Archive for March, 2009

Mamma Mia

March 11, 2009

Mamma Mia or The Joys of Family
Cosmo Landesman, Olivia Lichtenstein, William Sutcliffe, Chair: Michele Hanson

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Michele Hanson

What a scary session. My first time as a chairperson, and although people have been very polite, I don’t think I did that well. I know I didn’t, because a very cross woman from the audience roared up to me afterwards with a complaint. ‘I couldn’t hear a word you said,’ she roared. ‘You have no right to be a chair if you don’t know how to use a microphone. I’m going to complain, and so are lots of other people.’ Horrors. My friend in the audience had been trying to warn me, pointing repeatedly at her ear and shaking her head, but did I take any notice? No, because I know my friend is more or less deaf, so I just went on, leaning backwards, swaying about, miles from the microphone. But the others seemed to have got the hang of it. Cosmo Landesman spoke loudly and clearly, William Sutcliffe and Olivia Lichtenstien spoke fluently in a fascinating way, and who knows whether I spoke at all? Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t. ‘You were very good,’ said the more supportive persons, but they would, wouldn’t they? They’re not going to say ‘You’re a complete drek and spoke in a whisper.’ Then we did the podcast with Jason Solomons, who spoke fabulously and so did everyone else, but did I? I shall never know, because I daren’t listen to the podcast.

Michele Hanson

Michele Hanson

Posted by Michele Hanson. Michele Hanson is the author of Age of Dissent , about growing old, Treasure and What Treasure Did Next, all originally published as columns in The Guardian.

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The Quest for Identity

March 11, 2009

The Quest for Identity
With Susan Greenfield, Chair: Lisa Jardine

This event took place on 23rd February 2009

Posted by Tania Hershman

I went to the Jewish Book Week session entitled “Quest for Identity” , an interview with well-known neuroscientist professor Baroness Susan Greenfield, with certain, not unrealistic, expectations. I assumed Prof Greenfield would be talking about the connection between our brains and our identity, how one can shape the other, or what shapes both etc.. I wanted some neuroscience and some identity-quest talk, and the intersection between the two.

That’s not quite what I got.

Greenfield was being interview by Prof Lisa Jardine, a friend of hers, professor of Renaissance Studies – so, firmly in the “arts” camp, if we are making that distinction – and a lively interviewer. The impetus for this talk was Greenfield’s 2008 book, ID, the Quest for Identity in the 21st Century.

What were we going to hear this evening? Greenfield began by saying that it was about what we wanted for our children and our grandchildren, what we wanted them to become. Unfortunately, this put me off immediately, not having – or particularly interested in having – children or grandchildren. I wanted to hear about my identity!

Greenfield then talked about the brain’s plasticity, its ability to make new connections between neurons constantly when exposed to new experiences. She described an experiment with three groups of non-piano-playing adults: the control group just sat and stared at a piano; one group had basic piano lessons, and the third group imagined themselves playing the piano. The control group’s brains didn’t change significantly from the piano-staring – but the other two groups’ brains made new connections in almost the same amounts. The power of the imagination!

But where this went next surprised me. Greenfield is apparently very concerned that today’s youngsters spend far too long sitting in front of screens rather than reading books. Her thesis is that reading books and then mulling over what you have read is about the content: it exercises the imagination and turns you into a “contextual” person, one who sees the connections between things. Playing computer games is, for her, about the “process” rather than the content: you have to slay a dragon and save a princess, but you don’t really care about the princess, you don’t want to know anything about her, and if you fail, you know that you can start the game again.

What most concerns her is how this affects activity in the pre-frontal cortex. She talked about how certain sets of people – gamblers, schizophrenics, the obese and others – seem to have diminished activity in this area of the brain, demonstrating that they are more interested in the “sensational”, in the thrill of the activity they are engaged in, rather than the “cognitive”, which would mean contemplating the consequences of their actions. A generation of screen-starers could become a generation of thrill-seekers with no regard for the long term impact of their behaviour.

What I was waiting for next was a return to the neuroscience: do the brains of children playing computer games show a difference from those reading books? Are less connections made? What happens?

But we didn’t get back to science. Greenfield talked more about technology, and how it could erode various aspects of identity: biotech was extending a woman’s fertility, nanotechnology could alter our perception of our physical selves versus the outside world.

What we never got to was a discussion of individual identity, how it is formed and how it is affected by the world around us. What is our identity? What is it to our brain? As a writer I enjoyed hearing, of course, that Greenfield thinks that reading is good for us – but I would take issue with this is a blanket statement. Reading a certain kind of book stimulates the imagination and shows us something about the world, but not all books do this, some are just a quick and easy read. Just as not all screen activity is “sensational” and “thrill seeking”.

To her credit, Greenfield did mention a book that presented the opposite view, Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter, which argues that computer games and TV shows are intellectually challenging.

But sadly, this ended up as Greenfield, despite protestations that she wasn’t making value judgements and wouldn’t use words like “damaging”, appearing to be saying, as many generations have before her, “look at young people today, this must be bad for them, it’s not like it was when I was a child”. This is what was said about television, films, and probably about radio, newspapers and even novels!

I have another, more global point, to make. When I left the session, I said to my friends that I had been expecting a talk about neuroscience. They said, “Don’t be silly, not with this crowd, not at Jewish Book Week”. This once again strengthens the idea that science can only be understood by the exalted few, and that a book festival is not the place for that kind of thing, which most of the audience would – it is assumed – not understand.

But… but, Baroness Greenfield was described in the introduction as having begun in the Humanities -she mentioned how she studied Classics – before becoming a scientist, and she is supposed to therefore be perfectly qualified as a communicator of science, someone who can undertake the clear and entertaining transfer of scientific ideas to those without a scientific background. She had a packed hall full of eager audience members who had all come to hear her – and her book is presumably full of brain science – so why not at least attempt to bring us real, hard neuroscience? Or at least, semi-soft neuroscience? This seems to me a great missed opportunity for the true communication of science in a way that everyone could understand.

So, I made some new neural connections during the talk, and afterwards, but they were perhaps not the connections Baroness Greenfield would have wanted me to make. Then again, I would like to read her book and get the “scientific” side, so perhaps her talk did have the desire effect after all!

Tania Hershman

Tania Hershman

Posted by Tania Hershman, author of  The White Road and Other Stories

Tales of Everyday Craziness

March 11, 2009

Tales of Everyday Craziness
With Jon Ronson

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Claire Berliner

Saturdays just haven’t been the same since Jon Ronson stopped writing his weekly column in the Guardian, funny observations of the craziness of everyday life. So it was a pleasure and a treat to see his session at Jewish Book Week and to hear some of those columns out loud, including my personal favourite in which he sees a girl mimicking the way he eats in a restaurant, decides the best response is to mimic her mimicking him and then, as a look of shock begins to spread across her face, he realises that his action looks uncannily like he’s mimicking a blow job – he is a forty year old man mimicking a blow job to a fourteen year old girl. I laughed even though I knew the punch line, the rest of the audience laughed, Jon demonstrated the action and we all laughed some more.

Jon Ronson has made a career out of observing the absurd, not just in his own life but in the world in general. He showed clips of ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’, a film he’d made about the fundamentalist Islamist Omar Bakri, which managed to reduce a figure of hate into a figure of fun with barely any commentary at all. In one clip Omar catches a fish but is scared it will bite him. A fundamentalist colleague says ‘How will you fight jihad if you’re scared of a fish?’ A member of the audience asked ‘Are you suggesting that all Islamic fundamentalists are incompetent fools? ‘No’ said Ronson, ‘just Omar.’

Ronson talked about meetings with a Klu Klux Klan chief who was the white supremicist version of Woody Allen, denying he was Jewish whilst hanging out with neo-Nazis, following David Icke (not in a spiritual way), meeting ex-US military men who think they can stare goats to death and other ‘irrational bubbles in our world’. In fact he was supposed to have been at Jewish Book Week last year but he cancelled at the last minute because, as he explained, Robbie Williams called to ask him to attend a UFO convention in the US – an offer he just couldn’t refuse.

Last year Ronson’s session sold out before it was cancelled. This year he stepped in at the last minute, so the session was not in the printed programme. As a result the audience was small but it was also the youngest and probably coolest audience I’d seen at Jewish Book Week and everyone seemed to have fun in Ronson’s funny, nebbishy, neurotic, how-on-earth-did-he-manage-to hide-his-Jewishness? presence.

Towards the end of the session Ronson admitted to receiving Google alerts so that he knows when someone has written about him on the internet… Hello Jon! Great talk.

Posted by Claire Berliner. Claire is a writer, puppet-maker and director of the Arvon centre at Totleigh Barton.

Jewish Mothers

March 11, 2009

Jewish Mothers on Screen
With Trudy Gold

This event took place on 23rd February 2009

Posted by Olivia Lichtenstein

Trudy Gold’s session at Jewish Book Week on Monday February 23rd, provided a nourishing and entertaining journey through the depiction of the Jewish Mother on Screen. From the first talkie, The Jazz Singer to Woody Allen’s Radio Days, via Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy, Philip Roth’s Goodbye Colombus and many more. The cinema, Gold revealed to us, paints a picture of the Jewish Mother as the archetype of the over-bearing, neuroses-inducing mother who stifles her offspring with an excess of love, food, anxiety and guilt.

So, asks Gold, who is responsible for creating this monster? Well, it seems we are. Or more precisely, it is the Jewish sons who created Hollywood who bear primary responsibility. Hollywood was the brainchild of East European Jews who tended to have strong mothers; Louis B. Mayer, William Fox, the Warner brothers, the Selznicks. Their desire for assimilation led to a rejection of family. Was the creation of the over-bearing Jewish mother their ultimate revenge? In the early years, the producers rarely touched the Jewish experience in their films; a desire for acceptance, says Gold, meant that they aspired to a white picket-fence America, the kind epitomised by Judy Garland and Shirley Temple.

Have we moved too readily into the stereotype of the Yiddishe Mama? The fact that we find her so identifiable suggests that there is more than a grain of truth in her portrayal. Maureen Lipman as Beattie in the BT adverts of the 1980s epitomises the Jewish Mother and was instantly recognisable. It’s a comic stereotype much beloved of Jewish comedians the world over and as a source of humour has particular potency – American humour is, largely, defined by Jewish humour.

The origins of the Jewish Mother stereotype are understandable and born of the troubled history of our ancestors. We are an immigrant group with a long history of persecution. The physical and psychological insecurity of everyone’s lives in the Shtetl and later in immigrant ghettos meant that mothers had a fierce need to keep their families protected and complete. It’s interesting to note that the characteristics of the Jewish mother could equally be ascribed to the mothers of other close-knit immigrant and ethnic groups: Italians, Asians and Greeks for example. And, if the primary function of the Jewish mother is to keep the family from fragmenting, is she such a bad thing after all?

However, could we not alter this image for the 21st century? As I ate my salt beef sandwich last Monday and waited for Trudy Gold’s session to begin, I found myself seated opposite two exquisitely elegant and groomed women. One of them was probably over 70. I applauded their beauty; their pride in their appearance and their curiosity about life as they eagerly combed through the programme for this year’s Jewish Book Week drawing each other’s attention to the sessions they wanted to attend. Is there not a different type of Jewish Mother we could be offering the world? A mysterious, intelligent and alluring creature who offers her children unconditional love and support in a way that provides them with a solid foundation for their futures?  It’s type to explode the stereo-type, entertaining though she is and make a film about a new kind of Jewish Mother.

Olivia Lichtenstein

Olivia Lichtenstein

Posted by Olivia Lichtenstein. The former Editor of BBC Television’s flagship documentary ‘Inside Story’, Olivia Lichtenstein, has worked as on programmes as diverse as Russian humour and the Oklahoma bomber. She currently works as a freelance producer, director and journalist. She is the author of Mrs Zhivago of Queen’s Park and the forthcoming Naked Yoga.

The Thoughtful Dresser

March 11, 2009

The Thoughtful Dresser
With Linda Grant and Catherine Hill. Chair Linda Kelsey

This event took place on 26th February 2009

Posted by Lana Citron

The Thoughtful Dresser

The Thoughtful Dresser

High end fashion and Auschwitz, are not, one would imagine in any way compatible, yet it was there that Linda Grant, on a visit to the camp, noticed in amongst the heaps of shoes, a red stiletto. What woman one wondered would wear her party shoes to a death camp?

I came to this session expecting a frivolous evening of the superficial, female kind. Personally, I have healthy disregard toward the world of fashion especially the way women seem to follow herd-like the whimsies of designers, magazine editors and celebrities. How gullible are we that so much of our self-esteem is bound up in our outward appearance?

Alternatively, perhaps I am missing the point, and having listened to Catherine Hill speak, I realise I am indeed, missing the point.

Catherine Hill was, up until a few years ago, the doyenne of the Canadian fashion world. Considered a fashion diva of Toronto, she introduced the well heeled to avant-garde European designers such as Versace. Fashion for her is about style, individualism, and not jumping on the bandwagon of mediocrity. Linda Grant whose book features Hill was fascinated by her remarkable story, as too were we, the well dressed, JBW audience.

A Hungarian Jew, Hill was deported as a teenager to Auschwitz in1944. She recalled standing in line, letting go of her mother’s hand, to then be tattooed, stripped naked, deloused, head shaved and finally issued with a pair of stripped pyjamas. Alone in a sea of hundreds of other women, she realised that this process had in essence stripped her of her identity and instinctively she bent down, tore a piece of cloth from the hem of the pyjamas and tied it round her head as a ribbon. The guards laughed, and wondered why she had done such a thing to which she replied, ‘to look pretty’. This gesture, she believes marked her out. She was not one of the herd but an individual and directly contributed to her survival, as she was chosen from that group to work in the camp kitchens.

Today Catherine Hill remains a most elegant and eloquent woman, her life remarkable and her testimony inspiring. The evening was far from frivolous and I now imagine that the type of woman who would wear her party shoes to a death camp, as a free spirited rebellious sort with an infinite sense of humour.

Lana Citron

Lana Citron

Posted by Lana Citron, author of five novels; Sucker, Spilt Milk, Transit, The Honey Trap and The Brodsky Touch, Lana Citron has also appeared on TV,  theatre, film and performed as a stand-up comic.

The Counterfeiter

March 11, 2009

The Counterfeiter
With Adolf Burger, Chair: Joanna Newman

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Lana Citron

The Devil's workshop

The Devil's workshop

Firstly, I am struck by his beauty. Adolf Burger looks as if he could be Roman Polanski’s father. He is very beautiful, speaks clearly, passionately, with verve, vigour and at 91 years of age I am in awe, not only of what he has overcome in his life but of how he is.

His story began in Bratislava with the production of blank birth certificates, which he printed at the behest of some communists, as an act of sabotage against the ensuing war. His signature copied hundreds of times on these false certs lead to his subsequent arrest. Indeed, his, is a very distinct signature. The 2nd loop of the B fails to meet its end point and juts back as a line, above which stands his neat ‘A’, (for Adolph) and the tail of his ‘g’ is not curvy but instead forms a sort of triangle.

For those of you who do not know who Adolph Burger is, I would urge you to buy his book, ‘The Devils Workshop’. His story is quite incredible. Born in Slovakia in 1917 and arrested at the age of 25, he survived Auschwitz and was sent to Sachsenhausen where he worked as part of Operation Bernhard, a counterfeiting organisation run by the Nazi’s, aimed at toppling the British and US economies, by flooding both with forged bank notes. It is estimated £132 million pounds, (3 billion in today’s value), worth of English bank notes were produced and remained in circulation until the 1960’s. It is also claimed that £130 million of these notes were used to help establish the state of Israel. Burger’s memoir formed the basis of the film, ‘The Counterfeiter’, awarded best foreign film at the 2008, Oscars.

One can, in the time allotted to each JBW session, learn only so much and with respect to Burger, there is so much to learn. Asked if he was scared or terrified in Auschwitz, Burger replied he was hungry. Hunger was the foremost feeling recalled. Surviving on 300 grams of bread a day, his job at the camp was to empty the suitcases that arrived daily, which he said always contained food. He left Auschwitz weighing a mere 35 kilos.

Determined to survive he successfully devised a way to swap his yellow star for a triangle. A mere swatch of material could and did determine one’s destiny. His own lead him to Sachsenhausen. Today he is one of two remaining from the original counterfeiting team. Asked what he did when he was liberated, his response was that he ran to a house to ask for a camera, then returned to the camp to take pictures, to bear witness to the atrocities perpetrated. In the post war years, it has been precisely this reason that has made sense of his own survival. A couple of weeks after liberation, Burger were put on a bus to Prague where he has remained to this day.

Lana Citron

Lana Citron

Posted by Lana Citron, author of five novels; Sucker, Spilt Milk, Transit, The Honey Trap and The Brodsky Touch, Lana Citron has also appeared on TV,  theatre, film and performed as a stand-up comic.