Sunday, 24 January 2016

Aimless in London

Surely not – how can you be aimless in London – so much to see so much to do.  I never have before but I was going to be in Knightsbridge with about four hours to kill.  (Boring bit – I needed new lenses in my glasses so had to take to them to the optician and return later.  Why do I go all the way to Knightsbridge from North London? “36 Opticians” is run by two brilliant women who are not only competent but can look at you and find three frames which suit you perfectly – rather than having to try on everything in the shop as well as fitting exactly the correct contact lenses)

Wearing said contact lenses I drifted down Beauchamp Place with no fixed idea of where to go and what to do.  I could have met up with friends, taken in a museum or two – goodness knows there is enough to see within walking distance – but decided to be aimless.

Knightsbridge is a strange place – even by London standards. It has been colonised by the oligarchs and the oil-i-garchs. You will see more wildly expensive sports and custom cars there in an hour than in the rest of London in a month – even more so in the summer – with chauffeurs and bodyguards to match. Women in hijabs and burkas – the younger ones with their £1,000 Louboutins peeping out.  Some of the cafes now have shisha pipes and groups of men sit there, drink coffee and smoke.

And then there is Harrods (or Horrids as we used to call it).  I have not been there in years and, although I never progressed above the ground floor on that morning, it is stunning: a temple to consumerism in the most extreme way but gorgeous nevertheless.  I remember in the 1960s being dazzled by the food court and it is just as dazzling. What heaven to walk there every day to do my food shopping – like the high street used to be but more glamorous – a butcher cutting my meat and a fishmonger serving the fish (but rather empty at 10.30 in the morning). There is a café above the food hall and I had an excellent cup of coffee (served in a bone china cup) and the most delicious yogurt, granola and berries – it was more expensive than the faceless high street chain but so delicious with the most charming service.

I abandoned my aimlessness to walk to Hyde Park Corner to see the Royal Artillery Memorial commissioned after the First World War. I must have driven past it a thousand times and never really looked at it before. I heard a radio programme about the sculptor, Charles Sargent Jagger, and wanted to see it.  It was quite shocking in its day because, instead of heroic anonymous figures it portrayed realistic bronze figures of three standing soldiers and the body of a dead soldier, laid out and shrouded by a greatcoat.  It is moving and impressive and the relief sculptures show the reality of war not the glory.

From there to Oxford Street to buy a pair of trainers and then through Hyde Park – a good chunk of which is under mud rather than grass and cordoned off. On the way to collect my glasses I met a man with his hawk – keeping the pigeons away from all the posh glass buildings. The ground floor of one of those buildings is occupied by the ADIB bank – if invited you could have a Diamond Visa Debit Card which allows you to spend £20,000 a day and withdraw £4,000 from ATMs with free access to all airport lounges – oh yes – “Ladies also enjoy their own ADIB Dana Visa Infinite Debit”
This is Knightsbridge – not London and certainly not England but £20,000 wouldn’t be enough to buy this little number parked in the street.....or the Aston Martins in Harrods’ window.

Monday, 18 January 2016

Justice, justice – part two

I wrote about our granddaughter’s Bat Mitzvah that took place earlier this year.  As I mentioned, she read from the Torah and her portion was about justice.  She also had to deliver a D’var Torah, a talk about the section that she read. This is a daunting task for anyone, let alone a 12 year old – to write it and then to deliver it to a large audience, which will range from the very knowledgeable to those from other religions for whom this is quite new.

This day was the culmination of several years at religion classes but also a year of instruction from the Rabbi. The Rabbi spoke to the congregation and told them that in her life she has learned from her teachers, from her colleagues but most of all from her pupils. I agree - it was interesting to see how a young woman (which our granddaughter is now) brings relevance and immediacy to a script which is thousands of years old. I hope she won’t mind if I quote from her speech (which, by the way, was delivered with confidence, clarity and aplomb!!) 

“Today we read Torah Shoftim which is about Law, Justice and how we behave:  ‘Zedek  Zedek  Tirdof ‘ which means “Justice - Justice shall you pursue!  Why justice twice?  Some people think it’s to repeat justice so you definitely hear it. Other people think it is so that we remember to be just in the way we go about our pursuit of justice in our lives and the lives of our community.

She outlined how Moses knew that he couldn’t always be the one to judge things and gave the Jews instructions about what to do and what not to do! This covered the appointment of judges and the behaviour of the King; witnesses and testimony and even rules of war.  If you want to read more about this you will find it in Deuteronomy.

She went on to say “Justice is not only about making laws. They have to be written down and we need to be sure that they are followed.  Justice is also not only for some people but has to be equally for everyone, including children. A few years ago I went to a children’s workshop organized by the Kinderburo in Basel. They try to make sure that children are part of the discussion about what is happening in our city and listen to our views because they think that is the only way that we will learn to live as part of a community. We had some interesting discussions about children’s rights which is something that we take for granted living here in Switzerland, in Europe and America. 

We drew postcards illustrating different kinds of children’s rights on them.  I chose to draw a card showing how every child has the right to have a name and be a citizen of a place! Did you know that that are at least 10 million people across the world who are stateless because of war or politics?  

(What she didn’t say was that her card was one of those selected for reproduction and distribution.) 
She concluded by saying, ”I think the important part of justice is that we mustn’t be selfish and we must try to be fair. We mustn’t only think of how something affects ourselves but also our families, our friends and our community. In that way we will truly be pursuing justice.

I agree with the Rabbi. We have much to learn.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Justice, religion, family and the world...

I am Jewish (with a name like Goldberg that probably doesn’t come as a surprise). I am not observant or even religious but would not and could not adopt any other religion.

The last few weeks have given me pause for thought on the whole issue of religious observance.  Our granddaughter had her Bat Mitzvah in the summer.  For those of you new to this idea – boys have always had a Bar Mitzvah – a coming of age – but for girls this is newish.  I had one with two other girls in the Orthodox Synagogue in Wolmarans Street in Johannesburg.  We read from a prayer book and read from the pulpit because women were not and are not allowed on the “bimah” which is where the Torah (scroll) is placed for the singing of the service.  So this was a lurch into modernity of sorts and while an Orthodox girl’s coming of age is often acknowledged it is not in synagogue and not the same as the boys.

Our family in Switzerland belong to a small and new Liberal community where there is equality. Because the community is small, they probably only have one or two of these events a year so the whole community is excited and engaged. Our two families were there in force so it was standing room only for the rest!

The Torah is removed ceremonially from its resting place, known as the Ark, and very carefully placed on the Bimah. There are certain prayers and rituals attached to its removal, its unwrapping and rewrapping and placing back in the Ark. Many opportunities for “honours” for family members to take part in this – and joyously there were so many of us that it got a bit crowded. 

The Rabbi was thrilled as she said that she cannot remember the last time she officiated at a Bat/Bar Mitzvah where all four grandparents were present (not to mention the three uncles, great aunt and great uncles and all the cousins and second cousins) and each had their moment. The Torah is paraded around the synagogue so all can touch it and then opened at the correct place. 

But before this happened, the rabbi held it and “passed” it to each of the grandparents and then to the parents - we didn’t actually lift it but just touched it.  As the Rabbi explained, this symbolises the passing of the knowledge from parent to child and has taken place for over 5,000 years. It was very moving and confirmed my Judaism and what it symbolises to me – beyond the faith.

Listening to our granddaughter sing her piece from the Torah and then her discussion of its meaning and the Rabbi’s comments gave me more food for thought. The section of the Torah for that week is called Shoftim – which means “judges” but is about Law, Justice and how we behave.  We find one of the most famous lines from the Torah.

 “Zedek  Zedek  Tirdof “ which means “Justice - Justice shall you pursue!

More of that in my next blog.

At the end of the service we had a Kiddush – prayers before blessing the challah (bread) and wine (grape juice for the children). It isn’t that usual to have a female Rabbi but I bet she is the only one who always bakes the challah for the Kiddush – and very good it was too!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

I did not speak out....

As I wrote in my previous blog - this was written in August 2014 but not posted. It is as relevant now as it was then. 
Some years ago I commissioned a calligrapher to write a version of the often-quoted poem by Pastor Martin Niemöller which hangs in my hall as a reminder. I have subsequently learned that there are many versions of this, he changed it from time to time to suit the audience but the message is the same. (I have also learned he perhaps is not quite as straightforward a person as I originally thought – who is?)
One version of the poem, at the United States Holocaust Museum, is here:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

I walk past my version of this several times a day and it is much on my mind at the moment. Jews have fled many Middle East countries and no one spoke out. Christians have fled (and are continuing to flee) many of the countries and now Iraq is being ethnically cleansed – leave, convert or die. Where are the mass protests? Now that the Yazidis are fleeing as many have been murdered, women raped, kidnapped, forcibly married and used as slaves – the world is waking up a bit. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have died at the hands of other Muslims – where are the mass protests against this?

It seems that the world’s outrage is saved for Israel (and now extending to the Jews). Don’t think for one moment that I am of the “Israel can do no wrong” camp. Far from it – and neither are many Israelis by the way. The world seems to need Israel to be perfect when their own governments are anything but. Israel remains the only country in the Middle East where you are free to practice your religion, express your sexuality, genders are equal and all have equality before the law.

They all have freedom of speech and can criticize the government and the armed forces.  This includes the 1.7 million Arabs – mostly Muslim but some Christian - as well and the 12 Arab members of the Knesset. There have been Arab members of the Knesset since the beginning.

In the presence of neighbours, some of whom deny their right to exist and would like to drive them into the sea, they defend themselves. The world doesn’t mind that – as long as they don’t do it too well.

No one talks about the hundreds of thousands of Jews who have fled Middle Eastern states – Egypt (75,000) Syria (15,000), Iran (80,000), Iraq (130,000) and others - over the decades, leaving everything behind. They have moved on and made their way in Israel, the USA, Australia, South Africa and many European countries. They are not refugees: they are citizens of their new countries. They know that they can never go back and will not be compensated for the homes, businesses, properties that they were forced to abandon.

To return to Niemöller: when he says – “then they came for me” – for ‘me’ read everyone who is not speaking out now including the many millions of Muslims who are outraged by what is happening.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Day – the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury

Christianity has been much in the news – so there’s a surprise on Christmas.  You would not be surprised to hear this from the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor from the Queen, as the Head of the Church of England but the Prime Minister’s comments are perhaps a little more unexpected.  They all set me thinking.

I quote from the Prime Minister, “As a Christian country, we must remember what his birth represents: peace, mercy, goodwill and, above all, hope. I believe that we should also reflect on the fact that it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.”

Absolutely – there is nothing discriminatory about that – I knew full well when I chose to come to this country that it was Christian but that I was free to practice my religion, free from discrimination and persecution. (Officially that is – anti-Semitism has always existed and is becoming more aggressive again – but this is still a good place for Jews. Of course I couldn’t argue with him – those religious roots owe something to their Jewish origins.)

The Queen, who writes her own Christmas broadcast said, 

"For Joseph and Mary, the circumstances of Jesus's birth - in a stable - were far from ideal, but worse was to come as the family was forced to flee the country. It's no surprise that such a human story still captures our imagination and continues to inspire all of us who are Christians, the world over.”  

Well said Your Majesty – suddenly we are all thinking about the scenes that have filled our television screens this past year.

And finally, Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and I quote, 

Today, across the Middle East, close to the area in which the angels announced God’s apocalypse, ISIS and others claim that this is the time of an apocalypse, an unveiling created of their own terrible ideas, one which is igniting a trail of fear, violence, hatred and determined oppression..... They hate difference, whether it is Muslims who think differently, Yazidis or Christians, and because of them the Christians face elimination in the very region in which Christian faith began.

My first thought was – and what about the Jews?  Well of course the Jews are not facing elimination from the countries in which ISIS is operating – Syria, Iraq, etc.  They’ve gone.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews have fled those countries over the past decades (members of our extended family fled Egypt in 1956 with a suitcase each and their passports removed, immediately becoming impoverished and stateless). Not all of them went to Israel – they spread out to many countries, including the UK. Of course, Jews are being targeted by Muslim extremists in Europe and elsewhere, but if this “elimination” that the Archbishop speaks of in the Middle East is successful will the next step be the elimination of Israel and the Jews?

I don’t know what the Archbishop is doing about rescuing those Christians he speaks of but one Jew is paying back the debt he feels: Lord Weidenfeld was part of the Kindertransport before WWII.  He has set up a fund and is actively engaged in helping Christians to escape. He said in July 

“I had a debt to repay. It applies to so many young people who were on the Kinderstransports. It was Quakers and other Christian denominations who brought those children to England. It was a very high-minded operation and we Jews should also be thankful and do something for the endangered Christians.”  Here is an article from the Catholic Herald
but there are more on the internet.

I wrote a blog in August 2014 about what was happening in the Middle East, the campaign against Israel which seemed to be gaining even more currency and the persecution of the Yazidis and Christians which no one seemed to be concerned about. I decided not to publish it – I am not sure why but I now regret that. I should publish that one first but today is Christmas Day so this one takes precedence. I will post it soon.