Archive for February, 2014

“What shift do you work?” — a memoir about (now endangered properties) of South Providence, RI

February 23, 2014

Broad Street Synagogue, South Providence (abandoned)Ward Baking Co., ProvidenceAbandoned mill, Providence
Broad Street Synagogue (top photo); Ward Baking Company administration building (middle photo), Unnamed factory (lower photo), abandoned and endangered properties, South Providence, RI

By Robert Israel

1.

Growing up in South Providence, RI in the 1960s, in an era when the mills were humming around the clock, it was not uncommon to in hear this asked by passersby on the street: “What shift do you work?”

On Gordon Avenue, the street where I was born and lived for my first ten years, the wire factory across from my grandparents’ tenement had the lights burning around the clock. The sight of men coming on shift, men coming off shift, was a common sight, men smeared with grease on their faces, men with grease on their arms, men holding lunch pails or trundling down Prairie Avenue to the diner for lunch or bottles of beer. In the summer these disheveled men spilled onto the street corners, squinting at the bright sunlight, huddled together, arms around each other’s shoulders, pie-eyed, my mother called them, weary from a long night that became a bright new day all while they were bent over machinery.

The clamor of industrial machinery, the sight of men in overalls and work boots, the smell of coal burning furnaces spewing sparks and grime into the night sky over the Providence River — these are memories of the past. The same streets remain in Providence today, but many of the buildings in the jewelry district have become trendy restaurants or office buildings. At night, with the exception of one or two streets illuminated by crowds of noisy college-age imbibers, these streets still bear the distinctive features of cobblestones but many of the buildings are shuttered, and still others await the wrecking ball.

2.

Crash. Take Valium. Sleep. Dream & Forget it. Wake up now & strange/displaced/at home. Read The Providence Evening Bulletin. No one you knew got married/had children/got divorced/died/got born/tho many familiar names flicker & disappear.
— Ted Berrigan, “Things to Do in Providence,” (1976)

Poet Ted Berrigan was born in Providence in 1934 and moved, as my family did, to Cranston, although by that time I left Gordon Avenue and he had settled in New York. I met Ted’s father, Edward, at the Ward Baking Company in South Providence, makers of Tip Top Bread, where I spent an ummemorable two months washing floors, third shift. My salary went into a savings account at the Old Stone Bank, dutifully deposited by my mother; it financed my first semester at Roger Williams University.

I have three distinct memories of those late nights washing floors at Tip Top Bread:

> Cleaning the flour bin, wearing a face mask so the flour wouldn’t creep into my lungs, on my hands and knees with a long hose to vacuum the bin and then scrub clean it with a wet brush.

> Hiding behind a stack of empty cartons during a lunch break in the middle of the night so I could sleep for an hour before returning to wash the floors and, in half-sleep, hearing the footsteps of the shop steward looking for me while I pulled my knees up to my chest and stopped breathing until he passed by.

> Drinking coffee in the employee’s workroom while the men changed into their overalls and thick rubber soled boots, smoking Camel cigarettes and toasting Tip Top raisin bread while the men told stories of Providence in the days when the cable cars ran down Point Street to the center of the city.

3.

We never feared the men on the streets coming on shift, going off shift, men who greeted us with warm smiles and rows of grinning white teeth gleaming from behind the black grease smears and darkened whiskers that encircled their mouths.

We never feared these men when they offered us rolls of candy from the vending machines in their blackened palms, their fingernails etched with soot and scarred with ochre-colored scabs.

We played in the lot beside the factory watched as the smoke belched from the windows into the summer air.

At night, lying tucked into beds across the street from the factory, the third shift coming on, the shadows of the men feeding that furnace with shovels full of coal moved menacingly across our ceilings and walls of our bedrooms. We heard the sound of the conveyor belts chugging away — a mechanical lullaby — as we drifted into sleep.

4.

Visitors to my hometown insist that Providence has been reborn, echoing the vision of marketing executives who have convinced tourists to attend outdoor festivals or dine at pricey restaurants or shop at trendy boutiques that have taken the place of factories.

There was no hype back in the days when I was growing up, and if no tourists visited, no one cared. Families lived and huddled together and got through it all, somehow, and no one had money. A family excursion usually meant an afternoon in nearby Roger Williams Park. Summertime we headed to the beach, to Narragansett Pier, where families could share rooms clustered around a central kitchen and an ice box, and the shoreline was nearby. There was rampant anti-Semitism in those days in the early 1960s, I have been told, so we lived in Jewish-friendly South Providence, with its three or four synagogues clustered around a shopping center devoted to kosher food, and in the summer we lived in Narragansett, which had a summer shul and, like nerarby Newport, tolerated Jews.

As a child I was shielded and protected by watchful eyes but also let alone for intervals of time when I got the chance to explore my surroundings, and I saw Providence at a distance but also up close. The buildings now termed “Endangered Properties” were occupied when I was a boy. Today, many of them are vacant. Cities change, sometimes they are rescued, sometimes they decay. In Providence, decay lives side-by-side with progress, and because of this, the city teeters in an imbalance.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. Thanks to the Providence Preservation Society for putting the properties pictured above on the Endangered Properties List for the City of Providence.

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Report from Berkshire County: Finding the “all” feeling

February 21, 2014

Photos of Tanglewood, Lenox
View of Stockbridge Bowl, Lenox, Mass.

By Robert Israel

Summer afternoon: American author Henry James declared these are the two most beautiful words in the English language. Add Berkshires as the third word, and you’ve arrived at the heart of it.

Berkshires summer afternoon: dining al fresco with a glass of chilled wine on the lawn at Tanglewood in Lenox while listening to the Boston Symphony Orchestra; watching dancers leap from the outdoor stage at Jacob’s Pillow against the backdrop of the verdant Becket woods; renting a canoe or kayak and paddling in Stockbridge Bowl; biking down quiet country roads under sunny skies, not a cloud in sight.

These and other delights have attracted visitors to the region since before the days when another American author, Herman Melville, who lived on a farm in Pittsfield in the 1850s, penned the best description of a Berkshires summer afternoon: “You must often have felt it, lying on the grass on a warm summer’s day,” Melville wrote to his neighbor Nathaniel Hawthorne, living nearby in Lenox. “Your legs seem to send out shoots into the earth. Your hair feels like leaves upon your head. This is the all feeling.”

I’ve been a summer visitor in the Berkshires for the past dozen years or so, and I can attest to having experienced Melville’s “all feeling” many times. Since there is much to discover in Berkshire County – 1,000 square miles bordering on Vermont, New York and Connecticut – I’ve selected a few places to recommend, where you, too, can experience a sense of wonderment this summer.

Lenox: the epicenter of Berkshire County

The epicenter of the Berkshires is Lenox, a jewel of a town that looks very much like it did when some of the wealthiest families during the Gilded Age built “Berkshire cottages” to host guests. Author Edith Wharton built one of these cottage — The Mount — which is open for touring.

I chose to stay in one of these cottages – the Hampton Terrace at 91 Walker Street – as my base. It turned out to be an inspired choice.

Hampton Terrace, (www.hamptonterrace.com), built in 1897, was completely restored and renovated in 2000, but it has preserved its grandeur and comfort. The innkeepers, Stan and Susan Rosen, greet visitors with a warm southern hospitality. A full and tasty breakfast is served every morning. Their dog, Atticus, sat beside me on the sun-porch during one breakfast, and he never begged as much as implored me to share a morsel of food with him. I stayed in a spacious and comfortable room located upstairs in a restored stable across from the swimming pool, where the windows looked out on a grove of trees. At sunset one night, I spied a red fox crouching in the leaves right outside the window.

The sighting of wild creatures is not unusual in the Berkshires, according to the Rosen’s neighbor, Rosemary Chiariello. She and her husband Fabrizio are proprietors of another exquisitely restored mansion, the Gateways Inn http://www.gatewaysinn.com, located just a few doors down from the Hampton Terrace at 57 Walker Street.

“I was in the kitchen preparing lunch when a black bear walked down the driveway one afternoon,” Rosemary said.

Sprawled over 500-acres in Lenox, Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the past 71 years. There are four distinct musical venues to choose from — the Theatre, the Shed, Ozawa Hall and the lawn. There are also many popular concerts planned throughout the summer. The weekend I attended, Earth, Wind and Fire performed as part of their 40th anniversary tour. Despite pouring rain, hundreds on the lawn were seen dancing, while the musicians, with an enviable abundance of energy, rocked on.

Mass MOCA

Occupying 13 acres of land in the heart of North Adams, a northern Berkshires town around 30 miles from Lenox, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is a complex of 26 buildings, many of them connected via bridges. A restaurant, the Gramercy Café, serves tasty and elegant lunches and dinners, and the galleries, just beyond the restaurant, are able to host the most sprawling and massive installations I have seen at any museum.

To offset expenses, the museum hosts large concerts, planned throughout the summer. This relatively new Berkshires institution (founded in 1999) attracts 120,000 visitors a year and has helped to revive the northern Berkshires area. It is well worth seeking out.

Fine Dining

While there is no shortage of restaurants to discover in Berkshire County, I discovered one I know I will be returning to, the Castle Street Café in Great Barrington: http://www.castlestreetcafe.com

Owned by chef Michael Ballon, the restaurant hosts jazz ensembles several times a week at night. The adjacent dining room, a large comfortable space with exposed brick and windows that look out on the busy summer town, serves scrumptious seafood, pasta and steak dinners. The style here is casual yet elegant. Chef Ballon, the author of a cookbook, has a knack for bringing fabulous flavors together in simple dishes that you will not find elsewhere. The restaurant is located next door to the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center (www.mahaiwe.org).

Take the Long Way Home

While it is possible to get to the Berkshires via a superhighway (Rt. 90, or the Massachusetts Turnpike), I took the long way home, a less traveled road, Route 2, which brought me to North Adams and then, through Pittsfield, into Lenox, Great Barrington and Stockbridge.

The Berkshires region is a place of relaxation, discovery, culture and accessibility to nature. If you take Route 2, it is possible to stop along the way at any number of small towns, or to explore the extensive state park system. Sitting by a river, or lying quietly in a meadow is where you will find the “all feeling” Melville described, in the midst of a bustling summer season.

**
Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine, Boston.

Report from Rhode Island: Spring in Newport

February 21, 2014


Pell Newport Bridge, Newport, RI, at sunset

By Robert Israel

The morning sun shone on the harbor, illuminating a row of 18th century homes in Newport’s Point neighborhood facing the Pell Newport Bridge. The bells of St. John Evangelist chimed eight, already a late hour; the lobster boats had hours before set out to sea and were now visible only as shadowy figures in Narragansett Bay, bobbing past Beavertail light, its solitary beacon blinking in the bright morning light.

When you grow up in Rhode Island, as I did, and you return to Newport, especially in the spring, you bring a perspective that is steeped in nostalgia yet tempered by a response to changes, good and bad, that you notice as you amble down familiar streets.

Newport is all about history, a history that stretches back to the days before and during the founding of our Republic, when Native Americans camped in the thickets surrounding the town, and when the occupying British fleet was docked on the wharves off Thames Street, the central artery that runs along the waterfront.

While much of that pre- and post-Colonial history has been preserved, a lot has been lost. And what has been lost has been reclaimed by a plethora of condominiums, marinas, shopping plazas, boutiques, and trendy nightspots. To say that Newport embraces the chic and expensive is an understatement. There has always been a proclivity toward the splendors that money can buy in this seaside city. But one can also enjoy this place without breaking the bank.

But there is also an independent spirit in Newport as residents continue to restore and reclaim that which has been worn down or ravaged by the passage of time.

Newport’s Cliff Walk

Newport is a sought after vacation spot, and rightfully so: it is accessible by foot or bicycle, and there are wonderful beaches never so crowded that you can’t lay back and take in the sand, surf and sky.

For those not interested in the surf, there’s a breathtaking seaside walk, the Cliff Walk (http://www.cliffwalk.com/), which, thanks to a costly renovation over many years, is now well maintained.

The 3.5-mile ramble takes you past mansions built during the Gilded Age, when the Industrial Revolution gave birth to a privileged class who set about rivaling Europe by constructing their own castles along Bellevue Avenue. These mausoleums (http://www.newportmansions.org/), open for touring, are garish examples of extravagance, yet one still marvels at their ornate usages of imported Italian marble and lavish interiors, and their generous landscaped acreages that roll down to the edge of the sea. Each mansion has its own manicured gardens, cherubic fountain statuary, and wonderfully cared for copper beech trees.

Along the route there are many places available for spring and summertime picnicking. The Cliff Walk is free and open to the public, but the mansions require an admission fee. If you purchase a single ticket, you have access to several properties, all within an easy walk. A shuttle bus is also available.

Farm-to-table Dining

Several restaurants are now boasting farm-to-table menus. Jeff Callaghan tells me that the scrumptious fare at Fluke comes from local growers and that his chef, Neil Manacle, changes the menu daily according to what’s available from local growers, including local fishermen. While farms on Aquidneck Island are not as plentiful as they once were, Fluke has an arrangement with Rhode Island Nurseries (http://www.farmfresh.org/food/farm.php?farm=77) in nearby Middletown, which supplies them with fresh produce daily.

Seated upstairs in the dining room (Fluke occupies three levels), I order locally harvested scallops, pan seared to a golden color and served with Brussels sprouts, while my partner ordered a tasty risotto made with locally grown wild mushrooms.

From the window I could see the entire length of Bowens Wharf and the harbor. As the sunset turned the harbor into a palette of color, crowds strolled under the twinkling lights suspended in the branches of the trees down the pedestrian-only wharf with its shops, restaurants and bistros.

Just a minute’s walk from Fluke the shuttle bus waits to take passengers back to Goat Island, a five-minute drive from downtown Newport. The shuttle runs all day until midnight, and brings you to the newly refurbished and affordable Hyatt Hotel.

Goat Island, connected to Aquidneck Island via a bridge, was used by the U.S. Navy during the last century as a torpedo factory, and many photographs adorning the walls of the hotel show men at work manufacturing these weapons.

My spacious room, which included a balcony, faced the Point neighborhood across the harbor, and from my side window I could see Jamestown, Beavertail lighthouse, and the town of Narragansett, where I spent many summers as a youngster. For me, it had all the accoutrements (and memories) of home.

Downstairs, the common room affords a wonderful view of the Newport Bridge. Down a corridor from the front desk is the Stillwater Spa, where one can book a full array of services designed to restore and rejuvenate.

For those seeking an affordable sampling of services, the Stillwater has a tapas menu, including facials, massage, eye treatment, and hand exfoliation, and features a soothing atmosphere in a warren of quiet rooms facing the water.

Dinner is served nightly at the Hyatt in the Windward (www.thewindwardrestaurant.com), a spacious harbor side restaurant. Service is attentive and never rushed. Fresh caught lobster, served steamed or baked, is available, as well as an array of other fresh seafood, including a scrumptious choice of raw shellfish available on the half shell. Like the Fluke restaurant in town, Windward orders its produce from local farms in Middletown, and changes its menu frequently.

Exploring Newport

Ambling down Newport’s streets, like Washington Street across the bridge from the Hyatt Goat Island, I noticed there has been considerable renovation, and some of the formerly funky streets have lost their original seatown flavor.

I miss Mack’s Clam Shack, for example, a seedy hole-in-the-wall that once sold soft shell clams by the peck, or cooked up lobster-in-the-rough style and served it with Narragansett draught beer. The town’s colorful bars like Castaways, Salt’s, and the Blue Pelican have long been shuttered. And conspicuously missing are many of the bait and tackle shops selling sea worms and mackerel and everything else you need as you head out on one of the many chartered boats for a day of deep sea fishing. If you are looking for an authentic seafaring experience aboard a charter boat that will take you out past Block Island, I recommend driving to Pt. Judith for that experience, which is a 30-minutes away across the Pell Newport Bridge into South Kingstown.

You can find the soul of Newport, it just takes a bit of exploring. I promise it will not be pricey, but you will need to first distance yourself from busy Thames Street. Take any side street and you’re in the old neighborhood. There’s a wonderful breakfast place on the corner of Franklin and Spring streets, the Franklin Spa, for instance, where the clientele is strictly local and the service is friendly. And there is a lively local arts scene worth exploring, too, with music, gallery tours, theatre performances, comedy improvisation and more (www.newportarts.org).

Spring is always less crowded in Newport. The crowds descend upon the town once school vacation begins, and all the local spots become impossible to enjoy. But in spring, you will easily find a place to park your car for free at Breton Point State Park, or elsewhere along Ocean Drive, for a seasalt walk along the rugged Atlantic coastline.

The true spirit of Newport is here, away from the tourist spots. On Ocean Drive, walking briskly, exposed to the elements, you will be greeted by the waves, rolling in relentlessly, and an open sky. It will make you glad you’ve taken the time to enjoy Newport’s ample supply of fresh air and foamy surf.

**
Robert Israel first visited Newport as a youngster and returns each year. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.
A previous version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).

Report from Connecticut: New Haven — A Sense of Place

February 7, 2014


Yale College, New Haven, Connecticut

By Robert Israel

New Haven, the coastal Connecticut city that has always basked in the shadows by being the home of Yale University, is emerging on its own as a culinary and artistic destination. Yes, there are pockets of its downtown streets that remain gloomy, streets haunted by rows of abandoned stores and an overarching sense of abandonment.

But there is also visible evidence that the efforts the city is putting into reinventing and rejuvenating itself are succeeding.

I returned to New Haven after a long hiatus. Some years ago, I’d drive from Rhode Island on assignment from a newspaper in Providence to review plays at Long Wharf and Yale Rep, breezing in to see the shows and breezing out that same night. The newspaper refused to pay for overnight stays, but they contributed to the cost of the pizza I’d order from one of New Haven’s famous brick oven pizzerias and that kept me company on the way home through darkest Connecticut.

In those days, I’d report on early productions of the works of August Wilson, who went from tryouts in New Haven to achieve stardom on Broadway and beyond. I also saw shows by Athol Fugard, the South African who starred in, as well as wrote and directed, plays that exposed audiences to the horrors of apartheid.

But during a recent visit, I was invited to spend the night, dine at local eateries, and tour the city.

Immediate impressions: many more buildings formerly remembered as being drab and derelict now house upscale restaurants, hip hotels, and trendy shops. At night, especially near the Shubert Theatre, Yale Repertory Theatre and the adjacent streets, there’s a buzz in the air as people take to the streets, and flit from nightspot to nightspot.

A sense of place

New Haven is 153 miles from Boston and 80 miles from New York. That distance has allowed it to escape from becoming suburban bedrooms for Manhattan like Greenwich or Darien. There is still a discernable New York City affect which may never be lost entirely, even after New Haven ultimately achieves its desired transformation. New York casts a long shadow, but, put simply, New Haven knows where it wants to be and is hell bent to make progress to get to its destination.

I traveled to New Haven via Amtrak from Boston, avoiding the congestion of routes 90, 91 and especially route 95 where travel lanes are often blocked due to road construction or auto accidents.

The train hugs the Atlantic shoreline once it leaves Westerly, Rhode Island, and enters Connecticut at Stonington, where a traveler, gazing out the windows, sees salt marshes and estuaries and, off shore, vistas of Block Island, Montauk and Long Island (reachable via ferry boat from New London). The train’s windows offer a peek into backyards and tool sheds, clotheslines and scrap heaps and towns like Noank and Guilford that retain their hardscrabble New England character. There are marinas, lobster boats and yachts, and stretches of wet sandy beaches where clam diggers ply their rakes, shovels and wire buckets, scooping through the muck for shellfish at low tide. I saw a blue heron stand on one leg while piping plovers raced along the water’s edge.

It doesn’t get populous until one reaches the New Haven outskirts, where brick warehouses, some abandoned while others await renovation as condominiums, are lined like sentries as the train pulls into the yard at Union Station.

Reclaiming New Haven for the Arts

After checking in at the comfortable and spacious Omni New Haven at Yale, I was joined at dinner by a number of folks from Market New Haven and the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, two organizations devoted to the city’s renewal.

I learned about Project Storefronts that has, with the help of a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, transformed several of those gloomy downtown storefronts into habitable places of interest. The project has successfully sparked downtown renewal, and, according to the New Haven Register, “… transforms vacant storefronts into more inviting places that could boost foot traffic and economic growth downtown.”

And there’s a yearly festival to the arts, headed up by Mary Lou Aleskie, the executive director of Arts and Ideas, who tells me that she and her staff are planning the 17th annual festival, earmarked next year for June 16-30, 2012.

“It’s a vibrant, week-long event that brings lots of people into New Haven to attend concerts and performances, many of them held in outdoor venues, and many of them free,” Aleskie says, and points to last year’s exciting events, a jam-packed week that included concerts by Yo Yo Ma, Natalie MacMaster and others.

I visited two art museums, both owned and operated by Yale University: the Yale Art Gallery, and the Yale Center for British Art . Both museums are free and open to the public. There are startling images to be found in both museums: life sized portraits of wild beasts painted in vivid colors in at the British Art museum, and African sculpture and masks at the Yale Art Gallery that seem to jump off their pedestals. Schoolchildren from New Haven were parading through the corridors the rainy day I was visiting, their eyes wide and impressionable, soaking in the sculptures and marble statuary; they high-fived me as they made their way downstairs to the main viewing areas.

At Barcelona, the food is prepared in an open kitchen and served by an attentive and enthusiastic wait staff. I nibbled on fresh baked bread, oven roasted cauliflower, cheese dishes warmed in the oversized ovens, venison sausage, thinly sliced steak, Berkshire pork belly, and monkfish, to name just a few of the tapas offerings served fresh, hot and tasty at a long chef’s table.

There is an adjacent bar that serves up homemade sangria and other house specialties, and the atmosphere is abuzz with conversation and conviviality.

For vegetarian delights, I recommend visiting a New Haven landmark, Claires Corner Copia , on Chapel Street. The food is homemade (Claire Criscuolo founded the restaurant in 1975), and atmosphere is homey and welcoming. Fresh baked bakes, breads, soups and sandwiches are available, and Claire has stories of some of the fabled New Haven customers she’s attended, including Jody Foster and James Franco (alums of Yale’s drama department).

And then there’s Heirloom, located in a hip hotel called The Study At Yale, a renovated building whose back windows overlook the brick labyrinth of Yale College, with the main entrance across the street from Yale’s School of the Arts. The restaurant and adjacent hotel lobby are bright, cheerful and visually pleasing, with exhibits by local artists and photographers lining the hallways.

Recapturing a City Center

New Haven is impressively recapturing its city center, and the waterfront cannot be far behind. Soon, I suspect those derelict warehouses that greet travelers at Union Station will undergo transformation, as will the wharves and rundown sections of its marina district.

This is what makes New Haven a city worth weekending in, to rediscover its unique flavors and to relax in a city that is small enough to navigate safely and enjoyably, yet one that embraces the world around it.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. An earlier version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).

Report from New York: A Weekend in Manhattan

February 7, 2014


View of Manhattan

By Robert Israel

New York City is eternally in the throes of reinventing itself. While some things remain steadfast, the city thrives on surprising longtime residents and visitors alike with unexpected discoveries.

The Warwick Hotel in midtown Manhattan is one such unexpected pleasure. The property on the corner of West 54th Street and 6th Avenue in midtown dates back to the 1920s when it was commissioned by media mogul William Randolph Hearst as the New York home for his mistress, Marion Davies, and their Hollywood friends.

Hearst, like his friends and neighbors the Rockefellers who commissioned buildings to suit their fancies, had previously invested in the Ziegfeld Theater across the street. When he and his smart set arrived in town, they’d attend productions at the theatre, often decked out in lavish costumes, and they’d hold gala parties, before retiring to their ornate suites.

The theater, despite public protests, was razed in 1966. But the hotel, with its burnt sienna brick façade and lofty arches that grace the upper floor that resembled the building used in the “Ghostbusters” movies, is in the midst of a revival, of sorts.

“I used to park my car on Sixth Avenue and walk past the Warwick on my way to other properties I was developing in Manhattan, and I never noticed the Warwick,” Andrew L. Schlesinger, the Warwick’s new general manager, told me recently. “It’s one of these properties that blend into the neighborhood that surrounds it, and it isn’t garish about announcing its presence.”

In the many years I’ve been visiting New York, strolling Sixth Avenue on my way to Central Park or nearby Columbus Circle, I’ve never noticed the hotel, which has a marquee that is so understated that it is easily lost in the hyperactivity that is New York.

“Since arriving here as manager a couple months ago,” Schlesinger continued, “I’ve found that this place is much beloved. Some people have been staying here for the last thirty years or so, and they keep returning as their home away from home.”

“We have employees who have worked here as long. I’ve been signing anniversary cards congratulating these employees. Last week I signed a card for someone who’s been working here for 35 years.”

Entering into the hotel from Sixth Avenue, you pass Randolph’s, named after Hearst, a cozy bar that in Europe would be called a brown bar for its plethora of dark mahogany and dim lighting. It’s a perfect place for a beverage while watching the goings on outside on Sixth Avenue.

As you make your way into the hotel itself, you arrive at a small but cozy lobby, and to the right is the W. 54th street entrance. If you exit or enter from this door, you are almost immediately within view of the entrance of the Museum of Modern Art and its sculpture garden now open during these warm fall days for an al fresco coffee or a glass of wine by the gurgling fountains. If MOMA were any closer, it would have to be annexed to the Warwick Hotel.

Schlesinger and I chatted in Murals on 54, the Warwick’s restaurant that features the original murals painted by Dean Cornwell in 1937. The murals, set back from the tables, resemble the work of Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth – who illustrated popular books during the same period – and are notable for their bold use of color and whimsy.

Exploring Columbus Circle

“We’ve refurbished 70 rooms,” Schlesinger told me, “and we’ve got a few more floors to go before we change over the older, more classic rooms into modern hotel comfort.”

The room I stayed in was quite large by New York standards, with windows looking out onto 6th Avenue. The rooms facing West 54th street have a view of MOMA and the sculpture garden, as well as the neighboring streets that lead downtown to the theater district.

On a warm night, you can smell the horses – even before you see them — tethered to the hansom cabs that line Central Park South, just a short walk from the Warwick Hotel. These horse-drawn carriages are a throwback to New York’s earliest roots before the broad avenues were modernized and gave way to taxi cabs, cars, buses and urban congestion.

A few blocks further is Columbus Circle, the home to Lincoln Center, where a jazz club, Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola has nightly concerts featuring the best and brightest stars in jazz and pop.

I had wanted to hear Myron Walden, a rising jazz virtuoso when he played at Dizzy’s, but got to the city after his gig had ended, so I checked him out at a club further uptown, Smoke, where he held forth with his band Myron Walden Momentum. Myron, who is embarking on a European tour, captures all the melodies of great saxophonists who once played in New York – Coltrane and Zoot Sims come to mind – and takes his music to new and scintillating levels.

Lincoln Center is bursting with music, dance, and theatre, but a person must eat, too. A highly recommended place for dinner is Rosa Mexicano at Lincoln Center. The restaurant faces Lincoln Center and Fordham University at Columbus Circle.

Inside, the dining rooms are large, noisy and cheerful. When it was completed some years ago, the architects, the Rockwell Group, designed an iridescent blue glass mosaic tile water wall with two hundred cliff diver sculptures that give the sensation of being underwater.

No matter where you are seated in the restaurant, you cannot take your eyes off this cacophonous sculpture, which is bold and subtle, all at once. The food, however, will succeed in distracting you. A member of the wait staff approaches your table and prepares freshly made guacamole, using a mortar and pestle, which is served with warm flour tortillas and chips.

Another waiter brings you a margarita so pungent at first it is startling, but then, upon subsequent sips, succeeds at taming even the wildest beast within. The evening’s service was slow, unhurried. There were tasty appetizers, a generous selection of surf and turf, and after dinner, homemade doughnuts with dipping sauces that satisfied the sweet tooth.

Every now and again I gazed at the water wall with the lavender tiles and airborne figurines, or looked out onto the street below where theatergoers were exiting the evening’s performances. The overall feeling is of being connected to the hubbub of the city while being treated with Old World graciousness.

Every now and again word of a makeover in New York reaches me, wherein I hear about a property or restaurant that has undergone a renewal. Humphrey at the Eventi Hotel is one such place. News of the makeover came to me back in the spring when I was invited to attend a wedding reception there. Scott Everhart and his partner Jason Welker, two self-proclaimed “comic geeks” who met online and had one of their first dates at the Free Comic Book Day in New York back in 2011, invited writers and filmmakers to attend their reception at the Eventi, but I was couldn’t make it. It was then that I heard that the former Bar Basque, a wonderful restaurant at the Eventi Hotel where I had dined last year, had been renamed Humphrey, so I planned a visit.

The Humphrey dining room, upstairs from the Eventi’s lobby, faces a reclaimed park that was once a dingy alley way. In the summer months, it is a beer garden and is notable for its gigantic JumboTron digital television screen where one can watch broadcasts or films. It sits on 839 Sixth Avenue in Chelsea. It has the opposite feeling of Rosa Mexicano: it is quiet, subdued, and with dim lighting that allows for a view of the hectic uptown brightness just beyond its windows.

Again, the feeling that here prevails is unhurried, almost languid, as the wait staff busily prepares your food in the open kitchen just beyond the glass doors. Diners tend to eat late in Manhattan, but the noise level is never obtrusive. The appetizers were prepared with abundance and were fresh and tasty, with the overall feature of being imaginatively presented. It is a place for a more quiet evening in a room noted for its high glass atrium ceilings and fascinating labyrinthine corridors with recessed lighting that lead to the washrooms.

Getting there:

Ever the frugal traveler, I traveled to New York via Megabus, which boasts a new location at West 31st Street between 11th and 12th Avenues. Previously located a few blocks away, it lacked organization and signage, and, despite the affordable prices for its efficient services, there seemed no rhyme or reason to the mayhem that ensued as travelers searched frantically for their connections.

That’s all gone now. Blue and yellow signs herald the destinations, and friendly Megabus staffers direct you to the correct line to stand in. If they invest in some bullhorns, they’ll have it down, and perhaps that’s next. But it is an efficient and inexpensive way to travel to the heart of the city, and it allows you to spend more of your funds in midtown and Chelsea, two areas I return to for their continued urban surprises.

**

Robert Israel can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A version of this story appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).

Report from California: Exploring San Francisco’s Culinary Abundance

February 7, 2014


A view of downtown San Francisco

By Robert Israel

San Franciscans live with an abundance of food harvested fresh near their doorsteps year around. Nowhere is this profusion of delectable delights more visible than at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market open three days a week and situated along the Embarcadero, at the very edge of the city where the tall downtown office towers end and the sea begins.

On a recent Saturday morning the sun succeeded in burning off the fog that enshrouded the Golden Gate Bridge, and the water sparkled. Commuter boats chugged, bound for Sausalito or Tiburon. The seagulls and sea lions splashed about, competing for fishy morsels. By nine o’clock buskers and circus artists arrived to work the crowds that were otherwise preoccupied filling their grocery carts and knapsacks with collard greens, beets, leeks, Meyer lemons, and an array of baked goods.

Mingling amidst the masses are several of the city’s best-known chefs, like Hotel Nikko’s Philippe Striffeler, who frequent the market each week. In the last five or six years, these chefs have transformed the culinary scene in San Francisco into one with an artisan global reputation. The chefs shop here and then trundle off to kitchens all around town to produce hand crafted sauces, house cured meats, and colorful vegetable dishes, all of them using the produce harvested at organic farms that practice sustainable agriculture.

(There are at least another dozen farmer’s markets scattered throughout the city, according to the California Farmer’s Markets group.)

During my three-day visit, I met chefs and restaurateurs, and was invited to dine at their establishments. What I witnessed and tasted was nothing short of culinary alchemy.

Here’s a report on a gastronomical adventure that began at Ferry Plaza.

Oysters and Champagne

Victoria Libin, a friend since student days in Boston, who co-founded and co-owns A16 and SPQR, two popular San Francisco restaurants, served as my guide.

“Meet me at Hog Island, for oysters and champagne at six p.m.,” she texted, and I was flooded with memories of the times when we used polish off Blue Point and Wellfleet oysters by the dozens at the Union Oyster House in Boston.

It was easy for me to get there on time: home base during my stay was Hotel Nikko, the very comfortable and centrally hotel located near Union Square, a twenty minute walk to the Embarcadero. The hotel is also near the Powell Street station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) light rail that connects to all parts of the Bay area.

Hog Island air freights oysters from the east coast and raises other varieties, since the early 1980s, at their aqua farm in Tomales Bay in Marshall, California, around an hour and half north of the city near Point Reyes National Seashore. We sat at a bar inside the renovated ferry building that houses shops and food emporiums that reminded me of the Chelsea Market on 9th Avenue in Manhattan.

Hog Island also sells their wares during market days outside the building.

“We won’t order the Atlantic oysters,” Victoria said, “let’s stick to the Pacific ones.”

The shucked bivalves arrived on a bed of ice all sweet and briny, needing no condiment, but I asked for horseradish and it arrived homemade and freshly shaved in a small cup, spicy and biting. We spent the next hour or so devouring them, and then hailed a cab for the Marina district.

A Visit to A16

Victoria and A16 co-owner Shelley Lindgren met by happenstance: they were both dining at the same restaurant ten years ago, and became fast friends. They soon became business partners, and identified that San Francisco lacked a restaurant that remained true to the hand crafted, slow cooking methods they preferred. Libin wrote their business plan naming the restaurant after the highway that runs from Naples to Canosa, Puglia, in Italy.

A16 is in the Marina district. They opened a second restaurant, SPQR, in the Filmore neighborhood, in August 2007.

Lindgren, a native of Marin County, spent several years at a fine-dining restaurant before earning her sommelier certificate. San Francisco Magazine has lauded her as the Best Wine Director among other accolades. She greeted us at the restaurant’s foyer with a warm hug and a bright smile, and seated us near the open kitchen and wood-burning oven. I marveled at the chefs who busily prepared the thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza, which arrived warm and bubbly, and without a trace of oiliness to which we Americans have grown so accustomed.

Soon a dizzying array of plates arrived, each paired with a wine Lindgren recommended for us. We were served a fabulous local albacore with a dried fava bean puree; a selection of house cured salami with pickles and grissini; freshly made goat sausage. The highlight, for me, was the maccaronara with ragu napolentana, dreamy in its complexity and richness. All of the produce served at A16 is locally grown. They import a special olive oil newly pressed from Italy. And each wine that was served to me was more flavorful than the one that preceded it.

Bar Tartine

If there is any doubt that San Franciscans revere their restaurants, pay a visit to the Mission district (again, a short light rail ride to Mission stations via BART from Hotel Nikko), and look at the people queuing up to sample the pastrami at the newly opened Wise Sons Deli. The San Francisco Chronicle even ran a photo spread of their grand opening.

The same queuing up takes place at Tartine Bakery and Café, on Guerrero Street in the Mission, one of two dining establishments owned and operated by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson, who were awarded the James Beard prize in 2008.

Victoria chastised me for nibbling on a croissant earlier during my visit to a Ferry Plaza bakery.

“You haven’t lived until you taste Tartine’s croissants,” and she admonished me for my earlier grazing at Ferry Plaza, when, she insisted, I should have saved myself for what she promised would be a sublime experience.

She was right. We stood in line for a half hour, and one nibble of the croissant was like being transported back to Paris: the pastry was delicate, flaky, warm and buttery.

Bar Tartine on Valencia Street has no signage etched onto either its door or windows, which I found a bit quirky, but that doesn’t deter the crowds from coming here, either. The dishes – spiced egg salad, beef brisket, Russian style beet salad, smoked rainbow trout — are hand crafted with an eye toward artistic perfection, and served on a wooden tray with house baked sprouted rye.

I watched as one of the line chefs prepared our order: carefully constructing each layered piece so that it arrived as a feast for the senses.

Later I was given a tour of the larder where the chefs are preserving their own picked red onions, sauerkraut, and collecting regional herbs and flowers to be later used for teas.

Commonwealth Restaurant

In the Mission, Commonwealth Restaurant calls itself a “progressive American restaurant” but that description hardly does justice to the imagination of executive chef Jason Fox, who previously worked at Bar Tartine.

Each plate the chef put together arrived like a tone poem. There was attention to detail I have not seen anywhere, and the food was carefully constructed with an eye toward balance, elegance and color.

I nibbled on fois gras served with fresh locally harvested greens, chopped figs and nuts; I sipped a puree of broccoli that was neon bright and so exquisite it made me forget my aversion to it. Other highlights include Jerusalem artichoke, served with an onion cooked in hay, quinoa, chickweed and quail egg, and a fabulous abalone salad, served with Asian pear, radish, tapioca, horseradish, and dashi gelee.

There is never a sense of being rushed at Commonwealth, or, for that matter, at the other restaurants I visited. You are invited to dine, to converse, to listen, to watch, to let your senses become fulfilled. Chef Fox frequently returned to chat, as did the affable and charming waiter, Adam, who made sure our glasses were never empty. Xelina Leyba, who also previously worked at Bar Tartine, added additional warmth to the experience. It was more akin to being invited into someone’s home than visiting a restaurant.

Hotel Nikko

Before returning home, I chatted again with executive chef Philippe Striffeler at the Hotel Nikko. A native of Switzerland, he has worked in restaurants all over the world.

“I have a small plot of herbs growing on the fifth floor of the hotel here,” he told me, “but the climate in this part of San Francisco is not so good for growing herbs, it’s too foggy and damp. Still, whatever grows there I use in my recipes, and the rest I get from the Ferry Plaza marketplace.”

Chef Striffeler recently was awarded silver at an international competition in Taiwan. Like many of the chefs I met, he preferred not to accentuate the accolades he has received.

“The awards are always welcome, but the most important thing is delivering quality, each and every time,” he said. “We have our fish flown in to Hotel Nikko from Japan; we take pride to serve the best sushi. We import our beef so that it truly melts in your mouth with each bite. We serve a magnificent prime rib. It’s about quality and service, and striving for perfection.”

Sentiments, I discovered, that are enthusiastically shared by his fellow San Franciscan chefs.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A version of this piece appeared in Edge Magazine (Boston).

Report from Israel: Rhode Islanders in Israel

February 6, 2014


Old City of Jerusalem

By Robert Israel

Nancy Wellins works in a modern Jerusalem office building just blocks from the no-man’s land that once tore her adopted city in two.

Two blocks away is the former Barclays Bank building, still marked by bullet holes from Israel’s 1967 War of Independence, which unified the Israeli section of the city with the ancient wall and gates of the Jordanian-controlled Old City.

The 31-year-old former Cranston resident, who graduated from Classical High School in Providence and attended Yale University, was attracted to Israel while working at Brown University’s Hillel House, the campus Jewish center.
“While at the Hillel job, a lot mail crossed my desk describing life in Israel. I realized I had no education about the country. I kept reading about people with frontier spirits who were making communities blossom in the desert…and I knew I wanted to give it a try.”

Wellins applied to the Jewish Agency in Boston, which is associated with the Israeli consulate and helps process applicants for Israeli citizenship. In 1981, the agency placed her on the northern border of Israel, six kilometers from Lebanon, for an intensive ulpan course in the study of Hebrew.

“Two weeks after I got there, the bombs started falling on the little town from over the border,” Wellins says. “It was frightening. I was working with children who were environmentally retarded. These children came from large families, and their mothers – they were often without fathers, because of the war – could not provide them with proper training. They had no toys and couldn’t communicate. I had to learn Hebrew and learn it fast.”

Many from her group returned to the United States, disenchanted with life in Israel. But Wellins stayed on. She moved to Jerusalem in April, 1981, and found her current job, as an editor and translator at the Israel Government Press Office. Foreign correspondents depend on her services for translated government documents and updated reports on all aspects of Israeli life. She lives nearby in an apartment that costs half her salary.

“You just can’t compare salaries between the United States and Israel,” Wellins says. “I make $300 a month and I work six days a week. It amounts to 45 hours a week, but on some weeks there is a lot of unpaid overtime. Several months ago, I literally slept at the office. But it’s different here. Nobody comes to Israel to get rich. That’s not my motivation, anyway.”

Wellins continues, “When I attended Yale, almost everyone in my class had aspirations to become the president of a business. But I didn’t share those values. Why I came here and why I have stayed is because I hold classical Zionist values and idealism. I was always reading about Jewish issues and I felt I should come here and experience them. After living on the Lebanese border, the myths I had grown up with were quickly dispelled, myths about Jews and Judaism.”

Wellins says that whereas the Jews she knew in the United States were, for the most part, financially well off, “in Israel it’s different. You meet Jews from all walks of life and from all countries, Jews who work in factories, Jews who’ve escaped from oppressed countries, religious Jews who refuse to acknowledge the ways of 20th century life and choose to live in ghettos, like they did in Europe.”

Residing in Israel has enabled Wellins “to live according to my ideals. I’m not always aspiring to possess material goods, but I’m striving instead to make a contribution. I’ve often felt that American suffers from emptiness. A sense of national purpose is lacking in the United States. In Israel, I feel I am part of a national effort for survival.”

Because the Israeli inflation rate hovers about 400 percent, due to the high cost of defense, Wellins, like many Israelis, freelances to make ends meet. She also fits in such other activities as singing with a madrigal group and working for Peace Now, an organization that attempts to bring about Israeli and Arab understanding.

“There’s never a dull moment in Israel,” Wellins says. “You never know when you turn on the radio in the morning if we are going to be invaded or if there are terrorist bombings in Lebanon. When I get to my office to translate the day’s news, I don’t have a feeling so much that I’m important as I do of contributing to my society, helping foreign journalists report accurately what’s going here.”

“Living here is often stressful and difficult. I feel I’ve given up on one culture – the U.S. – without fully acquiring another culture in Israel.

“In the U.S., I found myself anxiously waiting the New York Times Book Review each week, to keep up on the latest books. In Israel, I’m not familiar or especially interested in the vast amount of Hebrew literature that is published. I don’t go to the theatre, because I miss the context of what I see on stage. I frequently miss the point of Israeli jokes.”

Nevertheless, says Wellins, “I have a deep sense of belonging here, because I am a Jew.”

**

Twelve miles south of Jerusalem, on a road that winds past Bethlehem, lies the community of Gush Etzyon. Here, several settlements were reestablished after the 1967 war. Les Krieger, 36, and his wife, Freya, 37, and their four children live on one of these settlements, a kibbutz, or collective community, named Kfar Etzion.

Kfar Etzion is situated on a hill with a spectacular view of the Hebron hills. The air is cool and clean. There is a sense of serenity. Small stone houses are built on terraces along the slope, which leads to orchards and cultivated fields below.

It is hard to imagine the area under siege. Yet Kfar Etzion, which now numbers 450 people, was built and destroyed twice during Israel’s short history, before its final, current reconstruction. The synagogue, a spacious modern building near the entrance of the kibbutz, pays homage to that troubled past: three boulders are built into a stained-glassed window above the Holy Ark, signifying the three times Kfar Etzion has been built.

Les Krieger grew up in Providence in an Orthodox Jewish family. He went to the Providence Hebrew Day School and the Yeshiva University, in New York, where he met his wife. The Kriegers have lived in Israel since 1973. At first they worked as teachers on a moshav, or cooperative small-holder settlement, in the Negev desert, but after seven years they searched for a community that would better serve their needs as observant Jews. After a brief spell in a kibbutz near their present one, they moved to Kfar Etzion. This happened six years ago. It is here that they intend to stay.

“My day begins at 5:30 a.m., at services at the synagogue,” Les says. “At 6 a.m. we have breakfast, in the community dining center, and after breakfast I go to work in the factory, just down the road from the dining center. The factor makes propane camping stoves and other camping equipment for commercial and military use.”

Freya’s workday begins shortly after 7 a.m., where she goes off to the nursery. From an early age, the kibbutz children lead independent lives. Although they eat supper and sleep in their parents’ house, during the day they go to children’s houses, where they are grouped with others of their age. During the summer, some children work; Itai Krieger, a boy of 11, picks fruit, and his sister Maya, 13, helps out at the school or in the kitchen.

Work on this kibbutz is largely sex-stereotyped. Men have jobs in the fields or factory; women, in the kitchen, school or laundry.

“It’s true that women are stuck in woman-type jobs here,” says Freya Krieger. “On other kibbutzim, women and men share jobs, and women work in the factories alongside the men. But at this kibbutz, that’s not the case, and we accept this.”

Les Krieger says that he does not miss his former home in the States.

“In Israel, as an observant Jew, I feel more accepted,” he says. “I feel I am working to provide a better life for my children, for my wife and myself and for the community.”

He talks of the richness of his present life:

“The kids have their own group, their own lives. There are other kibbutzim in the area, and we exchange programs and cultural events with them. There’s a regional center, there are more opportunities for cultural exchange and programs. Jerusalem is only a short bus ride away.”

Near the small but comfortable Krieger home, children have planted flowers. A cherry tree blooms. But beyond, barbed wire festoons a guard post. It is all that separates the Kriegers from enemies.

Yet Krieger says, “We feel quite safe here. There’s an army base on that hill over there. Each family has a rifle in their home, and we have been trained to use it in case of an emergency. We are determined to stay here. We lost this settlement twice before. We won’t lose it a third time.”

**

The City of Haifa is one of Israel’s most spectacular. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this port city sits on Mount Carmel. Made up of a waterfront, a downtown and a residential district, Haifa has Israel’s only subway, and a cable car, which runs from a high cliff down to the sea.

Kenneth and Harriet Resnick’s condominium apartment looks out on the glittering city. At night, the lights remind them of San Francisco. In the distance, the twinkling along the coast leads to the ancient port of Akko, the city Napoleon once tried to conquer, unsuccessfully, during his siege of Palestine.

Kenneth Resnick grew up in Providence and attended the University of Rhode Island, graduating in the early 1950s. While at URI, he and a fraternity brother conducted Jewish services before there was a campus Hillel center. After graduation, having always had Zionist leanings, Resnick traveled to Israel. There he met his wife, a native of Milwaukee, while they were volunteering on a kibbutz in 1955. They then returned to the United States to get married, in Rhode Island. Here Kenneth went to work in the family business, Artistic Leather Manufacturing Co., and the couple’s three children were born.

“We knew we always wanted to return to Israel,” Kenneth says. “We were born to families that believe in Israel as a nation. And when I lived in Providence, I helped raise money for Israel. But I felt the best way to contribute was to live here.”

The Renicks made their move in 1972. Kenneth got a job as a sales manager for Industries Trading Company, Ltd., a job he still holds. After helping her family get adjusted, Harried has worked for the past few years as a bookkeeper for the University of Haifa bookstore.

Says Harriet, “It was difficult to make a move here, especially with three teenage children. All our children, two daughters and a son, learned to read and write Hebrew before we moved here, but they did not have speaking fluency.”
She says it takes three years to settle in. “If you can get past those first three years, the rest of the time is easier.”

The Renicks are troubled by the Israeli economy. The prices of basic goods rise constantly, in some cases doubling overnight. Strikes are common. The black market boldly advertises in the newspapers. In the 13 years that they have lived in Israel, the Resnicks have had to take several pay cuts, and their salaries are now frozen, as part of the government’s austerity efforts.

But though the Resnicks would be better off financially in the United States, where the family business provided a good income, returning to Rhode Island is out of the question.

“It’s more of a relaxed lifestyle here,” Harriet says. “And there’s not so much of this constant keeping-up-with-the Joneses attitude.

“On Friday, we come home from work early and rest. Later on in the evening, we have a Sabbath dinner. All day Saturday we relax or walk and visit neighbors. We are members of a Conservative synagogue in Haifa. We attend cultural events in the areas. Kenneth pursues his hobbies, painting and drawing. And we have the beach nearby, which we enjoy seven months a year, only ten minutes driving time from the apartment.”

The Resnick children have also adjusted to life in Israel. Murray, 26, is studying medicine and microbiology at the Hebrew University. His sister Shira, 25, is a nurse at Carmel Hospital. And Tammy, 23, is in her final year at Hebrew University.

A test of Shira’s absorption into life in Israel came last year, when she traveled to the United States.
“She told us she was taking this trip,” Kenneth says, “and that she had purchased an open ticket. She told us she wanted to look around and she what she felt about possibly moving back to the States. Well, after several months’ traveling, she called and said she was coming home. Home to Israel.”

**
The Aliyah Center of Boston’s Jewish Agency is the local office for applicants seeking to become olim, or immigrants, to Israel. According to Leslie Gell, assistant director of the center, there are two visas available to applicants: one that allows an individual or family to live in Israel for a trial period of up to three years, after which full citizenship is granted, and another visa that allows candidates to become Israeli citizens after living in Israel for one month.

“Because of the economic problems in Israel today,” Gell says, “one really never knows how long newly arrived immigrants will last in Israel. It is very difficult to make ends meet. We’ve had families quit the country after living in Israel for 10 years, who are frustrated with always having to struggle.”

The Aliyah Center does not have a screening function. Says, Gell, “If (people) want to make aliyah (immigrant), we try to assist them. But we don’t hide the truth that life in Israel can be extremely difficult. Because of the Law of Return, a law passed after Israel became a nation, in 1948, any person who is Jewish who wants to become a citizen of Israel has the right to do so. We try to help them toward that end.”

This help includes loans for air fare, the authorization to take possessions into the country tax-free, and accommodations in subsidized immigrant-absorption centers throughout the country. In the first half of this year, 592 people from the United States have made aliyah.

**
James Gershman, 36, is one of those 592 Americans who immigrated to Israel in the first half of this year. Having graduated from Providence’s Hope High School and attended Boston’s Emerson College, Gershman worked for almost 8 years as a public-information director at Channel 36, the Rhode Island education television station. Having visited Israel several times, Gershman decided to quit his job and move there. He opted to live in Israel as a citizen, not on a temporary basis.

“When I visited and talked with people I knew that had made aliyah to Israel,” Gershman says, “I was told that I could be successful. I was told that there is a need for people to know English, and that it is possible to make a living here.”

Gershman arrived in Israel in March and moved into Beit Brodetsky, an immigrant-absorption center outside Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city. His accommodations, subsidized by the Jewish agency, are Spartan: one room with a kitchenette and shower. He pays the equivalent of $20 a month for rent and electricity. At Beit Brodetsky, he attends ulpan, Hebrew classes, held six hours a day, six days a week. In the few months he has lived in Tel Aviv, Gershman has developed a basic command of Hebrew.

Says Gershman, “In Israel, you’re never lost. No one is a stranger. Everyone here is close to you. Being Jewish here is a positive thing.”

Gershman believes there is more opportunity in Israel than in the United States. “At Channel 36, I felt that people never had faith in my ideas. They were never open-minded. Here, people are the opposite: they’re interested in your ideas. This is a young country. I feel that I can get a fresh start here.”

Gershman’s decision to become a citizen means that he will have to serve in the Israeli army.
“I didn’t want to become a temporary citizen here, because I knew when I arrived it had to be a permanent move. And so, next March, I’ll go into the army. I’ve been basically a pacifist, but the reality of Israel’s position in the Middle East is that we need people to defend her borders.”

Gershman has already landed a freelance job, as a technical writer for a small Tel Aviv business. It’s the start, he hopes, of many more assignments, which might lead to a business of his own.

Along with the others interviewed for this article, James Gershman finds life in Israel – despite the hardships – preferable to life in the United States. Like America’s smallest state, the small country allows for intimate relationships, for a feeling of belonging. And because Israel is a young country, a person can have a very real sense of building the country.

A tragic accident occurred recently outside Haifa. A school filled with children collided with a train, killing all the children. People all over Israel grieved as if the children were their own. It was as though a period of national mourning had been declared.

But Israelis pull together also in happy times.

Nancy Wellins says that when she buys her Sabbath challah, or tradition egg bread, she feels she is participating in a ritual that she shares with all her neighbors. When the baker wishes her a peaceful Sabbath, a Shabbat shalom, he means it.

It is this feeling of solidarity that gives these expatriates the courage to live in their adopted land – to pursue their faith.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A version of this article appeared originally in the Providence Sunday Journal.

Report from Germany: A Quest for Normalcy

February 6, 2014


Remnant of the Berlin Wall, Berlin, Germany

By Robert Israel

Germany’s quest for normalcy – its ongoing effort to achieve harmony and stability among its neighbors, foreign residents and citizens – begins here, in Berlin, the city of stones.

There are stones everywhere, unearthed boulders, open trenches, as this city continues a mad pace to rebuild from the still visible mortar shelled scars that mar the crumbling buildings in Pottsdammer Platz.

Everywhere one walks, from the Scheunenviertel in the former eastern sector, where the Jewish Quarter is located, to Checkpoint Charlie at the gateway to the western sector, one sees the rubble of crumbling buildings, streets under construction, vacant buildings slated for demolition. Berlin is in a state of constant metamorphosis.

But it is in the Judischer Friedhof, the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, where the missing stones tell a different story. It was here, in 1943, that the Nazis removed 3,000 tombstones, robbing even the dead of their identities. Moses Mendelssohn, spiritual leader of German Jewry in the pre-Kantian period, is buried here. A place-holder grave
has been erected, and visitors leave behind pebbles on the tombstone that stands alone in the secluded glade.

If there is eeriness to Berlin’s constant clamor of rebuilding and restoring, it is because one senses that there is no grand city plan in effect here. Too much has to be done. There are blocks in the former eastern sector that feel like a set on a movie backlot. At night, walking past the Neue Synagogue to the kosher restaurant, there are only sudden splashes of light and laughter on an otherwise ink-dark street. Silence prevails. Prostitutes, wearing Day-Glo hot pants that sparkle under the glare of headlamps, busily flag down passing motorists.

“The Jewish community in Berlin is a protected minority,” says Ernst Cramer, an editor at Axel Springer Verlag, publishers of several of Germany’s largest daily newspapers. “The community is supported by the state. It is a newly re-established community, and, like all communities, it is fighting, not only among itself, but with others, because it is unsure of the outside world. And how could it be otherwise? How can you build on a future when so much has happened from the past?”

Jonathan Kaufman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who wrote a study of European Jews titled A Hole in the Heart of the World, disagrees with Cramer’s assessment of Berlin’s Jewish community.

“Jews fighting with Jews,” Kaufman says, “is a good sign. It shows discourse. It shows strength. The Jews of Germany are vocal, visible, and no longer contributing to an obituary, but, rather, to a birth announcement. Russian Jews are clambering to attain German citizenship. This is a community on the upswing.”

***
Upswing or downswing, one thing is certain: the ghosts of the Holocaust dominate a foreigner’s perspective. Within that search for context between what was and what is, the Holocaust and modern-day Germany undergoes comparisons, contrasts, and personal examinations. It is impossible not to draw on one’s own personal history while wandering the streets here. My grandparents, immigrants who escaped Eastern Europe in the years preceding World War II, referred to the Holocaust not as the all-encompassing fire, but as the all-consuming darkness. They said they were grateful they got out “before the lights went out,” meaning, literally, blackouts. But they also meant a metaphorical darkness, especially when they used a phrase that is synonymous in Yiddish and German: schwarze jahre – black years.

The new Jewish museum in Berlin graphically chronicles the era. You leave the building feeling as if you have personally – just barely – survived those dark years. So, too, with the Topography of Terror – an excavation of Gestapo headquarters on Prinz Albrecht Strasse – that brings visitors to the very subterranean rooms where Eichmann and Himmler and their ilk practiced evil. The nineteenth century British writer Thomas Carlyle wrote about “the blackness of darkness,” an apt description of these excavated rooms from which the condemned would never return.

What troubles newspaper editor Ernst Cramer and other Jewish leaders here is that in spite of the fact that the most unspeakable of National Socialism’s crimes against humanity are on display in costly new public museums and in the concentration camps that have been faithfully restored, the message still hasn’t permeated German consciousness.
How else can you explain, Cramer asks, why his newspapers repeatedly chronicle violent anti-Semitic and other xenophobic incidents throughout Germany – and nothing changes? If Germans get it, why won’t the hatred end? Why won’t these incidents cease?

In the late 1990s, I went to Germany to report on the national elections. The Jewish population at that time was under 30,000. Yet, despite being such a small minority quietly existing in a nation where the big news was reunification, Jews were a popular subject of discussion – and attack.

Author Jonathan Kaufman, living in Berlin then, attributed the preoccupation with Jews to an awakening by the Germans who realized what they were missing. Jews were historically responsible for bringing to Germany a sense of cultural ethos. Kaufman’s thesis: after awakening from a long slumber, the populace was now acknowledging the Jewish roots of this influence.

But how badly do the Germans truly want Jews and others – whom they often disparagingly refer to as ausländer, or foreigners – to flourish, and at what price?

During my first visit, I read in the International Herald Tribune about the village of Dolgenbrodt, located 100 kilometers from Berlin. Some residents there had hired right-wing hoodlums to fire-bomb the home of asylum-seekers from Turkey for the sum of around US $1300. No one was killed in the incident, but it – and others like it – so incensed Helmut Kohl, then Federal Chancellor, that he spoke out: “Jews in Israel and America, as well as here in Germany, are asking the simply put question: ‘Is it [Nazism} starting up again [in Germany]? Haven’t they learned anything?’”

Good question. Today, several years after my initial visits, the Jewish population has risen to 100,000. But the same problems persist. The German Parliament still struggles with finding ways to silence the National Democratic Party, formed in the 1960s from ideologies fostered during National Socialism. During a recent visit, Jewish leaders pointed to a published an article calling for “an uprising of the upright” to combat neo-Nazis and skinheads.

The debates over censure of these deviant groups continue, without noticeable change. And among many young people, a sense of clinging to political innocence abounds. Take, for example, the young protestors I met in the public square in Bonn near Beethoven’s birthplace, holding placards on the heavily traveled pedestrian walkway that leads past fountains and picturesque gardens to outdoor cafes and exclusive restaurants and shops.

“We want peace, total peace, and total universal disarmament,” a young man says is the theme that unites him and twenty of his fellow university students to the plaza for their demonstration. He is standing beside a mannequin of a soldier dressed in a blue and white United Nations uniform who holds a cardboard rifle. Beside the mannequin is a burlap sack stuffed with straw. The banner proclaims: “Don’t send soldiers, send grain.”

“The way to establish a harmonious world,” the young man explains, “is to feed people, not to shoot them.”
Indeed, one could make the case that pacifism – some critics call it abdication of global responsibilities – has been embraced: the German Parliament, citing their constitution, recently forbid the nation to support President Bush’s request for aid should the United States proceed with an invasion of Iraq.

But tell that to the Kurdish woman lying feebly on a cot inside a tent in Köln’s cathedral square who has refused all food for several days now. She has many reasons for seeking German citizenship, among them fear of persecution at home. And yet, despite her protest, she will be deported. Protestors with bull-horns denounce the treatment she has received from the government.

The protest is lost on a burly bald man dressed in black leather who holds two Dobermans by a thick chain. Tomas, my translator, explains that the bald man uses the dogs, with their menacing spiked collars, to keep his prostitutes in line.

“Everyone here is disconnected,” Tomas tells me. “You can never quite get the sense of things here. It’s as if people are possessed. They pass one another on the streets as if in a dream or a trance.”

Tomas’ description reminds me of Washington Irving’s classic tale, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Things were dreamy for the townsfolk of Sleepy Hollow. They walked about “in a continual reverie,” Irving wrote – until a horrific night-rider with a pumpkin head made off on horseback with one of their own.

These haunting images preoccupy my thoughts when I arrive for an appointment with Paul Spiegel, the director of the Jewish community in Bonn. After an initial greeting with his staff, my government appointed translator, Tomas, is separated from me.

“Well, he quite simply can’t come in here,” Spiegel says, emphatically, when I ask why.

“But he’s been assigned to me, he has security clearance,” I insist.

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Spiegel says. “If he learns about the layout of our offices, he could lead people in here. He’s a risk.”

Tomas tells me later he is led through a series of small meeting rooms, in one door, out another, upstairs one flight, downstairs another flight, and, finally, into a room with no telephone in the basement.

Spiegel and I sit in awkward silence.

“Look,” he says, finally, “the Storm Troopers are not marching down the street. This is a quiet street, and we have security. You were viewed on closed-circuit television when you turned down the street. But we can never know. You can never be too careful.”

When Tomas and I meet later for dinner, I tell him about the Director’s reaction, and he says he is not surprised or offended. This is not the first time he has been scrutinized in this fashion. He shrugs it off as an isolated example of paranoia. But is it? Could it be that Spiegel has given Tomas a dose of what it feels like to be an ausländer?

Later, at a bar near my hotel in Bonn, Tomas introduces me to several of his friends. They are starkers – Yiddish/German slang for strong guys.

“Look at these guys,” Tomas says. His three friends strike a pose, their beer steins raised in mid-air, muscles bulging. It is like witnessing a reenactment of a scene from George Grosz’s satirical drawings of inebriated German factory workers from the 1930s from his now-famous collection Ecce Homo. The young men sit in mock military attention, with steely blue eyes and white-blond hair neatly combed back from their brows. “Don’t they look like the Waffen SS?” Tomas asks, mocking them. “Don’t they look like Hitler’s master race? Doesn’t Hans over here resemble Himmler? No wonder Herr Direcktor is scared of me. Look at the company I keep!”

I ask Hans, one of the starkers, why young men and women in his generation are attracted to neo-Nazis like the late Rainer Sonntag, who magnetized thousands of skinheads in Dresden and other cities. At his funeral in 1992, many gave him a farewell Nazi salute.

“Many guys join neo-Nazi groups because they are angry they cannot find work,” Hans says. Hans himself has been out of work for over a year. Unemployment nationally in Germany hovers around 11 percent. “They join these gangs because they are afraid of foreigners. They are afraid foreigners will come and take the jobs away. They are ignorant people.”

So, what has he done, personally, to combat these “ignorant people”? He proceeds to tell me of a candlelight march he participated in to protest Nazism.

“A group of us drove to Dachau,” Hans says. “We were joined by thousands of others marching through the concentration camp with candles and torches. There were speakers and entertainers and petitions to sign. We are mobilized. We are planning a similar gathering in Bonn next month. I may be out of work, but I am not out of hope we can be different than our ancestors.”
***
Chil Rakowski, the director of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, applauds the candlelight march in the now-suburban city of Dachau – only a short train ride from his synagogue-cum-community center in Munich – as a positive display of light against the darkness. But he has other issues that are more pressing, namely combating negative attitudes within the Jewish community about the new Jewish arrivals from Russia.

He introduces me to Adele Plotkina, Nikolai Petkevitch and his wife Tatanya. They have immigrated to Germany from St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectfully. All three are professional musicians. All three are out of work.
“They live in a state-paid apartment,” Rakowski says. “They receive full healthcare benefits, including dental benefits, free of charge. They live rent free. They get food subsidies. And the Jewish community even gives them spending money.”

“I am very grateful to be here,” Nikolai tells me. “There is so much anti-Semitism in Russia today. You don’t read about it in the newspapers. But it is there. So, my wife and I are very happy to be here.”

“My husband is disabled,” Adele Plotkina says. “If it were not for the generosity of the community who pays for his physical therapy, he would be rotting away in Russia. For us, this is a new beginning.”

“The Russian Jews like settling in Germany because they dislike the climate – physical and political – in Israel,” Rakowski says. “The weather suits them here. But I would be less than honest if I did not tell you that there is considerable amount of resentment among German Jews that they are here. They look about the Petkevitches and the Plotinas with disdain. They think they are getting special treatment. So you see my dilemma: if Jews feel this way about other Jews, if they look upon them as outsiders coming in and squandering their resources, how do non-Jews feel about them?”
***

There is much work to be done before normalcy can be achieved in Germany. Economic stability is the key, and continued efforts to broadcast messages of tolerance are crucial in order to educate the general population that hatred is not the solution to their frustrations. Learning to navigate in a world as a new and unified democracy is challenging, and with it comes fiscal and moral responsibilities. One of the principal messages Germany needs to convey is the story of how it is possible to learn from one’s aggressive past, to never repeat the evil, or to allow it to flourish elsewhere. This is a message I heard many Japanese leaders discuss as their emerging mantra over the years.

The gleaming glass and steel structures that have risen in the shadows of the crumbling bullet-scarred buildings in Berlin’s Pottsdammer Platz may be boastings of stability and harmony. But unless prosperity is shared, these edifices will no longer be seen as beacons of enterprise. Instead, they will be viewed as relics of unfulfilled promises.

There are other signs of hope.

When I traveled to Germany to report on the national elections, I waited for the returns in a bar in the former eastern sector of Berlin. Like the brown bars in Holland,this bar was mahogany dark, dimly lit, smoky, it had a menu of low-priced pub fare, and small tables where men and women sat and drank from tall steins of beer.

Suddenly, the room was pungent with a different smell, familiar, at least to my nose: newspaper ink. A man entered the room holding a stack of the bulldog edition of the daily newspaper. He called out as newsies are wont to do. A crowd huddled around him. Coins were thrust into his ink-smudged hands. Someone read the headlines outloud.

An hour later, another newsie appeared barking the headlines from another bulldog edition, this one from a rival paper. He was dressed in a black leather jacket, and he looked like the late playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose Berliner Ensemble is not far from Pottsdammer Platz. He, too, was soon surrounded by the crowd.

Yes, it was the political season and there was much excitement over the early returns. But that doesn’t totally explain the hunger for information. I wondered to myself: Would a crowd at a bar in Boston greet a newsie with such urgency? I saw the excitement as a sign of a people with an appetite to participate in the free exchange of information, because they had been denied it for so long.

The memory of the scent of the newspaper ink in a smoky brown bar succeeded at keeping the Walpurgisnacht demons at bay long after the newsies disappeared into the night.
***

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A previous version of this report appeared in The Jewish Advocate.

Report from France: Immigration is the Issue

February 6, 2014

Photos of Vieux Marais, Paris
Vieux Marais, Paris

By Robert Israel

There is a palpable uneasiness in the spring air.

The labor strikes that nearly crippled Paris last winter have ceased. But the economy remains troubled and unemployment is at 12 percent. Last summer’s terrorist bombs have stopped. But nearly every day entrances to the city’s subway stations are closed because of suspicions of bomb sightings, or bomb threats, largely by Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group.

Even picturesque streets with well-tended gardens in the showcase capital of the French Republic are deceiving. Punctuating the calm in many neighborhoods is the sight of police barricades that partially block sidewalks, surveillance cameras mounted on the sides of buildings and sentry posts. Frequently, one sees Paris police accompanied by armed military personnel walking three abreast as they make their rounds. Trash cans are sealed so that no one can use them as bomb repositories.

“The government has called this a temporary state of emergency,” says Shmuel Trigano, a sociologist. “They’ve asked everyone to be on the alert. But it’s not as if we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe has already dropped. What we are left with is a malaise which has become our way of life.”

Nowhere is this sense of apprehension more keenly felt than in the immigrant or minority communities. The National Front, and its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, blame the nations 3 million immigrants for the economic crisis. Le Pen’s rallying cry of “national preference” has attracted followers. Last summer, the National Front won gains in municipal elections in three southern cities.

Paris’ Jewish minority, in particular, sees itself as a crucial crossroads. Jewish leaders and residents alike say they either must accept complacently the current status quo of tolerance that brings with it security and a limited role in the republic, or – if they advocate for more – must face further fracturing and diminution as internal and external threats mount.

President Jacques Chirac has made personal overtures of support to the Jewish community, which is 1 percent of the city’s population. Last July, he became the first French president to apologize for the deportations of tens of thousands of Jewish citizens during World War II when the Vichy government openly collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. This was closely followed by another symbolic gesture, this time from Gen. Jean-Louis Mourrut, who declared that Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, the first Jew to serve on the general staff a century ago, was an innocent victim of an anti-Semitic conspiracy.

But more substantive efforts have not been forthcoming. There has been no response to the call made last summer by Jewish activist Serge Klarsfeld that the government make reparations to those Jewish whose property was confiscated during World War II. It does not appear like that such payments, which other countries in the European Union have undertaken, will occur in France during these cash-strapped times.

Jews here worry that assimilation and intermarriage will entice those Jewish in France who have already drifted from the faith to desert the ranks entirely. A more veiled intimidation to Jewish centrists here comes from the growing numbers of Jewish fundamentalists who are gaining a popular foothold.

The Jewish presence in this city is already a show of its former self. A visit to Rue des Rosiers, an ancient and narrow artery that flows through the Marais quarter, is a reminder. Jews have had a presence here for more than 800 years, but today most live int h e Paris suburbs of Sarcelles and Creteil, and trendy boutiques outnumber the kosher establishments. Jewish shoppers, motivated in part by nostalgia, fill the Marais on Sundays, but when they return to their suburbs at the end of the day, the area becomes swamped by young Parisians whose quest is night life, not culture.

Indeed, a growing number of French Jews are quitting the country to make aliyah, or immigration, to Israel, says Arieh Azoulay, who heads the Jewish Agency, an Israeli government immigration bureau here.

“French Jews have very close ties to Israel,” Azoulay says. “And there is a great sense of solidarity with Israelis, especially during the recent outbreaks of terrorist bombings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Jews who are unable to find work here are attracted to Israel because of the low unemployment. Israel offers greater opportunity. It is a place where a Jew affirms his or her identity. In France you must first be a loyal French citizen before you are encouraged to define yourself as a Jew.”

But there are those who dismiss Azoulay’s assertion that French Jews are increasingly attracted to Israel because of a mounting disenchantment with France.

“It’s propaganda,” say Jo Toledano, director of social affairs for CRIF, a Jewish philanthropic and policy making institution, in response to Azoulay. “French Jews are not just attracted to Israel for reasons of immigration. We are in close proximity to Israel geographically. We have family members living there. And French Jews go to Israel on holiday. In August, there are more French Jews on the beach in Netanya, a resort town on the Mediterranean, that there are Israelis. We call it the French Jewish Riviera. Sure, there are French Jews who immigrate to Israel. But the numbers are not so substantial as to indicate a mass exodus of Jews from France.”

The challenge, Toledano says, is twofold: to develop normalized relations with Israel that stress religious and educational goals, and to ensure that French Jews achieve self-reliance.

“We have to put into place a strategy against assimilation,” Toledano says. “We have to make a fusion with the many organizations and synagogues that are here. They need organizational help. They advetise classes, for example, and when students show up…often the lights are out and the doors are locked.”

Haim Musicant, a director at CRIF, says the Jewish community must “show that we are concerned not only with the Jewish community, but with all of French society.” He is busily scheduling public events, in an effort, he says, “for Jews to be more visible and more credible” in the greater community.

Albert Kadouche, the director of a cultural organization known as Centre Rachi, is trying to reach his fellow Jews through the programming of theatre and other performance pieces.

“As Jews drift away from the center,” Kadouche says, “and become absorbed in French society, they need Jewish art, music, and drama to capture their imaginations and to pull them back to their roots.”

He describes his efforts over lunch in a Tunisian kosher restaurant on Rue Richer, in the city’s 9th arrondissement. Seated at an adjoining table is a group of seven university students nibbling from a sample of appetizers: spiced carrots, pickled turnips, bread, smoke fish and tall bottles of wine.

“I come to this restaurant to meet my friends each week,” says Henri Kagan, 20, a university student from the suburb of Cretail. “We don’t keep kosher at home. My friends and I come because we want to learn about it.”

Kadouche invites the students to an event at Centre Rachi. “It’s OK to have hors d’oeuvres of Jewish life,” he tells them. “Maybe, as you taste more, you’ll come to enjoy the full course.”

Such efforts at strengthening Jewish culture in Paris help sustain a community that often feels under siege – or at least marginalized – by outside forces.

Meanwhile, Paris – so often equated with romance and whimsy – continues to gird itself against the threat of violence, whether it be by Algerian fundamentalists – intent on establishing an Islamic state in France’s former colony – or from those within, who want to shut out the immigrant and minority communities.

It is this cry that was heard behind a police barricade on a street near the Bureau of Foreigners’ Affairs here two weeks ago, when a crowd protesting immigrant workers yelled, “Workers’ rights for all workers!” The desire is not only for access to the perks of living in France, but also to gain respect from a nation that pioneered the concept of rights of all people, yet continually struggles with how to effectively implement these rights in the face of economic and political uncertainty.

***
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. This story originally appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe.

Report from Japan: Witnesses to War, Working for Peace

February 6, 2014


Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima, Japan

By Robert Israel

“On the sixth of August 1945, a young woman hugged a tree that grew on a hill above Hiroshima, a fragile protection for the unborn baby. Almost forty years later, that child, Keizo Matsui, a graphic designer, creates peace posters, his way of protecting a fragile world.” – Australian artist David Murray

“In the broadest context of human life and death, those of us who happened to escape the atomic holocaust must see Hiroshima as part of all Japan, and as part of all of the world.”
–Kenzaburo Oe, Hiroshima Notes

**

During her first visit to the United States a few years ago as a delegate to the United Nations Special Sessions on Disarmament, Sakue Shimohira addressed an assembly of high school students.

“Most of the students were so tall, I needed a platform to stand on so I could speak to them on their own level,” said Shimohira, who stands only a few inches above four feet.

“I told them my story, starting from August 9, 1945, when I was 10 years old. I crawled out of an air-raid shelter in Nagasaki and saw that my home town had been destroyed by the atomic bomb.”
Shimohira told the students the story she insists she doesn’t want to relate, a story of suffering that has never ceased, or nightmare images that won’t go away.

“I walked among the rubble of what had once been Nagasaki. I saw people with eyeballs pushed out of their skulls, viscera hanging out, hair gone. A mother walked past me, her flesh burned black, holding in her arms a charred baby struggling for life.

“I told the students about the houses and how they were all blown to bits. In the river, the water was gone and there were many dead bodies. I found my eldest sister, dead under the rubble. My mother was missing. I found her later that day. I recognized her body by her gold tooth. I touched her body and it disintegrated into ashes.”
The students look at her, bewildered. Most had never heard of Nagasaki.

“Because I was exposed to radioactivity at the time of the bombing, I’ve had to have many operations,” Shimohira continued. “My uterus, ovaries, appendix and gall bladder have been removed. At one time I wanted to be a doctor, like my brother, who was studying medicine…before he was killed in the atomic blast. I told the student I couldn’t go to school because I always had to struggle to survive.

“For many years I cared for my younger sister. She committed suicide after 10 years of suffering from radiation sickness.”

A student raised his hand and asked, “That was a long time ago, wasn’t it? So why can’t you leave the war behind you?”

“I can’t leave the war behind me because of what happened when the atomic bomb fell,” Shimohira said. “Exposure to radioactivity 43 years ago still causes people to suffer today.

“I live on the boundary of death. The reasons I talk about what happened to me today is to warn others and to engage them in the need to work for peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.”

Shimohira is one of the 370,000 hibakusha, or survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945), living in Japan today. Their average age is 60. Those well enough to tell their stories are doing so now more than ever before. In 1979, 700 hibakusha published accounts of their lives; in 1985, that figure rose to 2,800.

The hibakusha have issued demands that their own government pass the Hibakusha Relief Law, which calls for increased medical and social aid currently being administered. They have also lobbied for educational reforms that call for peace curriculums in Japanese public schools. Foremost among their demands is a call for the abolition of nuclear weapons.

So far, many of these demands have gone unheeded.

A Mission to Remember

That the hibakusha survived the atomic bombings at all is miraculous.

In 1945, atomic weapons were not as sophisticated or as powerful as today’s weapons of mass destruction. But the bombs killed 78,000 people instantly in Hiroshima. Another 70,000 people died in Nagasaki three days later.
At the time of the bombings, there was no knowledge of possible disease that could be caused by exposure to radiation. The major hospitals in both cities were destroyed. Food, scarce even before the bombings, was contaminated, as was the drinking water. The hibakusha treated their burns with whatever they could find: herbs, poultices of red clay, or machine oil.

“In a way, it was beneficial to the hibakusha that no one knew about radioactive fallout,” said Yoshitaka Kawamoto, a hibakusha who is director of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. “The rescue workers came into the city from the suburbs. If they had known they were exposing themselves to radioactivity, they would have stayed away. Many more people would have died.”

After the war, hibakusha were prohibited from publicly testifying or publishing accounts of their experiences due to a press ban imposed by the occupying U.S. forces. The publishing of medical papers on atomic bomb-related diseases was similarly suppressed. When Japan gained its independence almost 10 years after the bombings, many hibakusha wanted to forget the pain of the injuries, the scenes of destruction.

One of those who wanted to forget was Takeshi Itoh. He was 15 years old at the time of the Hiroshima bombing, mobilized to work in a weapons factory.

“I saw the flash, which lasted not for one instant, but for a very long time,” said Itoh, now a 59-year-old economics professor at Yamanashi University of Kofu. “I instinctively tried to flee, but a friend call out and asked where I was going. By calling to me, he saved me. When I turned around to reply to him, there was a blast. When I came to, I was lying under the machine.”

Several of Itoh’s family members were killed by the blast; 50 of his classmates lay dead besides him on the assembly line.

“I moved to Tokyo after the bombing, to my uncle’s home, where I completed by studies,” Itoh said. “I put the past behind me. And then, on March 1, 1954, the Japanese fishing boat Lucky Dragon Number 5 (Fukuro Maru 5) was exposed to radioactive fallout when the United States exploded a hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll. The fallout from the bomb killed one of the crew members, injured the other crew members and contaminated all the fish aboard. Hibakusha all over Japan were motivated towards activism.

“I’m responsible for organizing the Tokyo-area hibakusha (for the Japan Confederation of Atomic and Hydrogen Bomb Sufferers). We have as our goal the passing of domestic policies, namely the passage of the Hibakusha Relief Law, and we have a universal goal, the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”

The hibakusha movement born in the wake of the Lucky Dragon Number 5 incident is known as Hidankyo. Along with other peace group, they lobbied for aid to the atomic-bomb sufferers, bringing about the first hibakusha assistance law, passed in 1957. Ten years later, another law, the Hibakusha Welfare Law, was passed.

Survivors who fall under the guidelines defined by these laws receive free medical care and a stipend of 28,000 yen ($253.00) a month, if they suffer from an illness directly related to the atomic bombings.

“That figure is hardly sufficient since most atomic-bomb sufferers cannot work,” Itoh said. “And hibakusha have been unable to work, for the most part, these past 43 years. There has been no compensations, no pension scheme, to accommodate them. Due to radiation exposure, many hibakusha are susceptible to cancer and other diseases. We are asking the Diet to double its allocation to hibakusha from 100 billion yen a year to 200 billion yen a year.”

Opposition to the passage of the Hibakusha Relief law is widespread.

“Hibakusha seem to forget other Japanese were bombed during World War II,” says Shimpei Ozaki, a director of the Health Service Bureau’s Planning Division in Tokyo, a government agency in charge of administering aid to hibakusha. “Others were bombed by conventional weapons. These people sustained illness and lost property, too…Why should hibakusha be given more aid when these war sufferers get nothing?”

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has voted against increased aid to atomic-bomb victims. The two major peace groups, Gensuikin and Gensuikyo, composed of members of the Socialist and Communist parties, have been split for years over the issue of Soviet involvement in the nuclear arms race, thereby further diffusing the demands of the hibakusha/

“The general public and the representatives of the Diet (parliament) fail to understand the significance of the hibakusha to all humanity,” says political commentator Hiroshi Iwadare. “Atomic warfare is not just a local incident that happened in Japan so many years ago. Atomic warfare is a problem that affects the entire human race. If only the Japanese could see this! Then the Hibakusha Relief Law would be passed.”

Japan’s constitution states adherence to three non-nuclear principles: no manufacture, no possession and no introduction of nuclear weapons. The Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty further states the U.S. must consult with the Japanese before bringing any nuclear weapons into the country. It is U.S. policy, however, neither to confirm nor deny the presence or movement of its nuclear weapons in other countries.

Nuclear powered submarines carrying cruise missiles or other nuclear weapons regularly make port calls at Yokoshura, a U.S. navy base outside Tokyo. The Yokoshura base is a short distance from the museum housing the Lucky Dragon Number 5, the once-contaminated ship that motivated Itoh into peace activism.

As for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, Japan recently signed an agreement to participate in the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative. Last year, Japan’s military spending exceeded the ceiling of 1 percent of the GNP the country had held on to for years. Several Japanese companies have been actively engaged in defense contracts.

Two companies that make automobiles as well as defense-related products are Masda and Mitsubishi, with modern plants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively. The exact nature of their defense work is top secret.

At the Mitsubishi plant in Nagasaki, torpedoes, such as the ones used in the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, are manufactured. Local sources in Nagasaki report that in 1978, weapons production at the plant totaled 8.7 billion yen, or 4.6 percent of total production; in 1986, that figure rose to 49.5 billion yen, or 15.3 per cent of production.

In recent years, hibakusha have concentrated efforts on educating young people about World War II. Public school textbooks in Japan are screened by the Ministry of Education. Topics such as Japan’s barbaric attacks on China, the enslavement of Korean woman as “comfort women,” or prostitutes for the Imperial Army, or the attack on Pearl Harbor are not fully explored. Although thousands of Japanese public school students participate in the annual memorial service on August 4 in Hiroshima in memory of the children killed in the blast, a peace curriculum has yet to be adopted on a national level. Many hibakusha have since embarked on a peace curriculum of their own.

Akihiro Takahashi was a high school student at the time of the bombing of Hiroshima. As former director of the Peace Memorial Museum, he estimates he has spoken to 250,000 school children a year. He uses watercolor drawings an artist friend drew for him to illustrate his narrative/

“Children listen to my story, and they are usually very attentive,” Takahashi said. “But we live in an age when children respond to visual images, so my artist friend has provided these pictures for me.

“I was standing here,” he said, pointing to a drawing of a courtyard where 100 boys are lined up under a clear sky, “when the plane, the Enola Gay, appeared in the sky.”

The next drawing is a dark wash of burnt sienna, India ink. Charcoal, and splashes of blood red. The artist is depicting the maelstrom of earth and splinters of wood-frame buildings that merged with shattered glass and the bodies that were sucked into its vortex. The small, agonized face at the drawing’s center is Takahashi’s.

“I was thrown by the blast, and when I came to, I was wounded. The skin had been burned off my hands, arms and face. I made my way to the river. I passed many hibakusha on the way. There were walking corpses. They looked like a queue of ghosts.”

Takahashi suffers from chronic liver disease. During the blast he lost his hair and suffered severe radiation burns. His hair has grown back, but the keloid scars on his arms and hands have never healed.

“When I explain my story to children,” Takahashi said, “I give them comparative figures so they understand the three points of my story. The atomic blast caused thermal rays, radioactivity and blast winds.

“I tell them one kilo of uranium caused the blast. That’s roughly the size of 13 or 14 eggs. Even primary school students understand that.

“To explain thermal rays, I tell them at the hypocenter of the blast…the temperature reached 5,000 degrees centigrade. I tell children iron melts at 1,530 degrees and glass melts at 700 degrees centigrade.

“Then I tell them about radioactivity. The easiest way to explain that is the describe X-rays, which is about 0.1 rad of radiation. The maximum safe dose that a human body can receive in a year is 0.5 rad. At the time of the bombing of Hiroshima, initial radiation one kilometer from the hypocenter was measured at 255 rad for gamma ray radiation and 191 rads of neutron radiation.”

Speaking for those who cannot

Then there are the hibakusha who cannot testify for themselves. Others speak for them.

Yuriko Hatanaka is a 42-year-old microcephalic woman who was exposed to radiation in utero. She is one of 22 known hibakusha still living who were born with the abnormally small heads associated with microencephally. She lives with her father, Kuniso Hatanaka, in Iwakuni, a city 45 minutes’ drive from Hiroshima.

Yuriko has the mentality of a 2-year-old. She does not speak, except in short sentences to Kuniso. She sits by the window, looking at pictures in magazines. Kuniso calls the magazines “her companions and her babysitter. She goes through piles of them, and grows impatient because she doesn’t understand they only come once a week.”

For many years there was no acknowledgement that microcephaly was an atomic-bomb-related condition; consequently, there was no government funding to aid these victims. In the mid-1960s, Minoru Ohmata, an editor at Hiroshima’s daily newspaper, the Chugoku Shimbun, researched the findings of Japanese and U.S. doctors and assisted in organizing the Mushroom Society, which has lobbied successfully for government assistance for microcephalic children and their families.

“My wife Yoshie was 25 years old at the time of the bombing,” Kuniso said. “She was two months pregnant. When Yuriko was born, I could have put her on the palms of my hands, she was that small. She did not cry, laugh, walk or speak a word for many years. She couldn’t be toilet trained, couldn’t go to school. She cannot take care of herself…She just looks at pictures in magazines.”

He sat in his barber chair looking out the street scene in Iwakuni City. Life has changed in all these years, the city has been, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has been rebuilt from the ashes and rubble and is thriving again. But time has stood still for him and his daughter.

“How can a baby in the womb be involved in war?” he asked. “When will the world realize that atomic bombs not only destroy trees and plants and wildlife and people, but also destroy the life of future generations, too?”

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. Versions of this story appeared in the Montreal Gazette, Providence Journal, Boston Herald, New London Day, and Choguku Shimbun (Hiroshima).