Monday, January 27, 2014

International Holocaust Memorial Day - Never Forget Rachel and Esther

Today is the Holocaust Memorial Day designated by the UN, who got around to doing so only in 2005 (?!).

January 27 1945 is the day Soviet forces liberated the Auschwitz concentration camp.

These photos show the families of two of my great-aunts, Rachel and Esther, murdered by the Nazis and their local helpers.

These photos were taken not long before the outbreak of World War II, when relatives overseas were trying to persuade the family still in Zlochev, Poland (today Ukraine) to leave because they feared that war was coming to Europe.

Esther and Rachel declined because they were both pregnant at the time and didn't want to travel while pregnant.

When war broke out they tried to get out but discovered that there was nowhere to run to and no way out. The babies they bore were murdered along with the parents and older children in Belzac death camp.

If you live somewhere where people are claiming that the Holocaust didn't happen, I want you to take a long hard look at these photos of real people - mothers, fathers and young children - who were murdered by the Nazis simply because they were Jews. Two entire families wiped out solely because they were Jewish.

They were not civilians caught in the crossfire, collateral damage, their deaths were orchestrated by a deliberate Nazi killing machine whose aim was to destroy every Jewish man, woman and child, just because they were Jews. Their deaths were the aim of a Nazi leadership which went to great effort in setting up a complex system of ghettos, concentration camps and death camps to murder these Jewish civilians.

These photos show the great-aunts, great-uncles and cousins I never had the chance to know. Today these children would be in their 70s and early 80s, grandparents, probably great-grandparents, a whole line of the family gone with no survivors or direct descendents, erased from the world as if they had never existed but for a few photos enclosed in letters to my grandparents.

Monday, January 14, 2013

And finally, what we've all been waiting for.... Snowy Jerusalem

The prayers of a million Israeli children were answered this winter when the recent rain storms finally turned to snow, coating Israel's higher altitudes in a respectable blanket of white. The City of Gold morphed into the White City.

I can't remember a winter like this in Jerusalem for at least a decade. True, there have been a few dustings of snow, but not this much.

So we did what so many Israelis living in lower parts of the country did - we schlepped our kids up to the Holy City to see the snow. All along the roads leading to Jerusalem, as soon as the highway passed by even the smallest of grass verges at an elevation great enough to receive in the lightest of snow Israelis from warmer areas were parked haphazardly, usually with a gaggle of children in tow and frolicking in the stuff.

The entire journey to Jerusalem and within the city the pavements, parks, just about every empty patch of ground, had attracted groups of locals, young and old, playing in the snow or just enjoying the novelty of catching snowflakes on their tongues. An impressive selection of snowpeople lined the route, most of impressive of which was a neo-classical female nude under construction by a group of college students on a traffic circle near the Hebrew University campus. Venus de Milo rendered in snow.

We chose Mt Scopus for its views over the Old City and towards the desert and were rewarded with views of the continuing blizzard over the pine, cypress and olive groves down towards the ancient stone walls and domes of the heart of Jerusalem. Nothing like it.

Mt Scopus is a seam area between Arab and Jewish areas and on a snow day the area buzzed with pedestrians from both groups, along with a smattering of snow stranded tourists, their buses unable to negotiate the slippery streets, despite Jerusalem's fleet of snow ploughs.
View towards the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea at the edge of Jerusalem's Mt Scopus

We wandered with the other visitors enchanted at the novelty, pausing now and then when someone asked us to photograph a family portrait or a romantic twosome against the backdrop of Jerusalem's most recognisable landmark, prominent even in the swirl of falling snow.

For the most part Arabs, Jews and tourists enjoyed the magic cast by the snow together, the classic view of the city rendered foreign without its trademark sunshine and blue skies. The promenade at the edge of the Hebrew University campus was actually quite crowded despite the bitter cold and trecherous road conditions.

It wasn't all wintry cameraderie though. From time to time though at the edges of the neighbourhood or in more isolated spots along the promenade occasional gangs of Arab youths lobbed giant snow balls at passing Jewish vehicles. Not as dangerous or lethal as rocks, but the intent was clear from the faces of those doing the throwing. This was not in play.

Despite this though they didn't spoil the general atmosphere of good humour and wonder, by and large snow still brings out the better side of people in the Middle East.

Jerusalem light rail makes it way through the snow

Most snowball fun was in jest between Arabs and Jews

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Boundary between snowy Jerusalem and mostly clear Judean Desert

Edge of Jerusalem, view towards August Victoria

British Commonwealth War Cemetery dating back to the First World War

Mt Scopus British Commonwealth War Cemetery

Many proud Jerusalem trees were bowed and broken under the snow

Ramot Forest on the outskirts of Jerusalem

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Water water everywhere

Just for perspective on all the floods and rain damage this week - much of Israel has had between 10-11 inches of rain, that's about what Katrina and Sandy dropped on most affected areas of the US. In the US they were predicting disaster if "Sandy drops 10 inches of rain".

Here in Israel many places have had flooding and storm damage, mostly minor, but in a few areas so bad people had to be evacuated in boats, their homes totally submerged. For the most part though it's been more a case of disruption and inconvenience rather than disaster. Not to dismiss financial losses lightly, but the Ayalon stream overflowing its banks and shutting down the adjacent highway and railway line for most of day or the flooding of a mall in Modi'in is not good, but there are worse things.

Doesn't mean that here in Israel some local councils here weren't negligent in preparing adequately, but this is a once in two decades or more storm for much of Israel and the concentrated intensity of the rainfall is far from your typical winter rainstorm - there have been years recently when we haven't had this much rain all winter. According to our balcony weather station we've had half the annual rainfall in 5 days.

Personally we're suffering from that most typical of Israeli problems, damp seeping through to some of our rooms because our roof is the balcony of the flat upstairs and it seems they haven't maintained the sealing on their tiles. Not much we can do about it until we get drier weather but it does mean that just as we're facing some of the coldest weather we've had in a few years now we can't use our airconditioner to heat our place because the ceiling wiring might be damp. Good thing for thermals.

So far no coastal surges but I gather the snow is still on its way. Kids can hardly contain their excitement. As J put it "if we get to play in the snow it'll be worth all these days cooped up at home because of the rain..."

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

When your kids find out it isn't always such a wonderful world

It's tough when they start to read beyond what we want them to see. We were still getting a daily print edition paper when Junior one day out of the blue turned around and asked "What's corruption?" And we were lucky it was as benign as that with all that's often in the papers.

After the Newtown shootings several American friends have asked me how I go about explaining this kind of evil to my children, how I protect their innocence, how I stop them from being afraid.

It's one of the toughest things about being a parent, the realisation that you can't shield them from the fact that horrorific things happen. The best you can do is try to answer their questions without getting into gory details, show them that it's OK to be upset or afraid (so many kids feel embarrased to show emotions like these) and hug them tight tight.

There are no easy answers for how to explain things to a kid, especially a bright kid who always has another "why?" or "how?" to ask.

I do think kids are more resilient than we often give them credit for. Junior knows that there are people living around us who want to kill us, I never wanted to have to explain that to her, but it's true and she picked up on it quite young, asking why we have to go through metal detectors and searches whenever we go to the shopping mall or train station, why all the schools and kindergartens have guard booths outside, why there are guards on the buses and trains. Kids notice these things, even if we unfortunately get used to taking them for granted.

I thought about fudging it but in the end I just came out with it that there are people who want to blow those places up and hurt us and the security guards are trying to keep us safe. It's a fact of life and she takes it in her stride.

When a terrorist broke into a family home and murdered almost the entire family in their beds with a knife I hid the paper, avoided news sites and the radio, but she heard the story on the radio while being given a ride by a friend's mother and came home to ask me about it. I told her the basic facts of what happened, that there were bad people in the world, but that there are also many many good people who are trying to help others, and that overall the good outnumber the bad. She seemed to accept that.

When a similar attack happened again recently, only the mother happened to be a martial arts expert and was able to protect her kids, suffering knife wounds, but forcing the attacker to run I talked about the story with my daughter. I think it was important for her to see the more positive outcome. We actually even met the woman by chance on one of our Jerusalem outings recently and Junior was excited to meet a real life heroine.

I wish she didn't have to know about such things, but I can't keep her in a cocoon. The important thing here I think is also that I answer her questions as best I can, I say I don't know when I don't know, but also I don't dwell on the news, don't let her get obsessed with it by not obsessing myself.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Letting the bullies win

Rosh Hodesh Elul was my nephew's bar-mitzvah at the Kotel. As we were walking to the women's section we passed a woman in a Tallit being escorted away by police for wearing a men's tallit. At the Kotel itself there was a group of Women of the Wall davening in multi-coloured tallitot (apparently only the traditional black and white ones were considered "illegal" on that occasion) with a stony-faced police officer standing right in front of them and filming their every action on video while another few officers stood facing the group of praying women just daring them to do something criminal like whipping out a Torah scroll. It would have been comic had it not been so serious.

They were singing a respectful and beautiful (and not overly loud) Hallel near the back of the women's section at the Kotel, in no way was it attention grabbing and in no way was it audible from anywhere near the mehitza or men's section (should that have been an issue).

The previous Friday night there had been loads of women in the Kotel women's section singing much louder at Kabbalat Shabbat, including a large group of uniformed female soldiers belting out a selection of vaguely "spiritual" NewAgey Israeli pop hits in lieu of formal prayer from the liturgy and a huge group from some Israel women's programme for Americans where the leader was not only getting them to practically shout out the greatest hits of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach during Kabbalat Shabbat but encouraging them to dance in a big wild circle right in the middle of the women's section, which unsurprisingly enough was incredibly crowded on an August Friday night.

If anything was a public nuisance that night, or possibly a hazard, it was this scrum of ladies insisting on their huge dance circle right in the middle of the already jam-packed women's section.

No police intervened (nor did anyone else) to stop these women from loudly singing Kabbalat Shabbat and even Israeli pop songs, and none of the many very Hareidi women also davening there complained, objected or any way approached these women to stop or in any way tone it down.

Sunday morning though the modest gathering of women saying Hallel together, some wrapped in prayer shawls, which admittedly, most Jews would consider men's garb, are suddenly public enemy number one, a threat to public order, so dangerous they have tense police hounding their every move and at least one of their number had to be arrested for the heinous crime of wearing a masculine style black and white tallit.

Meanwhile above the Kotel, on the Temple Mount, Judaism's most sacred of sacred places, Jews can't pray or even close their eyes or hum a tune because it "upsets" the local Muslims and they tend to get violent and riot when upset, so for the police it's easier to arrest the peaceful Jews who just want to pray at their most holy site. As a religious Jew I and many others are intimidated by the police of the state of Israel no less from going to visit the Temple Mount.

At the Kotel Women of the Wall upsets the Hareidi community and some elements within the Hareidi community get a bit violent and occasionally riot or burn trash cans when they do so, so for the police it's easier to just arrest the peacefully praying women who want to make a feminist, but peaceful, point.

It's called giving in to the bullies.

Now I'm aware that many of those who support the Women of the Wall and many of those who support the right of Jews to pray upon the Temple Mount disagree with each other theologically and politically, but the struggles they face for religious freedom are the same. Until both realise that it is in their mutual interest to pursue these cases of police injustice and downright brutality and the failure of the state to ensure that people of all denominations are free to pray peacefully at their sacred shrines nothing is going to change. The state will continue to pacify the bullies at the expense of protecting the right to worship for all.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012


I think I essentially have two reasons for posting this, in particular in the wake of the recent Gaza conflict I've had two lots of responses from friends and family overseas.

Some have said to me that Israel is an apartheid state, so of c
ourse the folks in Gaza have a good reason to shoot rockets at Israeli civilians

Others have said Israel should just "expel" all the Arabs or completely "separate" from the Arabs, and then "the Arabs won't make trouble".

Both positions show surprising ignorance about everyday life in Israel.

Fact is that in Israel on a day to day basis Jews and Arabs interact, shop together, work together, use the same public space, vacation in the same national parks and hotels, our populations are far more intertwined than the international media shows and in many way interdependent economically.

I will not pretend that the situation is perfect, only that it is far more complex, and I believe far better, than anyone overseas would realise if they just get their information from foreign media outlets.

The photos below are from Jerusalem, but they could also be any number of major Israeli cities, just walk down a street in Beer Sheva or Haifa or Kfar Saba or hang out at the mall in Modi'in or Tel Aviv, stay in a hotel in Eilat.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Heart of Gold

We enjoyed a lovely morning in Jerusalem this morning with the guides of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, the highlight of which was J finding a porcupine quill in the bushes right next to the visitors' centre.

We walked down through the pine woods to Sacher Park, part of the city's green "lung", close to the centre of town, and from there over to the olive groves in the Valley of the Cross overlooking the impressive Georgian monastery and the Israel Museum.

We met a mix of Arab and Jewish families harvesting olives, beating the branches with sticks until the fruit fell onto the sheets laid out under the tress. They invited the children to pick some too and take them over to the ancient style stone press for squeezing into oil.

We've had decent rainfall this November and the first post-rain plants are waking up, sitvanit crocuses, karkom (turmeric) and the leaves of the cyclamen, though not yet the flowers.

It's always good to spend time in Jerusalem so I'm very glad that this year my kids are participating in an educational programme at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, ensuring that we visit the Holy City quite regularly.

The JBO began just over a decade ago in a little ramshackle hut behind the Knesset rose garden. Back when I was a student and working part time in Jerusalem I volunteered there a few times to learn about bird ringing. I liked finding time sometimes on the way home from class or work to hang out in the hide, amazed at the way nature had found a way to thrive in the heart of the city.

Since those early days the centre has flourished, boasting a nice little visitors' centre and offering a wealth of activities for kids and adults alike, from learning about bird ringing to night time nature safaris. The children always come home so excited by what they've seen and learnt, recounting to me all the new and seasonal observations they need to add to their nature diaries.

Despite the glorious day out in Jerusalem though, my highlight todaywas taking the monit sherut (shared service taxi/minibus) home from Jerusalem. For the most part we manage decently with public transport, but it's never easy at the end of a busy day piling everyone onto the bus, organising the bags, holding the baby, folding the buggy, paying the driver and just making sure nothing is lost or forgotten.

I usually get on right at the start of the route so that I'm not pressed for time at a busy city bus stop, but today we just missed our bus and it would have meant getting into rush hour to take the next one so I opted for the slightly more expensive, but more convenient sherut.

There I was with the baby and two exhausted kids, a couple of bags and the buggy, all flustered from having rushed over to the sherut stop from the bus stop (wonderful the way these two are nowhere near each other despite going to the same destination), already mentally figuring out how to juggle everything while not delaying the other passengers already waiting to board.

Suddenly the supervisor noticed me, calling out to the driver to come help, making me the centre of attention as the passengers in front of me in the queue all turned around to see what the fuss was.

"Can I hold the baby for you while you pay the driver?" asked the youngish guy immediately ahead of me. "I'll fold the stroller and stow it" said the middle-aged woman with the chic headscarf in a delightful French accent. "Why don't I help the kids on board" offered the lady next to her, while a couple of soldiers were jostling each other over who got to carry the diaper and picnic bags. It turned out these last guys weren't even riding on the same sherut, they'd been waiting in line for a different route and just came over to help.

The icing on the cake was that when I arrived at my destination a female soldier who'd been napping in the front seat asked the driver to wait for her so that she could help the kids and me off the minibus and get the buggy out of the boot, unfolded and ready for baby. It wasn't her stop.

Now I'm used to people being helpful in Jerusalem, there is almost always a kind soul who will help lift a pushchair off a bus or give the kids a seat while I pay the driver. To have the entire bus queue fighting over who gets to help, that is something new for me, even in the City of Gold.

"It's very simple Ima" said young J "everyone just wanted to share a mitzva"