Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Remembering

Last night I was honoured to be invited back to St Marylebone Parish Church for their annual Remembrance service for those who have died under the care of the Leaders in Oncology Care hospitals. It was not my first time addressing this congregation, and once again the service was incredibly moving and appropriate. The Revd Canon Stephen Evans has repeatedly managed to weave together a service appropriate for people of a huge variety of faiths, and there was barely a prayer or piece of music I didn't feel able to join in with.
On January 1st it was the tenth secular anniversary since a brain tumor defeated my dad, and took him at the age of 61. Last night I didn't speak about him, but felt so grateful to have the service space to once again remember and process. Healing and carrying on are not tasks that are completed and put on a shelf. They are continual and different and need returning to from time to time, and I feel so lucky to have been given a little space to do so once again.
This was what I said:

2016 felt like the year of celebrity deaths. We became so aware of it that the year itself became somehow personified as a cruel, living being. It was even suggested that the 82 stars who died last year knew something we didn’t and were getting out first!
It is a time consuming exercise to attempt to discern how many of those 82 were killed by cancers. In January alone, of a total 6 celebrity deaths, David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Rocker Jimmy Bain and Terry Wogan, 4 in all, were taken by a variety of cancers. Celebrities often personalise larger issues for us, but for each of us here tonight, we don’t need to have the loss and pain of suffering Cancer made any more real for us.
When things seemingly happen more often than they used to, it can begin to feel normal. Yet no matter how many celebrities met a timely or untimely end in 2016, the deaths of those close to our hearts is something that continues to seem abnormal, the memory of it continues to shock and upset, yet we all do carry on. We try to carry on with love in our hearts, and a desire to make that loss more meaningful through living our lives better, or by embodying the values of those who left us more fully day to day. They stay with us because we keep them with us, and honour them in all the good we do in the world.
The loss we share together tonight brings us closer to one another, but it also remains very personal, held close to our aching hearts. Each person lost was an entire world, with whom our own hopes and dreams were tied up.
We come together this evening remembering many different deaths. But we also come bringing memories of lives lived, and names used that were special and unique to our relationships. I want to share a poem by an Israeli poetess – Zelda, that Reform Jews now have in their prayer book for the High Holidays. It is called EACH OF US HAS A NAME:
Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

Each of us remembers, and each of us will be remembered. The many different names we carry through our lives are the imprints we leave on others, and in coming together we honour the memories of those who we have loved, cared for, supported and named out loud. They may not be remembered by clamouring fans as the famous deaths of 2016 were. But they are remembered with deep rivers of love, and with names that were special between you.
The various names we will each leave behind will be said differently by different mouths. But I hope and pray we might all be blessed to have names that inspire as much gratitude and warmth as those of the hospital staff present with us here tonight. The unfailing care and dedication you offer is an inspiration to us all. Please keep helping your patients to fight their fight, while we as a society must keep fighting using science, strength and courage to find new ways to battle this killer. Many days it will be hard to do what you do, but the name you will leave in this world as a result, whether spoken by 5 people or 5 million people, will be one spoken with respect, love, and gratitude.

May we all be blessed to be named by those who hold us close to their hearts.

Monday, 23 January 2017

How can life go on? HMD Address to the GLA, 23/1/17

I was privileged to be invited to give an address at the Greater London Assembly Holocaust Memorial Day service with the Mayor of London today. This year's theme is How can life go on? This was what I said:


I can’t remember the first time I was told about the Shoah, or the Holocaust. It feels like somehow I always knew. Stories of my grandmothers cousins, shot into the graves they had dug for themselves in a forest weren’t exactly the stuff of bedtime stories, but they were a part of the collective family history that I just somehow knew, and that made the horrors of the 20th Century both more personal, and less shocking, because it was just there. I do remember the first time my grandmother spoke to me directly about her experiences, and it so important that testimonies such as we have heard today are preserved. Life carried on because there was life to be lived, the world needed improving, and while it was irreparably changed, life is not something we are good at giving up on collectively.
My children haven’t heard my grandparent’s stories yet. They are still young, but so far they aren’t aware that less than 80 years ago the face and future of Judaism was changed forever. They also aren’t aware that the world said never again, and has broken that promise not once, not twice, but over and over, in Srebrenica, Rwanda, Cambodia and more.
For many of my parents’ generation, being Jewish was hard to separate from the stories of the Shoah. The memory of the 6 million lost, who could have done such good in the world had they lived, had to be honoured. For my children, while the Shoah remains an incredibly painful and personal piece of history, I hope it does not define their Judaism. Their Judaism should be a beautiful way of bringing meaning and community into their lives, not fear. But I hope it does define their understanding of what it means to be Europeans, or citizens of the world. The Shoah has nothing to do with Judaism or being Jewish. It happened to us. Not because of us. The Shoah has a lot to do with being a part of the Western world, and is something we as a society must continue to learn from.
For citizens in Nazi Germany, there were many, small incremental steps that allowed the Holocaust to unfold. A German Professor interviewed after the War said:
“One doesn’t see exactly where or how to move.[…] Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even talk alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.”
For me, learning these lessons from everyday citizens in Nazi Germany is essential. If we know that allowing things to get slowly worse, and waiting for the collective to rise up, can ultimately lead to genocide, we must take personal responsibility. We are all uncertain too, all fearful. And of course in this country we hate to meddle or get involved with another person’s business. But carrying on regardless despite knowing what it means to be a bystander, cannot be an option if we are to go on with life after the many genocides of the last century. The result of not standing up and calling out hatred, xenophobia, homophobia, attacks on the disabled, racism, Anti-Semitism is an emboldening of those who hate to act without impunity. It feels like there has not been a more important time to learn this lesson in the UK, at least not in my lifetime.
We live in a world where 24 hour news and social media makes it difficult for us to claim we don’t know what is going on around us. Yet it easily becomes overwhelming, hard to tell what really happened from the cacophony of voices, and far too regularly it becomes a mouthpiece of hatred. I often have to remind myself not to read the comments!
 We want to protest, we want things to be different, but it isn’t always clear how to. The Shoah teaches me that I cannot hide behind my own uncertainty and fear. I must be an Upstander in my own community when I see hatred of difference and otherness. But perhaps being an Upstander isn’t only about challenging the negative where we find it, but about finding ways each and every day to reach out to others with love and compassion. The diversity that makes London great, also makes each of us as individuals stronger in our sense of self, and more comfortable with neighbours who are from all over the world. Yet in Germany and Bosnia we saw that it doesn’t take much for neighbours to turn a blind eye to one another, or even to become complicit in dehumanising the other. Life goes on, but we must live it differently, and take inspiration from those brave upstanders before us who rejected hatred, and refused to accept that others might be less than them just because they are different to them.

We cannot forget, but we can choose to live a life that works to ensure it is never possible again.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

In, Out, Shake it all about...

I am not normally one to get terribly political on social media. I want people to use their democratic rights, but other than rejecting outright racist parties, I wouldn't dream of suggesting the best way to vote. 
I was at a meeting this morning where several Rabbis and Educators come together a few times a year to explore the Jewish values and ethics that underpin the work of a particular charity. It is an incredible space to learn in. Our theme today was the Refugee crisis, and of course the impending Brexit/Bremain vote became a part of our conversations. One of my respected colleagues made the point that the human impact of this decision is so huge, he doesn't feel able to remain silent and just quietly vote 'remain' himself - he needs to explain why this is so important.
To be honest, I understand arguments on both sides of the debate. Our public services are under pressure, and immigration impacts that. But voting out will not solve the issues of immigration, and will in fact create more as my friends German wife and my colleagues Polish nanny who have been here say 15 or more years, wait to find out what processes they will have to undergo to remain with their families and friends and in their homes if we vote to leave. UKIP have used images of fleeing refugees to stir up the immigration debate, despite the fact that while 1 in every 131 people in the world is now a refugee, Britain has taken in a tiny number, and has pledged to welcome 20,000 from Syria before 2020 - 5,000 a year, and 3,000 refugee children (10,000 were rescued in the Kindertransport that many used to argue for this welcome). On the other hand we have around 70,000 children in care waiting to find homes and stability (coramBAAF). How do we make sure we look after one another, as well as making space in our small home for more? 
The economic arguments have been made both ways, and both sides seem to be offering lies and fear. It does seem certain that leaving would create huge instability in the first instance. Who knows what the long term effects will be. I am not an economist and should probably have written less than I have on the matter! I tend to think that being interconnected and working together is a good thing. Economically this can lead to problems, but it also leads to opportunity and mutuality.
The piece that has felt most helpful in making a choice tomorrow was a simple meme I saw in the barrage of videos and posters on Facebook:
I think this is a fabulous summary of how we should think about decision making in general. Is it about what I can gain, or about what I can give? Is it about what we will benefit from, or about what we want to do to ensure a better future for all?  There are enough resources in the world, if we just thought about how we use them differently (and I love the metro ad that made that point today). There is enough hope and love, if we were just allowed to give and receive it. We often feel impotent and unable to do anything about the huge humanitarian crises around the world and closer to home. Yet it seems that remain will fight best for human relationships, human rights, protection of one another, and a sense that we are not willing to turn our backs on EU members living with us here, British citizens living around the EU, and impoverished refugees who UKIP have heartlessly used to suggest we are being flooded by immigrants. If we want to help with this huge crisis, and be part of the solution and not another closed door (as for example Switzerland and Sweden were to Jews during World War Two) we need to work in partnership with those really bearing the brunt of refugee and economic migration. Of course we also need to look after our own, and if we did this better we would have less fear and stress about the same immigrants and refugees, and about where money goes or is received from. We need to look after one another at home and abroad. Closing doors doesn't seem like a good way to do that.
I suspect most people reading this will have already made their minds up about their vote tomorrow. They will either be throwing rebuttals at my writing or nodding vociferously, and for the record, I won't be engaging in an online debate so ultimately I probably shouldn't have bothered shaking the political stick. But when it is a stick bound up with human rights and mutuality, it is hard to stay quiet. I will be voting remain. 

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Fighting the Good Fight

Over the last few weeks I have repeatedly been asked to write and speak about Anti-Semitism. This is rather unusual for me; as a Jewish Educator I want to encourage members of the community to identify with that which is positive, empowering, joyful in their Judaism. I don't want a community drawn together by fear; this strikes me as a cheap and short term way to build a sense of togetherness and mutual support.
I've always resisted, where possible, teaching about the Holocaust, or about Anti-Semitism - these are things our non-Jewish friends need to know about, we need to know about Shabbat, and what it can contribute to our lives, or to the world. We need to teach about our responsibilities to stand up for those on the outside of society. We need to feel confident in our Judaism, not worried about misconceptions of it. Yes we remember our history, and it has moulded us, but it is not who we are.
Earlier this year I attended a conference in Italy looking at the future of European Jewish life, and I was struck there by how powerfully other Rabbis and educators are doing the same thing - in arguably much more difficult circumstances. The rise of the far right in Hungary, for example, is not something to be easily dismissed, and while we met groups trying to tackle media messages of Anti-Semitism, we also met people committed to ensuring Jews have plenty of reasons to celebrate their Judaism, not be fearful because of it. They are on the front line of serious halakhic issues around status and the future of Jewish life in their towns and cities. And in response they offered some of the most creative, loving and human halakhah I have encountered in a long time. Alongside these Rabbis Europe is filling up with graduates of a school I spent a year in nearly 14 years ago - Paideia - the European Centre for Jewish Studies in Stockholm. Communities are being blessed with empowered academics, artists, teachers who have been given the tools of Jewish literacy, and a love of Jewish culture and wisdom.
So while lots of people have been asking me what I think about Anti-Semitism, and it would be glib to pretend we can ignore it totally at the moment, as a Jewish educator I don't want us to be thinking about it. I want us to pour our energies into creating a community who love what Judaism has to contribute to their lives, their societies and to the world. Perhaps this is the best answer I have to Anti-Semitism. I wish I controlled the media, I wish I ran a bank. But more than anything I wish to see a Judaism that lives and breathes joy and learning and life. 

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Permission to complain

For those of you who have read this blog over the last few years, you may recall having children was not an easy journey for my husband and I. We have now been blessed twice (with serious help from amazing medical staff), having been told we didn't even qualify for ivf our case was so hopeless. 
But getting pregnant is of course only a tiny step on a now lifelong journey of commitment. It is a blessing that we never take for granted. But that doesn't mean it isn't sometimes a strain to remember it's a blessing: maybe when I am up for the third time in 6 hours, or have wet themselves on a play date, again. Perhaps when I haven't showered for 5 days, or I get home to discover my already fairly useless feeding bra has been unhooked all afternoon. 
Complaining about parent hood is an easy thing to do. Or at least we might think it is. Having been on a long ivf journey however, it can feel like we aren't allowed to really feel the desperation and depression that these incredible, funny, sunshine bundles of blessings bring with them. While many parents laugh about the stresses and strains, for others (both those who have been through ivf and those who haven't) complaining can feel like a betrayal, or ingratitude... How can we moan about blessings? 
Parenthood is hard. But maybe blessings aren't meant to be easy. Struggle can mean growth, for us and for them, we can be learning from each other, even when we think we are getting it all wrong, and just because things are hard now, doesn't mean they always will be (everything is a phase!) I was reminded recently by a wise Anglican Priest that just because we had to fight to have babies, doesn't mean we shouldn't be allowed to feel desperate when sleep deprived, or complain at how tough it can be. Remembering we are blessed, in whatever part of our life it is, doesn't mean we can't also acknowledge the struggle and negative aspects blessings can bring- perhaps we need both- perhaps we just need permission to feel both from time to time. So to the many of you who have put up with me feeling the desperation of late, and given me permission to be there, and offered your own support and acknowledgement - thank you! 
Oldest child is obsessed with packing bags... Doesn't really matter what with (in this case musical instruments to go on holiday). Drives me absolutely nuts!

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The motherhood challenge

I'm not a person that shies away from posting pics on social media, though I understand why some do. But when I was 'nominated' this week in Facebooks motherhood challenge (post 4 photos that show how happy you are to be a mother) I had a range of responses. I've enjoyed seeing friends post their pictures, as I generally enjoy their pictures the rest of the time too. Yet my first instinct was to post something rather passive aggressive; photos of our kids, and of those that didn't become our kids, as 100 cell blastocysts sitting in Petri dishes before they were implanted (yes the clinic gives you those pics!) I resisted, but the voice of my teacher, colleague and friend Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner rang in my head from a 2006 class on baby blessings: 'every time you celebrate anything in synagogue it hurts someone else'. And so I haven't posted my 4 pictures.

There's another reason too, and perhaps this is why many of us need to post the happy pictures: being a mother is a challenge! It is a great blessing and joy, but it is also a challenge, and there aren't many places we are allowed to admit that. I could have posted a photo of the potty I emptied this morning, containing the largest poop I think any 3 year old is capable of. Or a photo of me at 11pm, 3am, 5am (on an  ok-ish night). There are no pictures for the anxiety about returning to work and the changes that you will have to figure out. I could have posted a picture of my 3 year old brother who became no older. I cannot conceive of how a mother (or father) functions again, other than knowing she must. 

Pictures are very subjective and the whole picture is rarely what they offer. Social media is an amazingly wonderful place to share, to celebrate, to keep in touch. But like any community one persons joy is another's pain, and this particular challenge made me too aware of that pain, and I know it is a pain many of you lovely blog readers know personally too. So I celebrate all of you amazing mothers, who put up and bring up and get up, along with your partners when you have them. But I also want to hold those of you who feel the pain of these beautiful pictures, and tell you that you too are wonderful, whole, brilliant people, and your community is holding you even when you don't feel it. 

Monday, 7 December 2015

Wisdom and Truth- an idea still in progress!


I recently attended an absolutely fascinating session learning about the scents of the Tanakh from an expert perfumier (organized by Rabbi Jeff Berger). We were given the opportunity to smell the essence of the Temple incense offerings and biblical plants, and to explore some of their deeper meanings. 
Smelling essence of olives and olive oil we were met by what was a surprisingly mellow and sweet scent, nothing like I would have expected. 
As we celebrate the Festival of Lights and the miracle of the olive oil of the Temple Menorah (among other things!) the olive tree itself traditionally has been a symbol of light - as its silver leaves shimmer and almost glow. Light is furthermore a symbol of wisdom, (enlightenment), which suddenly struck me as fascinating when we started smelling and discussing Almonds... 
The almond is a symbol of truth enclosed in innocence, truth which we have to work in order to see more clearly. This reminded me of the Almond blossom, the shape that forms part of the structure of the menorah, the lamp that needed to be relit when the Temple was rededicated.
At Chanukah we put our chanukiyot into the window to publicly declare the miracle, to increase light in the world, to witness our faith. But with these gentle scents it occurred to me that one of the many Chanukah messages might be much more subtle. Truth is something that can be hard to get to the core of -
It can be entrapped in hard casings, but not entirely impermeable ones. The truth of the almond is the structure that supports the glowing light of wisdom, which can grow, but can also be diminished, which may burn bright for short periods, but doesn't last (except with some serious miraculous/spiritual intervention). Perhaps it also suggests that Truth is the foundational support of wisdom, but they are not the same thing. Yet our human endeavor asks us to repeatedly return to try to break through the hard shell, and bring out wisdom once again. The truth may be elusive, and wisdom may take many different forms, but we should keep coming back to it, and joining with others to share its warmth and light. 
Chanukah Sameach!