Friday, January 02, 2009

Sad days in Israel

These are very sad days in Israel. Of course, what we are all reading about in the media is Operation Cast Lead, and naturally I am expected to blog about it in my usual style. However, we are instead thinking about our wonderful uncle Meir, who passed away peacefully on Tuesday at the Hadassah Hospital outside Jerusalem. He was well into his 90s, and had been unwell for some time, and went with his family surrounding him, having led a fascinating and full life. Nonetheless, this feels like a tragedy - perhaps because until recently, he was bounding around hilltops like a mountain goat, driving his car even more crazily than a typical Sabra, and finishing his studies into medicinal leeches. A visit to Israel was not complete without a cup of milky tea and an over-feeding on the balcony of Meir and Ruth's apartment, looking down the valley over Jerusalem at sunset.

Here is a portrait of him, painted (I think) by his daughter:

Meir was not a typical Israeli uncle that we had to be guilt-tripped into visiting. He and his brothers had grown up in Beirut, and Meir retained some decent Arabic along with a left-leaning position (definitely adopted by his daughters and grand-daughters!) that neatly offset my own and that of other members of the family. I recall him grinning and describing his wing of the family as the luftmenschen section - a bit hippy-dippy, involved in academia and the arts, and totally wonderful and generous in a profound way that we capitalist materialists can never quite pull off.

I remember being told a story of how he wanted to contribute to bridging the social, cultural and economic divide between Jews and Arabs, and so when he was replacing his car, he drove the old one across to Silwan in East Jerusalem, found the most responsible-looking elder, and handed over the keys. I have a glorious image of Meir in his sandals and baggy white trousers, with his white comb-over blowing in the hamsin, and a startled Omar Sharif-a-like in flowing robes, shaking hands as the sun sets over the hills. Apocryphal or not, it's a great story.

The beauty of Meir and Ruth is that they know something about everything, especially Israel's history and the individuals who built the state. I recall asking them about various street names (in Israel these are invariably named after people from modern and biblical history who have shaped the country and culture), and it turned out that they had known many of them personally, and sat on the Jerusalem street-naming committee!

Meir played the role of family historian, and gave us a marvellous tour of Rishon LeZion, which our forbears, the Hirschfelds, had helped to found in the 1880s. Recently I caught Meir on camera for an hour-long interview, talking about his childhood in Beirut and visiting Grandpa in London. Grandpa was very close to the Rigbi brothers, especially Meir, who was his age and shared the same mild temperament and politics.

Here is an excerpt of Meir talking about when he spent a whole term with Grandpa at Canonbury High School in London, and was picked on by a 9 year old playground bully:

There are so many fascinating stories of childhood, his time as a volunteer for the British Army in WWII, and his role during the founding of the State of Israel. He then had a prolific career in science and academia, as well as volunteering with Ruth for pretty much every political, social and cultural committee and group imaginable. On top of that, he always found time for a cuppa and a good political debate with the more right wing members of his family, and would visit Aunty Deb even when she was at her most grouchy, always finding something positive to say about their discussions.

Of course, his wife, kids and grandkids will still be there for us to spend time with, and they carry so much of his spirit and presence, but our visits to Israel will still be that little bit less colourful for the passing of Uncle Meir.

Normal service re Oz and politics will resume shortly...


margalith said...

Thanks for your blogarticle about Meir, whom I loved so much

Anonymous said...

What a lovely tribute