An authentic Jewish response

Last night I attended a beautiful wedding. Everything was carefully thought through and lovely – flowers, music, food. But the highlight, for me and my husband, was the dancing.

It would have been an emotional occasion anyway – one of the young couple is still in the year of mourning for a parent and family and friends would have made an extra effort to help create a special day for them.

But yesterday of all days, when as this young couple stood under the chuppah with joy and tears, huge crowds were gathering for the funerals of three young men who will never stand under a chuppah, the guests really felt the need to make an extra effort.

I’m sure that many of the guests had cried for Eyal, Gilad and Naftali since the terrible news broke on Monday, but last night, as circles of dancing women of all ages formed and broke and reformed, encompassing the bride and her family, old and new, there were no tears, only smiles. The happiness wasn’t forced or fake – it was genuine rejoicing in the creation of a new Jewish home and, please God, Jewish family.

Many years ago, I heard Lady Jakobovits, a”h, speak about a day when she was in a provincial community and moved from a funeral to a wedding. She described how it was possible to compartmentalise the emotions, and be genuinely sad at the funeral and genuinely happy at the wedding and the time, I didn’t really understand how one could do that. But yesterday, I saw that it was possible and experienced the cathartic effect of the music and dancing as a way of moving on and rebuilding broken worlds.

And just as the smiles were genuine, so too was the way in which everyone joined in as the singer sang, “Hashem malach, Hashem melech, Hashem yimloch le’olam va’ed.”

Rebuilding, re-affirming our belief in God, sharing other people’s pain and happiness – these are authentic Jewish responses to tragedy…

Not in my name

I don’t generally write about overtly political issues and in fact I had something else completely that I was going to post this morning. However, I am so shocked and disgusted by the news coming out of Israel this morning that I felt I had to say something.

Whilst the details are still unclear, the possibility that Jews could have behaved in this way and murdered Muhammed Hussein Abu Khdeir as a revenge attack makes me feel sick. It is both wrong and stupid on so many levels that I find it difficult to believe people would actually do this.

One of the reasons why so much sympathy was generated for the plight of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali was the tremendous nobility and plain “goodness” which shone out of their parents as they waited and prayed for their sons to return home. Revenge attacks of any sort don’t enhance the boys’ memories – they tarnish them and diminish their fate as well as lowering the Jewish people in the eyes of the world.

Yishai Frenkel, uncle of Naftali, Hy”d, summed it up this morning (translation courtesy of Jameel@the Muqata):

“We don’t know exactly what transpired tonight in East Jerusalem and the incident is under investigation by the police. Regardless, if in fact the Arab youth was murdered for a nationalistic reason, then that act is shocking and bloodcurdling. There is no difference between blood. Murder is murder regardless of nationality. There is no justification. No forgiveness and no atonement for murder.”

The Big Iftar

Last night, I had the privilege of attending the launch of The Big Iftar. (An Iftar is the break fast meal which Muslims eat at the end of each day of Ramadan.) The Big Iftar is a project, launched last year, encouraging Muslims on both a personal and communal level to share their Iftar with non-Muslims as a means of building bridges between communities.

Ramadan begins at the weekend, with the new moon, so last night’s event wasn’t actually an Iftar, but it featured food, music, prayer and a tremendous sense of excitement.

I was a bit apprehensive when I arrived, as pretty much the only non-Muslim in the room at that point. The phrase “bacon butty at a vegetarian barmitzvah” came to mind. Maybe “bacon butty at a vegetarian Iftar”? However, I soon found some friends, who introduced me to their friends, and the evening took off.

It was fascinating to “compare and contrast” a Muslim communal event with a Jewish one. My friend told me that often at Muslim charity functions they don’t put out the starter until people have pledged enough money. I wasn’t sure this could be true, but it turned out it was! There were several speeches, a couple of videos and the equivalent of a chazzan’s recital of a section from the Koran, before any food appeared.

Ah – the food. The organisers very kindly promised kosher food – great. However, when the starter appeared, there was no sign of any kosher food. The Muslims started to get rather embarrassed and several people on my table asked the waitresses about it. The delightful older lady sitting next to me was very concerned I wasn’t eating – was I vegetarian? Was it too spicy? But it’s halal – why can’t you eat it? Eventually the kosher food arrived and everyone was happy. Kudos to the waiting staff, who without a table plan, were able to deliver kosher food to the right people! The organisers had even tried to match the menu – who knew Kedassia caterers could come up with a very tasty Tandoori chicken?

More speeches, some awards, a very amusing appeal from a man in traditional Muslim clothing with a broad Scottish accent. Then one of the highlights of the evening – the music. The two singers are very well known in the Muslim community. The style was a cross between Karduner and The Maccabeats, with a touch of Matisyahu thrown in. The little boy on our table was ecstatic to hear them – obviously a bit of Uncle Moishy too. They were excellent and had the whole room swaying along with them. Well, almost the whole room – another similarity – the people who talked all the way through everything!

Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra spoke very beautifully about Ramadan and how it is important not to focus on the food, but on the opportunity to grow through the experience and become closer to God – sounds familiar?

The event even finished with the opportunity for evening prayers, although the call to prayer was somewhat longer than “Maariv in the lobby, gentlemen”.

All in all, a fascinating evening: a chance to meet some interesting people and discover more about their religion and culture and an opportunity to build bridges.

Eyal, Gilad, Naftali

Our 19 year old daughter is in America, in a place with very poor mobile signal. Communications from her have been sparse. Last Friday morning, I received a text from her which began “I am safe and happy.” I jokingly said that it sounded as though she had been kidnapped.

On Friday afternoon, I heard that someone else’s 19 year old son had been kidnapped together with two 16 year olds, the age of our next daughter. Their captors have not allowed them to communicate with their parents, however sparsely. Over a week since Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were last seen, no-one has heard from them at all, or has any definite idea where they are.

Many people will have seen the incredible parents of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, speaking to the media in English or Hebrew. Where they have found the strength to dress, at all, let alone in matching clothes, and to speak powerfully and coherently, even with a smile amidst their tears, I don’t know. The immense emunah which they have shown should be an inspiration to all of us as we continue to daven for the safe and speedy return of

Eyal Yifrah        Eyal ben Iris Teshura

Gilad Shaar        Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim

Naftali Frankel  Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah

 

The story of the 200+ Nigerian girls kidnapped a few weeks ago has gradually moved down the list of new stories across the world. #BringBackOurGirls is no longer trending. In the UK, the small amount of  coverage which Eyal, Gilad and Naftali received in the general media has already faded, as attention moved to the World Cup.

As a week of captivity becomes two weeks and the Israelis concede that the operation to bring the boys home may take a long time, please don’t let them move down the list of stories – continue to daven, learn, do mitzvos, send positive thoughts and encouraging letters to the families.

Superman Sam

A little over two years ago, I wrote that one of the highlights of my yomtov season was lighting candles on Shemini Atzeres and not needing to daven for the safe return of Gilad ben Aviva. On Motzaei Shabbos I found out that I could no longer daven for the recovery of Shmuel Asher Uzziel. 

Like many people round the world, I have been following Phyllis and Michael Sommer as they shared their son Sam’s journey on their blog Superman Sam.  Sam was diagnosed with AML aged 6 and immediately began an aggressive chemo treatment.  His mother Phyllis, who also blogs as Ima on the Bima, tried to explain to him, a few days into his hospital stay that hundreds of people across the US (and further afield) were praying for him, so she asked people to send him photos of themselves ideally with a superhero theme, so he would know who they were.  With Phyllis’ engaging personality and social media skills, the project snowballed, as did the use of the nickname “Superman Sam”, and the hospital was soon snowed under with letters and packages for Sam.

Their community and friends rallied round them and they were able to give Sam and his siblings, David, Yael and Solly, good experiences and positive memories even during this incredibly difficult time.

Tragically, despite having bone marrow transplant earlier this year, the leukaemia never completely went away and late on Friday night, Sam died, in his mother’s arms.

The grace, faith, love and honesty which Phyllis and Michael shared on the blog would put many more orthoprax people to shame.

1000 people joined the Sommer family for the levaya and Sam’s death was reported in both national and international press.  A family friend, Rebecca Einstein Schorr, is co-ordinating a fundraising “Shave for the Brave” event with St Baldrick’s Foundation, a non-profit organisation which raises money for research into paediatric cancer. Apparently, in America, only 4% of the money for cancer research is dedicated to paediatric cancer. “As a result, the foundation said, physicians must struggle to apply to children protocols that have been developed for adult patients. Treatment that works for adults can be toxic for children because they are so much smaller.” I don’t know what the research funding situation is like in the UK.

I’ve never met the Sommer family, but I am an avid follower of Superman Sam.  We have an 8 year old son, who shares a name with Shmuel Asher Uzziel and I can’t even begin to imagine what it must feel like to have to tell your child that they are going to die.  Just the fact that Phyllis and Michael were able to do that and to give Sam a peaceful and meaningful last few weeks, in his own home, filled with love, shows what remarkable people they must be.

HaMakom yinachem eschem besoch shaar avelei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.

TGIF

Early this morning I read a moving post on one of my favourite blogs, JewishMom.com, in which the author Chana Jenny Weisberg describes how a radio show she listens to always plays the same Shabbos song at the same time on Friday morning.  She relates how the radio host reported that a young man had contacted him to say that he takes his children to school on Friday and they all sing along in the car. Some time later, the young man contacted him again to say that he had organised a special assembly at his children’s school at which all the children sing this song for the rebbe from whose chasidus the song comes.  The final part of the post rather shockingly says that, sadly, the young man has died suddenly and Chana Jenny expresses her hope that one of the warm memories his children will retain of him, is of singing the song together on erev Shabbos.

Soon after that, I went out to by some bread for the children’s lunch. When I turned on the radio, the announcer said, “It’s that time of the week again,” and read out a dedication from a woman in honour of her husband, in which she said that she always sings along with The Liberty Bell March on a Friday morning. I hadn’t realised it, because I’m not always in the car then, but this radio show also always plays the same piece of music at the same time on a Friday morning! However, they are not doing it to welcome Shabbos, but to “celebrate someone who is saying goodbye to the world of work” and retiring that day. 

I was very struck by the contrast between both the two ideas and the two pieces of music.  The Shabbos song, Kah Echsof, is a beautiful poem, with a soulful tune, in which Rebbe Aharon of Karlin describes his yearning for “the sweetness of Shabbos”.  The Liberty Bell March is a lively, jolly composition, suitable for a parade or a fairground. When I was telling our daughter about it on the way to school, I said that perhaps this could be a metaphor for two different ways of viewing Fridays:  either a chance to prepare for the holiness of Shabbos, or “Yippee! Work’s over for the week, now I’m free!” 

You could even take the metaphor further and say that it describes a whole world view – if Shabbos is considered a taste of the World to Come, and how we prepare for it is how we prepare for the World to Come, then we can highlight the contrast between viewing life as full of opportunities for spiritual growth or as a treadmill which we can’t wait to get off, in order to chase some elusive pleasure…

Delicious Shabbos

For the first time in ages, I tried out a load of new recipes this Shabbos.  Our oldest daughter was in Poland (more of that in another post), our oldest son was away for a friend’s barmitzvah, so to compensate we hosted a family with a lively pack of sons.  

By late morning on Friday, I had a stack of recipes printed out, most of the ingredients in the house and my cleaner had left, leaving me in a clean kitchen, with a new CD, eager to cook.  This is what we had:

Levana’s Salmon baked with tomatoes and basil

Roasted Garlic

Melon

 

Chicken soup (of course)

 

Chicken and potatoes with honey and mustard

Leek tart (made with soya milk rather than chicken soup)

Spicy Moroccan lettuce and chickpea salad, Roast squash with techina (No this one’s from Ottolenghi!)

Fiery sweet potatoes

 

Levana’s chocolate expresso mousse and strawberries

 

Are you starting to see a theme emerge?

 

For lunch we had egg and liver and cholent and sliced meat, enhanced by a delicious pasta salad, from… Levana and some vegetable patties from Cafe Liz, followed by watermelon, icecream and peanut chews donated by our guest.

 

For seudah shelishis, we ate all the parev items and some pinwheels I made with puff pastry and sundried tomato paste. 

 

Thanks to Levana and other recipe providers!