Our Surprising Brain


Eric Kandel is a dapper, bow-tied, Austrian-American neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize winner. He specializes in the physiological basis of memory. In his book “The Age of Insight,” he reminds us of the creative atmosphere of Vienna where he was born. He writes, “I see psychoanalysis, art and biology coming together”

I first learned about Kandel on the Charlie Rose “Brain Series” where a panel of scientists described their research on the human brain. Each episode discusses a different aspect of the brain: perception, creativity, aging, depression, addiction and so on.

The latest episode was devoted to childhood environmental deprivation. Deprivation affects specific areas of the brain and stunts normal development in such areas as behavior and language acquisition. Mental disorders are rooted in biology and we have evolved technologies such as brain imaging and mapping that can trace and record mental impulses and clearly show the affected brain areas.

I learned a new word: “epigenetics.” This is the study of biological mechanisms that switch certain of our genes on and off. Some circumstances in life can cause genes to be expressed or silenced, and that is how environment affects genetics.

Some of the causes of abnormal development seem self- evident. Poverty is an important factor and often results in parental neglect and abuse as well as lack of intellectual stimulation. Institutions like orphanages are particularly responsible for an impoverished childhood environment. This is expressed when children have problems in controlling their behavior. Some of the symptoms are: aggression, tantrums, difficulty in relating to other people, and cruelty to animals. Intervention is possible, especially if started early. At age 2 it can be very successful. Although the scientists seemed very reluctant to say so, the window of opportunity seems to close by age 12.

School bullying was discussed since it also affects normal childhood development. It is possible to teach a child some defense mechanisms, but there is a need for more awareness on the part of teachers and school administrations to intervene to try to change the culture in which bullying arises. More studies are also needed to understand how and why some children are more resilient to adversity and the ways to promote such resilience.

It is always fascinating to learn and understand more about the constant interaction of our genetic makeup and our environment.

Here is a link to the shows in the Brain Series.

Charlie Rose Brain Series

Obama for President?


The French Presidential elections are to be held in April and May of this year. So far three candidates have emerged, and what a sorry lot they are, swimming in a sea of scandals, petty squabbles and flat rhetoric.

Francois Fillon (the candidate from the center-right) has secured jobs for his wife and relatives at tax payer’s expense, but he then went one step further. The jobs were fictitious and not one of his favored family ever did any work. All were paid by the State for doing nothing. Now did Fillon seem contrite? Did he admit that he used poor judgement? Did he apologize? Not at all! He shrugged it all off as if to say…So what? Doesn’t everybody?

Marine LePen, on the extreme right, has been a French Trump for more than twenty years. She wants to “make France great again” by getting rid of all foreigners. And now she is also involved in fraudulent party financing.

Emmanuel Macron is perhaps the least objectionable candidate. He is an independent and a centrist, with little experience in government beyond having been at one time an economics minister. He does not seem to have a program or an agenda.

Young voters are disgusted with all three of these candidates. In this lamentable climate, a radically new idea has emerged. Why not draft Barrack Obama for the French presidency? A website and a poster campaign
have been formed called:”Oui On Peut”! (Yes We Can).
But Obama is not French? No matter, they will naturalize him. How is that for a lovely dream? (and such an uplifting one). While the Americans just voted for the anti-Obama, the French are yearning for him to be President. He is a charismatic and eloquent speaker and young people love him.

In France presidents are elected directly by the people for a maximum of two terms of five years each. They have substantial power and a Parliament that is much more obedient than in the United States. Wouldn’t Obama thrive in such an environment?

We too miss Obama, his sense of humor, and his self- deprecating attitude. He is fit and dresses well. In his eight years in office, not the slightest hint of scandal has ever been attached to him personally or to his administration. We sometimes wish he had shown a little more decisiveness and had been more actively engaged in the Middle East. But we will always admire him because
he possesses that elusive old fashioned quality: He is an honorable man.

Knock Knock


There is a new tenant in the White House. Colleagues, friends and neighbors are rushing to pay their respects and see him for themselves.

Theresa May is the first, happy to converse with her new friend. He speaks her own language fluently. No need for interpreters. They get along like a house afire.

Shinzo Abe of Japan is next. He too is happy after he recovers from a lengthy and too-energetic handshake.
(How was his host to know that handshakes are not the way Japanese people greet each other?) Still, what is a little discomfort when you can assure your people that the President is a splendid fellow? Abe is not so ill-bred as to bring up trifles like Muslim bashing and border closures. Much safer to stick to the usual clichés and stock phrases of diplomacy.

Earlier our new leader had taken a phone call from the President of Taiwan, Tsa Ing Wei. This created a bit of brouhaha since he had now stepped with both feet
directly into the One China Policy which does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign state. No matter. He quickly withdrew one foot (leaving him standing awkwardly on one leg) and muttered: One China, Two Chinas, whatever…

It is now Benjamin Netanyahu‘s turn. A hardly recognizable Netanyahu. Who knew that he possessed such a happy smile? He is so delighted not to have to deal with that grumpy Obama. Accompanied by an equally happy wife, he basks in the friendship of their host. For this occasion the leader’s wife is also on show. Both ladies wear their finery. The new master of the White House is indeed very agreeable…Two nations for two people, One Nation for two people, Two people for one Nation, it is all the same to him. Oh and Bibi try not to slow down the settlement building for a little while?

A little bemused, Justin Trudeau is next. This is after all his next door neighbor. He may not have much in common with T. In fact he could easily be his son’s age but it will never do to show the least discomfort. He is the very model of a modern gentleman. Looks very elegant too next to our disheveled leader with his too long red tie.

Vladimir Putin does not venture forth. Much better to watch from afar with his usual smirk. He will work his usual mischief around the word while he watches our leader flounder.

Up On the Roofs


I was married in 1943, during World War II. The ceremony was held on the roof of the Chief Rabbinate of Jerusalem. We were secular Jews but a religious marriage was the only option since Israel did not (and still does not) perform civil marriages.

In Jewish tradition, a wedding takes place under a chuppah (canopy). Chuppah means covering or protection and is intended as a roof under which the new couple will live in their newly established home.

Another roof experience was during a stay in Baghdad during a very hot month of August. At another time, I’ll explain how we came to be in Baghdad at such a miserable time of year. Sleeping indoors was out of the question and all the hotel guests spent the night on the roof under mosquito nets.

The roofs in the Middle East are flat since it seldom snows there and rooftops are multi-purpose areas serving as verandas, meeting venues, picnic places and lookouts. I remember a film with Marcello Mastroianni and Sofia Loren where they used the roof as a rendezvous.

Rooftop Image From Marriage Italian Style

From Marriage Italian Style

Besides their utilitarian function, roofs are a form of architectural art. The roofs in the Forbidden City in Beijing have graceful overhangs, often in several tiers with upturned eaves. They are also ornamented with figurines just as decorative as the statues in Gothic cathedrals.


Roofs in Forbidden City

More examples of roofs as artistic expression are domes like St.Peter’s in Rome, Hajia Sophia in Istanbul and of course the Taj Mahal.

Let me also mention the bright orange tiled roofs of Dubrovnik in Croatia, destroyed in the 1990s and later rebuilt in all their glory. You can get a magnificent view
of this roof ensemble by walking on the ramparts, absorbing the contrast between the golden tiles and
the vivid green of the Adriatic Sea shimmering below. It is a sight I will remember for a long time.

Recently we have witnessed the spread of green roofs. Rooftop gardens, though by no means a modern invention, have become very popular. Besides the ecological benefits they provide, green roofs also have decorative and recreational functions. I remember a BBC television series in which a crime is committed by an MP who murders a journalist by throwing her off a rooftop garden.

And while we are on ecological grounds (or rather roofs) we must not forget the new solar heating panels which now decorate many roofs.

Have you wondered about the symbolism of “The Fiddler on the Roof” in Sholem Aleichem’s story and the Broadway show adaptation? It captures the precarious existence of the Jew in a hostile world.
Tevye says: “Every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck.” The imagery is also present in two Chagall paintings: one in 1912 called The Fiddler, the other in 1920 called The Green Violinist.



Trinidad, Cuba

I know there are many more roof stories, I hope you have one too. For now I will leave you with this question: Why is the plural of roof not rooves? We have hoof/hooves, loaf/loaves, elf/ elves , calf/calves etc etc.

Editor’s note: Color photos by Simone’s daughter, Dina Cramer


A Classic Rendition by the Drifters of The Carole King/Jerry Coffin song…Up on the Roof

A Few Thoughts About Hands

Let me start this meander with something current and political.

All of my life, I have been very interested in people’s handwriting. Our writing is very revealing of who we are. In Israel, for many jobs, a sample of handwriting is a requirement. So here is what I notice about these two very different “hands.”

A graphologist recently exhibited samples of two signatures.

Donald Trump’s signature is sharply vertical. It is angular, spiky and looks like an EKG or an earthquake graph. To me, it suggests constricted meanness.


Trump Signature

Trump Signature



Obama Signature

Obama Signature




Barack Obama’s signature, by contrast, spreads horizontally, has a big round outsize B and another large O and, to my eye, represents openness and generosity.

So I will go on about hands but now reaching back in human history….

We write with our hands and although chimps and gorillas have hands similar to ours, with prehensile thumbs, they are not able to write. There have been experiments in which researchers have managed to teach chimps a rudimentary form of calligraphy, but they do not naturally express themselves in writing. It probably has something to do with the size and development of their brains. Animals use their hands or limbs to grasp, grip, build, climb, scratch, feed and groom themselves and create their habitats. Human hands “on the other hand” can build artifacts, repair clocks, crochet , play an instrument, shape pottery, perform magic tricks (sleight of hand) do complicated surgery and much more. Hands are used to point, show, drive a car and in handshaking. One area of communication in which hands play a major role is sign language.

Hands have played a huge role in art. In Dutch portrait paintings, the hands have as prominent a role as the face. There are hands that hold books, turn pages, handle coins, and pour milk from a jug. Other hands pray, curse or supplicate. Lovers hold hands. Leonardo da Vinci made numerous studies of hands, and the hand plays a major role in the Sistine Chapel painting :”The Creation of Adam.” Here it is…

Hands of God and Adam

Hands of God and Adam


I am also thinking of the “Hamsa” (also known as the hand of Fatima) symbol of a hand which wards off evil and is a symbol of good luck in many Middle Eastern cultures.


Fatma Hand

Fatma Hand


Hands have also invaded our language with expressions such as: hands off, lend a hand, hand over, hand-me-down, handyman, the handwriting on the wall, washing one’s hands of something and much more.

Writing something by hand (the way my blogs usually begin) helps one’s thinking. Taking manual notes helps in remembering since body and brain work together. (hand in hand?).

But for now, to hands, we wave goodbye.