise of one of the great cities of the world.

Accommodation can of course be expensive but we found a special offer through www.booking.com and www.tripadvisor.com – the one site offered the same hotel at a slightly reduced rate and so we paid £90 for the two of us breakfast included in the heart of the city near Baker Street Underground and lots of bus routes. The Blandford Hotel – see my review! I loved it and can’t wait to go back. When using these sites always read the reviews – they’re not necessarily what you will experience but if several reviewers met bedbugs between the sheets – skip it. It is not worth the risk.

Okay, dear Sarah, I hope this is enough. Let me know how your trip to London works out!

 

Coffee is a metaphor

Posted by Egonne Roth on December 28, 2013 at 7:50 AM Comments comments (0)

“Coffee is a metaphor”, says my friend Magda.

“Hmmm,” says her husband. “When Magda asks for coffee in the morning, she means she is about to shower, get dressed and then we will meet for a day planning session over coffee.”

 

Living in the Middle East adds other dimensions to the metaphor. Walk down the main street of any town in Israel and you find two kinds of coffee shops. In one there are predominantly men, often older men talking, maybe playing backgammon or reading the newspaper or playing the lotto at the nearby stall. In the other you see a different group of men, more smartly dressed, talking and discussing politics and the economy while at adjoining tables well-groomed women are drinking cafe latte sweetened by beautifully served cream cakes or enjoying healthy sandwiches with a generous portion of fresh salad on the side.

Coffee shops and drinking coffee has as much to do with the coffee as it does with seeing and being seen. Who’s sitting with who today? So the gossip about Baruch and Itzak being brogus is true – they are not even sitting at the same table anymore. And have you seen Shoshi’s new hairstyle? David is back from France - I saw him at Penguin!

Penguin is our town’s oldest cafe. It was started by the Oppenheimer family, who arrived in 1936. “My great-grandfather was called Hugo and he first tried to grow vegetables,” Amir Oppenheimer the new manager told me. “When he wasn’t successful in that he started the restaurant in 1940.” They used the wooden container in which they had brought all their household goods as the first building, and the fresh produce used in the restaurant came from the garden he still kept. Today his great-grandson, to whom I spoke, is in the process of taking over from his father and together they continue to expand the business. In the years that illegal immigrants were being brought ashore along the coast of Nahariya, Penguin Cafe played a vital role. In the late afternoon coffee would be served while live music entertained the clientele, who were a mix of British police and the local women. Most of these women were married but often they would appear at the cafe beautifully dressed ready to dance and chat up the officers. They knew exactly what they were doing: they were keeping the officers busy while their men were bringing the illegal immigrants ashore in little boots. The minute they were safely out of the water, those women’s children would innocently take the hand of a stranger as though he or she was favourite uncle or aunt and take them to their designated hiding place. And all the time, the British officers were drinking coffee and being entertained by lovely young mothers flirting in service of their country.

All this I learnt while sitting in the home of our friend Daniela whose parents were among the founding families who came to Nahariya in 1935 – also their house used the original wooden crate as main structure. Later it became her father’s carpentry room. She tells us how one day she was walking along holding the hand a soaking wet man she had never seen before when far down the road she saw an English police man approaching. Pulling the man to walk as fast as he could she took him home, gave him some of her father’s dry clothes to put on, together with her brother rolled him in a carpet onto the back of the bed that served as sofa and hung the wet clothes like laundry on the line outside. The police arrived and innocently and sweetly she invited him and served him a strong black bots coffee spiced with cardamom while he brother went to look for their father. The police man settled down on the sofa where German embroidered cushions concealed the lumps in the carpet back and chatted to the pretty little girl serving him coffee. Once her father arrived the two men sorted out their business and the police officer left convinced that this was one house where there were no illegal immigrants hiding. Soon the poor man rolled in the carpet, could be released from his carpet hiding place and be revived by a cup of hot black coffee and freshly baked bread.

As Danielle told us the story, she had brewed a cup of bots for us over a small gas burner just as she had done for the policeman many decades ago. The local name ‘bots’ means ‘mud’ in Hebrew because of the heavy residue left in the bottom of the cup. It is traditionally served black in tiny white cups. I first drank it on Mount Carmel prepared a Druze man who cooked it over an open fire in a small pot with a long handle. Next to him his wife prepared laffa bread – a large thin pancake- like bread on which she spread sour white cheese, drizzled olive oil and sprinkled za’atar, a hyssop, sesame seed and salt mixture that flavours much Middle Eastern food. In this context coffee is the sign of hospitality and friendship, just as for Danielle it was a metaphor for safety.

Tiny cups of steaming black coffee served with tiny traditional honey and nut cakes is often the closure to a sumptuous meal, or enjoyed as a quick pick-me-up in the shuk or traditional market. But at its best, it is what Judy and I drink in the morning looking out of the living room window at the Mediterranean Sea before we have to face our day.

Magda is right – coffee is the metaphor for many good things but its better drunk in tiny cups than written about

 

Nearly Forty Years Later

Posted by Egonne Roth on May 6, 2013 at 7:40 AM Comments comments (1)


I remember it all so well: I was twelve, so was she. She had bright gingery hair, a porcelain skin and green eyes. We cuddled under my grandmother’s rose satin quilt with its top stitching and satin-covered buttons and I thought she was the most beautiful creature in the whole world. Then she left and I had only the memory of her bright red hair against the dusky pink quilt and her green eyes.

I remember it all so well: I was eighteen and she was twenty eight. I fell in love with her, an ambitious dynamic young woman whose flat was stylish and who exuded an air of being special. I fell in love. Secretly. I had learnt in Psycho I that same-sex fascination was a stage all adolescents went through. Homosexuality was a form of arrested adolescence. The one thing I wanted to be was adult so I hid this love in a dark secret place and married a man. A good man, with whom I had three beautiful kids. But through all the years that followed I always wondered what had happened to that special woman.

That is until a couple of months ago. Across the tables of books for sale at an outdoor mall there she was. Decades of unacknowledged loved tumbled over me. I was overwhelmed by the sudden realisation of what had happened during those years. Now I am married to my Judy with her auburn hair and her green-blue eyes, her wide gentle smile and her steadfast love. We have been together for nearly ten years. No longer do we think of gay as arrested adolescence. Gay has become a serious debate on radio and television, in the church and in the synagogue. So much has changed. We can walk hand in hand in the streets of Cape Town and Pretoria, Tel Aviv and London, Berlin and Athens. There are gay film festivals and pride marches in nearly every major city of the Western world. We have rights and responsibilities, representation in parliaments and in city halls: some of my favourite cities like Berlin and Paris have gay mayors. Everything seems to have changed.

Yet nothing has changed. Also, a couple of months ago I sat in a cafe drinking red wine with a woman who suddenly lent forward, looked deep into my eyes and said, “Egonne I KNOW that you are not gay. You are too beautiful and too feminine! God does not make mistakes!” Suddenly the wine tasted of vinegar and the pit of my stomach became a knot of hurt and anger. How dare anyone tell me what I am and what I am not? How dare she imply that to be gay is to be a mistake? How dare she try to manipulate with phrases such as “too beautiful” or “too feminine”? If it was not so insulting it might even have been funny. I thought of all my beautiful and truly feminine gay friends – the world class IT researcher who turns heads wherever she goes, the member of the Berlin parliament with her blond hair, perfect make up and long red nails, the beautifully groomed woman standing across the book tables from me unaware that after 38 years I am still wondering about with fascination and delight.

Standing there, overcome by the realisation of all the changes we have experienced in the years since I had last seen her and yet also the continued prejudice, judgement and hate that one finds here and in every country in the world to a greater or lesser extent, a vicious anger and despair filled me. I thought of my lovely wife and how happy we are but I also thought of the lesbians in Africa who have suffered the brutal and primitive humiliation and pain of corrective rape; of youngsters killed in Tel Aviv in a gay safe house by a religious fanatic with a gun; of gay Palestinian young men hiding in safety in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv from Islamic extremists and so the list could go on and on and on...And I wondered: will anything ever really change for us? Will we always only find acceptance in tiny isolated pockets of tolerance?

I slowly walked around the table of books until I was in her field of vision. She looked up, saw me, said my name and then we hugged. I cried. At least there has been enough change for us to be able to talk – to talk honestly about the past, about what the years have given and taken, about love and loss, and about totally unrelated subjects. At least for some of us the changes have brought peace.

 

 

Where is home?

Posted by Egonne Roth on October 8, 2012 at 3:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Where is home?

We were sitting chatting with friends in Holland after visiting with Judy’s mother in Germany when our host asked me, ”Where is home for you?”

“Where I’m not!” I answered without thinking. “When I am in Israel, I talk about going home to South Africa. When I am in South Africa, I talk about going home to Israel or Germany depending on where Judy is.” When I was a kid I used to love the Negro spiritual “This world is not my home, I am just a passing through...” I no longer quite subscribe to that theology, but neither do I absolutely reject it.

I once quoted a writer as saying that Home was the place where he could write. Jeanette Winterson in her new book, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? writes quite a bit about the concept of home and finally comes to the conclusion that “Books, for me, are a home... you open a book and you go inside.” That sounds like the Yiddish writer, Baal-Makshoves, who claims that Jewish literature is the genuine Jewish homeland but that does not work for me. When Winterson writes about ‘a home’, rather than ‘home’ I suspect she is also admitting that she is not sure where home is. So what makes a place ‘home’ rather than ‘a home’? The indefinite article seems to me to imply that it is one of many or just ‘any old home’ –not that place where I belong or feel safe or will end my days.

Which brings me to maybe a more important question: what makes a place home? For the past few months I have been travelling staying for longer or shorter periods with friends and family. Mostly I felt ‘at home’ in the sense of feeling welcome and accepted but ultimately I knew that none of these places were ‘home’.

I have been reading book called Crossing The Border, a collection of writings by women in exile –some refugees, some not. Most cannot return ‘home’- to their country of birth for political or economic reasons. Often the new country does not become home – home remains the place from which these women writers have escaped, to which they cannot return. Yet it has grown in their imaginations to a place quite different from that which they left behind. Even if they could return, it would not be the place for which they mourn in their hearts.

I feel both a great sense of identification with these women and yet also an inability to imagine what they have been through. I did not have to leave my land of birth – I chose to leave it. I was in no danger, experienced no persecution. On the contrary I had a good life - you could even say a life of ease. And this brings me to the heart of the matter as I experience it: I did not feel at ease. I did not feel that I belonged. I did not feel safe. Even though I had a beautiful house which I loved and left with a heavy heart, it was not enough to hold me, to give me a sense of rootedness. I did not have it in my land of birth and I do not have it in my land of adoption. I feel a blinding sense of loyalty towards Israel, maybe more than I ever felt towards South Africa. But do I feel that this land clinging to the edge of the Mediterranean Sea is ‘home’? For the moment, for a season, possibly. But who knows how long this season will last. Maybe for some who have left their land of birth there will never again be that absolute sense of ‘home’. Maybe home becomes that sense of uncertainty and restlessness that never allows you to store your suitcases too far away. And maybe, for some of us that is okay.

Right now our rented apartment looking out towards the Mediterranean Sea is home, where I feel safe and in control and comfortable – at ease with my world. It is the place where I am surrounded by my books and paintings and the things that make my life pleasant. Above all, it is the place that I am blessed to share with Judy and where we both believe we are ‘supposed’ to be at this time.

But tomorrow? I really do not know. As Judy says, “We have to keep all our options open.” If we leave, our decision will certainly not be based on political or security reasons, just as these were not the reasons that brought us to Israel. If we leave, it will be because we sense a change in the seasons. In much the same way as one walks out onto the balcony one morning and says, “I can smell spring in the air” so too I suspect we will wake up one morning and say, “We need to start packing!”

I really hope it is not soon, yet there is definitely shift in the wind. I feel it.

On being a grandmother

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 17, 2012 at 5:45 PM Comments comments (0)

Being a grandmother to Elle is much more complicated than making a quilt to keep her warm and yet it is much the same. A quilt, even one as simple as the one I have made for Elle is not really such a simple activity. You have to plan in such a manner that it looks unplanned; you have to combine colours in such a way as to create light and dark without one overpowering the other; you have to work competently enough so that it will stand up to wear and tear but not so meticulously that you will resent milk and juice spilt on it.

In finding a balance between being utterly besotted by this tiny creature who has done nothing other than exist to win one’s adoration and being careless about both her and her parents’ needs is not so easy. When I taught adults English in the community centre in Nahariya I would listen to the women discussing their new grandchildren and be amazed at how much they found to say about them. Didn’t they have lives of their own to talk about? I nearly felt sorry for them – that is until I heard I would soon join their ranks: an irrational pleasure and excitement overtook me. I was going to be a grandmother.

It filled me both with an excitement I could not rationally understand and a fear I found even more perplexing. Would I be able to make a positive contribution to this little person’s life? Would her parents trust me to hold and care for her, even for a few minutes at a time? I was not even sure I trusted myself. And when I return to my life on the other side of the world, will she remember her grandmother who sang songs to her in the four languages that are part of her heritage: folk songs in Afrikaans, gospel songs in English, drinking songs in German and songs from the synagogue in Hebrew?

My stunning daughter-in-law allowed me to hold Elle, feed her, cuddle her, play with her, photograph her to my heart’s content. She seemed to me the most perfect baby I had ever come across: she cried when babies are supposed to cry, mostly slept when she was supposed to sleep and watched us when she was awake with serious deep blue eyes. She keeps her special smile for her parents, who after a long day’s work still seem to have patience without end for her, even when she is niggly and unsettled.

I remember being a first time mother. I was so stupid, impatient and terrified of the wriggling crying demanding creature that was my son – Elle’s father. Actually, in retrospect I now know he was just a baby like most babies who had no other way to communicate except to scream when his mother did not know what to do. By the time his brother came along and later his little sister, his mother was no longer so inexperienced and scared and being a mother had become a fun, more creative role to fulfil. This was something the father of my children taught me: they would not break or suddenly die on me if I handled them firmly, played silly games with them and learnt to enjoy them. Nearly everything that I knew to do with Elle I had learnt from her grandfather and when I saw him with her, I knew why my son was such a good father. Watching father and son gurgling and smiling and preening over the third generation brought smiles to all our faces. Mi ‘dor l’dor- from generation to generation- van geslag tot geslag. The Biblical route that blessings are supposed to travel:

...for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, .... showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me .... (Exodus 20: 5-6)

Of course there are all kinds of conditions to this promise and I have no wish now to get into a theological discussion but as I watched my son and his father enjoy little Elle I saw the principle in action and was delighted and deeply moved. There really is something more to being a grandmother than making a quilt or simply passing the child back to her parents when she gets restless. There is the profound awareness of being part of history, from generation to generation and that I carry within myself both the curse and the blessing which I got from my forefathers and mothers and I choose which and how I will pass that on to my granddaughter. Soon my second son and his wife will give me a grandchild and the next generation will be even more firmly established.

Of course, I can still talk about other things. My life is filled with many joys and some sorrows but to be honest, I’d love to tell you more about my granddaughter and her loving parents!

On making a Quilt

Posted by Egonne Roth on September 1, 2012 at 2:30 PM Comments comments (0)

On making a Quilt

I made a quilt for my first granddaughter. I had made quilts for my children: I had used the log-cabin design for one, the nine-block design for another, random blocks in blue and red for a third. They were not master pieces fancifully stitched but simple quilts, under which my children slept and on which they played until the fabric fell apart. The kids grew up and life became too busy and important for a fun silly activity such as making a quilt.

But then Elle announced her imminent arrival. I was going to become a granny, a safta, an ouma. Oumas make quilts and so I did. It is pretty in soft shades of dusty pink and teal blue. Made of little square tiles a flowery heart emerges that tells Elle exactly how her safta feels about her – full of love and compassion and as my friend Willie says, “Ek voel so jammer vir haar, so innig jammer vir haar. Die lewe is so swaar!”

One quilt led to another. In a moment of excitement at their new cottage by the beach I told a dear friend that what she needed on the bed was a simple quilt made by me. A week later she responded, “Was that a real offer?” she asked in amazement. “Yes, why not?” I responded clearly out of touch with the reality of my life as visitor to the country – no machines, no scissors, no huge old dining room table on which those quilts of yesteryear had been made. “Sure, I’d love nothing better!” From Germany my beloved asked, “Have you gone crazy?” My hostess in whose lovely elegant but small townhouse I was staying asked, “Have you gone crazy?” My beautiful daughter asked, “Are you crazy? You’re supposed to be writing a doctorate!”

But that was exactly the point: I was supposed to be doing a myriad intelligent responsible things – research, interviews, proposals etc etc but what I wanted to be doing was something basic and creative and having fun. I wanted to make a quilt but had no use of one. My friend wanted it, could use it beautifully. A perfect marriage of desires. She brought the material – beautiful African prints in designs of brown and dark blue. I instantly loved the fabric – its distinctive smell and texture. I could not sleep. My mind was whirling with ideas and designs and the problems of making something so big, of borrowing machines, finding space to work, time to make it and technical problems connected to constructing something that needed to be both beautiful and functional. I needed to find ways that would make the process faster than it had been with baby Elle’s pretty little quilt. I had five weeks left in the country and an already full program.

I created suitable graft paper on the computer, studied techniques on google. At night while my hostess slept blissfully I quietly cut the strips of fabric. I had settled on random blocks but with a heart subtly hidden in the design - this was, after all, an act of love. The squares would be 11centimetre big when stitched. Why eleven? I have no idea. I coded my random design on my special graph paper and pinned the strips together to sew bands of fabric once I had the machines another friend was lending me.

Friday evening, the tenth of August, I moved with machines and fabrics, a new pair of scissors and lots of strips of fabric into the house with my daughter and her kind boyfriend, Dishen. Tamar made tea and coffee on demand; Dishen made endlessly delicious meals and when not taking care of my culinary needs, they both sat working on their laptops on the other side of the table. Never once did they complain about the whir and vibrations of a sewing machine and an overlocker running for their lives. A sheet was put on the spare bed and as the quilt progressed, sections were being pinned onto it so that slowly, slowly the design emerged. By the time I had to return to Cape Town on Sunday evening the top was eighty percent completed. I would have to finish it before I returned to the kids the following weekend when we would connect top and bottom – how? I was still not quite sure. Then I saw an Indian silk quilt where the layers were connected by simple hand-done running stitches – that would be my solution. I forgot to buy a thimble.

The second weekend Dishen moved the living room furniture to one side. We lay out the thick fleece-backing we had decided to use instead of the normal batting and fabric. Then, carefully, we put the now completed top – 190 cm by 170 cm – on top of it. I pinned top and bottom together with safety pins so that on the busy design I could see where they were. Kneeling on the quilt on the floor I began hand-sewing it together using the Indian Gudri technique, working in concentric squares. When it was securely attached I folded the fleece backing over the front creating a fleece frame and this was sewn on the machine. By now my index and middle fingers were red and painful but just before midnight I asked Tamar, “Any champagne in the house? It’s done!” A beautiful earthy quilt lay on the floor – a crazy creative expression of love.

I handed the quilt over in the parking lot of the Somerset Mall. “You actually made this for us?!” said my friend and I think she really liked it. “Come. I am taking you for lunch!” and off we went to Ocean Basket so that I could, for the fifth or sixth time this holiday, indulge my passion for grilled fish and chips!

On Having a Daughter

Posted by Egonne Roth on August 22, 2012 at 4:00 PM Comments comments (0)

We all need a mother. But not necessarily the one we have. We want a mother that is a like our best friend’s mother and she probably wants ours.

I remember when I was a teenager – gauche, pimply, desperate, struggling to be like but also not like my mother, who was beautiful, articulate, well-presented, successful. All I wanted was for her to be in the kitchen doing something motherly, comforting so that there would be a space for me on the stage of life but it was an option that was not open to her. As single parent, divorced at a time when this was shameful and a woman like her was treated with suspicion, she did the best she could – worked, forged ahead, stood tall and independent.

Olga Kirsch described my feelings as teenager exactly in a Hebrew poem written at the time of her mother’s death: “… my mother, the hated and the beloved.” But life is not static and slowly grace came. Things changed. I had less pimples and found a little confidence; my mother became older, wiser and softer. She drew me into her spotlight and made of me a friend, a confidante, at times even a guide. We began to talk as equals; we socialized in similar circles where the overlap was spontaneous and fun. Often in the mornings as I heard my husband’s car disappear around the corner, I would call her so that we could touch base before our day started.

Then she was gone. Snatched away by Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I could no longer turn to her; she did not answer when I called to say “Have a good day”. I had lost my best friend, my children their beloved grandmother and suddenly I was the older generation. I discovered what a strange balancing act being a mother was. I struggled to find my equilibrium.

After some time I turned in the other direction, looked towards my children, especially my daughter and found she was waiting for me. My mother had taught me how to be a mother, who is both mother and friend, mentor and follower. I learnt how to apply these lessons in a way that was all ours. So that when I decided to immigrate, my daughter was brave enough to choose not to come with me. People stared at me in horror. They attacked me with angry words or stony silence. “How can you leave your DAUGHTER? Your husband, sure. Your sons, maybe. But your daughter? Never!” I waivered but through our tears she told me, “GO! If you don’t, I can never follow my dreams.”

So I came to Israel. I followed my dream.

Now we talk on the phone, on skype, write little letters, send sms’s, bbm when we are apart; and when we are together we talk some more, we shop, go for coffees or cocktails, we argue but never for long and we laugh a great deal. We have grown closer over the years, share friends and plan holidays. She has allowed me to be the only mother I can be and I honour her for it.

Tamar

Tamar, a date palm in Hebrew

tall and slender, feet deeply rooted in water

Tamar, rich sweet fruit growing in bunches

symbol of life, of nourishment, of hope

Tamar, oasis of rest in the wilderness

Tamar, a cuddly little child who enchanted us all

the girl with her golden hair always in her food

Tamar, growing into womanhood on a distant shore

Tamar, my friend, my guide, my mentor

my child, my daughter, my princess

Tamar, my love, why must you be so far?


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