REM returns to Israel in the form of Robyn Hitchcock

REM returns to Israel in the form of Robyn Hitchcock

Peter Buck and Robyn Hitchcock on the left

In 1995, I got fired from a job. It was the first job I’d had in Israel and the first time I’d ever been fired from anything. Suffice it to say I was pretty despondent on that day.

REM saved me.

The night after I was laid off, my favorite rock band REM was playing in Tel Aviv. I had decided not to go – the tickets were too expensive – but after getting canned, I decided I needed something to cheer me up and take my mind off of the fact I was newly in Israel with two kids, a wife in ulpan and no foreseeable income. I went with my good friend Eliot who was also a massive REM fan.

REM has since broken up (a real shame because, after 10 years of producing mediocre records, they finally roared back into relevance with Collapse Into Now). But the band was back in Israel, in a way, this past weekend in the form of Robyn Hitchcock. I got a chance to catch them with my still good friend Eliot, and made possible by Israelity colleague and buddy David Brinn.

Robyn Hitchcock has been around for ages – in the late 1970s he headed up a proto-punk band called The Soft Boys. He had a number of college radio hits in the early 1980s with a band he called The Egyptians.

Now here’s the REM connection: in the last few years, he’s put together an occasional recording and touring band with REM guitarist Peter Buck. Calling themselves The Venus 3, they more often than not sound scarily similar to REM.

Buck is the master behind REM’s jangly pop bright guitar sound that was the band’s staple coda in its early years. That was ever present in The Venus 3’s original songs, and it happily bled into versions the band performed of early Hitchcock material too.

Hitchcock is no Michael Stipe – I’ve never liked the former’s voice that much – but his lyrics are keen, the music catchy and he has a quirky troubadour-like stage presence.

I wasn’t commiserating over any particular setback Saturday night when we went to see The Venus 3 Tel Aviv’s Barby Club. That  made the show pure pleasure rather than the compulsory catharsis of 17 years ago.

This was Hitchcock’s second time in Israel in less than six months. He played an acoustic set late last year at Tel Aviv’s Ozen Bar. This time out he was fully electric.

Hitchcock has a pre-rock star connection to Israel too: he spent time on a kibbutz in 1971.  Come back and visit soon, Mr. Hitchcock – and don’t wait another 40 years.

Eliot wrote a great review of the show for The Jerusalem Post.

Here’s a short video clip I made of the show.

Here’s a link to a full-length 1985 REM concert that showcases Peter Buck’s jangly guitar at its creative heights.

Falling in love again (not what you think)

Find every Israeli radio station online in one iPhone app

You may have noticed I didn’t post as much last week as usual. It’s not because I’ve been traveling overseas or that I’ve been sick. No, I’m in love…

With an iPhone.

Yes, my wife knows. She’s been very understanding, even when I take my new device to bed with me (ostensibly for “doing work”). She even looks the other way when I coo sweet nothings into the microphone for Siri, the iPhone 4S’s sexy female digital assistant, to schedule reminders, set up meetings and search the Internet (“Siri, show me a picture of a gecko” – yes, it really works!)

Like any good gecko…er geek, I’ve filled my new iPhone with the latest and greatest apps, including quite a few Israeli-made products. If I want to figure out how to get somewhere by bus in Jerusalem, there’s JeruBus. If my travels are farther afield, the “Bus Line” app brings me the whole country (although the functionality is pretty funky – you search for a route number and it gives you all bus lines in the country matching that number – i.e., the 14 bus in Jerusalem, Safed, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh…not all that helpful).

I’ve installed both Fring and Viber to make phone calling cheaper, and Israel365 to deliver a daily dose of inspiring Israeli photos. I found a local dog sitter on Janglo’s mobile app, and Haaretz is the place I go first for news about Israel, since they are the only one of the big English-language news sites to have an app (visiting a news website on your smart phone is so 2008).

My favorite app, though, is not Israeli at all, but has great value add for us Middle Easterners. It’s called Tune In Radio and it lets you stream just about every station that’s on the Internet. This includes web-only broadcasters like Israel’s Radio Free Nachlaot and Rusty Mike, but also terrestrial radio stations that have an Internet stream.

The coolest part is the “local radio” tab, which uses your location to find all stations near you. It accurately located every Israeli stream (from Galgalatz to the student station from the IDC in Herzeliya) as well as a few Arabic-language surprises like talk radio station Radio Sawa and Radio Bethlehem.

Like the “Israel loves Iran” campaign that’s tearing up Facebook, Tune In Radio is doing its small part to go beyond the conflict. It may not bring peace now, but the app has managed to get the bickering parties onto the same (app) page.

Immigrant Moments,Life,Music

A celebration of young Ethiopian musicians

Avraham Terifa is in the eighth grade but he looks like he’s only nine-years-old. A tiny dynamo of a boy, he stands before an audience of several hundred at Jerusalem’s Mishkenot She’ananim concert hall and begins to play his violin. All around the room you can hear jaws start to drop as the music that emerges from his diminutive frame suggests someone twice as big and three times as old.

Avraham is just one of 30 children from the Ethiopian community in Jerusalem who is studying at the Jerusalem Conservatory Hassadna, a unique institution whose mission is to provide music instruction to children between the ages of 3 and 18, “regardless of physical or mental ability, socio-economic level, ethnicity or religious affiliation.”

Avraham is part of a program called “From Risk to Opportunity” which grants full scholarships to children of Ethiopian descent who, more often than not, come from very difficult home environments, rife with poverty and sometimes even abuse. Many of the children are referred to the program by social workers at Jerusalem’s Municipal Welfare Department.

The program was founded by Ruth Mason and Bob Trachtenberg, who have been active in supporting the Ethiopian immigrant community and were disturbed when they realized that, at a friend’s daughter’s dance recital, there were no Ethiopian children represented. Ruth says she thought “what if there are Ethiopian kids with musical talent? Can they develop it? The vast majority of their parents don’t have money for that.”

They established the “From Risk to Opportunity” in 2005 which, in addition to the scholarship, covers rental of a musical instrument, transportation costs and home tutoring.

Avraham wasn’t the only Ethiopian-Israeli musician to perform at the concert held last week to celebrate the program’s success. Ronit Taklo was equally impressive. Even smaller than Avraham, one might expect this 10-year-old girl to be intimidated by the grand piano in front of her, but her confidence was stirring and the audience was once again riveted. The same for Meron Moola who belted out (in English) the lyrics to “When You Believe” from the animated film “The Prince of Egypt.”

While the music performed was primarily Western classics (Brahms, Mozart and the like) along with that Steven Schwartz movie pop tune, there were also two traditional Ethiopian numbers sung (and danced) by Molokon Patego, a guest performer.

The evening had two celebrities in attendance. Former Supreme Court president Dorit Beinisch’s husband is on the Conservatory’s board and some of the program’s participants played at the swearing in ceremony of the new chief justice. Beinisch presented the children with certificates of appreciation. Belaynesh Zevadia, the Israeli ambassador designate to Ethiopia (and the first Ethiopian-Israeli to become an ambassador) was also in the audience.

The “From Risk to Opportunity” program is exemplary in another way: It does not segregate the children into a separate track for disadvantaged youth as too frequently happens with the Ethiopian community elsewhere in Israel. Rather, the young musicians are fully integrated into the Conservatory’s mainstream program, which provides instructions for 550 talented young people.

The results show: three students have been accepted to the Jerusalem Music Academy High School – the first Ethiopian-Israeli students to be accepted to the prestigious school’s music track.

As for Avraham, he is one of them. His fiddling days, it seems, are just beginning.

Nostalgia Sunday – Einstein archive goes live

Tomorrow, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem will launch the all-new, expanded and digitized Albert Einstein Archives. The launch is timed to coincide — give or take 5 days — with Einstein’s March 14th birthday, also known as Pi Day (3.14 — get it?).

Over 80,000 records of documents held in original and as copies in the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University (AEA) and at the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech (EPP) can now be accessed with a user-friendly interface via the internet.

The Archives include scientific writings and correspondence, non-scientific writings and correspondence, family letter and travel diaries. The website also presents images Einstein’s handwritten manuscripts, correspondence, typewritten manuscripts, photos, audio material, etc.

The University’s public affairs office states that, in addition to being an essential resource for the history of modern physics, “the archives also shed light on the social, political and intellectual history of the modern world.” Some of the newly digitzed documents inlcude: Einstein’s letter to Azmi El-Nashashibi, the editor of the newspaper Falastin, suggesting a solution to the Arab-Jewish conflict, a letter to the Jewish community in Berlin describing the distinction between Jewish religion and Jewish nationalism, a speech to a Zionist meeting containing a report on a fundraising campaign in the United States for the Hebrew University, a postcard to his sick mother and a letter from his young mistress Betty Neumann.

The online image gallery was created by Ardon Bar-Hama who has photograped an impressive list of some the world’s most treasured objects in libraries, museums, archives, private collections and institutions.

The system offers easy navigation, displaying the search results and additional information such as filters, related topics and similar items. Some of the digitized documents are accompanied by annotated transcriptions and translations, as edited by the EPP and published in the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein by Princeton University Press (PUP). These documents are searchable as full text.

It’s a far cry from Einstein’s original filing system which was “unsystematic” according to the Archive’s History, before his Theory of Relativity came to public attention. “As a result of his dramatic rise to fame in November 1919, his correspondence increased vastly and he employed his step-daughter, Ilse, as his first secretarial assistant. She achieved the first semblance of well-ordered files.

“In April 1928, [secretary] Helen Dukas came to work for Einstein and began to preserve his papers more systematically. However, not even then were copies of all outgoing correspondence kept. Shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933, Einstein’s papers were rescued from Berlin by Einstein’s son-in-law, Rudolf Kayser, with the help of the French Embassy. The material was brought to Einstein’s new home in Princeton and kept there until well after his death. With a few exceptions, the material left at Einstein’s summer house in Caputh outside Berlin was destroyed in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the Nazi authorities.

“Einstein’s Will of 1950 appointed his secretary, Helen Dukas, and his close associate, Dr. Otto Nathan, as trustees of his estate. Following Einstein’s death in 1955, Dukas and Nathan devoted themselves tirelessly for a quarter of a century to organizing the papers and acquiring additional material. As a result of their efforts, the Archives grew threefold.

“In the 1960s, Helen Dukas and Prof. Gerald Holton of Harvard University reorganized the material, thereby rendering it accessible to scholars and preparing it for eventual publication in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, a joint project of The Hebrew University and Princeton University Press. To facilitate editorial work, the papers were transferred from Einstein’s home to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

“In 1982, the Einstein Estate transferred Einstein’s personal papers to the Jewish National & University Library in Jerusalem. President Avraham Harman of The Hebrew University and Prof. Milton Handler of the American Friends of The Hebrew University played a crucial role in securing the transfer of the material to Jerusalem. In subsequent years, additional material was dispatched from Einstein’s Princeton residence, namely his personal collections of reprints, photographs, medals, and diplomas as well as his private library.

“In 1988, the Bern Dibner Curatorship for the running of the Albert Einstein Archives was established by the Dibner Fund of Connecticut, USA… In January 2008, the Archives became part of the Hebrew University’s Library Authority, Library Authority and, in July 2008, moved to new premises in the Levi building on the Hebrew University’s Edmond J. Safra campus, allowing for enhanced services to the public.

The website was launched in 2003 by the Albert Einstein Archives jointly with the Einstein Papers Project and Princeton University Press. The digitization of 900 papers displayed on the original site was made possible by a generous contribution from the David and Fela Shapell Family.

A grant from the Polonsky Foundation of London enabled the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to digitize the archives. The archival database and the collection of new materials was made possible by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and by the Arcadia Fund UK.

The launch will be marked simultaneously at Princeton University, Caltech, the Hebrew University’s Friends organizations and Israeli embassies around the world.


A chicken tries to cross the Jerusalem Marathon road

A rainy Jerusalem Marathon on Emek Refaim Street

I was out doing my Friday morning errands when I ran smack dab into the center of the Jerusalem Marathon. Or should I say, they ran into me.

I had gone down to Emek Refaim Street to buy the newspaper, challah and dessert. The street was blocked off for the marathon. What fun, I thought. I’ll get to see the runners as they huff their way past kilometer 29.

One problem: Marzipan bakery, which makes the best half-cooked chocolate rugelach in the city, was on the other side of road which was being guarded by a full contingent of yellow-jacketed police and hired security personnel.

From inside the Steimatsky’s book store at the cashier, only a few runners passed – the leaders of the pack – thin and tiny. By the time I exited, though, a throng of thousands were pulsing my way.

I had to think fast. Would I be a timid American immigrant and wait for all the runners to pass before crossing at the traffic light? Or would I summon up the chutzpah of a Sabra and sprint perpendicularly through the human traffic?

Fortunately, the decision was made for me from above. No, I didn’t gaze skyward and ask for a sign. Rather the heavens opened up all by themselves, unleashing a torrent of not only rain but hail, effectively driving home the imperative for this chicken to head quickly for the rugelach, rules or not.

Pastries in hand, I relaxed and joined the spectators cheering on the runners, feeling sorry they had to slodge through such weather, even though they evinced no dissatisfaction.

12,000 professional and amateur athletes joined this year’s Jerusalem Marathon – 3,000 more than last year, making it Israel’s largest race and one of the world’s most picturesque. Next year, I’ll head out earlier and maybe stand by the road handing out rugelach to the weary at kilometer 29.