Holocaust Memorial Day 2013.

We will never forget.

These words have been everywhere the last few days, commemorating Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day.

Amongst the six million Jewish souls who were brutally extinguished by the Nazi’s, were 1.5 million Jewish children, only one of whom I know the name of.

Edith, my namesake, was just a young child when her life was taken away from her, along with her mother Sabina, (my grandmothers sister) and my great-grandparents Chaim and Malka. And of course, countless others.

Edith was my mothers first cousin, the only one she would ever have, and yet her death came before my mother was even born. The easy family rapport that spans oceans and forgives absences and long silences was therefore never my mothers to experience. The large family gatherings of shared memories and relatives and marking anniversaries and birthdays together was just a fantasy to stand on the outside of, looking in.

Edith would have one day had favourite foods, books and games. She would have had teen romance and best friend quarrels and anxieties. Perhaps at her batmitzvah, in the forties, my grandmother would have been holding my aunt in her arms just a baby herself, dancing with her sister, Edith’s mother, and sharing the closeness that she would in reality only see secondhand in her own girls. Maybe my own mother and her sister would have been bridesmaids at Edith’s wedding, all dressed up in meringue dresses with giant bows in the dated style of the sixties. Maybe they would have been too old to be flower girls, instead dressing in modern gowns that my granddad wouldn’t have approved of but never would have said for embarrassment and fear of female confrontation. The cousins would have danced together excitedly, maybe best friends or maybe not, but family nonetheless.

My brothers and my cousins were born in the seventies, and never had second or third cousins to play with or visit. I have spent Jewish festivals since i was 8 years old, and many a happy memory, with my second cousins on my fathers side of the family, and I assure you, the words may sound distant, ‘removed’ or ‘third’ but they couldn’t be more kin to me than my own siblings.

Our walls are covered with the ghosts of photos which could have been. The unborn children who should have played and fought together, the hastily snatched dinners of her generation all together when babysitters or favours could be taken advantage of. Me, a little girl in the late eighties, celebrating Edith’s 60th birthday, perhaps covered in cake and smiles I would never remember. The six of us, our mothers children, surrounded by more blurred faces, our second cousins, maybe Edith’s own nephews and nieces had they been allowed a chance at life. As the decades go on, more colourful digital snaps, less spontaneous because we can now try as many times as we need to get it right. Edith, standing with her arms around our mothers at our wedding, me dancing dutifully with her and her children; aching to finish so I can grab my own friends. A shiny image of her holding our own R, her great great nephew a few days after his birth. She would be in her eighties now, vibrant and strong, unscarred by tragedy.

Every memory I’ve listed had the potential to exist. They aren’t fantasy, they should have been our history. They were stolen from her, and stolen from us as well. We will never know the make up of our family had Hitler not decided to murder her innocent soul, before she even took her first steps or said her first words. She was one child, one person, one story. In our own family we have half a dozen more stolen lives, and in our community countless more. As a nation, six million stories and lifetimes were brutally snatched from those of us left behind. Never forget? The true tragedy is that we were never given the opportunity to remember the memories which were rightfully ours.

May God ensure that their perfect souls are resting in everlasting peace.

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Shelter

Sitting at home listening to the rain quite literally pounding against my window-pane, like tiny fists desperately begging for entrance. Angry sounds of rain against glass, of the wind whistling through the swaying trees, the silence and darkness of cars parked in driveways, not a night to be out and about.

But some people are.

This time of year is not only one for repentance and forgiveness, but also for being grateful. Talking to God has never been something I struggle with, but recently it feels almost overwhelming to imagine asking God to let me keep the people I’ve learned to build my life around. Horrible things happen every day, people I know lose seemingly everything in a split second. I cant let myself think about the possibility of that happening, or I wouldn’t be able to let those I love out of the door every morning. But what I can do, is be grateful that they are mine, and tell God that, as honestly and meaningfully as possible.

But tonight, during the ten days of penitence, I’m overwhelmed with gratitude and sadness in equal measure, but not over any person in my life or missed from it. Simply having a roof over my head, something we all take for granted, isn’t an obvious truth for everyone. I’ve always had what you could call a soft spot for the homeless, giving where I can, signing up to Shelter and other charities similar to it. But still, no matter how involved I try and become, I cant fathom the idea of someone not having anywhere to lie their head at night.

Maybe it’s about being part of a community. Even if you discount family and friends, I cant imagine a situation where there would be absolutely no one I could turn to to ask to stay for a few days, a week or two. And if there was? All I would need is courage to go and ask the local Rabbi for some hospitality from somewhere in the community.

So to me, who could list off the top of my head, fifty people who would open up their spare rooms for the night before I was turned onto the streets, and thank God, could afford to be in a bed-sit, a hotel, or a studio for quite a while even if there was no-one to call, I shudder to imagine the bodies wrapped in soggy newspapers lying rough tonight.

The small taster we are about to receive, no doubt sitting in the rain in our ‘temporary dwellings’ this Succot, should be enough to remind us all how much we have. As we go into Yom Kippur, for me at least it helps to go back to the very basics, and remember how lucky we are to be able to complain about the cold and the rain from the inside looking out.

Rosh Hashana 2012

Hopes and thoughts for the year ahead

  • My little once baby boy is now a toddler. I am so proud of C and myself for everything we have managed to give him in the last year, and he is a confident and happy little boy. However, I am hoping that this year will give him the communication skills to speak to us and to others, and make himself verbally understood. By this time next year he will be starting his third term of nursery, and I can only leave it in Gods hands to make sure he is ready for this huge step in interaction and social understanding. (Gulp.) He hasn’t ever let his eyes hold him back until now, long may it continue! I get frustrated and worried when people ask me ignorantly “is he really partially sighted?” I suppose my greatest hope is that people always continue to ask me that question!
  • I could never have imagined coming this far in my relationship as a daughter this time last year. My mother and I no longer argue, (although we drive each other mad sometimes) and in many ways our relationship is stronger than it’s ever been. I can say without doubt that I understand her more than I ever have done, and that I no longer worry that she doesn’t really want the relationship to start with. I hope that this year we can begin to enjoy each others company the way we sometimes used to during the manic bipolar nature of our time together during my teenage years. I also hope I can show her that she can trust that I’ll always be in her life, she isn’t alone, even while I cant soothe her loneliness. If I’m really honest, my fear is being sucked back into the craziness, and losing myself in it, in trying to help what can’t ever be changed. I think only heaven can show me a way to balance love with self-preservation. It’s certainly not something I’ve ever had much luck with in the past.
  • I could never have imagined that the biggest challenge of adulthood would be friendship. While my old friendships hold strong for the most part, it seems to be a well known but un-discussed fact of being a grown up that it is about 50 times more difficult to make lasting relationships. While in high school, all it took was a few shared classes or break times, nowadays things are so much more complicated. Play dates, Shabbat lunches, chats at the library… when do acquaintances become real friends? I finally feel like we have a community to be a part of, and have met some lovely people with kids similar ages to R, and a similar lifestyle to C and me. I hope that this year will bring us closer in a deeper way, and they will move from being people to pass time with, to being people we call in times of joy or need.

Reconnecting with old friends and family, finding peace with things which cannot be changed. Making the next steps towards goals both old and new, treating ourselves to much needed “me-time” and “family-time” alike. Success in our careers and family life and personal aspirations. The ability to give and accept, in equal measure.

I want to wish all this and more to all my friends and family, along with a huge thank-you to everyone who continues to read and support me, I cant say how much it means to me. To everyone who celebrates in one way or another, a Shana Tova U’Metuka, a healthy, happy and sweet new year.

Yizkor Etiquette (FYI)

There is a prayer in the Jewish holiday services, to honour the memory of people who are no longer with us. The widespread custom is that it is not said by people who still have both of their parents living. In many communities, those people do not even stay in the synagogue while the prayer is being said.

If I’m honest, I don’t really understand why that latter custom begun in the first place. When prayers are said by other parts of the community that I am not included in, (Men, Kohanim, those in mourning etc) I find it pretty self explanatory just to stand quietly and wait. After all, there is plenty of the prayer which is relevant to everyone, including a prayer for our soldiers and one for the victims of the Holocaust, something we all could benefit from being a part of. Surely it is an odd action in itself to get up and leave the building, basically abandoning everyone with the misfortune of having lost a parent or both.

Superstitious or not, I can however appreciate the reasoning behind it. And if your parents would rather you left the synagogue for those five minutes, or you yourself feel uncomfortable being there, then leave by all means.

But I do have a couple of small requests.

Given that we were standing having a perfectly normal interaction or sometimes even conversation 2 minutes previously, please don’t suddenly act like I have the plague. Yes, you’re being given a reminder that I once lost someone dear to me. I can understand your twinge of awkwardness. But not looking me in the eye? Stumbling over your words? Feeling the need to look apologetic as you leave the room? Bizarre. I do this four times a year, and sometimes it’s harder than other times, but I am in the same mood I was 4 seconds ago, I don’t suddenly need special treatment.

Which brings me to my second issue. The mad scramble for the door. This is different at different places, but in every congregation, there are the people who start gathering their bits and pieces together a good ten minutes before the guy shouts ‘Yizkor.’ They are standing by the door as soon as the Haftorah has finished, and they are pushing past everyone in their way to make it to the coridoor before heaven forbid, someone starts reading from their memorial booklet with them in the vicinity. What are you afraid of? That you might catch my dead parent virus? If its your custom to leave, then leave. In a normal manner. Exactly how you would regularly walk out a door, in a line, at a normal speed. Even if you disagree with me that it’s rude to leave in the first place, it’s certainly not polite to canter out the door virtually shouting silently that we shouldn’t confuse you with one of us.

I’m probably coming across kind of bitter, and it really isn’t that at all. And it certainly isn’t the fault of the people who leave. The custom should never have begun, because it feels to me almost anti what we stand for. Surely the very best part of Judiasm is that we are all accountable and responsible for one another, we share in each others joy and pain and we certainly don’t leave one of our own when we are in need. So where did this custom start, that we should segregate ourselves, even for twenty minutes a year into orphaned and not orphaned? Speaking for myself, and I only say one small portion of the service, it is a very lonely feeling to watch everyone hotfoot it out of the room at arguably one of my most vulnerable times. How must it be for the older members of the community who have so many dearly departed to remember and miss?

I don’t know where it started, and I hope that those who don’t mind either way, would start to make a point by staying in and standing quietly with their prayer books firmly closed. But even if you can’t, or simply don’t want to, I hope you’ll think twice before you push me out the way in your eagerness to leave.

When Superman isn’t available

Today was Purim, a Jewish festival where it has become customary to masquerade in fancy dress. I say become customary, it became customary at the end of the 15th Century. Nowadays it is more social law, especially when kids are involved.

C and I have never had any trouble getting in the festival spirit, and since we got married, as well as since we had R, we have always dressed up as a team. This year, we became superheroes.

Surely you mean you dressed up as superheroes? (I hear you ask.) No no, we actually were superheroes. We spent the afternoon with our parents, and from start to finish it was pretty difficult. We used our super human strength not to cause an almighty row, and our superhuman patience not to walk out. Next to the powers we displayed today, spidey senses are pretty tame.

Why can family holidays only go one of the two extremes? You either have the best time ever, and wonder why you dont see your family more often, or you leave wondering if you can possibly get out of next year already.

Today was the latter. And it was nothing new really. Nothing we couldnt have anticipated. Certainly nothing that we havent discussed to death after many trips to see the generation above us. And maybe our expectations are too high. People say that you either go one of two ways when it comes to being parents. You either repeat your own parents mistakes, or you are so aware of them that you make the huge effort to escape them and do the opposite.

Well, with God’s help, I would like to be able to promise my son the following:

  1. If you tell me something in confidence, I won’t announce it at the dinner table /  secretly tell the rest of the family and make them swear not to mention it. Until they do anyway.
  2. If we’re annoyed at each other, we will always try to discuss it calmly and out of your hearing.
  3. I wont volunteer you to do a million expensive or timewasting errands which you are capable of offering to do yourself if you so choose.
  4. I wont whisper childish jibes about you, just loud enough for you to hear, and then get angry when you ask me to stop.
  5. I wont ignore what you tell me, and then blame you for the results.

Do I really think my expectations were too high? No. Not really. And like I said, it was nothing we didnt expect, and with or without our costumes, the two of us have built up a fairly great arsenal of super-powered weaponry to deal with these battles. What makes me nervous is, there are now three of us.

And just as our little man has no idea he is in a costume today, he has no idea that today is anything different from any other. He doesnt expect any difference from the normal cloud of love and respect that he is constantly enveloped in. Spiderman or otherwise, he hasnt learned to find his superpowers, and I kind of hoped he wouldnt have to, at least not yet. Watching him today, disappearing into his Baby Einstein programme, and whining almost constantly to go home, I was so glad that he had no real understanding of what was going on around him. Most of all, I was thankful that we had the super-power he needed, the one we both have waited for for so many years, to be able to fly him back to a happy home.