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Station to Station 4: The two towers

This series will soon arrive at Nitzana. Doors open on the left. The next stop is Nablus. This will be the last stop. Thank you for riding with Elisha Baskin and me.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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The country is magnetic. Several energy fields hide in the terrain, emitting the land’s intensity and mystery like orbs in a Tesla experiment. One such field is famously Jerusalem, another, far vaster one, is the desert.

A journey that began in a dusty ditch on a city’s outskirts, now furthers into the wilderness. Elisha and I take a bus from Be’er Sheva into the Negev. The Turkish wartime rails extended south of here, and the remains of a station await us at Nitzana, directly on the Egyptian border.

Nitzana, a Nabatean town, has not been a place of proper human habitat since the ninth century. A train station was built there in 1915, and was literally nowhere-central. It served a remote police station that guarded the empire’s border with the British controlled Sinai, and a hastily constructed hospital where war wounds were tended. The hospital’s ruins can still be seen atop the mound of the ancient town. It seems like a very bad spot to bring potential amputees. Go figure.

History moved quickly. A flood of Union Jack-waving Aussies and Kiwis appeared from the southern wilds and ousted the Turks from the holy land after centuries of dominance. Nitzana station began crumbling almost as soon as it was built. When we arrive there today only the limestone water tower is left to remind us of long lost wars. It sticks out of the wasteland in majestic mystery, much like Arthur C. Clark’s monolith.  We wander over the expanse, finding a few more walls, recognizing traces left by the rails, taking in the silence.

Following the buzz of music and children’s voices at Be’er Sheva, silence seems to be telling a truth about history. We need to listen well, and not limit ourselves to a tower and a wall. We haven’t yet answered this project’s principle question: why are we even doing it? What’s in a station?

We climb the mound, or “tel.” A dry wind blows through the dead hospital’s windows. We are the only...

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Station to station 3: We the living

In a land of rampant commercialism, abandonment isn’t the worst thing that could happen to an historical railway station. Elisha Baskin photographs — and insists on riding the kiddy train.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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Once upon a time, the good people of this land were able to travel by train from the coastal cities up to Jerusalem. They still can, come to think of it, but nobody does. The trip is twice as long it as it is by bus and the terminal on the Jerusalem end is at Malha, a remote southwestern offshoot of the city. When Elisha and I headed to check out Jerusalem’s historical depot, neither of us even proposed the train, we automatically met at the “sherut” minibus station.

It’s a fairly interesting ride. A man in the front is speaking excitedly in Arabic to the driver for the entire hour-long journey. He’s out of his seat, balancing himself in an awkward crouch, his knees threatening to shift gears. At one point, near Abu Ghosh, he pulls out a stick of hash and singes it with his lighter. We are quite amused.

The station itself promises less excitement. It has recently been converted into a shopping and entertainment complex. No fences or thorns or squeaking stairs await us. Here is home of the ice cream cone and porcelain mezuzahs.

That in itself, however, attests to history. As a child of the 1970s I got to live in two Israels: a largely socialist one, born in 1948; and the radically capitalist one into which it metamorphosed in the 1990s. Elisha was born a decade later and came of age in the second Israel. Being a history buff, she can imagine with clarity what the earlier times were like, but it does demand imagination. The first Israel boasted a single TV channel. Its only shopping mall could be reached by train from the stone structure we are now entering. Now everything is a shopping mall, including this building.

Hopa hopa, here is no Europa

The Ottoman station’s waiting room is occupied by a quirkily designed gift shop. Mainstream Israeli singer Evyatar Banai is playing in the background. “There’s something about places that play Evyatar Banai,” I comment,...

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Station to Station 2: The phantom line

In a strange feat of partial resurrection, half of the railway between Haifa and Damascus is being fixed for reuse. Elisha Baskin’s lens and Yuval Ben-Ami’s pen follow it, focusing on the decaying and embalmed, rather than the freshly welded.  

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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For the next leg of the journey, Elisha and I meet at a train station, a living one. We are hung up on ruins, but Israel also boasts railway infrastructure that is largely modern, functional, and topped with a bonus bit of irony: our red trains are the same used for local service by Deutsche Bahn. Our forefathers fled German trains to establish a sovereign state where we would ride German trains.

The engine of our train dies before we emerge from Tel Aviv, and we remain stuck for 15 minutes or so, but the driver is so apologetic that we forgive. An hour later we are in Haifa, switching to a bus that would take us east, to explore the “Valley Railway.” The rails used to run east of here, linking the coast with Dar’aa in Syria, and with the main artery of the Hijazi railway: Damascus to Mecca.

The Ottomans laid down these rails in anticipation of constructing a major port in Haifa. They run along the Jezreel Valley and past the ancient site of Armageddon. Armageddons around here are a dime a dozen. The empire crumbled soon enough and the port materialized only under British rule. Once the Brits left in 1948, it was the rails’ turn to crumble. The border between Israel and Syria was sealed, the largely rural Eastern Galilee was not deemed worthy of train service, and the locomotives vanished like billows of steam.

Afula’s eggs

Abandoning rails is always a mistake. The fate of towns such as Tiberias and Beit Shean would have been dramatically different had they not been taken off the grid. The Valley Railway is currently being recreated all the way to Tiberias, but for the moment the new rails aren’t functional. We have an entire phantom line to explore and a strangely morbid task: to pick out the dead from the living, to ignore the shining new...

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Station to Station 1: The fenced failure

A journey to the Holy Land’s disused railway stations begins with a sonnet of concrete. Digital and disposable camera photography by Elisha Baskin.

(for the full, four part project, click here)

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There is an old railway station in south Tel Aviv. It isn’t really so old by local standards, being 80 years younger than the city’s first train depot. A concrete edifice of the 1970s, it would hardly delight all eyes. “Tel Aviv south” is no Milano Centrale, oh, and it hasn’t served any lines since 1993. It’s useless.

Nevertheless, not only do I take off a hot September day to head there, but I have company. Elisha is a history adventurer: an archive detective who finagles rare film footage, photos and sound bites related to this country’s past. I told her I plan to explore the country’s disused train stations, and she sent me a strange array of ancient photos related to transport in the Holy Land. They were stunningly random. Here was spectacular company for a random historical journey.

“And the first station is just down the street from your hood,” I mentioned.


“Just past the Kibbutz Galuyot highway bridge.”

“There’s a station there?”

Behold how the past evades even its greatest lovers. Then again, South Tel Aviv Station was invisible from its beginnings. That is what sealed its fate.

I would build on the moon

Here is the brief chronicle of a civil engineering folly: the city’s first train station was opened in Jaffa in 1892, when only Jaffa existed. At one time you could board a train there and travel north to Damascus and as far south as the Sudan.

Following the war of 1948, that station became disused. The young State of Israel sought to decentralize Jaffa, allowing the adjacent Hebrew city to inherit it. The final mile of rails was undone, and trains now only ran as far as a station in central Tel Aviv.

The 50s and 60s saw society and leadership both turn automobile-crazed. City politicians expressed concern over traffic jams and blamed the trains that rolled into downtown. Eventually a new station was planned at a peripheral location, and an architect was chosen: Nahum Zolotov.

Zolotov himself felt uncomfortable with the initiative and...

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Seven Nights 7: The Pub Crawl

‘So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people were murdered due to inter-group hatred.’ The seventh and final installment.

For other nights click here.

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One April night in 2003, my cousin Yaron decided he needed a bass player. He was growing as a local blues musician and figured that some accompaniment would do no harm. He told his girlfriend, Shir, that he’s popping over to Mike’s Place, a blues bar on Tel Aviv’s promenade, and left.

He returned shortly afterwards, covered in blood and in a state of shock. While the band played at Mike’s Place, two men walked in wearing explosive belts. The place went up in flames, claiming three lives along with that of one of the attackers. For a reason that remained unclear, the other terrorist failed to pull the trigger. He escaped into the night; his body was washed up by the waves a few days later.

Shir washed Yaron off with the shower hose. The blood came off and no wound appeared — the blood belonged to other people. Nine months to that night, the couple’s first child was born, a Second Intifada boomer and a treasure of a kid.

A dozen or so years later, on the eve of this story’s final night, I invited my friend Michelle for a drink at Mike’s Place. “I’m planning a epic pub crawl that will be remembered in this city’s history. I have been healing nicely from what happened at Jerusalem Pride, but I need a catharsis. So we’re going out, and here’s the deal: we’ll only drink in places where people have been murdered due to inter-group hatred.”

“May I remind you I live in Jerusalem,” Michelle replied, “That is what I do whenever I go out.”

So she was out, but others agreed to come. At 9 p.m. I left for Mike’s Place with a happy song in my head — one that has been stuck in my head ever since picking the name for this series: “Seven Drunken Nights,” an Irish pub ditty. In each verse, a man returns home from the pub and finds another object that seems to belong to another man. His wife denies, blaming his blood-alcohol level:

Ah, you’re drunk, you’re drunk, you silly old fool. Still you cannot see?
‘Tis not...

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Seven Nights 6: Malawi

On its next to last night, the journey leads away from the cities and, in a way, to another continent.  

For other nights click here.

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The papers promised a meteor shower. Here was a great excuse to take a spin out of town. I haven’t been off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv axis in a while (Bethlehem is essentially a Jerusalem suburb). Nothing sounded more appealing than heading into the dark hills to chase a shooting star or two.

Ruthie was feeling a tad better and encouraged me to head out, but I was unsure. Then a surprise phone call called the shots. My old buddy, Cindy, who lives in Hawaii, urged me to meet a friend of hers on a short visit to the Holy Land. The friend, Nadi, was staying in Haifa, had a car, and was eager to go watch meteors. I stuck with Ruthie for as late as it made sense, then hopped on a northbound train.

It pulled into Haifa just before 11:00. Abby waited in the parking lot. “The climax of the shower should take place just after midnight,” I informed her while buckling up, “How much time and energy have you got?” I asked.

“I need to return the car by 6:30,” she said, “That’s pretty much it.”

This was more than I had bargained for. The Carmel range offers a patch of woodland, the nearest respite from light pollution. but it appeared we didn’t need to stay near. ”So we can go and explore, right?”

“Let’s do.”

All I knew about Nadi on the way up was that she is Malawian. I also knew she is a top class traveler. Rolling out of the city and into the Galilee, I learned that she spent much of her life in the US and was now studying medicine in Boston. She came to Haifa to support a friend, a member of the Baha’i faith, who came to volunteer at the Baha’i headquarters. We spoke of Bahaullah, of Boston and of Cindy for a long while, while seeking a dark spot. There was no such spot, so we spoke of gender issues in Malawian society. We covered the issue nicely, but there still was no dark spot. This country is just that populated.

Bitter coffee

We turned to smaller roads, but even they ended up winding around and through...

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Seven Nights 5: Sodom Burning

I don’t always drink beer in bars with racist symbols on the wall. But when I do, it’s for a good cause. Part five of the nighttime journey.

For other nights click here.

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Saturday night we were back on the streets. Hundreds of left-leaning urbanites marching through central Tel Aviv, condemning the government for turning this land into a hothouse for inter-group violence. Pride flags flew alongside banners promoting unity and equality between Jews and Arabs. By now, the fateful morning of July 31 had claimed the life of Saad Dawabshe, father of baby Ali, who had passed away the morning of August 8. “Incitement is borne around the government table!” cried the megaphone. “Racism is born around the government table! The answer is pride! The answer is struggle!”

We reached the Likud party headquarters. Someone brought a projector and illuminated the building with hateful comments made by our leadership. Culture Minister Miri Regev had said that East African asylum seekers are “cancer in our body.” On election day, Prime Minister Netanyahu had threatened that sinister Arabs would take over the country lest Israelis rush to vote for him. Knesset member Betzalel Smotrich had called Jerusalem Pride “a parade of beasts and perverts.” His party member Motti Yogev had said Israelis should topple the Supreme Court with bulldozers because it had issued a minor decree concerning settler land-grab. There were more.

I bumped into Gil, a dear friend and one of my favorite poets. She looked up at the quotes and referred to the weather, as poets should. “The heat rises from the ground like a reflection of the hell that this place has become,” she said. “This is Sodom burning.”

Other things happened that night, but I don’t want to write about it. The heat got to me. I argued about the occupation with a stranger, then about the Nakba with a friend, and went to bed confused and somewhat despaired.

The following night was all joy. Our friend Nicola, an Italian diplomat, celebrated his birthday at the penthouse of another Italian diplomat. There was a small pool on the roof and the view was stupendous. The open bar was manned by hired hands, the pizza was authentic Neapolitan and the gelato the city’s finest.  I had many great conversations that night, none of them arguments, but...

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Seven Nights 4: Contact point

Chapter four in the nighttime journey is a tale of two parties.

For other nights click here.

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If you think the nights I skip in this chronicle are uneventful, think again fast. On Wednesday I was rushed to the airport with an immigration scandal. A young American who flew in to intern with a company for which I work was interrogated on arrival and then deported. The reason remained withheld but we suspected political bias. This is hardly an unusual occurrence these days.

The intern handed her interrogators the number of the company head: a leader in alternative tourism, a National Geographic Explorer, a Ted Fellow, a Palestinian. The interrogators questioned her at length about him and the tours we give, which happen to be dual-narrative and deal with political issues. They then put her on the first plane home. My boss was never told of her deportation and was denied the right to speak to her. I, being of privileged name and accent, was granted both truth and phone call, yet even I could not overturn the decree.

I returned home, couldn’t sleep and surfed the web. I read that a prominent Israeli community leader called for Jews to burn churches in the holy land,  I saw footage of a Bedouin village being demolished by authorities, who left its residents roofless in the desert and carted away their water tanks. The following morning I learned that a state budget was passed over night. There was no public debate. We were too busy bandaging wounds.

This was not helpful. I needed hope. I needed rest. I needed a good night out.

Kia ora, Palestine

I had just the friend for such a night: a friend from New Zealand. My previous series published on +972 Magazine was the Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries. It revolved around a tribute to my favorite star musician, who happens to be a Kiwi. One of Lorde’s compatriots read it and told another, who told another, who got in touch. On Thursday night I made plans to meet up with not one but two New Zealanders. I figured some cool mist from the south seas could do me good.

In rolled up to Jerusalem and went to see Kate, a young journalist who reports for major news sources Kiwi and otherwise. The night offered much entertainment. The city of Bethlehem...

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Seven Nights 3: Sidewalks and playgrounds

Part three. In which old friends reunite and talk about leaving.

For other nights click here.

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Some time after sunset, the muezzin at Jaffa’s Abu Nabout mosque called for prayer one last time. Meanwhile, protesters at the nearby Clock Square stretched a clothing line across the street. On the line hung baby clothes, reminders of the baby Ali Dwabsheh, who was burned alive.

I crossed the street to take a photo, then returned to the side where the other protesters stood, almost tripping as I did over a bundle of clothes made to look like a dead Palestinian baby. Had I tripped, I would have knocked over a living Palestinian toddler who stood there, sucking his thumb, hugging a huge teddy bear clad in a purple dress.

The demonstration was angry. The chants were all in Arabic and most were directed at Mahmoud Abbas. “They don’t see any point at chanting at Netanyahu,” explained a friend. It was Siwar, the same Haifa Palestinian whose mention caused my second Jerusalem night to fall apart. Three days have passed since. This was Tuesday and I was doing better, but felt that I shouldn’t be pushing it. I kept picturing some irate Israeli driver throwing a hard object at our demonstration, a hard sharp object that would hit one of us. Eventually, when the scene began spilling into the road, turning Jaffa into a massive traffic jam. Ruthie and I bid Siwar farewell and left for Tel Aviv.

She went to have a few drinks with friends, and so did I, but I dare say my gathering was somehow more momentous. A few days earlier I bumped into my high school friend Maya, and we decided to get our old gang back together. We had stopped hanging out together shortly after Rabin’s assassination. We were nearly 20 then, now nearly 40.

How do you do it?

We met at a distinctly unhip, but quiet and friendly cafe on Sheinkin St. Guy is a father of three, living in a leafy suburban development outside a kibbutz. Noga, who dated him in the old days, also bore three kids. Years ago she met a handsome Indonesian filmmaker, and is now possibly the only Israeli living in a land most of the rest of us can’t even visit as tourists. Maya, meanwhile, is only weeks away from...

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Seven Nights 2: Privileged white male

Part two. Following the attack, our night owl returns to Jerusalem in drag for a rally, and walks into an emotional pitfall.  

For other nights click here.

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Someone else was murdered on Thursday, the night of the Jerusalem Pride stabbing. In the northern West Bank village of Duma, a group of hooded men, most likely members of the extremist Jewish “Price Tag” cell, set fire to two family homes and left threatening graffiti in Hebrew on the walls. A baby, Ali Dawabsheh, was burned to death. His parents and bother were rescued but remain in an Israeli hospital in critical condition.

Both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv LGBT communities organized rallies in the wake of the pride stabbing, to be held on the following Saturday night. I decided to go to the one where little Ali was most likely to also be mentioned. That was clearly going to be Jerusalem.

Organizers at Tel Aviv courted mainstream politicians, some of whom participate in hateful discourse. The Jerusalem team booked Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the only high ranking Israeli politician who speaks consistently against all forms of intolerance. Sadly, the Israeli presidency is only a ceremonial position which has little impact on the system.

I got back in drag and took the minibus to Jerusalem with a sign I had made. It read: “Pride-stabbers and baby-killers all heed the same call.”  I raised it high as Rivlin spoke and heard him say just that, in different words. He mentioned the murder at Duma in his first sentence. Other speakers followed him onstage, including three rabbis, two of whom also mentioned Duma. I was in the right place and I was in tears.

She should give me a break

Tears returned to my face later, further demolishing my eyeliner. After the rally, I sat with my friend, Irit, at “Hataklit,” a casual West Jerusalem bar. I told her a story that involved another friend of mine, and mentioned that she is Palestinian.

“Where is she from?” Irit asked.

“From Haifa.”

“Oh, that’s very convenient, to call yourself a Palestinian when you live in Haifa.”

The concept of “Israeli Arabs” tends to be highly contrived in the eyes of the people we label with it. Irit, a journalist, surely knew this. She made a political statement. I decided to skip giving her the...

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Seven Nights 1: The Stabbing

The plan was to write a leisurely travel journal: a record of Canaan’s summer nights, but the journey began with a dark event: a stabbing at Jerusalem pride, and took on a different nature. Welcome to a seven-part, nocturnal diary of shock and recovery, a true story from an emotional land.

For other nights click here.

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The plan is simple: I will only write about things that happened after dark. Still, I must begin with something that happened at dusk.

It was 6:30 p.m. or so and we were walking in central West Jerusalem when six people got stabbed right before our eyes. It wasn’t anything you wouldn’t expect. We were marching as part of Jerusalem’s LGBT pride march. In a city this conservative, every such march is met with threats, We heard them spoken through megaphones on our way over: “You perverts are not wanted here. It’s bad enough that you show yourselves in Tel Aviv. Jerusalem is sacred, stay away.”

I was in drag. I’m both proud and sad to be Israel’s only publicly-out crossdresser. I march in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem’s Prides, hoping to inspire others who are like me to feel less ashamed, less afraid. I have overcome fear of ridicule, but now fear came back in the shape of a knife. We were close enough to see people scattering and hear the screams, and see the victims lying on the road. When the police motioned for us to move on, we walked by blood.

Soon we learned that “they” were in this case a single individual. The stabber, it was rumored, was the very same man who stabbed participants at Jerusalem Pride 10 years ago. Soon the rumor was confirmed. He was only three weeks out of prison, and the authorities somehow never bothered to check on his whereabouts on the evening in question. Six were wounded, one 16-year-old girl was in critical condition. The girl, named Shira Banki, has since succumbed to her wounds. We had witnessed a murder.

I want to be in Jerusalem

The police ushered us to the march’s end point: pleasant, easily secured “Liberty Bell Park”, which features a replica of Philadelphia’s icon. We sat on a bench with friends, all of us distraught and confused, and listened to the speakers fumble for words onstage. We were...

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The Israel-Palestine Lorde Project

Putting together an homage to your favorite singer is a trivial thing — if you live in a normal country.

buzzcut perfect parfect

It started off as a simple enough idea: let’s make a musical tribute to Lorde, New Zealand’s young and upbeat singer-songwriter. I’m crazy about Lorde’s music, despite being nearly 40 years old and usually more of a Schubert enthusiast. I even found myself translating her songs into my native language, Hebrew.

My easygoing friend, Yaron Fishman, was game, and he’s a musical producer. Everything fit, and then I messed it up. I put politics into it, or rather, extracted the politics of simplicity.

I am an Israeli who works with Palestinians as equals, which is rare. (Typically we are the ones bossing them around.) This experience has taught me to see my country as home to at least two equally legitimate societies. If this is to be a local tribute, I told Yaron, we should find a translator into Arabic and a Palestinian singer. It shouldn’t be too difficult.

But it was. In the year 2015, society in the Holy Land is exceedingly polarized and the air is dense. Every word, spoken or sung, can be taken as a political statement. Our potential partners were scared off at first: either by the fear of being misunderstood or because they misunderstood us.

Thinking differently

As the journey evolved, I felt it was fascinating and decided to document. The result is “The Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries,” a 15-part online novella. It tells of how I desperately chased a Eurovision star to a dark desert clifftop, how I performed “Royals” to a Jerusalem hassid, and jammed on a bus with a pre-teen from Bethlehem. Lorde remaps the country from chapter to chapter, and countless issues arise: anti-Normalization, government-sanctioned racism, identity politics, what we hear when we hear each other’s languages and music and even how we look at a land like New Zealand.

The diaries take about an hour to read, and are probably the best thing I’ve written in English (I’m a Hebrew author by day). It is certainly the first thing I have ever illustrated (apologies). Thing is: at times I came close to accepting that the Diaries themselves would be the only final product, the only outcome of the project. I allowed myself to believe that the musical project had...

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The Israel-Palestine Lorde Diaries, chapter 15: The love club

The final chapter, in which we make music.

Part 15 of 15. To read the rest of the series, click here.

The Israel Palestine Lorde Diaries 29

“Yuval, what is your time limit?” Khader asked me online.

There was a time limit. The spring’s succession of guided tours was supposed kick off in two weeks. Once that happened, I would have no more time. ”Why?”

“Because Rasha only comes back on March 23rd, and she really wants in.”

“Where is she now?”

“In the U.S., making friends with Uncle Sam”.

“Okay,” I wrote, “I’m going to talk to Yaron. Our deadline is March 7th, but I think we’ll stretch it for her. Listen,” I added, “I am really, really, really moved that you made contact with her and that she agreed to participate. She’s an amazing artist.”

Yaron was fine waiting. He is easy to appease. Ruthie and I walked over to his house that Wednesday for Shira’s session. She arrived with her husband, Alon, and his accordion. Together, they form the Yiddish duo “The Technicalities.” When the two of them entered, I realized that I had not seen Shira since the whole thing began, more than three months back, and who knows how much longer before that. She has been working the entire time on her countless endeavors.

“I have totally fallen in love with this song,” said the former Lorde-skeptic, which was nice to hear. She even kept referring to “Team” as “the song we all love.” “In essence, it’s an eighties song,” she said, “that’s why we all love it.”

This turned out to be untrue. Not everyone in the room loved “Team,” because not everyone knew it. Yaron staunchly refused to listen to any of the original tracks, put together by Lorde and Joel Little, so that he won’t be tempted to emulate them. It occurred to me that his first encounter with “Team” would be in Yiddish, the so-called dying language of European Jewry, the tongue of my grandparents and their gassed-to-death family members. Yiddish, the thick and sweet German brogue of folk tales and secret modern masterpieces, the tongue of Meah Shearim’s children, who seem to grow up in another era. Team, by Lorde, in Yiddish. This was kind of cool.

The following night was cooler still. Diana Gern, the Russian soprano, came to record “Yellow Flicker...

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+972 is an independent, blog-based web magazine. It was launched in August 2010, resulting from a merger of a number of popular English-language blogs dealing with life and politics in Israel and Palestine.

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