Saturday 28 September 2013

Food habits, old and new

Great looking article on food (in ancient Israel), "Knaidlach, Talmudic Style," by Ronit Vered in Haaretz Magazine (27 September 2013) 28-30. The ancient people here seem to have eaten mostly only bread, according to Dr Suzanne Weingarten, researcher of Jewish food in ancient times. The lucky ones might have had dal - lentil stew - along with their bread. For most people the only additive was salt. And the flat bread would get hard very soon, so it had to be immersed in water to make it edible. Most people, according to Weingarten, did not have the money or time to gather wood and grind grain. "Producing enough flour for one loaf of bread required several hours of strenuous physical work." Work, yes, I found myself saying. But in my own physical memory I remember the home use mill stones that my grandmother used to grind rice, and it wasn't all that much work. I wonder how old home use millstones are.

As for meat, some scholar believe that it was very rare, perhaps limited to the three pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, when they would bring a sacrifice to God, and to weddings. "Slaughtering an animal that provided milk, wool, eggs or labor was an act that was almost unimaginable." Perhaps. In my memory, it was normal to have meat once a week. In the villages, the occasional slaughter of a pig, and, more commonly, but not all that frequent, a chicken from those running free around the house, and which would docilely come into the house and jump into their cane coops at night. Free-range chickens, I guess you would call them now.

And about eggs during the Talmudic period, Weingarten writes: "A fascinating subject. Women used to raise hens in the yard in order to provide an additional income for the families." They still do, they still do, and they certainly did not many years ago in my village in Goa. 

Friday 27 September 2013

Jaffa - Joppa - Yafo

The museum is just under this piazza, near this lovely hotel next to St Peter's Church.
Jaffa - Joppa - Yafo. Some Muslim author decided to connect it with Japhet, one of the three sons of Noah - the other two being Shem of the Semites and Ham of the Africans. Then there was Japu, if I am not mistaken, of the Egyptians. Jaffa has always been the midpoint between Egypt and Akko / Tyre, along the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea.

And then the Andromeda story: wonderful in its imagination. And wonderful that somehow the Greek imagination managed to draw in even a part of the Holy Land....

And Jonah setting out from Jaffa, fleeing from the Lord... and being swallowed up by a huge fish, despite the fact that there are no whales in the Mediterranean, from what we are told.

And the European painters with their paintings of Jaffa, despite never having seen the place. Based on descriptions left by people who had been there.

And Jaffa, the Gate of Jerusalem. Jaffa has a Jerusalem Gate, and Jerusalem has a Jaffa Gate.

And the Jews in Jaffa: our young and enthusiastic guide, with his Medusa hair, told us that archaeology had proved the Greek and Roman historians wrong. They had told us that Jews were forbidden to live in Jerusalem and Jaffa after the destruction of the City by the Romans under Titus and Vespasian, but archaeologists had discovered a good house in the main street of Jaffa, and also an inscription telling us who it belonged to: someone called Judah Agronimus, someone who used a cup that could have been used only by the Kohanim, the high priests, and so ... And I was wondering: what if that Judah, from a priestly family perhaps, was not Jewish but Jewish-Christian? But that is mere speculation. 

Thursday 26 September 2013

Jaffa - and Tel Aviv again

I love Jaffa. St Peter's Church, the bedsheet dream, the opening to the Gentiles, the charm of the old city. The museum and our young guide was a bonus. (Tutankhamen historical, Abraham non-existent if you go by historical evidence. The Hebrews perhaps having picked up monotheism from Egypt. The twelve layers of Jaffa. And so on.) Unfortunately, because of the Jewish feast of the Torah, many of the cafes and restaurants were closed.

The two young men who stopped by as we were singing and playing. They looked like evangelists to me, and so they were. One was from New Zealand, the other an Israeli. I asked him whether he was born Jewish. He said yes. How did you convert? Someone proposed Christ to me, he said very simply, and I began praying about it: God, I said, if Jesus is the Messiah, show it to me. And he did. I received baptism soon after. We parted with blessings. I admire the courage, the boldness, the zeal. On our side, another Jewish young man simply stopped by and joined some of our guys playing chess. That kind of boldness and simplicity is admirable too. But I guess it is not in our system to begin direct evangelizing.

All this not far from where Peter had his bedsheet dream. "Take and eat." And the gates opened to the Gentiles. Our young guide was correct: here is where Christianity stopped being a Jewish sect and became an international religion. And the presentations were excellent, and very fair, we all thought. And the Mediterranean astounding, as ever. 

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Nutella and chilly

Spotted: one of our brothers from North-East India enjoying nutella with bread and a nice fat red chilly. I hear he also puts chilly in his wine. He says its delicious. I've told him more or less that this would be blogged, and he did not object.

I wish I had a camera. The colours were tremendous: nutella brown, bread white, and a startlingly red chilly with a green top from Fr Stephen's garden... 

Monday 16 September 2013

Don Bosco on Alphonse Ratisbonne's conversion

This morning I was searching for the two references to Ratisbonne in the Biographical Memoirs of Don Bosco, and I just could not find them. I thought I had taken note of them somewhere, but they were nowhere to be found, not on my computer, not on this blog. This afternoon, just now, I went down again and pulled out the Index to the Memorie Biographiche, and was leafing through it with a prayer. The mystery was solved: my eye fell on "Indice delle Cose," and I guess then that there must be an "Indice dei Nomi," and so it was, and there it was: Ratisbona (convertito), mentioned twice in the Memorie, in vol. 2:115-117 and 16:208. The English references are BM 2:90-91 and BM 16:162.

Vol. 2 contains an excerpt from Don Bosco's Compendio di Storia Ecclesiastica, and is part of a chapter on Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Here Don Bosco describes Alphonse Ratisbonne's miraculous conversion, as also his founding of the Religious of Sion.

Vol. 16 instead has a very brief reference of a visit of Don Bosco in Paris to a boarding school run by the "Congregation of Notre Dame de Sion" founded "by the noted Jewish convert, Alphonse Ratisbonne," and ends by saying that we have no details about this visit.   

Sunday 15 September 2013

Deep calls to deep

Buccellato's book is even more challenging that I thought. Again and again he marshals the facts: Don Bosco repeatedly returns to the theme of prayer, and even prolonged, ecstatic, mystical prayer, in the lives of his youngsters as well as in others written by him, and not so well known, such as Beata Maria degli Angeli (1865). (Buccellato 107) When Savio died, Don Bosco was just 42 years old. Already he reveals something that has escaped most of us all these years, that he is able to recognize supernatural gifts of prayer, gifts that are quite out of the ordinary. And already people like Caviglia had told us, but perhaps we were not able to hear, that if the young Don Bosco was able to recognize these gifts, he must have had some experience of them himself. Not, certainly, in the same dramatic manifest way as his friend Comollo. Don Bosco's reserve is amazing, so amazing that it has been so easy for us to bypass almost completely his life of prayer, his extraordinary relationship to God. But it is there, this constant experience, if you wish, this relationship with God that dominated his life so completely. It is by our own authenticity that we are able to recognize the achievement of authenticity in another, as our friend Lonergan so gently points out. 

Saturday 14 September 2013

Recommended summer reading

Summer is at an end, all over again for me, but I chanced upon a whole pile of The Tablet accumulating here in our parlour over the holidays. I could not resist the urge to jot down some of the recommended summer reading:

  • Lily Koppel. The Astronaut Wives Club. (Headline) The having to be perfect wives, with perfect children and perfect homes, and keeping perfectly silent when it all went wrong. 
  • Michael Arditti. The Breath of Night. (Arcadia). A well-born English missionary in the Philippines, radicalized by poverty and piety.
  • Stephanie Dalley. The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon. (Oxford U.P.) What the Assyriologist Dalley discovered about the missing Hanging Gardens.
  • Madeline Miller.The Song of Achilles. (Bloomsbury) Telling the story of the Trojan War from the viewpoint of Patroclus.
  • Denys Turner. Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (Yale U.P.) Described by Eamon Duffy as lucid, gripping and beautifully written, so that it ousts even Chesterton's famous study.
  • D.H. Lawrence. "The Woman Who Rode Away." (Penguin Classics) A discontented Mexican wife and mother decides to visit a nearby tribe reputed to still practise human sacrifice.
  • Francis Spufford. Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. (Faber & Faber). Wonderfully well-written and even humourous.
  • Anthony Trollope. Can You Forgive Her? (Oxford World Classics)
  • James Salter. All That Is. (Picador)
  • Penelope Fitzgerald. Human Voices. 
  • Penelope Fitzgerald. The Beginning of Spring.
  • Penelope Fitzgerald. The Blue Flower. (Flamingo) Fictional life of the German poet Novalis.
  • Eiji Yoshikawa. Musashi. (Kodansha USA) Historical novel about the early life of Japan's most famous swordsman. Written in the 1930s, translated into English 30 years ago, "a cracking read."
  • Henry Buckley. The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic. (I.B. Tauris) Eyewitness account of the Spanish Civil War.
  • Ian McEwan. Sweet Tooth. (Vintage)
  • D.H. Lawrence. Sea and Sardinia. (Penguin)
  • Jaroslav Hasek. The Good Soldier Svejk. Tr. Cecil Parrott. (Penguin) "the funniest book I've ever read" (Piers Plowright) 
  • Charles Moore. Margaret Thatcher: the authorized biography. (Allen Lane) Comprehensive, objective, illuminating, charitable. "As compelling as a novel."
  • Frederick Raphael and Joseph Epstein. Distant Intimacy: a friendship in the age of the internet. (Yale U.P.) Wicked, and wickedly enjoyable.
  • Anthony Trollope. The Duke's Children. (Oxford World Classics)
  • Antonio Pennacchi. The Mussolini Canal. (Dedalus) The story of a northern Italian peasant family intertwined with the early career of Mussolini.
  • Graham Greene. Our Man in Havana. (Vintage) James Wormold, unsuccessful vacuum cleaner salesman and accidental spy extraordinaire.
  • Matthew Green. The Wizard of the Nile. (Portobello Books) The stranger than fiction but true story of Joseph Kony, anti-hero, wanted for torture, slavery and war crimes by The Hague.
  • Ian Kershaw. The End. (Allen Lane) Why Germany continued to fight when all was lost, by Hitler's biographer.
  • Francis Spufford. The Child that Books Built. (Faber & Faber)
  • Edney Silvestre. If I Close My Eyes Now. (Doubleday) Crime fiction under the raging Rio sun.
  • Donna Leon. A Question of Belief. (Arrow)
  • Dervla Murphy. A Month by the Sea: encounters in Gaza. (Eland)  
  • L.P. Hartley. Eustace and Hilda. (Faber & Faber). The story of a boy dominated by his older, puritanical sister. "in any age and by any standards, a masterpiece" (Lord David Cecil)
  • Charlotte Rogan. The Lifeboat. (Virago)
  • George Gissing. New Grub Street. (Oxford World Classics) First published in 1891.
["Summer Reading," chosen by regular reviewers,The Tablet, 27 July 2013, 18-20.]

Reality and illusion

More and more novels with convoluted endings, that blur the line between reality and fiction. I did the last chapter of Vidal's The Golden Age yesterday: Vidal has, of course, entered his own fictional book in earlier chapters, and now he takes over, in the first person, and the creator meets his creature/s, especially Peter Sanford, Vidal's alter ego in the book. What is reality? What fiction? Was there a conspiracy about getting the US into the Second War? Was there not? At any rate, Vidal lets Peter have the last word in the book. More or less. The last word is 'Nothing.' Vidal can't resist going further, of course, so he comments: 'That is something.' And then goes on to add an Afterword about sources and so on.

Umberto Eco is fond of playing tricks with reality. The author of The Life of Pi too, Yann Martel. And, if I am not mistaken, The Matrix series. I know a professor who used to have The Matrix as recommended viewing for his metaphysics students. They were all too happy about it, of course. 

Friday 13 September 2013

Abel Pann again

"Sarai" (1940)

Abel Pann again. What's new is that I've been passing the Mayanot Gallery almost every day the last two years, and seeing this and other pictures there. And this morning, when I stopped, or was it yesterday, I realized that some of the pieces on display there might actually be originals. I did not enter to check out, though. All I know is that the pieces are extraordinary, like the one above. What did Pann draw on for his inspiration? Surely no modern Hebrew person looks or dresses quite like this today? 

Ritiratezza, prayer and the profane

I finally managed to return to my translation of Giuseppe Buccellato's Appunti per una 'storia spirituale' del sacerdote Gio' Bosco - quite appropriate in these days when the Relics of Don Bosco are in the Holy Land.

I am struck once again by Don Bosco's insistence on ritiratezza - which is probably best translated 'spirit of recollection' - and prayer. It is something he picked up from Cafasso at the Convitto, or rather something that was reinforced by Cafasso, because Buccellato does not forget to point out that the young farmhand Johnny was rather different from other young farmhands of the time, because of his remarkable spirit of prayer.

And then the little note on how John Bosco, perhaps already as a seminarian, decides to keep aside 'profane literature.' I knew of his remark that his extensive reading of the Greek and Latin classics had led to a sort of 'distaste' for spiritual literature, and that it was his discovery of the Imitation of Christ that probably set him on the road to recovery. But this remark about setting aside profane literature is challenging. Profane literature: Vidal, for example, is very much profane literature. His main characters, those for whom he displays an undoubted affinity, are all atheist: Caroline Sanford, the publisher turned actress; James Burden Day, the senator, who now and then is not beyond perjuring his professed lifelong atheism; and Peter Sanford, Caroline's nephew and publisher of The American Idea. Profane does not necessarily mean bad. It merely means 'not under God.' But that, going by Rossi de Gasperis, is bad enough. For what is not under God is - evil. That is the somewhat unpalatable truth that Rossi de Gasperis is putting forward, and that perhaps John Bosco's resolution points to. Is there a different way of reading the profane and the secular today? Question. Is God totally absent in the profane and the secular? Question. Is it possible to live as though God did not exist or did not matter if he did? More than a question.

Vidal's 'The Golden Age' again

I'm coming to the end of Gore Vidal's The Golden Age, and I must say I am getting addicted to Vidal's novels. He has this droll sense of humour, and is absolutely sharp in his observations of human behaviour, though he can get boring at times. I enjoyed Lincoln tremendously, and this one, focussing on Franklin Roosevelt, his successor Harry Truman - the one who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - and their eventful times, with the Second World War morphing into the Long Cold War. Strangely the novel ends with Peter Sanford as an old man in the time of the Clinton presidency. And Peter seems to be an alter ego of Gore Vidal, who himself makes an appearance in the novel. Though perhaps Aeneas Duncan, Peter's partner in The American Idea, is also part Vidal - the novel makes him the author of a manuscript called The Golden Age.
"FDR is like Lincoln, masterly and unknowable, his ‘vast depths of benign insincerity could never be entirely plumbed by any mere mortal’." Zachary Leader, "No Accident," at as of 14 Sep 2013.

Rose da Cruz

I received the news yesterday of the death of a cousin, Rose da Cruz, who used to live in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. She passed away quietly in her sleep, and must have been over 70. RIP.

Rose belonged to a gang of 7 sisters, or was it 5, and 1 brother. The boy got married, and only one of the girls. The others - 6 or 4 as the case may be - remained unmarried. Victoria, the eldest, taught at a school run by the Baldegger Schwestern in Dar, and upon retirement chose to join the Sisters. She lives at the motherhouse in Baldegg now, and must be over 80 years old. But Rose was the most colourful, in my opinion: lively, gregarious, and unwilling to get married. Not that offers were lacking. She was not exceptionally good looking, but wherever she went she received offers of marriage, or at least that is what she kept telling us. Her comment: Who wants to get married? They only want my money.

Rose and her sisters had an Italian friend who used to go over to Dar and stay with them, so they picked up some Italian that way. I remember the time Rose and this good lady, whose name I forget now, came to Rome, when I was a student in the early 1990s. They took me out to lunch, and Rose kept saying loudly and boldly, "Io piace questo," and "Io piace quello." Rose was fun. God bless her and give her rest. We will miss her. It was nice that she and Esme managed to pay one last visit to Goa and look up the relatives not two months ago, though sadly I missed seeing them.

Rose was the daughter of my maternal grandmother's only brother. He upped and went to East Africa as a young man, got cheated out of most of his money, probably by someone close to him, and so could not return to Goa for many years. He did return eventually though, for a visit, and I think we had some photos of him somewhere. The girls visited somewhat more often, and it was mostly Rose and Esme and sometimes Victoria. I don't remember ever having seen Peter. There was a possibility of my visiting them in Dar, at least twice, but it was not convenient, and now perhaps it is too late, with Peter gone, and Rose, and perhaps some others.  

Thursday 12 September 2013

Don Bosco in the Holy Land

Some of the very first photos of the Relics of Don Bosco, being offloaded from the plane at Terminal 1 of Ben Gurion, and received in prayer by those gathered there, SDBs, FMAs, Cooperators, Friends of Don Bosco, and airport authorities and security personnel. 

Monday 9 September 2013

A Bergoglio story

Yesterday I invited Fr Conrad, a Catholic priest of the Ukrainian Byzantine rite serving in Canada, to preside at the mass at Agron Street. Fr Conrad told me an interesting story. He said that in the old days, many Ukrainian youngsters used to go to Italy to become Salesians, but when the Communists took over, they could not return to their country. One of them was assigned to the missions and went to Buenos Aires where, every morning at 6.00 a.m., in those days before Vatican II and concelebration, he would celebrate the Eucharist in the Byzantine rite. One of the youngsters from the 'collegio' saw this priest celebrating all by himself and offered to be his altar boy. The boy's name was Jorge Bergoglio. Now, according to Fr Conrad, the cause of the Salesian priest has been introduced, and he was saying how wonderful it would be if the pope were to beatify and canonize his old professor.  

Friday 6 September 2013

Gore Vidal, The Golden Age

Gore Vidal's The Golden Age: one more extraordinary novel, the last of his historical series on cinema and politics in the US of A. The Golden Age deals with the US under Franklin Roosevelt and the decision to enter the War on the side of England and France. A decision that, from what Vidal says, and which sounds very plausible, made the US what it went on to become: the true superpower, relegating Britain to the role of a poor cousin.

And if Vidal is to be believed, Roosevelt goaded and led Japan to attack something like Pearl Harbour - because he needed the war to get elected to a third term, and because he had promised that he would lead the country into the war if and only if they were attacked first. Unbelievable. I do not know enough of American history to weigh the plausibility of this. But the novel certainly makes for first rate reading. I am thinking of Vidal's Lincoln. Acute observation of human behaviour. 

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Making people better than they are

Memorable line from Fred Lawrence's presentation at the recently concluded Fourth International Lonergan Workshop, Jerusalem 2013: "I am trying to underline Strauss’ performative ambiguities, and to acknowledge a kind of purity of heart, an intellectual honesty." Making people better than they are - or, in more technical Lonergan terms, developing the position - has become a leitmotif of Fred's work. It vibed very well with Vernet: a Vernet who has such an admiration and passion for Herod the Great that, according to our students, his next book will be You, Herod. (The book has already been largely written, in fact, and I have been privileged to have had a preview, but the author says it is not for publication.) Vernet, you might say, is naturally Lonerganian: a philosophe malgre lui. But that should not be surprising. God is constantly, and literally, making us better than we are. Interpretation rightly follows divine example. 

Tuesday 3 September 2013

Edward Said's daughter

The Haaretz magazine of 30 August 2013 carried a long piece on Najla Said's recent book, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family (Riverhead Press). Najla is the daughter of Edward Said, the author of the famous Orientalism. (See Nirit Ben Ari, "Her Father His Daughter," Haaretz Magazine (30 August 2013) 10-13.]

Abel Pann, Abraham receiving the three angels

Avraham receiving the three angels
Abel Pann again. This I find even more extraordinary, with a sensibility that is so different from the familiar icon. See

Abel Pann, Creation of Eve"

"And He took one of his ribs" 

"And they shall be one flesh"
Abel Pann (1883-1963), Jewish artist. Extraordinary, and hardly known outside. See

Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide

Just finished another wonderful book by Amitav Ghosh: The Hungry Tide. I am amazed at how Ghosh can go on producing one masterpiece after another. My first was The Glass Palace. The second was probably Sea of Poppies, and then came The Calcutta Chromosome. I began reading In an Antique Land, but did not finish, and now I don't have a copy. The Cairo Geniza is something quite real, and I was keen to get into the story that Ghosh weaves about a Jewish Egyptian merchant and the love he finds, of all places, in Mangalore....

Ghosh is truly something. I believe In an Antique Land is at least part autobiographical: Ghosh did some time in an Egyptian village, teaching himself Arabic. The Glass Palace and The Hungry Tide are also in that sense part autobiographical. But I guess all great novelists mine their own experience for material. Where else would you get what to write about.

The Hungry Tide is remarkable in its close description of life in the Sunderbans. But Ghosh is really a master of human description. I recall just now the way Kanai loses his temper so completely at Fokir:
Suddenly the blood rushed to Kanai's head and obscenities began to pour from his mouth: 'Shala, banchod, shuorer bachcha.'
His anger came welling up with an atavistic explosiveness, rising from sources whose very existence he would have denied: the master's suspicion of the menial; the pride of caste; the townsman's mistrust of the rustic; the city's antagonism to the village. He had thought that he had cleansed himself of these sediments of the past, but the violence with which they came spewing out of him now suggested that they had only been compacted into an explosive and highly volatile reserve. (The Hungry Tide [Noida: HarperCollins 2010] 326)

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Rupnik, “E se l’evangelizzazione chiedesse una novità nella vita consacrata?” English summary