Sunday, February 21, 2010

It is said that with the coming of the Hebrew month, Adar, we are joyous. Adar, which usually coincides with the month of March, brings with it Purim. This festival signifies the prevention of a massacre of the Jews of Persia in 486-465 B.C. planned by Haman, the Grand Vizier of the King of Persia, Achashverus. Believed to be King Xerxes, at that time Achasverus chose a new wife from the Jewish community, Esther. The name Esther is derived from the Hebrew word "hester", i.e. "hidden," hinting at the hidden turn of events.

Esther was able with the help of her brother Mordechai to foil Haman's plans by disclosing them to the king at a feast which she organized. And since Haman's evil was turned "upside down", against him, it is a Jewish custom to dress up as something or someone else in a fun way. A celebratory feast is eaten to commemorate Esther's feast, much wine is imbibed by the adults and laughter and silly behavior are engaged in by both old and young.

But Purim is totally unlike Halloween in that gory or frightening costumes which glorify death are not the custom. Costumes based on word games and puns are popular. For instance when the Secretary General of the UN was Kofee Anan - Anan is "cloud" in Hebrew - my son was the first to appear as a coffee can with a cloud suspended above his head.

Last week at my grandchildrens' school each class chose a Purim family theme and went with it. On Monday, the first graders all dressed up as grandmothers, the second grade as teenagers, the third grade as babies, the fourth grade as bride and groom, and so on.

For myself, Adar marks the month when the Mountain Swifts return to nest in Jerusalem and I anxiously await their call. Below is the translation of one of my many Hebrew poems about this beloved bird which appear in my book, "The Secret Life of Birds":

Conversations with Birds

At six of a morning
a sharp cry of clamorous delight,

the season's first troop of Mountain-Swifts
has entered my dream,

fled into the wind, into blue mists breaking,
they call out
- Adar is here
and we have returned to you.

(c) Shira Twersky-Cassel

Thursday, February 11, 2010

What I missed most during my visit to Miami were the pitot, the pitot of the shuk, Mahane Yehuda, the open air market built when Jews began setting up neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City.

So, soon after my return home I took my eleven year old granddaughter, Hedva Pnina, to share one of my great pleasures of living in Jerusalem, a walk through the shuk.

For centuries the fear of bandit gangs who roamed the deserted expanses outside the Old City Walls had created a crowded, intimate environment of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews living in close proximity with the Moslem, Christian and Armenian communities inside the old stone courtyards.

The Jewish philanthropist Moses [Moshe] Montefiore financed and built the first neighborhood overlooking the walls, Yemin Moshe, in the late 19th century. Other neighboroods soon sprang up and today this network of picturesque buildings decorated with mosaic symbols and handmade iron grilling are at the heart of modern day Jerusalem.

Such is the shuk which in this era of the supermarket remains our colorful and slightly raunchy alternative. Vendors sing out the best tasting tomatoes, corn, aberguines, apples, bananas, the delicious of whatever is in season at the cheapest prices.

Great chunks of yellow and white salt cheeses, the scent of colorful spices pouring out of jute sacks, barrels of pickled veggies and herring whet the appetite. The fragrance from giant trays of cheese and spinach and potato burekas, honeyed cinnamon and cocoa "rogalech" emerging from the ovens of small bakeries which line the street fill the air. After Purim, braids of fresh garlic suspended from the booths, and baskets of giant strawberries anticipate Passover.

But my favorite are the vendors - comedians, philosophers and showmen all. Their natural wisdom tests your own and you know you are a real Jerusalemite when you learn to exchange wisecracks with them while shleping your cart from the fallafel stand at the bottom of the shuk to the assorted roasted nuts and dried fruits shop at the entrance.

Below is my translation from the Hebrew of a poem that appeared in my book, Blackbird:

SMALL TREASURES; Mornings in Mahane Yehuda

Soon we'll go down to stroll in the weather
on a carpet of sage and three-leaved Yemenite clover.

It's a stormy day, skies hurry into laundry drying in the wind
- fold fragrance of distance and horizon into your closet
- place sachet of skies-one-hour-before-the-rain between your clothes.

You talk to the rising storm,

dark clouds are reflected in your eyes
that await the rain.

After rainfall -- bright calm of perennials washed clean
and hallelujah bird-song pairs heaven and earth.

Begin your day in the shuk,

the fruit and vegetable vendors have named you Pure Heart,
for you can measure a full weight in your hand,
- two kilos of dew and ambrosia
- a thousand fruit jewels for your basket.

Walk down Etz Chayim Alley,
there grandfather-prophet leans on his worn wooden crate,

in prayer he kisses the fringes of his prayer shawl
and turns to whisper a blessing,
"You are the first
to bring sage-fragrance to me this morning.

(c) Shira Twersky-Cassel

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jerusalem in Winter

During my stay in Miami in early January, there was an unprecedented cold wave. Miamians were outraged at this breaking of the unwritten rule: Hurricanes between June and November OK, but below 50 degrees farhenheit for 12 days ! The coldest period since 1940.

For me that was a warm winter. I returned in late January to my damp and freezing house - Jerusalem in winter is not what you may imagine the warm Middle East to be. My two cats, Kinneret and Rachel, dragged up to meet me at the door with teeth chattering. Since I have been home temperatures dropped to almost freezing and this morning rain has turned to hail.

Last night a rare snow forecast for the Golan and the Hermon Mountain - the northern heights - and Jerusalem caused Israelis from warmer Tel Aviv to pack up their cars with the kids and the warmest jackets they could shlep out of closets and make the annual pilgrimage to the capital. But in the light of dawn, dreams of charging around in the snow and "ahing" and "ohing" at the sight of ethereal stone buildings and Jerusalem Pines layered with a haze of misty snow had to be postponed. No snow yet.

Here's a poem I wrote about this season:


Roses do well in Jerusalem,
hardy beauties,
they withstand the winter gales
that whistle under stone threshold doors

they brave the wet snow that slows life down
when Tel Aviv joins us in wonder

and withstand the rise of High Holy Day winds

that tear into lesser blooms
overturning September's Tabernacle booths.

Wild Snapdragon and Caper Bush
clambering over Temple ruins these millennium
thrive with the Wild Rose, the mystic "Shoshana."

She holds head high

through Hamsin burn that lays waste the purple Fuscia bells
and the yellow Sharav sand-mists
that send us indoors
to contemplate eternity.

© Sole Copyright of Shira Twersky-Cassel