Friday, April 20, 2018

Front Row Seats to Jewish history

Always around this time of year, Israel's Independence Day, mixed in with the articles celebrating the State of Israel I see posts bemoaning the state of Israel, how it fails to live up to expectations, how they were full of Zionism but can't stand the current government or they tried aliya and discovered that Israel is not the country they dreamed of, the people are too rude, the streets dirty, the etiquette bizarre, the organisation lacking, the salaries low, the people unsophisticated, the cost of living too high and on and on. Where is the Zion they dreamed of? Where is the gleaming perfection of their ideals beaming its light unto the nations? What happened? How can this be the Jewish state? I do not want to belittle anyone's troubles, but I do think so much depends on attitude to those troubles. I'm under no illusions that life is easy anywhere, it isn't. People are people. Of course it hurts more when people being unpleasant or dishonest are your own people, blood of your blood, your extended family, your fellow Israelis.

That's life though, the good and the bad, the bitter and the sweet, the honey and the sting. Sometimes we get more honey, sometimes more sting. Life isn't perfect wherever you live. We're on the earth to strive to make it better, do tikkun olam, be the best people we can be, but no doubt, sometimes it seems like trying to climb up a mountain barefoot and shackled while carrying an elephant.

Whether your aliya goes smoothly or you hit many many bumps on your journey, never lose sight of the fact that for centuries Jews could only dream of a situation where there would be a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael to which Jews could freely emigrate. For all that moving countries is never simple, we are still an incredibly privileged generation in comparison with what previous generations had to endure to move to the Land of Israel.

My cousin came here in 1935 and spent his first few months living in a lean to shack he shared with a donkey. After that he got to share a slightly more solid shack with 3 or 4 other guys. No plumbing, no electricity.

I remember going to see him a couple of days after I officially became an Israeli. He pointed to the view from his small Jerusalem walk-up flat, or should I say lack of view, it was mostly obscured by a newer block of flats. "You see that? When I bought this flat in the early 1970s I had an amazing view. Then ten years ago they built this new project below and blocked much of that view. Do you think I'm upset though? Do you? More flats are being built because more Jews are coming home and that means that I have a front row seat to the miracle of the Return to Zion. I am privileged to have my view blocked."

Such an important message for every oleh to keep with them. This isn't paradise, this isn't a rose garden. It is where the future of the Jewish people is being made and we are privileged to have front row seats.

Monday, April 16, 2018

תווים של תקווה

תווים של תקווה

ערב מרגש ביותר בבנייני האומה בסימן 70 למדינת ישראל ויום השואה ובו זכינו להכיר את
עבודת חייו של פרופסור יהודי איטלקי, פרנצ"סקו לוטורו, שהקדיש את חייו לחקר ושמירת יצירות מוסיקליות מתקופת השואה. היה זמן לשמוע רק חלק זעום ביותר מאלפי השירים והמנגינות שהצליח למצוא ולהציל מאבדון. פשוט מלאכת קודש.

קק"ל וJNF-UK חיברו בינו לבין תזמורת ילדים בבית המוסיקה בירוחם (פרויקט של JNF-UK) וכך נוצר הערב המיוחד הזה ששילב בין חינוך הדור הבא, עדות ניצולים וניספים בשואה, מוסיקה נפלאה וציונות.

אין מילים לתאר את המחזה של אישה בת 80 ומשהו עולה על הבמה בירושלים ושרה בקול צלול שיר שהיא למדה בטרזין, אחד מתוך אלה שכתבה והלחינה המשוררת היהודיה אילזה וובר שטיפלה בילדי טרזין. וובר ובנה טומי ורב מוחלט מהילדים בהם היא טיפלה נשרפו בכבשני אושוויץ ונותרה ניצולה אחת, אביבה בר-און, שזכרה את חלק מהיצירות בעל פה והקליטה את השירים לזכרה של וובר וילדי טרזין.

היה קטע אחד של חזנות, אך רב השירים היו בגרמנית, צ"כית וקצת יידיש וחלק ניכר היו בסגנון הקברט שהיה כה פופולרי באותה תקופה. כפי שבני בן ה8.5 העיר לי אח"כ "היהודים יצרו תרבות אירופית, אפילו יצרו חלק ניכר מהתרבות האירופית של אותם ימים ובשפה של העמים האירופים. כשהנאצים ועוזריהם רצחו את היהודים שחיו איתם הם גם רצחו לעצמם את התרבות שלהם, את היופי של התרבות שהם עצמם נהנו ממנו. הם פגעו העצמם."

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Ghosts of the Holocaust

My grandmother and her sister were both great letter writers. In a family that fate had scattered to Poland, Britain, Argentina, the United States, Australia and Palestine their love and proficiency with the written world is what kept the far flung relatives in touch with one another via the central "hub" of these London based sisters.

It's the story of so many Jewish families spread out among whichever countries would take them, whichever states would grant them visas. Nobody planned it, but in the end that's the way things went and thank God for every great-great-aunt and great-great-uncle and cousin and great-grandparent who managed to make it to England and the US and in doing so established a base for other relatives to get out of eastern Europe, even if ultimately the could not get leave to remain in the countries they first arrived in and were forced to eventually settle on the other side of the globe.

Still not everyone could leave, not everyone could find a country that would take young unmarried men or women, or families with young children or their particular skill set. Or just plain didn't want any more Jews.

In the many years since my grandmother and great-aunt passed away I have still not managed to go through most of the many boxes of personal letters from family around the world, neatly written or chicken scratched, in ink and pencil, in Yiddish, English or Hebrew, but almost all in tiny letters to conserve space on precious tissue thin airmail paper or photographic postcards.

Considering that the Polish branch of the family was entirely wiped out, but for one distant cousin and one cousin by marriage, these papers are all the more treasured, not least because many contained photos, photos which my grandmother dutifully arranged in an album of the "overseas family".

Most of the photos are from the Polish and Argentinian sisters-in-law and brothers-in-law and cousins and it is this juxtaposition that brings home more than anything the fate of our murdered relatives. The Polish photos end around 1939 with some studio family portraits of parents and young children. Those of the Argentinian family go on to weddings and babies and family celebrations, from sepia to sharp black and white and to colour, years and decades after all that was left of the Polish side were old faded pictures of a vanished world.

A reminder of all the life stolen by the Nazis and their accomplices, not only of those children who would never grow up, but the weddings they would never have, the children they would never bear, lives unlived, futures brutally cut off before they even had a chance to truly dream of what those futures might hold.

There is no one left anymore who can truly remember these people beyond the photos and the barely legible faded handwritting. My grandmother's generation is long gone and my mother's generation are younger then the children in the photos, born during the war, not before it. They never had the chance to meet their Polish first cousins.

Both unsettling and comforting though is looking at those photos and seeing the surviving family in them. The women who look like my mother. The babies and toddlers who look so very much like some of my own children and my cousin's children born so many decades after the lives of those in the old black and white photos had been stomped and burnt out of existence, murdered solely for the crime of being Jews.

Sometimes I think I see their ghosts amongst the living, a flitting memory of cousins and great-aunts whom none of us ever had the chance to meet beyond their frozen sepia images. And yet something of them lives on in this new generation of our family born in a new century under bright Israeli skies in a young and strong Jewish State. We take elements of them with us, within us, even if we never got to know them enough to realise it.

There can be no true comfort for this level of loss, for the branches of our family murdered by the Nazis, but these glimpses of genetic memory peaking out from a new generation's faces are our victory and theirs. They did not vanish in to history's oblivion as Hitler had planned, they live on with us because the Jewish people still lives.

In this 70th year of Israel's independence we take them with us as we give thanks for our nation's survival and rebirth out of the ashes.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Blue and white and red all over

I really didn't particularly want to go to the Red Army Choir concert tonight, but my daughter couldn't come and there was a ticket going, so I went and boy am I glad that I did.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't enjoy choirs or Russian music, I imbibed both with my mother's milk, I just had so much to do this evening that the thought of a late night out including schlepping in and out of the "big city" just didn't appeal, and maybe if it had just been the Red Army Choir and dance ensemble, talented as they are, it wouldn't have been worth the schlep and time right now, but tonight was so much more.

It all started out as a typical Red Army Choir performance, a military orchestra featuring a great many balalaikas and a troupe of uniformed men with deep voices singing Russian patriotic and folk songs, each baritone soloist showing off greater vocal flourishes than his predecessor while video screens showed clips of Second World War Soviet propaganda films of smiling Soviet soldiers and pilots or modern colour images of Russian landscapes and aerobatic displays. There was even a black and white sequence showing trainloads of soldiers returning from war being greeted by women bearing flowers, the front of the steam engine adorned with Lenin's stern visage.

In between songs the supremely talented dancers dressed in World War Two era uniforms or Russian folk costumes pranced and twirled and kazachkad  on stage to the strains of folk or military instrumental numbers, cheered on by the audience as the routines became more and more complex and gravity defying.

Then legendary Israeli radio announcer Dan Kaner came on stage to announce a guest artist, none other than even more legendary Israeli singer and musicals star Dudu Fisher, for a joint effort by an Israeli performer with the Red Army Choir: Adon Olam, Kol Nidrei and A Yiddishe Mameh. The crowd went wild, then hushed.

Beside me my 8 year-old son's eyes grew wide with excitement.

"Ima, it's Dudu from Hagan Shel Dudu!" (Dudu's kindergarten, a popular series of Israeli children's videos)

As the opening strains of the music were heard he couldn't contain himself, whispering in my ear "Ima, it's Uzi Hitman's "Adon Olam"!

On stage Dudu Fisher had been joined by one of the smiling rosy cheeked Red Army Choir soloists, clad in a pristine white and gold uniform and singing the well known modern arrangement of this ancient Hebrew prayer written by beloved Israeli songwriter Uzi Hitman.

A Red Army Choir soloist singing in Hebrew, and not just any old Israeli song, but a deeply cherished and ancient Hebrew prayer in a duet with Israel's most famous Orthodox Jewish singer. Who could have imagined such a thing?

Glancing to my right I saw that my uncle had tears streaming down his cheeks. All around me there were fellow Israelis watching and listening with smiles on their faces and eyes and faces glistening with tears that flowed more and more as Dudu Fisher led the Russian troupe in Kol Nidrei and A Yiddishe Mama.

You had to be there to believe it, like a taste of the coming of the Messiah.

After all the years of Soviet and Russian persecution of the Jews, all the years of oppression during which learning Hebrew and practicing Judaism were suppressed who could have conceived of an event like this, one of the most famous official Russian folklore and patriotic ensembles, an official entertainment troupe of the Russian military no less, standing on the stage of Tel Aviv's famous concert hall packed to the gills with Israelis, many of them religious, performing Hebrew language prayers alongside a religious Israeli singer?

The campaign for Soviet Jewry and non-Jewish Soviet dissidents was a fundamental part of my childhood. I was taken to my first meetings and demonstrations while still in my mother's womb. I grew up writing letters to Soviet Jewish children my age and drawing pictures to show support for imprisoned Soviet Jewish refuseniks, arrested on trumped up charges for the simple desire to make aliyah to the Jewish state or teach Hebrew to fellow Jews.

Back in the late 70s and 80s my family and family friends would have protested outside a concert by an official Soviet group like the Red Army Choir. Sitting in the audience tonight during the series of Russian folk numbers and dance routines part of me had a moment of confusion wondering if I should be jumping up in the middle of a Russian patriotic song and shouting "Let my people go!", the rallying cry of the movement campaigning for the right of Soviet Jews denied exit visas to leave the USSR and emigrate to Israel.

My uncle had travelled to the Soviet Union carrying suitcases with secret compartments stuffed with illegal items like Jewish prayer books, tefillin and teaching aids for learning Hebrew, the cassettes disguised as recordings of the classics, with music at the beginning, then a Hebrew lesson and more classical music at the end to hide the true contents of the tape. He was successful at smuggling these items to Moscow, along with vital medications for Refuseniks, evading the suspicion of the KGB with his innocent smile and copious purchases of official Soviet Communist publications at every tourist shop. 

And here he was sitting in the audience of a Tel Aviv concert hall crying as Dudu Fisher sang in Hebrew and Yiddish with the Red Army Choir like a vision of the end of days. Way to say "we won" and have the likes of Stalin and Brezhnev turning in their graves.

Looking at the weeping adults around him, many of them elderly Bubbes and Zaydes, my 8 year-old son was puzzled as to why the star of Dudu's Kindergarten had made them cry.

אני מאמין

אחרית הימים. דודו פישר עולה על הבמה בהיכל התרבות בת"א ושר את אדון עולם של עוזי חיטמן, כל נדרי ויידישע מאמע מלווה במקהלת הצבא האדום ואחד מסולניו. ששרים איתו בעברית וביידיש.

אני יושבת ליד הדוד שלי, שהיה פעיל למען יהודי ברית המועצות והיה נוסע למוסקבה כדי להבריח ספרים וקלטות לימוד בעברית, תשמישי קדושה ואף תרופות חיוניות למסורבי עליה. יש לו דמעות בעיניים וכשאני מסתכלת מסביב ברור לי שאינו היחיד, רחוק מאד מלהיות היחיד שחווה את המעמד ההזוי הזה ודומע מרב התרגשות.

והמופע הזה באמת הזוי. כל השנים האלה של דיכוי היהדות היהודים והשפה העברית והנה גולת הכותרת של הלהקות היצוגיות מרוסיה עומדת שם על במה בתל אביב לבוש מדי צבא רוסיים מפוארים מול אולם מלא עד אפס מקום בישראלים כולל לא מעט חובשי כיפות. היא פותחת את המופע כצפוי עם שירים רוסיים פטריוטים (מלווים בקטעי וידיאו עוד יותר פטריוטיים של הצבא האדום במלחמת העולם השניה) ואז מופיע דן כנר על הבמה ומזמין את דודו פישר חובש הכיפה לשיר עם מקהלת הצבא האדום את אדון עולם. והנה עומד ליד דודו פישר סולן הלהקה במדי לבן וזהב ושר דואט איתו, לא סתם שיר בעברית אלא תפילה בעברית, אחת התפילות הכי מפורסמות.

אין מה להגיד, אחרית הימים, מי היה מאמין.

ובן השמונה שיושב לידי לא מבין את פשר הדבר, למה מסביבו יושבים מבוגרים, בעיקר סבים וסבתות, ובוכים כשכוכב הגן של דודו מתחיל לשי

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

When the Levee Breaks

When the Levee Breaks

If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break
When the levee breaks I'll have no place to stay

Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan
Mean old levee taught me to weep and moan

This song was written originally about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 which triggered large migrations to the Mid West among the mostly African-American population in the region affected by the devastation.

The flood featured in many Blues songs of the period, planting the image of the all important life and death determining levee in popular culture.

As Israelis the image of a rainstorm of such biblical proportions is particularly evocative and sobering at this time of year when our thoughts start to turn to the coming rainy season and the Days of Awe, including the prayer for rain, may it be for a blessing and not a curse, may it fall at the right time and in the right proportion.

We are only too aware that the rainy season balances on a a knife edge between drought and flood, each with its own potential for devastation.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Houston.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A little felafel story

Today was the only time DH was able to take off work during the month of August so we needed to fit in a whole summer holiday's worth of family fun in one day. The morning was spent in a cute little petting zoo where the kids got to hold parakeets, milk a goat and marvel at butterflies. Then we split up, little kids went off to a park and to visit their great-aunt and big kids had hours of adventure at The Citadel Museum in Jerusalem's Old City. And a good time was had by all.

As the activities wound down though our brood realised they were utterly famished, despite eating copious amounts of DH's aunt's patented amazing fishcakes and assorted fruit and crackers. There would be no getting this lot back in the car until they were fed. Again.

So we decided to do something radical. We took the kids out for felafel tonight. We rarely ever eat out so this was a big deal for all concerned. It seemed like the perfect place, Ajami's, a veteran little hole in the wall felafel and shwarma place on a quietish sidestreet next to a large open area of pavement with space for kids to play away from the crowds of busier city centre eateries.

Outdoor on the terrace a large French family occupying a huge long table was just finishing up their dinner. At one of the few indoor tables a uniformed security guard, clearly a regular, was tucking in to a tray of kubbeh, salad and lemonade brought to him with a smile by the owner. It looked like the right kind of place.

I managed to get everyone seated, two oldest outside with me, DH inside with the other three little people while I stood at the counter to quickly order the starving masses their fodder. Well as quickly as one can trying to take in to account the preferences of five ravenous but opinionated children who may just have been hungry enough to eat the furniture while they were waiting.

The staff were incredibly efficient and the kids were soon tucking in to fresh hot food, well, except for a twin who just wanted to take his brothers' chips and grab/play with an (unplugged) fan switch.

The utterly exhausted overtired big two who'd spent the afternoon schlepping around ruins and learning to fight like knights were eating happily but still kind of kicking each other under the table in a mostly playful fashion.

One kid decided to take apart their pita so they could eat all the parts individually because it's more fun than you know table manners or anything like that. The paper their food was wrapped was soon littered with torn hummous tehina smeared laffa and falafel balls while they picked out the cucumber tomato and pickles - their favourite parts - to eat first. With their hands. Which of course were now also smeared with hummous and tehina.

By now two kids had finished wolfing down their meal and were playing a game of tag around the (mostly empty) outdoor terrace, wide stone steps and public square. It was evening, the street was far from crowded and truth be told there was plenty of space for them to play without disturbing anyone but still, DH and I don't usually allow this kind of behaviour in a public thoroughfare.

Then the twins who'd been sitting indoors noticed a cat sitting on a wall and dashed out of the dinky diner with delighted shrieks of "Tul! Tul!" (short for hatul, Hebrew for cat). They plonked themselves down on the step below the wall and contented themselves with pointing at the surprisingly chilled feline, watching them coolly from her perch.

At this point the owner came over striding briskly and I was so ready for the comment, a comment, something negative, someone is making a mess or misbehaving. Instead she stops right in front of me and beams: "Oh, are the kids at both these tables all yours? Such sweet kids, love how they are all smiling and enjoying their food and full of life with a bit of mischief thrown in. Next time you come you're welcome to leave them here for a bit, I'd be happy to babysit. Make sure you get them all some lemonade for dessert. On the house of course."