‘But if you cannot speak truth at a beheading, when can you speak it?’ The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel

April 26, 2020 at 7:34 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

  I have finished it: the third and final installment of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy, all 784 pages of it. (Hardback count, though I read the e-book). And what a long, strange trip it’s been….

I’m really eager to read media reviews of this book, but I want to note my own impressions, first. Going back over some of the passages I’ve highlighted, I’m struck first of all by the wealth of sardonic humor. There’s the comment that appears in the title above, issuing from the angry mind of Thomas Cromwell. He and others have just witnessed the beheading of Anne Boleyn.

Here is how the novel opens:

Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away. A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner. The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us. The witnesses, who have knelt for the passing of the soul, stand up and put on their hats. Under the hats, their faces are stunned.

Hungry, after that? Ugh. But if it’s meant to deliver a jolt, it succeeds.

Later, with jaunty irreverence, he remarks to his son Gregory:

‘It would be like the late queen to pin her head back on, pick up the sword and chase me to Whitehall.’

Serving the King’s Majesty takes Cromwell on one heck of a wild ride. For him, and for those who pursue a similar career path, the sensation of being near to supreme power, and possibly even exerting influence over it, is intoxicating. Me, I would rather be out in some distant field, as remote from royalty as possible, harvesting flax or some other needful quantity, or laboring in a kitchen somewhere helping to fashion one of the unique repasts, such as the one described here:

The eels come in, presented in two fashions: salted in an almond sauce, and baked with the juice of an orange. There is a spinach tart, green as the summer evening, flavoured with nutmeg and a splash of rosewater. The silver gleams; the napkins are folded into the shapes of Tudor roses; the coverpanes at each place are worked with silver garlands. ‘Bon appétit,’ he says to the ambassador. ‘I’ve had a letter.’

Falsehoods, outright lies, artful dissembling, plotting, deceiving – no bad act is off limits at this glittering court. One false move, one unguarded word, and you can find yourself imprisoned in the tower, awaiting interrogation and God knows what else. Or, as Thomas Cromwell learns to his grief, acts off loyalty and resourcefulness can be turned into something else quite other by those same interrogators. Love can curdle and become hate in a matter of hours. – even minutes.

(In Act Two Scene One of As You Like It, Duke Senior, exiled from the court, has taken refuge in the Forest of Arden. Unexpectedly, he finds this a rather pleasant  experience:

And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

It is much the better place, to be “exempt from public haunt.”)

Careful attention must be paid to who is who among a vast array of characters. Dame Hilary does provide a list at the front of the novel, and a very intimidating roster it is:


Anne Boleyn, Queen of England.

Her supposed lovers:

George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford, her brother. (Yes – her brother!)

Henry Norris, chief of the king’s privy chamber.

Francis Weston and William Brereton, gentlemen in the king’s circle.

Mark Smeaton, musician.


Thomas Cromwell, later Lord Cromwell, Secretary to the king, Lord Privy Seal, and Vicegerent in Spirituals: that is, the king’s deputy in the English church.

Gregory, his son, only surviving child of his marriage to Elizabeth Wyks.

Mercy Prior, his mother-in-law. Rafe Sadler, his chief clerk, brought up within the family: later in the king’s household.

Helen, Rafe’s wife. Richard Cromwell, his nephew, married to Frances Murfyn.

Thomas Avery, household accountant. Thurston, chief cook.

Dick Purser, keeper of the guard dogs. Jenneke, Cromwell’s daughter. (Invented character) Christophe, a servant. (Invented character)

Mathew, a servant, formerly of Wolf Hall. (Invented character)

Bastings, the bargemaster. (Invented character)

And on it goes, through The King’s Family and Household (8), The Seymour Family (5), Politicians and Clergy (12), Courtiers and Aristocrats (17), Household of the King’s Children (3), At the Convent in Shaftsebury (2), Henry’s Dynastic Rivals (7), Diplomats (8), In Calais (4), At the Tower of London (2), Cromwell’s Friends (5). Oh – and there are two family trees – the royal family, naturellement.

Am I trying to dissuade you from tackling this formidable tale? Heaven forfend! You surely do not want to miss out on all the fun. And besides, quite a few of the characters in the above accounting are quite minor. It’s just that – well, be aware, and keep your wits about you. (No doubt, Thomas Cromwell himself would advise the same.)

At one point, Cromwell’s son Gregory observes, rather artlessly: ‘It’s no treason to say all men are mortal.’ His father has a swift rejoinder: ‘No, but it’s not your best idea either.’ Then, reflecting on recent events, he thinks to himself:

…that was Anne Boleyn’s mistake. She took Henry for a man like other men. Instead of what he is, and what all princes are: half god, half beast.

With the death of Anne Boleyn, Henry is free to seek out a new wife. He already has is eye on the demure Jane Seymour, scion of the powerful, social-climbing Seymour clan. In the fullness of time, she provides him with the son he has been so desperately wanting – a true heir. The effort, however, costs her her life.

And so, back to the drawing boards; the search for Wife Number Four begins almost immediately. And for Thomas Cromwell, the previously invincible fixer, this is where things start to go wrong.

Hilary Mantel is a deeply gifted writer. She writes marvelous dialog; moreover, she can summon up, in a single sentence, an entire world. There’s this from Wolf Hall:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up. It was dusk. The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing. A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate. A boatman whistled back from the river.

The novels in this trilogy are written in the present tense. I don’t always like this mode of expression in fiction, but Mantel uses it convincingly here. It conveys a sense of unrelenting urgency entirely appropriate to the story. Something she uses that I find less convincing is the pronoun ‘he’ to designate Thomas Cromwell’s thoughts and utterances. Since most of the speaking in these novels – certainly in The Mirror & the Light – is done by men, it can be unclear at times as to who is doing the speaking (or thinking).

Cromwell is reflecting here:

On his journey today from London, he felt he brought guests: Norris and George Boleyn, young Weston, Mark, and William Brereton. As he stepped out of his barge they stepped out too; they stood on the banks of the Styx, waiting to cross. They died within minutes of each other, but that does not mean they are together now. The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice. Even if they met, what would they have to talk about? When they stood before their judges they edged away from each other, as if fearing contamination. Each man had made a case against the other, hoping he might save his own life.

As soon as Henry turns against someone – often for reasons known only to himself – he pulls away from that person and lets his minions mete out their punishment. Thomas Cromwell is no angel, but as this ineluctable process played out in his life, I developed a strong animosity toward Henry. It’s never a pretty sight, watching a third party carry out a powerful person’s dirty work. It is just plain cowardly, also lazy. As Isabella says in Measure For Measure:

O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength; but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
This next is a spoiler, if you don’t already know what happens: Cromwell’s path to annihilation is laid out in excruciating detail. I haven’t read anything as harrowing since the closing sentences of the story “Ideas of Heaven” by Joan Silber (in the collection by the same title).
Portraits of Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein – himself a minor character in the Wolf Hall trilogy – are hung on the same wall in my beloved Frick Collection in New York City. (El Greco’s portrait of Saint Jerome hangs between them.)

Thomas More, left, and Thomas Cromwell

Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein

The first four wives:

Katherine of Aragon

Anne Boleyn

Jane Seymour

Ann of Cleves

This scene from the television version of Wolf Hall vividly conveys Anne Boleyn’s spitfire persona. She and Henry re examining a document  brought to them by Cromwell, superbly played by Mark Rylance. (Damian Lewis is Henry; Claire Foy is Anne.)


Hilary Mantel has been very generous with appearances and interviews. Here is a short piece that I found illuminating:


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‘Truly, my friend Rembrandt, all honor to you.’

April 23, 2020 at 12:21 pm (Art)

Judas, repentant, returning the pieces of silver, by Rembrandt, 1629

That single gesture of the desperate Judas…a raging, whining Judas groveling for mercy he no longer hopes for or dares to show the smallest sign of expecting, his frightful visage, hair torn out of his head, his rent garment, his arms twisted, the hands clenched bloodlessly tight, fallen to his knees in a heedless outburst–that body, wholly contorted in pathetic despair.

[He] can withstand comparison with anything ever made in Italy, or f or  that matter with everything beautiful and admirable that has been preserved since the earliest antiquity….that which (and I say this in dumb amazement) a youth, a born and bred Batavian…a miller, a smooth-faced  boy, has done: joining in the figure of one man so many divers particulars and expressing so many universals. Truly, my friend Rembrandt, all honor to you.

Constantijn Huygens was astounded when he saw what the young Rembrandt – age 23! – had accomplished in this painting.

Surely there are few things in this world as inspiring as the praise of one genius for another. May this example comfort and encourage us now.

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‘Be especially diligent in cultivating. Mind you that my barley seed is guarded and that all my property is guarded.’

April 20, 2020 at 3:03 pm (Book review, books, Egypt, Mystery fiction)

This is the original cover of the first edition, published in the U.S., October 1944

  Death Comes as the End is something of an anomaly in Agatha Christie’s oeuvre. Set in Egypt circa 2000 BCE, it is her only historical novel. The main character is called Resinenb, a young woman recently widowed, who has returned with her small daughter to live in her family home. This home is a well-populated establishment. Renisenb’s father, the farmer Imhotep, is the somewhat fussy, imperious paterfamilias; in addition, there are two married brothers, a younger brother in his teens, a grandmother called Esa, a hanger-on and all purpose busybody named Henet, and of course the necessary complement of scribes, servants, and slaves. Then, not long after Renisenb’s arrival, Imhotep introduces Nofret, his new concubine, into this already turbulent mix of striving individuals. She proves to be the catalyst for all that follows….

(Initially, I found myself wrestling with the question of  how to pronounce the name ‘Renisenb;’ specifically, deciding which of the two final consonants was silent. I decided to jettison the ‘n.’ purely for the purpose of pronunciation and smooth reading. Hence phonetically, for this reader at least, ‘Reniseb.’)

Turns out that Dame Agatha got the idea for this volatile combination of characters from some letters that were found in the early 1920s near what was then ancient Thebes, close to the end of the 11th Dynasty, ca. 2130 BCE-1991 BCE, the era known as the First Intermediate Period. They are called the Hekanakht Letters, after the farmer and ka-priest who wrote them. (The Ancient History Encyclopedia defines a ka-priest as  as one who “…was paid by a family to perform the daily offerings at the tomb of the deceased.”):

….the two letters that Hekhanacht sent to his family are unparalleled in ancient Egypt, both for the light that they shed on the personality of the elderly farmer living in the fall of 2002 BC and for  the inherent interest in the matters discussed in them. They are virtually the only source for Egyptian agriculture before the New Kingdom and the sole surviving texts from ancient Egypt to give the cultivator’s point of view rather than that of  the administrator and landlord. They have suggested the plot for  novel by Agatha Christie, Death Comes as the End, and are likely in the future to be used as sources outside the limited circle of Egyptologists.

From “An Eleventh Dynasty Farmer’s Letters to His Family” by Klaus Baer, in The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March, 1963

As the tale unfolds, the various characters in Death Comes as the End come vividly to life – more so than in some of the other Christie works I’ve read. Renisenb is especially appealing:

She would sit in the shade of the rock chamber entrance with one knee raised and her hands clasped round it, and stare out over the green belt of cultivation to where the Nile showed a pale gleaming blue and beyond it to a distance of pale soft fawns and creams and pinks, all melting hazily into each other.
She had come the first time, months ago now, on a sudden wish to escape from a world of intense femininity. She wanted stillness and companionship—and she had found them here. The wish to escape was still with her, but it was no longer a mere revulsion from the stress and fret of domesticity.

Also the  writing, as you may perceive in this passage, is somewhat more poetic than that which one normally encounters in Christie’s novels, focused as they usually are on the relentless advancing of the plot. (And I have to say, I love that aspect of her writing!)

At any rate, Renisenb is the most appealing of the dramatis personae in this book. That is just as well, because as events move forward, the others begin to drop like flies….

For a more detailed summary of the plot, have a look at this article on the BBC site. Be wary, though: this piece comes dangerously close to containing spoilers. Actually, what it reveals is how cunningly Christie has made use of the content of the remarkable Hekanakht Letters.

Chapter Three of the novel concludes thus, with Esa speaking:

“Men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians. . . .”
Her voice deepened as she quoted:
“A trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end . . .”

Christie does not provide an attribution for this quote. I thought perhaps she herself had invented it. But it turns out to be one of the sayings of Ptah-hotep:

The Maxims of Ptahhotep or Instruction of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences. The Instructions were composed by the Vizier Ptahhotep around 2375-2350 BC, during the rule of King Djedkare Isesi of the Fifth Dynasty.[1] The text was discovered in Thebes in 1847 by Egyptologist M. Prisse d’Avennes.[2] The Instructions of Ptahhotep are called wisdom literature, specifically under the genre of Instructions that teach something.[3] There are four copies of the Instructions, and the only complete version, Papyrus Prisse, is located in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.  (Wikipedia)

Here is the complete quotation:

If you would prolong friendship in a house to which you have admittance, as master, or as brother, or as friend, into whatsoever place you enter, beware of approaching the women. It is not good in the place where this is done. Men are made fools by their gleaming limbs of carnelian. A trifle, a little, a likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end of knowing her.

The title of this post is taken from a translation of the first Hekanakht Letter. More of this text can be found on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website.

Mentuhotep, an Eleventh Dynasty Pharoah


This is a tomb painting of Nefertari. I like to think that with her placid, far-seeing beauty, this young woman looks a bit like Renisenb.




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The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (1624)

April 13, 2020 at 1:38 pm (Anglophilia, Art)

Yes – It’s Frans Hals’s famous painting of the Laughing Cavalier. Except, chortled our (Osher Life Long Learning) lecturer Nora Hamerman, he is not laughing and he is not a cavalier!

He is obviously not laughing; rather, he is smiling in a somewhat secretive way. (It was considered bad form to portray a subject openly laughing – open mouthed, that is. The condition of the teeth probably had something to do with that proscription.) As for being a cavalier – meaning a knight or some type of nobleman – he was not that, either. Most likely he was a Dutch cloth merchant. Certainly his spectacular doublet is a fine advertisement for his wares!

Nora inquired whether any of us had actually seen this painting. “I have!” I exclaimed, delighted to recall my visit, several years ago, to London’s fabulous Wallace Collection. That’s where The Laughing Cavalier looks out with sly pleasure at delighted visitors.

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A haiku, of sorts, for today

April 13, 2020 at 12:58 pm (Current affairs, Poetry)

It is hard for us to know
How to do battle with
This incorporeal foe.

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Music, to bring beauty and solace into your day

April 11, 2020 at 6:47 pm (Music)

The “Romanza,” (third movement) from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony


The Adagietto, from Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony:


Requiem, by Gabriel Faure:


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No.41, “Jupiter”:


Good Friday Music from Parsifal, by Richard Wagner:


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‘Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land….’

April 10, 2020 at 8:43 pm (History, Poetry)

First, let me say:

I am deeply grateful to Osher Life Long Learning (affiliated with Johns Hopkins University) for making our classes available by means of Zoom technology.

The subject of one of my classes is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Numerous translations of this work are extant; for our class, our instructor, Dr. Lederman, uses this one:

Herewith are the opening lines from Tablet I:

He who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
Gilgamesh, who saw the wellspring, the foundations of the land,
Who knew the world’s ways, was wise in all things,
He it was who studied seats of power everywhere,
Full knowledge of it all he  gained,
He saw what was secret and revealed what was hidden,
He brought back tidings from before the Flood,
From a distant journey came home, weary, but at peace,
Set out all his hardships on a monument of stone,
He built the walls of ramparted Uruk,
The lustrous treasure of hallowed Eanna!

Gilgamesh, supposedly

This passage continues to limn the glories of Uruk; then we return to the subject of Gilgamesh the praiseworthy. Except that he actually isn’t very praiseworthy. He is, at least at the story’s  beginning not much more than an arrogant brute. He is cruel and rough with the young men of Uruk; worse, he exercises his “right of the first night” ( known also as jus prima noctis, or droit du seigneur) with every new bride, on her wedding night.

The people of Uruk cry out to the gods about Gilgamesh’s abuses, and they realize that a way must be found to inculcate civility into the wild ruler. The god Anu summons another god, Aruru, and more or less kicks the ball into her court. These are Aruru’s orders:

Let her create a match for Gilgamesh, mighty in strength,
Let them contend with each other, that Uruk may have peace.

So Aruru gets to work, and this is the result:

She created valiant Enkidu in the steppe,
Offspring of silence*, with the force of the valiant Ninurta.
He was made lush with head hair, like a woman,
The locks of his hair grew think as a grain field.
He knew neither people nor inhabited land,
He dressed as animals do.
He ate grass with gazelles,
With beasts he jostled at the water hole,
With wildlife he drank his fill of water.

*The footnote says of the phrase “Offspring of silence” that it may refer to the fact that Enkidu, having been formed of clay, did not enter into the world with “the tumult that normally accompanies childbirth.”

Is all of this starting to seem weird? Trust me, we’re just beginning.

Chief agent in charge of “civilizing” Enkidu is a harlot named Shamhat. She knows just how to proceed:

Shamhat loosened her garments,
She opened her loins, he took her charms.
She was not bashful, she took his vitality.
She tossed aside her clothing and he lay upon her,
She treated him, a  human, to woman’s work,
As in his ardor he caressed her.
Six days, seven nights was Enkidu aroused, flowing into Shamhat.

Well golly! You could have knocked me over with a proverbial feather when I first read that. Pornography in an ancient Mesopotamian epic??!! And depending on the translation, this episode is rendered in even more explicit language. Click here for an example. And no, I’m not going to place the actual text here. This is, after all, a family friendly blog!

Now, as a topic of study, this epic is hugely complex and many-faceted. I don’t mean to be flippant and/or dismissive. People give their entire professional lives to the explication, translation, and study of the epic of Gilgamesh and its place in Mesopotamian civilization. And our lecturer, Dr. Richard Lederman, is himself a marvel of scholarship. In a recent class, he came out with a throwaway line which I will cherish: “My Akkadian is a bit rusty.” Oh and he is fluent in Hebrew and a scholar of the Old Testament as well.

So I have to say that for myself, from a purely esthetic standpoint, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a bit lacking. Here’s why I’m of that opinion:

1. Repetition. There’s too much of it. The first four lines of the first passage quoted above are typical. This may be due to the fact that at times, the story may have been presented orally.

2. The plot disjointed, not especially compelling, and sometimes just too strange to summon forth any empathy.

3. The same is true for the characters. I had a lot of trouble caring about what happened to them.

4. The writing, for the most part, is flat and uninspired. Admittedly, the exact language is dependent on the translation you’re reading. Nevertheless, I was hoping to encounter some of the literary devices that occur in the Homeric epics – you know, epithets such as “rosy-fingered Dawn,” “wine-dark Sea,”” bright-eyed Athena,” and the amazingly vivid extended similes and metaphors. They simply were not there.

Dr. Lederman recommended this video to us. I found it both enlightening and engaging:



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Readings, in challenging times

April 8, 2020 at 8:49 pm (Book review, books, Historical fiction, Mystery fiction, Poetry)

I’ve read that at the moment, some people are having trouble concentrating on the printed word. Perfectly understandable. Speaking only for myself,  books, magazines, and newspapers have been Heaven sent. As long as I’ve got something immersive to read, I figure I’ll get through this.

I admit that when the library closed, I had a moment of panic. I rely on that worthy institution to provide me with hardbacks and paperbacks. But needs must, as they say. So I’ve been downloading books like crazy.

Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson novels are keeping me sane. With their exotic setting – one that is sometimes cruel rather than exotic – they’re providing a great escape. And Darko himself is a wonderful character, quick to anger yet always compassionate, and with a very engaging family life to boot. I’m currently reading the third title in the series, Murder at Cape Three Points. There are two more in the series.

Kwei Quartey has already begun a new series with The Missing American. I really enjoyed  that book but please, Mr. Quartey, do not abandon Darko!

NPR had an interesting feature on Kwei Quartey several years ago.

I’m almost half way  through The Mirror & the Light. It’s very good, Possibly I’m not quite as  entranced with it as I was with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but  it’s the fault of the current health crisis, I think. Certainly Hilary Mantel is a wonderful writer with an uncanny ability to bring the past to life.

These Fevered Days, on the other hand, was the perfect for this troubles time. It is subtitled, Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, and brings the poet near to the reader in a way that is almost uncanny. For the first time, I feel as though I really know Emily Dickinson – know what moved her, why she made certain decisions, why she lived her life the way she did, and finally, and most vitally, how she came to her write her brilliant verse.

Thank you, Martha Ackmann! More on this very special book at a later time.

Here are two poems by Dickinson that have long haunted me:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.

After great pain a formal feeling comes–
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions–was it He that bore?
And yesterday–or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

(Emily Dickinson did not give her poems titles. They are usually referred to by their first lines.)


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Italy, mourning but resolute

April 7, 2020 at 2:44 pm (Italy)

On March 31, at noon, Mayor of Florence, Dario Nardella, lowered the flags at the Palazzo Vecchio to half mast. The mayor stood alone in piazza della Signoria as the whole of Italy observes a minute’s silence to remember those who have lost their lives to Covid-19, to pay tribute to the country’s medics and to look together to the future.

From  The Florentine

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In the spirit of Passover (and for all those for whom Seder has been cancelled)

April 4, 2020 at 4:10 pm (Judaism)

First, here is a D’var Torah (an explication of a portion of the Torah) presented by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The video is prefaced by this message  from the Rabbi:

Here is a short D’var Torah from Rabbi Sacks on what we can learn about the Coronavirus pandemic from this week’s parsha of Vayikra. (As an explanation for the opening: we had a few technical issues to begin with, but we got there in the end!)

I thought at first this might be too esoteric and exclusive for most non Hebrew speaking viewers (of which I am one), but the comment section on YouTube contained several expressions of warmth and gratitude from individuals of various faiths, so I thought, well okay, I’ll place it here:

Next, this wonderful performance of Bela Bartok’s Romanian Dances seems to fit perfectly here:

You’ll note that Rabbi Sacks emphasizes the importance of  humor in a crisis period like the one we’re currently in. I’d like to offer what I think is a truly creative music video as an example.

(Note: You’ll appreciate the video below more if you’re familiar with “Uptown Funk,” the original by Bruno Mars  and Mark Ronson.)

Without further ado: Here is Uptown Passover:




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