Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When I Was in Belgium

The recent terror attacks in Brussels and the subsequent manhunt for terrorists made me think back to the weekend my wife and I spent in the Belgian capital last September. Security considerations were the last thing on our minds, even when we spent an entire, unplanned day at Brussels Airport.

“How would you like to attend a Crosby, Stills & Nash concert?” my wife surprised me one day. “Where are they playing?” “They are staging a concert tour in Europe. Let’s go!”

We are not groupies of the band yet we had grown up on CSN music. “Our house is a very fine house,” we would sing, especially due to the fact that for many years we had “two cats in the yard.”

“Where and when are they playing?” we wondered. We checked the schedule and considered going to hear them in Rome. The dates weren’t good for us. How about Dublin? Or Copenhagen? Or anywhere? Brussels fit in perfectly. On the spur of the moment we booked tickets for the end of September between the Jewish holidays, a time when our jobs would not tie us down.

The Grand Place in Brussels

Monday, March 28, 2016

I Couldn't Believe What I Saw Out My Sarajevo Hotel Window

My wife and I arrived in Sarajevo in June, as part of our tour of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We were eager to visit a city rich in history, culture, and religious diversity.

Our trip to Sarajevo coincided with the one hundred year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria - the shot that sparked World War I. Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984; the city suffered heavily while under siege during Bosnia's war for independence, 1992-1995. The Sarajevo Haggadah, an illuminated Hebrew manuscript dating to the 14th century and considered the most valuable book in the world, is housed in Bosnia's National Museum, which has been closed since late 2012 due to lack of funding. So much history!

Before we had a chance to see the city, we enjoyed a cultural experience that took us quite by surprise. Who would have imagined that the most colorful part of our visit to the Bosnian capital would be seen by looking out our hotel window?

As we were resting, we heard noises from below. Looking out the window we saw a bride and groom arrive in a horse-drawn carriage.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Recent Reads

Lately I have been reading a lot more than I have been writing. Some of the books I’ve read have been good while others did nothing more than help pass the time between writing projects. When I finish reading a book I usually write a review. As an author I know that every review is important, even if the review is not entirely favorable. A review gives an author feedback; shows that an author’s work has left an impression; and proves that the reader cares enough to react to what he/she has just read.

I would like to share with you some impressions of my recent reads. These short reviews will tell you what you can expect in each book but the best way for you to form a judgment is to read them yourself. I hope I have guided you in some way. Enjoy!

The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Alex Woods is a young boy who gets struck in the head by a meteorite; as a result, he becomes a scientific celebrity with occasional bouts of epilepsy. Alex meets an aging American war veteran and the two form an unusual friendship. When Alex ends up at Dover customs with 113 grams of marijuana and an urn of ashes, his actions leave an entire nation in uproar. Actually, that is how the book begins. This novel is an amusing and enjoyable read and there is a special surprise for fans of Kurt Vonnegut.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Faces of Israel

This video, produced by Yehuda Gelb of YG Productions, shows the many faces of Israel - religious, secular, young, old, Jewish, Arab, Israeli-born, and new immigrants.

"After watching this video how can you not be proud to be a part of Israel!" the video is subtitled, and yes, watching the video makes one forget about the troubles and struggles of living in modern day Israel.

In a blog article on The Times of Israel, Gelb acknowledges that "Israel is not perfect nor will it ever be. God knows how many flaws this country has and how much of a way it still has to go."

Every Israeli is different - "different background, family, traditions and life style yet we live together and that is our strength."

Gelb's video is a celebration of unity at a time when this is so often lacking. "Let us celebrate Israel," he says. This video is part of that celebration.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kosher Erotica

Sex is a mitzvah between husband and wife. It is sacred, kodesh. Yet when Esther, the wife of a rabbi and mother of three small children, accidentally witnesses a young married couple having sex in an apartment across from hers, she finds herself aroused by an unfamiliar burst of sexuality.

The novella Her Neighbor’s Pleasure by Shosha Pearl describes the sexual awakening of Esther and how it affects her marriage to her husband, Sholem. Some of her newfound desire will have to wait until the end of her period of niddah, when she and her husband will again be permitted to touch each other, for that is determined by the Halacha to which they both adhere.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Englishman Who Sings Bulgaria

His deep, raspy voice has been compared to Don Mclean, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen. His music can be classified as acoustic folk. When Warwick-born Jonathan Taylor starts to sing, his lyrics, consistent in theme, give voice to those without, but at the same time transport listeners to faraway places and to one place in particular. Bulgaria.

How did a ‘profound’ dyslexic who can’t read sheet music or speak the language end up living in a small village in north-central Bulgaria singing songs representative of that country?

I want rakia.
I need rakia.
I love rakia - early in the morning!

“What is rakia?” I ask Taylor.

“Americans have moonshine and we have rakia,” Taylor replies. “While a Bourbon whisky is made from wheat and distilled once, rakia is made from fruit (usually pear or grapes but anything else goes). Good rakia is distilled at least twice, but in reality, here in the villages, it will be just once. Quantity always outweighs quality! The joke is ‘The Irish wait fifteen years for their whiskey; Bulgarians can’t wait fifteen minutes.’ The fruit is mashed over time into wine and then distilled in a copper cylinder. Often it exceeds 60% proof.”

Taylor tells me that he grew up on livestock farms in South Wales and later lived in Calderdale, Yorkshire. He finished formal education at the age of 13 and was diagnosed as ‘educationally and emotionally disturbed.’ He voluntarily returned to education during his late twenties to pursue his passion for music. Despite initial failures, Taylor eventually completed his Masters level studies and today teaches English as a foreign language. He also became songwriter for the English Club online, a company that teaches English through songs.

So, how did he end up in Bulgaria?

Taylor says that after custody battles with his ex-wife he found himself “in a job I hated, an environment of nonstop abuse that made me increasingly unwell, and all this to pay a life time of debt, a mortgage on a house I didn’t want to live in.” Determining that it was cheaper to live abroad, Taylor and his partner – Nicola, a photographer – first viewed property in the Slovak Republic. “I simply did not have enough money available to fulfil the new dream.” But Bulgaria, just entering the European Union in 2007, was very affordable.

“And as many other Brits found out, at the time you could get a village house here for as little as three thousand GBP. “This is home and I would never desire to leave it.”

Although considering himself an immigrant, rather than an ex-pat, Taylor finds himself incapable of learning Bulgarian. Instead he merges the little Bulgarian he knows with his music.

Taylor’s lyrics refer repeatedly to his new homeland. Rakia, Pirin Mountains, the streets of Sofia, Baba Marta. I asked him if English listeners understand what he’s singing. More importantly, I asked, would Bulgarian listeners understand? Do they consider Taylor’s music Bulgarian?

“I think it spans all cultures,” Taylor says. “After all, English is English and as a world language has few barriers. So, for an English speaker, it is music about something perhaps they are unfamiliar with but I hope curiosity and the fact that I am the first to do this will create an interest in this wonderful place so rich in history and culture. For Bulgarians, most understand it, but they don’t get the complex story behind it or implied meanings, the nuances included.  Bulgaria is such a small market, a population of just 7 million, and the greatest interest comes from English-speaking Bulgarians now living abroad and particularly in the USA. They get it and they love it!”

Back to “The Rakia Song”, in which there is a line in the chorus repeated over and over. ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor?’. Taylor explains to me that the line is actually ‘What shall we do with the drunken ‘celo’”, as ‘celo’ is the Bulgarian word for ‘village’.

“Whilst it’s a good fun, sing-along-song’, it is actually very political,” Taylor tells me. “It was written at a time of mass protest against rising prices, particularly the 100% increase in electricity costs. People could not feed or warm themselves and the government of the time was forced to resign. The song is about the poor living in the villages where they have no future and no hope. What else do they have? They drink rakia to excess as a means of coping with the misery of everyday life.”

Although singing in the language of his birthplace, this English immigrant sounds very much as if he has become the protest voice of his adopted Bulgaria.

Originally posted on The Huffington Post.

Visit Jonathan Taylor's website.

Download Jonathan Taylor's music.