Bellow, To Jerusalem and back

Security measures are strict on flights to Israel, the bags are searched, the men are frisked, and the women have an electronic hoop passed over them, fore and aft. Then hand luggage is opened. No one is very patient. …

Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back, Secker & Warburg, London, 1976.

Reading a memoir written by someone as incredibly able to conjure up images as Saul Bellow is always striking. But it is much, much more striking if the memoir is about a city where you have spent a significant amount of time, also as a visitor, albeit in quite different moments of time. And (I think) it is even much, much more striking if that city happens to be none less than Jerusalem.

… before I left Chicago, the art critic Harold Rosenberg said to me, “Going to Jerusalem? And wondering whether people will talk freely? You’ve got to be kidding, they’ll talk your head off.” (…) In flight, if the door of your plane comes open you are sucked into space. Here in Jerusalem, when you shut your apartment door behind you you fall into a gale of conversation—exposition, argument, harangue, analysis, theory, expostulation, threat and prophecy. …

Bellow spent six months in Jerusalem in the fall and winter of 1976. During those momentous months he meets many people, among them politicians (Yitzhak Rabin who was then the prime minister, Teddy Kollek who was then the mayor – and who officially invited Bellow, as we learn at some point during the memoir, some others – although not Golda Meir), writers (young – back then – A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz at some point but also several less-well-known poets) and many other intellectuals, journalists (Jewish and Arab), family members (Russian immigrants), people like his masseur, the Armenian Patriarch. He even goes for dinner with mathematicians and meets Ilya Rips – Bellow’s wife at the time was the Romanian mathematician Alexandra Bellow and she was visiting the Math Institute at Hebrew U while he was on his official visit to people in the city.

… We are invited to dinner by some of Alexandra’s friends—like her, teaching mathematics at the Hebrew University. Pleasant people. … The conversation, as usual, quickly becomes serious. You do not hear much small talk in Jerusalem. Inflation, high taxes, the austerity program make moonlighting necessary. … Alexandra has noticed how busy mathematical colleagues have become. They have to do more teaching; they have less time for research.

After dinner two more guests arrive, Dr. and Mrs. Eliahu Rips. Rips comes from Riga. When the Russians went into Czechoslovakia, Rips, a mathematics student, set himself on fire in protest. The flames were beaten out and Rips was sent to an insane asylum. While there, without books, he solved a famous problem in algebra. When he was released, he emigrated and reached Israel not long before the Yom Kippur War. Since he had no army training, he went to a gas station and offered to work for nothing, feeling that he must make a contribution to Israel’s defense. So for some months he pumped gas, unpaid. He is now teaching at the Hebrew University. He has become not only Orthodox but very devout. Four days a week he studies the Talmud in a yeshiva. …

All this is interspersed with walks in the Old City, with meetings with people in West and East Jerusalem, with living in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in front of the Old City, visiting kibbutzim or even a settlement (Kiryat Arba!) near Hebron.

… Later in the day my friend Professor Joseph Ben-David takes me to the swelling Souk, the public market. On Fridays it closes early. We watch the last-minute pre-Sabbath rush. Perishables are cheap as zero-hour approaches. …

… On my way home, feeling the vodka I’ve drunk with Silk and Schimmel, I pass through the tourists’ lines. But I’ve just had a holiday with two poets (…) The transforming additive: the gift of poetry. You think yourself full of truth when you’ve had a few drinks. I am thinking that some of the politicians I meet are admirable, intelligent men of strong character. But in them the marvelous additive is lacking. It is perhaps astonishing that they aren’t demented by the butcher problems, by the insensate pressure of crisis.

Slowly, Bellow weaves in a very personal perspective of the Israeli-Palestinian problem, allowing many opposing voices to sift through, capturing the pain and harshness of differing viewpoints (the Israeli parents whose son was recently killed, the fields of ’67 and ’73, strewn with corpses, the existential threat to Israel, the memory and fear  –  all of that very real back then and real now, but also the Palestinian girl who proudly stands in front of well-intentioned Jews and tells them she simply doesn’t want them there).

In other hands this sort of memoir could easily become cartoonish, or with viewpoints too narrow or voices confined to the author’s opinions. The author’s opinions are there, to be sure, but they are so cleverly woven into the Jerusalem tapestry of opinions, plans, harsh stories, that a sort of collective call, of collective worry for the city becomes the voice of Jerusalem.

In the end this makes the reading more difficult. The first encounters, peppered by the presence of luminaries such as Isaac Stern, invited roughly at the same time, slowly become heavier. And here is where the memoir becomes a sort of living in Jerusalem testimony: the ever-increasing heaviness of living there, as if gravity was constantly increasing, as if leaving Jerusalem – forgetting its problems, leaving it behind scenes – became impossible after a while.

The memoir formally follows that path. The sadness of leaving such a city is there, very well depicted, but also the sense of relief I am sure many of us have experienced when going back to “normal cities” (London, Chicago, Bogotá) after time spent in Jerusalem. The fact that it takes him a long time to leave the memoir and it goes on and on after having returned to Chicago via London: the conversations with friends, with other politicians, in those two cities but also in a subsequent visit to Stanford, all of them give the impression of lingering Jerusalem, even as far away as California. The appearance of ever differing, ever shifting positions, some of them quite hawkish, some dovish, some more somber about Israel’s future (in 1976), some more positive…


When you visit the Old City of Jerusalem in search of some specific place you might have visited but whose exact location you don’t quite remember, or a place you saw described in some book or a friend mentioned, finding it can be next to impossible. Which alley? Which little door? Was it in the upper passage or in the lower one? Yes, I do remember it was after the shop where olive lamps – wait, the shop with the guy who offered tea but then haggled crazily? No, the one where the guy switched to Spanish and said he has a Ph.D. in history but is just selling sweets. You almost never can find what you look for yet you always emerge with a sense of having been to a magic (dangerous) place.

Of course, this also happens to Bellow:

… Schimmel and Silk are looking for the weavers’ alley. What they find instead is a big stone stable, once part of a princely establishment. The carved ornaments, all blackened, go back to the fourteenth century, so we are told by two friendly young Arabs who are tinkering with machinery here. Oh, yes, the stable is still used, but the donkeys and mules are out for the day. Dennis Silk sensitively interrogates the young men. They speak Hebrew well enough to give information. The information is for me, of course. (…)

We never do find the looms. Perhaps the weavers have taken a holiday. We buy round sesame buns and…


… Kahn insists on showing me some ancient baths at the lower end of the Old City and we ask our way through endless lanes, where kids ride donkeys, kick rubber balls, scream, fall from wagons (…) Kahn asks again for his Turkish baths. A candy seller, cutting up one of his large flat sticky cakes, a kind of honeyed millstone, appears indignant. His business is to sell cakes, not to give directions. We get into an arcade where a money changer in a turtleneck tells us to retrace our steps and turn left. He offers to pay me two pounds to the dollar over the official rate. (…) We make our way out of the arcade and inquire of a stout, unshaven storekeeper in Arab headdress and busted shoes who deals in chipped green glassware. He lights up at our question. Yes, of course, he knows.

After conversation (and coffee, and mentioning Chicago where the shopowner’s son studies medicine and the “friendship” with Bellow when he hears he comes from that city), he leads Kahn and Bellow to the baths and…

… I find myself to my joy in an ancient beautiful hot sour-smelling chamber. Divans made up with clouts and old sheets are ranged against the walls for the relaxing clients (…)
“This is not the place I had in mind. The one I wanted to show you is much older,” says Kahn. But I rejoice greatly in this one and ask for nothing better. (…) “I suppose we must give up on the still older bath,” says Kahn. He compensates himself by telling me about Max Nordau.

PB259557_01
Boris Zilber, during a long walk, at the Gate of Lions. 2016.
PC030465
Old City…
PC030428
The “new” city
PB290315
Tel Aviv – winter – beach

PC030398_01

hoy tomé una foto

Hoy tomé una foto. En realidad eso es lo de menos. En realidad no tomé la foto en el sentido de “generar un documento en algún formato decente con ayuda de un lente” pues no tenía cámara a la mano – tenía un pinche celular pero las fotos tomadas con celular nunca salen bien. Pero eso es lo de menos.

Tomé una foto quiere decir que la vi, la enmarqué con la mente, la registré. Percibí de manera in-mediata, sin mediación, una luz y unas sombras, un enmarque y un significado. Estábamos a punto de empezar sesión del seminario de Geometría y Lógica y vi la persiana doblada que normalmente me parece ruinosa, en el 311 del edificio de la piscina (matemáticas). Algo de la luz y algo del viento, algo de las sombras y algo de la composición de esa persiana ruinosa (¿por qué se demoran varios semestres en cambiar las cosas que se dañan?) me pareció una foto hermosa para tomar.

Pero en realidad todo eso es lo de menos. (¿A quién le puede importar una foto más de una persiana ruinosa – aún si a mí me pareció hermosa y hubiera podido capturar tantos sentimientos mezclados con lente y buena cámara?) Sí, en realidad eso es lo de menos. Lo importante es que es la primera foto que logro tomar en mucho tiempo.


Desde hace dos meses, desde finales de Jerusalén, no había podido tomar fotos. Quiero decir, tomar fotos como la que “tomé” hoy.

Una multitud de circunstancias relacionadas con la llegada, con muchísimos afanes de salud de mi padre – que incluyeron una larguísima estadía en clínica y muchos momentos complicados – acaso el inicio abrupto de clases después de mi llegada, y la inmersión en referatos/completar artículos/trabajar en temas interesantes… todo eso dio al traste con mis fotos.

Me había acostumbrado a andar con la cámara frecuentemente como una extensión de mi percibir, como una extensión de ojo, brazo, cabeza – a veces tal vez el cuerpo entero. Y desde inicios de agosto no pude volver a andar con la cámara así.

Dejé de ver fotos. Dejé de percibir. Dejé de tomar fotos.

Me tocó oprimir botón de cámara unas pocas veces para fotografiar situaciones o documentos, pero ese fue un disparar sin alma, sin ver.

Me llegó a preocupar mucho el no ver fotos, el no poder tomar fotos.

Pensé en tanta gente que escribe sin escribir, que toma fotos sin tomar fotos, que sigue “siendo artista” sin percibir y sin ver, que sigue tocando piano sin tocar piano, que sigue haciendo matemática sin hacer matemática. Incluso profesionales plenos de cada actividad – o mejor dicho, sobre todo profesionales plenos a menudo siguen como por inercia, escribiendo novelas sin poder escribir (pero seguramente haciendo giras Planeta y apareciendo en Arcadia o lo que sea).

Me preocupó muchísimo la posibilidad de haber perdido el ojo.

Pero veía la cámara y el reflejo usual de llevármela como cómplice a todas partes y disparar cuando veía algo … eso no era posible pues no estaba viendo nada.

Llegué a dudar si mi fase de tomar fotos había sido eso, una fase no más, un momento de unos pocos años, un one-night stand con la fotografía. Me aterraba esa posibilidad, pues me hacía sentir que en realidad todo es así, la vida es así, una serie de one-night stands con actividades. Un poco como alguien que podía caminar, subir montañas, salir corriendo y ya no puede, como le pasa a mi padre en esta etapa de su vida. Como tarde o temprano nos tiene que pasar a todos.

Por eso esa foto que tomé mentalmente hoy me punzó tanto, me pareció un regalo de la vida, me despertó.

Tal vez por eso volví aquí también hoy.

weeklogue [fragm. incompl. ז]

[18 de mayo de 2013]

Mind filled with fragments – this time of the semester, with courses slowly (too slowly) coming to a close, with summer activities (math visits, hiking in munros, going to museums and galleries) and of course a good deal of math being built, also very fragmentarily…

Read (really, re-read in some cracks of time made available by presleep awareness) 120, rue de la GareTardi’s BD based on a roman noir by Léo Malet – and was deeply reminded of the griseur of Lyon, of the utter provinciality of that beautiful city, and the light of Paris after Lyon. The grit of France’s life (both in the zone nono, non occupée, and in the occupied zone) during the war years seems to be rendered amazingly by Tardi in his black and white vignettes, with

Back to the USSR (not quite)

Russia always looms in the back – its brutal energy can sometimes devour its neighbors, can sometimes unbalance (or rebalance) the rest of the world. And its past avatars (the Russia of Peter the Great, of Catherine, of Alexander I, of Alexander III, of Lenin, of Stalin and now of Putin) always seem to rebuild and repeat and rehash and recrush. Something. Very often itself.

For all one can say of Russia, of its power drunkenness, of its supposed collapses (apparently, West Germany former chancellor Helmut Schmidt said in the late 1970s “the USSR was Upper Volta with nuclear power”, referring to the state of its economy – I wonder what Merkel thinks now – she could certainly not say such an absurdity, when Germany’s energy depends so much on Russia).

Beyond political differences, Russia’s way of doing mathematics is something I wish I could have lived – in many ways the most inspired (and inspiring) mathematicians are Russians, or people attached in some way or another to the “Russian school”. Perhaps in no other country as in Russia can you find such a true continuum of knowledge, ranging from cinema, visual arts, poetry, music, linguistics… all the way to physics and mathematics. Many, if not all, Russian mathematicians I have had the chance to deal with are not only greatly original in their mathematics, but they seem to see their work as embedded, entangled in a web that sometimes connects to some films, sometimes to poetry, sometimes to linguistics. Of course, this is a terrible oversimplification of a situation that has many more angles to it. Russians are not the only ones with those connections, and not all Russians like to see things that way. But overall, one can safely say that as a mathematical culture (if such a thing exists), Russians are those most sensitive and acquainted with “the rest of knowledge”.

Walking (while doing math, while discussing, while thinking) is also very linked to Russian culture. In that sense, St. Petersburg is a paradise. You walk and walk, tread the canals, cross the bridges, salute lions, see the Admiralcy from many angles, encounter the arches of the Hermitage – the Russian Ark – go back to Fontanka, check out Idiot for some borscht or vodka or pivo or blini – and walk and do math (or think movies or take photographs or recite poetry or sing or…) and walk.

Here are some notes of those walks (and train from Finland), in five marvelous days we had in March of 2007 with MC, in St. Petersburg: