Monday, March 29, 2010

Pesach over the years

As tonight is the first night of the Pesach (passover) holiday, I thought that I would try and recall some memories of the festival over the years.
 Don't remember much about my baby days
But I've been told
We used to live on Willow in the Garden district,
down by the Sugar Bowl
(Randy Newman, "New Orleans wins the war". As Newman points out, Willow is not in the Garden district; this was a family joke).
I don't remember much about the Pesach service ("Seder") and the following week in the years when I was a child, except for the fact that I loved the special biscuits that my mother would make. I suppose that for me as a child, Pesach was the taste of matza along with coconut and chocolate cakes.

The first distinctive Pesach that I can remember was when I was nearly 13, in 1969. That year in school, we had been given French penfriends (those were the days when people wrote letters) which greatly improved our fumbling French. The letters were half in French and half in English, for of course, our correspondents weren't interested in learning their mother tongue but instead wanted to improve their English. My school was an all boys school, as most of the direct grant schools were at the time, so we were all mildly excited to learn that our penfriends were from a normal, mixed school. I was one of the lucky ones who received a girl penfriend. Not only that: she was also Jewish, which was a remarkable coincidence. Of course, I don't remember now, but I'm fairly sure that there were more Jewish pupils at her school than there were at mine (myself and one other boy with whom I didn't get along with much, despite his being my age).

That same year, along with some of my schoolmates, I took part in an exchange scheme with French schoolchildren; we went to France for three weeks during the Easter holidays and they came to stay with us for three weeks in the summer. As usual, Pesach fell during the holidays, meaning that I would be in France for the Seder. As a good Jewish boy there was no way that I was going to stay with this French family, who went snail hunting every Saturday and church praying every Sunday. So it was arranged that I would stay with my French penfriend for the first few days of Pesach, and of course celebrate the Seder with them.

I am ashamed to say that I remember nothing of the Seder itself, although this is not too surprising, as basically it's the same every year, all over the world. We are commanded to tell our children the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and how every Jew should see himself as one of those who left Egypt. The liturgy is almost part of our DNA and most of us know significant portions by heart, having heard it so often. What I do remember is that I found this family much more congenial than the family of my exchange scheme, and was very unhappy to leave. I have a memory of hiding from everyone, trying to delay the inevitable and so disappointed at having to return. This incident coloured the rest of my stay in France and inevitably cast its shadow when the exchangee came to stay in the summer. I also lost contact with that nice Jewish girl Natalie (see: after over 40 years, I still remember her name, whereas I can't remember his).

Outside of Israel, the Seder is celebrated on two consecutive nights whereas in Israel it is celebrated only once. In my youth, we had the first seder at home and celebrated the second as a communal seder with most of the Jewish community in Cardiff or Bristol. Fast forward a few years, and I receive an invitation from the Habonim group in Birmingham to celebrate a seder with them. Our youth movement had a tradition (of which I was unaware at the time) of holding a third seder, in which they would read from a haggada (the Pesah liturgy) which they had compiled themselves. Like the official haggada, the first part occupied itself with the struggle of Jews: against Pharoah or against Hitler or Stalin, whereas the second part was more fun and contained songs and jokes. I must have travelled on the train from Bristol to Birmingham to get there and returned the same evening. I enjoyed myself very much and repeated the experience the following year (this must have been 1972/3).

Again I don't remember the Seder of 1974, when I was in Israel for a year, but it must have been very significant for me because the Seder became very important; as far as I was concerned, it was the most important of all the festivals.

In 1975, I was in London, and celebrated the first seder with relatives. Presumably some family invited me to their second seder, and we, as Habonim, celebrated the third seder together. That was the year that British Habonim hosted a European Seminar, in which youth from all over Europe (I remember French and Dutch groups, there may have been more) came together for a week. The first few days of the Seminar coincided with the last few days of Pesach, so we had to order kosher food and make sure that all the cooking utensils where "kosher for Pesach". I remember washing most of those cooking utensils.... The food was ordered from an Israeli supplier, but they gave us containers of food along with stickers saying "kosher for Pesach" - after the seminar, we stuck leftover labels on anything we could find, such as the bread basket.

That seminar was held in a college situated in Hatfield; as I had become enamoured of the music of Hatfield and the North a few months earlier, this location was quite special for me. It should be noted that the group actually had nothing to do with Hatfield itself; the joke was that as so many roadsigns from London were labelled "Hatfield and the North", they were getting free publicity. As I say, a joke.

Normally, Pesach coincided with the Easter holidays [this is because the Last Supper was actually the Seder night], so I was normally at home during the festival, and my eating habits were not subject to public scrutiny. This didn't happen in 1976, and I remember eating my matza sandwiches under the questioning eyes of my fellow students. 1976 was also the year when I managed to go to five different Seders: the first two were traditional, and the other three were third sedarim organised by different Habonim groups in London.

During the years 1978-1989, I lived on Kibbutz Mishmar David, and almost every year celebrated the Seder there. Most years I would be one of the musicians (and some years, the only musician) who would accompany the songs throughout the service, so my memories tend to revolve around the music and not the atmosphere. In 1989, we had decided to leave Mishmar David, and the final six months there were very sad. We (my wife and baby daughter) spent the Seder night with my parents who were then living in Rehovot. It was a very quiet and sad Seder, with my wife and I sharing reading the Haggada and singing the songs.

In 1990, we celebrated Pesach for the first time in our new kibbutz, Tzora. The kibbutz held the seder (with maybe 1000 participants) in a huge tent, and I was one of the few musicians who played. Everything about Pesach is tradition, and Tzora had its own traditions about Pesach, mainly regarding the songs, some of which were sung to different tunes than to those that I knew. Each song is sung every year by the same person, which is ok if you're one of those people, and not so ok if you're not. There have been years when I have accompanied all the songs (sometimes the sole musician), but in the past few years I have been relegated to playing only one song, a lovely little number with very strong harmonies and chord changes on almost every beat (most of the other songs are harmonically simple, although some are a bit weird).

I wrote earlier that Pesach had become for me the most important festival of the Jewish calendar. That changed in 2002. My mother had been taken into hospital a few days before Pesach that year; the doctors seemed optimistic about her prognosis, but I wasn't. I visited her on the day before Pesach (the equivalent to today) and spent several hours with her. She was unable to speak (for reasons which were never established), and we communicated by me talking and she writing notes. I still have those notes though have only rarely looked at them since. My father and I came home at about three or four in the afternoon, and I remember sitting down at the computer in order to write a eulogy. I wanted to do it while I was in a balanced mental state and not when I was grieving. We went to the Seder in the evening; I played the one song which I play every year, and tried to keep a happy face even though I was churning inside. When we came home at night, I phoned the hospital to check on my mother's progress. They said that she was sleeping peacefully.

The next morning, my father and I went again to the hospital; there wasn't much traffic on the roads and we probably arrived at around 9 am. We went to my mother's room; she was sleeping and we could hear her breathe. We sat, waiting for her to wake up (I was reading David Lodge's "Paradise News"). Her breathing got slower and slower until there was no breathing. My father looked at me, and I went to summon a doctor who ushered us out of the room while she examined my mother. After a few minutes she called us back in and said that she was sorry, but that my mother was dead.

[two paragraphs excised, not because I wrote about this before but because it's too painful]
Anyway, since then, Pesach has been happiness mingled with sadness. In a few hours, we will go to my mother's grave and say kaddish (the mourning prayer). Then we will change our clothes and go to the tent in order to remember how our ancestors left Egypt. I will play my song. We will come home and eat matza for a week.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Last night there was an item on the news about Toyota. The item was about two seemingly opposite subjects: on the one hand, the state prosecutor for California was issuing a class action against the Japanese car manufacturer because of the gas pedal problems, whereas on the other hand, the company's profits are soaring.

My first reaction was: we have a Toyota car, but my wife took it to the dealer to be checked a few weeks ago, so we should be all right. My second reaction was: Toyota recently closed down their joint venture with General Motors in America; the name of the factory was NUMMI which stands for something that I can't remember. My third thought was that oh my God, we were told time and time again in Organisational Behaviour that NUMMI was thought to be the standard bearer for self directed teams … and there was a question in the exam about SDTs. I should have mentioned NUMMI! How forgetful of me!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

An end to OB?

A huge sigh of relief came from about 100 throats today in Tel Aviv (and probably hundreds more around the world) when the March 2010 Organisational Behaviour exam came to an end.

I have written this before, but I'll write it again: this course required its students to remember a prodigious amount of material. Almost everyone in the class was complaining about the amount and most people were almost frantic in their revision. 

For the past few days, I have been alternately reading the course book and practicing multiple choice questions. When walking the dog, I would recite all the material that I had learnt, checking to see that I could remember it and noting where there were areas which I wasn't too clear about. Of course, I could only recite what I knew, not what I did not know, and of course what I didn't know is what I needed to learn.

Our practice sessions indicated that modules 4, 8 and 9 in the course book were the most likely to appear in the exam, so of course I devoted extra effort to these - while trying not to neglect the other modules.

The exam was held in the Tel Aviv exhibition grounds, although in a different building to the one where the previous exam was held. The hall was poorly lit and the toilets were in a separate building, maybe 50 yards away. The rules said that only one person could go to the toilet at a time, and then that person was accompanied by one of the supervising staff in order to ensure that no cheating occurred. As I have started taking medicine for my high blood pressure which is also a diuretic, I was concerned in advance that I would need the toilet frequently, so I spoke to the supervisor and received permission to use the toilet as often as necessary. Fortunately I only needed to use them twice during the 3 hour exam.

While we were waiting for the exam to start, I was chatting with the people near me; we were joking about stress (module 2) and how it was affecting us. One of the people said that the model of stress that we were taught was proposed by Cooper, and I said that I could never remember all of the names; hopefully it's not that important.

The exam itself consisted of two parts: 30 multiple choice questions and 3 essays. All the multiple choice questions together carry the same mark as one essay (60 marks), so the total number of marks available is 240, and one needs 120 to pass. Theoretically one should devote 45 minutes to each section; as it's easier to get the first marks in a question that the last marks, good tactics dictate that one leave each question when its time is up. Our lecturer advised us to leave the multiple choice questions to the end, but I decided to start with them in order to warm up.

As I have been revising the multiple choice questions quite heavily, I was pleased to recognise many of the questions. To my surprise, I finished this section in less than 20 minutes, meaning that I had more time for the essays.

The first essay was about turning an organisation into a "responsive organisation". This is a subject which is covered in module 8 so I was prepared. I wrote a little about what differentiates the responsive organisation from a regular one (fortunately this cropped up in the class's final meeting last week), then wrote about organisational design (also module 8) and finally about planned change (module 9). I think that I answered this question well.

The second question, to my surprise, was about stress, and in fact was almost a complete copy of a question that had appeared in an exam a few years ago. So I was prepared to display Cooper's theory of stress (thank you neighbour for reminding me of his name; maybe I'll get an extra mark for this) without difficulty. I rambled on about personal characteristics, extending the material on locus of control to write about Martin Seligman and learned helplessness. I wrote about cortisol, adrenaline and the amygdalae, and basically brought in much extra curricular material which I hope will garner extra marks. I wrote about the different causes of stress and about the different outcomes, and in the end even answered the question about how I would handle the stress of one of my subordinates. I threw in loans, day care centres and counseling, and believe that I answered this question well also.

The third question, however, was about a subject in which I was not well versed: self directed teams. I know a little about this but not very much. I thought for at least five minutes what I could write as an answer and started with the definition of a self-managed team. After that, I wrote down anything that I could think of about teams (how they should be rewarded, goal setting, cost saving, profit sharing, groupthink) and even mentioned that as the managerial load is lower for those responsible for the teams, their span of control should enlarge, meaning that managerial costs will decrease. It should be obvious to the marker that I don't know very much about self managed teams, but as one is not penalised for writing irrelevant material, I hope that my "kitchen sink" approach will work and that some of what I wrote will get marks.

I am hoping that I got 40 out of 60 marks in the multiple choice questions, and similarly 40 out of 60 for the first two essays. As I need 120 marks to pass, I think that I achieved my goal and passed the exam, however few marks I get for the third essay. Unfortunately (as I have written before), I'll only get the results in two months time, in which time I will probably have forgotten most of the material (or maybe not).

The one subject which we had been advised to learn well - Management By Objective (MBO) - didn't come up at all! I mentioned it obliquely in the third question but didn't go into detail as MBO is meant for individuals and not for teams. I had also learnt assiduously Vroom's theory of expectancy, writing it out on the kitchen table at 6:30 this morning, and that too did not appear anywhere.

Monday, March 01, 2010

More MBA

I started a new course for my MBA degree a few weeks ago, economics. I took a course in micro-economics 25 years ago with the Open University, but I'm not getting any credit for it. In fact, I barely remember anything from that OU course, not that it matters. The Heriot Watt courses start from the beginning and assume no prior knowledge of the subject, which sometimes can be a bit unsettling, as they insist that their's is the only true gospel.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying the course so far, which makes me remember one of the primary reasons for spending a lot of money and giving up my free time for three years: intellectual challenge. On Friday, we had a nice exercise about a man who owns a boat designed for catching ocean salmon, how each fisherman contributes a different amount of fish (what is technically known as the marginal amount or contribution), how there is an optimal number of fisherman, how things change when the cost of the fisherman is taken into account, and finally how to calculate how many kilograms of fish should be caught (or how many fishermen to employ) when the price of selling fish is such and such. It seemed that the lecturer was going slow and not explaining things too well, so when he asked that ultimate question, I jumped in with the answer: stop when the marginal cost is equal to the selling price. The lecturer then asked for my name (we are all anonymous in the classes) and used it several more times in the ten minutes before the end of the lecture.

If I were still a schoolboy, I would be alternately pleased and annoyed at this: pleased, because the lecturer now knew who I was (although I should admit that we had a conversation during the break of the previous week's lecture) and annoyed, because the other students will see me as a teacher's pet. But we are not competing against each other, and the lecturers exist only to explain the written texts which we all receive at the beginning of the semester. Even so, I hope that he doesn't continue with this practice.

The text itself is very well written and is enjoyable to read (as opposed to the text on Organisational Behaviour, for example), although this may be my bias stepping in. I barely looked at the text for Accountancy, because the lecturer seemed intent on plowing his own path – and I knew most of the material anyway.

At the moment, I am trying to restrict myself to devoting the minimum amount of time possible to the Economics course: five hours on a Friday morning (three hours lecture and two hours travelling) along with another hour or two maximum reading the text. I have to devote my time to OB. I had more dreams about OB last night, which I take as a good sign as it means that the material is settling into my head. There are more parts of the text which are getting absorbed, which is just as well as the exam is only a week away. Tonight we have a revision meeting with the lecturer, who is also the marker. It will be interesting to hear what he has to say. I don't remember whether I wrote that the author of the OB text visited us and gave three lectures about the course and how to pass the exam; it's a shame that he came at the end of January and not at the beginning of March, as I feel that we would have appreciated his visit much more had it been now instead of then.

I am not expecting miracles in the OB exam; I will try my hardest and be pleased if I pass. Unfortunately, we won't get the results for two months after the exam, by which time I expect to have forgotten all I ever learnt and to be in the middle of revising for the Economics exam. Should I try to take the exam again in the same week as the Economics exam? It may be too late to register (one can sit the exam without having to retake the course). The most annoying aspect is that one can only sit a maximum of two exams in any core subject (of which OB is one); if one fails the exam twice, then one is out of the MBA programme.