Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Jewish by choice

Amsterdam based Israeli journalist, Cnaan Liphschiz gave an interesting talk at last night's Kia Torah session at the Holocaust Centre in the Wellington Jewish Community Centre. He talked about antisemitism in Europe, but in particular, in France and Holland. He attributed this to Muslim immigration. He acknowledged that antisemitism is rife in Eastern Europe too, in Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, perhaps also in Latvia and Estonia, where there are no, or very few Muslims, but in these countries antisemitism manifests itself in nationalist rhetoric, but not in violence unlike in Western Europe. He also acknowledged that though Jews are under threat throughout Europe, there are also many hopeful positive developments, a resurgence of Jewish life in Germany, Hungary, Poland, Hungary has the largest Jewish festival in Europe, and politically, there is a close relationship between Israel and Russia, Netanyahu and Putin, a significant turnaround in light of the past history of Russia and the Soviet Union. 
The outlook is tough for Jews in Europe, but despite this, only a small proportion of them choose to leave. These, however, are the most committed, observant members of their communities, who keep the light of Judaism burning. 
Cnaan Liphshiz made an interesting observation about the New Zealand Jewish community. New Zealand is one of the very few places in the world if not the only place, where Jews are Jewish by choice. They are not singled out, they can completely assimilate and disappear as Jews, they don't face antisemitism, not compared with the rest of the world at any rate, so if they are still involved with Jewish life they do so by choice. Liphshiz made no mention of those who chose to be Jewish by conversion, and the important roles they play in their communities. Jews are completely integrated in the society they are part of, they do not live in ghettos isolated from their neighbours, a Jewish bubble, yet they maintain a semblance of Jewish life and hand on their tradition to their children.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Holocaust Centre of NZ is 10 years old

The Holocaust Centre of NZ survived ten years, and grew into a wide reaching vibrant institution. This is something to celebrate, This week I gave the monthly talk at our retirement village, Village at the Park  about the origins of the Holocaust Centre, the problems of facing the horrors of the past and previous efforts to confront the Holocaust. The audience of some 50 people listened intently, and as often happens, came up to me afterwards and told me their own personal stories.
Here is a link to my talk, The Holocaust Centre is 10 years old.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Book of Ruth - some thoughts

I have been honoured and flattered to be asked to share some Torah thoughts appropriate for Shavuot at the Shavuot dinner. I am not a Torah scholar, compared with my sons, compared with some of my friends, I am an ignoramus, am ha'aretz. In the land of the blind, however, the partially sighted is king. There is not much that I could say about the Ten Commandments that has not been said already, but I can relate to the Book of Ruth, the quintessential immigrant or refugee experience. This is what I will be talking about, shamelessly borrowing from Margo Schlanger and her article, Illegal Immigrants and the Book of Ruth, published in Tablet. My slant is different from hers, in so far as I have a message, it is different from hers, but we have in common seeing in Ruth the difficulties faced by someone fleeing her country. Here is the text of my talk, feel free to comment and disagree.

The story of Ruth – some thoughts

Wherever you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people are my people, and your God is my God, where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

These are the words Ruth said to her mother-in-law, Naomi. They were both widows left bereft in an inhospitable land. So starts a story about immigration, about being a refugee, that has a contemporary resonance.
Ruth was the best kind of 'receiver of the Torah': she is simultaneously brave and kind. She makes compassion her guiding value, and she boldly ventures to join a community that in turn accepts her fully. Her kindness, her chesed, awakens corresponding compassion in those around her.
Briefly, the story tells us that in a time of terrible famine and political insecurity, Elimelech left Bethlehem with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons and went to Moab, on the other side of the Dead Sea. Elimelech died, and his sons died. The Megilla doesn't tell us how or in what circumstances they died. Was it violence, disease, war, epidemic, we don't know. Moab was a violent place, the country of Balak and Bilam, a place where witchcraft was still practised, and in times of crisis human sacrifices were offered to the Moabite god Chemosh. Nor do we know why the wives of the sons of Elimelech were childless, or perhaps they had children who had also died. In a place like that a religion with humane laws, that extend protection and Sabbath, the day of rest not only to the immediate members of the clan, but also to 'your slave, your maid, your animal, and the foreigner in your gates' would have had a powerful appeal. We are only told what we need to know about Ruth, her acceptance in the Jewish community, her conversion, and her role in the Jewish chain of history.
Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law were left alone—without children, without male heads of household, without economic or social standing. Naomi decided to leave Moab and travel home to Judah. One daughter-in-law, Orpah, returned to her own mother. Ruth, by contrast, stayed with Naomi. The key word in the Book of Ruth is chesed, kindness or compassion. Naomi says to Ruth: 'May God kindly deal with you as you have dealt kindly with the dead and with me.' Ruth’s kindness is vital to Naomi’s survival. Without Ruth, Naomi would have been friendless and helpless on the journey, and perhaps even at its end. Even with Ruth’s help, the two arrived in Bethlehem poor and hungry, dependent on others for food. For others, however, it was a time of plenty. The barley harvest was underway. Ruth went to the field of Boaz, close kin to Elimelech, and gleaned the barley left behind by the reapers who were harvesting the bulk of the yield. Boaz was so taken by Ruth’s kindness and care for Naomi that he made sure she was able to gather more than enough.
Boaz also protected the vulnerable Ruth from the threat of sexual violence and offered her the safety of other women. But she wanted to be a full member of her adoptive family, the family of her dead husband. She tempted Boaz, a relative, a much older man to marry her and give her children. For Boaz this is an act of kindness, chesed: 'Be blessed of God, my daughter,' he said, 'you have made your latest act of kindness, greater than the first, in that you have not gone after the younger men, be they poor or rich.'
And so Ruth the Moabite went first from gentile to Jew, and then from widow to wife, stranger to citizen, gleaner to matriarch. It’s the ultimate immigration story. But the greatest reward granted to Ruth for her kindness and unfailing devotion was the most precious blessing any woman can hope for, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a great-great grandson who became the King of Israel and the model for all future kings.
1Some of these words and ideas were borrowed from ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION AND THE BOOK OF RUTH

Shavuot offers an important lesson for politics today.

Tablet, May 26, 2017

Tuesday, May 23, 2017


It is hard to get my head around the terror attack in Manchester. At this stage the attacker is unknown, and so are his motives, but what we do know is that his home made powerful explosive device killed at least 22 people and injured many others, They were young people attending a rock concert. It is unlikely that any of them knew much about ISIS or the cause it was fighting for. We don't know what motivated the killer, or what he had hoped to achieve. The explosion and the murder of these people would not hasten the fall of Assad and the Syrian government, the enemies of ISIS. What was in the mind of the killer? Was he gullible, easily persuaded by some fire breathing Iman to sacrifice his life? Was he unhinged, suffering from mental disorder? There is no simple explanation for such an act of random murder. But looking back on history, there were the Nizaris, the second largest largest sect of Shiite Muslims in the eleventh century. They posed a threat to the Sunni Seljuk Empire. With the unrest in the Holy Land caused by the First Crusade the Nizaris found themselves fighting not only other Muslims, but also the invading Christian Crusaders. Not having the military forces to wage such a double war, they turned to the assassination of prominent enemies or prominent leaders perceived as enemies. These random killings went on for some 300 years, until the Nizari declined internally and eventually succumbed to Mongol conquest. Can we perceive parallels between infighting among Shiites and Sunnis, invading Christian Crusaders and aimless random murder? Does history provide answers, or do we just have to sit back and accept that this is a cruel, senseless world and terrible unjust things happen?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Poor newspaper proprietors, poor journalists

The Commerce Commission refused to allow the merger of NZME, owners of the NZ Herald, and Fairfax media, owners of the DominionPost. They, very reasonably, argued that the merger of the country's two major newspapers would create a monopoly that is bad for the country. The proprietors of the two media empires cried foul. They invested their money in these businesses, reaped large profits, now that the profits are drying up they want to squeeze a few more drops of juice from their investments. They lost sight of the purpose of newspapers, to disseminate news, not to create a vehicle for advertisers. There will be always news, and there will always be an appetite for well informed reporting and analysis. If the Herald and the DominionPost have to change the way they operate and work out a new, more appropriate business plan so be it. Now the vultures, investors out for a quick buck are circling these two wounded behemoths. It is likely that they would strip the assets of these businesses, cut their staff, but it is very unlikely that they would do much to improve the standards of journalism.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Down by the river side

I had such a good time last night. Our neighbours, Val and Bob, jazz enthusiasts, organised a jazz concert in our Village. They invited the New City Stompers to play for us as a fundraiser for the Wellington Free Ambulance. Jazz can cover a multitude of genres, Swing, Dixie, Big Band, Individual Virtuosos like Theolonius Monk, Stephane Grappelli, Dave Brubeck. I didn't know what to expect,
The Stompers were seven elderly men who would easily qualify as residents in our retirement village, and a slightly younger woman vocalist, but they are all very skilled musicians,
There was a trumpet, a trombone who drew a wonderful rich sound from his instrument, a nimble fingered pianist, who to show off  played a Winifred Atwell number for an audience that still remembered Winfred Atwell. There was a guitar, a drum who also played a washboard to the amusement of all, and a sousaphone, an instrument that could have been designed by the cartoonist Gerard Hoffnung. I went partly to support Val and Bob and make sure that there were at least some in the audience for the concert. I needn't have worried, the room was so full that we had to bring in more chairs from the dining room. There must have been some 80 people there and when I arrived almost all the seats were taken. After a while some of the women and then a few couples got up to dance. Some were dressed casually, some of the women were dressed up for an evening out in long evening dresses. The woman in casual trousers who got the others to get up and dance shimmied over to me and got me to join in and dance. (A round of applause) I was never much of a dancers and my dancing days were over at least fifty years ago, but I didn't want to seem stand offish, too proud, or too high and mighty so I got up and did my best to dance. It took me back to when we were newly married and I attempted to shuffle around on the dance floor. The music, some of the numbers they played, took me back sixty years or more. The song 'I left my little bright eyed doll down by the river side' was the hit of the day in 1948 when we arrived in New Zealand. I knew the tune, I hummed and whistled it at the time, but could never get the words. Last night we were given song sheets and we all joined in in the singing. I suppose when friends said that Judy and I would be happy in our retirement home this is the sort of happiness they had in mind.  I thought that seeing people, my contemporaries, enjoying themselves, despite all having their personal baggage was wonderful. Most of the women are widows, some perhaps retired and successful professionals. They all have had lives full of sorrows, tragedies, yet here they were making most of the moment. I thought that there is a story in last night's concert, In fact there are many stories, a film like The Quartet about the retirement home for old musicians could be made from the stories in this Village. 
Looking back sixty years when I last  joined in in the singing and dancing, trying to be one of the guys, trying to belong, I thought of the promise of happiness and success that lay ahead, and the disappointments and hardships that we encountered later. I thought of the music and the good times. I am not sure whether my children and their generation still play music and sing when they get together. When Bartok collected folk songs from all parts of the Balkans, he was aware that these songs were about to disappear as the feudal societies with their peasant culture were disappearing. The coffee house gypsy music that he so despised has also disappeared except as a tourist attraction.
As the whole world becomes one global village, dominated by Hollywood and mass produced culture, old men playing music of the 1920s and 1930s is precious, and we, the audience, with all our aches and pains, mobility trundlers and complaints can celebrate that we have attained a stage in our lives when we have no longer responsibilities, duties, cares, and if we  no longer look forward to a bright future, at least we can enjoy the present.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Refugee children, hospitality and exploitation

Amy Williams, a young British scholar, talked about her research of the comparative narratives of the Kindertransport. The emphasis of these narratives were, by and large, on the hospitality of the kind British people in welcoming and receiving these poor German and Czech Jewish children fleeing for their lives. The narratives left out accounts of children trying to be brave, but spending their time in the toilet so that people wouldn't see them crying, they left out the stories of the parents these children left behind, most of whom were never privileged to see their children again, they didn't touch on the many children who had lost their Jewish and German identity, and they certainly didn't talk about the exploitation of some of these children. These certainly don't talk about the hundreds of Jewish refugee children who were interned as enemy aliens and were shipped off to Canada, and notably to Australia on the troop ship Dunera on which they were ill treated, and were subsequently exploited by their Australian hosts. Nor do the narratives tell you that these children gained only temporary admission, and were only granted residency after the outbreak of the war. Their stories were used as one of the many justifications for Britain fighting Nazi Germany. 
Every feel good story as an underlying dark side. We celebrate on our Timeline in the Holocaust Centre, that in 1943 'Prime Minister Peter Fraser publicly expresses sympathy over the plight of the Jews in Nazi Europe and his interest in the development of Palestine as a Jewish state', yet we make no mention of the same Peter Fraser bending the rules in 1944 and admitting 734 Polish orphans with teachers and priests who washed up in Persia after tracking through vast stretches of Russia and Siberia,  yet the many Jewish children who travelled with them were excluded from New Zealand and rerouted to Palestine. We do not mention that although Jews lived in New Zealand since the 1830s, and were completely and very successfully assimilated, in 1930 Jews were thought of as hard to assimilate. We do not talk about the deeply ingrained latent antisemitism of the 1930s in New Zealand. We talk about Annie and Max Deckston, who saved twenty Polish Jewish orphans from Bialystok, but do not mention that they were only granted permits for these because they failed to find children in British Jewish orphanages who were prepared to come to New Zealand. The permit was initially issued for British children only.
When you see a feel good story take a critical look and see what is left out, why the story is there, what is it trying to say and what is hidden behind it.