Thursday, 10 April 2014


My grandfather, with his sisters and parents

God minted every person with the stamp of Adam
And not one of them is the same as his fellow
For this reason every single person must say
The world was created for me
Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin 37B

This is the world that was created for me- I was born a white Jewish girl in Cape Town.  I have my birth certificate, some photos and memories to prove it.

I have memories of drinking wine, singing and reciting from the Hagadah at Seders with my family twice a year at the festival of Passover, the celebration of the liberation from Egypt 3000 years ago. 

The story starts with "This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat."  

We end with a song called Chad Gadya.

When I look at the familiar Hagadah now, I am shocked to discover that all along I was learning Talmud and singing in Aramaic. 

In my head are messages, memories, and beliefs that have been passed down to me, and I didn’t even see it happening. 

Harris, grandfather of my grandfather, and grandson of Nochim

This is a photo of my grandfather’s father, Harris Rosenberg.  Records show, he immigrated to South Africa from Suwalki, Lithuania in 1873.

According to his tombstone, his Hebrew name is Tsvi Hirsch ben Kalonymus.
I know less and less the further back I go. 

 I can see my grandfather’s grandfather’s father’s birth certificate online – His name was Kalman Rosenberg.  His father’s name is registered as Nochim.

That’s as far back as I can prove but I can imagine twice a year at the Pesach Seder my grandfather’s grandfathers grandfather, Nochim Rosenberg said the following words:

"This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat."  
And the children drank wine and sang Chad Gadya.

But I can’t prove anything, except that that all my ancestors stayed alive long enough to procreate and passed on their values, memories and traditions to their children.

Like it or not, this is my story. 

This is what is bred to my bone.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The difference between men and women

Mordechai and Esther decorate Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria, 245 AD

Rabbi Joshua writing 2000  years ago in the Midrash Rabba, notices that men and women are born different. 

He notices that women have higher voices, use perfume and are harder to please than men. Unlike men, they menstruate, cover their heads, light candles on Shabbat and walk in front in a funeral.   He notices that men need women. 

He notices that men put their sperm in women and women don’t put their sperm in men.

I’ve noticed that too. (Although it’s no longer common practice for Jewish women to walk in front in funerals)

I was born in 1962, and was raised  in the  Cape Town Orthodox community.  Our schools provided the same opportunities for boys and girls, but  our synagogue had separate entrances and separate destinies for us.

That’s just how we did things then. There’s a lot of wisdom in my tradition, but there’s some crazy stuff too, particularly with regard to women.

There are many places in the Talmud where women are seen as the dangerous, distracting Other.  

 But in Truth, there is no Other.

In the Shul I go to now, there is one door for men and women to share. I can sit where I like and I don’t have to leave my best Western values behind when I go in.  

Although there is usually a quick whisky at 10.30, we are mostly involved with  reading from the Torah and praying. 

 As noticed in the Talmud, (Berachot 13b) sometimes there is recitation and sometimes there is kavanah.

I may be wrong, but as far as I can see, I’m not disturbing to sit next to in Shul. I don’t chat or use much perfume.  My voice doesn’t seem to have any seductive powers either.

All our voices blend together, and we create an exquisite whole, that I love being part of.

In my experience, men and women sitting next to each other together  in Shul does not lead to mixed dancing, it leads to learning. 

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus 2000 years ago.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The problem with vowels

I can read a bit of Hebrew. I learned it at school and my mother is a talented Hebrew teacher. So I can tell you that I am familiar with all of the 27 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, even the ones that sound the same at the end of words but take a different form.

But there’s one letter that has long been the bane of my life and that is the vav.  

The vav can be said three ways:
·         As a consonant you say V
·         With a dot on top you say OR
·         With a dot in the middle you say OO

I have no idea why I struggle with vav. It isn’t the hardest letter. Kaf, for example, also has three forms. But kaf is not my problem. Vav is.

I was walking with my friend Naomi on the Heath last week.  All good Heath walks include a coffee stop at Kenwood House, but it was raining so we couldn’t sit outside, and she had her dog with her so we couldn’t sit inside.  We stood in the covered courtyard with coffee-cups in hand, looking out at the rain, and I found myself telling her about my vav complex.

I told Naomi how hard my mother had tried to teach me the difference between vav with the dot on top and vav with the dot inside.  She tried teaching me with games, with explanation and with repetition and with patience. Despite all her skill and efforts, the penny never dropped for me.

As I stood in the courtyard, I noticed I still couldn’t remember which way round it was. It was obvious for Naomi. It wasn’t for me.  It was such a small thing but I couldn’t remember the difference no matter how hard I concentrated.

A few days later I was standing in synagogue, without a coffee-cup in my hand but still with vav on my mind.

It suddenly occurred to me to test my abilities to read vav correctly while singing along loudly with everyone else.  

It was the beautiful concluding prayer sung when returning the Torah to the Ark. The prayer begins with lines from Proverbs, concerning the finding of wisdom.

I watched myself singing along all the while looking ahead in my prayer book, scanning for approaching vav’s.

A tree of life to those that reach for her
And whoever holds on to her is content
Her ways are pleasant and...

There was a vav coming. What was going to come out of my mouth when I sang:

… her paths are peace

I got it right.
I felt like I was clearing hurdles as I ran around the track.

Take us back God to yourself
And let us come back

My voice soared along with everyone, correct again and again,

Make our days new like it used to be

I was perfect.

As the doors of the Ark closed and the notes of the prayer faded,
I realized there was nothing wrong with my brain
That there never had been
And that when the situation demands it, the right words will always be there

Monday, 27 January 2014

what goes around

Johanna and Old Lady

Kindness to children is never forgotten.

You know that one adult that takes a moment to listen to a dreamy child, without saying anything profound and the child doesn’t say anything in particular either.  Nothing is really said but the child understands there’s a grownup that sees and cares. Those moments might have words, but it isn’t the words that convey any meaning.  

Johanna was that adult for me.

She lived in a room behind our house and worked for my parents; responsible for the cooking, the cleaning and the laundry. The title is maid in South Africa but that doesn’t really explain everything she was to me.

When I was 12 I wrote a poem about Johanna which appeared in the school magazine. I’m looking at it now and smiling. 

The class of ’74 have gone on to become pediatricians, accountants and architects. We were given more chances in life than Johanna who never learned to read or write.

But even without knowing letters and numbers, without any education at all, you can make a huge impact on a child’s life.

Kindness, cooking well, respect and the daily practice of taking care of others are all the things I learned from Johanna.  And every time I do those things I pay her gift to me forward.

My parents called to say she died last night.  I never told her before she died how much she meant to me. 
But I know that without words, she knew what I am struggling to say now.   

There are no words for love.

This is the poem:


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Seeing ripples

I didn’t recognize her at first. At first glance she looked like a young Haredi woman wearing a long black dress. We talked about how she couldn’t drive and had little sense of direction even around Stamford Hill where she lives.

As she talked, I remembered I had met Leah Stern before. She had astounded me with her story last year. I remember she told me she had a profoundly physically and mentally disabled child who lived in specialized residential care in Israel. 

I remember her telling me she wanted to bring her daughter, Yitty, back to England and with no suitable facilities here, she decided to create a home from home for children with special needs.

She had big plans for the home. She wanted residential care for 25 children and day-care for 50. She wanted a hydrotherapy room, sensory rooms, comfortable bedrooms and a kosher kitchen for the children and their visiting families.  

But in real life nothing came easily – she had to argue for the land. She had to struggle for charity donations. She had to find an architect and sort out planning permission.

When I saw her today, I wanted to know if she had succeeded. 

She told me animatedly that the home had been built. They were now at the stage of doing the interiors. 

She had plans for a fish-tank at wheelchair height in the reception area for the children to enjoy. She was hoping to convince her committee about that, but that the doors were nearly open.

I asked her about her daughter for whom she was building the home.

She told me her daughter had died recently in Israel. She was 14 years old.

Leah was not there when she died, but she asked to be able to hold her daughter before she was buried.

In holding her, and stroking her daughter’s face, she saw how beautiful her daughter was. How beautiful. How beautiful.

To Leah Stern, her child’s death was about love, not about fear.

Although the home in England has come too late for them, Leah says she is still committed to finishing the home for other children and their families. There is still work to be done.

I’m not sure I have the capacity for such grace and determination in the face of adversity.

We don’t all have the same qualities or get the same lives.

I'm more the dreamy type.

I like to imagine we are all making the world a better place

I like to imagine we all have a job to do in doing that

I like to imagine a plaque on a fish tank that says:

In recognition of the determination of Leah Stern, in memory of her daughter Yitty, whose short life started a ripple that reaches to you here now.

There is no Just Giving page but Leah gave me this email address: