Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sicily and the " Mafia" 1984-5

Sicily. 1984 . Wondering about the Mafia.
A description of our year in Italy, 1984-85 would not be complete without a chapter on our  “ adventures” in Sicily.  Although one can drive to Sicily from Rome, and there are no passports or visas required, it is quite a different country. The language is different, that is, the dialect is quite pronounced, and the customs and even the people look different. It is a mixture of the Mediterranean: Italians, Greeks, Arabs, and the descendants of the Crusaders, who used Sicily as a port of call during the crusades and left a lot of blue eyed, blonde children, still seen in many isolated villages. 

 Messina is the gateway to Sicily. It is a large port city, the first city you arrive in when you leave the toe of Italy. It is a pleasant city, with palm trees, and definitely has a Mediterranean atmosphere. It was our first port of call, since R, the director of the lab in Rome had asked me to deliver some cells to the lab of Dr. A at the Microbiology Department at the University. Instead of actually going to the department we met Dr. A and his boss, the chairman of the department, Professor L at a restaurant in the city.  We had not planned on staying in Messina any length of time, since we were planning a vacation  and tour of the island. Our first stop was to be Taormina.  However for some reason we did stay overnight in Messina at the Jolli Hotel, which was the best hotel at that time in the town. We did meet with Dr  A and Professor L both very friendly individuals, who insisted in paying our hotel bill and they decided that they would visit us again within a few days in Taormina and show us around. We actually were not very keen on this since we wanted a vacation on our own but they insisted, this was Italian hospitality. Taormina is a beautiful small picturesque town South of Messina. Today it is a town for the jet setters, and the ritzy set with very fancy hotels. I don’t remember where we stayed other than that it was on a very narrow street, on the top of a hill, overlooking the city. We spent our time walking around the town, with its Greek ruins and old Jewish Quarter .It is a very colorful town, as are all towns of Sicily, with gaudy hand painted doors, painted and decorated wagons pulled by horses or used to display flowers. We went for walks exploring the nearby villages, which were picturesque but poor compared to Taormina itself.. As expected after a couple of days Dr L  called on us. Dr. A could not make it. Dr. L  drove a large Cadillac which with difficulty could maneuver in the narrow streets of the city. He insisted we come with him to a restaurant on the beach, just outside Taormina, in a small town called Naxos. It seems its real name is “ the Gardens of Naxos”. I remember the name because of the association with Greece since we have been recently (2010)  to the Island of Naxos. Professor L had everything arranged. When we arrived at the restaurant there was much bowing and hugging in the Italian fashion, and we did have a pleasant meal. When we got up to go back to the hotel (in the Cadillac), no money changed hands that I could see. Knowing this was Sicily, I said to myself, must be some Mafia arrangement, but I could be wrong.  I had probably seen too many movies including the Godfather. It was just that Professor L fitted into the stereotype, soft hat, heavy overcoat, rather portly, he looked like my or Hollywood image of a  Mafia “ godfather”.
From Taormina one obtains a great view of Mt. Etna. The mountain was usually covered by cloud or smoke. It still is a living volcano that erupts periodically. At the foot of the mountain there are still quite a few small white villages and we drove around, I ,at least rather scared of  possible eruption.
 I will not give you a tour of Sicily, suffice to say that we drove through all the ancient Greek and Roman cities, Syracusa, Agrigentum,  and passed through the center of the island past snowy peaks ( this was spring or early summer), stopping at Piazza Armerina, famous for its  Roman Villa. This was a villa belonging to a wealthy Roman. The frescoes on the walls of the various rooms are extremely well maintained, and depict scenes from every day life, including 10 women wearing two piece bathing suites (bikini’s) playing various sports, as well as more prosaic frescoes of wild animals and hunting scenes.  I really was amazed at the murals of the women in Bikini’s. As it says in Ecclesiastes “What has been will be again,   what has been done will be done again;   there is nothing new under the sun”. We drove back up to the North coast   finally reached Palermo, with its magnificent cathedral.  As we walked down one of the main streets of Palermo, looking at the shop windows, Mimi started yelling in a loud voice, stop, stop,. For a moment I had no idea what had happened.  I stood paralyzed. A motorcyclist riding on the pavement had snatched her handbag.  It contained quite a bit of cash, credit cards and keys to our apartment in Rome.  We approached a driver  in a small car who was close to us, but he would not give chase to the cyclist.. My suspicion is that he was in league with the thief. We wearily made our way to the nearest police station, where they took down all particulars of the theft.  Being robbed was not a nice feeling, it was a personal affront, and left us feeling rather foolish . The previous day a group of tourists had their bus held up at gunpoint and stripped of all their jewelry.. However in this event the Mafia  did intervene and  insisted the robbers give back their loot, since such happenings were destructive to the tourist business. Unfortunately in our case, the police did nothing, or at least said they could do nothing, and we had to spend the next few hours phoning around cancelling our credit cards. We also had to call Senor F in Rome and tell him that the apartment was in danger since the keys and address of the apartment were  in the handbag.  Realizing that we were in some panic, he suggested we meet with his cousin, a Professor of Physiology, a resident of  Palermo. He would supply us with needed cash, since without our credit cards and stolen cash we had very little money left to pay our hotel expenses. In fact I did not think of it at the time, but once we cancelled our credit cards how would we pay the hotel ?
Professor S. appeared, gave us an envelope containing about $500 and invited us home for coffee and drinks. This show of hospitality certainly calmed us down and was very much appreciated. On our way back we had planned on staying the night in Messina, and again our “ guardian angel” paid the bill. I think I had told him of our misadventure in Palermo by phone. . Dr L invited us to spend some time on his house on one of the Aeolian Islands of the coast of Sicily, but we declined.  Perhaps we should have taken the opportunity of seeing a different side of life.
 I was invited a few weeks later to come down to Messina again and give a seminar.  Again I stayed at the Jolli hotel. During my first evening I was shown around Messina and  told of the devastating earthquake and Tsunami of 1908 which destroyed the city, and killed as many as 100,000 inhabitants.  I had previously experienced an earthquake in Mexico, and so could imagine what it must have felt like. The earthquake in Acapulco was probably around 6, and really did shake up everything. The story of the 1908 earthquake made me very nervous and apprehensive. What would I do if it happened again ?. but in contradiction to what I have written above I said to myself, history does not repeat itself, and I am worrying over nothing. I had just got into my pajama and into bed, when I began to feel everything shaking. Was this my imagination or a dream ?. The shaking and swaying continued for some time. I rushed down stairs (I was on the top story) and found most people standing outside, discussing the tremors. Their attitude was very nonchalant, since this is a common occurrence in this part of the world.  I eventually  went back up to bed, but could not sleep because of the aftershocks.  It was not a serious earthquake in that there were few casualties, a few heart attacks and panic attacks, but I was quite shaken . I had pictures in my mind of waking up in the morning and wondering around a devastated city.
Anyhow the next day I gave my seminar, met with the faculty, and Dr. L asked me whether he could send one of his students to my lab in the States as a post-doctoral student. I met D, she seemed eager to come, and was well qualified. Her English was good, and so the arrangements were made that she should join the lab on my return. D. was a nice person to work with and her stay was quite productive.  I later found out from a colleague in Denmark, that Dr.L. had been shipping D. to my lab (as he had previously done to Denmark) in the hope that she would find a husband. That was not to be,: however she did marry a native Sicilian  few years later.
After D had been in the lab some time, I received a communication from Dr. L and Dr. A that they would be in the States and would like to visit me in Bloomington. I arranged for a seminar for Dr A., which was actually of very little interest to our faculty, and invited the two of them plus a few students for dinner. After the seminar they visited the lab, and one of my more outspoken students, a native “ Hoosier” who had never been out of the USA says to Dr. L  when he came into the lab “Hi, you look just like what I imagined a Mafioso to look like “ . As mentioned  Dr. L was a bulky well dressed gentleman with a topcoat, and soft hat, not at all like a scientist, who might go around with jeans or at least short sleeves. This particular student, JD had been working on  interferon, the same area of research as Dr. A and thus had seemed appropriate to invite home for a dinner party.
Somehow at dinner the conversation came round to the trial of a group of mobsters going on in New York , the trial of the “ five families’ and  Dr. L let  drop in the conversation that one of them  was a distant relative. There was an embarrassed silence all round.  I think JD realized the faux pas he had made in the lab.  Was Dr. L in the Mafia, was he a “god-Father”. ? I don’t know. D indicated that he certainly looked after the members of the department, and that it was difficult to achieve the position of head of a department in Sicily without such connections. I don’t think I will ever know the truth and I let it rest at that. I have often wondered.
Despite the misadventure in Palermo, our visit to Sicily was very memorable, a beautiful and interesting country., and certainly the faculty of the microbiology department were very hospitable.
Post Script. From the Daily Telegraph 2000.
Headline: One of Italy's leading universities has been infiltrated by the Calabrian Mafia for 25 years, say investigators.
They made the claim after police arrested 37 academics, doctors and students linked to the University of Messina in Sicily last week. A further 79 professors and researchers have been placed under formal investigation.
The unprecedented police raid, which has shocked the rest of Italian academia, followed a three-year inquiry into allegations of Mafia-run violence and corruption at the 452-year-old institution.
Italy's university system is famously corrupt with rampant nepotism and sinecures, but Messina is the only university to have been exposed as having direct mafia connections.
In recent years two Messina professors have been kneecapped by unknown assailants, four bombs have exploded in university buildings and the cars of several academics have been set on fire outside their homes. Lecturers have been threatened before examinations by students claiming Mafia backing at all levels of the university hierarchy.”

 However I could not find Dr. L or Dr. A’s name on any of the published list. Most of those involved were in the medical sciences as were these two.  I am still wondering.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Sabbatical year in Rome. 1980-81

Sabbatical in Italy.
My second sabbatical was spent half in Israel at the Weizmann Institute and half in Rome at the Institute of Virology, a department of Sapienza University, the University of Rome. I decided to spend time in Italy,  because of scientific interest with one of the faculty in the department of virology and Mimi wanted to spend some time in the country visiting museums. I had previously been invited to a meeting on picornaviruses by Dr Raul Perez-Bercoff held in the Hotel Villa del Mare in Acquafredda di Maratea , in the South of Italy.  Maratea is an ancient, white-washed  town climbing up the mountain side of the Bay of Policastro. It is situated  on the Tyrrhanian sea in the province of Italy known as Basilicata..  This was a NATO International Advanced Study Institute on the biology of picornaviruses and took place from  the 8th -18th September 1978. .As a result of the meeting a monograph was published on the molecular biology of picornaviruses. The meetings were financed by NATO and was attended by top scientists in this field.  It was through these meetings that I met many of the researchers working with this group of viruses, including Ekhardt Wimmer who was one of the world’s experts on poliovirus , Fred Brown and his group working in Pirbright , Surrey, on Foot and Mouth Disease virus ( FMDV) as well as American scientist from Plum Island, the only place in the USA where research on FMDV can take place., also Roland Ruekert who worked  on picornavirus structure and maturation, an area I was particularly interested in . I occasionally meet some of the other attendees here in Bloomington when they are invited to give seminars.  This was a 10 day meeting very much like a Gordon conference, all of us being confined in a small space, eating and drinking together and getting to know one another and each other’s research. Such meetings are invaluable.
Raul and I became good friends after the meeting and kept contact, since our scientific interests and even political interests overlapped.  He was an ardent Zionist and in his old age volunteers once a year to serve in the Israeli army. The Sabbatical must have been in 1980 or 1981. He was a wonderful organizer of the meeting, and continued to organize such meetings on an annual basis. He discovered Maratea, and made it a center for such NATO conferences. It is a beautiful area, and does not get the hordes of tourists who flock to the Amalfi peninsula just a few hundred KM up the coast.
 I initially came to Italy on my own, Mimi had gone back to the States after our six months in Israel to be with Jonathan, who wanted to quit college and I set out to find housing. I had previously visited the Institute so knew more or less its location in Rome, and I wanted to be quite close by.  I found an apartment not too far away  (not in a particular nice part of the city). This apartment belonged to a professor going on Sabbatical to Belgrade from Sapienza University. He was a bachelor and obviously did not care very much for the condition of his apartment. The apartment was absolutely filthy and I started cleaning, I think I must have cleaned for five days; I even scrubbed the walls, but could not get them clean enough. I was afraid that I would do more damage than good since the walls came out very streaky and the wallpaper began to peel. When Mimi arrived, it still was not sufficiently clean, and the location above a coffee –pizza bar was not the most desirable. It was noisy and the area run down. Apparently I did not do too much damage since I never heard from the landlord, and in fact had never met him. I had heard of the apartment through a mutual colleague. We thus decided to look for something else. We did discover a newspaper aimed at English speaking foreigners in Rome and eventually found through an advert a small apartment not far from the via Nomentana, close to the Villa Torlonia. This Villa was rented to Mussolini by the Torlonia family from 1924 until 1944. For those who know Rome this is close to the Piazza Bologna and considered a very affluent part of the city.  It was within walking distance of the Virology Laboratories, quite a long walk, and  I did do it occasionally. I found walking in the city fascinating, past small stores, villas, interesting statues and fountains. Parking both near the apartment and near the institute was always a problem.  In fact I am usually a very calm person, but I became very agitated when trying to find a parking spot in Rome. It was a case of “ playing chicken” as to whom got into the space first. I ended up behaving like an Italian, screaming and shouting, although I never gave anyone the finger, a common practice in Rome.
The apartment was a small section of a larger apartment, possibly built for elderly parents, consisting of a bedroom, living room, and kitchen. It was owned by a Signor Fornercari, whom I think worked in the Italian Senate and we shared the apartment entrance. Once inside we went to the left to another door opening into our apartment. This was on Via Giovanni Batista de Rossi with three and four storied apartment buildings, probably built in the 1920s or 1930s, and considered one of the better sections of the city. The apartments were painted a sort of yellow ochre or burnt Sienna on the outside, the streets quite wide and tree lined.

 The Istituto di Virologia was on the Viale Porta de Tiburtina not far from the Main railway station, and main campus, and had seen better days. It had been a villa and was converted into a laboratory.  From the outside it had the appearance of a turn of the 19th-20th century villa, painted yellow surrounded by a small well-kept garden. It stilled looked like a villa inside, since most of the rooms remained intact, and had been fitted with extra sinks, lab benches etc. It stood quite independent of the rest of the university in a side street; about 10 minutes walk from the main campus.  Again for those of you who know Rome it was not too far from the main railway station, an area of run down hotels and well known for prostitution and theft. Nearby was a very working class area, I think called San Lornenzo with small restaurants with wonderful fare, including the most wonderful fish restaurants serving every kind of sea food imaginable (calamari, squib, mussels) followed by fried fish, all served on paper table cloths or newspaper. It was very cheap and the lab would go there for lunch periodically.

I was introduced to the staff of the Bercoff lab, as it was known.  There was Paolo, who was everyone’s technician.  He was a very gentle quiet, unassuming person but with a great sense of humor.  Aldo Venuti, who a few years later worked in my lab for a short period, and was training to be an MD. Aldo always looked unshaven, hair never combed, and smoked non-stop. You could smell the cigarette smoke from a few yards away. Anna Degener, a research associate was Rauls’ right hand. An attractive blonde, half German, but more Italian than German in looks, with whom we became good friends, and Nicoletta SanTuzzi, who was a sort of post-doc, quite independent. I never really established her status.  Nicoletta was tiny, but very attractive. This was a very friendly group and we would enjoy our espresso breaks together. At every opportunity we would run to the local bar a few blocks away for our espresso. My stomach must have changed color, and I could taste the burnt coffee all day long. There were also one or two students (undergraduates) always in the lab.  This included Raniero De Stasio, who later became one of my graduate students, and today lives in London, and although trained as a virologist works for the cosmetic company L’Oreal , an expert on hair dyes.  While in my lab he worked on herpes virus, and now he lectures ladies on hair care on English TV.
 Raul ran the lab to my surprise with a tight hand, controlling everything. This reflected a constant lack of funds, quite different from my own experience in the States, during that period.  He also had a personal problem, in that he did not get along with the chairman, Fernando Dianzani, accusing him of being a poor scientist and an anti-Semite. I think Raul worried constantly about anti-Semitism, and this caused him lots of problems in dealing with other people.  He was born in the Argentine, and I think there suffered during the military dictatorship, although he never talked about it.  His relationship with Giovanna his wife was also not a happy one. She was a very intelligent and interesting person teaching Slavic languages and commuting once a week to Urbino where she had an academic position. They lived not far from St Paulo outside the wall, a ‘suburb” of Rome, however still within the subway line. We would go to visit them quite often for dinner, and meet their two young daughters, Daniela and Ruth. Superficially it seemed a happy family, and Raul and Giovanna were great hosts, but underneath there must have been tensions since they divorced a few years later.

 I myself was not very accommodating, wanting to work on my own project, and not the one being pursued in the lab, which was on attempting to grow hepatitis A in culture. Hepatitis A (jaundice) is a major problem in Italy. This is a difficult virus to grow and no one had succeeded in growing it to high titer. It  is classified as a picornavirus and I should have been interested. Perhaps I was but I was kept away from that project, and I really cannot remember what I was working on, although I believe it was a continuation of work on mengo virus, double stranded RNA  and interferon. Raul was against this interest in interferon , and I found out later that  it was because half the virology section, headed by Dianzani was working on interferon. Dianzani in fact had been head of the International Interferon society at one time, and I was not aware of this nor that he was in the department, and in the same building. In fact I did not meet him until the last few days of my stay in Rome when I met him accidently and found that we had a lot of common scientific interests . In fact we have become quite friendly, and meet often at international meetings.  I have also reviewed papers for his staff. Luckily I was not aware or involved in all the intrigues occurring in the department.  However as I was to learn intrigue is part of academic life in Italy.

I spent most of my time socializing with other members of the lab, going out for espresso, and exploring Italy. We had acquired an old “ jalopy”. This had been a car abandoned in the grounds near the math department at the university of Florence. Somehow during a casual conversation, back in Bloomington I found out about the car from a math professor who had been on sabbatical there. He sold me the car for $200, with the instructions to pick it up in Florence at the math department.  Thus I bought the car unseen, but reckoned I could not lose much money.  This was known as the sabbatical car since it had passed many hands. A day or so after our arrival in Rome we took the train to  Florence to pick up the car. We arrived at the Math department and were told that the caretaker would take us to the car. It was abandoned under a sycamore tree, and the leaves covered it, and had stained the body so that it really looked in terrible shape. It was all blotchy.  I really felt sorry for this tarnished green fiat. It was completely spotted, and the stains could not be removed. It looked like some weird animal, or probably an abandoned piece of junk. The caretaker was against our possessing the car, since he did not believe we could possibly drive it, certainly not all the way to Rome. However we eventually got it out of the mud, did get it started and took it into a nearby garage, where they fixed up the electrical components and anything else that was wrong. We then started on our trip to Rome, against everyone’s advice. It was pouring, rain coming down in sheets. We did not get very far before we realized that the car leaked from all its seams. However undaunted we continued our drive and after 6 or 8 hours, rather wet, we reached Rome. This car lasted us my entire sabbatical. It was an old green Fiat. It did get me into trouble on some occasions since it was similar to the get away car of members of the “ Red Brigade’ who had assassinated a professor at the university, and I was stopped by the police a number of times , since the car looked suspicious. However we got the car fixed up, and drove all over Italy, from extreme north to Sicily in the south.  We were often followed and stopped by the police. In fact this happened in driving in Northern Italy. A police car kept following us for no apparent reason. We were going the speed limit, I suppose something unheard of in Italy. They eventually overtook us and passed us by. We continued to drive quite happily. Rounding a corner there they were again, and flagging us down. They wanted to know what we were doing in such a car and to whom did it belong. I explained in my bad Italian that the car  belonged to a friend, Senora De-Stasio and that satisfied them. They could not believe that Americans would drive such a jalopy.  I am surprised we made it over the Italian Alps,  to Lake Como and other high spots of Northern Italy.  In fact we even made it to Sicily in this car.
 When we first picked up the car we did not realize that non-Italians were not allowed to own a car. When I went to get a title, I had to substitute the name of one of the mother’s of a graduate student as owner, Signora de Stasio. Thus the car was in her name until we left. On leaving we graciously gave the car to her for her younger son to use, and within a few days it had been totaled.  Thus the end of the Sabbatical car.

Being in Italy after Israel was quite an experience. The work ethic was quite different, very laid back, and the system in general very bureaucratic. For example in order to obtain material from my lab in Bloomington, I had to appear personally at the customs to claim these as “ tools of work”. We had to drink the eternal espresso with the custom official, and Raul suggested I send him a small gift of appreciation, which I balked at. There seemed to be a lot of intrigue, both within the institute as well as among scientists in general. Politics played a large role in appointments to chairmanship and other positions. This was particularly true in the Sanita, the Italian equivalent of the NIH. I found another group at the Sanita interested in interferon, and I became good friends with the professor in charge, Giovanni Rossi.  His group was working on many of the same projects I was working on, and was interested in gene therapy using interferon. Later on one of Giovanni’s student came to my lab, (as did a number of Raul’s students), and many years later, after the premature death of Giovanni, I did spend some time with one of his assistants, Philipo Bellardelli. This was seven or eight years later during a second sabbatical in Italy, a more productive one scientifically, but less interesting socially.  Giovanni Rossi was a great person, well liked by all who knew him. He also was a good scientist and built up a top notch group despite all the political intrigue and jockeying for positions around him. I think he just ignored it. He had spend time in the States and  decided to run his group the “ American way “.

 It is difficult to describe the atmosphere in an Italian university. There seemed a lot of intrigue and  competition for limited resources. Success was to a large extent dependent on whom you knew. I think the Italians found me unusual in that I was very open with my feelings and did not hide my likes and dislikes.  However we certainly formed lasting friendships with the members of the laboratory.
We did a lot of sight seeing, spending every weekend on the road. Orvieto, the hill towns north of Rome, Siena, Lucca, Urbino, San Giminiano, and of course Florence. We also took a break from work and went to the Italian Riviera, Portofino and Santa Margarita. Our old car took us everywhere, although occasionally we did go by train.  Raul was our guide to many of the churches, palaces, and museums in Rome. Mimi and I wandered around the Forum and the Coliseum and got to know the old city of Rome very well. From where we lived we could get into the center of the city very easily by bus. We walked along the Tiber past the Castel de Sant Angelo, actually the mausoleum of Hadrian but also where the story of the opera Tosca takes place, close to the old Jewish quarter and Ghetto, with its restaurants serving Artichokes Jewish style “Carciofi alla giudìa”.  We saw quite a number of operas at the Rome Opera. I remember one in particular which shocked my host, Raul, this was La Perichole by Offenbach, and he did not expect nudity in the Rome Opera house.

Socially we had a great time. Shortly after arriving (it must have been in late January) the lab started preparations for Carnival. This is a Catholic festival celebrated all over Italy (of course it is also well known in other countries). It is a time for dressing up, wearing masks, and being utterly free of inhibitions. Everyone in the lab discussed the costumes, and spent quite a bit of time preparing them. Mrs. De Stasio, a mother of student, Raniero de Stasio, and the “ owner” of our car took it upon herself to prepare a costume of an American Indian for me (I do not where the head dress with feathers came from) and for Mimi who had not yet arrived, but was due to come soon, a costume of a Dutch girl.  The highlight however was the costumes of Aldo and Paolo, they were Bacchus and Cupid. They were dressed (or undressed) in toga like costumes, and had grapes and laurel wreaths decorating their head. The party was quite lavish at the parental home of Anna Degener. They had a beautiful house in the country about 10 miles outside of Rome.  Mr. and Mrs. Degener (senior) acted as hosts. It was like a large family affair with everyone’s aunt and niece and cousin being present.  We drank, laughed and ate a lot of delicious food.  Although my Italian was very rudimentary I somehow managed with smiles, nodding my head and grimaces. Perhaps being drunk helped.
Through Anna Degener we got to know others in her circle of friends.  These were mostly middle-class or even upper class Romans associated with various professions such as lawyers and judges. We also continued a friendship that started in Bloomington many years before with Franco Merli and his wife, Franco had been a post-doc in the chemistry department with Milos Novotny.  We had met him many years previous to this in Bloomington at a party. He was a very handsome guy, and we joked around, particularly since all the girls in Bloomington wanted to go to bed with him, and he did not quite understand, was there a shortage of beds in Bloomington?  He was now back in Rome, married to Alicia , and had a small child. He worked at the Sanita, in the department of environmental studies.  From him we learned to cook rugetta with spaghetti  and many other pasta dishes.
 This had been an enjoyable year. We know Italy very well. It’s people are on the whole very friendly, although often puzzling and to some extent given to xenophobia. The Italians are not very law abiding (Mimi had  her purse snatched and stolen in Palermo, another story for another time)  and this could be seen in driving habits. It was an interesting year, with many contacts that have persisted for the rest of our lives. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Sabbatical in England, 1973

Sabbatical in England. (1973)

My first sabbatical was in England at the Chester Beatty Research Institute, (Royal Marsden Hospital) in Sutton a suburb south of London. The year was 1973. I remember this year very clearly since we were in England during the Yom Kippur war and also during the great English (Welsh) coal strike. The Royal Marsden was an institute famous for studies of leukemia, and was affiliated with the Chester Beatty Hospital in the city. I had chosen to work there because of Dr. Peter Alexander and his publications on macrophage activity and response to double stranded (ds) RNA. Macrophages are cells of the immune system that “eat” and clean up the body of foreign material and bacteria, and even destroy virus-infected cells. We had been working in my laboratory with a virus that during its replication produced large amounts of double stranded RNA, although the virus itself is single stranded. Double stranded RNA treatment of macrophages led to what were called “ angry macrophages”. Microscopically the cells became very ruffled and appeared to move around the petri dish and destroy nearby cells. Adding ds-RNA to a mixture of macrophages and mouse L-cells, a cancerous cell line resulted in the L-cells being “gobbled up”. This was at a time when in my own lab Barbara Cordell, a graduate student, had discovered that the addition of viral dsRNA to a culture killed various cell types. At that time we had no idea of the mechanism of this activity. Peter Alexander had published a number of papers in Nature on macrophage activation by double stranded RNA. We had found or claimed that the dsRNA killing of cells (cytotoxic effect) happened without protein synthesis, which was a surprise. I now think it was due to the binding of the dsRNA to receptors in the cell, that act as alarms and trigger a whole series of reactions leading to macrophage activation.  This was a top lab in the area of immunity and I had a Fogarty International Fellowship from the USPHS.
We were allocated housing within a few blocks of the institute. This was a typical English semidetached house, we on one side and a Dutch couple also on sabbatical on the other side. We became quite friendly with them and we “ child” sat for each other giving us a lot of freedom to go into the city in the evenings. They had children slightly younger than ours. Yuval was 11 and Jonathan 8.  We hooked up the houses by walky-talky’s, which meant we could sit in our own house and listen for any noise from next door.
The house unfortunately was very dirty, the previous occupant having worked with sheep and there were sheep droppings in various nooks and crannies particularly in the clothes closet.  However it had a nice garden with rose bushes and lilac, and in general was quite pretty, a few yards from the bus stop in a quiet area and within walking distance of the institute. We very quickly bought ourselves a car, a Datsun, which we kept for the total length of the sabbatical, used to go up to Scotland and many other trips and sold at cost when we left.
The labs were spacious and well equipped but very little was accomplished during that year, since most of the work was done in mice, or macrophages isolated from mice and the mice population were infected with a protozoan like parasite, which could influence our results. This was not identified until quite late into the project. However I did gain quite a lot of experience working with tumors in mice, and culturing cells of the immune response, and also learned a great deal of immunology from attending talks and seminars.
The typical work day went something like this: arrive at work between 8-9a.m. Coffee or tea break for about 30 minutes around 10a.m. Lunch and a walk on the Downs opposite the institute from 12 -1.30, and then leave for home around 4.0 to avoid rush hour. Since I worked close by, none of this schedule applied to me, and I worked a normal day. Apart from the short work -day I was also disturbed by the English class system. There was very little social interaction between the lab personnel, such as technicians and secretaries and the faculty. This became most obvious at Xmas when parties were announced and we would turn up, to find ourselves the only “professionals” among the “ hoi poloi” of secretaries and maintenance people. Professor Peter Alexander would appear for a few minutes to welcome every one and add his greetings, but no other members of the faculty were present. One just did not associate with the lower classes.
Peter Alexander was a larger than life character. He was a large, good-looking man, with a booming voice. His English had a trace of a German accent, and I believe he was born in Germany. He was born in 1922, so that when I got to know him he was already in his early 50’s. I felt small and insignificant beside him.  To quote from his obituary in the Independence “Peter Alexander's talents were those of a publicist, a communicator, a teacher and a leader rather than those of a bench worker. He was a strategist rather than a tactician. He was basically a romantic and science for him was a personal crusade in which a struggle against daunting odds was a stimulus and not an obstacle. He could only function properly if he felt himself to be at the centre of the affairs that interested him. Then ideas erupted from him in rapid succession and ranged from the penetratingly astute to the hare-brained and often exceeded the resources provided for their completion by several orders of magnitude.”
The Alexander’s lived in a large house out in the country, near Redhill. We were invited for dinner one evening with some other “ visitors” to the lab. This was to be quite an elegant affair, so both Mimi and I dressed for the occasion.  Unfortunately it was pouring, coming down as they say in ‘Buckets”. Peter appeared with his car to take us to his house, a red convertible. He could not get his convertible to convert so that we arrived slightly damp. We were introduced to Mrs. Alexander (Jane) who was a “ horsey” sort of woman, of a specific English type. She insisted we see her horses, which were used for fox   hunting. She put on her Wellingtons, but we had to trek through the mud in our good shoes to the stables. This was particularly galling to the ladies in the company who had put on their best high heels.
At dinner she proudly announced that all we were about to eat was produced on the estate. I think Mimi asked rather innocently whether this included the venison that was served as main course. Of course she exclaimed, I hit this particular animal with my car (I assume accidently) and brought it home. She then told us a story which I think is classic. She had been breeding a specific breed of hamsters for sometime and had too many of them. She called Harrods of London, and asked whether they carried this breed pretending she wanted to purchase some.   She was very indignant when they told her they did not have any in stock.  A few weeks later in a disguised voice, she called Harrods and asked whether they would be interested in purchasing such a strain of Hamsters. Remembering the last conversation, and quite sure there would be a demand; they offered to buy them from her. Thus she was able to dispose of her unwanted animals. I don’t know why she was breeding them unless watching them gave her a sexual thrill, since the dinner conversation that evening was very risqué and slightly embarrassing.
The year in London was enjoyable. We went quite often to the theatre and to opera. We could not afford the best seats in the old Convent Garden Opera House, so would climb an interminable amount of stairs to the top balconies, from which you could barely see the stage. The stairs were totally unadorned and reminded me of the stairs up the tenements in the poorer parts of Glasgow. Theatre was not as expensive as the opera, and I remember we saw a fantastic performance of Shakespeare’s Pericles performed in the round. We found an excellent Italian restaurant in Wimbledon one where large Italian families gathered for Sunday lunch.  This was the days before there were large numbers of good Indian restaurants. We would meet my cousin Alan and wife Francis occasionally and go out for dinner together, usually to an Italian Restaurant in the city. There was a bus service from the institute into the city, and Mimi would often go into the city to museums and shopping.
The children went to English public school, Yuval was in the class that sat 11+ exams, and Jonathan must have been in 3rd grade. We were worried about the kids attending a “ foreign” school, but there was no need. The first day at school, Yuval asked if it was O.K. to go to tea with some of the kids he had met. He became very good friends with a Jamie Pimstone, and with Marcus Wright. He seemed to fit in very well. We also became quite good friends with the Pimstones, who were South African Jews who had moved to England.  They were from a rather famous family of S. African lawyers and doctors.  Years later I met other members of the family at scientific meetings. We often went over to their house for dinner and other parties. Yuval sat his 11+ exams with flying colors and if we had stayed in Sutton would have gone to a prestigious grammar school. Jonathan adapted also very well, his teacher remarking how well he did considering he was an American. In fact at the beginning of the school year, it was assumed by the teachers that our children would not be up to the standard of the other children, but they were quickly proven wrong. One of Jonathan’s teachers even remarked that he spelt rather well for an American! This attitude to American kids even carried over to a vacation in the country. This was a farm vacation where one stayed on the farm, ate with other visitors, and generally “ lazed” around, went hiking etc. On our fist evening on the farm, we were segregated from the other guests, and put in a separate room for dinner.  The following evening we were allowed to join the other guests. Our hostess was worried that the “ American” kids would have no manners and make too much noise.
 We did go up to Glasgow a few times to visit the family.  The family lived in the same house I lived in when I was 16, before I left Glasgow, at 90 Holeburn Rd. I do not remember very much of these visits. Maurice my brother must have been around 21 years old. That is also 21 years younger than I. I do not remember whether he was going out with Barbara, his wife to be or not. Adelaide and Beatrice by this time were married and had children. In fact we visited Beatrice and Noah in Sheffield, and made some trips to York and the surrounding areas. Adelaide and John lived in Glasgow, Aaron about the same age as our Jonathan and Naomi a toddler. My parents were delighted to meet their grandchildren, and I remember the children being spruced up for my cousin Muriel Mitchells wedding.
 The visits to Holeburn Rd touched an emotional raw spot. No 98 was where my grandmother and grandfather had lived, until the death of my grandfather. I was very close to my grandparents and spent many weekends with her. I was the first grandchild, and my grandparents really made a great deal of fuss over me, and during the war years I spent as much time with them as I did at home.  My leaving school, and then home must have been a great shock to them. I do not think my grandmother (by this time my grandfather had died) ever understood why. Unfortunately she died shortly after I married Mimi in 1958. She most certainly would have approved of the marriage and my subsequent life.

We also went on some great holidays from England. These were the days of cheap charter flights. We flew to Tunisia for a week, to Hammemat, staying in a resort called Les Orangers. We rented a car and drove into Tunis City and into the desert and Kharouan, a Muslim holy city. Tunisia was fascinating. The hotel and food were great, there was dancing in the evenings, once even accompanied by a knife brawl (after all this was North Africa). We got stuck in a wadi in the desert (the edge of the Sahara) and had to have the car pulled out by a group of Arab children. This was a time when Tunis was a benevolent dictatorship under Bourgaiba, and very open to visitors. It was not particularly “Muslim” in the current sense, although women did cover themselves. However there was also a secular side to the country. The ‘souk” in Tunis was fascinating as was in particular Kharouan with its mosques. This is regarded as the fourth most holy city in Islam, and dates to the 7th century. It has a huge mosque and fortress. We wandered around the city with no problems, not something I think could be done today.
Over spring vacation we went to Spain to Mohacar, a very windy isolated village near Almeria. The wind howled all the time, and we stayed near the top of the mountain. It felt as if our hotel would be blown away. The village itself is completely white, and looks similar to a village on one of the Greek islands. The same square shaped houses. We had planned to cross the Sierra Nevada and visit Grenada. We had rented a Volkswagen “ bug”, unfortunately not in the best condition, and headed out over the Sierra Nevada. We had not driven very far when people started making signs to us to turn around. We had no idea why until we hit a terrific snowstorm.  The car was a catastrophe; the windshield wipers did not work and the brakes were weak. Here we were on a narrow mountain road going over very steep passes, with no turn offs, and being blinded by the snow. Eventually we did find a spot on the road wide enough to turn round, and drove slowly back to the coast. It was not until many years later that we actually did get to see the Alhambra in Granada, not in winter and not from the coast.
Another short trip was to Paris for the weekend. This trip had specific meaning for me, since before making it I had been summoned to the local police station since I had not registered as a foreigner. All foreigners had to register after being in the UK for three months. I explained to the girl working in the office that I actually was not foreign, but born in Glasgow, Scotland. She did not quite know what to do with me, and sent me to another office of the interior ministry in London.  I explained my predicament. I had arrived in the UK with an USA passport ( Mimi actually had used her British passport, not  yet being a U.S. citizen), and thus technically I had overstayed may welcome, and needed permission to continue workiI was asked whether I had any plans to leave the UK for a short time. Since I did, I was told to leave on my US passport and return to Britain with my new British Passport, which was issued within a few weeks. This satisfied the computer (?) the bureaucrats or records. The weekend in Paris was a great success. We stayed in luxury at the Scribe Hotel, an old 19th century hotel near the Place L’Opera and Pl Vendome.  The hotel dates from 1860 and was famous at the turn of the century as the home of the Jockey Club, a society of owners of racing horses.  We did the usual, went to the Opera, ate well, and spent time at the Louvre.
I should add a few words about this particular year. As stated above it was the year of the great coal miner’s strikes, and also the Yom Kippur war. I remember watching the war unfold on television with great trepidation at the beginning and relief afterwards at the Israeli victory. There was a general shortage of fuel in the UK and the government imposed all sorts of measures to preserve electricity. The British people behaved again as if in WWII. Shops ran by candle light in the evening instead of electricity.  People talked about how great it was to re-live these austerity conditions again.  The British obviously love nostalgia, and longing for the good old days. The disputes lasted for 16 weeks, and it was only after a general election that the strike was settled. Both Mimi and I voted in that election as citizens of the U.K. I remember voting for the “liberal” party, but I cannot remember why other than that my brother Maurice was active in the party and convinced me to do so. Anyhow Labor won, and the miners received a 35% increase in salary.
Looking back, this was an interesting year.  We were all quite happy in our surroundings, and lived relatively well the English middle class life. On the other hand we were glad to return to Bloomington, and started building the house that we still live in to this day.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Southern California, 1966-67

Irvine and Laguna Beach 1966-67.

We drove down from Palo Alto to look at University of Califronia, Irvine. In 1966 it was a beautiful place. This was the newest campus of the University of California system. The campus consisted of a few white, modern buildings surrounded by acres of orange groves. Very hilly and green, and one could not predict that in a few years all these beautiful hills would be flattened and covered with track housing, shopping malls, and even an international airport. Today it is called John Wayne International airport after the “tough guy” western actor. More appropriately it is also called Santa Ana airport, because of the proximity to Santa Ana, and serves as the airport to Disney Land.  
I was quite happy to meet John Holland and view the lab, and the projects seemed interesting. John was a tall, skinny guy, very open and friendly.  He was a good scientist, but had a very mercuric temper and could not stand “ bullshit”  or interference from authority. His temper often got him into trouble, and after a couple of years he left UCI.
We decided to try and find a rental on the coast. There were two appealing small towns within 15 miles; these were Corona Del Mar and Laguna Beach. Laguna was a that time an “ artists colony”, very hip and arty on the one hand and very conservative and wealthy at the same time.  Today the hippiness has gone but the wealth has remained.  We had no difficulty in renting a house two blocks from the beach. The house was owned by a couple of men who were only too happy to have a “ doctor” living in the area. It enhanced, or so they thought, the value of the surrounding property. In fact at the beginning I was called a few times by neighbors asking for medical advice. I had to explain I was a Ph.D. doctor and not a physician, although I did give advice, usually just common sense. However no one ever offered to pay for my consultations. The house had been completely remodeled, had a beautiful front yard, with the largest Avocado trees overlooking the porch, and a couple of fig trees out front. It was more than anyone could desire. The avocadoes were the large kind, and every time one fell the house would shake.  I learned to harvest avocadoes by taking a Coffee can, cutting out a triangle so that it had a sharp edge, attaching it to a pole and with some manipulation this would cut the avocado stem. I felt I was living in the jungle and harvesting fruit in a primitive fashion.  The children who were only 3 and 1 year old would sit under the fig trees and eat all the ripe fruit. I still have a passion for ripe figs, ever since I lived in Israel, and I need to ask the children sometime whether they do!
At that time Laguna beach was predominantly small cottages with gardens, climbing up the hills of the nearby canyons. We had a baby sitting co-op so that we got to know various areas of the town when we baby sat for other people.  Almost all the small houses near the beach have now been transformed into apartment blocks. We had the option to buy our house, and often have thought if only we had, since property values sky rocketed, and the house we were renting for $250 a month would have been worth a few million dollars today.
Laguna Beach is famous for its festival of the arts, when tableux’s would be presented of famous paintings. The city hugs the Pacific Ocean, with high hills and mountains surrounding it. Today these hills are covered with small houses, and every few years there are landslides after the heavy winter rains, and some of the houses tumble down the hills and canyons. There are beautiful beaches in small coves, and the promenade along the beach is astride gardens and flowerbeds. In our days the major landmark on the beach was a very elegant French Restaurant called the “ Victor Hugo”, too expensive for us to afford. Today it is less expensive, and is now Las Brisas, a Mexican restaurant, where one can sit outside on a wide veranda and look at the waves and surfers and drink Margharita’s. The center of the town consists of three shopping streets with boutiques and banks, as well as stores selling tourist paraphernalia, ice cream salons and a few great bakeries. The town has the atmosphere of a resort, and we would not venture out at weekends since the beaches and roads through the town were packed. The last few years the town has suffered from fires and mud-slides as it expanded up the hills and into the canyons. Unfortunately it is surrounded by large housing tracks, mostly built as retirement communities, but these do not really infringe on the town itself . These go by names such as Leisure World, and Laguna Hills.  A new town has developed just South of Laguna, Dana Point, indicating the fast growth of Southern California.  I remember it as a single pier jutting out into the sea.
In those days just as one entered the town one met the town greeter. This was a figure with a long white beard and long white hair who would wave to every car and greet the driver and passengers. This was Eiler Larson, the official town greeter. He stood on the Pacific Coast Highway from the 1940’s to through the 1960s every weekend and waved to passersby. By profession he was a gardener, and lived in a room at the Laguna Hotel, a small hotel, still standing, in the middle of the town. We thought of him as being rather “ crazy”. However after his death the city put up a statue of him near the pottery shack, another old landmark, which is no longer there making pottery, but  now an expensive restaurants where one can sit out on the deck and watch the traffic on the Pacific Coast hway !
Mimi was very happy, she would take the kids to the beach, and we made quite a number of friends. Her parents, who lived in Los Angeles would often come down for the day. I would drive 15 miles back and forth to Irvine. Sometimes, the fog was so dense, that I had to get out of the car to ascertain I was still on the road, and not slipping off a cliff into the sea. The Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) hugged the coast line , and in many places there was a sheer drop of a 100 feet or more.  At that time there was very little between the campus and Laguna Beach, not like today where there is Spanish style track housing on one side of the highway and major roads to the University, as well as remnants of parks fought over between developers and environmentalists. We had two sets of friends, one connected with the university world, the others from the town. It gave us a view of a society that to us at that time was strange, and I think influenced our decision later not to remain in California. Perhaps a mistake, but we still thought of retuning to Israel.
Yuval was taking piano lessons at a nearby location, the Yamaha method, and parents would wait for their children to finish.  Mimi would meet one of the mothers, Greta , quite often, and since the children were the same age we decided to meet at their house one evening for dinner.  Greta lived with her “ family “ on a house on the beach (Laguna used to have very primitive and cheap houses right on the water front, these houses or shacks are still there and are worth a million dollars, most having been remodeled and enlarged ). Greta was from Denmark, a striking blonde. Greta and we assumed her husband, and another male friend lived together in the house. Philip, whom we assumed was her husband, was an artist. To make a long confusing story short, Philip and Greta had been married and were now divorced, the other man was Philip’s lover. Greta and Philip later remarried This was in 1966 before the great sexual revolution. Perhaps we were too square and conservative, but we were not accustomed to these relationships, although I really did not mind. They were very kind and friendly people and  introduced us to the pre-hippy (intellectual)  society of Laguna, including poets and other artists.. Everyone  was smoking Marijuana, and some even into LSD . We felt a little out of it.  We have returned to  Laguna many times in the last few years and have never been able to find any of our “old’ town friends other than those connected to the University. In searching the internet for information on Laguna beach of that period, I found that Timothy Leary  had connection to the town at that time, and that Laguna Canyon was well known locale for LSD production.
 To quote from a 1985 newspaper article ( Glendale news press) “Laguna Beach was the LSD capital of the world starting in mid-1960s and was still home to droppers, dopers and dealers until 1981, according to an unpublished book, "The Jesus Dealers," written by Ted Taylor in collaboration with former Police Chief Neal Purcell. In its heyday, the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, founded by Timothy Francis Leary, was allegedly selling dope in Laguna at health food stores, juice bars, psychedelic shops, record stores, surf shops and even a used car lot. Woodland Drive was considered their base, known to local law enforcement as "Dodge City."
 This was the first year of UCI as a university. The campus was very small, only two buildings and very few undergraduates. There was really no difference between post-docs and faculty, we all mixed quite freely. Everyone seemed young. The lab consisted of three post docs (including myself) and one graduate student and a few high school students.  We all worked on John’s ideas, which changed quite often. Actually John moved after a year to University of California at La Jolla, and found his true interest in viral evolution. Most of the time I worked on methods to purify tRNA and look at tRNA profiles from different tissues. The other post-docs in  the lab were Clayton, and Morrie.  Clayton had an unfortunate life, his first wife, died of a brain tumor while still young, and his second wife I believe committed suicide. Despite this he had a very successful career in science. Morrie went on to become a professor at UCI. We met again a few years ago while visiting Laguna. Morrie’s fame lies in the discovery of Lymphotoxin, which later became known as TNF (tumor necrosis factor).   As the name implies it was hoped it would be a general anti-cancer agent, but it has proven to be too toxic. Still it has been a great research tool in immunology and in cancer research.
The atmosphere in the lab was not as good as it had been at Stanford. We had problems with the high school students. LSD was big at this time (see above) , and many of these students would routinely take drugs. We were afraid to drink our coffee in case it was laced.  The story I heard was that two of the high school students jumped from the roof under the influence of LSD and one blinded himself by staring at the sun for too long a time.  We personally came up against the drug problem when some friends, the Duncans,  immigrated to Australia because they were afraid to bring up their teen  children in Laguna Beach (they eventually returned not particularly happy with Australia). Mrs Duncan could not stand the snakes and the primitive conditions that they met on that continent. We were I suppose to some extent  influenced by this very hedonistic society but never took drugs. We were just too “ square”. As Mimi has pointed out, the atmosphere was such that  if you were not enjoying yourself all the time then you had a problem. One had to be constantly happy.  This was the America of the constant smile, and California was the epitome of this.
As I mentioned earlier, we had befriended Cathy and John Pearse at Stanford. John and Cathy had gone to Egypt to teach at the American University in Cairo for a few years. Cathy’s mother ‘ Mrs. Reap” had opened a store in Laguna selling imported goods ( as far as I know not drugs) . I can still picture the store, a small corner store at the corner of Thalia and  Pacific Coast Highway, full of stuff from the orient and Middle East. The store is still there but different owners and different knick-knacks. We saw a lot of John and Cathy at weekends.  John was looking for a faculty position, which he later found at U California Santa Cruz. Interestingly we talked a lot about their sojourn in Egypt, and how primitive the Egyptian army was despite the bellicose statements from Nasser. This was just before the 6-day war and their impression, proven correct, was that the Egyptian army was no match for the Israeli Army. The Egyptian soldiers  did not even have boots.
Cathy and John were having some problems, I am not sure of what nature, but they had decided to get divorced. Mimi might know the reasons, since Cathy had given birth while we were in Palo Alto to a stillborn child as the result of an E.coli infection and Mimi had helped Cathy during this period. Also Mrs. Reap had helped us when Mimi had a miscarriage, and we had become quite close. After leaving Laguna we lost contact with Cathy until a few years ago when we called on her after finding out that she was still in Laguna Beach, and was a successful artist, now Cathy Jones. We even have one of her paintings on the dining room wall.  She had remarried, had been at one time a vice-chancellor in charge of publicity at UCI and had a number of children.
One might ask, why did we not try and stay on in Laguna and UCI in 1966? I know that Mimi, more than I was afraid of bringing up children in the hedonistic atmosphere of Southern California.  There was also a lack of culture, as we knew it, at that time. No concerts or classical music performances, and Los Angeles was too far to go to the theatre. The area was just developing, and UCI could hardly be called a campus. On the other hand we should have considered Mimi’s parents who most certainly did not want us to leave, and would have helped in purchasing a house. I really had no idea where I wanted to live, Israel was still a definite possibility and I really did not know the USA other than New York State and California. One day I received a letter from a Dr. Howard Gest, a friend of Charley Yanofsky my advisor at Stanford, asking me whether I would be interested in interviewing for a position at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. I knew nothing about Bloomington, nor for that matter Indiana but was told by members of my Ph.D. committee whom I contacted that it was a good place to perform science. I thus started looking at other possibilities for comparison. I was invited to give seminars at Oak Ridge, St Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, and at the microbiology department at the U. Michigan at Ann Arbor. I met Howard Gest in La Jolla while he was visiting a friend, and was impressed by what he told me. Indiana from his description was not as far out (or backwards) as I imagined, and Howard certainly was a very cultured person. Memphis, I ruled out after seeing how segregated the city was, although Alan Granoff the director of the research wing of St Jude’s a very personable person made me a very good offer. Oak Ridge was attractive, but was a cultural wasteland, and I was not the number one candidate at Michigan. My visit to Bloomington was enjoyable, and I was very impressed by the faculty, the physical set up (lots of lab space, probably double that of John’s space at UCI) and I was blown over by being taken to a musical production in the Auditorium. I came back and filled Mimi in, and the decision was made, the Mid-West for us and goodbye to California. Was it the right decision? We still had ideas of returning to Israel, and thought that Indiana would be a good place for a year or so until something opened up in Israel.  One final note, since this was written and revised in 2010, despite not wanting to bring up our children in Southern California, Jonathan has returned to that location and our grandchildren are being brought up in this still very hedonistic and crowded society. Unexpectedly, what I have seen recently of Israeli society near Tel Aviv does not differ all that much from Southern California society of today. It looks the same and feels the same, the only difference being that the young speak Hebrew rather than English or Spanish.  Southern California has become more diverse, a mixture of Hispanics and Orientals and has a slightly different atmosphere from 50 years ago, when Orange County, where Jonathan lives and where U. California at Irvine is located was John Birch Country, very conservative and WASPish and is now demographically , Hispanic, Chinese, Vietnamese and other ethnic groups  one shopping mall after the other, with the same chain stores and the car unfortunately  is still king.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Christmas in Israel 2010

We are tourists in the holy Land, Israel.  The first thing that hits one is the difference in light from Indiana.  The sun is shining with a brightness that almost hurts the eyes. The buildings are white or semi white, or golden, the sort of gold of Jerusalem stone, sung about in many songs, “Jerusalem of gold.” It is warm. We left snow packed Bloomington and here within a span of 15 hours it is summer like. We arrive towards evening and the darkness comes down quickly and suddenly. The sky is full of stars, not like the nights of Indiana. Clear and very bright.
 This is not the Israel of the newspapers and the newsreels. Everything is normal. I could be in California or Florida. The highway was four lanes, and the traffic heavy; there were the usual traffic jams, but orderly as in any civilized country. The traffic moves with jumps, smoothly at 100 km per hour for 20 minutes and then 5 minutes of slow motion then 20 minutes fast again. We arrive in Haifa in the dark. Our hotel is in the German Colony, an area of the city that at one time was settled by German Templar’s, a religious Christian group. These were an offshoot of German Protestants, who came to Palestine to build agricultural settlements, in the second half of the 19th century. At that time the Land was empty, and Haifa a small town of about 4000 people. They developed an area with stone buildings and red roofs, with a very wide boulevard.  Today this area has been restored and is full of restaurants and the Colony Hotel, where we are staying dates back to that period, the original hotel of the area.  Since the surrounding area is predominantly Christian Arab, the buildings are decorated with Xmas decorations and a large artificial Xmas tree set in the fountain at the bottom of Ben Gurion Boulevard. Would he have approved?  Of course the water is turned off.  It was noisy and music was blaring from all the restaurants, creating a festive atmosphere. Here we were trying to escape the commercialization of Xmas, going to a ”Jewish country”, and instead see lighted reindeer decorations and a moving robotic Santa Claus across the street from our hotel. Jingle Bells rings out from every street corner.

This small country is inundated with history and religions.  The history is both ancient and modern. Wherever one goes, every step there is a ruin or structure with a story to tell. Buildings are relics either of the crusaders, or of more ancient times or connected to the War of Independence or Zionist history. Just above the German Colony and its Xmas decorations are the Baha’i hanging gardens.  Another religious symbol, not associated with death and destruction as are other religions, but of planting gardens and holding out for religious unity and a single humanity. There are vey few Baha’is in the world, perhaps 5,000,000 and Haifa, and nearby Acre are their holy sites. The founder of this religion is buried in Haifa and his tomb in the beautiful white temple at the top of Mt Carmel. Baha’ism was also a mid 19th century religion, an offspring from Shiite Islam, in which the prophet or messenger Bahá'u'lláh, proclaimed one universal religion in which all previous religions are continuities, i.e Judaism. Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam and that God has spoken to specific messengers, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, the Buddha and Mohammad, at different periods through time. It is a culmination of all the monotheistic religions, one looking for peace and harmony among men. Unfortunately Baha’is’ were persecuted, and are still persecuted in modern Iran, and their “first messenger” was executed in Iran  (Persia) at about the same time as the German Colony was being formed.  The second leader of the Baha’i movement was imprisoned by the Turks, following banishment from Iran, in Acre. He died there and his site is also holy, and Baha’i pray at this site or towards this site daily.

Even though we should have been suffering from lack of sleep, we walked along the boulevard (actually Ben Gurion Blvd) to a nearby Arab Restaurant and had our first typical Middle Eastern meal.  At a nearby table were group of noisy German tourists, obviously enjoying the good fare and good beer. I thought why don’t the newspapers write about the freedom of the Christian Arab population, the lack of violence, and the obvious good will around us. I don’t think this would occur in any other Arab country except perhaps Lebanon and even that I am not certain.

The trip over was on an Airbus A330-200 carrying 293 passengers. The flight was full to capacity, mostly with young people going for two weeks during Christmas break as part of the Tag lit-birthright program. These were students either just finished high school or in college. They seemed such an unkempt lot, torn jeans and T-shirts with different slogans. A young man, obviously their group leader approached me and began speaking to me in Hebrew, assuming I was an Israeli, returning to Israel.  He turned out to be a Chabad rabbi who accompanied the kids, most of whom were not religious, as judged by dress. When he found out I was an ex-professor from IU, he started telling all the kids. “Hey, here is a professor from IU” and it quickly carried through the plane. Apparently there were IU students in the group and one of the group leaders was an IU student, on her third trip.  I could not keep my identity hidden for very long. The other component of the passengers was families with screaming and crying children. The crying went on all night, and I could not sleep. Children howling” I don’t want to sleep” in a multitude of languages. This was a 12-hour flight. It was one of the more uncomfortable ones I had taken in a long time. I don’t think it would have mattered whether we had flown first class rather than economy, since the noise must have carried throughout the plane. Landing at Ben Gurion was a relief, and everything from passport control, baggage to picking up a car went very smoothly.

We woke up the next morning to a bright blue sky, and temperatures predicted to be in the 70’s (remember this is December). Mimi called some of her friends, and I suggested let’s spend a day in the country. Out of the blue I suggested we go to Beth-lechem haglalit, where I had been previously years before to eat lunch. It turned out that Mimi’s friends had lived on a moshav shitufi (collective village, different from a kibbutz) in that area on their arrival in Israel, I assume in 1948. This was the village of Alonei Abba. We stopped on the way and again found ourselves in German Templar country. At the entrance to the village there is a remains of a church, in quite good condition. The village in a previous incarnation had been called Waldheim, and was established by a breakaway group of German evangelists from Haifa.  The German colony had been founded in 1907; the evangelical church was built between 1914- and 1921. After the rise of Nazism, many of the members of the village joined the Nazi party, and even the Germans in Haifa voted for Nazi officials. Although they objected to the boycott of Jewish shops, there sympathies during WW II were with Nazi Germany. The British started deporting many to Australia for resettlement, and after the war others returned to Germany. In 1948 the Hagana, the IDF, occupied the village and a Jewish settlement established. This was where Mimi’s friends had lived.
 We then proceeded to Bethlehem of Galilee. This is a small village about 10 kilometers from Nazareth. Many archeologists believe that this is the Bethlehem of Jesus, since he was born nearby. This village is mentioned in the Bible, in the book of Joshua, as a city of the tribe of Zebulon. It was inhabited by Jews until the destruction of the 2nd temple in 70 AD, and may have been a Talmudic center. As described above German Templers also settled it at the beginning of the 20th century, and many of their houses including a meeting hall remain standing and still in use.   During World War II the inhabitants were interned and after the war chose to go to Australia rather than to Germany where land was not available. Jewish settlers moved in 1948 and established an agricultural settlement. However today it is tourist village with numerous restaurants and small bed and breakfasts. 
After a few days in Haifa, we drove to Jerusalem, where we were meeting our son and family. The purpose of this trip was in reality a gift to Thalia, our granddaughter who had performed her bat-Mitzvah very well in October in Chicago. In the end the whole family came. While we stayed in one of Jerusalem’s large hotels, they had rented a small apartment in the Yemin Moshe quarter of the city. This is a gentrified area, which was established by Moses Montefiore, the British-Jewish philanthropist for poor Jews in 1891. It was to relieve the overcrowding in the Old walled city.  Today it is an area of gardens and the houses have been converted into small villas each worth a small fortune. They have the most magnificent view of the old city and the tower of David, an old citadel that dates back to the second century BC, and has been rebuilt by all the various conquerors of the city, Hasmoneans, Moslem, Crusaders, Byzantine etc., today it is the museum of the history of the city.
 We wondered around the maze of alleys that make up the old city, going to the Armenian quarter for dinner, with a son of a cousin and wife (Henry and Keren) and his wife’s parents then the next morning touring the rebuilt Jewish quarter with its ancient synagogues, which were built lower than the surrounding area, since during Moslem times, synagogues could not be higher than mosques.  The Jewish quarter has been restored with taste, the architecture blending in. We of course proceeded to the holy “ western wall”, where a large square has been cleared crowded with tourists and worshippers, The “ wall’ itself is not imposing, and it is more the emotional appeal than the aesthetic that is important. Thalia and her mother approached the women’s section, which is separated from the men’s section and is much smaller. Most of the men praying are what is termed in Israel, “black hats” because of the black garb, dating to medieval Poland. The area has its usual beggars, who live of the tourists and claim to study Torah.  I have been many times to this area, the first time I felt some emotion, but now I do not have any feelings about it, and I am put out by the large numbers of people pushing to get near the wall and place a small piece of paper with their wish to God.   The Arab section of the old city is a labyrinth of streets with small shops, selling everything from spices, candy, to expensive jewelry and embroidered Palestinian dresses. Shopkeepers sit outside and try to entice you in. It is the atmosphere of the souk. I am sure you can bargain down any item at least 50%.
 I used to think Jerusalem had a rarefied atmosphere. It is now a crowded metropolis stretching on the hills as far as the eye can see. Masses of white boxes, some three or four story high make up the landscape. The area around the Israel museum and the Knesset is still beautiful, and the city is blessed with lots of parks and gardens, although even in these spaces high rises are appearing. Driving, it seems very crowded.  In error we drove into a religious area teeming with people in black. Perhaps because it was Xmas, the rest of the city seemed more crowded than usual. Waiting to pick up a car at the Budget office took about two hours. There were arguments between the clerks and renters, haggling over prices quoted, prices charged, and trouble finding the reservation. The days of internet and computer ordering seemed to have misfired, and instead of being more efficient, it seemed a total mess.  Driving in Jerusalem requires nerves of steel. Arrows point in certain directions to get out of the city and then disappear. One comes to roundabouts with no idea which of the four streets to take. It is not a planned city like Tel Aviv (which has it own driving and parking problems) but is a mess of streets going in all directions, skirting hills, and valleys, changing names every few blocks, in honor of some Zionist writer or painter, or even some obscure Rabbi.
It was now December 24th and we proceeded back to Haifa, this time with all the family.  On the way we stopped at what is known as the cave of Sorek (Absalom’s cave).   The name has nothing to do with Absalom, the son of King David but is called after Absalom Shohem, a soldier killed in the war of attrition between Israel and Egypt.    It was discovered accidently in 1968 during blasting in the area, and has a magnificent array of stalactites and stalagmites. The temperature is a constant 80 degrees, and the humidity about 90%. The area of the cave is large, and unlike most caves in Indiana there are no bats, since it was sealed off for centuries. All of us enjoyed this. We then went on our separate ways back to Haifa; again to the same area of the German Colony, The children enjoyed the Xmas decorations and the atmosphere of Christmas.
 The next day was interesting, since we met three generations of family, the Steinmetz’s, the children and grandchildren of Mimi’s late mother.  There were 5 cousins and their spouses and in some cases children, closer to Yuval and Karen in age, and one or two grandchildren. The event was held at Shulamit’s house in Zichron Yaacov, a small town south of Haifa. There was the most wonderful view from their yard of the coastline stretching from Caesarea to Athlit, just south of Haifa. My grandson Jacky enjoyed climbing the palm trees in the yard. In fact he climbed every available tree and wall he came across. We had to keep him from climbing the ancient ruins of Caesarea and later Beth Shean. Prior to this visit we went to the National Park to view the ancient Roman and Crusader city of Caesarea.  Besides the ruins of the amphitheatre and hippodrome the area has been developed with restaurants and gift shops, some quite unique.
Next day we drove to the Emek Jezreel and kibbutz Ein Harod. This was one of the earliest Kibbutzim, established around 1921. It is situated on a hill with a great view of the valley, fishponds and Mt Gilboa.  We stayed in the Kibbutz guesthouse, Iris Suites, which to our surprise were very luxurious.  Yuval and family stayed in nearby cabins, rustic, but clean and well furnished. The area of the lodgings was nicely landscaped, and we could sit outside in our own private garden, lie on a hammock, and sip wine with a view of the hills. This was a wonderful experience and we hope to do it again sometime.  This became our base for a couple of days, exploring the Jordan Valley, meeting some of Mimi’s friends and exploring the area with its archaeological sites, the Roman city of Beth Shean, and the mosaics of Byzantine synagogues and churches. The kibbutz is opposite a national park with a natural spring in which one can bathe all the year round. The children did this, with Thalia complaining of the fish “biting’ her toes. 
Although the room came with a bottle of wine, we visited the nearby Tabor winery and bought some wonderful “ gewürztraminer”. The next day we drove up to Mt Tabor to see the sunset. On top of the mountain are a couple of Byzantine style churches, which to our surprise were full of tourists.  Mt Tabor is mentioned many times in the Bible and is the site of the “ Transfiguration” of Christ.  Since I am not familiar with the New Testament I was not quite sure what this meant until I got home and looked it up on Wikipedia.  This is one of the holiest sites for Christians in Israel.   On the slopes of the Mt are a number of Arab villages and at the foot of the Mt the Jewish village of Kfar Tabor.  This was where we bought the highly recommended wine. The village was one of those founded by Baron de Rothschild at the turn of the 20th century. It is famous for its grapes and almonds, and there is an unusual Marzipan museum next to the wine tasting room.
The Roman ruins of Beth Shean are quite spectacular. The National Park Authority runs them. The city is being restored to its “ grandeur” with the main Cardo, (market) already reconstructed, a huge amphitheatre (had abut 7000 places), and public baths. An earthquake destroyed the city in the 8th century. The archaeological dig has uncovered material dating back to the “ iron age”—Israelite Kingdom period.
Unfortunately our trip came to an end too soon, and back we drove to Ben Gurion and home to “ cold and snowy” Indiana.