Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Thanks be for Israeli turkeys




Thanks to internet commerce everyone in Israel has heard of Black Friday, to the extent that brick and mortar local shops are having Black Friday sales (and calling it Black Friday in English, because translating it in to Hebrew as "Yom HaShishi Hashahor" just sounds awfully ominous) and so we have the bizarre situation where just about everyone here knows the Black Friday is a time for sales and shopping but relatively few people have heard of the American Thanksgiving holiday that spawned the whole Black Friday juggernaut to begin with...

Everyone except for butchers and supermarket meat counters in areas with large concentrations of American immigrants that is, where you can go and ask for/order a whole turkey and they'll say something like "Right, for that American festival where you have to eat big turkeys and go shopping, what is it, Christmas? Independence Day? Halloween?" And you can thank American film and tv for them being familiar with that much.

Of course the irony in all this is that in Hebrew a turkey is literally "Indian chicken", as in India the south Asian country, usually shortened to just "hodu" in Hebrew, which yes, is also the word for India, but it is also a conjugation of a Hebrew root meaning to give thanks.

"Hodu Lashem" (give thanks to The Lord) is where Jews around the world are familiar with this word from, as it appears in Psalms and the prayer service, featuring prominently in the Hallel thanksgiving prayer said on special days and festivals throughout the Jewish year, such as Hannukah, Pesah and Rosh Hodesh, the celebration of each new lunar month.

In Hebrew Thanksgiving is translated as "Hag HaHodaya" (festival of giving thanks), so eating "hodu" actually makes a lot of sense if you are a Jew commemorating this American holiday of giving thanks. Especially if you are a Jew with American roots now living in Israel.

Fun fact, last I checked Israel was the world's highest per capita consumers of turkey, except that here it is largely used for processed meats, schnitzels, shwarma and the like, very rarely even a whole turkey breast, let alone a whole turkey. So we are a nation of thanks givers.

May we all merit being thankful each and every day.



Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Just a regular day, thank God



It's an unseasonably warm November day, bright and far too dry, and yet still firmly autumnal, the leaves on the mulberry and fig turning fall hues of gold and red, the pomegranate and almond almost bare branched by now. On the olive tree the last of its fruits are shiny black with oil, withering on the tree, an surprise storm blew many of the olives down last month and we didn't get our act together to pick what remained.

My middle son climbed in to the small kumquat tree, lodged a bucket in its fork and picked the plump little orange fruits from the groaning branches. Looks like we will soon have ripe lemons to pick as well.

Yesterday's highlight though was the robin red breast who came to visit us, announcing his presence with a defiant chirp from the rose bush but mostly busying himself on the earth beneath searching for bugs to eat. I haven't seen a robin in my garden in so long that I just stopped folding the laundry by the garden window and watched him until he suddenly took flight and disappeared over the fence.

Right now though it's the chaotic mid-afternoon hour just after the kids arrive home from school in a whirlwind of noise, sand and backpacks and shoes strewn by the door like a barricade.

My second oldest announced upon walking in that "something smells good", grabbing a handful of potatoes from the roasting pan and eyeing the pot of corn on the cob approvingly, before recoiling in horror upon tasting the fresh steamed mange tout that I innocently gave him to try. He then busied himself
making a smoothie with mango, pineapple, cinnamon and yoghurt to erase the evil green flavour from his mouth.

My second youngest declared that he wants to make a robot monster out of egg boxes and my middle child has taken charge of the project with a mess of old boxes, crayons and craft supplies, sitting in a huddle on the floor with the the little ones in a creative frenzy of colouring and cutting of cardboard.

Which is why I'm the only one who's noticed the cute little green lizard (litaa zeriza) crawling up the screen door and the frenetic male sunbird twittering around the window and briefly perching on the railings in a flash of iridescent purple and green glittering in the golden afternoon sunlight.







Wednesday, November 13, 2019

400 Rockets in 48 hours

Thanks to all our friends overseas for your messages of concern and support and for your prayers.

Thank God we are all well, our area has been mostly quiet.
Since early yesterday morning around 400 rockets have been fired in to Israel by the Islamic Jihad organisation in Gaza.

It's hard to explain this situation of emergency mixed with routine. Yesterday our region was among those where schools and many workplaces were closed. Today, after an inspection of all school and public shelters the authorities decided that we were far enough from the main target zone for life to resume, albeit with caution. No big public gatherings, no outdoor events, stay close to places with shelters.

We are trying to maintain a routine, even though the shadow of the rockets is ever present. Every odd noise, every sound that could be a siren or the whoosh of a rocket makes us stop whatever we are doing and try to determine whether we need to seek shelter.

Our children have gone to sleep in our home shelter for the second night in a row just in case there is a siren during the night.
There were sirens this morning for nearby villages, our town shook with the booms of the explosion caused by the Iron Dome anti-rocket defence system which successfully intercepted the rocket in midair.
Yesterday the air raid siren went just as I had one toilet training twin on the loo and the other was dressing. We dashed across our flat to the shelter, one with his trousers around his ankles, one half dressed. My elderly uncle, who had been napping in an armchair was startled awake by the siren, staggering out of the chair with the help of another child, struggling to reach the shelter in time. Shortly afterwards we heard the blast overhead of the successful Iron Dome interception of the incoming rocket.
We are profoundly grateful to the air-defence soldiers from the Iron Dome batteries who help to keep us safe, successfully intercepting close to 90% of the rockets fired in to Israel.
For our town in central Israel this security situation is rare, we last experienced rocket attacks in 2014, but people living in the Gaza border area of south-west Israel, live like this on a regular basis.
While in central Israel we have a whole minute and a half to run for shelter, in the north-west Negev they have only 15 seconds to take cover when the incoming rocket alert sounds.
The Israeli towns and villages closest to the Gaza border have been targeted the most in the last 48 hours with round the clock rocket bombardments that have hit homes, offices, schools, vehicles and infrastructure.
The large southern coastal cities of Ashkelon and Ashdod were the targets of heavy rocket volleys this evening. A rocket scored a direct hit on an assisted living facility for the elderly in Ashkelon, injuring a woman in her 70s.
Yesterday a rocket slammed in to a major motorway to the south of us, narrowly missing a car. It was a miracle that people suffered fairly minor injuries and no one was killed. (see traffic camera footage below)
Many Israelis have been treated for shock and trauma, others have been hurt scrambling to get to shelter in time.
As I'm writing this the alert has just sounded for areas just a 20 minute drive to the south of us.

I'm sad but glad that our children have bedded down in our shelter for the night. Just in case. 










motorway

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Gimme Shelter

So we have sirens again. One of the world's most chilling sounds that means they are trying to kill you again. Really, you, you are in someone's sights. Unreal and all too real all at the same time.

New experience for me: when the siren goes and you have a toilet training kid on the loo, and another little kid who has just gone to the loo and is standing around trying to put himself back together but is having trouble with his trousers. So one kid dashes to the Mamad bare tushed, the other one ran with one hand holding trousers around his ankles.

The 7 year-old grabbed his 77 year-old uncle's hands to pull him awake because he was napping in the chair "Uncle, this is a real siren, you have to run to the Mamad, I'm going to help you". Uncle of course told him to take care of himself, but the 7 year-old called from the Mamad, "Ivor, be quick, we have to close the door" Barukh Hashem, everyone was in the Mamad within a minute.

Kids knew the drill, modesty was quickly restored to the toilet trainers, everyone sat there in good spirits watching the IDF Home Command explanatory video for kids, cheered "Yay Tilli!" when they heard the dull Iron Dome interception boom from afar and then proceeded to watch a cute Israeli kids' programme about making chocolate.

We're all doing great, thanks for all the messages of support and concern.

Another milestone: twins' first real air raid siren.

Rockets cancel school in central Israel

Ten year-old is studying the red alert app on my phone watching the pattern of rocket alerts. Thank God as of time of writing this our area has been safe, but he's watching the red dots of sirens on the app, watching them creep north and west of us, getting worryingly closer.

Seven-year-old is "drilling" the twins what to do in case of a siren. "I am old enough to remember rockets, but you are too little so I have to teach you"

First he mimicked the noise of the siren and had the twins race him to get to the secure room and count how long to stay there.

Then, with almost scary nonchalant confidence, he dropped to the ground with his hands over his head. "See twins, this is what you do if you are playing in the park and the siren goes, you need to be low and protect your head" And they all drop down to the floor covering their heads, laughing and smiling while he helps them count the minutes.

Abba is home from work (rocket alerts in Tel Aviv), so he's right now trying to distract them all with the suggestion they make pancakes as their unscheduled stay at home breakfast.

What else is there to do when school is cancelled due to rocket attacks in central Israel just as you are in the middle of getting the kids out?

Never a dull moment.

Monday, October 07, 2019

The Human Condition

We are not perfect. It can be a hard pill to swallow, we like to think that we are in the right, that we know at all times what is the right course of action, what is the right view to take, but the sad truth is that we are not perfect and therefore we can also be wrong, however painful that can be to admit, and for many of us that is perhaps these most painful thing to come to terms with. We are not perfect. We make mistakes.

We are not perfect and we make mistakes and this is true of even the most brilliant minds, the greatest leaders, the most inspiring religious figures, the most innovative pioneering scientists and doctors. Sometimes precisely because these people are so many heads and shoulders above the rest of us and their influence so much greater their mistakes, however well meaning, are also that much greater and more egregious.

On Kol Nidrei night at the start of Yom Kippur we publicly state that we are permitted to pray with sinners, with wrongdoers, even with criminals. It's easy to imagine others in the congregation who may have done wrong, been hurtful, sinned, but when we utter these words we need to remember that they refer to us to, we are one of those wrongdoers who need to repent, for who amongst us, however righteous, however well meaning, has not, even if accidentally, even if just by simple thoughtlessness or a misunderstanding, sinned and harmed others?

It is the nature of humans to err, only God is perfect, and because this is so hard for us to remember we have Yom Kippur each year to remind us. God doesn't need us to spend a day in synagogue reciting prayers to glorify Him, we need it to remind us that we are human beings who make mistakes and need to ask forgiveness. We need this gutwrenching lesson in humility to remind us to be kind, to forgive, to give our fellow flawed human beings a chance to repent, to start afresh, to mend their ways, just as we ourselves hope and pray to be able to do the same.

The Torah doesn't prettify our national leaders and heroes. It describes them warts and all, their lofty heights of leadership, courage and inspiration, yes, but also the depths to which their all too human flaws brought them at times. Real people with real faults who made some very real, sometimes very awful, mistakes.

They were not perfect beings because we do not believe that humans can be perfect beings, only God is perfect, we are created in His image, we can aspire to emulate Him, we can aspire to do good and come as close to perfection as humanly possible, but we are still human, and to be human is to have flaws, even though we do our best to overcome them.

Not one of us could exist if there were no second chances, no chance to sincerely repent, to be forgiven and start afresh on a hopefully better path. If our founding fathers and biblical heroes were perfect Godlike beings how would we learn this? Yehuda's crime against his brother Joseph seems unforgivable, and yet when Joseph sees that Yehuda is in a similar situation all those years later the sincere change in Yehuda's behaviour is there for all to see, he is willing to sacrifice himself to save his younger brother, a true act of teshuva, not only repenting for the sin, but changing one's behaviour to do the right thing when put in the same situation.

So many of us hold on to the offence, the grudge, years and years later, even if the source of the mistake is long passed to irrelevance, a misunderstanding, a difference of opinion, a slight that may or may not have been intentional, a wrongheaded decision that cost us dear a long time ago but which is far far in the past. How many friendships broken, families estranged, neighbours not on speaking terms all because of something that in the scheme of things is not worth losing out on what these relationships could be, if only we could find it in our hearts to forgive, to understand the other point of view, to give the benefit of the doubt, even in so many cases, to say, yes, we were wrong.

We are not perfect. Our friends are not perfect. Our neighbours are not perfect. Our families are not perfect. But God has given us this wonderful tool to help negotiate our complex world, the gift of teshuva, repentance. To sincerely look at our lives and our behaviour, to change, to try to fix things, knowing that we may still fail. In knowing this about ourselves God also gave us insight in to how we few our fellow human beings who are just as likely to make mistakes as we are, and who are deserving of our kindness and understanding rather than an internet shaming or a lynchmob of righteous indignation.

This year I pray that we all have the wisdom and the courage to add a little more kindness to the world, a bit more understanding and more patience, a greater capacity to forgive mistakes rather than hold them against others, that we take an extra moment to reflect before pressing enter, before holding a grudge, before assuming the worst. To accept that we can still love and cherish people who's views, political, religious, ideological and otherwise, are different from ours, can still be good people. To remember that humans are complex and contrary and that even the best of us can do wrong. To remember that even when we do make mistakes, we have the capacity to change and try to make it right.

May we all be inscribed in the book of life and of blessing. May we all merit forgiveness from those we may have hurt, find it in our hearts to forgive those we perceive to have wronged us and a fresh slate in the coming year so that we can work to make our little part of the world a better, kinder, place.

Friday, September 20, 2019

The Sound of Music




I think perhaps there is an image of the Hebrew month of Elul as somehow a hushed sacred space, the month of solemn soul searching and repentance immediately before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and the start of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

We picture people wrapped in tallitot prayer shawls and clad all in pure white. In Israel the season is symbolised by the taper-like white spikes of the sea squill, popping up like memorial candles from the parched end of dry season earth, one of a very few wildflowers to bloom this time of year.

The reality of Elul though is a cacophony of prayers and shofar horn blasts and vast throngs streaming through Jerusalem's Old City in the dead of night as they make their way to the traditional midnight prayer services.

And part of the reason for that lack of reverent quiet is that so many of those throngs are school groups. Not that they are badly behaved (well, there are always a few, but most display exemplary behaviour) but they are children and as much as they are absorbing the sanctity of the holy city, they are also filling it with jubilant life because, well, they are children.

I was among them this Thursday evening, accompanying my older son's class on their trip. As befits the kid who sings in a choir he and his friend got in to the mood on the bus ride by starting up a beautiful a cappella rendition of the Israeli oldie about Sir Moses Montifiore, the 19th century Anglo-Jewish philanthropist who built the first residential neighbourhoods outside the walls of the historic Old City (which at the time was of course just Jerusalem, because there was no New City until Montifiore began building it).

It isn't the first time I've heard them singing this ballad but it gets me in the kishkes every time to hear 21st century Israeli kids singing a tribute to this amazing man who's life was so different to theirs he could have been an alien from Mars. Yet the great works that he did, the revolution he set in motion in Judaism's most sacred city, continue to reverberate well in to our own time. Not only do his cobblestone lanes and his windmill still stand, these children walk these alleys knowing full well who's legacy they are.

But while we would be learning about Montifiore as part of the evening's programme about the pillars of Jewish atonement - charity, prayer and sincere repentance, the overarching theme was of course the Days of Awe, and soon the children launched in to the classic Sefardic hymn Adon Haslihot (Lord of Repentance), the Ashkenazi children singing along heart and soul as though they had been born in to this just as much as their Sefardi classmates. Israel's ingathering of exiles at work.

It's a good thing everyone was in fine spirits because wending our way through Jerusalem's traffic choked streets at rush hour was a time consuming process, and it goes so much faster on a bus full of kids who are happily singing rather than kvetching.

First stop was the Armon Hanatziv Promenade across the valley from the Old City. Shockingly enough it is a very popular place for visiting school groups and there was nowhere to park for schoolbuses crowding the spaces.

So the driver stopped further down the street, right outside a busy little parking bay where we found ourselves getting off the buses straight in to a crowd of  wedding guests dressed to the nines in silks, satins and sequins, mouths agape in surprise at the hordes of children in school uniform t-shirts streaming off buses right outside the stunningly chic terrace where the beautiful hupa wedding canopy had been set up directly overlooking Jerusalem's Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site.

The guests trotted off to their reception and we continued along the promenade to a convenient lookout point where the school rabbi sat everyone down and started teaching about the ancient Temple, pilgrimage to Jerusalem and... Well, around then he was drowned out by a school group one level down from us who were singing a Slihot prayer service.



Undaunted he regained his train of thought, turned up his Madonna headset mike and resumed his enthusiastic explanation of the significance of the view across the valley, the power of prayer and. Then the clarinet and violin fronted klezmer band at the wedding went in to high gear, switching from low key background music to frenetic up tempo Ashkenazi Jewish wedding melodies.

It was great music and it doesn't get more Jewish than a wedding putting the memory of the ancient Jewish Temple front and centre, quite literally, so the rabbi took it in good spirits and rounded everyone back on to the buses for our next place of interest. Maybe he hadn't covered everything he intended to but the view made an impression on the kids.

Approaching Montifiore's famous Jerusalem windmill in Mishkenot Shaananim we noticed people milling about on the terrace adjacent to the windmill, wine glasses in their hands and a stage set up with speakers and instruments ready for a concert.

Of course the music began just as we were gathered in the courtyard below and my son's teacher was launching in to a presentation about Sir Moses and his plans to improve the crowded conditions within the walls of the city by building new spacious neighbourhoods outside the walls.

As she struggled to make herself heard the children became increasingly curious about the performance, quickly picking up on some of the catchier hooks and singing along to songs I'm quite sure they hadn't heard before that night. Musical bunch this class. Jewish folk-rock outfit Nuriel made quite a number of accidental fans tonight without many of them actually knowing that they were listening to Nuriel.

It was time to move on again, around the concert with the free wine, passed the replica of Montifiore's coach in a glass case, round the windmill and the bar staff lounging beside it, down rough hewn steep stone steps of Yemin Moshe, named for Sir Moses of course. Which meant that it was of course time for the children to launch once again in to the Ballad of Sir Moses Montifiore. I do believe he must have been shepping nahas from his tomb in Ramsgate, Kent in the south of England, this innovator and philanthropist who died childless at the age of 100 in 1885.

Jerusalem topography means that more often than not you have to schlep all the way down only to climb back up, even higher, and then some. This may well be another Elul metaphor. And so it was that we went up to King David's Tomb on Mount Zion.



Entering the old stone walls we were besieged on all sides by wave after wave of Slihot pilgrims and tourists, most of them either schoolchildren or pensioners. There were a smattering of foreign visitors but most seemed to be local Israelis. Everyone scrambling to keep up with their respective groups, cutting in and out like dance troupes who'd forgotten their steps in the melee of people squeezed between the ancient wells.

Near the walls of the Dormition Abby a young woman was sitting on the ground playing Jewish songs on a harp, the bright purity of the sound quieting the hubub of the bustling street, a wave of sweet melody washing over the masses, soothing like water.

And then in front of us it looked like there really was water, gushing down the end of the cul de sac in front of David's tomb. An unexpected but beautifully done sound and light show projected on the facade, incorporating the ornate arched doorway and windows in a display about the destructiveness of hatred and jealousy and the need for brotherly love and humility to open up the gates of prayer.

Cue the children breaking in to another round of the Adon Haselihot hymn, so harmoniously coordinated that a couple of elderly women from the nearby pensioners' group asked me if they were an organised choir.

The kids were still singing as we entered the building and discovered a live acoustic band in the open courtyard playing, you guessed it, Adon Haselihot, the children turning on a dime to coordinate with the musicians. Mostly drowned out by the loud music a young man was calling out to visitors inviting them to donate to the upkeep of the holy site by buying memorial candles from him. A few women peeled off to the broad stone ledge covered in tea lights and yizkor candles.

Much to our school's delight the band kept playing popular Jewish songs and prayers, the children rooted in place, hypnotised by the vibrant enthusiasm of the ensemble, continuing to sing along as the teachers herded them up the stairs to the (slightly quieter) rooftop on which the school rabbi was delivering his talk about King David and the power of sincere, life changing, repentance.

All around we could see the twinkling lights of the city, save where the towering bulk of the Dormition Abby blocked them. It was refreshingly cool and breezy up on that rooftop, but even a couple of stories up the music from the courtyard reached us and he had to persevere to make himself heard.

Tired from all the walking on uneven stone children and parents alike relaxed on the floor, some focused on the rabbi's sermon, others drifting with the music from downstairs and the faint blasts of shofar horns in the distance. Somewhere in the alleys below someone was drumming on a darbuka and people were singing along call and response style.

Rested from our rooftop interlude with King David we headed through the Zion Gate and down towards our the Kotel plaza. If it had been crowded before it was positively heaving now. The narrow road down from the Armenian Quarter to the Western Wall lies between a stretch of ramparts and the historic Porat Yosef yeshiva. And in that narrow space pedestrians and motorists have to figure out a way to get along, especially as what pavements there are are very narrow and in places the only real option for pedestrians is to walk along the ramparts themselves.

Added fun tonight was a group of adult cyclists racing down this steep road hell for leather, while pedestrians, mostly school children, jumped out of their way in surprise. First time I've seen a bicycle Slihot tour.



I was impressed that in the sea of school parties ours made it together to the same section of the plaza and despite the surrounding noise were able to organise evening prayers and Slihot that everyone in our group could actually hear. The school rabbi, who's grandparents hail from the same Ukrainian Jewish shteitl as DH's grandfather, expertly chanted traditional Middle Eastern melodies for the prayers, taking it in turns with a golden voiced father of a pupil in leading the service. Two other class fathers blew their shofar horns at the appropriate places in the proceedings, the primal cry echoing back to us from other school groups holding their own Slihot in loose groups scattered across the Western Wall plaza.

As we were finishing students from a religious girls' school sat down in a huge circle close to the entrance to the women's side of the Kotel. There were no fathers with them to lead services, all I could see were a bevy of headscarfed female teachers. They held their own Slihot service sitting in their big circle on the hard cobblestones, their combined harmonious voices soaring over the surrounding din, strong and clear and utterly inspiring in the purity of their sound despite the large size of their group.

Boarding the bus home the driver had the radio on. It was playing The Youngbloods "Get Together", (did he realise it featured as a radio public service announcement appealing for interfaith coexistence and tolerance by the National Conference of Christians and Jews?)

Come on people now
Smile on your brother
Everybody get together
Try to love one another
Right now

Can't get much more on message for Elul than that.

Or for that matter the days after this week's edge of your seat election results.






Tuesday, August 13, 2019

One big happy family

It's the first day of vacation for many religious Jews who only go on holiday after the fast of Tisha B'Av. It's also the Muslim festival of Eid al Adha. The beach front promenade in Netanya is crowded with a mix of Jewish and Muslim families enjoying the refreshing evening breeze coming off the Mediterranean.

The Netanya municipality has organised a free Jewish music concert at the small amphitheatre by the beach. I arrive early because my son is in one of the children's choirs performing in the show.

A few families have trickled in before showtime to sit on the hard stone benches and watch the assembled choirs and orchestra do sound checks and last minute warm-ups against a glorious backdrop of a reddening sun dropping down into the Mediterranean tinting the cloudless sky in shades of azure through pink, coral and orange.

While I suspect that most of the earlybirds are friends and family of those performing, mostly various types of Orthodox Jews from liberal modern to Hareidi, there is also a smattering of Muslim Arab women and girls in hijabs and jilbabs curious about the orchestra tuning up on stage. Quite a number leave when the choir starts their sound checks and it becomes clear that this is a concert of Jewish religious music. But quite a number of the Muslim families stay.

By start time the amphitheatre is so full that the security guards at the gate are turning people away, including family and friends of the choristers. So many people want to attend that many find themselves driving around for over an hour looking for parking. Hundreds of concert goers press up against the perimeter railings from the outside from where they can clearly hear the concert. Hundreds more listen from the lawns and benches of the adjacent promenade.

Amongst the audience who did make it in to the amphitheatre the crowd is still mostly religious Jewish, a sprinkling of secular looking people and a few of the Muslim families I noticed earlier in the evening. They seem to happy to listen to a line up that includes classical Jewish hazzanut liturgical music and the songs of the "Singing Rabbi" Shlomo Carlebach, as well as a rousing Prayer for the IDF sung to the theme of a film about the 1976 Entebbe rescue.

Meanwhile next to me a Hareidi Orthodox family, father, mother and a bevy of daughters, from Bnei Brak alternates between enthusiastically singing along and calling out to people in the crowd they recognise or at children of theirs who ended up sitting a couple of rows ahead. Their bright eyed enthusiasm is as endearing as their constant interruptions are irritating. They are careful to arrange themselves so that the mother is sitting next to me, the girls between them and the father is next to a man. Both father and mother sing along with the concert (and have nice voices), inlcuding the Prayer for the IDF and the Hatikva, Israel's national anthem.

At one point another family a few rows back starts handing around their baby among friends in the audience and the cute chubby little guy arrives at the woman next to me who sings and coos to him until her daughter asks to hold the nipper too at which point he starts to cry and is hastily passed back via friends and strangers alike to his parents. The atmosphere is one of a giant extended family reunion.

On stage the choirs create a wonderful rich sound while the celebrity hazzan soloists perform the sort of cantorial vocal acrobatics, falsettos and Ashkenazi maqqamim that instantly transport me to my childhood synagogue, standing in the women's gallery sandwiched between my mother and great-aunt as they harmonised beautifully and loudly with the hazzan below and the male choir in the choir box directly opposite the women's balcony.

My grandmother's arthritis kept her from walking to shul in the last few decades of her life but she sang the same intricate liturgy with all its coloratura in her fine soprano as she minced the fish and grated the potatoes. Never has food been prepared with such melodious religious devotion as in my Bubba's kitchen.

Her father was a hazzan, her son sang in the synagogue choir, her grandson-in-law sang in a hazzanut choir and often led synagogue services. During her final years he would call her up at bedtime to sing her classic hazzanut pieces and Carlebach songs over the phone to help her drift off to sleep. She would be thrilled to see her grandson continuing the family tradition. This month she would be celebrating her 110th birthday. Tonight was a fine way to honour her memory.

Friday, June 07, 2019

The Widow, the orphan and the convert



Just before lighting candles for Shabbat a few thoughts about Megillat Rut:

On Shavuot we focus a lot on the issue of fair treatment of the ger, the convert (and with very just cause), but the story of Ruth and Naomi is also about a wealthy established family who have suffered terrible loss and tragedy, returning home to Bethlehem with their new downtrodden status plain for all to see.

"Hazot Naomi?" "Can this be Naomi?" the townspeople say when she returns. We can feel Naomi's shame bleeding through between the lines. The woman from a family used to wearing Biblical era Hermes and Balenciaga reduced to rags, bereft of her high status husband and sons, with her only remaining close family her Moabite daughter-in-law.

Instead of trying to help restore Naomi's sense of self, offer her comfort, it seems she is pretty much left to fend for herself by local people resentful of a woman of means who's family just up and left them during a time of famine, rather than staying behind and trying to help their community.

She is reduced to sending out her Moabite daughter-in-law to glean in the fields with the poorest of the poor. What a fall from grace for Naomi. Forgive me for forgetting my sources, but there are certainly those amongst Hazal who fault the townspeople for abandoning Naomi this way, and certainly Boaz for not initiating help to his kinswoman and excusing himself on the basis that there was a "goel karov mimeni", a closer kinsman who should have been responsible, absolving himself not just of the matter of yibum, but also from just taking the initiative in reaching out and caring for his bereaved and impoverished kinswoman upon her return.

It is Rut the foreigner, the stranger, who takes it upon herself to do the mitzva of tzedaka and gmilut hasadim in the most extreme way possible - by literally giving herself and her labour to to try to save Naomi from her downward spiral of depression and self-loathing in the wake of the terrible tragedies she has suffered. It is Rut the outsider who tries to pick up the pieces and set things right.

Her actions force Boaz to take responsibility and do his duty towards his kinswoman. Ruth's devotion to Naomi shows up the townspeople who do nothing to help this literal Almana and Ger, one of the mitzvot mentioned over and over again in the Torah.

How different from the town in which we live. I am very grateful and proud that we are fortunate enough live in a community full of Ruths, of gmilut hasadim, of tzedaka, of caring for our neighbours and beyond. May we merit to always be in a position to fulfill these supremely important mitzvot, to walk in the ways of Rut.

Shavuot sameah to all Am Yisrael.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

If I forget thee Jerusalem


This is the SS Yerushalyim, a ship which brought thousands and thousands of immigrants to Israel in the early years of the state. It is of course named for the holy city of Jerusalem because what greater symbolism could their be for Jews returning to Zion after so many centuries of exile. 

It is also the ship that brought several family members to Israel for the first time in 1954.

The ship sailed from Marseilles and aside from my relatives, almost everyone else on board were new olim from Morocco and a small number of European Holocaust survivors. Almost every day and night there were spontaneous circles of people dancing the hora and singing Israeli folk songs and traditional Jewish prayers.

My mother told me she made good use of her French but most of her fellow passengers were anxious to practice their Hebrew and the family spent much of the time on board strengthening their Hebrew conversational skills with their fellow Jewish passengers.

My great-uncle, who was fond of declaiming the  works of Hebrew poets he'd learnt by heart in his Zionist school as a child, attracted regular audiences keen to hear his dramatic renditions of classics by Bialik and Yehuda Halevi.

During large public prayer services on the deck facing the direction of Jerusalem people teared up as they reached verses such as וְתֶחֱזֶינָה עֵינֵינוּ בְּשׁוּבְךָ לְצִיּוֹן בְּרַחֲמִים.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה', הַמַּחֲזִיר שְׁכִינָתוֹ לְצִיּוֹן.
And may our eyes witness Your return to Zion in compassion. Blessed are You oh Lord, who restores His Presence to Zion

In another few days they would be setting foot in Zion, they would be realising an ancient dream of returning home.

My mother, her brother and their first cousin (the two children in the photo above) were children going on their first big adventure, an entire summer in the nascent State of Israel touring the country and visiting an assortment of cousins and landsman, people who were like family because they or their parents or even grandparents had come from the same village as my grandfather and his family.

They stayed in places as diverse as kibbutz Beit Alfa, Haifa, kibbutz Hofetz Hayim and one of the original small homes that once lined Tel Aviv's beachfront Hayarkon street long before it was redeveloped with glitzy hotels and blocks of flats.

One place they couldn't visit though was the heart of sacred Jerusalem, The Old City, The Kotel and the Temple Mount. Back in 1954 these were deep in hostile territory, occupied by the Jordanian army.

I remember how on my first visit to Jerusalem, nearly 30 years later, but a world away from those times, my mother walked with me around the old Armistice lines, showing me the places where on her first visit to the city a local Jerusalem family friend took them on a walk that included rooftop lookouts, odd angles peeking out of narrow windows in private flats and a visit to Mount Zion, the closest a Jew could come to the Jordanian controlled Old City.

This was how they tried to sneak glimpses of ancient Jerusalem and the Jewish holy sites, all the time fearing trigger happy Jordanian snipers who occasionally took pot shots across the Armistice Line in to the Israeli side of the city.

Walking close to the border they were warned not to take out cameras in case soldiers on the other side decided this was reason enough to shoot. In what is today downtown Jerusalem there were streets cut off with fences and barbed wire, places where locals warned tourists to run across the street as fast as possible or walk in a crouch because that section of pavement or road was directly in firing range from Jordanian guard posts manned by snipers.

In 1954 they stood on Mount Zion looking over the walls of the Old City and praying that one day they would merit walking within those walls and going to pray at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

Nearly 30 years later my mother walked me to Mount Zion, remembering how her teenage self in 1954 had been both awed and terrified of walking so close to the Armistice line and the enemy soldiers patrolling the Old City walls.

All that had changed with the Israeli liberation of the Old City from Jordanian control in the 1967 Six Day War. Jews forced to leave the Old City as refugees in the 1948-9 War were able to return and restore the long neglected warren of ancient streets and buildings.

My uncle, the little boy in the photo below, was one of the first civilians to visit the Kotel immediately after the fighting died down, realising the dream he'd held on to all those years, the fulfillment of those prayers and tears overlooking the then forbidden walls back in 1954.



By the time of my first visit to Jerusalem in the 1980s the Jerusalem municipality was well in to a massive restoration project to clean up and rebuild all that had been damaged during the 19 years Jews had been banned from their holiest sites. Rubbish had been cleared from around the Kotel, the plaza had been expanded to accommodate thousands upon thousands of pilgrims thronging the site and the Jewish Quarter once again was home to Jewish families and Torah learning.

Hearing my mother's Jerusalem stories from the 1950s and early 1960s while walking through a city undergoing such an incredible rebirth it was no wonder we were both in tears by the time we reached the Kotel for afternoon prayers.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

The Little Prince

A moving cover of a classic Israeli song from the 1970s, "Hanasikh Hakatan" (The Little Prince). Beyond the haunting melody and beautiful poetry this is a song which memorialises so many.

Israeli poet and songwriter Yonatan Gefen wrote about a childlike soldier he served with during his military service who was killed during a training accident.

Israeli musician Shem Tov Levi put the poem to music and included it in his 1975 album. It struck a chord with many Israelis in the wake of the heavy losses in the Yom Kippur War and has become part of the Israeli national "liturgy" of songs of mourning played and sung on Yom Hazikaron, Memorial Day.

My mother heard it during a visit to Israel around the time the album came out and connected deeply with the poignant imagery Gefen borrow from French author Antoine St Exupery's "Le Petit Prince", one of my mother's favourite books and one she read to me often. More than just being a writer who's work she enjoyed, St Exupery was one of my mother's heroes, a Frenchman who fought the Nazis in World War Two and also tried to save the lives of Jews, as such he was also a Hasid Umot Haolam.

A few weeks ago I visited the small southern Israeli town of Yeruham, literally smack dab in the middle of the desert. The version of the song in the clip below is performed by young musicians from the Yeruham Conservatory, many of whom were also involved in a recent project with Professor Francesco Lotoro to record and perform songs and pieces of music written by Jews during the Holocaust, and by doing so preserve the memory of the many Jewish composers, poets, singers and musicians who perished.

I cannot hear this song today without thinking of all these stories, the many people lost to us and very much still with us, the complex modern history of the Jewish people this song represents to me.


Warts and all

Katonti, but there is something I would add to Rabbi Sacks' moving piece. The broken tablets the Moses dropped upon discovering that in his absence the Children of Israel had built the Golden Calf.

The broken tablets of stone symbolise failure, a vast national mistake, a crisis of faith, disappointment - any number of negative aspects of the incident. And yet these too were carried in the sacred Ark by the Levites, symbols of national folly and lack of judgement. Because as a nation we don't only carry with us the glowing successes, the badges of honour, but also our mistakes, our failures.

As a nation our national book, the Bible, records the good and the bad, the times our nation did the right thing and the times we completely messed up. It's a very honest way of viewing one's own history and a very important lesson in humility and in the profoundness of our believe in teshuv, the ability to repent and change and learn from our mistakes.

On Yom Hazikaron we remember all our fallen, the ones who died saving the day with outstanding acts of selflessness and the ones who tragically lost their lives due to friendly fire, a commander's error of judgement or fa aulty piece of equipment. They all risked their lives in the defense of our homeland and people, they knew that wearing the uniform could put them in harm's way for any number of reasons and we owe them not just a debt of gratitude, but as a nation, we owe it to them to learn their stories and in doing so hopefully learn also from mistakes that cost lives. Yehi Zikhram Barukh.


At the end of the book of Genesis, Joseph makes one deeply poignant request: Though I die in exile, God will bring you back to the land, and when He does so, "veha'alitem et atzmotai mizeh", “Carry my bones” with you.
Moses smashed the first set of tablets given to him by God at Mount Sinai, but the Israelites carried them in the Ark, together with the second set, the new tablets and the fragments of the old.
And so it has been throughout #Jewish history; we carry with us all the fragments of our people’s past, the broken lives, the anguished deaths. For we refuse to let their deaths be in vain. Our past lives on in us as we continue the Jewish journey to the future, to #hope, and to #life.
Just a few days ago, on #YomHaShoah, we remembered the victims of the Holocaust. On #YomHaZikaron, beginning tonight, we will remember the victims of the Israel Defence Forces and those killed by terrorist attacks in Israel. What our enemies killed, we keep alive in the only way we can: in our minds, our memories and in our land, the State of #Israel.
There are cultures that forget the past and there are those that are held captive by the past. We do neither. We carry the past with us for as long as the #Jewish people exist, as Moses carried the bones of Joseph, and as the Levites carried the fragments of the shattered tablets of stone.
Those fragments of #memory, of those no longer with us, help make us who we are. We live for what they died for, by walking tall as #Jews, showing we are not afraid, refusing to be intimidated by the antisemitism that has returned, or, as we have seen in recent days, by the sustained assault on #Israel.
On #YomHaZikaron, as we remember those who have fallen or been killed in defence of the State of #Israel, we say to the souls of those lost: We will never forget you. We will never cease to mourn you. We will never let you down.

Monday, May 06, 2019

The blessing of simple things



It was a relief this evening to linger outdoors in the early evening enjoying the refreshing cooler air after a day of heat, dust and dry winds.

More than the change in weather though I was glad to be scanning the pre-crepuscular skies for screaming throngs of soaring swallows and swifts hunting bugs on the wing instead of gazing at the slowly darkening southern sky to catch flashes of rockets and interceptions, faint booms carried on the wind from areas of Israel only yesterday under bombardment from Gaza.

What a difference a day makes.

This evening the drama comes from a begging fledgling jay loudly demanding a meal from its parent, a flock of black cap warblers chattering loudly as they feast on my neighbours' huge mulberry tree groaning with fruit and a nervous laughing dove startled by a myna as it comes in to land on the same branch.

My garden is already feeling the effects of the first couple of spring heatwaves. The pineapple sage and basil need extra water, the citrus trees could use some TLC and the cyclamen which have flowered all winter long have definitely seen better days.

The pomegranate though is glorious, covered in dramatic flame red buds and blossoms, heralding the impending dry season in style. The mango and olive are decked out in profuse but delicate blooms while the almond is adorned with huge pouches of green velvet. Purple-blue sage  and rosemary alongside white roses offer a festive patriotic note in honour of Israel's Independence Day later this week.

So much promise of goodness to come over the summer but I am left wondering whether we will be able to enjoy it or whether in another few days, weeks, a month, we will be back to rockets and sirens, ninety stomach churning seconds to dash for the shelter and the shadow of war once more hanging over this blessed, challenging land.













Sunday, May 05, 2019

Sowing a little kindness

Shabbat morning I was home with the kids when someone banged loudly on the door. I asked who was there and the answer came "A neighbour".

I opened the door to find an elderly bearded man I vaguely recognised from my street, but I couldn't tell you his name. "I heard that someone in the family is unwell, they made an announcement in shul this morning, I want to help. I live a few doors down. What can I do?" He asked in heavily Russian accented Hebrew. "My kitchen or yours?"

I was at a loss for words He scrunched up his brow, thinking.

"Borscht? Borscht could be good. I will bring some tomorrow."

My husband emerged from changing a nappy and tried to thank him, but he sort of pooh poohed him, made some comment about him being from Ukraine and knowing how to make a good borscht, so that is what he would do.

And with that he wished us Shabbat Shalom, refuah sheleimah and took his leave. This morning there was again a rapping at the door.

Our Ukrainian neighbour was on our doorstep again, this time holding a tray and on it a piping hot pan of potato-vegetable kugel.

"I thought about borscht but then I wondered if maybe children don't like that so much, they don't know what it is, they don't have the same associations. But kigel, I know everyone loves kigel"

As he went to stash it in my fridge he again turned to practical matters. "So what else? Do you have any chicken or meat in the freezer? Some fresh or frozen veg? Onions, carrots, peppers? Make sure the meat or poultry is defrosted overnight in your fridge, I'll come in the morning after davening and make sure your family has something good for lunch. I used to work as a cook, this is what I know how to do, how I know to help."

As I heard his footfalls leaving the building I realised that I still didn't know his name.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Free to hate

Later this week we will commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day for the millions of Jews tortured and murdered by Hitler and his many willing European accomplices.

Is it coincidence that a Der Sturmer style cartoon like this runs in a mainstream respected publication like the New York Times and not long afterward yet another Jewish synagogue is attacked by a shooter driven by anti-Semitism?

The point is not whether a West Coast teen would have been reading the high brow NYT, the point is that when the NYT deems it acceptable to publish a deeply anti-Semitic cartoon like this which supports the age old anti-Semitic canard that Jews are bent on world domination and are behind the scenes pulling the strings of world leaders, then the NYT is sending a message that this type of anti-Semitism is legitimate.

If the NYT believes that this Protocols of the Elders of Zion anti-Semitism is legitimate than it is also legitimate for US politicians like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar to stand up give voice to similar anti-Semitic tropes and if it's fine for respectable members of the US Congress to give voice to such theories than it becomes fine for these ideas to be spoken of in public forums everywhere, including educational frameworks like colleges.

And if these ideas are being granted such widespread legitimacy then why shouldn't a 19 year-old in California and a middle aged malcontent in Pittsburgh decide that clearly these anti-Semitic lies are in fact true and the only way to solve the problems of the United States is to take up arms and and start killing Jews, starting with their places of worship?

And if you start saying, well, it's OK for the NYT and Congresswoman Omar to say such things because they are progressive, and we know that all progressives mean well even when they are inciting hatred against Jews, but it's only dangerous when white supremacists say the same thing in slightly different language because people on the right are always evil then you are missing the point. Anti-Semitism in both Europe and the US has become accepted in polite company again, whether that polite company is old school reactionary or left-wing progressive today they can unite around at least one issue - Jew hatred, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and scapegoating the world's ill on the Jewish people.

Since early childhood I remember the dark humour of the bittersweet running joke between my uncle and one of his closest friends, a joke that stretches back to my grandmother and the mother of this friend who were also best mates. The two friends had very different political views, the friend and his mother were devoted Communists, active members of the British Communist party and in the trades union movements, to this day the son is a a card carrying Communist. My grandmother and uncle, devoutly religious Jews, always leaned Conservative, and had deep respect for figures such as Churchill, Margaret Thatcher and the British royal family,believers in free markets and classic liberalism, active in the campaign for Soviet Jewry and for the rights and freedom of anti-Communist dissidents behind the Iron Curtain.

Many a Shabbat or Sunday afternoon political discussion over tea and biscuits would get heated and intense but always at the end they would shake hands and say to one another "At the end of the day our world views make no difference, when the anti-Semites take power they will line us up against the wall side by side to be shot because it doesn't matter if we are Communist or Conservative, internationalist or patriotic Brits, when the anti-Semites come to get the Jews we will be lined up and shot side by side simply because we are Jews."

As a child and young adult I would hear this and view it as a product of a generation who had lived through the dark days of European fascism, who had seen Mosley's Brown Shirts march through Jewish neighbourhoods of London, both before and after the Second World War, who had seen their relatives in central and eastern Europe murdered in the Holocaust. The dark humour of firing squads and anti-Semitic executioners seemed an anachronism leftover from those horrific times, far away from the new democracies rising from the dust of the fall of the Berlin Wall and an end to authoritarian governments the world over. At least that is how it seemed.

Now? I am not going to stand here and forecast the rise of a new Hitlerian world order bent on genocide against the Jewish people. As a Jew that possibility is not one that can ever be ruled out because we have seen it too many times in our history and our families have too many gaping holes in them to say it could never happen again.

In the week in which we commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, what I am saying is that if among progressives in the US, like the NYT, this type of anti-Semitism is considered fine and dandy then we are in trouble. A trouble that even if it doesn't yield another full blown Holocaust, is nevertheless a portent of dangerous times for Jews in yet another free and democratic country in which they believed themselves to be safe from such historic woes.

This trouble, this danger, it isn't a big bam that has happened overnight. It's a slow, incremental chipping away at what was acceptable in public, in polite society, in respected publications, on college campuses. Like the lobster in the pot the water has slowly been getting hotter and we were happy to make excuse after excuse to dismiss the change in temperature as anything to merit concern. The Jewish community, so assimilated, so educated, so comfortable could not see that in France and in the UK and Canada and the US the threat wasn't the stereotypical radical right, ethno-supremacist crowd, but the toxic anti-Semitism was spewing forth from precisely the progressive groups with which so many Jews identified.

The Jew hatred we are experiencing is a pincer movement coming equally from the far left and the far right, catching Jews in its grasp. We need to wake up and see it for what it is. Once again we are the scapegoat of choice, pro-immigration activists to be blamed by anti-immigrant America firsters, but capitalist bankers and businessmen the socialist left can blame for every social and economic ill under the sun. We are at once the internationalists who are contaminating a "pure white" America, and the financial wizards willfully twisting the global economy in our favour.

We are damned if we do and damned if we don't, we are the wicked religious Jews who clearly caused Trump to be elected and we are the wicked progressive Jews who want to make America Communist and flood the country with refugees and migrants of the wrong skin colour. And in the end what you have is an anti-Semitic miasma polluting the discourse, and it doesn't even matter anymore from which side because even in this polarised society there is a consensus echoed from both extremes and merging back together. Blame the Jews.