Posted in Art, Reviews

My Name is Asher Lev


Beautifully written, in many ways this book only paints the broad strokes, inviting you in to identify with the characters in different ways.

Asher Lev grows up in the strict Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1940s/50s. Both sides of the family fled the Soviet Union, and in this new life in the US, find strength in their faith but also in the structure and in the sense of community of their particular group. There seems to also be a strong sense of guilt at not sharing in the suffering of those Jews still living (and being imprisoned and killed) under Stalin’s regime. This leads to Asher’s father being largely absent, as he travels first the US and then Europe, trying to help those fleeing and left behind.

Asher himself is a very gifted artist, which is evident from a very young age. In fact, it seems more than a gift, it seems to be the only way he can express himself. This leads to a lot of tension with his parents, and in particular his father. Ariyeh Lev does not know how to relate to his son. Art to him is at best a waste of time, at worst something that pulls you away from everything that is good and worthwhile.

Asher’s preoccupation with art, and the type of art he produces, is also not accepted or understood by his community and he becomes more and more isolated. The Rebbe seems to be the only one who understands what art means to Asher, and he tries to help him find ways to combine the two parts of his identity – that of an artist and that of a Ladover Jew.

There are a number of different themes running through the book. The one that struck me most, particularly in the third part, is the loneliness the characters (and all of us, maybe) feel. While the dichotomy here is maybe stronger than in most families, the book brilliantly shows that ultimately it is impossible to truly understand another human being. There are times when all three of the main characters genuinely attempt to reach out to the other. There are glimpses of understanding, of empathy towards the other. But sadly real communication and understanding never happen.

A beautifully written novel that will stay with me for a long time.

Posted in Art, Reviews

Desert Dancer

Desert-Dancer-Film-Poster-Plakat-WallpaperSet in Iran, this powerful and unbelievable true story follows the brave ambition of Afshin Ghaffarian. During the volatile climate of the 2009 presidential election, where many cultural freedoms were threatened, Afshin and some friends risk their lives and form an underground dance company. Through banned online videos, they learn from timeless legends who cross all cultural divides, such as- Michael Jackson, Gene Kelly and Rudolf Nureyev. Afhsin and Elaheh also learn much from each other, most importantly how to embrace their passion for dance and for one another. (from Wikipedia)

What a powerful and deeply moving film. It weaves an intricate tapestry of beauty (in the dance), friendship, fear, repression, courage, grief, joy.  At times, it is hard to watch but never depressing.  Somehow, even when the police brutality is at its worst, courage, friendship and hope shine brighter.

To escape the constant warchfulness of the religious police, the group invite selected friends to a performance in the desert outside Tehran (hence the name of the movie), giving us what has to be one of the most beautiful dance scenes ever.

One very powerful theme of this movie is the effect the repression by the regime has on individual lives, including this group of friends. From one day to the next, the ballet company in Tehran was disbanded and Elaheh’s mother lost what was most central to her life and identity.  The effect of that plays out even in her daughter’s battle with drugs.  For others, it is the struggle to stand up to pressure, to find the courage not to betray, knowing there would be a personal cost.  You see the hope, with the upcoming elections, then turning to anger, when those appear to be rigged, before leading to despondency, the violence of the state winning out.

Those harsh realities form the backdrop, and they are not romanticised, but they are not the whole picture.  The individual courage, the strength they find in their friendships, the joy that comes from dancing – all those make this a beautiful movie to watch.

Posted in Art, Culture


10310657_650801698303093_5095080523172767115_n(Sculpture by Bruno Catalano)


(Welsh, noun) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

Sculptures don’t often “speak” to me.  I’m more of a words kind of girl…  Yet when I saw these pictures, they didn’t just speak, they struck a very deep chord. Suitcase in hand, off to new horizons.  Somehow I don’t think he is off on his summer holidays.  This looks more serious.  Maybe he is emigrating, all his possesions in one suitcase.  Unlike me, shipping boxes and boxes full of stuff from my old home to the new one.

Either way, the travelling, the good-byes have left their mark.  He leaves part of himself behind.  The people, the places, that made that season of his life special. He can take his memories with him but there will always be the aching, the longing, the hiraeth.

“A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return”.  These days, travel is easy. Many of us are able to return to the places we have left behind.  Those are special times. And yet…  It is never truly returning home. Places change, people leave or pass away, we ourselves change.  Relationships will never be the same again.

In the leaving, there is great excitement and hope. There is also the first inkling of hiraeth, of leaving behind a part of yourself that can never be retrieved. So often the joy and the richness of discovering a new place, new relationships, and the painful longing for the old, “for the lost places of your past”, go hand in hand.

Refugees, emigrants of old, people who know, who knew, that a physical return will be nigh on impossible – how much more deeply must they feel, have felt that “hiraeth”.

Hiraeth bears considerable similarities with the Portuguese concept of saudade (a key theme in Fado music), Galician morriña and Romanian dor (

For a beautiful piece on “saudade” look here:

Another post inpired by these scupltures (and a bit more information about the artist):

This is where I first came across the sculptures and the quote:


Posted in Art, Culture


171a9734a9He is there, yet not quite.  Part of the town, yet apart.  Floating.  Luftmenschen, people of the air.  Art depicting what words sometimes struggle to express.

Marc Chagall describing his experience of growing up in a Jewish Schtetl in eastern Europe (now Belarus).  The search for stability, the desire to belong. Yet knowing it could all be over in an instant.  Always expecting to be chased away again, ready to run.

That time and place is gone, the experience is not.  Millions of people live like this.

Some, like me, by choice.  Deciding that the treasure to be gained by leaving home, by planting yourself in another place, another country, outweighs the cost of giving up those deep roots.   At our best, we belong anywhere and everywhere.  At our worst, we feel like Luftmenschen, always floating, never quite landing.

Others never get to make that choice, life chooses for them.  War, persecution, economic hardship drive them from their homes.  They live the life of a refugee, always waiting to go back, grieving what they have lost.  Some choosing to put down roots in the new place.  And yet a part of them left behind in the old place.

A way of life, a state of heart so beautifully expressed in this image.

“Mit seinem über der Stadt schwebenden Mann hat Chagall ein Motiv ins Bild gebracht, das in vielerlei Hinsicht als zentrale Metapher der jüdischen Existenz in der Moderne gelten kann: die „Luftmenschen“, die mittellosen Bewohner der Schtetl Osteuropas, die von Gelegenheitsarbeiten mehr schlecht als recht lebten, in ihrer Region nicht verwurzelt und beständig von Verfolgung und Vertreibung bedroht waren. Der Begriff „Luftmensch“ geht auf die zeitgenössische jiddische Literatur zurück, auf Mendele Moicher Sforim und Scholem Alejchem, und diente zunächst der ironischen Selbstbeschreibung, wurde aber im 20. Jahrhundert zum antisemitischen Stereotyp der Wurzellosigkeit gewandelt. Chagalls Luftmensch hält einen Wanderstab in der rechten Hand, auf dem Rücken drückt ihn ein großer Sack mit seiner ganzen Habe, ein Sinnbild für die historische Wanderschaft des jüdischen Volkes. Das Motiv spielt auf Redewendungen an wie „jeder trägt sein Päckchen“ oder „man geht über die Häuser“ – im Jiddischen ein Ausdruck für das Hausieren. In seiner Schwerelosigkeit wie in seiner Dimension schiebt sich der Schwebende als surreales Moment über die realistische Straßenszene von Witebsk. Chagall hat den Blick aus dem Fenster des Hauses gemalt, in dem er nach seiner Rückkehr aus Paris 1914 ein Zimmer gemietet hatte. Rechts im Bild zeigt er die markante Ilja-Kirche mit dem grünen Lattenzaun zwischen gemauerten Sockeln. Das Motiv des schwebenden Wanderers setzte Chagall mehrfach in Variationen um. Dabei identifizierte er sich oft selbst mit dem heimatlosen Wanderer. Schon im Epilog seiner autobiographischen Aufzeichnungen schrieb er: „Hängen wir denn nicht tatsächlich in der Luft, leiden wir nicht an einer einzigen Krankheit: der Sucht nach Stabilität?“ ” (
Posted in Art

Listening to Art


I like art.  But rarely do I take the time to listen to it.  Either a picture draws me in immediately (and it’s usually the colours that will “get” me) or I will pretty much walk right past it.  Only on rare occasions will I stop, make an effort, really listen to what the picture is saying.

The picture above is one of those I would have walked right past.  It’s not a style I like.  Not enough colour, not immediately beautiful.

But the thing is, before I ever saw this picture, I read about it.  I read about the story it tells, the symbolism involved.  When I finally looked it up online, I wanted to see, to discover.  I was fascinated.

In 1618 the Spanish artist Diego Velazquez depicted the Emmaus meal in a painting called “Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus”.  Jesus and the disciples are depicted in the top left corner.  But the picture focuses all our attention on the maid.  The astonished look on her face as she overhears their conversation suggests she’s realized that a previously deas man has just eaten her food.  The meal is hinted at, but it’s all washed and tidied away.  The central item is a piece of rag.  The new world has collided with the old.
(Tim Chester, A Meal with Jesus)

It’s all there.  Suddenly I get the picture.  I look beyond mere aesthetics at the story.  The kitchen maid realising what has happened, how this will change everything.  The sheer miracle of it all.  It’s all there and now I see it.
All because there was an incentive to look, really look.  Maybe I should do that more often.