Sunday, 5 October 2014

Joy for Kol Nidre

As requested by a number of folk; my Kol Nidre sermon delivered at Radlett Reform Synagogue - with many thanks to them for inviting and having me!

When her son John died aged 33, Freda Carter consoled herself with the thought that his heart had saved someone else’s life. But she didn’t know whose. That is until a chance encounter 5 years later. Mrs Carter was attending a memorial service for transplant donors in Newcastle when a 19 year old actor got up to speak. He was a stranger – yet somehow she knew at once that her son’s heart was beating inside him. Looking in the order of service she saw that his name was Scott, which was the only detail she’d been told about the recipient of her son’s heart. “Scott is a common name and he could have been anywhere in the country” she said, “But I was hysterical. I couldn’t breathe”. Then, as Scott Rutherford spoke, he revealed that aged 14 he’d been hours from death when he had received a new heart from a man named John. After the service, nurses checked the details, and asked Scott if he’d like to meet his donor’s mother. “Scott came up to me, opened his arms and gave me a huge hug” said Mrs Carter. “I asked him if I could feel John’s heart beat and he let me. It was all I wanted”.
What an incredible legacy to leave, especially in a life cut short so young. The coming hours are, in so many ways, an opportunity to ask ourselves, what is the legacy we wish to leave behind? Have I done the things that will leave the world closer to how I wish it to be? Have I fulfilled my hopes and passions, or become subsumed in the daily grind? What can I do to change and be closer to the person I would like to be in the world. We often think of this day as the most solemn, the most difficult. I’d like to suggest tonight that perhaps it is neither of these things and that if we can alter how we approach the next 24 or so hours, we may also be able to alter what is metaphorically inscribed for us and for our community. 
We know we have to think seriously about our behaviour, and reflect on that which has not brought joy and goodness into the world. Yet the Mishnah tells us that the happiest days in the Jewish calendar are Tu B’Av, the 15th of Av, and Yom Kippur. That doesn’t fit so well with our usual somber approach to repentance. Tu B’Av is a little known festival which falls over the summer, and comes 6 days after Tisha B’Av, when we lament the destruction of the temple after 3 weeks of mourning - this is arguably Judaism’s saddest day, not Yom Kippur. But hot on it’s heels is the day described as one of the most joyful. It is essentially now regarded as the Jewish version of Valentines. It was a celebration during which Jerusalem’s maidens would come out into the fields, all dressed in white, and the lads would see if they could find a likely partner. So today it has come to be yet another time my husband can forget to buy me flowers. It is not so hard to imagine dancing maidens and romance making for a joyful festival. But Yom Kippur? When we are told it will be decided who shall live and who shall die? Surely this is pretty heavy stuff!?
But the Talmud doesn’t see fit to correct the Mishnah. In fact it continues along similar lines, arguing that “Atonement and Joy go well together” Now if we begin to unpack that statement, it does make some sense. Of course there is the seriousness of, say, Yizkor, tomorrow afternoon, and the struggle some may have with the deprivation of fasting. Yet having the annual opportunity to turn inwards, to focus the mind beyond the bodies usual needs, to have a real and tangible opportunity to make change and redirect ourselves, that should be a source of joy. A chance many may never make time for lies before us. This is not the moment for hollow new years resolutions or indulgent feasting, but it is a chance to make a fresh start, to begin to do things differently, and to grasp just who we really want to be in the coming year.
The Zohar, the medieval book of Jewish mysticism so beloved of modern celebrities, continues our theme - and arguably goes even further! Not only is Yom Kippur on a par with some minor love festival hardly anyone knows about but, the Zohar argues, “Yom Ha Kippurim, hu yom k’Purim” - The day of Atonement (Kippur) is a day like Purim (K’Purim) - now that is a day we know is meant to be joyful; fancy dress, sweets, excessive drinking, pantomime, carnival, even Rabbis can be seen in spandex and wigs without folk worrying too much. It seems almost the complete inverse of today. Yet in it’s potential for happiness and celebration, and for making ourselves anew by turning things on their heads, they run in parallel. Indeed, while we invert our normal behaviour not through feasting and binge drinking, but by fasting and ceasing to wash or wear leather or perfume, we also have the tradition of wearing costumes on Yom Kippur; the white Kittel (or shroud) in Ashkenazi communities, or more general white in Sephardi. And this brings us to yet another joyful parallel - many of the rituals around a Jewish wedding mimic those of Yom Kippur, purposefully. We dress in white, a groom may even wear a Kittel in Ashkenazi custom, and some couples fast on the day of the wedding until the chuppah. These are the rituals of atonement, and of new starts, but that does not mean the day is one of sadness. New starts and change are a cause of celebration. 

Before you came out tonight, I am going to assume that the vast majority of you put quite a bit of effort into filling up. We nervously trying to pick good, slow release carbohydrates, drink plenty, and store up for the long slog ahead. Some of us might be feeling quite stuffed and even a little drowsy right about now (I always say don’t worry if you doze off in a sermon; at least I know you are getting something out of it that way!) So we are all full and not too thirsty at this point. Some Rabbi’s have argued one should eat a particularly large meal before the fast because it makes the fast itself that bit harder - a large meal doesn’t necessarily keep you going longer, rather it serves to stretch your stomach and make you hungrier tomorrow - and this would be desirable to aid one’s efforts towards atonement. But Hacham Shem Tov Gaguine – a London based Spanish and Portuguese Rabbi and Head of their Bet Din in the 1950’s argues that we eat a large feast on the eve of Yom Kippur because it is a celebratory feast - it is a time to celebrate the opportunity God gives us in Teshuvah, in returning to God, and in the chance to make a change. He cites Leviticus (16:30): 
כִּי-בַיּוֹם הַזֶּה יְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם, לְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  מִכֹּל, חַטֹּאתֵיכֶם, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תִּטְהָרוּ. 
For on this day, atonement WILL be made for you, to cleanse you, from all your sins YOU WILL BE cleansed
Gaguine argues that Leviticus is not particularly unsure about the outcome of Yom Kippur - atonement WILL be made, we shall be forgiven and cleansed, the opportunity to start over is there, if only we would grab it. This is a day of joy.
It is not surprising that it is a Sephardi Rabbi making this case for the happiness of Yom Kippur. Sephardim have generally been much better at treating Kippur as a serious cause for celebration. The most joyful tune I have ever heard Radlett (or anyone else’s) choir sing on Yom Kippur is at the start of Neilah - El Norah Alila - it perhaps gains a special energy because we know the end is in sight, but it’s inherently an upbeat happy tune - and one which comes from the Spanish and Portuguese community. If you listen to Mizrachi - Eastern, or Sephardi tunes for Yom Kippur they are overwhelmingly happy - they want God to know their delight in God’s continual ability to forgive, to let them begin again, and, they argue, why would a king be pleased with morose subjects singing depressing tunes, God too wishes to be uplifted. 
This year the opportunity (and therefore celebration) should, arguably be even greater than normal: today is Shabbat Shabbaton, and is falling on Shabbat, in the year known as Shnat Shabbat - the year of Shabbat - Shmitta. This occurs every 7th year - just as Shabbat is every 7th day. It is a year in which the land is left to lie fallow, to regenerate, to become more fertile. It is a year in which you don’t own the produce of your garden, but share with all around you. It is a year in which debts are forgiven (don’t tell the treasurer) and slaves are released. Many in the UK Jewish community and beyond are looking at the laws of Shmita and asking ‘How can we use this year as an opportunity to make change?’ Change in food poverty, change in community building, change in just economics. So tonight we are not just on the cusp of an opportunity for us to improve ourselves, but we are also gifted the possibility to make changes that might improve the lives of many, and begin the next cycle of seven refreshed and rejuvenated. 
Returning to John, our inspiring heart donor, I find myself wondering what is the metaphorical organ we would want to be donating to ensure the continued life of Judaism? It would, for me, undoubtedly be a smile of JOY! If we enjoy our Judaism, we will be giving it the life blood of survival.  We began tonight with John and Scott, who demonstrated a legacy of joy and life that came out of deep sadness and death. It was a story that appeared a number of months ago in the magazine The Week - it is a summary of the week’s stories with comment from different editorials and publications. On the first page of stories there is always a feature entitled ‘It wasn’t all bad’, and that was where I stumbled upon the story of John and Scott. It is always the first thing I turn to in the magazine - before the comment and analysis, I always want to know that ‘It wasn’t all bad’.  And that is how we might begin this new year. The last year, It wasn’t all bad - and there are many good things you got right, that you might well want to continue in the coming year. We need to remember these things as well as recalling our sins, and as we think of both, we are reminded that this is a special chance to take the time to change. Atonement, repentance, change, all causes for joy and celebration. So let us feel the embrace of a loving sovereign parent ‘Avinu Malkeinu’, who assures us ‘atonement will be made’, and in the words of Psalm 100, take today to ‘Serve the eternal with gladness, come before God with joyful song’.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

A Shmita Manifesto

I have been writing and thinking about Shmita a huge amount over the last 6 months. In fact  it began almost 18 months ago when I was asked to co-teach a 5 week course on the subject with Rabbi Natan Levy for the Jewish Social Action Forum. In all honesty, Shmita has pretty much passed me by previous to this. I noticed some grumblings about Israeli fruit prices, odd boycotts by Jews of Israeli produce because it was Shmita produce, and the vanishing act Palwins did 7 years ago (probably wouldn't have noticed had a wine dealer not pointed it out to me!) 
But in learning and teaching it, and then attending the wonderful Siach Shmita summit in May, I have been awoken to a world which this time around is talking and thinking very differently about Shmita. This post has, as a result, been percolating for the last few months, and now I realise Shmita is almost nigh, and I must get it down!

So what is Shmita? There are lots of fabulous resources from Hazon and JSAF to name but a few so I won't bore with the details here (plus we have a year ahead of us...) but essentially the laws around Shmita, (largely in Exodus 23, Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15 and 31) suggest that time is not just effective in cycles of 7 days, but also in cycles of 7 years. Just as Shabbat is a day of rest and renewal, Shmita is a year of rest and renewal for the land. But Shmita reaches beyond the land, and frames the resting of the land within a context of social justice (particularly in the Leviticus chapter), and asks us to allow equal access to the food that is available, to feed the poor, and on top of all this to release debts and slaves.
Shmita embodies some amazing values. But it was intended for 'when you enter the land'. Why would we care in the diaspora, especially if we aren't farmers? Well for me the simplest answer is if there is so much beautiful intent and meaning why not explore those themes and bring them to life if they help bring us to life? And this isn't the only area where we do this. We no longer have a Temple, and have over time transformed and re-understood the spiritual meaning behind our festivals. We have made them engaging and uplifting both in the land of Israel and well beyond, and now, it is Shmita's turn! 

For me, Shabbat helps to make the other 6 days more productive. In several ways the 7th year is not necessarily (or only) suggesting an ideal  for how we want the world to be (led by cooperation, freedom, protection for the environment and a particular model of economic justice) but it is a way to make the other 6 years more productive. Perhaps it isn't saying that our economic models etc are totally wrong, but that they need re-balancing from time to time, and become dangerous if unchecked. One might even argue it is a spiritual corrective to an otherwise unchecked consumption. If Shmita was to work, it would rely on an economy of gifts and sharing, rather than ever expansive growth (which is a core part of the other 6 years). It requires us to let go of our sense of want and possession, and focus on need and sharing.
For me this sense of taking a year to appreciate 'enoughness' is a powerful one, and one that is being explored by The Sova Project. Many of us need it personally, and our environment is crying out for it, not to mention some of those who produce that which we endlessly consume. The faceless nature of the worlds economy today has made it possible for us to disregard the humanity of others. Others who produce our goods, or who are going hungry in the next street. Shmita asks us to let go of the concept of 'mine' and 'yours'; to share, to let go. Our regular economy grows on interest and indebtedness (a recurring problem in the last few years). The Shmita economy grows through gifting and sharing, and from everyone working together to be prepared.
I was deeply moved at the Siach Shmita summit in May of this year by the variety of ways people around the world were looking to explore, expand, and bring meaning to their lives through Shmita. And they inspired me to want to make this coming year meaningful for us as a UK Jewish community (which the Jewish Social Action Forum will help us do with campaigns around food banks) but also for me on a personal level. How can I embody release, rest, just economics, healthier relationships to consumption, freedom, and a year that would bring balance to help me begin the next cycle with renewed vigour, as Shabbat does every week! 
And so I determined to set myself a 7 part (seemed poetic) Shmita manifesto. Some inspired by those I learnt from in May, others coming out of my own passions and pieces that need work. These will guide me through the coming year, beginning this weds evening on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Here they are in brief, I will expand more in the coming weeks.

1. No Shopping. Ok not totally no shopping. I will buy food and medicine. And shoes for a growing 2 year old. But just as I did for 3 months when I first began this blog, I will spend this year re-balancing my relationship to stuff. I will say more about this soon in another blog, but for now, this will be one of the biggies for the year, addressing how our system of continual consumption enslaves others, and ourselves, and is causing untold damage to our Eco systems and environment, not to mention continually depleting finite resources. 

2. No 'products'. This is one our small family are keen to undertake together. We will endeavor to bake our own bread, and if necessary make our own crumpets, produce our own stocks, pasta, fish fingers, biscuits, cakes etc. We will be trying to avoid buying into the ever expanding kosher products market, which invariably stuff us full of sugar and salt and palm oil. We are hoping to be healthier, and learn new skills. We have a kitchen full of gadgets. It's time to get our monies worth, and spend more time engaging with and getting to know our food, reducing packaging and waste and hoarding. I am also hoping to grow what I can but know this is rather limited at the moment and that this year the slugs seriously defeated me!

3. Every shop will include a donation to a food bank. Every donation to a food bank will be followed up with a letter to our government demanding change to the systems that leave people unable to feed themselves and their children. I was particularly inspired in this by Rabbi Margaret Jacobi who has been campaigning on this issue.

4. No email or social media before 7am or after 7pm (the latter definitely harder but again, 7 seemed like a good number). I can phone and Skype as these are about bringing people together and relationship building that is face to face not facebook. I am becoming enslaved to my smart phone and I want to stay smarter than it. I also want to be more present with the people I am in the room with. I am hugely inspired by Amichai Lau Lavie in this who has set up Fallow Lab. This was featured today in Ha'aretz.

5. Reading and growing me. My digital unplugging will I hope leave me with more time to read. I will be focussing my reading on books that help me grow and feel connected. Reading has massively slipped since becoming a mum, and yet I have continued to buy books. I am not shopping this year but suspect I still won't get through the back log of books to be read. When farmers drew back from planting and harvesting they certainly had to work hard to feed their families, but perhaps they also had more time for other pursuits, and the sabbatical, where one takes time to invest in learning and personal growth comes from the Shmita.

6. Creating gifting communities. Inspired by 'The Moneyless Man' (one of the above books which I am now half way through while preparing for this year) I hope to actively seek to create opportunities for people to share skills (such as a Jewish crafting circle), swap unwanted goods (book swaps for example) and organise ways for things to be shared. Many platforms for this exist already and it may just be a matter of getting involved but would like to see more happening locally, and want to see how we can give and receive without money being involved. If you'd like to explore the Moneyless Man's ideas without buying the book his follow up Moneyless Manifesto is online for free

7. Liturgy. If shmita is to feel different just as Shabbat does, it needs to feel different all year. Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin already created a shmita Rosh hashanah Seder  so I am hoping to create some meaningful liturgy that brings Shmita into each of the chagim: watch this space (currently working on Sukkot Shmita Ushpizin).

Rosh Hashanah allows us to start the new year by exploring our relationships, with ourselves, with each other, with God, with the world. I hope Shmita will this year allow a year that brings balance to each of these areas, release, freedom, nourishment, enoughness. What will you do to bring these things into your life, your community, your world?
Shanah Tovah.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Hesbed for Michael Sherbourne z''l

Motzei Shabbat Natan Sharansky wrote “Michael Sherbourne demonstrated that one passionate individual, with no institutional position or backing, can have an impact on the course of history. We will miss him dearly”. This beautiful summation was printed in articles about him that have appeared over the last few days in Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel. He probably wouldn’t have read the Ha’aretz one, but he would have glowed at the other two. But while Sharansky summarised what he meant to many, and while he was always one of my hero’s, we will remember so many other parts of him;
The rave dancer at Gidon’s wedding 10 years ago (aged only 87).
The man who continued to learn into his 90’s, taking up computing and Skype when he was an octogenarian, and attempting to learn Polish from one of the carers at Sydney Corob House. 
The woodworker, furniture builder, repairer.
A pioneer and farmer as well as a political activist and intellectual pedant.
The man who in over 50 years of marriage, never noticed he was eating his meals in a 7 day repeating cycle.
The man who glowed with pride at the achievements we, his children (Jon and Peter included), 6 grandchildren and great grandchildren made, and had no qualms at boasting of his great grandchildren and their incredible travels and growth. We were one of his proudest legacies.
It is daunting to attempt to tell his story. First of all because he would want to correct me constantly, and secondly it is simply the most incredible story. Somehow he managed to not just live through the most defining moments of 20th Century Jewish history, but he was a part of them, driving them, doing his little, and not so little, bit. 
His death marks the end of an era. He was the second oldest of 4 brothers, Lou, Sid, and Cyril, all of whom sadly died before him. The research done by Janice, one of Michaels nieces, has shown that the brothers maternal family have been in the UK since the seventeenth century, only shortly after the readmission of the Jews to England, and were of Spanish descent. 
The brothers grew up in the poverty of the East End, and when invited to talk about life in Whitechapel to my Cheder students, they were utterly astonished that he could have lived with one water pump for the street, an outside lav, and public baths. And of course living in theEast End between the two World Wars, a teenage Grandpa was there on Cable Street in 1936, when the blackshirts marched. He proudly recalled that when the mounted police ranks approached, protecting Mosley’s fascists, he and his friends threw marbles down the street, making the horses fall; a shocking revelation to a vegetarian teenage me, but an act he was very proud of: The Battle of Cable Street is now considered the point at which British Fascism was nipped in the bud, unlike in Europe. 
Michael and Muriel, who was his rock and love for over 50 years, met on the David Eder Farm in Kent, preparing them to be pioneers in Palestine, and they were married, initially just civilly until Muriel’s mother insisted they return to Leeds for a proper Chuppah - and looking at the photos you would never know it was organised in a week! This allowed them to travel together to the British Mandate of Palestine as chalutzim. Michael worked as a civilian Admiralty Officer with the Royal Navy in Haifa and it was also during this period that Norma was born, in the land Muriel and Michael adored, and that Norma would return to to build her own family. Before Lana’s birth the family returned to London. She was still a toddler when they returned to the British Mandate, and in 1948, when the State of Israel was declared, and then immediately attacked, Michael was a member of an infantry brigade in the Machal. He was part of the failed attempt to take Latrun- an experience that was clearly traumatic and moulded his politics and his passion to defendIsrael.
But despite placing his life at risk for the sake of Israel, it was not a place that the family were destined to stay. Back in the UK, Michael didn’t rest on his laurels! He trained and worked as a teacher, becoming head of languages having spent time while teaching taking a degree in Russian - qualifying in 3 years in what was a 4 year course. On the side he also taught wood and metal work. He also spoke Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, (which he was able to adapt into Portuguese and Italian) and had a smattering of German and Arabic. I was sadly not blessed with these language genes, but his great granddaughters Mia, Arielle and Dafnie are tri-lingual, and together with Danya, Olivier, Noa, Daniel and Yonatan are heart broken not to be here today. 
After learning about the plight of Jewry in what was then the Soviet Union, Grandpa was utterly outraged and insisted something be done. 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. The term, ‘Refuseniks’ was, in fact, coined by Michael, and he became instrumental in keeping in touch through regular phone calls to Sharansky, Ida Nudel, and many others. Last December, Sharansky presented him with a certificate of gratitude and acknowledgment before a packed Limmud lecture hall, and described him as the ‘Internet of the Refuseniks'. So prolific were his activities on behalf of the trapped Russian Jews 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 Zionist ‘Lord Sherbourne’ who was working to undermine Soviet glory. I firmly believe he should have been a Lord, but this has sadly never been acknowledged here, only in the USSR!
In 2009 Laura Bialis made a documentary about the world wide phenomenon that was the Jewish support for the Refuseniks. Michael was honoured to be included and she wrote to me last night saying: 
“I am overwhelmed with emotion ... Every time I met Michael, I felt that I was in the company of a legendary hero. He was so courageous, such a fighter. He did so much for the Jewish people and Israel. I truly felt it was a honor to get to interview him”.
It is so important that some honouring is done while people are alive, and I’m glad that so many, from Sharansky and Rabin to his own family and neighbours, were able to have the opportunity to express to our hero how appreciated he was. The challenges of a long life were not few, and the last months had been particularly challenging for Grandpa. We are told by the incredible staff at Sydney Corob House that last Friday, Grandpa was delighted to make Kiddush for the whole house, and took the opportunity to make a small speech, saying how glad he was to be there. He was joking (and knowing Grandpa flirting) with the carer who saw him shortly before he peacefully departed, and he, perhaps more than anyone, has most certainly earned his rest.
We all, Norma, Lana, Peter, Danya, Ian, Gidon, Sara, Sarit and I, as well as his adopted grandchildren, Noa and Emma, Olivier and Gary, are grateful to so many friends and family, who visited regularly, shopped, and listened. Special mention must be made of all the cousins, as well as Esther and Edwin Shuker, who have been such devoted fans and carers, as well as Petra, Susan, and of course all the staff at Sydney Corob House.
Grandpa, you are leaving a wide, gaping hole in all our lives, but we are so much more complete for having had you these many years, and you have, literally, changed the world. May we be able to continue your legacy by fighting for freedom, and making jokes (however inappropriate) wherever possible. 

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Blessing our children... and being ourselves at Purim!

This has been brewing in my mind for a few months now, and finally became a sermon this weekend. Purim Sameach!

When I arrived at West London, I discovered a community minhag or custom that I hadn't seen elsewhere. That’s not to say it isn't done elsewhere, but in my travels I hadn't come across it. It is a rather nice one, and I still remember one of my firstShabbat Shirah  services when I hadn't quite learnt the pattern yet and I forgot to include it – I had a couple ofrather upset parents remind me and I never forgot again. I am talking about thecommunity reciting the blessing over the children, a blessing usually performedat home, but which we have brought into the synagogue, encouraging us to notonly bless our children but to bless each other as someone’s son or daughter,and also allowing those with absent children to bless them from afar.
Blessing the childrenis a beautiful ritual, which I didn't see done when I was growing up, but amexcited to now offer to Eliana. It is a ritualised moment when our parents, or when we as parents, or as fellow sons and daughters in community together, take time to offer blessing, love and friendship. But I have lately begun to wonderabout the origins of the blessing. Blessing one’s children was clearlysomething valued in the Biblical mind-set, with Noah blessing Shem and Yaphteh(Gen. 9:26-7) Isaac blessing Jacoband Esau (though he gets them the wrong way round!) (Gen 27 and 28) and Jacob blessing his sons (Gen 49) and grandsons, Ephraim and Menassah (Gen 48:13-22), in whose names we bless our sons today. Looking intoslightly later texts, we find other recommendations to bless our children.  In Ben Sira, a text which was a bit too lateto make it into the Tanakh but in which we find lots of wonderful aphorisms, weare told that
a father's blessing strengthens the houses of the children, but amother's curse uproots their foundations. (3:9)
So weknow that blessing our children can be a powerful thing. But what strange blessings they are that we offer. First of all, why do we bless our sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph's sons. Why are we not blessing our sons in the names of the patriarchs, especially aswe bless our daughters in the names of the mothers? The most common explanationseems to be that Ephraim and Menashe are the first set of brothers in the Biblewho don’t see each other as competition. They don’t try to overcome each other,and their family dynamic doesn’t embitter their lives as it does so many othersin the Bible. By blessing our children to be like Ephraim and Menashe we offerour children the legacy of brothers that get on with one another, of familyharmony, rather than the constant struggles seen between Isaac and Ishmael,Esau and Jacob and even Joseph and his brothers.
Another interpretation,from the 19th century Israeli Rabbi Shmuel Hominer, notes that Ephraim andMenashe grew up in Egypt, unlike the patriarchs who all grew up in Israel.Ephraim and Menashe maintained their distinct identity as Israelites, eventhough they lived in a place where they were surrounded and outnumbered by theEgyptians and their gods. The ability to remain faithful to Judaism, even whenit is a struggle, is a legacy that we want to pass on to our children.
But after hearing allthese wonderful things about Ephraim and Menashe, what are we to think aboutblessing our daughters in the names of the Matriarchs? While we can see thatthey were clearly strong women who kept faith with God in very difficult times,enduring marital difficulties, infertility, abduction, envy and the struggle toraise children who were, frankly, quite difficult from time to time. None ofour Biblical role models are perfect, and I think that is a good thing, butwere the matriarchs not also women who sent their rivals off into the desert todie, attempted to out-birth their sister, and manipulated and connived behindtheir husbands’ backs? Hardly values I am desperate to instil in the nextgeneration.
It is perhaps alsostrange that we insist on still blessing our children within genderedboundaries. Shouldn't our children be able to find role models and blessings toemulate within the men and women of Jewish history, regardless of their owngender? Perhaps we should be blessing our sons and daughters in the names of Ephraim, Menashe, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, hoping our sons and daughters can be siblings or friends that avoid rivalry and disharmony, and that keep faith through difficult times.
Then again, perhaps the struggle isn't against what is included, after all, we can find fault with most Biblical characters and that can be seen as a positive, especially as each of them has plenty to teach us in both their strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps myproblem is more about what is not included. My favourite Chassidic story is that of Rabbi Zusha of Hanipol, who lived in the eighteenth century. I think Ifirst came across this teaching in the High Holiday machzor, but it is also anappropriate one for the weekend of Purim when we do all we can to disguiseourselves. The story goes that Zusha was telling his disciples about the worldto come. He insisted he would not be greeted with the question ‘Zusha, why wereyou not more like Moses’ but rather, he would be asked ‘Zusha, why were you notmore like Zusha’.
While it is importantwe have good role models to inspire us and to look up to, it is also importantto remember that we are each unique, bringing something new and original to theworld that wouldn't have existed without us. And so I have begun a tiny littlerebellion at home. Every Friday when it comes to blessing Eliana, I pray thatshe be made like Sarah Rebecca Rachel and Leah, and then I add her name to thatlist (and perhaps I should also be adding Ephraim and Menashe!) She has beenmade as she is, and it is her life’s task to fulfill the potential that sheholds, not to be better than she can be, but also to try and avoid the pitfallsof the matriarchs before her, not to mention those her own mother may havefallen into.
So tonight as we bless each other, our children, and absent children, perhapslet’s take a moment to acknowledge who they are individually, what they mightbring to the world that is unique and special, and add their name to the listof who we hope they are made to be like. If nothing else, perhaps we will learna new name in the congregation, but maybe we will also remember that we are allmade to be like ourselves, and celebrate this fact together before dressing uptomorrow night and pretending to be something completely different!
Shabbat shalom!

Picture: Eliana celebrating Purim as a bee- the meaning of my name!

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Voices of Freedom

I'll be honest, I thought my visit to a photo exhibition on Friday would be more than a tad depressing. An exhibition of photos taken by formerly trafficked women - I desperately wanted to support it but I wasn't looking forward to it.
How wrong I was! The exhibition (of photos by three Ethiopian women - entitled Voice of Freedom, a project of the charity PhotoVoice) did explore painful and unbelievable events; the simple fact that people saw fit to treat these people as commodities - stuff to be traded and made a profit from, raped and abused; the people on the journey with them who had not made it; their continued fear. Yet it also showed the incredible human spirit they displayed in continuing, and the way their lives had been turned around. My grandmother, who survived the Nazi occupation of Lodz and then escaped into Russian occupied Poland only to be deported to the Gulag once spoke of how the human spirit to survive can overcome the most unbelievable horrors. Her voice rang out to me again and again as I was allowed glimpses into these women's lives.
Also poignantly, especially when we hear so much about racial tensions in Israel, these women have been rescued, protected, housed, and rehabilitated, by the Israeli government. And this care and investment is there for all to appreciate in the London offices of Amnesty International. Two of the photographers will soon be returning to Ethiopia, and have spoken to the organisers of Voice of Freedom about their desire to become activists on their return, making a difference to others just as they have been helped and supported.
The three women make their voices heard in the photos, but they sing out from the text next to the photos in ways that were utterly surprising. Like this one, taken in a Church in Nazareth by Zenebech Zeleke:
Photo credit: Zenebech Zeleke / Voice of Freedom / PhotoVoice 
"There is a story that you tell, and a story that you don’t want to tell – but there are some stories that I want a lot of people to see, very clearly, from my own experience.
There are things that you go through and want to tell other people, and it makes you feel better. Some of the things that could be told are: they used to force us into taking drugs, and used to bury people alive, and we have seen them beheading people.
The light gets in – you can let it in and it’s positive. But the darkness it doesn’t let you in – it just swamps you, and that’s what it does."

These women, who have found their freedom, are now taking on the responsibility that freedom affords them, just as we move from freedom at Pesach, to responsibility at Shavuot. There were so many Jewish (as well as human) resonances in this exhibition, I frequently found myself welling up, and I hope the Jewish community, as well as many many others, engage with the women's voices and what they are trying to tell us. If you can see it, you should (and if you are outside London I can put you in touch with the organiser to see what it would take to make it happen elsewhere!):
Voice of Freedom: photography by formerly enslaved women
Amnesty International UK, New Inn Yard. April 16 until May 13th 
Project website:  

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Reflecting on Living Below the Line

There has been an awful lot of support this week, thank you. But more importantly, there have been an awful lot of conversations. I don't need support. It really wasn't a big deal to eat lentils and pasta and toast for 5 days. It was boring and a little sapping, but really no biggie. 
What is a big deal is that I got to drink fresh clean water, not an option for large swathes of the world living in poverty. What is a big deal is that in the UK, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we have need for food banks, and parents going to bed hungry so their children won't, although they may go to school without breakfast. What is a big deal is that people are having to choose between heating and eating, and are asking food banks for no- cook packages as they don't have the means to heat food. What is a big deal is that it is often faith communities that step in at moments of crisis, but poverty is something so isolating that people don't talk about it. Sometimes until it is too late. 
There is something silly, if not gross, in 'playing' at poverty. It will all be over in 5 days, and I can go back to my marmite and fairtrade bananas. I also didn't need to spend this week worrying about travel costs, childcare, debt collectors, rent/mortgage payments. So I have no idea really. But what it has done (other than raising money to help Tzedek tackle poverty) is open up conversation after conversation about the systems that create poverty, the food we waste, and the realities that are so often kept behind closed doors whilst the anonymous strugglers are vilified and bullied as lazy scroungers. Indeed in the disabled community, while many were physically attacked in the past, this violence is now repeatedly accompanied by cries of 'scrounger!' 
Communities are starting to stand up and ask the right questions of our politicians, and of ourselves, and how our own consuming of cheap food and products adds to the cycles of poverty around us, and how perhaps, we aren't quite all in it together.
If you would like to support the work of Tzedek, this is one simple way to:

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Living below the line - day 3

I'm pretty tired. But I don't know for sure it's the lentil-toast-spaghetti diet that is doing that or the 22 month old who won't sleep properly. Cooking breakfast and dinner for her are also a touch challenging- resisting the urge to pop a morsel of crumpet/ banana/ egg in my mouth is perhaps a reminder of how much nibblin one can do without even realising, if you have the means.
People seem to want to know about what I'm eating, but that has certainly not been the most important thing about this. Today I've been really struck by the conversations it has enabled. A dear friend in a far off distant land messaged me to say they had donated directly to tzedek (touchingly another friend abroad donated to a charity local to her in honour of our efforts) but that more importantly she and her partner had sat down and spoken seriously about their own relationships to food, about good poverty, and about living with so little. 
And whilst these messages were arriving from afar, I was in a meeting (resisting the biscuits and yoghurt coated raisins and grapes and...) and they thoughtfully added living below the line to the agenda so that the group could hear about it, have a conversation about it, and think about how communities could act to help.
The money raised is touching, the minds and hearts engaged means much more to me. 
And to close, breakfast was toast and butter, I've drunk a lot of water, lunch was lentils, an egg (16p- I'm down to £1.04) and red cabbage. I usually cook this with onion raisins and apple and vinegar, so thought I'd try onion and water. It's not great. Having a store cupboard is a real blessing far too easy to take for granted. Tonight I attempted a pasta sauce from tinned toms onions and garlic (herbs and cheese would have helped!)
and that will probably be lunch tomorrow too, and if I can stretch the sauce a third meal too(as you can see I have not laid it on heavily!) I am craving chocolate and kale. But Friday isn't far of for me. It is for many others.