The Long Walk To Freedom

Men jailed for years on end, such as Natan Sharansky, Gilad Shalit, Nelson Mandela or the biblical Joseph, who succeeded in staying positive, are truly remarkable individuals.

There are other parallels between those last two names. Both emerged from prison to lead their countries – the countries that had incarcerated them – from the brink of disaster to survival and success (albeit relative in the case of South Africa); both men preached forgiveness to those who had wronged them – Mandela to white South Africans, Joseph to his murder-plotting brothers who had sold him into slavery.  And both had hit songs written about them: Joseph’s by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Mandela’s by The Special A.K.A., L’havdil.

Note well that Mandela’s death occurred in the week when the climax of the story of Joseph was read in synagogue. A compelling case of Divine Providence and an absolute gift to Rabbis worldwide who could hardly fail to knock out a sermon linking the two. Or Living with the times as Lubavitch like to say.

Now I come to my point. On New Years Eve, I was half-watching Jools Holland’s Hogmanay (basically an excuse for the host to alternate between walking around failing to say something witty to his various B-list audience guests and gatecrashing his jazz piano into the performances of the bands – who can’t exactly refuse him). Some trendy band was in full swing with Jools, bless him, playing a highly-diminished boogie-woogie riff as “accompaniment”, when one of the band members called out: “This one goes out to a fallen soldier of last year – Nelson Mandela”.

I take no issue with referring to a political fighter as a soldier – as Mungo Jerry put it, “You Don’t Have To Be In The Army To Fight In The War”. But if we’re going to remember a fallen soldier of 2013 can I suggest Lee Rigby is the man to whom we in England should be dedicating songs. A man who served his country, seeking to keep his fellow citizens safe and free, who suffered the most horrific murder imaginable at the hands of truly evil men. But then trendy bands don’t dedicate songs to English soldiers, do they? Much less compose tributes to them.

Max Witriol


Lowering your BMI the BMI way

After working for more than three years as an administrator with district nurses (they visit housebound patients), I’m familiar with their dedication, conscientiousness, professionalism, stoicism, good-humouredness, empathy – and their enthusiasm for food.

There are various reasons why this team, perhaps nurses generally, are at least as  prone to carb (and fat) loading as the wider population: the stress and pressure of the job, no staff cafe, sometimes eating on the go or only in truncated breaks, patients giving gifts of chocolates etc, cultural norms (the Nigerian and Ghanaian ladies I work with certainly seem to value fuller figures), a fatalism from seeing disease affect the young and fit as well as the old and fat. And of course a self-reinforcing peer pressure where anyone slim is seen as, and is, the odd one out.

Regularly, I am amused by remarks that reflect the centrality of food to my colleagues. Perhaps the most hilarious was the day after the London riots (the health centre is in Tottenham):

[African nurse of mature years, choking with anger]: The fucking bastards even burnt down Dunkin’ Donuts…

Given my own gluttony and laziness, this particular nursing attribute was one I enthusiastically absorbed. Ignoring my better half’s admonitions to diet, my girth grew, my face fattened and my pectorals plumped up. My wake-up call only came when I had blood tests and my cholesterol levels were “that-is-high”-high. My GP nonchalantly said it was up to me whether to go on to statins right away or try a low-fat diet for six months.

I chose the latter and tightly embraced my own regimen – loosely described as Beer, Melon and Indolence (see what I’ve done there?). No reduction, if anything an increase in my daily beer intake (average of 2.5 pints, zero fat, 500 calories roughly), plenty of fruit, cottage cheese, yoghurt, oily fish, porridge, chicken slices and not much else. So – cutting out fatty foods and non-beer carbs. Making sure we had little or no “bad” foods in the flat and not eating during and after pub visits were other key changes. I also started cycling to work most days but reckoned that this used up few extra calories –  I certainly did no vigorous exercise.

On several occasions, a Health Care Professional (HCP) would ask me how I had managed to lose so much weight. I said I had given up various foods. This is a not untypical dialogue that ensued:

HCP: Like what?

ME: Have a guess.

HCP: (after a pensive pause): porridge? 

ME: No, think fatty foods.

HCP: Like what? I don’t eat fatty foods…

ME: (each item met by a head-shaking denial that it was partaken of): chocolate…cake…nuts…crisps… ice cream… fried chicken and chips…

HCP: (swivelling on her heels and walking away): Oh no, I can’t give that up…

Result: after six months I had lost about 30 pounds and taken at least two inches off my waistline. It had a limited effect on my cholesterol readings, just as the HCPs I spoke to had told me. Even this gung-ho article states “…you may be able to lower your reading by up to 20 per cent in three months…” [my emphasis].

So, I plumped for the statins and am now back to a more normal, balanced way of eating and drinking. But I have still cut down on my real ale and try to avoid bringing sinful food home – unless it’s been reduced by 90% at our local Tesco Express.

Return to Sendai

I have made five trips to my wife’s home town. Last year, my radio woke me up with a word I had never heard on air in the UK – Sendai.  A tsunami had struck. Even my intense rationality and Meg’s placidity could not completely cloak our anxiety. It took two days to make contact with her family. All was (relatively) well, but a city that I had developed an affection for was without electricity, gas, petrol and – worst – water.

When we went six months later, things in Sendai city itself were pretty much back to normal. Any discussion was pretty much confined to a matter-of-fact relating of events. Even a drive through areas that were still flattened did not engender the degree of emotional upset one might imagine. This blog gives some idea of the attitude of people in the aftermath.

From tragedy to the commonplace. A recent post on the engagingly quirky site Rocket News was entitled 46 Things That Surprise Foreigners in Japan. It starts

Even things that your average Japanese would consider completely commonplace and boring can be captivating for foreigners.

I would disagree with quite a few, though many are spot on. Here’s a few more that have struck me in Sendai:

  • The presence of traffic guards everywhere – entrances to car parks, on building sites,  by roadworks etc
  • Cyclists nonchalantly riding on pavements
  • Raised markings for the blind on pavements on all major, and some quite minor roads
  • The obligation to dress seasonally even if the weather is unseasonal
  • Bowing in unexpected circumstances – one example: a department store employee might bow when leaving the shop floor to go on a break even when no customers are in sight

And on our last trip I got to go to a maid cafe, something that my wife and her friends found more captivating than I did. The maids’ grubby aprons, among other things, making it less than titillating for me.

Maid in Sendai

You can ring my bell

One of the main reasons for my companions’ enjoyment appeared to be that the maids use the greetings associated with home rather than a public place. You can read more about maid cafes at this entertaining blog here. The irony for me was that we have been to genuinely old-fashioned coffee shops with waitresses in maid-like outfits elaborately preparing your drink – much more impressive!

A Guide for the Bedevilled

Recently, I came across Mamita Hebrea on You Tube and her monologue reminded me of the opening chapter (I Decide to Write a Book) of Ben Hecht‘s A Guide for the Bedevilled:

“I [his hostess “more famous than intelligent -which is one of the hazards of democracy”] would like to know how you explain the unpopularity of the Jews.”…She seemed to be asking me, as a Jew, to break down and confess something that would clear up the murder of the three million Jews of Europe… 

Written in 1944, I found it a brilliant and devastating analysis of German, American and universal antisemitism.

One of the two reviews on Amazon says that

 Hecht’s lofty vocabulary, though never pretentious, renders this book and its brilliant ideas almost inaccessible…

I cannot agree – most of it is written in what the same reviewer descibed as an “intimate, entertaining and engaging style” (!)

My copy is inscribed with the bookplate of Dave and Babs Blaushild.  Perhaps, based on this archive note, it even accompanied a Jewish American soldier during WWII.

A Guide for the Bedevilled by Ben Hecht

Hecht’s powerful polemic

Ben Hecht was an active “highly partisan” Zionist – so described in the brief summary here – but in the book (an act of deception?) he seems to suggest that he no longer has any interest in Zionism. Although a copy and paste job in parts, this is another interesting mini biography.

Seventy years on The Longest Hatred continues to morph yet thrive, with the “intellectual” left’s alliance with Islamists seeming to harden with every jihadi attack on the Jewish state and the West.

Gaby’s, shmabys – WTF? *

I’m riled by the hypocrisy of Israeli-bashing lefties and luvvies campaigning to save Gaby’s Deli. Note that it has to hide any connection to Israel in part because of the climate of hatred towards the Jewish state fostered by such “lovers of Gaby’s” as Ken Livingstone and Vanessa Redgrave.

That is similarly the situation at Maoz, a chain that can be found in the heart of gay Soho as well as in other “liberal” cities. It does excellently authentic Israeli falafel as good as anything to be found in Israeli restaurants in areas such as Golders Green.  Yet it can have nothing to tell you that its founders and core cuisine are Israeli. One can dismiss the comment in this article which asserts it was for marketing reasons only. Their website even explains that Maoz comes from the term from courage without mentioning the language concerned (hint – it’s not Arabic).

And however individual a place Gaby’s might be it certainly does not warrant this absurdly flattering review in The Telegraph. The wonderful Chas Newkey-Burden recommends two genuinely kosher (Gaby’s is described in that review and elsewhere, wholly erroneously,as kosher) West End(ish) restaurants, the vintage Reubens and the new kid Deli West One.

* (What’s This Falafel)