I’ve spent much of the weekend building a kitchen cupboard out of 18 mm plywood, to be fixed to the wall above my refrigerator. Yesterday, after assembling the basic rectangular shell, about a meter and a half wide, and 40 cm high, I was annoyed to discover that I had made my measurements too carelessly, and the cupboard was a few millimeters too tall to fit in the space between the top of the refrigerator and the ceiling. So, I had to saw off the top side of the shell, drag out the screws, tear away the glued plywood and clean it all up in such a way that I could assemble a slightly smaller shell. That’s what I like about woodwork. If the structure you’re building is not coming along OK, you can usually break it apart and start again. For me, woodwork allows the same empirical approach that I use in computer programming.
Long ago, back in Paris, I used to know a remarkable fellow named Jean Sendy, who wrote books on scientific themes that might be described as esoteric. For example, Jean was convinced that extraterrestrial visitors had set up a base on the far side of the Moon, which had enabled them to alight on Earth and initiate a gigantic anthropological experiment, using a selected group of human guinea pigs: the Hebrews. When he was not writing on topics such as this, Jean used to earn his living translating English -language films into French, for directors such as Polanski. Well, one of Jean Sendy’s books won a literary prize, earning him a good sum of money, which he immediately invested in a rather unexpected acquisition for a Parisian intellectual. He purchased a huge professional wordwork machine, which he installed in the middle of the empty living room in his big flat on the upper floor of an old building in Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau, near the St Eustache church. Using the machine, Jean set to work building the tables and chairs that would furnish his flat. When I met up with Jean (after hearing him talking on the radio about the origins of life), he had just finished building the dining room table, which was a masterpiece in joinery, incorporating several different species and hues of wood.
At that time, I had a young Jewish girlfriend named Nadine Blum, and Jean (whose ancestral origins were Russian and Christian) once spent an entire evening telling us how he had decided to study Hebrew in order to pursue his research into the alleged extraterrestrial background of Judaism. In fact, he was advising Nadine and me to do the same thing. That was around 1974. A few years later, in 1978, I heard (again on the radio) that Jean Sendy had died of cancer. And it wasn’t until a decade later, in December 1988, that I finally discovered the Holy Land and concretized Jean Sendy’s advice about the merits of studying Hebrew.
Since then, whenever I find myself working with wood (which is surely one of my favorite activities), I soon get around to thinking about Jean Sendy, lovely Nadine, the splendid woodwork machine in the middle of a Parisian living room, extraterrestrial Jewish missionaries approaching the Moon in spacecraft like Ezekiel’s celestial chariot, the Hebrew language...