Mordechai Frizis, the “Greek Lion of Judah”

Today is Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) in Israel, which we mark the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day). Somebody with a better way with words than me quipped that there is a reason Israel has two memorial days: one to remind us of the cost of having a state, the other to remind us of the truly terrible price of not having one.

Yet there are also the Jewish military heroes in uniforms other than our own. One amazing story I learned during a recent visit to Greece is that of colonel Mordechai Frizis (Greek: Μαρδοχαίος Φριζής).

Frizis was born in 1893 to a large Jewish family in the Greek city of Chalkis (a.k.a. Negroponte), which sits at the bridge between the large island of Euboea and the Boeotia region of the Greek mainland. The town’s Jewish community were Romaniotes,[*]  Greek-speaking Jews whose ancestors had come to Greece in pre-Christian days.

From childhood, his dream was to become an army officer. He applied to the military academy  but did not pass the entrance exam — some sources claim his Jewishness was a factor in that. At any rate, he started studying law school as Plan B. When the Balkan Wars broke out, he was drafted and admitted to NCO training. There, because he also had gone to college, he was made a 2nd Lt. in the reserves.

During the Russian Civil War (where he was part of the Allied troops fighting on the side of the Whites) and the Greek-Turkish War, he distinguished himself on the battlefield through bravery as well as ingenuity.[**] When taken prisoner by the Turks in 1922, he was offered his freedom as the only non-Christian among the captive Greeks, but refused, saying his place was with his men. He shared their privations for 11 months until they were released and repatriated when the Lausanne Treaty ended the Greek-Turkish War.

Upon his return, his reserve commission was ‘regularized’ and he himself was sent to France to go study at the Ecole Militaire in St.Cyr (the West Point of France). After graduating with high honors, he was posted to Thessaloniki. He rose gradually through the ranks: the outbreak of WW II found him a Lt. Col. with the 8th Division in Ioannina, the largest town in the northwestern region of Epirus.

At this point Mussolini, displaying his typical level of contact with reality, issued a 3-hour ultimatum to the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas.[***] According to Greek popular legend, Metaxas just answered “Ochi!” (“No!”), but his actual words, the French “alors, c’est la guerre!” (“well, that means war!”) boil down to the same thing.

The Italian army had bitten off more than it could chew, and got its nose bloodied severely by the Greeks. At one particular battle, Lt. Col. Frizis and his battlegroup of two battalions and an artillery company blocked the Italian advance by denying them the bridge across the Kalama.

The Greeks not only threw the Italians out but counterattacked into Italian-held Albania. It was then that an aerial strafing attack took place on Frizis’s regiment. Seated on horseback, he kept on pressing his men to seek cover, while galloping all over to make sure they did. The planes’ machine guns hit home, and Frizis was mortally wounded. Legend has it that the Greek Orthodox army chaplain said the Shema Yisrael over his dead body.

Both the Greek king and dictator Metaxas eulogized Frizis (posthumously promoted to full colonel) and personally condoled his widow.

Sadly, Mussolini’s senior ally decided he needed to pull his chestnuts out of the fire, and while most of the Greek army was tied up in Epirus, the Wehrmacht invaded from Bulgaria, with tragic consequences for Greek Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Swedish power metal band Sabaton writes most of its songs about war heroes of renown. They never wrote one about Frizis, but they do have one about the Greek resistance to the Italians.

[*] The name comes from their association with the [East]-Roman Empire. They are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, as the community predates that split. The oldest verifiable sign of their presence is a gravestone from 300-250 BCE to a “son of Moschion the Jew”. The community in Chalcis had a tradition of having arrived even earlier: in the 6th Century BCE, after the victory of the Persians over the Babylonians put an end to the Babylonian Exile.

[**] One anecdote has is that, while fighting with the Whites near Kishinev/Chisinau, the Greek troops were in need of supplies. Frizis sought out his coreligionists in their stores and addressed them in Hebrew (being Romaniote, he did not speak Yiddish nor Russian): reportedly they were so amazed to see a fellow Jew as a Greek officer that they gave him everything he asked for and refused payment.

[***] Metaxas was a royalist, monarchist, and antiparliamentarian Greek nationalist, but (like most Greeks) saw Greekness in cultural rather than genetic terms. He saw the Greek Jews, particularly the Romaniotes, as partners in the “Third Greek Civilization” he sought to foster, and had a close personal relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Thessaloniki.


“Wait for me, Saloniki”

Yacov “Jako” Philo was born in Thessaloniki — Greece’s fascinating symprotevousa (“co-capital”), onetime secondary capital of the Byzantine Empire, and for 450 years home to the world’s largest Sephardic Jewish community.

In 1943, Eichmann’s henchmen deported nearly the entire community to Auschwitz. Less than 4% survived. One of them was Jako — who immigrated to Israel, where his grandson, Kobi “Jacko” Paz, is now a musician.[*]

Another, more famous, Israeli musician born to Greek Holocaust survivors is Yehuda Poliker. Many years ago, he released a Hebrew version of a Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) song his father and fellow survivors would sing to each other.

Below is Kobi Paz’s recent re-recording, together with the Hebrew lyrics and my English translation. The city is referred to by its Ladino name, Saloniki

Soon this year, Israel will celebrate its 70th birthday. The Jews of Thessaloniki had, prior to the Shoah, only very limited encounters with hardcore judeophobia, and had indeed been a majority or plurality in the “Jerusalem of the Balkan” for over 400 years. Their fate is a reminder why, no matter how safe Jews feel elsewhere, we needed and need a country of our own.


עוד גבול אחד, עוד נצח זמן
חכי לי, סלוני

רבה הדרך ליוון
חכי לי, סלוניקי

שוטט הלב, קפוא הדם
בשלג של גרמניה
כולם כולם אבדו לי שם
בלאגר בפולניה

חיוורי פנים, שרידי חיים
פליטי מסע המוות
בלויי טלאים הנה באים
לבכות ברחובותייך

החופש בא, אביב חדש
קרוב אני אלייך
כצל דהוי בגוף חלש
אבוא בשערייך

One more border, one more eternity
Wait for me, Thessaloniki
Long is the way to Greece
Wait for me, Thessaloniki

The heart roams, frozen in blood
In the snow of Germany
Everyone was lost to me there
In the “Lager” in Poland

Pale faces, remnants of life
Refugees of the Death March
Wearing patches, here they come
To cry in your streets

Freedom comes, a new spring
I’m close to you
Like a faded shadow in a weak body
I’ll come to your gates

[*] “Kobi” and “Jacko” are both nicknames for Ya`aqov/Jacob. Unlike the Ashkenazi tradition where children are named to honor deceased relatives, Sephardic tradition is to honor living grandparents in this manner.

Karl Richter (1971) conduct Bach’s Matthäuspassion BWV 244


It is Passover for us Jews and the Easter holiday weekend for Christians of the Western Communion. (Orthodox Christian Easter is in another week this year.)

The way in which Karl Richter conducted Bach’s immortal Matthew Passion, BWV 244, would nowadays be considered “Romantic”, and “not historically authentic”. Yet for sheer musical and expressive power, it has rarely been equaled.

Here is the full movie of the 1971 performance on YouTube (featuring tenor Peter Schreier as the evangelist):

A short biography of this amazing Bach performer can be read here. I had no idea that he was offered the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig — musical director of the St. Thomas Church, the selfsame position Bach held! — at the age of only 30, but that he declined it on the grounds that (a) he felt 30 years too young to bear the weight of such a position; (b) he had built up an excellent ensemble in Munich and did not want to abandon it. Unspoken was probably (c) having fled the East German dictatorship with a single attaché case and the clothes on his back, he surely had no desire to move back there, even in a privileged position.

People would wonder about the punishing workload Richter subjected himself to. His parents both having died young, he apparently suspected the same would be his own fate and said “my time is now — we Richters don’t live long”. Indeed, he died in his mid-fifties of a heart attack while preparing for an upcoming concert tour.

Let Bach and Richter’s music speak for itself. Enjoy and happy Passover or Easter, as applicable!

Yes Kira, introverts exist

A RedState writer named Kira Ayn Davis (KAD) published a screed about introversion. While she makes some valid points about the pervasive victimhood culture and about people wanting to wrap themselves in the mantle of yet another victim group, she grossly overplays her hand when she argues that introversion doesn’t even exist. The title of her essay even suggests that introverts are really narcissists. Oh, for the love of dog…

I was told forty (40) years ago by a psychologist that I was an introvert. He did not in any way suggest there was any victimhood involved — that wasn’t a thing in the Europe of my youth — just that there is a temperament axis (one of the four Myers-Briggs axes, in his case) that spans all the way from complete extrovert to complete introvert with all shades in between. Also, that I was pretty far toward the introvert end of the scale. I have never seen myself as a victim for this—no more than I would for having blue eyes (somewhat rare in my ethnic group).

KAD argues that ‘normal’ (by which she means ‘extrovert’) people are also exhausted after being on their best behavior with company for two days. A number of FB friends sarcastically remarked they need a shot of alone time after two hours—as do I. (Just ten minutes of ‘processing time’ may do the trick.) My daughter — a textbook ‘socially outgoing introvert’ unlike her scholarly, curmudgeonly father — loves being in company and interacting with people, as long as she can ‘recharge’ periodically in a quiet room and process everything she just heard.  (This temperamental trait confuses the heck out of some people, unlike the more classic introverts.) Still, many people mistake introversion for shyness or anxiety — I can assure you many classic introverts have no trouble raising their voices during a board meeting (and have less restraint about voicing unpopular opinions than classic extroverts) or lecturing to a large audience about a subject they are experts on.

The terms ‘extrovert’ and ‘introvert’ were originally introduced almost a century ago (in 1921) by C. G. Jung, although he meant them quite differently from their current popular usage. Basically, a Jungian extrovert seeks energy and validation from others (the more the better) and thrives on group pursuits, while a Jungian introvert finds them in the inner self — in being true to one’s moral and intellectual convictions — and thrives on solitary pursuits. Needless to say, certain fields of human endeavor are more congenial to the extrovert (or outgoing introvert) than to the introvert — and conversely. Some extroverts have told me they would go insane doing the work I do or practicing my principal hobby (fiction writing) — and I would probably absolutely ‘aspirate’ at most sales and marketing jobs and loathe having to do them. (On the other hand, an introvert FB friend of mine briefly worked in car sales when he was between adjunct lecturing jobs — and his boss was told by some of the clientele that they felt good dealing with an honest, direct car salesman for a change ;))

My friend “W.”,  a polyglot like myself, is a classic extrovert. She loves working as an interpreter (since she gets to deal with people in real time) but when she was between jobs, the idea of doing long-form translation work was almost painful to her because of its solitary nature. I can interpret okay between certain language pairs, but definitely would prefer written translation work—long form and/or precise would be a plus, not a downside. Not because I don’t like interacting with people, but because like most introverts, I get joy not so much from pats on the back than from knowing I did the best job I could.

KAD has a point in that there is nothing unusual about introversion — but in making the point overzealously, she overreached and appeared to deny the concept itself. As H. L. Mencken famously quipped, all human problems have a solution that is neat, plausible, and wrong (often paraphrased as ‘simple, elegant, and wrong’). This applies both to those who are miscalling a completely normal temperament variation an affliction, and to those who seek to negate the very concept of introversion.

Bach Day post

Today, J. S. Bach would have been 333 years old. In honor of the day, this organ piece.

A “Toccata” in Bach’s day was a virtuosic type of prelude with somewhat improvisational character—the word comes from the Italian verb ‘toccare’, which means both ‘to touch’ and ‘to play [a musical instrument]’. Bach actually wrote two “Toccata and Fugue” pairs in D minor: the extremely familiar BWV 565 with its stark musical contrasts, and the misnamed “Dorian Toccata and Fugue” BWV 538 with its driving perpetual motion in the toccata. It is actually in D minor rather than D dorian, but the (in the modern era) unusual notation without a key signature led to the erroneous nickname.

Below is a scrolling-score video — the audio is a performance by the great French organist Michel Chapuis, in standard pitch. Enjoy!


Roman numeral analysis, and “four chords that made a million”

[No, I’m not dead yet — just absolutely snowed under in my day job. Here is a little blog post to keep the blog alive.]

Anybody who has ever played off a jazz lead sheet or ‘fake book’ is familiar with chord symbols like G (G major triad), Cm (C minor triad), D7 (D dominant seventh), G/D (G major triad with a D in the bass), and the like.

One ‘abstraction level’ above is the so-called ‘Roman numeral analysis’ which is found in music theory texts, particularly classical ones. It considers not the absolute chords but their relative position (and diatonic function) in the scale. For example, a 12-bar major blues in G corresponds to the progression G-C-G-D-C , and in C# to C#-F#-C#-G#-F#, but in Roman numeral notation, both would be I-I-IV-I-V-IV in their respective keys. Likewise, a minor blues would be i-i-iv-i-v-iv regardless of the key it is in.[*]

The system was invented by the eccentric classicist composer and music theoretician (teacher of Carl Maria von Weber) in the late 1700s. It is not a system that comes naturally to people with absolute pitch (since the same progression in different keys really sounds different to us) but it is an excellent ‘meta’ tool for describing commonalities between what may be very different compositions. Effectively, it is a form of notation that stresses function (as in ‘functional harmony’) — tonic (I), mediant (III), subdominant (IV), dominant (V), etc.

As already seen in the blues example above, major chords are indicated by uppercase Roman numerals, and minor chords by lowercase ones. Seventh, ninth,… chords take digit qualifiers just like in conventional chord notation, e.g., i9, Vb9, etc. A ‘+’ and a ‘°’ indicate augmented and diminished chords, respectively.

Inversions are indicated by suffixes like Ib (tonic, 2nd inversion) and V7d (dominant, third inversion) although I personally find  the ‘b’ confusing due to its similarity to a ‘flat’ sign and prefer I/V and V7/IV, respectively. (In C major, these would correspond to C/G and G7/F, respectively)

Finally, out-of-scale chords are prefixed by accidentals # and ♭. For example, a Neapolitan chord in a piece otherwise in a minor scale would be written♭II

Rick Beato has a video here about ‘the four chords that killed pop music’.

What he really means is the progression I-vi-IV-V and its permutations like vi-IV-I-V, which some producers seem to think are nearly a prerequisite for hit singles. In Rick’s video, you can hear a plethora of examples in a wide variety of keys and styles (what do Taylor Swift and Iron Maiden otherwise have in common?! Or the choruses of Roxette’s ‘Listen To Your Heart’ and The Beatles’s ‘Let It Be’?). At a higher abstraction level, all of them boil down to just that pattern I-vi-IV-V, straight up or rearranged.

To be sure, if one is willing to escape the tyranny of simple triads and power chords, even I-vi-IV-V can be made interesting… And if one is not (e.g., because on a distorted guitar more complex chords quickly get muddy), then changing the scale to a more exotic one helps…

For instance, here is a video touting the Mixolydian mode as the ‘secret sauce’ of AC/DC

Leaving aside that AC/DC, while fun to play, is hardly a model of musical sophistication: What is he talking about? Let’s compare the diatonic triads on the major scale with those on the Mixolydian scale (more correctly: the Mixolydian mode[*]):

major (Ionian):   I – ii – iii – IVV – vi – vii°

Mixolydian: I – ii – iii° – IV – v – vi – VII

Yes, the major triads in the major scale are the familiar tonic, subdominant, and dominant — but the mixolydian one has them on tonic, subdominant, and leading tone! This automatically invites riffs like A-A-A….D-D-G…D-D-G-D-D-G-D-A-A (“Highway To Hell”) or E–D-A/C# (“Back In Black”), or …

They also use the Dorian mode fairly freely (“Hells’ Bells”, “Shot Down In Flames”,..)

Dorian: i – ii – ♭III – IV – v – vi° – VII

Now the Mixolydian and Dorian modes are, of course, very common in Anglo(-American) folk music — but yes, much of the character of different scales and modes derives from the chords progressions they generate. I will elaborate in this in a future post. Meanwhile, here are the biting observations of one of my musical heroes, Steven Wilson, on the music industry:

[*] The “Nashville number system” used by some country and gospel singers (including by Elvis Presley’s backup singers the Jordanaires) is a variant that uses Arabic instead of Roman numerals, with minor chords being indicated by a dash (e.g. 6- instead of vi). It was invented to facilitate transposition to fit the vocal range of the singer being accompanied.

[**] Technically, a scale is a sequence of notes/intervals covering an octave, a mode a different choice of tonal center (‘starting point’) among them. For example, the G mixolydian mode is generated from the C major scale simply by starting at G rather than C.

Saturday night music: “Prelude to a million years” by Tony Banks


Tony Banks was my first rock hero, as Genesis’s keyboardist for their entire existence as well as the writer of many of their signature songs. Quiet, shy, and introvert in person, he was the one-man orchestra that put the S in ‘symphonic rock’. He has issued a number of underrated solo albums (‘A curious feeling’ and ‘Still’ both have gems on them), but in semi-retirement he has devoted himself to writing orchestral neo-classical music. The results sound much like film music, with echoes of John Barry and Bernard Herrmann, and occasionally of Ralph Vaughan Williams and other late-Romantic English composers. Tony has released two albums of his orchestral work so far, “Seven” and “Six” (the titles refer to the number of pieces on each). This is a track from his upcoming third orchestral album, “Five”, taken from his official YouTube channel.