Sunday, 9 November 2014

Music of the spheres

This is Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Major.

I was listening to its closing notes today on my phone as I was running through Kenwood and it caught me by the throat. I played it over and over. I tried not to sing along loudly as I ran among the orange leaves on the muddy path. 

But as much as those notes have that power to make me look like a crazy lady in a London park, I know that they are not universal truth; they only emerge from universal truth, as an expressed version of that singularity.  The only absolute version of that singularity is silence. 

The rest is interpretation, which is just as well really because the silence from which the music emerges is not directly communicable.

Words are not the thing.  The notes are not the thing. The skills of the violinist are not the thing. My iPhone is not the thing. The gaps between the notes are not the thing because even silence itself is really only an experience of humans who aren't experiencing sound in the moment. Everything we experience in life is an interpretation of the thing.

Here’s what I believe deep down, that music is beautiful because we are alive to hear it.   And that if I feel like it, I should sing along loudly, without worrying too much about looking like a crazy lady.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

A confession

Kol Nidrei from 14th century German prayerbook

This is what I said yesterday in Shul. Yom Kippur October 4 2014/ 10th of Tishrei, 5775

"Hello friends, family, teachers, rabbi’s - pretty much everyone here has been with me on this journey of speaking in public, taking baby steps from where I first stood, trembling and clinging to my notes in Assif, to here today.  Life can truly surprise you sometimes - with support from a loving community and having the willingness to go on despite the tremendous fear.  

Here we go. 

The most useful thing I learned last year was this from Martin Buber. We experience our lives constantly in relationship. 

As he describes it, there are two kinds of relationships we experience. Both have their place. Both are necessary in the real world. The first is I-it where you see the other person or thing as something that exists for your benefit, separate to you. In technical terms this is called: instrumentalizing the other.
The second kind of relationship we can experience is where you understand for an instant that you are part of an infinite us. In this relationship, we are fully present and open to the other. You experience the other as having a complete existence beyond your need of them. This kind of relationship feels like grace, love, connection, peace, home.

It feels like us.

But to experience us, you have to let go of me. You have to forget for a second what me wants, and see instead who you truly are, - part of a whole, part of us, part of the Israel of shmah Israel, part of the entire shem chavod malchutu … and that you don’t run the show. It’s very easy to forget.

That’s what the opportunity we are given today

On Yom Kippur, we are given the chance to push control, alt, delete and see when we reboot, more moments of I –thou and less of I-it.  To see if we can hear the still voice, quiet voice and experience the thing that connects us, which we are all living expressions of.   

We are given the chance to do better, because we know better.

It’s a big ask. It’s a long, hard day.
We will be hungry and tired.
But we will be together, taking comfort in each others' presence, and letting the service, the machzor, and the music have its way with us.

We are now standing together as a community to confess collectively.  

There’s a shorter Ashamnu – all of us as a community at times this year, we have all scorned, we have all turned away, and we have all been wicked,

This is followed by the longer Al Cheit which lists 44 moral failings - including harsh speech, hardness of the heart, and baseless hatred.

We’re all standing up to the same sins, all of us in this room, and beyond this room, encountering the same words our people have encountered for generations. What we share is the space between us and the words.
Let them all wash over you. Some will resonate, others will jar. I notice that even in the moment I am reading them, I am judging and being arrogant.  I catch myself thinking my way is the best way, the only way.
I beat my chest with my right hand as I confess and through the corner of my eye I see I am not the only one standing up to these sins.

We are all in this exercise in humility together,

The Viddui section ends with these words from the Talmud

“My God, before I was formed I was of no worth, and now that I have been formed it is as if I had not been formed”

Humility is a necessary precursor to seeing your true place in the world

Later on in the service, we will literally get down on our knees and bow down together,

And when we stand together before the closing gates tonight, we say seven times that thing that is so hard to understand – that defines us – our clarion call of monotheism- Adonai Hu Haelohim

When I get there tonight, I hope I remember to listen not just to those words, but also to the spaces between those words - that we are privileged to be a part of an undivided whole, responsible for ourselves and responsible for each other."

Gmar tov

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

There are many ways to remember

 Participants of  Marche de la Memoire, September 2014

Reading about the Holocaust is like staring at the sun – you can only look at a tiny piece or you will damage yourself.

The numbers are too big. The actions are too terrible. The overview is terrifying.  I try not to look too much. 

This September I couldn’t avoid seeing a little.  Along with two other members of my synagogue, I walked the annual Marche de la Memoire from St Martin de Vesubie in France, up a steep and rocky mountain path in the Alps, and down the other side towards Valdieri in Italy. 

It is a challenging hike, but not too tough to notice the carpet of pink flowers on the rocky ascent.

I have no idea what they are called – they were just small, pretty, Alpine flowers and I imagine they bloom there every year at the same time in the late summer.

At the top of the mountain, we gathered with hundreds of French and Italian people, remembering atrocities done there once, and atrocities still done around the world.  

On the stones behind us, there were photos of some of the Jewish children of the area who had been captured, and killed at Auschwitz.  

Apparently in previous years, someone had said Kaddish, but not this year.  This year, an Italian girl read a poem she had written and another played Hatikvah on her violin.  A historian, eyewitnesses and a survivor spoke. They read out the names of some of the murdered children.

They played Hatikvah again.  A few people hummed along.  I felt like I was the only one singing.

A few of us put a stone onto a pile of stones on the peak. It is our way to remember by leaving a stone on the gravestone.

Behind the speakers, photos of some of the murdered children were wedged into the rocks.

Remembering the Jews of St Martin de Vesubie

In September 1943, nearly 4 million European Jews had already been murdered.  Some were working as slaves. The rest of the Jews of Europe were hiding or running. Nowhere was safe for very long.    

One tiny area became a haven for a few months.  South East France, under Italian military control, refused to surrender Jews to the German SS or to the French Vichy administration.

1,200 Jewish refugees made it to the safe Italian zone and were moved to St Martin de Vesubie. With support from Jewish charities like the Joint, they spent that summer living as free Jews.  They established schools and synagogues. They sat in cafes and organised dances. 

To get there, all of them had made hundreds of critical decisions -who to trust, when to go, when to hide, who to pay.  On the 8th of September 1943, there was another critical decision to be made.

Italy had surrendered to the Allies. The Italian occupying forces in France, who had protected the Jews for ten months, began to retreat home over the mountains.  

1000 of the Jews from St Martin de Vesubie decided to go with them. For three days they hiked over the Alps hoping to meet Allied troops on the other side.  It was a hard climb, carrying small children and bundles of belongings. Some dumped their belongings as they went. Some turned back. 

But the Allies weren’t yet there to save them and they were rounded up by the Germans.

One third of the Jews that made the trek were arrested, deported to Auschwitz and killed. Two thirds went into hiding in Italy.

All of the Jews that stayed behind in St Martin de Vesubie were deported to Auschwitz and killed.

 Cairn at the top of the Col

Remembering a journey

Serge Klarsfeld's French children of the Holocaust outlines what is known about the children taken on the 75 massive train convoys that went from France to the death camps.   

It lists the names and ages of the children, as well as where they were taken from.  

(If you want to break your heart, look at the photos of the some of the children)

Here is the description for convoy 64 which left Drancy on December 7, 1943:

Convoy 64 deported 156 children - 79 boys and 77 girls. As with those deported on convoy 62, most had been arrested in the countryside. Almost half were brought from a gathering point in the Côte d'Azur: they had fled St.-Martin-de-Vésubie, on the French side of the border with Italy, into Italy, only to be caught by Germans newly occupying the Italian towns.
The entire list of the children on convoy 64 is given.

I can see two names from the long list. 

Joseph and Suzanne Katz aged eight and five. Their last address is given as St Martin de Vesubie.    

There are no photos of them. 

In my imagination, they are walking up the mountain together.  They can see the pink flowers carpeting their rocky ascent.  They are not tired or hungry. They are full of hope.

Remembering in hope

Hatikvah, or Hope, is the national anthem of Israel

As long as Jewish spirit
Yearns deep in the heart,
With the eye turning east,
Looking towards Zion

Our hope is not yet lost,
The hope of two thousand years,
To be a free nation in our land,
The land of Zion and Jerusalem

Remembering one child

  Germaine Steinlauf has no headstone on this earth, but for one hour a year, she has a mountain.


Germaine was born in Nice, in the South of France.  When she was 12, she was deported to Auschwitz by train which left Drancy on February 10, 1944.  There were 1,500 people on that convoy, of whom 295 were children. 

 She was one of the 16 Jewish girls taken from her school in Nice.

She was one of the 11,400 Jewish children who were deported from France to death camps in Europe by train.

The train cars were tightly packed. There was no food, water or toilets.

On arrival at Auschwitz, she was selected for death and gassed immediately.  Her body was burned.

Her train, convoy 68, was one of 75 train convoys from France to the death camps.

Auschwitz was one of the death camps.

The death camps were one of the methods used to kill Jewish people.

France was one of the thirteen countries where Jewish people lost their right to live.

Germaine was one of the one million Jewish children murdered.

She was one of the six million Jewish people who were murdered.

Most of the bodies of the six million were burned or thrown into mass graves.

Most have no headstones on earth. Most left no photographs of their lives. Entire families were murdered with no one left to remember them. 

It is too much to fathom.

Remembering where we are

There are many ways to remember.  And none of us can remember the whole story. 
It is too big and too terrible. 

All we can do is look at a tiny bit and pass it on. Like placing a small stone on a cairn on a stony mountain, to remind people that come along later that there were people that were once here , and that their memory is still part of our  story. 

Their lives counted and their anguish was seen.

They are not forgotten, and we are not lost.

The incredible flowers on the path up to Col de Cerise

A documentary about the flight of the Jews from St Martin de Vesubie was made by Andre Waksman, whose own family survived the Holocaust in the Italian zone, is easy to download:

Photo credits: Bruce Rigal and Eric Weger