‘Daddy, why do passports matter?’

‘Where’ll she sleep if we haven’t a room?’

‘On the busses, I expect, like often.’

‘We definitely have a room!’

That was a conversation between my wife and Refugees at Home. Ms X. stayed with us for just three weeks; our only problem was stopping her helping around the house the whole time out of gratitude, which made us feel terrible.

This is Refugee Week; tomorrow is World Refugee Day.

Our whole country is mourning Dame Vera Lynn, not just an amazing singer but a wonderful human being, who died yesterday at the age of 103. Her voice, like Churchill’s, sustained, consoled and inspired the nation during World War 2. Her most iconic song is probably ‘We’ll meet again.’ Refugees, when they flee, know that they’ll probably never meet again, never see their parents, their children or the place that once was home.

My great-aunt Jenny told me: ‘The worst time in my life was putting my children on that train in Frankfurt Central Station.’ She saw them again; most parents who wept their way home to desolate rooms in 1938 or 39 never did.

A Midrash explains that God told Abraham to leave home so that he would become the father of all gerim, all outsiders, temporary residents, refugees. The word ger occurs countless times in the Bible, almost invariably with the command not to abandon but to care for them. The classic biblical dictionary gives the root meaning as ‘sojourn,’ including ‘dwell as a newcomer for a (definite or indefinite) time without original rights.’ How those words ‘indefinite’ and ‘without rights’ beleaguer on the souls of thousands, of millions today.

They resonate across Jewish history in the repeated experiences of marginalisation, extortion and exile. Commenting on the Torah’s command not to oppress the stranger, Rashi says simply ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’

When I was six, my father lost his passport (as in ‘lost and found;’ he’d truly lost it once before when he fled Germany aged 16.) Cupboards were ransacked in the search. ‘Why does a passport matter?’ I asked. He answered, ‘If you ever don’t have one, you’ll know.’

Our world still buys and sells people, for slavery, sex or both. Countries bleed other countries dry, through tyranny, exploitation or climate negligence. We must never again trade in the misery of others, individually or nationally. Their pain is not far away: Windrush, children stuck in the Calais ‘jungle’ unable to join family in Britain, people in indefinite detention, cut off from future, hope.

Hope is what gives strength to the feet of refugees: a safe life, a life without fear, a life of work, of making a contribution. That’s what Refugee Week is all about: ‘a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees.’

S, who escaped a massacre in the Congo and is now a specialist teacher and pastoral counsellor, just told me he and his wife are expecting their first child. B, who fled state terror and is now a physical trainer, called me for a reference: ‘I’ve been asked to offer exercises in a care home just re-opened after Covid.’

Where would the NHS, food, the arts, be in this country, without those of us who were once refugees?

I sometimes think about that Rashi: ‘Don’t inflict your own wounds on others.’ The wounds we receive can make us heartless, or they can open our hearts more deeply.

Here is a link to some of the organisations we care about and support.

 

75 years since the Red Army reached Auschwitz

My father’s grandmother did not survive long enough in Birkenau to see the four young Russian soldiers on horseback whom Primo Levi describes with that astute, understated eloquence which characterises his testimony:

they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame…the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist. (The Truce)

‘Liberation’ is an inadequate word to describe the arrival of the Red Army at Auschwitz on 27 January seventy-five years ago. For most who survived, freedom brought the unbearable confirmation that the world they had known, the community, teachers, family, loved ones had ceased to exist: they were all murdered.

My tears fell…they did not soak into the dust, but remained like round clear crystals, and that was all I could think of in that great hour (Gerda Weissman-Klein: All But My Life)

Today we remember not as rote or ritual, not as homage to the past and not because we are unable to forgive and forget. The wounds are still with us. They are there in the sorrow and trauma of survivors and their children. They are present as absence in the immense loss of wisdom, vitality, music, humour, poetry, love of life. They manifest in the injuries to spirit and psyche of all the peoples affected, the Jewish People, the Sinti Roma, every group which was ever a collective target, the terrible legacy of genocide which impacts not only on the victims but also on the descendants of the perpetrators and upon all humankind.

These wounds to the very body and soul of humanity, joined by the cries from Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere, call out to us today. They demand our vigilance. What Prince Charles said yesterday at Yad Vashem is only too true: ‘Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, seek new victims.’

That is why we must challenge any act of wanton degradation, any law, bureaucratic obfuscation and collective action or inaction which causes gratuitous suffering to any individual or group, especially if targeted at their race, nationality, gender or religion. That’s why Lord Dubs, himself a Kindertransport ‘child’, is right in insisting that we must not abandon child asylum-seekers. [1] Many of our parents were once children like them, hoping some country somewhere, anywhere, would let them in and allow them to live.

Those wounds also weep. They seek our healing and our heart. They show us how precious life is, how vulnerable and tender; they weep for our compassion, gentleness, thoughtfulness and love.

It may seem strange, but each time I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau I have had a similar experience: a call to silence before this unfathomable enormity, an unspoken instruction to say nothing, to listen not just to their deaths but to the living voices of those killed there, their hopes and loves.

To remember the Holocaust is to heed the unceasing appeal to our deepest, most comprehensive, most courageous and most compassionate humanity.

At the request of the Council of Christians and Jews I wrote the following prayer:

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

There inhabit over Birkenau seventy-five years afterwards, over the remains of electrified fences, over the wooden huts, shacks which testify to cold, disease, starvation and dying, over the cracked concrete floors and broken-down ceilings of the gas chambers;

There inhabit not just the enduring, ineradicable hauntings of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, Jewish people, Russian prisoners of war, Sinti Roma people, courageous enemies of Nazi ruthlessness and hate;

There inhabit in that space full of spirits the thoughts, longings, dreams of teenagers, grandmothers, human beings, who had families, neighbours, friends, made music, prayed, worked, loved and blessed each other, like Gerda whose Papa put his hands on her head in benediction when they were forced to part:

‘My child,’ he managed. It was a question and a promise. I understood. I gave him my most sacred vow: ‘Yes, Papa.’

In the quiet, which extends into the flat fields and birch trees past where relatives of survivors, pilgrims, visitors wander bewildered; in the silence which spreads over the marshes where the ashes were poured, there inhabit the disembodied voices of the murdered, calling without words, in languages only the heart can interpret, calling to God, calling to the presence of God within us:

Are you there? Do kindness, love, humanity exist?

Where are you now, in a world once again hate-filled, full of refugees, replete with disregard?

Is God there?

E’l De’ot, God who knows,

God who says Immo anochi betzarah, ‘I am with you in your troubles’,

Be with us, instruct us, guide us.

Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to care.

Discomfort our conscience, dispel indifference.

Demand of us the determination to name and call out hatred, in ourselves, our society, the world, anywhere, everywhere.

Prevent us from despairing of the power of goodness, compassion, courage and faith.

Imbue us with loving kindness to cure the wounds with can be healed and tend with gentle understanding those beyond our repair.

Open our hearts to the intricate, destructible wonder and fragile privilege of life.

[1] It is not too late to write to our MP in support. Please see this link and what I’ve written on Facebook

Choose Love – and the real choices at election time

I visited the Choose Love pop-up store yesterday evening, ahead of its official opening today. I bought five winter coats for children. But all I took away were postcards with the greeting ‘Love Has No Borders’.

It’s not the usual kind of shop. You buy for refugees. Help Refugees, whose planning, effort, teamwork and inspiration Choose Love is, send the products straight from local suppliers near the camps, to the refugees who desperately need them. You can choose from socks, blankets, towels, hot food, winter boots. Or you can simply buy the whole shop – people do – and gift one item of everything it contains.

Around the walls you don’t see adverts, but pictures like the view of the sea with the words of Warsan Shire: ‘No one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’, or the photo of a young girl writing in a notebook with the lines by Arundathi Roy:

Another world is not only possible, but she is on her way.
On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.

It wasn’t quiet in the shop. It was packed with people talking, buying, hugging friends; there was loud music.

But in my head and heart it was quiet, for once.

More and more this year, especially these last weeks, I feel as if I’m stuck on a ship from which it is impossible to disembark as it drifts, half piloted, half hapless, on a sea of madness towards a land of little hope. I love that land, which I watch drifting by. I weep for it and wonder how to get back there.

I have Black Friday all down my inbox. I don’t want to be cajoled into consuming as much as I can for as little as I can give. No doubt that’s because I already have far more than I need. No doubt the day brings good to some. But it’s symptomatic of a culture which eats the world and throws the packaging into the sea. It makes me afraid.

Outside the Choose Love store was a homeless man. I put a coin in his paper cup. ‘You’re the first he said,’ gesturing at all the people passing. Ninety-something per cent of the time, I’m also one of those who walk by. ‘Notice me’, the man was saying. ‘Notice’, says the Choose Love shop: notice what really matters.

Choose is a timely word. Beyond the forthcoming selection on the ballot paper is a deeper choice which no one can take away. No outcome can prevent it: we can choose to see, hear, care, reach out a hand, build, plant, tend; we can choose to live sustained and inspired by the vision of a kinder, less unjust and cruel world, a world sustained by integrity, humility, service and love. No incoming government can take that choice away.

In these difficult days, we must help each other make, and stick with, that choice. My favourite interpretation of God’s declaration ‘Let us make man in our image’ belongs to Rebbe Avraham Mordechai of Ger:

God says to each and every person:

“Let’s make of you a true human being, you and I together.”

God has many partners who help make us; who help us find our true humanity.

Thank you to them all.

 

Walking the Moonlit Walk

There is a custom among mystics to observe one’s moon-shade on the night of Hoshana Rabba (the Great Hoshana). You have to find a field or forest far from light-pollution and walk with the moon behind you, observing how it casts your shadow at your feet.

The date is significant because Hoshana Rabba is regarded as the day when the books of destiny are finally sealed. One wears white; the liturgy is an after-echo of the melodies of the Days of Awe; the greeting is Gmar Tov, ‘a good conclusion: May you be included in the book of a good life and good deeds’. The service ends with seven circuits of the synagogue chanting our hopes for humanity, nature, the very earth itself and the ultimate Jerusalem when peace will settle over the face of the globe. The chorus is always Hoshana, ‘Save!’ Hence the name Hoshana Rabba.

Hoshana Rabba begins this Saturday night and the weather forecast for London is mediocre, in case anyone does fancy that midnight moonlit adventure. The more compete your shadow, the fuller your year will be.

The fact that I don’t believe in such superstitious myths, and even regard them as spiritually dangerous, has proved insufficient to prevent me from sometimes following the dark night path. (Maybe I should regard this as a mere by-product of walking the dog. And what can be bad about a night-walk among the moon-shadows of the trees with a dog for company?)

For, though I deplore the custom if taken literally, as a metaphor I find it deeply significant.

The danger with literalism is that it presupposes a God who lengthens or shortens our days according to some inscrutable criterion of divine justice. Life contains too much patent unfairness for it to be possible, to me at least, to believe in such a deity. Nor do I want anyone to feel that the losses, sorrows and fears which life invariably entails, though distributed in unequal measure, are necessarily our just deserts. Life is often cruel.

But as a metaphor the night-lit wander on Hoshana Rabba shines into my conscience. The High Holydays are behind us now. What light do they cast on the path before me in the year ahead? What kind of me do they project into the footsteps of the future?

I have listened to much beauty: music and words two thousand years-old which directed my ancestors’ lives: ‘Open your heart’, ‘Remember; be aware!’ ‘Write for life with the God of life’.

I have heard much wisdom from many people: we’ve debated the nature of truth and the moral centrality of integrity and accountability; we’ve spoken about love of the world and our urgent responsibility towards nature, trees, even bees; we’ve discussed the plight of refugees, families fleeing persecution, women trying to escape societies which fail to protect them from abuse.

These responsibilities and truths now shine on my path ahead, outlining in shadow form who I might be, what I could, should, might do with this precious next year of life: Will I care enough? Will I be kind? Will be a planter or uprooter? Will I have the integrity to follow the example of other people’s light, or the courage to step forward where the path is yet unlit?

The God I believe in speaks to the heart, breathing into it wonder, love, honesty and courage. Will we listen in the year ahead? Will we walk the walk?

 

90 Years Since the Birth of Anne Frank

Last Wednesday was the 90th anniversary of the birth of Anne Frank, 75 years since the last birthday she reached before she and her family were betrayed.

I have in front of me a small book, really a pamphlet, called Kinder der Naechte, Children of the Nights. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. On the front is a picture of letters, maybe a name, carved into what looks like a cellar wall, with the date, 1940. The booklet was published in the 1960’s, in Frankfurt, Anne’s place of birth, ‘for pupils of 13 and above’.

I almost threw this meagre item away when clearing their bookshelf after my grandparents died. Fortunately, I chanced to open it and saw that a note had been pasted in: Otto und Fritzi Frank, mit sehr herzlichen Gruessen.

Anne’s father must have given it to my grandparents after the war. The families knew each other from Frankfurt, where both Anne and my mother were born. Only, Anne’s family fled to Holland. Who ever imagined it would be overrun in mere days? My family reached England. Who knew then that it would survive, at first little aided, but uninvaded, and win the war?

I’m ashamed to say that I never read the book – until now. On page 32 there’s a letter from 12-year-old Bernard, dated Paris 18.7.1942

They’re looking for me. Yesterday morning they took Papa and Mama away. I’d gone to get milk; when I came back a neighbour quickly pushed me into his cellar. He told me that every evening he’ll bring me food for the whole day. He’s going to try to get me to his brother in the country. Jojo, if something like this happens to you, don’t lose courage. I promise you I’m not sitting here with my head hanging low…

Jojo is Bernard’s 16-year-old cousin in Toulouse.

At a gathering hosted in Parliament, Tim Robertson, chief executive of the Anne Frank Trust, reminded us that it was not the words of a politician, religious leader, general, financier or celebrity which had most deeply touched the heart of the world, but that of an ordinary, gifted, articulate teenage girl:

I will make my voice heard, I will go out into the world and work for mankind. (April 11, 1944)

Anne could not have known the sad manner in which her voice would reach the lives of hundreds of millions. But reach us it has; and it’s up to each of us to hear.

Our community should be proud of the work of The NNLS Destitute Asylum Seekers Drop In, (and other ways such as Refugees At Home or OSH, Our Second Home) in which we listen and offer support to those whose experiences of persecution are beyond our knowledge and imagination. Still, we need more financial support and fresh volunteers.

Most of all, we need more compassion. Of course, every country has limited capacities for absorption and a primary duty of care to its own citizens. But that does not mean that unaccompanied children should be left destitute, desperate and in danger; or that thousands with well-founded fears of persecution and death in their countries of origin should find no resting place, no heart open to their suffering and no chance to build a future.

The coming days, 17 -23 June are Refugee Week, with its theme of You, Me and Those who Came Before.

A Christian couple helped my mother’s family when they fled to Britain from Nazi Germany. We now, the great majority of us, have safe homes. We have the capacity to assist.

Generation after generation, refugees have sought the hands of others – and not always found them outstretched. Who knows what the future will bring, whose great-grandchildren may need help from whom? Perhaps the ancestors of those whose hands our descendants may need are right now stretched out in hope towards us?

In words given prime-time in the Jewish year, the morning of the Day of Atonement, Isaiah stated simply: ‘Lo tuchal lehit’alem – You are not at liberty to hide yourself away’.

 

Prickly Subjects

11pm last night was a highlight of my week. ‘Come’, my daughter Libbi called from the garden, ‘Quickly. I’ve seen it.’

‘It’ was the baby hedgehog I’d brought home one damp November night. I’d been out late with the dog on the Heath when I noticed a tiny ball of prickles curled up in the wet grass. Sometimes hedgehogs are born too late in the year to make it through the winter; they have to reach a minimum weight to survive hibernation. Was this baby animal too small? If I took it home to feed it up, would I be removing it from its family, doing more harm than good? But then, we had a large garden with other hedgehogs present and, following professional advice, we’d taken the essential measures to make our garden hedgehog friendly.

The animal fitted snugly in my glove. I ran home, dog leash in one hand, baby hedgehog in the other. I called the hedgehog help-line (yes, Britain has such a thing), took advice from congregants (there’s expertise on everything), bought the right food, fed the animal nightly and invested in a deluxe hibernation home. (‘A fool and his money are easily parted’, says my wife – who would have done exactly the same for an animal, or human, in need).

So, when Libbi called out, and we saw the hedgehog, thin but definitely alive, emerge from its winter sleep, we were thrilled.

I’m writing about this not just because it brought our family joy, and not only because over and again I reli­­­­ve a horrid scene where at a crossroads I watched a gang of teenagers stone a hedgehog to death.

I’m writing because, in a world which leaves so many of us feeling so powerless so much of the time, I am passionate about ‘can do’. ‘You are not at liberty to desist from the work’, insisted Rabbi Tarfon 1900 years ago, words we put on the certificates of achievement awarded by Eco-Synagogue.

We don’t have to watch, like helpless bystanders, the decline of wildlife, or race and inter-faith relations, or teenager safety and wellbeing, or social justice, or compassion itself.

I’ve had a learning week. I met Leket Israel, Israel’s National Food Bank, which last year gleaned 30 million tons of produce from the fields and saved 2 million hot dinners from waste. I saw City Harvest, which has provided 5 million rescued meals in London (they bring food to our asylum seekers drop-in). They estimate that 9.2 million meals are missed each month by Londoners who can’t afford food, while 13.3 million meals are thrown away.

I met with parliamentarians, religious leaders and the heads of The Wildlife Trust to discuss their input into the forthcoming environment act, based on their amazing report Towards a Wilder Britain. Britain is among the most environmentally degraded countries in the world.

Our hedgehog, our garden, our synagogue and Eco-Synagogue will all play a part.

I went to Barnet House to express solidarity against racism and anti-Semitism with members of the Muslim community. I listened to how teenage boys and girls experience our local streets. Last Friday a group of us took gifts to the North London Mosque following the atrocities in Christchurch. In this populism age, with xenophobia on the rise, we need to stand, and be seen to stand, together.

In his excellent book To Do The Right And The Good, Elliot Dorff describes compellingly how Judaism understands the creation of a compassionate, just and sustainable world as the inescapable responsibility of every individual, household and community, – our part in our partnership with God.

When that young hedgehog emerged last night from its long sleep, I felt that it was shaking me awake too, and all of us, to do more for the sake of life.

 

Please find out more from:

https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk

https://www.leket.org/en

www.cityharvest.org.uk

https://www.wildlifetrusts.org/wilder-future

https://jps.org/books/to-do-the-right-and-the-good/

Don’t blame others – be a leader

I have just come inside from saying shacharit, the morning prayers, in the garden. The last of the snowdrops, the crocuses, the early daffodils; that faint late February smell of pre-spring buds and promise: my heart gives thanks for you.

There’s nothing I want more than to pass to my children, to all children, a world of such wonder and multifarious beauty. The longing to do so has become my passion and, increasingly often, my frustration.

Perhaps it seems odd to focus on pastoral trivia in a week of political drama. I haven’t had my head in the sand. On Monday I had to facilitate what became an angry and aggressive evening on the impact of anti-Semitism. On Tuesday I worried for my French colleagues as there took place in France hate and counter-hate demonstrations. Last night I spent with the Community Security Trust.

I worry for Jewish, and not just for Jewish, MPs. I worry for anyone who, in this rising tide of populism, puts their head above the parapet in the name of humanity, truth and compassion. And I’m sure we have to be out there with them.

Meanwhile the government and opposition in this country are caught in the blinding intricacies of Brexit, bringing most other business to a virtual halt. Elsewhere, Presidents Putin, Trump and Bolsonaro are not currently leading their countries, or the world, in inspiring directions.

Yet all the while the earth itself is suffering, as report after report, on soil impoverishment, insect depletion, falling biodiversity and habitat loss makes so clear that it’s hard to bear reading them. If this continues, with land and food loss, we will see refugees from environmental disaster, from whole territories become uninhabitable, in numbers we had not imagined before.

In these frightening times, when the future of humanity is at stake, we need leadership which faces the real issues in energy, agriculture and transport policy, and in economic and social justice. We need a leadership with integrity, honesty, humility and imagination. We need leaders who can help us turn fear of the future, and the anger and frustration it engenders, into a vision for the future which inspires and enables us to work together, British, European, Jewish, Muslim, whoever we are. I expect this is what many current leaders aspire to be and do. Perhaps they need not just our support and encouragement, but also our indignation.

This brings me back to the garden. Nicky – my wife – has become a galanthophile, a lover of rare and unusual varieties of snowdrop. When, as we stared at two virtually indistinguishable flowers, I asked her why she cared so much about the minute differences in petal and pattern, she said, ‘Because they make me notice’. I’ve been thinking about that answer ever since.

The garden, the park, the birds, make me notice. The refugees we’ve hosted, the homeless I’ve met and the people I’ve encountered who look after the homeless, make me notice. Noticing makes me care and caring makes me passionate. This helps me find others, individuals, organisations, leaders in thought and action, who know more. They are my teachers and my inspiration, in Britain, Israel, wherever they are.

What matters most is not blaming other leaders but supporting and becoming leaders in the issue about which we care.

Judaism teaches me to love this earth, cherish this creation, care about people, seek understanding, support those who are weak, live by my values.

The sight of the snowdrops reminded me of that this morning.

 

The Hidden Lights of Chaunukah

Sunday brings the first night of Chanukkah.

Chanukkah takes my thoughts back to my grandmother’s house, when I would go to light the candles in the lonely years after my grandfather’s death. As we quietly watched them burn I would look in the window at their reflection, little lamps burning out there in the dark.

Chanukkah is the celebration of the light hidden within the darkness. The mystics explain that olam, ‘world’, derives from the same word-family as he’elem, concealment. We live in a world where the light of God’s spirit is concealed. But it burns secretly in every human being and all living things. It is the flame on the invisible Menorah which illumines the threshold of God’s temple.

Sometimes, though, its light shines out brightly. Chanukkah is the celebration of such moments.

The Talmud tells how the Maccabees searched the ruined temple precincts in Jerusalem for a single vial of unsullied oil to light the Menorah. This may not be historically true. But it’s a truth which illumines all history. There are always those who, with love and courage, seek out and nurture whatever sparks of light can be rescued from the wars and persecutions which mar the human record.

This Sunday marks eighty years since the arrival of the first Kindertransport in Britain. ‘It was a rough crossing’, Leslie Brent told me, recalling the overnight ferry journey from Hoek van Holland to Harwich. Those who created the plan, found, registered, accompanied and gave homes to those children, rescued precious lights which would otherwise have been extinguished and destroyed.

Eric Lucas recalled the final parting from his parents at the station:

First my father and then my mother had laid their hands gently on my bowed head to bless me…My father’s eyes were filled with tears of loneliness and fear.

One hopes his parents could carry the knowledge that their child was safe like a tiny lantern inside their hearts, even as they walked towards the darkness.

But it’s not only in war that hidden lights can guide us. It happens every day in the inspiration we give each other. I experience this often.

I recently received an award in New York. There’s no such thing as leadership without partnership and companionship, so it was really an award for our whole congregation. My first contract with our synagogue, as a youth worker, is dated January 1981, so it’ll soon be forty years my life has been guided by the inspiration of our community. I wrote next day:

I’m deeply touched by the love and generosity of my family, community and colleagues. It isn’t only yesterday. It’s the knowledge that not just my thoughts and, hopefully, many of my actions, but my heart has been, and still is, formed by the kindness, forbearance, wisdom, example, love and sometimes chastisement of so many people. ‘Formed’ is not an adequate word; I mean deepened and extended; people have pushed against inner doors I had not known existed and opened for me spaces of reverence, sorrow, gratitude, mourning and awe. That process has enriched me with the guidance, courage and love of many people, and, through them and the wonder of nature, with moments I think of as sparks from the radiance of God’s light.

There are always people near us who have the gift of nurturing the light hidden within the world’s darkness, through how they care for children, practise healing, fight for the vulnerable, protect the beauty of nature, and stalwartly prove how untrue it is that nothing can be done.

Such people’s lights illumine our only path to victory over brute power, cruelty, lies and destruction.

On Chanukkah we’re commanded to place those lights bireshut harabbim, overlooking the highway, in the public square. We take the sacred hidden light we receive from God, the world and each other, honour it, celebrate it and make it define the direction of our lives.

 

What the succah and the Walk for Wildlife have in common

I have the privilege of writing in our lovely Succah, the harvester’s hut constructed of beams and poles recovered yearly from their dusty storage to build the frame for our booth of branches and flowers. Above my head, among the bay twigs which compose the Shach, the leafy roofing material which defines a Succah as truly a Succah, hang gourds, peppers, black- and-red-grained sweet corn, pumpkins and even the one and only melon we succeeded in growing this year.

A Succah is a place of joy, beauty and, above all Hallel, praise and thanksgiving:

Thank you for shelter
Thank you for land on which to grow grain, vegetables and fruits
Thank you for the rain and dew fall
Thank you for life.

 In the Succah we ask for a blessing upon the seasons, vistas and scents which form the subliminal rhythm of our existence, those smells of field and mountain, twilight and rainfall, for which every refugee from a once safe homeland longs:

‘There’s nowhere on earth so beautiful as my northern Iran’, says K, who fled for his life from his native country, nevertheless insists.
‘The allotments are full of people from all over the world, growing what they miss from home’, a fellow gardener tells me.

The Succah smells of the beauty and preciousness of the earth. Yet, like the slight bitterness the autumn brings to the misty smells of dawn, the tang of brevity hangs about the Succah and its end-of-season fruits: the unavoidable knowledge that time and destiny leave us uncertain, vulnerable, ignorant of our destiny in our pilgrimage on earth.

Maybe that’s why the prayers on this festival are formed round a key word more powerful even than thanksgiving, more urgent and more poignant: Hoshana, Save!

Save your city, save your people;
Save humankind and the animals;
Save men and women, formed in your image and likeness;
Save the vineyards and sycamore groves;
Save the trees planted in the desolate earth.

I realise now that when last Shabbat I joined the first People’s March for Wildlife, enjoying four and a half hours of cheerful rainfall to catch up with the thousands of demonstrators whose placards filled the mile to Whitehall with calls to save the bees, badgers, bats, trees, owls, nightingales and meadows, I was in fact part of an urgent contemporary Hoshana: Save this beautiful earth.

‘There is a time to plant,’ says Ecclesiastes, (which we read in Synagogue tomorrow) before adding that there is also ‘a time to uproot that which has been planted’. Our world knows too much uprooting, of refugees from their lands and persecuted people from homes where they once felt safe, of sustaining rainforests and rich ancient woodlands, and of the trees which prevent hot lands from turning into uninhabitable deserts.

This is a time to plant, a time to save and protect the lands and trees whose shade and whose fruits sustain us. The Succah reminds me how much I love this world, its landscapes, its fruits, the bronze and red beauty of an apple in the autumn. ‘Save this earth!’ There is no prayer more urgent.

 

 

What defines our humanity?

I haven’t gone to the demonstrations in London today. It’s partly because of other commitments and partly because I don’t love demonstrations. But it’s chiefly because I want my whole life to be a protest against certain policies and attitudes advocated by President Trump, and not just by him alone, or Republicans only, or the US only, or solely by politicians. We must be activists against heartlessness not just somewhere, but everywhere.

The first chapter of Bereshit is my creed, the magnificent, misunderstood poem which opens the Hebrew Bible. It’s not a discredited attempt at the history of the universe, but a beautiful declaration of values:

light and dark, land and water, God sees that they are good;
grasses, flowers and trees, God sees that they are good
stars and planets, fishes, birds and animals, God sees that they are good;
human beings created equal in God’s image,
endowed with freedom, imagination and conscience, God sees that they are good.

This remarkable creation, vital, interconnected, interdependent, is henceforth entrusted to our hands. Our humanity is defined by how we honour that trust. Truly to be human is to respect nature, honour all life and stand up for the humanity of others.

Yesterday I attended a ceremony at Hoop Lane Cemetery, where many refugees from Nazi Germany lie buried, to dedicate plaques in honour of courageous rescuers. Among them were: Irena Sendler, the young Polish social worker who smuggled countless people out of the Warsaw Ghetto; Sir Nicholas Winton, who, with Trevor Chadwick, brought more than six hundred children to Britain; Ho Feng Shan, the Chinese consul general in Vienna who enabled thousands to flee to Shanghai.

The night before, I was with Refugee Tales. Through walking together, telling their stories and the power of music, they campaign against the indefinite detention of asylum seekers. I was asked to write one of their Tales this year; it’s about S, who fled for his life from country X. Although as ‘a highly skilled migrant’ he had permission to work here, he was peremptorily detained and sent to Harmondsworth (‘At first it looks beautiful – from the outside; inside it’s really a prison’).

I saw a man sobbing. He’d been in detention for six months: “When I was brought here my girlfriend was pregnant. Meanwhile she’s given birth. I haven’t ever seen our baby”. Another man tried to kill himself, – out of despair. He’d been inside for over a year. He didn’t understand what it was that the authorities were waiting for.

Tomorrow is Sebrenica Shabbat, in memory and in outrage over the fate of the thousands of Muslim men and boys massacred in July 1995, and all the innocent people slaughtered, mutilated and made to ‘disappear’, in the brutal Bosnian war. Women often still do not know the fate of husbands and sons.

God of mercy… we remember with sorrow…
The young dreams that never came to fruition,
The old age that was not spent with family and friends. (Prayer by Mehri Niknam)

Today is the first of Av, the beginning of the nine days of mourning leading to the bitter fast of the Ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and Jewish communities across Europe throughout the Middle Ages and beyond.

It is held that the Messiah is born on that day of fasting and sorrow. We should take this personally: what is there redemptive within us, our societies and our collective humanity, which we must learn from so much suffering and cruelty and put into practice in our lives.

The issues which define our humanity are not all over the oceans. They are here in Europe too, in our cities, at our doorstep, in our hearts.

 

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