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Monday, November 7, 2016

Botz, Fango, Mud

In the first week of November, 1966, half a century ago, Florence was horrifically flooded.  Essentially mud and fuel oil from the overflowing Arno River, that crosses through town, covered much of the city center.  In most communities this would be a tragedy.  In Florence it was a catastrophe.  Real art masterpieces, not just the good stuff, but the greatest of Western civilization, were harmed.  Fifty years later, the restoration appears nearing its end.

I don't know if I should feel guilty for what I am about to say, but being here now, five decades later, is a remarkable experience.  We have seen a photographic exhibition and a multimedia presentation of the flood and its aftermath.  We attended a midnight opening of the just restored Last Supper painted by Vasari.  The mud covered work was saved with essentially glued on paper that took 50 years to safely remove and then restore.  Judas in pink, stunning!  It now hangs with a pulley system to raise it high in a matter of seconds.

A couple of days ago, I was reading about Paolo Uccello's painting.  Uccello, was the master of mathematical perspective that gave the Renaissance much of its greatness.  After learning what I previously missed understanding, we returned to the Ufizi to see again his Battle of San Romano with its hobby horse calvary and empty armored dead soldiers.  This guy was wonderfully weird.  His name is actually a nickname.  Uccello means bird, as the artist drew birds by the score and was apparently more comfortable with them than with people.  

Then, today we went to see his green frescos.  The book in which I was reading about Uccello, The Stones of Florence, by Mary McCarthy, was written in 1959.  The flood was in 1966.  And although restored, the frescos retain only a remembrance of their glory.  Luckily, the most amazing, Noah's ark docked just as the waters are receding, the viewer inside the boat looking down the gang plank, is the best restored.  But even it is a ghost of its past.  I felt a bit like Noah, living just on the other side of a moment that can never be recaptured.

Friday, November 4, 2016


Much of Florence's artistic glory is presented with an eye toward meaning, but given the sheer size of the trove, one is often overwhelmed.  After all, just how many Annunciations can one see in an hour and maintain a separate and unique understanding of each?  And each of these Annunciations is separated by a Coronation and an Assumption and an Adoration or two as there are multiple kinds of Adorations.  Too much!

Today, we visited the old Foundling Hospital, by which I mean the early 14th century Foundling hospital, though it served its mission, to save abandoned babies, well into the 19th century.  The building is one of the very first buildings to reflect Renaissance architecture.  (

Over the centuries, the hospital collected art.  Early on, for example, it commissioned Andrea della Robbia to decorate the facade with blue terra-cotta circles of babies.  Now, there are a great deal of blue della Robbia terra-cottas in Florence. The della Robbia family invented the process and were well known for their art.  But this large collection is just babies.  And the rest of the hospital's art, now displayed in a museum setting in the original building, is mostly baby focused.  All the same basic themes, Annunciations, Coronations and such, but with babies in each art work.

The hospital/museum also has an exhibit of the building's history and their dedication to abandoned children.  And opportunities to see "behind" the original architecture which is pretty amazing.  And a roof top terrace with, just maybe, the single best view of the city.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Real Amazing Food (without the usual suspects)

The food almost everywhere in Florence and Tuscany is good, really good.  However, it is very repetitive.  The steak, the bread soup, the tripe, the ragu pasta, the tiramisu and so on are great, but they are served everywhere in a similar traditional manner.  For all the good, there is little creativity.  I realize that America might seem this way to a visitor from abroad, but no, our tourist destinations have a variety of food choices and the best places highlight creativity.  Here the best is simply the same, prepared the best manner.  We have eaten well, we have enjoyed, but have not been amazed.

Two meals have stood apart from the museum-ish food personality of Florence.  We ate both this week.  The first was simple in the best sense.  The food spoke for itself.  We were invited to a "new season of eating" dinner.  And because the meal was going to be vegetarian, the menu relied almost solely on what was fresh and grown.  Yes, there was the traditional meatless bread and bean soup, Ribollita.  It may have been the best we have eaten, unashamedly using largish hunks of bread to replace flesh.  As well, we enjoyed a positively delicious pumpkin soup and another delicious bean and kale creation.  Yet, the meal's real stars were uncooked.  We enjoyed sliced raw onions, and sliced raw fennel and sliced raw tomatoes and so on.   The brightest star of the feast was sliced raw! artichoke.  All of the above we dipped in real first press olive oil from the family grove of one of the guests, washed down with Vino Novello, Italy's version of a fresh wine, similar to the better known Beaujolais nouveau.

Dessert was part of the shared Tuscan fare and yet very much exceptional.  The tiramisu, served plain out of a large baking dish, was just spectacular.  Then I helped hand whip lots and lots of heavy cream to top a modest layer of fresh chestnuts cooked and transformed into a sweet base layer to make Monte Bianco, white mountain.  This was a meal of the ingredients.

Then the next night we went by ourselves to a vegetarian restaurant.  I was a little skeptical for two reasons.  First, outside of a few "traditional" meatless foods like ribollita, this is meat eating region with its own breed of beef and its own breed of pig and its love of tripe.  Second, I often find vegetarian restaurants to be shrines to the idea of vegetarianism.  Their palette of spices is so predictable, they often smell the same.  Not so this past evening.  This meal was the best prepared food we had eaten in over a month.  We loved the hand made fresh spaghetti, with a breadcrumb, sun-dried cherry tomato, chili pepper sauce.  I could have eaten bowls of the stuff, but we had ordered a "unico" special that put three dishes on our single plates.  I also needed to eat our way through an extremely tasty, perfectly dressed fennel and orange salad and a delicious potato filled soft flat bread roll-up.  We were eating real creative cooking.  And loving every bite.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Cross Culturality

Today American planning met Italian realities.

We purchased, in advance, at a premium, tickets to the Uffizi, the greatest of Florence's many museums.   8:15 was our appointed time.  I grumbled a bit, still we got up at "double a quarter to seven" aka 6:30.  We arrived promptly on time, only to find that a staff meeting (or perhaps a strike too) meant that the museum would not open till 10:30 and all tickets till that time would enter together.  Or rather a line would form for all those scores of ticket holders to wait for over two hours in the hope that the 10:30 promise was kept.  After a quick coffee and pastry (why waste the opportunity) we were about number 70 in line, a line that stretched for quite a distance by the time (at 10:30!) when the museum did indeed open.

Worth the wait.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

When there is nothing to do.

This morning we woke up for the first time without a plan.  Not that we have seen everything there is to see.  Far from it, but we have done all we initially set out to see, with more planned in the future.  Yet, there we were with nothing to do, nowhere to go and inside on a rare perfectly beautiful sunny day.  

That's when Jo received a calendar message on her phone that I had sent some time ago and forgot about.  It said Hidden Treasures Masterpieces and no more.  We scrambled through the web to find the exhibition of several newly restored works by Botticelli and Ghirlandaio Rudolf being held at Villa la Quiete, a house quietly tucked away, a bit on the uphill from regular (tourist) Florence.

And the last morning train, the 10:22, to the station nearest the exhibition was leaving in 15 minutes.  Luckily, we live just 5 minutes from our train station, so off we went.  Two stops on the train and we were deposited in a lonely section of town.  We and our friend, Google Maps, walked up some mostly deserted city streets and then some sidewalk-less roads.  Inside an unlikely looking building was a guard who let us pass into a stunningly designed space modestly filled with well lit (not always the case), up close and personal masterpieces in perfect condition.  And it was free, and that is certainly a rarity.  A day well spent.

Of course, it was now still before noon and we once again had no plans.  Outside the villa we noticed a sign with a map outlining two walks into the hills.  Off we went.  Mostly uphill on roads that were often barely one car (and no people) wide, guided by the many map stations and Google, past small houses and then farms with picked vines and olives turning from green to black.  Then near the top we began to pass today's villas.  Great views.  Great adventure.  

The journey down led us to the next train station on a line out of Florence.  Returning home, we hung laundry, bought a few groceries, noshed on a bakery lunch with Coke Light and took a glorious nap.  Such a sweet day.

Florence, btw, is down in that middle dip.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Political Darkness is Eternal

The title of this post is a bit ominous. Sorry, but with Citizen Trump playing fear cards against women, Judaism and Islam, immigration, veterans and now our democracy, he holds a dark and bloody full house. But as Monty Python might have said, "Why be glum?'

The Florentines and other Italian communities have been going after each other for centuries. Throughout Florence there are fortified towers that were built for family defense. (Pisa, a city with a similar history, supposedly had 180 of these towers at some point in its own violent past.) After an episode of inter-family violence, when perhaps one family murdered a member of another family after that family had murdered one of theirs . . . the offending family would flee to their tower to wait out the storm. And if during the attempt to overwhelm the defenses, a few "blue collar" houses (made of wood) burned down, ah well, such is the cost of politics.

Florence is a city consumed with its past: the towers and other architecture, the sculpture, and paintings. There is a general preoccupation with its glorious past, which rests on violent political strife. The present in Florence is muted. There is a beloved soccer team and I will attend a match soon. But most restaurants pride themselves and advertise themselves as homes of traditional Tuscan and Florentine cooking. Tripe a big deal here. The city's thousand year old symbol, the Giglio, a sort of fancy Fleur de Lis, is everywhere: the soccer team, the buildings, the napkins, the tablecloths, the manhole covers, everywhere. And so what you see as a tourist is not that different than what a resident experiences. Yet, the hyper-violent past on which all the preserved and respected glory rests is treated as the small cost of giving birth to the Renaissance.

As temporary residents, with a lean toward being tourists, we have seen a lot of art in just a month. Spectacular does not begin to describe the treasure housed and strewed about throughout the city. Yesterday, however, we attended an exhibition of art by the modern Chinese artist Ai Wewei. I thought, mistakenly, that the show was to be a single instillation. Instead there were several rooms of his art including a piece built out of 900 bicycles. The core theme of the exhibition was the violent, corrupt, and anti-democratic nature of the present Chinese government. A repeated trope dealt with the destruction of the artist's large studio and workshop. He was asked to build it by the government who then tore it down, removing all trace of its presence, just as it was finished. Ai Weiwei hosted a single opening and closing party, to which he was prevented from attending by house arrest.

In America, in the free world, we are so very fortunate to live with the blessings of democracy. But we take them for granted sometimes. Alternative forms of governance exist and have existed. These alternatives can achieve greatness, but at a cost. A cost I do not wish to pay and fortunately, will not be required to pay, despite the efforts of some to place making America great again before American democracy. Democracy is the American greatness.

Friday, October 14, 2016

A Small Town and its 1%'ers

Florence has the feel of a small town. Like the way Boston seemed a generation or two ago when you could arrive at Fenway just in time to sit in the bleachers for a couple of bucks.  And yet, Florence, though small in size and demeanor, is heir to the glory of the Renaissance. Here, in an area easily walked in a few minutes, are treasures upon treasures.  Paintings, sculpture and architecture of singular importance are everywhere.  Literally, everywhere.  Yesterday, we passed an outdoor sculpture in a niche in a wall of the Orsanmichele Church.  (It is only a copy so as to protect the original, now housed inside the church.)  

There are no signs marking the sculpture.  Or any of the 14 sculptures that line the outside of the church.  And the street is most ordinary, a touristy shopping street.  We were on our way to another sight, soon to be described, when our daughter drew our attention to the sculpture.  Called Christ and St. Thomas by Andrea del Vercocchio, it actually replaced a Donatello!, when the merchants' guild wanted to make their "statement gift" to the church and city.  Notice how the right foot of the saint hangs outside the frame of the niche.  Like breaking the "4th wall" in theater, the outside foot serves to invite us in, as Thomas is asked by Jesus to believe without factual evidence that he has died and is now again alive.  We too are being asked to believe.

Well, as I was saying, we were on our way to another sight, actually a private walkway, built by the 1%'res who made Florence, in their day, the center of western civilization.  The Medici family were rich merchants who ruled Florence off and on for generations.  They married their way into nobility, becoming dukes, and also managed to become many a cardinal and handful of Popes.  And in a sweet story, when the last of the Medici line (she and her brothers did not have children) considered the fate of the family, Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici created the "Family Pact," which insured that generations of Medici artistic treasures would remain forever in Florence, thus creating a tourist destination in perpetuity.

The sight for which we were headed, is the private elevated, sealed passageway built by Cosmino I de' Medici at the time of his son's wedding.  It goes from their new house, the Palazzo Pitti to the Palazzo Vecchio, their old house.  The Vasari Corridor, is a quarter mile (remember Florence is small) of art filled corridor. We entered the corridor just next to its final destination in the Palazzo Vecchio, today a spectacular art museum.  From there the corridor passes over the Arno River, piggy backing on the Ponte Vecchio, goes around a large tower, the owner of which would not allow the Duke to remove, passes by the family's secluded church balcony and ends up at the Palazzo Pitti, home sweet home and today a spectacular museum.  

The corridor provided safety and privacy that only few can afford. Sadly, the effort to make the corridor open to the public, which began in the 1970's, was hampered by several difficulties including a mafia attack in 1993 outside the Palazzo Vecchio.  It is open now for a brief time and we had the pleasure of walking it, seeing its treasures and pretending to be far above our station.  As was reported to us by our guide, Cosimo I once said about the corridor, "I wanted to walk on the heads of the people."

Saturday, October 8, 2016

An Imperfect Day in Pisa

There is a song by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, "Oh that's good, No that's bad." ( The song explains how bad things may turn out well, while good happenings can lead to poor outcomes.  And so we took off to Pisa.  

We live really close to the "other" train station in Florence and so we are fortunate.  We could take a train from this neighborhood station to the Central Station and there transfer to the Pisa train.  We had a ten minute window for the change.  "Oh, that's good, No that's bad."  Our train came in on track 17, the last track, and never really came fully into the station, stopping only at the beginning of the length of the platform.  The train to Pisa left on track 1a, beyond the other side.  We ran.

We also arrived very early in Pisa, thanks to incorrectly reserved tickets.  "Oh, that's bad, no that's good."  We had plenty of time to wander the streets and shops.  I found a book I had been looking for and a much needed pencil sharpener.  We enjoyed a quiet lunch in the university area, all good, and then we entered tourist land.  The quaint and historic street leading to the main church square, like Main Street in Disneyland, was packed with tourist shops, multiple restaurants and, well, tourists.

Weaving our way through the crowd was so worth it.  The tower, the baptistry and the Duomo (cathedral) all sit in a grassy area surrounded in part by a defensive wall, which is then surrounded by the city.  Pisa was a powerful, wealthy merchant, maritime and warrior community.  The tower is the bell tower of the Duomo.  Most such bell towers are attached to the church but in Pisa a separate and magnificent structure was built.  And, of course, it has the additional distinction of leaning.

First, the bottom third was build, but as the leaning began in the rather wet soil, the construction stopped.  That's bad.  Then, the middle section was added to balance out the lean, so the tower actually curves.  It did not really help.  That's also bad.  Then the top was added.  Then, Pisa became a small university town, instead of a world power, with a first class tourist attraction.  And that is very good.

And soon after climbing we discovered that our return train tickets were for two different trains.  It all worked out.  It was all such a good day.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Two Desserts in Sweet Tension

The day before yesterday, Jo and I discovered a new dessert.  It is basically grape focaccia, but in Florence where we are staying, it is called Schiacciata Al'uva or grape schiacciata, schiacciata being the Florentine word for focaccia.  The origin story has to do with leftover bread dough and leftover freshly harvested grapes being brought together with a bit of anise and sugar.  The schiacciata (worth plugging into Google Translate to hear the pronunciation) is wet, sticky and impossible to eat without a fork, though we managed to consume one with our fingers without clothing ruination.  (The one pictured, our second from another shop, we ate at home with forks.)  It is a sweet mess of thin bread, much thinner than focaccia, and small sweet, fresh grapes of the season.

And then we began seeing it everywhere we looked.  So we looked it up and discovered this Fall only treat: a sign of the harvest.

Then, last night we were invited out for a shabbat meal by a member of the Florence Reform congregation, Shir Hadash, where I will be assisting in High Holy Day services and staying on till mid-November.  We enjoyed a typical Italian meal, based around pasta, wine and salad.  For dessert we were served Apple Crisp, the American Fall sweet treat!  Our host grew up in the states and though she has lived in Florence many years, and raised a family here, she had gone apple picking, I assume with her family, and created this most American creation.  Besides being delicious in its own right, it gave us a moment of home.

This a posting of "the more things change, the more they stay the same."  Harvest requires acknowledgement.  People require treats.  Let the baking continue.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Finally a Cycling Post

After two days of honestly being too tired to write and going to bed at 9:00, I felt required to at least send a quick message.
The cycling is fabulous.  The red and yellow wildflowers are in bloom, the sky is blue, the single track cycling is totally awesome and forest and the dirt roads adventures are more than exciting because hard winter rains in the Negev have washed out many a road (see picture).  Fantastic.
Of course, the butt hurts, the mud is caked on, the sun has done it's burning and I have nothing about which to complain. 
This afternoon, I have the opportunity to write because we exchanged an end of the day (and unnecessary) extra circle ride for a visit to a boutique brewery.   The old Israel had two beers, Maccabi and Goldstar.  Both loved only by those who loved Israel more than taste.  The new reality of Israel is an economy populated by small entrepreneurs.  This brewery in which I sit is a good omen for an expansive and quenched future.
A little riding and a little culture.

Friday, February 26, 2016

LGBTQ in Israel

Yesterday was a weird mix of gender identity politics and Zionism.  The universal and the particular.

I joined a group for an all day study with leaders and members of the LGBTQ community in Israel, hearing of its successes and challenges.  We began in Jerusalem with a group involved at the Jerusalem Open House, a center, a refuge, for the LGBTQ and the organizers of the Jerusalem Pride March.

Israel is a complex environment.  Progress has been made surrounding issues of LGBTQ rights, as Israel is part of the Western world where the understanding that people regardless of gender or sexual identity are people, just people endowed by their creator . . .  But Israel can also be a hostile place for the LGBTQ community.  Last year at the Jerusalem Pride March six participants were stabbed, one fatally.  And despite government's claims to being the one gay friendly place in the Middle East, it is far from a safe place.

And that brings me to the issue of pink-washing, the exaggerated use of benefits gained by the LGBTQ community in Israel to mask the real dangers the community still faces in Israeli society and law and to present Israel as a gay friendly place.

Indeed the rest of the day was shared with some very seriously brave and out people, including three transitioning individuals and four lesbian rabbis.  As the pink-washing claims, an open meeting with these two panels, held first in a Tel Aviv LGBTQ center and then outside! in the adjoining park, would be more than impossible in nations that surround Israel.

Yet, the stories we heard were not ones of safety and security.  Rather they were of small progress and larger apprehension.

And something else.  It seems to me, a straight ally of a limitedly raised consciousness, that the LGBTQI struggle for liberation in the United States is a transnational, universal liberation movement at its core.  People everywhere just got to be free.  But in Israel there is a national dynamic, a Zionist dynamic overlay.  Creating equality will build the nation.  State building is the essence of Israeli self understanding.  The people we met want a better Israel not only for themselves and not only for a better world but also because they want a better Jewish State.  The Zionist dream still lives.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Why I love the French and Struggle with Israelis

Why I Love the French and Struggle with Israelis

I am on my way to the Reform Rabbis Convention in Israel (and a subsequent bike ride).  My itinerary passed through Charles  De Gaulle airport in Paris.  I discovered what I already knew, that the food, even in the airport, would be superior and that with the invocation of the words, “thank you,” all could be made right in the world.
I also flew Air France so the experience started fresh out of Detroit.  It was still airplane food, Yet the unflavored yogurt for breakfast was superior.  And when I asked for a whisky for my nap cap coffee before going to sleep, the flight attendant suggested a brandy, because she had a good one.

Or maybe it was the airport shopkeeper who responded to my distress when I discovered I needed a ‘nano to micro sim card converter,’ which he did not have.  He called the store’s other airport outlet and found me the device.  And perhaps it was because I greeted him as a person, before asking if he had the converter.
Kindness and politeness and good food, and I did not even mention the terrific carmel euclair topped with a thin slab of chocolate in the 'take and go' kiosk!

Then I get on the plane for Tel Aviv.  The guy next to me sprawls out over both of his seat mates (me included) and goes to sleep.  And the guy across the way from me took the stuff he did not want, the pillow, blanket, and the magazines from the storage pouch and put them under his seat, that being the under seat storage area of someone else, while stretching out into his own under seat area.  When discovered  (yes I did give him up) he explained that he was tall and need the extra room.  I could only think from both these encounters that if you can get away with taking what is not yours, it's ok.  Bad policy in my mind.

And don't get me started on the large number of people who spent the flight visiting with friends basically unconcerned with anyone else who might be just sitting quietly.  I touched, or more accurately was touched by, more people on this flight than in a crowded New York subway car.

And yet I struggle with the truth that the Israelis are my people and despite my family history in Alsace, the French are not my people.   My future and our future for generations are tied to the Israel.   This is perhaps the great struggle in Jewish life today.   Half the world’s Jews live in Israel.   The next biggest chunk live in America.  We are one people, yet we experience  the world very differently.  

And then about half way through the flight, I begin to notice the a change.  The push and shove mutates into warmth as strangers begin to converse.  The cabin now resembles a summer camp dinning room with story telling.  There has been a switch in seats and the Orthodox person across the aisle is teaching about Little Purim, which is today.  He is having a beer, explaining that in leap years there is an extra Purim just for fun.  My sleepy seat mate is up and we are talking about Israeli culture.  Before was not rude as much as settling in.  Now set, the party begins all the way to Tel Aviv.