I kept think of my father yesterday, I expect Nicky was thinking of her father too, during our son’s graduation. Of course it wasn’t the only reflection; but, amidst love for Mossy, respect for his achievements, gratitude to have been ‘kept alive and brought to this day’ as he received his degree in nomine De’i, the memory of my father kept returning to my mind.

I didn’t attend my own graduation. When my father asked me ‘When’s your graduation?’ and I told him that it had been and gone without my even informing him, I watched his face and spirits fall as he told me how deeply disappointed he was. No doubt I justified myself at the time, as one does when one is heartlessly convinced that one is right. But even before my own son was born I’d come to realise how correct he was, and how mistaken my own conduct had been. I felt that even more clearly yesterday. ‘Ure’eh vanim levanecha – you shall see your children’s children: peace upon Israel,’ runs the verse from the Psalms. He did live to see them, all his children’s children, and even one Bar Mitzvah; but not, by a few years, the graduation.

I remember how my father came into my room one night when I was sixteen or seventeen and asked if I was doing my homework. It was an easy question to answer; I loved the subjects I was studying for A level. ‘Because’, he added, ‘they can take everything away from you except what’s in your mind’.

His family fled their home when he was sixteen; my mother and her family did the same. My father might have looked forward to a steady progression through a good school, a degree from a quality German university, and probably time too at Yeshivah. Instead, by the age of seventeen he was the main earner for his family in a poverty stricken Palestine embroiled in two consecutive wars. I recently found letters from the 1940’s years written by my grandmother in Jerusalem to her brother in New York:

6 June 1943: Adi is very hard-working and earns well. He’s able to support himself as well as helping [his sisters] Eva and Steffi.
18 April 1945: Adi is working very hard. He’s still with the same firm (freezers and cooling plants) and studies hard every night to sit his engineering exams.

His sons’ graduations would have been proof that by dint of constant hard work and determination he and my mother had managed to give to their children what had been stolen from them and their sisters. That would have constituted a small, personal triumph over the evils of Nazism. The venerable halls of Oxbridge with their beautiful gardens would have represented a continuity of the ancient, disciplined culture of scholarship, both Jewish and secular, of respect for learning and its institutions, in which he had been brought up.

(My father’s experience cautions me against judging those labelled ‘economic migrants’ whose deep purpose is to seek a better future for their children.)

The Talmud teaches, ‘Parents are obliged to teach their children Torah…to teach them a livelihood, and, some say, to teach them to swim’ (Kiddushin 29a). The latter is no doubt a metaphor for ‘survival skills,’ managing the challenges and dangers of everyday life. ‘Torah’ embraces the entire Jewish way of life, wisdom, values, ethics, practices, rituals and the inner life of the spirit. But the word translated as ‘livelihood,’ umanut, means much more than the English term suggests. It derives from the same root as emunah, ‘faith,’ or ‘trust’. Also from the same root is aman, a person skilled in their craft; in my father’s and my son’s cases, the art of working with wood. To pass on the capacity for umanut is not simply to teach someone how to make money; it encompasses everything involved in guiding them to be loyal, trustworthy, painstaking and caring in the way they live their every day.

This is what my father wanted to achieve, together with my mother, by enabling his children to progress from school to university and on into the world. He himself finally obtained his degree in his late thirties by studying each night for seven years at the University of Strathclyde.

It was wonderful to have my mother with us. I hope my father was in some way present at his eldest grandchild’s graduation too, to know the measure of what he achieved.


Alongside work within the community, I have been deeply involved this week in three issues about which I care deeply.

On Tuesday I had the privilege of meeting with His Grace Bishop Angaelos, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in the UK.  The previous day he was awarded the OBE ‘for services to International Religious Freedom’.  He said he felt humbled by the award, which was really for everyone who worked with him, and that ‘it comes with a sense of sadness that in the 21st century we still need to defend people’s God-given rights and freedoms in this way’.

Coptic Christians, like many other Christian groups, are persecuted across the Middle East and the Council of Christians and Jews ( are encouraging all communities to reflect and pray, just as we want other faiths to stand up for us in our times of trouble. We spoke too about attitudes to Israel and what the Jewish community seeks from the churches.

Good relations with other faiths and faith leaders are critically important, especially in such difficult and unpredictable times as these. We need solidarity from one another, but that has to be earned. I invited Bishop Angaelos to visit our synagogue and I hope arrangements will soon come to fruition.

On Wednesday I was invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish community at the Climate Change rally opposite Parliament. I spent much of last night writing a Jewish response (which I hope The Times will publish tomorrow) to Pope Francis’ outstanding encyclical Laudato Si ‘On care for our common Home’. What can I say? I have grown up with a deep love for hills and rivers, trees and gardens, birds and animals, a love which has grown stronger year by year, and which contains in its heart not only a vibrant joy, a song to God for the wonder which permeates all things, but also an inescapable anguish which reports of drought, thirst and dying landscapes have intensified into a terrible fear. The issues are out in the public domain; the international meetings are scheduled; it remains for us all to take action at every level, international, national, local, communal and in each business, community and home.

The Pope concludes with a universal Prayer for the Earth:

“Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.”

To such words I am glad to say ‘Amen’.

Yesterday I joined Refugee Tales ( We spoke about the meaning of welcome. ‘You listened’, said one former detainee, ‘that was welcome’. Welcome is to accept others as people, to respect their story, not to delay deciding their case for ten years or more, not to detain them indefinitely, not to take them from a hostel in the dead of night and deport them on a so-called ‘ghost plane’ to a land where they once again struggle in immediate fear for their lives.

I thought of my parents, both refugees at the age of sixteen. I thought of Dan Pagis’ poem ‘They were in the image. I was a shade. A different creator made me.’ We cannot say to another human being, either by commission or omission, ‘Sorry, but you are not made in God’s image. Get lost!’

It’s been a chastening week.


I can’t remember exactly, but sometime in my teens my father said to me, ‘You’re lucky to have a passport’. Seeing I didn’t understand, he added, ‘You realise how much it matters when you haven’t got one’.
My father was correct; I did not understand. I still thought passports were a dull necessity when you wanted to travel, a bureaucratic detail, a thing you had to try not to forget where you’d put.
Later I learnt more. My father had had relatives who knew exactly what it meant to have no passport; I have the letter in which the Nazi state informed them that they, like all Jews, had ceased to be citizens. My father knew too the price for those to whom no one was willing to offer asylum, the rejected of the earth and sea. The boats with thirsty refugees which we see now, he saw then.
Tomorrow Refugee Tales* begins, ‘A walk in solidarity with refugees and detainees’; it follows ancient paths of pilgrimage on route from Dover, via Canterbury, to the detention centre at Crawley, by Gatwick Airport. Each day there are tales; the child’s tale; the lawyer’s tale. There are also the unspoken tales, the unheard cry of those who never became refugees, not because they didn’t try to flee the threats of death, persecution and hunger, but because they were killed, captured or drowned on the way.
Where should they go? ‘Not here’, comes the response from country after country. But is ‘let them die’ a human answer; are we human if that is our answer?  In July 1938 the United States convened a conference on the refugee problem in the French resort of Evian-les-Bains. Only the Dominican Republic increased the quota it was prepared to accept, allowing Goebbels to wonder why, if they didn’t want them either, the rest of the world could be so hypocritical as to condemn the Germans for their treatment of the Jews. What is needed now is an international discussion leading to policies which are compassionate, reasoned, practicable and humane.
Meanwhile people sleep, or try to, in streets, camps, wherever they can. When we meet them** they are not just ‘asylum-seekers’: they are parents, children, teachers, engineers; they are people longing for a future, for a way to live good lives and make a contribution. We can strive with them to transform their reality. Otherwise the grim verdict of one refugee artist may prove true for all: ‘The land which persecuted me stole my past; the land which would not receive me took away my future’.
I’ve learnt something else since that conversation with my father: ‘passports’ come on different levels. It is possible to rob a person of their internal passport, the right to feel that they deserve to exist, are worthy of respect and love. This is an offence at the deepest level, an almost incurable cruelty, committed most often against children, usually in the most vulnerable years of infancy, as the poet Olive Fraser wrote:
     Summoned, though unwanted,
     Hated though true…
     I was the wrong music
    The wrong gust for you

We are not entitled to make another person feel that he or she is the wrong music, unlovable, unworthy of existence.  In the most frightened and lonely corner of our own heart, do we ourselves not fear just such a fate, dread it more than death?

Stuttgart and the sparrows

I’ve been especially moved this week by two  entirely different matters. Yet on reflection, they have, at depth, much in common.
I was in Stuttgart as a guest of the Kirchentag. It’s to the German Protestant Church what Limmud is for the Jewish community, a festival of learning, music, prayer, people, encounter, joy and the debate of every conceivable issue. Only it’s somewhat bigger, with over 100,000 people. The entire centre of the city was closed to traffic for four days and given over to crowds of people, mostly young, singing, talking, attending street lectures.
The mayor of Stuttgart addressed a special gathering for foreign visitors (a mere 6,000): ‘I’m the one who’s been asked to speak because I’m the quickest’, she began, making everyone warm to her. ‘We have guests here from 140 countries’, she explained. ‘Our city has many people with migration and refugee backgrounds and we are glad to live peacefully together. I am proud that in this town over 900 people are currently giving their time to the support of refugees’. It wasn’t a speech I’d expected to hear in today’s Europe; it was moving, and chastening.
Outside in the street I was hailed by a voice calling ‘Jonathan’; it was Nicholas Sagovsky, formerly canon theologian of Westminster Abbey. He currently works with church and government leaders in Britain on issue of good society in general and asylum in particular.
Between bouts of anxiety about my own session, a shared discussion of a Biblical text with a Christian Colleague (which went well in the end), I calmed myself by reading. Nicky had given me Field Notes From a Hidden City, by Esther Woolfson. It’s subtitled ‘An Urban Nature Diary’, with ‘urban’ referring specifically to Aberdeen, but the concerns of the book are far wider. Here is a lady who cares and knows. The fledgling jackdaw by the roadside, the declining sparrow and the beautiful sparrow hawk: she observes, studies and appreciates them and recognises fellow creatures following the integrity of their own lives.
This causes her to call into question the heedlessness, and prejudice, with which we ignore, judge and make assumptions. Observing a lone red squirrel, she recalls how the species was once killed by the thousand as a pest. Now they are endangered species. Instead the greys are persecuted today; there’s even a lady in the town who alerts trapping squads whenever she hears of a sighting. When she sees a grey squirrel in the garden she feels she’s harbouring a threatened fugitive. ‘As I watch it, it occurs to me that all that changes is human perception’.
But there is much that perception fails to perceive, the meaning of a city park turned into a mall, the loss of the great throngs of sparrows. Carrier pigeons were once so numerous in North America that it took three days for the flocks to fly over. She quotes the woman who made the last recorded sighting before the bird became extinct. ‘She listened to its call in which she heard a cry of bitter admonition, ‘See, see, see!’’ Twice she refers to John Locke, the philosopher to whom we are perhaps more indebted than any other for promoting the spirit of tolerance which came to embrace Jews too: ‘the killing of beasts will by degrees, harden [people’s] minds even towards men’.   
Stuttgart and the sparrows: what they have in common is this, the appeal to care, to extend the circle of what and whom we notice, to commit ourselves to life, compassion, hesed – ‘loving-kindness’ – among the most important words in the entire language of Judaism.
Religion which gets stuck as dogma in the head is sadly not just useless but often dangerous.  It must descend to the heart and touch there the flow of compassion which is the essence of the sacred gift of life.

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