Fishing for Words

I have some books on topics that I know nothing about, which I keep for the style in which they are written. I was about to give away Trout: How to Catch Them by W. A. Adamson, realizing that trout fishing is not in my literal or figurative future, when I found this passage — a metaphor on the writing process. Substitute writing for casting, pen for rod, imagination for line.

…casting is a misleading sight to the unthinking observer. He thinks that it is the movement of the rod which causes the projection of the line, and fails to realize that it is the checking of the movement which is the really important part of the process. The other secret in learning to cast, is to learn to pause long enough for the line to extend behind before starting any forward movement.”
W.A. Adamson, Trout: How to Catch Them, London: Herbert Jenkins 1959, pages 71-72.

Ok, maybe I stayed up too late. But really, Adamson is himself given to metaphor. Describing the problems for trout arising from hatcheries, he writes, “In the early days these hatchery-trout, like the sons of some rich men, had a great deal done for them, and were protected from the harsh realities of life.” p 21 Trout amandine, anyone?


Many have written about what they’ve learned during the pandemic, but because I am housebound for the long haul (until the vaccine is readily available), I expect the list to be ongoing. Here is what I’ve learned so far.

  • Socializing is a skill. After seven months of not going out, I have lost the skill. Making conversation face to face (at a deck distance) is difficult. My apologies to the friend whose amazing peach crumble I consumed in silence, marvelling (silently) at the contrast of flavours.
  • You can indeed see with hair in your eyes.
  • Sharing the house with a younger person meant hearing music I’d never heard before. It sounds obvious, but music that is completely new can be revitalizing — until it isn’t new anymore.
  • And when that younger person goes back to her life, you will feel again the loss you felt when she left home for university.
  • Open the windows and air the rooms — and feel like you live in a Victorian novel.
  • Your beloved survived Covid but you still have to finish that damned short story.
  • Gardening is an act of hope. Much of the work I have done in the garden in the past weeks is for a spring showing.
  • In the long silences, your brain makes random connections. For example, Pippin in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings serves the same function as Marianne in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: to provide the lesson that one must control oneself lest one bring harm to oneself or to others (Pippin at the well, Pippin with the seeing-stone; Miriam with her open display of love). Anti-maskers take note.


courtyard of Polis Institute

As editor of Canadian Writers Abroad, I tend to leave off longlist credits when an author has several awards to mention. But I don’t have several awards to mention (the Grain Short), so I am telling you here: an essay I wrote this winter made the longlist for the Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest at The New Quarterly. Honest! The essay braids together the challenges of learning Hebrew as a not-so-young adult with the pleasures of writing in a secret (as opposed to computer) code.

Congratulations to the winners and notables. Click here for the winning list.

Screenshot of part of the longlist from TNQ website.

Check out my post about some of the difficulties of learning Hebrew: Shock.


I once asked my father, who was deaf, which faculty he would rather lose, and he said sight. Shocked by the notion of not seeing, I asked why. He said that not hearing is isolating, that he couldn’t join in conversations, that he was left out. Maybe he didn’t use the word isolating.
About a year ago I developed problems with my vision; the affected eye, while gradually improving, has good days and bad days. A problem focusing on text means a difficult time for an avid reader, editor and writer. But I am not deaf, and I have been saved by the voices — not only the comforting voices of loved ones, but also the digital voices: podcasts and audio books and online radio.

My favourite podcast is BBC Radio 4’s The Infinite Monkey Cage, best described as humorous science. In Canada we tend to think of a British accent as one thing: British. After five years in London, I can hear some differences (if I were British I should be able to place the accent right down to a city or in London’s case a part of the city). Co-hosted by Brian Cox and Brian Ince, the panel guests vary from priests to comedians to doctors and scientists. A science show that makes me laugh out loud. The podcast doesn’t come out that often, so in between I listen to CBC podcasts Spark with Nora Young or Bob McDonald’s Quirks and Quarks.

photo: D. MartensI passed two Hebrew courses but I still don’t speak Hebrew. I started listening to Streetwise Hebrew even before I came to Jerusalem, and I still do. The host, Guy Sharett, is a quirky combination of kind and curious. I’m not saying I learn to speak Hebrew by listening, but I do find it a pertinent peek into the culture.

Among the ambitious podcasts, the “I might as well learn something” ones, such as BBC’s Open Book with Mariella Frostrup or The Reith Lectures, or the stories read on The New Yorker: the Writer’s Voice, I regularly listen to only one: Shakespeare Unlimited, produced by the Folger Shakespeare Library. The American accent of Barbara Bogaev is not as fun as those above, but she always sounds keen, and the interviews are enlightening.

By now you are saying, She’s lying. She must listen to music, or at least something silly. Indeed I do. I still follow The Archers, a holdover from listening to BBC4 while cooking in London. The show works topical issues into its village stories. It has moved on from last year’s marital abuse to depression and more; as with all series, one has the impression the village might be a statistical anomaly in the number of problems it has. Still, it provides a short quick hit of drama.

Speaking of drama, I haven’t even mentioned audio books. I don’t consider listening to books the same as reading them, but they help me through energy slumps and long rides and the 3 AM collywobbles. I was catching up on some Canadian books on just fine, enjoying Wagamese’s Indian Horse (read by Jason Ryll), Moore’s February (Mary Lewis), Johnston’s First Snow, Last Light (read by several), until I made the mistake of listening to Colin Firth read Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. This perfect pairing of voice and story put me off audio books for several weeks — nothing seemed as good. I’ve wandered off into the history aisle lately.

There is one thing I don’t like about these voices that accompany my domestic tasks: if I don’t listen, they crowd my storage. And that’s how podcast subscriptions differ from the radio, when you would tune in at a certain hour to hear a programme or miss it. Tell me, friends, will CBC radio hold my interest in my new old home?




Resistance and the Bunny

Well, you wouldn’t read it if I called it Resistance and the Industry Codes. First, the resistance. By this I don’t mean anything worthwhile, like resisting oil pipelines or industrial water extraction. I am, or so I say, working on a difficult story, and I would do anything other than write it. The word for the feeling of dread as one approaches one’s desk is called resistance, as is leaving that desk several hours later with no progress. I would do almost anything other than write this particular story, including an analysis of a four-page appendix to the Business and Professional Income tax guide, called Industry Codes. Seriously, the list of Industry Codes is interesting. Oh, and if you are wondering, yes, I do my own taxes.

I wish the industry codes, a list of the activities or services by which the self-employed make a living, had existed when I was 24. To have had a list of all the ways to spend my time other than the way that I have chosen!
The codes first appeared in the Business and Professional Income Guide of 1994, and writers were placed under Retail Sales or Services: Other. There we were, along with athletes and janitors and photographers. In 2018’s Guide, we are Entertainment: Independent artists, writers and performers. What would I have written if I had started out knowing that fiction was an entertainment rather than a serious literary endeavour?

In the 24 years since the codes appeared, Entertainment has expanded from 7 codes to 23. While this expansion mainly subdivides existing categories, there are some new entries, such as Internet broadcasting. Oddly enough, video games are not considered Entertainment (listed as Communications: Video game publishers, and again as Business Services: Video game design and development services).

For years I have wondered why writers aren’t considered a profession, as if it were a calling, like the priesthood. Drooling over the list of professions, I notice something creepy: a trend to replace single noun professions with modifiers of services. In 1994 you could be an Architect or a Veterinarian as a profession, but in 2018 you are diminished to Architectural services and Veterinary services. Lawyers have become Offices of lawyers and Offices of notaries and Other legal services. There is one noun that has stayed the same, however — florists (Other Retail Stores: Florist). Even barbers and beauty shops have disappeared into Personal Care Services. And why, oh why, would you change Gambling Operation to Gambling Industries? How is gambling an industry? Gambling, along with escorts and horse racing, are also in the Entertainment category — writers have always kept good company.

Surprises? Yes. Below florists is a new entry: Cannabis stores. The 2018 Guide merges Business codes with Farming and Fishing industry codes, so maybe the next few items are new only to me, but they now include: Cannabis grown under cover, and Cannabis grown in open fields. Puzzlingly, Field Crops also include orange groves and citrus. Where in Canada is it warm enough to grow oranges and lemons? Did you know we also grow rice and cotton?

I hate doing my taxes almost as much as the story that I am not working on, which might be why I am pouring over the industry codes. Straying into Natural Resource Industries, I find a new entry: Water, sewage and other systems. Is this the controversial water extraction for bottling, or does it mean water purification services? Here also we find: Hunting and trapping. But what’s that over there? Farming: Fur-bearing animal and rabbit production. Bunnies! Maybe I shouldn’t do my taxes on Easter weekend.



You might be wondering about the cave that the Nassar family once made home. Let me explain. The underground dwelling is warm and dry in the rainy winter, and cool in the scorching summer. Caves are not unusual in this land of hills carved by dry winds. Unlike European caves, these caves don’t drip moisture nor grow stalagmites and stalactites. The photo above shows caves above the Kidron valley, facing the monastery commonly called Mar Saba. It was founded by Saint Sabbas, who lived many years alone in a cave before attracting followers. In effect, the monastery grew up around his hermit cave. Here it is today:

Photo: D. Martens
Mar Saba

More famous than hermit monks, at least here in Jerusalem, are the caves of Jesus. We consumers of Western art think of the Christmas Eve stable as a wooden structure, when in this part of the world, a stable is often a cave. So were tombs — with a stone rolled over the entrance. Back in the time of Emperor Constantine, a church was built on the cave tomb in which the body of Jesus was placed — now the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Yes, that’s right, the church stands on a burial ground of cave tombs. And in Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity stands on the cave where Jesus was born. If you wait in line and go downstairs, you can peek through a hole to see stone.

And then there are the fancy caves, dwellings that have been carved into rock, such as those at Petra in Jordan.

Jordan rock dwellings DSC_1293
Petra, Jordan

Jordan rock d DSC_1333
Petra, Jordan

Then there are the built caves, stone dwellings that seem to be built around a cave or imitate a cave. The hut on the right is basically a summer shack, a shelter for farmers during the olive harvest, which inside is cool and dry in the summer.

Finally, a modern application of a cave: every dog loves a cave.

dogs covet caves

Montage: Tent of Nations

I am presenting some photos from a recent outing to a hilltop near Bethlehem, the Nassar farm near the Palestinian village of Nahalin in Area C (Israel controlled) of the West Bank. While I talked to the farm family about their Tent of Nations project and the threats to their land and livelihood since 1991, I did not talk to their neighbours the Israeli [illegal] settlers, nor to the Israeli military or police. Because this is not balanced journalism, I am simply making a photo montage.

Here are two photos of rocks. The square rock is a concrete block that is a portable road block; Israeli officials use them to set up impromptu checkpoints, for example. This rock joins dumped rocks and dirt that prevent access to, or from, the farm road, which used to join the road to Bethlehem. The second rock is a natural rock bearing the family’s motto, which expresses the wish for peace with their Israeli settler neighbours. Rock mottoes nearby are in other languages because the farm has several projects on the go with support from volunteers around the world.

Here is a dog house. The Nassars say they have received a demolition order to tear down the dog house because they did not have a building permit. For a dog house. Their farm is in Area C, controlled by Israel. For generations the family lived in caves on this land; they need a permit to expand a cave. And yes, they say,  authorities come regularly to check their land for non-permit building. The second picture is a pillar celebrating all religions, inside the family’s cave. Meanwhile the settlers in the five surrounding settlements build and build; the settlements are on surrounding hills but too distant for my camera phone to capture. But I try: see photos three (road into farm) and four (distant settlement).

Here is a tank on a truck. I failed to ask the farmer if the truck held water or chemicals or petrol. But I saw this truck tank while we were being shown the water cisterns. Water cisterns do not make interesting photos. The family use rain-gathered water because their water supply has been cut off. The second photo shows solar panels on the roof of their current house. The family use their own electricity because their connection to the grid has been cut.

Here is a fig tree and an almond tree. In 2002, the Nassars say, Israelis uprooted 250 olive trees; in 2014, Israelis destroyed in one night hundreds of fruit trees. The family have received no compensation for this loss but have replanted. If they did not replant, they explain, the land would be confiscated. Usage of the land is a proof of ownership.

This Christian Palestinian farm family explain that they have the deeds to the property dating back to their grandfather’s purchase, and receipts for taxes that they have paid to three different administrations: Ottoman, British Mandate and Jordanian. They would like to register their land with Israel but their claim to the property has been held up in court since 1991, despite a Supreme Court ruling in their favour in 2007 giving permission for them to register their land.

Here are Amal Nassar, her brother Dahel Nassar and their mother Meladeh Nassar, with some guy who does not appear to be one of the many international farm volunteers. The Nassars are determined to keep alive their father’s dream by staying on the property. See how they smile in the face of ongoing harrassment from their settler neighbours and Israeli authorities. No photo can show the mountainous size of their dignity and spirit.






Banff Centre

The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity sits above the Bow River and the town of Banff. Started in the 1930s as a project to give people in the arts some paid work, it is now a lively institution that houses retreats, workshops, concerts, a library, theatres and art galleries. I am here for the Summer Writers Retreat. With temperatures hovering around 14 degrees C it doesn’t feel very summery. While I thought my stay here would be rather monastic, I meet daily with some of the 18 other writers here, either at the cafeteria meals or at workshops. But mostly we work, emerging from our rooms looking slightly dazed.

One arrives and registers at the Professional Development Centre.





Our rooms are in Lloyd Hall:

Lloyd hallDSC_2917

The library and the bar are in this lovely building:

photo: D. Martens

What do you do at the retreat? This question is very similar to What do you do all day? Writers write, which does not make for interesting conversation. What we do at the retreat: Write. And edit and revise and research and write some more. Attend group sessions with the mentors in the afternoon, if one wishes. Some of the craft topics we’ve discussed: what is the difference between a story collection, a linked collection and a novel? How do you create or maintain tension in your fiction? What is a novella? Does an image tell a story? Are agents worth their fee? Persevere. Write some more. And if that doesn’t work, go for a walk to think while looking at the beautiful scenery — just watch out for bears.

photo: D. Martens
Mentors Lori Hahnel and Lee Kvern


Wherever I turn, a mountain in shifting light:



The summer in East Jerusalem is hot and dry. Windows left open, surfaces in the apartment are coated in dust. Yet as I slowly go about daily activities, I see these little beauties blooming. For me they are like bits of joy caught in one’s peripheral vision. And just as I am illiterate in this country of Hebrew and Arabic, I do not know the names of  these flowers — except the bougainvillea and poppies. Identifying comments welcome.


Hebrew Words for Gaza

By Taken from CIA World Factbook website on 15 August. - Gaza Strip from CIA factbook, Public Domain,

This Is Not an Ulpanbased in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, offers Hebrew and Arabic lessons of a different sort than I’ve experienced. The classroom lessons are thematic and sometimes take place as excursions — you go to a cafe to speak the language of cafes. They are committed to engaging with our surroundings. For example, at the beginner level, Eat Ivrit combines cooking and food culture with learning Hebrew. Advanced Hebrew learners can take Human Rights in a Conflicted Society. I approve, and subscribe to their newsletter in the ever optimistic hope that a course will fit my level and schedule. The newsletters are lessons in themselves, such as this one on the situation in Gaza, which offers first a brief explanation of the situation in Gaza now, and second, and this is great, pertinent vocabulary.

With their permission, here is an excerpt from the May 2, 2018 newsletter from This Is Not an Ulpan:

What’s Going On in Gaza?

The March of Return began on March 30th and by the end of the first day, 15 Gazans had been killed and 1,416 wounded. Since March 30th, over 40 Gazans have been killed via sniper fire from Israeli Defense Forces. Not a single Israeli has wounded nor has a single rocket been fired from Gaza.

Left-wing protests have been raising the question of whether or not it is moral to shoot at Gazan protesters: The March of Return is not an act of war, the protesters are not militants nor have they killed or injured a single Israeli soldier, so why does it appear that the IDF is shooting to kill?

Some Background Info

Currently the Gaza Strip is in a state of despair. There is only enough electricity to last a few hours, limited food and clean water supplies, many children without living parents. Due to the Israeli fear that Hamas will continue to smuggle in rockets and weapons, there is blockade on trade and economic opportunities, resulting in an unemployment rate of 63%. In the past, Hamas has misappropriated funding from the UN and other organisations to build tunnels into Israel and develop is military capabilities, giving legitimacy to Israeli fears. The March of Return marks one of the first civilian-led protests from Palestinian-Gazans meant to be nonviolent. It is of popular opinion that as Israel continues to use force against Palestinian protests, tensions will rise and lead the IDF and Hamas into another violent conflict.

Words To Know

Tsalaf – Sniper – צלף

The majority of Gazans have been killed by sniper fire from the IDF located a distance from the fence. Those killed by sniper fire include two reporters who were wearing press jackets, several minors and a man on crutches.

גדר – Gader – Fence

The wall separating Israel and Gaza. The IDF claims that people are being shot because they are a threat to the stability of the fence or are attempting to jump the fence and infiltrate. Tactics employed by Gazans choosing to engage with the IDF and fence include tire burning, Molotov cocktails and most recently a kites with a fire bombs flown over the wall.

Mafgin – Demonstrator – מפגין

All Gazans participating in the March of Return think of themselves as demonstrators against the terrible and inhumane conditions of Gaza as well as the desire to return to their previous homes. 70% of Gazans identify as refugees from the 1948 war, meaning either they or their grandparents were removed from their homes.

מחבל – Mehabel – Terrorist

The Israeli media has been quick to label the Gazans who have been killed by the IDF terrorists, often linking them directly with Hamas.

פרספקטיבה – Perspektiva – Perspective

There are multiple perspectives on The March of Return. In a simplification, Gazans see the protest as a fundamental right to return and humanitarian health issue. Many Israelis see this as a serious security issue and will do everything everything in their power to protect the State of Israel and themselves.

Copyright © *2018 This Is Not An Ulpan*, All rights reserved.

Translating Ticho House

photo: Debra Martens

Beit Ticho

Ticho House gets a full page in the beginner’s Hebrew textbook, a text dense with such vocabulary as paintings, books, gardens, and mountains. The first time I “read” the text, I understood that Mark Twain and Claude Monet had both lived in this amazing 19th century house, and that it was at one point owned by a man called Avraham Ticho and his daughter Anna. When I am trying to understand something in another language, I bring to the text the knowledge that I have, much as I imagine archeologists do when faced with a handprint on an ancient clay wall. In my case, Canadian heritage houses are occupied by writers — think of Pierre Berton House and Al Purdy House. So why not Mark Twain shacking up with Claude Monet? Six months later, in a rereading of the text, I learned that a comparison was being made — other houses owned by famous people (Twain, Monet) are museums, too, just like Ticho House. But how did I draw from “Dr and Anna Ticho” that this was his daughter rather than his wife? No idea.

Ticho House is now a museum and cultural centre because artist Anna Ticho (1894-1980) bequeathed it to the state, or the Israel Museum, on her death. In addition to the exhibition on the Ticho collections, it holds temporary exhibitions.

photo: Debra Martens
Ticho House,
museum collection

Ophthamologist Avraham Ticho (1883-1960) bought the house in 1924, opening his clinic on the ground floor. Dr Ticho worked as an eye specialist before and after the First World War (during which he served in the Austrian army), curing patients both rich and poor. In 1913, through schools, he focused on preventing trachoma.

photo: Debra Martens
Anna Ticho gallery

Anna studied art in Vienna before coming to Jerusalem in 1912. Only after WWI, however, did she start drawing and painting her surroundings.

Dr Ticho collected Hanukkah lamps, the oldest of which dates from the 1400s. According to the text in the museum in Ticho House, the lamps came from all over, from Europe to Russia and Afghanistan. It goes on to say that he hung the lamps on the walls around his desk; today a few lamps from the collection are on display behind glass. Some are in the Israel museum. A Hebrew teacher said that some of the collection was stolen in the 1990s and never recovered — but how do I know I understood her correctly? The museum exhibition makes no mention of any theft or loss of lamps.

Ticho House no longer looks like an early 20th Century home. It was renovated; a slideshow reveals how the rooms were gutted. The renovation exposed the ceiling upstairs, in what is now a restaurant: Anna’s Italian Cafe. A sunny busy room. And it is thanks to this restaurant that a friend met me and led me to Ticho House, a friend who not only has a better sense of direction than I do but who didn’t seem to mind that I licked my fingers while exclaiming that the food was delicious. Which it was.


The Polis Institute

For the month of July, I hit my head against the hard wall of the Hebrew alphabet and language, in an intensive course at the Polis Institute. This is the first time that I’ve learned an alphabet to learn a language, but not the first time I tried to learn Hebrew. I should say two alphabets, since handwritten letters are shaped differently from printed ones.
Shock one: it is harder to learn a language that uses an alphabet different from the Roman or Latin alphabet because suddenly you are illiterate.
My first attempts at reading in Hebrew went something like this: the fish-hook is a “t”, the crown is also a “t”, the snout is a “b”, the thing that looks like a chair is “l” and the snail-shell is “p” or “f.” By the end of July, I could silently spell out each word (grade one level?). Now there are at least three words that I recognize on sight: what, wine and chocolate.

Schools for learning Hebrew are called Ulpan; they are designed to quickly immerse new arrivals in the language and culture of Israel. Until its 19th century revival, Hebrew was restricted to a sacred use, and then it was modernized for use by Israelis in the mid-20th century.
Shock two: religion comes to class.
Some of the students in my class are literate in the Hebrew alphabet because they have learned biblical Hebrew. Many of the students are Christians, here to learn the language of the Old Testament. In class, the language is inseparable from religion: for the days of the week, we learn about the Sabbath, and discuss what we do on this day. We sing a Sabbath song. Reading a text about a museum, we learn the difference between Menorahs and Chanukahs. I begin a list in my notebook titled Religious Vocabulary, with holy days and relevant nouns.
In one month and ten chapters, we learn to count in feminine and masculine, to tell the time, to buy dates and figs. We learn to ask where the wine is from, to respond to apartment rental ads, to discuss whether we’d want to live on a kibbutz and where we’d like to go in Israel. At no time in the course do we learn about mandatory military service for Israelis.

text book

Hebrew is taught without explanation in any other language, through the use of pictures, songs, and mime. The teacher holds up a black and white line drawing, cartoon style, of a group of people of all ages and sizes looking very happy, waving, some open mouthed, some smiling. Everyone else has nodded at this illustration of the word we are learning. To save time, for once the teacher allows me to guess. I hazard: choir? Band? No, no. Into my ear comes the whisper: family.
Shock three: culture shock. I’d heard about families large enough to make their own sports team, but because I was stuck in my Canadian perspective of family = 2.5 (unhappy) persons, I could not see what I was looking at.

There were other situations that I misunderstood. For example, I thought that this situation: (teacher picks up cell phone, blahblahblahSMS, teacher clicks on it, SMSblahblahblahblah) meant there was a word for SMS messages; the word the teacher was demonstrating turned out to be get.

Shock four: the decline in my language acquisition faculties. The youthful in the class hear a word once, maybe twice, and remember it. I hear it and five minutes later ask, Mah zé (what that?). Or, reading right to left, and bearing in mind that vowels are not marked and the curvy last letter is silent — the hut with chimney and crooked walking stick: מה זה. There should be a special word for the humiliation of a bookish person becoming illiterate and an articulate person becoming inarticulate. As for being unable to memorize long lists of words daily, there is already a word for that: aging.

Inside the Polis

Then there is the question of relevance. Often the teacher asks each student the same question in turn. Such as: Do you go to the disco on Friday night? What do you want to be? I answer that I don’t dance, and I want to be who I am. What is your favourite song to sing? “100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” is the only song that comes to mind – not exactly appropriate given the religious component above. I say I don’t sing.
After 20 hours of classes (one week), and a persistent headache (is there a physiological reason to develop headache while learning a new language?), I wondered why I was doing this. In Kenya I studied Swahili, in Austria German. In both cases my belief that learning the language would give me insight into the culture was proven true. This time, the difficulty of my task made me doubt the necessity of memorizing long lists of vocabulary

For this month of humiliation and headache, there was a reward. It came not from the teacher but through the hours of homework. The word for salt is melach: מלח. This refers to both table salt and to bodies-of-water salt — the Dead Sea is actually called Sea the Salt: ימ המלח. In one of the homework exercises we are asked to choose from two words (sugar, salt) to fill in two blanks in a sentence that reads something like: In good family life, blank is better than blank. My mind strayed to the bins of candy in the markets here. Sugar is better than salt?
The week that I filled in these blanks, three Palestinians were shot during demonstrations over the installation of metal detectors at the entrances to the mosque complex in the old city, where two Israeli soldiers were killed the week before. During the escalating tensions in Jerusalem, I read a homework text that forced me to look up a word that looks like salt-what, or melach-mah: מלחמה. It means: war. Sugar is indeed better than salt.

Shokolad. Chocolate. שוקולד  My favourite is bittersweet.





To It

Dead Sea

When I was clearing off my father’s desk after his death this summer, I found a round cardboard disk with the words “to it” printed on it. I recognized immediately this gift from his second wife some 30 years ago, a joke gift. At his puzzled look on opening it, she said, “Now you’ve got a round to it, you can do all those things you’ve been putting off.” She was playing with his usual reply of “I’ll get around to it.” He was not amused. They divorced about five years later.

I didn’t take the disk away with me, but I feel I’ve inherited my father’s tendency to procrastinate. Since his death in June and since our move to Jerusalem in August, I have neglected family, friends, my work, social media, and Canadian Writers Abroad.

Procrastination is easy when you move to a new country. Unless you are efficient and organized, which I was not this time, no one knows your telephone number, and anyhow who can figure out how to retrieve messages, and sometimes the internet doesn’t work, and who can be bothered? And when you walk out your door, no one knows you. No one is going to ask how your work is going. By December I knew I’d let things slide long enough and resolved to do better in the new year.

Around Christmas, I got red eyes. The pain in one eye was so intense that it felt like a biblical punishment. I couldn’t read and I couldn’t look at a computer screen. At St John’s Eye Hospital, a mere block away, they told me I had a virus. That I would be better soon. But I didn’t get better, I got worse.

Moving abroad and setting up house in a new country isn’t always easy. But you get on with things, do what you have to do, and when you stumble, you say to yourself that things will get better. Sometimes, though, they get worse. The new year came and went and I couldn’t read. Everything was blurry. I recoiled from sunlight like a vampire.

And then — bless “and then,” the redeeming turn of the story. I went to another eye doctor, who found the hard seedy source of the problem stuck to my eyelid, which in turn caused an abrasion that delayed victory over the virus. I still can’t read, and am touch-typing this while squinting. But now I am assured that my eye will recover, and this makes everything bearable. Even the necessity of apologizing for my months of procrastination is bearable. I am looking forward.

My question to you is: if you couldn’t read for a few weeks, what book would you select for your first read of 2017?


Expat Mobile



Sometimes when I look at the view from the various hilltops where I live, I feel disbelief. (Disbelief in the most religious city in the world!) How can this be the view when only weeks ago it was lush gardens, clean parks, red buses, brollies and rain? The most sunny day in London could not match this brightness –the light in this photo is at the end of the day, around 5:00 PM.

Since coming to Jerusalem I’ve thought often of Playmobil dolls, the small plastic dolls that come in themed boxes. The farm-girl doll with her sheep and sheaf of wheat. The racer with his car and wrench. The knight with his horse and armour and spear. Because we lived in a country with castles when our daughter was Playmobil aged, we bought many knights. I think of them now, here, because of the crusades. Did she have crusader knights? Whether we thought they were good guys or bad guys didn’t matter, because she discovered that you could pull off not only their armour and helmets but also their hair. The brown-haired knight would, pop, become the blonde knight. All dolls swapped roles.

That’s how I feel when I look at the view here. Like someone picked me up out of my London theme and dropped me into ancient religious-land theme, and popped the top of my head off en route. Pictured on my box would be the wall (both the wailing one and the one that makes you weep) and the Dome of the Rock and Orthodox Jews and friendly Arab shopkeepers and me holding a pomegranate.

And you thought I was going to write about a car, the expat version of the popemobile.

Here’s another view, of the garbage-mobile:


Look at the King the King the King

How could I resist an exhibition called “In the Valley of David and Goliath”?  The exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem displays artifacts excavated from 2007 to 2013 at a 3,000 year-old site today known as Khirbet Qeiyafa, in the Elah Valley. But maybe, just maybe, it was the city of Sha’arayim, mentioned apparently in the bible story of David and Goliath. Why would it be that city, quite apart from its location between the Philistines and the Judeans (near the battlefield where David slew Goliath and thereby created the infinite Hollywood trope of clever little guy against big bad guy)? Because, the museum display posits, Sha’arayim means two gates in Hebrew, and the archeologists found two gates in the walled city they were excavating, and not many sites from that era have two gates, for security reasons obviously. Therefore…. Does this sound like a logic exercise in a philosophy class?

Despite my discomfort with finding biblical quotations as bonus information to the exhibits, I was fascinated. It is pretty cool that archeologists can gather up a bunch of chewed olive pits and use carbon dating to place the site in time. From the Bible Lands website: “Carbon14 dating, on charred olive pits excavated from the foundation layers of the site have determined that this city existed between the late 11th century BCE and early 10th century BCE, the beginning of the Kingdom of Israel.”

The Kingdom of Israel is also referred to as the Kingdom of David. I mention these kingdoms because I felt like someone was trying too hard to convince me. For example, a hand print on a clay wall could mean A or B, depending on what interpretation you bring to it and its context. This exhibition is presenting the artifacts as support for another city belonging to the Kingdom of David (and therefore Israel), although, to give the museum credit, the interpretation is presented as questions: Could this be etc.?

Item: a piece of pottery with Hebrew writing on it.

Item: three small shrines or houses for idols, one of which apparently resembles the biblical description of King Solomon’s temple and palace but looks like a doll-house to me.

Item: or the lack thereof. Bones were found in the food areas, but no pork bones, and the Philistines ate pork so they couldn’t have been living here.

Item: clay pots with thumb prints on the handles. Taxation? Valuation? These along with the walls of the town suggest an organized state.

Proof that this was the site of a city built at the time of King David or thereabouts? Maybe. Even the book about it by archeologists Yosef Garfinkel, Igor Kreimerman and Peter Zilberg leaves it open to question: Debating Khirbet Qeiyafa: A Fortified City in Judah from the Time of King David (Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

But tell me why do I hear Danny Kaye singing “Look at the king the king the king” as I write this?


Yes, there’s dust, but hey, the dust is old. When I try to read about exactly how old this place is, it’s as if I ate an ice cream bar too fast: brain freeze. During our five years in England we explored its history backwards, starting with Victorian, then heading out to medieval cathedral towns, and on our last trip, searching for signs of the Romans at Hadrian’s wall. People don’t come to Jerusalem for any of that comparatively modern history. Here history is religious — it’s where BC and AD began. image1

What do I mean by old dust, anyhow? Do I want geological information? Or human habitation? My Baedeker’s Israel tells me that people have been living in the Jerusalem area since the Early Stone Age. And that people were moving around and conquering Israel well before the Egyptians temporarily took charge. What makes me double check that I am indeed reading the chapter called “History,” pages of which are tabbed with “Facts” is the discussion of biblical figures. Such as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt (which took 40 years and suggests he had a worse sense of direction than I do): “…ended their migration on Mount Nebo in present-day Jordan, where Moses died and his successor Johsua organized the land seizure. Neither the story recounted in Exodus, nor the character of Moses, can be taken literally from a historical perspective. Nevertheless they are a valuable source that describes different migration groups at that time…” p. 54. 

I like that bit about “organized the land seizure” even if it can’t be taken literally.

It just gets better. Remember David and Goliath? That stone slinging incident was part of a larger engagement against the Philistines, and David became king, and captured Jerusalem and made it his capital around 998 BC. There is more about David in the chapter “Famous People,” where he has an entry (p. 97). Who did he capture Jerusalem from? From whom? The Jebusites. He let them stay.

As I said, old dust. I’ll have to give that sandy dust that I sweep off the balcony everyday a little more respect.







First impression, as someone at the handle end of a taut dog leash: walls, fences, and broken glass. The beige stones of the low walls have holes in them, look old, but they still block us from that apparent field of wasteland, from the hidden courtyards, from everything except this glass strewn uneven sidewalk.

Once the dog has found some dry [cedar? pine?] needles on which to relieve herself, I can notice local life. The people standing on the corner are not pub overflow, as in London. They have come to buy the oval bread a woman is selling from a basket. There is also a basket of eggs. Men speak to the dog but we do not understand. Across the street, a man splashes bottled water on the windshield of his parked car, while the wipers flap, removing dust. For there is dust.


Bared and Ready

At the park, the muddy ground is finally bare of leaves. The high grey tendons of leafless trees scratch at the tenebrous morning sky. Frost has given a hat-hair limpness to the hellebores and has edged with brown the early rhododendron blooms. Chill, close, an air of expectancy.


Such doom and gloom to be found on the internet about the future of reading, of fiction, of books. And yet. The window washer tells me he likes to read non-fiction, and rattles off a list of recent reads. Biographies of sports celebs, politicians, people’s experience of war. Nothing unusual in this except that he reads at the end of a fourteen-hour working day, or on a rare day off. He works long hours to get by, and when he isn’t working, his favourite thing to do is read.

This morning, after I witnessed an exchange of goods between vendors, the vegetable vendor told me that this job feeds him, and is much needed, as he is a student. There was a pause while I speculated: student of acting, agriculture, assets? “Of what,” I asked.
“I like that,” I said, “the market vendor philosopher.” He looked dismayed. I guess I should have said, “the philosopher market vendor.” Or maybe the problem is with the words “market vendor.” There is probably a jazzier English version for guys who sell stuff at the market. Marketeer?