Sometimes a verse jumps out from the weekly Torah portion, chimes with what we’re living through, meets a spark in our own spirit. That’s how those words from the start of Exodus speak to me now: ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.’
They’re all gone now, my parent’s generation, all the relatives amidst whose conversations, half German, half English, half refugee, half British, but always deeply Jewish, I grew up. They lie at peace in Hoop Lane cemetery, or rest, like my father’s sisters, on the Mount of Olives.
But they’re not silent, at least not in this world. They speak to us, our dead, they talk inside us. ‘Live!’ they say, ‘Live!’ They put resilience in our bones; they set their playlist in our soul. There’s nothing morbid or spooky about it; the dead who were close to us in life stay near and dear when they’re gone. The loss of them hurts deeply. But they urge us on. ‘Have courage,’ they say, ‘We’re with you all the way. Love life; live it well.’
Two moments come to my mind whenever I say the prayer carved in stone in every Jewish cemetery, ‘Umekayyem emounato lisheinei afar – Keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.’ Twice my father, deeply asleep in his last hours, raised himself from his pillows, spoke those words into the ether and collapsed back into the semi-consciousness of his final journey.
It never occurred to me otherwise than that he was speaking to God: ‘Be with me in this boundaryless time-space where you’re taking me.’ They were words of trust and fear in equal measure.
But now it strikes me that I was partly wrong; my father was also talking to me: ‘Keep faith,’ he was saying, ‘keep faith through everything.’
So here, at the beginning of 2024, I walk among them in my mind, the departed, who lived through the Holocaust and the war. I try to listen, to draw courage for this current time of troubles, when Israel, Judaism and so much else seem on the line.
Here by the pathway is Jacqueline du Pre. I played a recording of her Kol Nidrei to Isca, my second mother, in her last hour. Isca adored the cello. The melody descends into the soul, says without words like the Psalmist, ‘From the depths I have called unto you,’ then rises, declaring ‘Seek beauty, aspire; always aspire.’ That’s why Isca loved such music.
Here, in the same row as my mother and father, lies Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry in the terrible years, teacher of Theresienstadt. Nothing crushed his spirit, his faith not just in God but in humanity. Not rarely, he recalled, even in Berlin under the Nazis in ’40 or ’41, there would be an egg or apple secretly left by his door. He taught that God is mystery become commandment: what we know from life’s depths must teach us how to act.
And, Adi, my father, who by the age of forty-one had lost his own father, oldest sister, first wife, and three of his favourite aunts and uncles? He still comes into my room late at night, unexpectedly, as he did when I was in my teens, saying ‘Remember: only what’s in your mind can never be taken from you.’ And, since he was a practical person, I hear him say when a chair creaks or a shelf breaks, ‘Repair it, don’t throw it away.’ And, seeing he lived through the cruel years of Israel’s struggle for independence, ‘Be loyal; always stand by your friends.’
These are the secret ingredients of their strength, which, like the unique recipes for cheesecakes and strudels that they refuse to disclose while they’re alive, our forebears bequeath to us after they’re gone.
With them, we turn with gritty faith, resilient hope, and love of life, to face the year ahead.