“London seems to be in my bloodstream,” said artist Leon Kossoff. “It is always moving — the skies, the streets, the buildings. The people who walk past me when I draw have become part of my life.”
Kossoff’s current exhibition, “London Landscapes,” which opened in London May 8, includes over 90 drawings and 10 paintings in a retrospective that depicts the changing rhythm of the city’s urban landscape.
Apart from evacuation as a schoolboy and military service with the Royal Fusiliers between 1945 and 1948, 86-year-old Kossoff has lived all his life in the English capital. His work displays his observations of London — a lifelong subject — including the bomb sites of the early 1950s, the regeneration of Kings Cross and a recent return to Arnold Circus, in Shoreditch in the East End. That was where he was born to Yiddish speaking parents, and where he subsequently grew up.
Built in 1896, Arnold Circus was Britain’s first council housing estate, a Victorian social experiment. Today, red brick houses circle a bandstand and small park, much like they did then. The building where Kossoff attended school is still standing but the area, which formerly was occupied by immigrants, has now been gentrified.
What 47th street is to New Yorkers, Hatton Garden, a street and area in the district of Holborn, has long been for Londoners a place to buy and sell jewelery. “Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden,” an anecdotally discursive, impressionistic history, was published by Hamish Hamilton. Its author, artist and writer Rachel Lichtenstein, was born in 1969 to a family of Polish Jewish origin. Lichtenstein is the daughter and granddaughter of jewelers, and her husband Adam currently manages the family shop. These close ties make for an unusually empathetic narrative, which might be expected from her previous books likewise inspired by London’s Jewish East End, “On Brick Lane”, also from Hamish Hamilton, and from Granta, “Rodinsky’s Room,” an homage to David Rodinsky, an ill-fated Jewish scholar.
“Diamond Street” cites generic similarities among jewelry districts worldwide, and indeed Hatton Garden welcomes Jews from “Israel, Iran, America, Holland, Britain, and many other countries,” notes Lichtenstein; she observes of the 1944 novel “Diamonds” by Esther Kreitman – the sister of Isaac Bashevis Singer — about gem merchant jewelers in Antwerp: “Kreitman could have been describing a scene today, such is the timeless quality of the Jewish diamond trade.” Yet since the Middle Ages, Hatton Garden has also boasted specifically British attributes as a jewelry center, as Lichtenstein underlines by citing Charles Dickens, who was familiar with the neighborhood. In Dickens’ novel “Bleak House”, one character describes Hatton Garden as a “poor neighbourhood, where they uses up the kettles till they’re past mending.”
Lichtenstein pauses with loving attention at such landmarks as a private synagogue designed by the 19th century British Jewish architect David Mocatta for Sir Moses Montefiore, which she describes as a “now derelict Grade II listed building” with an “abandoned exterior” that still somehow boasts a “pristine and grand” interior. More humble landmarks have now vanished, such as “Mrs. Cohen’s Kosher Café,” once a local meeting place, as has a sense of patient craftsmanship and mutual trust within a tight-knit community. As a transcriber of enthused and warm-hearted interviews, Lichtenstein strikes a tone somewhere between the Victorian Henry Mayhew and 20th century Manhattan’s unsurpassed characterful reporter Joseph Mitchell. In one telling moment, Lichtenstein removes her own wedding ring to examine a tiny craftsman’s mark made by its goldsmith, before recounting the latter gentleman’s wistfully monomaniacal life, entirely dedicated to workmanship rather than profit or self-seeking. Thanks in part to Lichtenstein, there’s life in the old area yet.
See Rachel Lichtenstein hosting a literary evening in London here
“Do the dead know that life still exists, somewhere?” the 17-year-old literature-loving, sex-obsessed Samuel Glass asks in “The Odyssey of Samuel Glass.” Since his adored father’s sudden death, he is desperate to leave the confines of his north London suburban home. His desire to “get away from the doom-laden cloud that pervaded the house” is acute. Life has lost its purpose.
Then a strange, foul-smelling, bedraggled creature known as the Red Rabbi appears to take him on a voyage of discovery, back to where “the past awaits.” Sam travels through time and space to 1881, in Vitebsk (now Belarus), Russia, where he meets his great-great-great grandmother, leader of a group of anarchists called Narodnaya Volya, or The People’s Will. It is there that he learns the secret purpose for which he has been chosen.
This set-up is classic of author Bernard Kops. Readers familiar with his life and work will recognize certain themes; much of Kops’s writing focuses on the essence of a journey and the importance of the quest. Kops is concerned with individuals who are trapped by the confines of a close Jewish family, and in “The Odyssey of Samuel Glass,” his 10th novel, he depicts his own desire to leave home as a young man.
When the English novelist Ian McEwan accepted the Jerusalem Prize in January, he did so despite strident demands from pro-Palestinian writers to reject the prize and boycott the Jerusalem Book Fair where it is awarded. But McEwan insisted on his right to engage in dialogue with all Israelis, and argued in the Guardian that literature, “with its impulse to enter other minds, can reach across political divides.”
It’s this spirit which animates a new public book club in London. Having just celebrated its first anniversary, the Arab-Israel Book Club has been inviting people to inhabit the minds of characters living with “the situation.” From Anton Shammas to Sara Shilo, its aim has been to introduce readers to authors — and characters — who might deepen their understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict. And its time seems to have come: As uprisings spread across the Middle East this winter, its numbers have more than doubled. People suddenly seem hungry to know more.
During a script reading at the Jewish Museum London on October 24, two writers with mortality on their minds came face to face: the bushy-eyebrowed 83-year-old East End poet and kitchen sink dramatist Bernard Kops, and the eternally 45-year-old journalist and playwright Isaac Babel.
“Some things grab you; you know what makes a play,” explained Kops on the phone the next day, reflecting on the public debut of his new work “Whatever Happened to Isaac Babel.”
Babel, a one-time protégé of the activist and publisher Maxim Gorky, was a writer held in high esteem among the Russian literary elite, widely translated as he moved between languages and lovers in Moscow and Paris. But during the 1930s, his depictions of corruption in Soviet life (not to mention an affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD), came to a head during Stalin’s Great Purge. Babel was arrested in 1939 for so-called anti-Soviet activities.
Crossposted from Haaretz
This year marks the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim, the American lyricist and composer who with his own two hands changed the face of the stage musical in the second half of the 20th century. During his more than 50 years of activity he has created a huge variety of works, in terms of both genre and supply of roles. The fact that he is still around (he is Jewish, though this is not especially evident in his work) gives producers additional incentive to put on his work.
A theater visit to London this month has turned into a Sondheim celebration for me. Concert versions of his works are underway in the city (including “Company,” featuring Adrian Lester — who already played Bobby, the bachelor who studies the lives of his married friends, in an excellent London production). And the intimate Donmar Warehouse in Covent Garden — which for 17 years has consistently been putting on excellent productions that go on to conquer the West End, Broadway, Los Angeles, Australia and Brazil — is now staging a production of the musical “Passion,” which Sondheim adapted in 1984 from the film “Passione d’amore” by Italian director Ettore Scola. In honor of the production, Sondheim came to London and discussed his works before an audience in that same hall.
When I arrived at the East London Sukkah this blustery Saturday, the afternoon’s schedule of programs was running behind to accommodate a late entry: “A Guide to Squatting” by the North East London Squatters Network.
It was an appropriate event for the festival of Sukkot, which asks us to recall our nomadic history and move our lives into transitory homes. It was even more appropriate for a sukkah built by a partnership led by Jewdas, an organization that bills itself as “radical voices for the alternative diaspora,” and whose website describes the traditional structure as “a home for 7 days, where you eat, sleep, party…”
“…and make love,” intoned Heather Ring wryly, finishing a quote that for some reason lingers in people’s minds when they read the website. Ring, landscape architect and founder of the Wayward Plant Registry, was project leader and one of three designers of the sukkah.
The great French journalist Albert Londres (1884-1932), whose subjects ranged from prison conditions to mental hospitals to the Sino-Japanese War, chose one of his most fascinating themes in “The Wandering Jew Has Arrived” (“Le juif errant est arrivé”), an on-the-spot account of a 1929 trip through Jewish neighborhoods in England, Eastern Europe, and Tel Aviv.
As Pierre Assouline notes in his excellent biography “Albert Londres: The Life and Death of a Great Reporter,” Londres was a fascinated eyewitness, possessing ardent sympathy for suffering humanity. The Lvov ghetto’s stench is enough to provoke nausea in the veteran reporter. On one street, he is mistaken for a Jew by a Polish passerby, who elbows Londres in the ribs, shouting “Get the hell out of my way, you cursed dog!”
By contrast, his days visiting London’s Jewish East End, dotted by many synagogues in the 1920s, are more pleasant. Londres notes that Whitechapel Road shop windows are decorated with images of Theodor Herzl; David battling Goliath; General Allenby marching into Gaza; Lord Balfour Opening the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925, and related themes. Londres visits the grave of Herzl, then at Austria’s Döbling Cemetery, which would be transferred in 1949 to Israel, and reflects how “it is very difficult, even in the name of an ideal, to make well-housed people move.”
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