My Word: The art of appreciation

The prime minister’s predicament came to mind during my night at the museum.

Israel Museum Color Gone Wild exhibition 370 (photo credit: Eli Pozner)
Israel Museum Color Gone Wild exhibition 370
(photo credit: Eli Pozner)
I apologize. I took a musical interlude from my generally news-driven working life recently and spent a very pleasant evening combining two passions, art and opera. I’m not at all sorry I went. It was very enjoyable. I’m sorry if I’m making some readers jealous. I also regret that my particular muses make me sound snobbish. And I’m especially sorry that I feel I have to apologize.
The evening was part of a combined program by the Israeli Opera and the Israel Museum that turned the singers and string trio into wandering minstrels, moving among four galleries and performing various pieces to suit the art.
It started off on a high note with Mario’s aria from Puccini’s Tosca, surrounded by the Fauve and Expressionist paintings by Kandinsky, Derain and Matisse among others that are part of the “Color Gone Wild” exhibition.
Audience in tow, it carried on to the Pop Art department, where we were treated to more favorites, including the Beatles’ “In My Life” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day”; in the 20th-Century Gallery, we heard some Carmen by Bizet (and an explanation that the choice stems from the clash between the famous gypsy and the urbanization reflected in the lives of the women workers in the cigarette- making factory). Here, I cried, quietly but shamelessly, to “There’s a Place For Us” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Finally, in the Israeli Art Gallery, we heard among other pieces, Rachel Shapira’s “Kmo Tzemah Bar” (“Like a wildflower”) and a tribute to Arik Einstein, who had died earlier that week.
The event was a welcome break, and I feel compelled here to note that I received two complimentary tickets. That’s not just because the disclosure is required from the viewpoint of journalistic ethics, it’s also to point out that all hobbies come at a price, and opera often comes at a particularly high one, despite the best efforts of the Israeli Opera to give highly subsidized occasional performances aimed at making it affordable to all.
I might seem overly concerned about broadcasting my budget, but one of the reasons that I needed a little bit of escapism was the ongoing obsession in the Israeli media about the spending and lifestyle of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (and his wife, Sara).
As I was gallery gazing and listening to good music, the premier was coping with a “scandal” about his expenses, focusing on the bills costing taxpayers thousands of shekels for scented candles, wine, dry cleaning, and water for his pool in his private home in Caesarea.
I was relieved that former prime minister Ehud Olmert chose to blast Netanyahu only for his policy on Iran rather than his lifestyle, given that none of Olmert’s homes have been particularly humble, or scandal free (although much of the artwork is on the house, courtesy of his artist wife, Aliza.) The attacks on spending almost overshadowed Netanyahu’s official visit to Rome, where he met in the Vatican with Pope Francis, by all accounts a modest man surrounded by grandeur. Their effects were also felt in Netanyahu’s decision this week not to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela; the flight, accommodation and security arrangements were estimated to land the Prime Minister’s Office a very hefty NIS 7 million ($2m.) bill.
It cost nothing but time to eulogize Einstein, Israeli industrialist Dov Lautman and comedian/actor Sefi Rivlin close to home within the last rather sad month, but Netanyahu was predictably criticized by some for that too. And it would have been nowhere near as popular to travel to South Africa, either, given Mandela’s ambivalent relations with Israel and his unswerving support for the Palestinian cause even when violent.
I, too, am upset that my hard-earned taxes (it’s not all evenings at the opera, unfortunately) are being squandered on personal luxuries for the prime minister’s family. But, if I feel I need to relax after a tight deadline, I can imagine Netanyahu must be desperate to relieve the stress after a tough day in the Prime Minister’s Office. I don’t begrudge him pistachio-flavored ice cream and a bottle of wine. And I actually don’t like the thought of the PM going over his household and office bills late at night instead of addressing the many social and economic problems that exist (although we’d all rather focus on our hi-tech, scientific and cultural achievements – two [admittedly expat] Israelis winning the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and actress Gal Gadot’s fulfilling every Jewish boy’s fantasy of Wonder Woman, for example).
Had Netanyahu (and his wife) traveled to South Africa for the funeral service that made even Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s recent 800,000-person affair look small, the prime minister would inevitably have come under fire for wasting more public funds, just as he was equally knee-jerkingly damned for turning down the trip with its possible chance of boosting Israel’s standing in the world community.
Since globetrotting President Shimon Peres was grounded due to ill health (I get tired just reading his schedule, let alone imagining how a 90-year-old manages to mix business and pleasure at such a fast pace), Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, a former prisoner of conscience, stepped in and saved the day and the country’s face.
It was an appropriate last-minute solution, although I wish we as a country didn’t rely so much on the last minute and miracles (our spontaneity and trust in improvisation being both our strength and our weakness).
As for the prime minister’s financial situation, the best proposal I heard came from an accountant who suggested that in future there be complete separation of his private and official budget. There could be full transparency of the premier’s public spending, and he’d be free to use the personal budget as he liked (or as free as any top politician can be in the age of Google, in a country where strangers don’t think twice about openly asking how much you paid for anything from your apartment to your haircut).
Actually, the prime minister’s predicament came to mind during my night at the museum.
When the “Colors Gone Wild” exhibition opened in July, I attended a press conference and tour with Werner Merzbacher, who, with his wife, Gabrielle, loaned the paintings to Jerusalem. (This was for a second time: In 1998, they were the basis of the museum’s madly successful “Joy of Color” exhibition.) Wonderfully witty and down to earth, Merzbacher recalled some of his personal history, including his escape to Switzerland as a 10-year-old following Kristallnacht in 1938; the loss of his parents in a concentration camp; his younger brother’s consequent fight with depression, and how he started collecting art: “I think I was born with an optimistic character. I coped, and in later life I embraced the positive through art.”
We also saw a short segment of a documentary showing his house in Switzerland. There is plenty of colorful evidence that this is one of the world’s most formidable private collections of modern art – paintings hang on the walls, are stacked on the floor, and propped up behind doors. Merzbacher confessed that his wife thinks his collection has grown out of control. More poignantly, he mentioned that one of his daughters when she was younger “never wanted to bring home friends.” She was too ashamed of their wealth.
Although it’s not the sort of problem my son has to deal with, I felt saddened by the price of envy.
It’s true that I frequently bash the tycoons who too often try to buy favor rather than pay decent wages, and I wasn’t upset to see Nochi Dankner forced to leave the IDB Group this week, figuratively buried under his own pyramid.
But jealousy can be blinding. Part of the art of living is to be open to colors, music and optimism: If all you see is tinged green with envy, eventually you’re going to feel very sick.The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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