Wednesday, November 28, 2018

One Life to Live

If the message from Our Town is that the living don't get it, don't value it, life that is, perhaps the author hadn't spent enough time with some of the really special and inspiring people we have been fortunate to cross paths with over the years.

For the second time in the last few weeks we were in Jerusalem to pay a shiva call. Two very different families in very different neighbourhoods, each one though, in all its generations, a credit to the city and to the Jewish people. Modern Orthodox/dati leumi, Hareidi, secular - each person contributing so much to making the world a better place.

Tonight's shiva was for a longtime close family friend, a true Lamed Vavnik. So many people probably just passed her by on the street and dismissed her as another faceless, nameless generic older Hareidi woman in dark clothes, a drudge maybe, a drone, a media stereotype.

It would have been their loss though to have allowed that stereotype to blind them to this most special woman. She was a pillar of faith, of modesty, of loving kindness to the stranger and to her nearest and dearest alike. She touched so many lives, always with a kind word, a hearty laugh, a zillion watt smile, an infectious optimism, meals for the sick and the new mother, hospitality to the lonely and the new in town. And all with the utmost humility and modesty in her small Jerusalem flat.

She told her children that she hoped they didn't marry rich. "Don't let the material blind you". Not that she would have wanted them to lack for anything, but Torah and people always came before things and materialism. She was satisfied with living modesty because she didn't see things or external trappings, she saw souls, she saw people, whatever they looked like.

Her family straddles the divide of Hareidi and Hiloni, devoutly religious and devoutly secular, immigrant and native born, holy Jerusalem, hedonist Tel Aviv and the socialist kibbutz. In the crowded little flat in the heart of Hassidish Jerusalem this evening all those disparate worlds came together with love and warmth to honour her memory and attempt to comfort her grieving family.

She will not feature on the cover of Vogue or Time or The New York Times or The Atlantic. So many supposedly enlightened and modern people would have declined to give her the time of day or assigned her any consequence. But she is the sort of person who truly made the world go round, who healed wounds of many kinds, who brought incredible light in to the world as long as she was in it.

It was a privilege to have known her since I was a child. May her equally wonderful children, grandchildren and husband find great comfort in their memories of this humble tzadeket, and may Hashem Bless them all with many many more years keeping her light shining on through their kindness and good deeds.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

This is just a drill

Six year-old comes charging in to the flat after school "Imma, Imma! We had a what do you call it, where you have to run fast?"

"Sport class?"

"No, where you have to run fast because of the noise!"

"Targil? (drill)"

"Yes Imma! That one, a targil where there is an azaka (siren) and you have to go quickly with your tor (line) and get to the miklat (shelter) as quick as you can without tripping anyone up"

He has a huge grin taking over his little face, eyes bright, glowing with pride, hopping from foot to foot in a little dance of excitement.

"And my tor was first! I was first! We did it in 20 seconds! And I got a sticker! And it was such a BIIIIG miklat Imma! It's so big it isn't a mamad (safe room), it's a great big huuuuge miklat with room for everyone and my school is so big with so many children that we have to have FOUR miklatim like that! It's so cool, it's like a superhero fort with big windows with shirion (armour). I asked my teacher if I could bring my light sabre or a sword tomorrow but she didn't like that idea."

God Bless the teachers who made it so much fun for the kids to practice running to the shelter and thank God in our region it was only a drill.

Thursday, November 08, 2018

Holy Tongue

I spent the evening in a large auditorium packed to the gills with a huge crowd periodically singing or shouting out Hallelujah, The Lord Is One and calling upon God in prayer.

No, I was not at a religious revival, women's spiritual event or Orthodox gathering.

Just your run of the mill Israeli folk and pop nostalgia concert performing songs by secular song writers with a secular band for a mostly secular audience.

That's what happens when your national language is Hebrew and all this biblical and Jewish stuff is just part of the general culture and frame of reference, so say, making a pop song based on Ehad Mi Yodea from the Haggadah makes sense when just about everyone at least knows the original from kindergarten and likely also their family seder.

Like the other day when I heard a song by Israeli rapper Subliminal where a quote from Jewish sources is juxtaposed with the F word (used for emphasis) and in a weird way it makes sense in the context of modern Israeli culture in a way that would be completely bizarre and out of context in English.

Call it ruminations of someone who absorbed Zionism with her mother's milk, but these kind of things just emphasise to me how good it is to be home and how blessed we are to have this home.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Gaza's War of Attrition

Had the vaguest inkling of what the Israeli villages near the Gaza border went through last night. Accidentally left my mobile phone switched on and in my room over Shabbat.
From around midnight last night we were woken over and over again by the Red Alert rocket warning app going off on my phone. That's rocket alert after rocket alert through the early hours of Shabbat morning in dozens of Israeli villages and towns. Over thirty rockets fired in to Israel.
Usually I have the app configured to just ping loudly for alerts in our area (of which thank God there have been none for years) but I recently had my phone repaired and never got around to reconfiguring the app for my area only.
So over and over the screen of the phone flashed with locations around the Gaza border and the clanging alert sounded and we had a glimpse of the terrible Friday night the people living there had, running over and over to their shelters, praying that Iron Dome successfully intercepted all the launches aimed at so many Israeli civilians in their farms, villages, towns. Praying that no more fires would be started in the fields and woodland.
And we were only alerted to the rockets. Not to the thousands of rioters on the Palestinian side once again trying to storm the fence, throwing bombs and molotov cocktails over the border, launching more booby trapped balloons, destroy the fence and infiltrate Israel, part of a campaign to wear down the Israeli forces on the other side of the border, get them used to the constant riots and God Forbid one day use this is cover for even more deadly attacks. It's a war of attrition and it's been going on now for months, escalating little by little, creating a new routine which every day has the potential for deadly consequences.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Blessed Memory

Uncle just phoned in tears. He's in Tel Aviv watching Big Brother's choir perform in a gala Jewish music concert with several choirs, hazanim and well known Israeli singers.

Big Brother's choir just performed Shlomo Carlebach's beautiful "Barkhi Nafshi" right before the interval. Despite the large group of boys and the huge concert hall my uncle could make out Big Brother's clear strong voice passionately singing with every fibre of his being, and he choked up remembering his mother singing that very same song in her clear as a bell soprano.

"Are you old enough to remember that?" he asked weepily over the phone.

Am I ever. Bubbe, my maternal grandmother, didn't just sing it, she poured her entire self into it. She could stand there chopping the fish or kneading dough and for half an hour or more she could repeat over and over with a prayerful passion that must have stormed the gates of heaven "Borkhi nafshi et Hashem" to Carlebach's soulful melody.

It was one of her absolute favourite songs and she sang it often.

As I held the phone in one hand and a sort of dozing twin on my lap I happened to glance up at the newspaper on the chair next to me and a little chilll washed over me as I remembered the date. My grandmother's 16th yahrzeit falls later this week.

I can think of no better way of honouring her memory than for her grandson to sing her favourite Carlebach on the stage of Tel Aviv's Opera House in that same impassioned style of singing he inherited from the great-grandmother he never got to meet. It would please her so.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Danger: Balloons

If you are in Israel have a talk with your kids about not touching or going near balloons or kites they might see in the street, park or even floating in to their own garden.
If it isn't their own balloon they should stay away and call a grown-up.
For months now our Gaza neighbours have been sending thousands of balloons with incendiary devices or explosives attached, designed to cause fires or maim an unsuspecting person who touches the balloon or kite.
Some balloons have booby trapped toys attached to them.
Most of these have landed in nearby Israeli towns and villages just across the border from Gaza where they have sparked fires destroying large tracts of farmland, woodland and nature reserves, killing livestock and wildlife.
Some have drifted widely in to other areas of Israel, including Beer Sheva, Bat Yam, Jerusalem and Modiín.
Teach your children, your neighbours, tourists, visitors - DO NOT TOUCH balloons you come across in the street, a park, hanging on a tree, stuck on a street lamp, caught on your garden fence - wherever. Teach your kids to call a grown-up, make sure grown-ups know to call the police.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Burning fields

At a lovely leibedik wedding last night I met a woman from a village in the north-west Negev. She asked me if I could smell the smoke on her clothes because her region has been burning for days and weeks by now as fire-kites are sent over from Gaza in waves to destroy the fields, woodland and nature reserves on the Israeli side of the border.

The gentle hills and lowlands of the North-West Negev are Israel's grain basket and this time of year are covered in flammable fields of ripe wheat which can ignite and burn out in minutes, before fire crews can get to them, tons of food crops lost in an instant. Food which would go to Palestinians in Gaza, not just to Israelis.

In this clip you can see video of the arson damage to the farmland in this region. If you are wondering why no villages have burned, it's a mix of luck and sparse populations, there is a lot more farmland and nature reserve land than homes, though some fires have come pretty close and homes have had to be evacuated because of the proximity of the flames.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

A bubbling pot in the north

To my mind the nuclear deal, Iran's nuclear programme and Trump's announcement are something of a red herring when it comes to what's going on in our region at the moment. The meaty issue is Iranian expansionism in the Middle East, through the basket case that is modern Iraq to the horrific chaos that is modern Syria and most specifically for Israel the placing of Iranian soldiers and bases right up against Israel's borders.

Add to this Hezballah's significant gains in Sunday's Lebanon elections and you have a rather worrying situation in view of the Iranian leaderships' very vocal calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.

Iran is keen on bases in Syria to increase their hegemony in the Levant, including by directly threatening Israel's borders. Almost every Israeli air strike in Syria and Lebanon over the last few years has been in order to prevent this Iranian plan from coming to fruition. Iran's actions in the region are absolutely a legitimate casus belli for Israel to mount preemptive strikes in self-defense. Israel cannot tolerate such a well armed and hostile force threatening its population centres.

I really don't think it's a matter of Bibi or Barak or whoever might be in charge, I don't see any Israeli prime minister acting differently in this case. I think Olmert was one of our worst PMs on record, but he did one thing right, the 2007 preemptive airstrike on Syria's nuclear installations.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

From our family archive

I've been going through some of the files of my mother's and grandmother's papers again. It is a sisyphean labour of love but I'm gradually making progress and now have another sisyphean task to complete in scanning all the photos and documents I think are either historically significant or just personally important for the family. Among this evening's finds awaiting scanning:

- A photo of 3 of my grandfather's sisters which judging from the youth of the women and their hair styles was taken after WWI, I'm guessing perhaps the early 1920s. Two of the sisters perished in the Holocaust. One moved to the UK in the 1920s.

- The menus from both my grandparents' wedding and my parents' wedding. Salmon and cucumber salads were served at both.

- My great-grandmother's Certificate of Registration, a kind of ID that non-citizens were required to have on them at all time. A stamp from the Aliens Registration Office dated November 1945 reads "The holder of this Certificate is to be exempted until further ??? from internment and from the special restrictions applicable to enemy aliens under the Aliens Order, 1920" There are later stamps from the 1950s showing that she checked in with the local police several times until a final stamp "ALIENS ORDER 1960, The holder is exempt from registration with the police". My great-grandmother arrived in the UK in 1904 but never took British citizenship and was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man during the Second World War.

- A photo of one of the American cousins while serving in the US Army in WWII. He has what looks like a large glass of beer in his hand and is standing next to what looks like a wooden wagon with an improvised table and bottle of beer. Part of a sign reads "For Amer", my guess is this is somewhere in recently liberated Western Europe. On the back someone has written in handwriting "not for publication".

- A photo of some of the Israeli and British family in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel, including a relative who survived the Second World War by pretending to be a Polish Catholic. Unable to rescue any other family members she witnessed their fate, including the murder of her own husband and baby. After the war she eventually made her way to the infant Jewish State, remarried, started a new family. One day she was just arriving back at her Tel Aviv home when a taxi veered out of control on to the pavement and killed her where she stood.

- My teenaged uncle and his teen cousin, (the niece of the woman in the above story) on the deck of the Yerushalayim, a ship which sailed from Marseilles to Haifa in 1954 and brought many Jews to Israel in the early years of the state. Most of the other passengers on this voyage were Moroccan Jews making aliya to Israel.

- A photo of my primly attired grandmother, white handbag on her arm, in 1957, at a Bedouin encampment near Beer Sheva next to a kneeling camel and Bedouin men in old style white keffiyas.

- A business card from Yaakov Katz, member of Knesset and deputy mayor of Haifa. On the back there is a Hebrew dedication: "A souvenir to sons of my diaspora town of birth, Zlotchev, Poland, from the Holyland in the City of the Carmel - Haifa, 8th Iyar 5717, May 9 1957"

- A receipt from the Jerusalem yeshiva at which my uncle was a student in 1959

- Two letters my uncle wrote from Tel Aviv to his parents in London. They are dated June 6th 1967 and June 10 1967. He was volunteering in a hospital and inspecting air raid shelters. On June 6th he wrote:"For the past few days I have been working in a big Tel Aviv hospital 7am till 7pm.Tel Aviv has been very lucky no bombs have fallen. We can hear aircraft and explosions in the distance. Last night we went down twice to the shelters. Tel Aviv still seems to be gay except that buses are few and far between. Jerusalem on the other hand has got it bad: they have sent a lot of ambulances and doctors there from my hospital in Tel Aviv."

- A later postmarked June 12 1967 from my mother in Boston to her parents in London about her brother going off to Israel: "Thank Gd there is a ceasefire... Nevertheless volunteers are still needed to help keep the country going and put it back on its feet. I don't know WHY you have to say in almost every letter that you are bad parents. I think that every parent (and every boy) who's son is this week riding around in a car in GG/Hendon and sleeping in his own bed should be ashamed of his character and his upbringing. It was partly the fault of this type that 6,000,000 could die and no credit to them that we have a state of Israel... Of course my brother had to go - his whole ??? was that way - besides which he's a man with a conscience. Don't worry."

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

Notes of Hope

My uncle took my son and me to an extremely moving and inspiring event commemorating both last week's Holocaust Memorial Day and this week's upcoming 70th Israel Independence Day.

The evening at Jerusalem's International Convention Centre (Binyanei Hauma) presented but a fraction of the thousands works written by Jewish composers, songwriters and poets during the Holocaust and lovingly collated by Italian-Jewish Professor Francesco Lotoro, who has made it his life's work to track down ever last piece of music or song written during the Holocaust, be it in a long lost hidden archive, remembered by a survivor or uncovered in a European attic. Prof Lotoro has dedicated himself to their preservation as a musical testimony to the creativity of those Jews who in their darkest hour still found a way to make life more beautiful, strove to live to the fullest even as death closed in all around.

JNF-UK and Israeli JNF introduced Prof Lotoro to a conservatory (a JNF-UK project) in the southern Israeli town of Yeruham. Prof Lotoro came to Yeruham to teach them a selection of works he had rescued, rehearsing with them, absorbing the stories behind the pieces and teaching them about the lives of the composers and songwriters. The programme combined educating the next generation about the Holocaust, testimonies from survivors and those who perished, wonderful music and Zionism, giving these long forgotten pieces born of horrific tragedy new life in the Israeli desert.

Tonight these youngsters performed what Prof Lotoro had taught them, accompanying the adult musicians of the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra on stage conducted by Francesco Lotoro.

During the Holocaust there was controversy among Jews in Nazi occupied Europe about whether art and music had a place in their living hell on earth. Some quoted Psalms 137 vivid description of the ancient Jewish exiles in Babylon hanging up their harps on the willows growing by Babylon's mighty rivers, refusing to play music for their Babylonian oppressors who tauntingly asked them to
sing "Songs of Zion".

Yet for many of the myriad Jewish intellectuals, artists and musicians suffering under the Nazi jackboot music, songs and poems were an act of resistance, of life and creativity in the face of a regime dedicated to death and destruction of the Jewish people. These compositions kept hope alive.

The most intense moment of the evening was when 86 year-old Aviva Bar-On sang in her still strong, clear voice a song that she had learnt in Terezin from Ilse Weber, a Jewish poet who worked as a nurse in the children's division in the Terezin ghetto. Weber and her son Tommy, along with most of the children she cared for were gassed to death in Auschwitz. Bar-On said that to the best of her knowledge she had been the last person in the world who knew these songs until she met with Prof Lotoro and he recorded and transcribed them and taught them.

Aside from one piece of hazzanut the songs performed were decidedly secular, mostly in German, Czech or Yiddish (one translated in to Yiddish from Polish), most in the cabaret style which was so popular during that period in Europe, a musical style in which Jews were very prominent. It is a reflection of how much these Jews were part of the fabric of the European countries in which they lived. How much they seemed to have assimilated.

As my young son put it "Jews helped to create European culture, they even created a great deal of the European culture of that time and in the languages of European nations. When the Nazis and their collaborators murdered the Jews living amongst them they also murdered their very own (European) culture, the beauty of a culture that themselves enjoyed. They hurt themselves."

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.