Shlapping Nachas - My grandpa
Note added, 21 June, 2014
Today I was teaching in Leeds, birthplace of my grandmother, Grandpa Michael's beloved wife and supporter Muriel. As I began the last session of the day I was called out to talk to a stranger in a hat, who seemed to know who I was. I was rather reluctant to speak to him in a private room, as he insisted we must (Practical Rabbinics 101, men you don't know who don't have appointments; don't close the door!) but he had in fact been sent by my mum's Leeds cousin who was in London for the weekend to find me and kindly and delicately inform me that this morning Michael had peacefully passed away. He allowed me to weep, and was such a gentle messenger. thank you Sir. All that is written below is a fraction of the love and incredible respect I feel for my grandfather. He was ready to face this final journey, and I know he has earned his rest as much as anyone possibly could. We are as a family a little bit broken for having lost him, and much more complete for having had him- as is the Jewish world as a whole.
Today family and friends are flocking from all over to honour my grandpa's 95th birthday. He is one of my hero's, and in his honour I wanted to post a sermon I gave about him on Shabbat Chayyei Sarah in 2010. There is of course a lot more that could be said about him, but these are some highlights of an incredibly lived life, making a difference at key moments in Jewish history over the last century:
One of my father’s favourite Yiddish phrases was “Shlapping* nachas”. This essentially amounts to feelings of pride and joy in someone you love. This week I have the particular pleasure of shlapping nachas over someone who has for years dedicated himself to shlapping nachas over me. My 93 year old Grandpa - Michael. Yesterday he flew to Israel where, next week, he will be honoured in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. It is his work for Soviet Jewry for which he is receiving these honours, but he has been my personal Jewish hero for a long time and his story is one which deserves to be honoured for many reasons, not just his work in the former Soviet union.
One branch of my grandfather’s family have been in England since 1710 and were, we believe, of Sephardic origin. He was born into the poverty and struggle of the East End of London, where a thriving Jewish community supported each other. As is true of almost everyone who lived in the East End in 1936, he was a part of the anti-fascist protests that became the Battle of Cable Street. Furious that the police were protecting Mosley’s fascist black shirts, he remembers throwing marbles down the street so that the Police horses couldn’t walk down it. The battle of Cable Street is now seen as the turning point at which British Fascism was nipped in the bud, unlike in Europe, and it has only really recovered with any strength in the last ten years. Perhaps it is now our responsibility to ensure that the political legitimisation of racism and xenophobia is curbed so that our grandchildren might Shlap Nachas over what we have achieved.
Three years later, in 1939, after two years on an English training farm, my recently (and rather hurriedly) married grandparents took the last train across Europe before the outbreak of war, and made their way to the British Mandate of Palestine, where they became Chalutzim – pioneers – founding kibbutz Kfar Blum and working to help make the desert bloom. Also during this period Michael worked as a civilian Admiralty Officer with the Royal Navy in Haifa Harbour, and he anglicised his name so that in letters written to his brother, who had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Nazi’s, he wouldn’t be identified as a Jew. It was also during this period that my Aunt was born. Before my mother’s birth, however, the family returned to London. She was still a toddler however when they returned to the British Mandate of Palestine, and in 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, and then immediately attacked, my grandfather was a member of an infantry unit in the IDF. He was part of the failed attempt to take Latrun- a key town on the road to Jerusalem. He tells me that casualties were very high, and included boys and men who had come to Israel from the camps of Europe and had never held guns before.
But despite placing his life at risk for the sake of Israel, it was not a place that the family were destined to stay. After my grandmother contracted TB, they decided to return to the UK where medical provision was considerably better than in the infant state of Israel. Although my grandparents maintained property in Israel for years after this, they were never to fully settle there, generally demonstrating a serious amount of Britishness and finding the heat too much to live with. However my Aunt returned to live in Israel in the 60’s making her home on Kibbutz Neve Eitan.
Back in the UK, Michael didn’t rest on his laurels though! Initially taking work as a woodwork teacher, he took himself off to night school, learning French well enough to begin teaching it, and then Russian which was to be an invaluable tool. Bearing in mind that he was already fluent in Hebrew and had a fair amount of Arabic too, it seems extraordinarily unjust that I didn’t get any of these linguistic genes!
After learning about the plight of Jewry in what was then the Soviet Union, Grandpa was utterly outraged and insisted something be done. But unlike the numerous times I have watched injustice play out on a tv screen in front of me and felt upset but helpless, hoping someone would do something, Grandpa was driven to action himself. He was a founding member of the 35’s who campaigned throughout the 1970’s and 80’s for justice and the release of soviet Jews, held prisoner and persecuted for being Jewish and wanting to leave for Israel. The term, ‘Refuseniks’ was, in fact, coined by Michael, and he became instrumental in keeping in touch through regular phone calls to Anatoly Sharansky (who later took the name Natan!), Ida Nudel, and others. So prolific were his activities that when a photo of him was uncovered in a refuseniks home, showing him on the phone to someone in the USSR, it was pasted across Russian news bulletins, claiming to show a dangerous British dissident ‘Lord Sherbourne’ who was working to undermine Soviet glory. I firmly believe he should be a Lord, but this has sadly never been acknowledged here, only in the USSR!
In 1986, when Sharansky was finally released after a high profile campaign that had involved Jewish schools, campaign groups and youth movements, and as Sharansky was shown walking across the Glienicke bridge from Russian control to freedom, from where he was flown to Israel to be reunited with his wife whom he had not seen for some 9 and a half years, Grandpa was interviewed by BBC news. It is one of the greatest embarrassments of my childhood that I recorded over this interview… with the film Beetlejuice!!! If anyone knows someone at the BBC archives I’d be very grateful! My grandfather’s home remains in many ways a testament to his work with refuseniks, filled with tokens of gratitude, gifts, and books from those he helped, and the groups who were campaigning and wished to honour his contribution. You can even find him in the film ‘Refusenik’, a documentary made by Laura Bialis in 2009 – the first to chronicle the incredible movement that swept world Jewry in the 1970’s and 80’s, and which Kol Noa will be showing at some point next year. It is for this important work that Michael is being honoured next week, while my grandmother’s contributions were honoured when she died with a letter of condolence from Yitzchak Rabin. It is so important that some honouring is done while people are alive, and I’m glad that both Israel, and I, have the opportunity to express to our hero’s how appreciated they are. As we learn in this weeks torah portion about honouring the dead, we should also take time to honour the living, and to tell them how much they mean to us while they are still alive.
My grandpa’s story is, for me, remarkable because he so often placed himself at the centre of events that were defining to world Jewry, and he had the vision, passion and dedication to make a real difference. You and I, and this wonderful community will be a part of helping to write the next chapters. In Chayyei Sarah, Isaac remembers and mourns the life of his mother, but learns how to move forward with his life through love. Likewise we need to remember to tell these amazing stories, but they must be told not just so that I can feel proud of my grandpa, but so that they might inspire us to remember that our actions really can make a difference, one person’s contribution can have an impact, but that they are made so much bigger when they have the backing of a communal response. My grandfather never sought honours or acknowledgement, but he knew he wanted his life to have made a difference. We can all make a difference in a myriad of different ways, day by day. And if we are disheartened we can feel comforted by the words of Pirke Avot [2:21]– It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to refrain from it.
May we all be inspired to continue the work and to make a difference where we are able to. May this be God’s will. Venomar Amen.
*Someone who actually knows some Yiddish has told me it should in fact be shepping, however for me the phrase is as much about a received tradition rather than Yiddish accuracy. Many Yiddish words have been corrupted from Hebrew, and are then further corrupted into English, and in this way languages constantly change and evolve. My grandfather is a language pedant and would hate this, however I know dad Shlapped nachas rather than shepping it, so that's what I intend to do :)