Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Ghosts from the Past

music notes (photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson)

Attending a concert recently in Jerusalem, I suddenly found myself surrounded by ghosts.

In the row in front of me sat an elderly woman whose face I recognized but whose name I had forgotten. When I had last seen her, about twenty years ago, she and I were both visiting an ailing friend, Miriam Ron, who subsequently died. I had met Miriam several years earlier, when we found out that as well as living near one another in the Abu Tor area of Jerusalem we both worked as translators, she from German to Hebrew and I from Hebrew to English. At the time I was involved in organizing the Israel Translators Association, and Miriam offered to help. In those ‘pre-historic’ days, before computers took over our lives and many of the tasks which had to be done by hand, Miriam and I spent many hours typing and collating stencilled pages which were sent out by snail mail to the members. In addition, all the envelopes had to be addressed by hand, and Miriam was a great help in all these tasks.

Miriam became a good friend and we came to enjoy one another’s company, often drinking coffee together and talking about the books we were translating. A quiet, self-effacing soul, she lived very modestly in a small house which had once been a gatekeeper’s cottage, surrounded by her extensive library of books about philosophy and mathematics – the subjects she had studied at university.

The elderly woman sitting in the row in front of me at the concert was in some way connected with Miriam’s sister, who had sent her to look after Miriam’s needs as she began to decline due to her illness. At the time Miriam told me that she resented her presence, feeling that she represented the desire to control her actions, although I’m sure that the intentions of all those involved were good. Be that as it may, seeing her at the concert brought back the memory of my lost friend with renewed intensity, beinging me both joy and sadness.

Sitting in another row nearby was someone who, like me, had once worked at the Bank of Israel. He had been a senior economist and in my role as translator and editor of publications we were in fairly close contact from time to time. His presence brought to mind my colleague in the Publications Unit there, Susanne Freund, the senior editor who had given me the job. Susanne was an eccentric genius, someone with firm opinions about anything and everything, and whose command of economics and mathematics was on a par with that of many of the senior staff in the Bank. She had been restricted in her career because she had not had the patience or motivation to finish her university degree. As an editor and translator she was much admired by the economists in the Bank of Israel and elsewhere, but she, too, unfortunately died after we had been working together for only two years, leaving me to take on a role for which I felt woefully unfit.

Though my degree in Sociology and Economics from the London School of Economics appeared to qualify me for the work in the Bank of Israel, I had not excelled in the economics segement of my degree, never expecting to work in that field. I remember getting very discouraged in my first few months at the Bank and after sharing my thoughts with Susanne she would sit me down and give me a ‘pep talk,’ encouraging me to persevere in grappling with the murky texts I had to translate. Together we began to compile a bilingual list of terms in economics, which we called ‘Jargon,’ and was a great help in my work.

Susanne’s death came as a terrible shock, as I had been abroad on holiday when she died, and had taken her to the doctor on my last day at work. When I returned to the Bank I had to get to grips with the work as well as trying to find someone to join me as translator and editor. After conducting a lengthy process similar to the one I had gone through, involving interviews, a translation test and personality assessment by an outside body, with the help and support of the head of the Publications Unit, the late Zvi Ron, a suitable candidate was found, and he turned out to be a great success. Fortunately, my erstwhile colleague and friend, Alan Hercberg, and my Hebrew counterpart at the Bank, Ruti Zakovitz, are both still with us, though by now, like me, retired.

And so, sitting in the concert, remembering Miriam Ron and my former colleagues in the Publications Unit, Zvi Ron, Zohar Rawe and of course Susanne Freund, I found myself surrounded by ghosts from the past and unable to ignore the ephemeral nature of life.

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.