Archive for February, 2013

Nowadays, I run half marathons. But I ran two marathons several years ago. I remember it all so well: the challenges, the joys and the ginger-haired woman who shat herself in mile 15.

My personal best for a marathon is 4hrs3mins, which was my finishing time in 2005. Since then, a succession of my friends have entered marathons and, to my huge relief, none have beaten my time.

But I’m genuinely worried that my friend Damian Schogger is going to smash it. Damian is keeping video blogs about his training for the forthcoming London Marathon. He seems to know what he’s talking about and is clearly taking it all rather seriously. This is potentially devastating.

Damian is running the marathon to raise funds for World Jewish Relief. As he writes on his fundraising page: “WJR does a phenomenal job supporting projects for some of the most needy people – Jewish and non-Jewish – around the world. So please show your support for me and them by donating whatever you can afford, and helping raise as much money as possible.”

Good man, Dazza. May you raise lots of money – and finish in 4hrs4mins.

Hearty congratulations to Adele, who won an Oscar last night for her James Bond theme, Skyfall. In recent weeks she has also added a Grammy and a Brit to her huge collection of prestigious gongs.

I was quoted in the Daily Telegraph today about her latest achievements:

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It was great to speak at the Women’s International Zionist Organisation last night. Thank you to the Sassoon family for the experience, which included a pre-speech shawarma at the new Sami’s branch in Golders. (The Iraqi pitta there is heavenly!)

I thought I’d share a portion of my speech here. So here is its conclusion, in which I spoke about some of ways that both Israel and the Hasidim have inspired me…

I’m inspired by historical giants such as the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Nachman and the Chabad Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson. I’m fascinated and haunted by Elie Wiesel’s stories of the Hasidim in Block 57 at Auschwitz who continued to sing, dance and pray to G-d, even in that darkest of times.

I’m inspired by the very 21st century Hasidim of the NaNach Breslovers, who dance to techno music on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. When I stopped blogging for a while in 2011, it was the Nanachs who were the first to email and ask if I was okay. They never directly told me whether or not I should continue blogging. They just told me that I should be happy and then I would make the right decision.

And of course I’m inspired by the modern state of Israel and how it took the Jewish story from the camps of the Shoah to the rescue of Entebbe in a single generation. There are so many figures in Israel’s history that particularly inspire me. The one I keep coming back to is Menachem Begin, the warrior turned peacemaker who devoted his every waking hour to the love of his people.

Then there are the names we are less familiar with and the stories that receive less attention. For instance in May 1991, when Israel airlifted Ethiopian Jews away from impending death. Many of these Ethiopians had never even seen an aeroplane before that day. Over 1,000 people queued to enter the plane which had only a 500-person capacity. The pilot simply removed seats and other items to make more room.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I don’t want to leave any of my people behind.”

Over the next 36 hours Israel saved 14,324 Jews and flew them home, symbolically arriving over the Red Sea. Seven babies were delivered on-board. As the Ethiopian Jews arrived in Israel many kissed the ground. At the absorption centre they were served food, one of the servers was an elderly woman with a tattooed number still visible on her arm.

Jews were also emergency airlifted to Israel from the Yemen. Again, many of them had never seen a plane before. That very week the Jews in Yemen had read the portion of the Bible about G-d carrying the Jews on eagles wings. Imagine how they felt as a huge metal ‘eagle’ appeared and flew them to the Promised Land.

There are more recent stories, such as in 2009 when a Hamas rocket aimed at Israel misfired and severely injured a Palestinian. Israel took the injured Palestinian into one of its own hospitals for treatment. These are beautiful stories that we all need to share with the world more.

And what about the story of a 15-year old Palestinian boy who was bitten by a deadly viper snake as he worked in his family’s fields in Jenin in the West Bank. He was soon in enormous pain and in imminent danger of death.

His father rushed him to Jenin Hospital but they lacked the correct anti-serum. So he was taken to an Israeli hospital – the HaEmek Medical Center. There Muhammed and his father were greeted in Arabic and rushed to the emergency room where the boy’s life was saved by a team of doctors including both Jews and Arabs. He was kept in intensive care for two days and then moved to continue his recuperation in another ward.

Established in 1924, HaEmek Medical Center is a community hospital serving a population of Jews and Arabs. With a mixed medical staff of Jews and Arabs, its guiding philosophy is ‘Coexistence Through Medicine’.

This is Israel and those are the people and stories that so inspire me.

I also love the sense of hope that is inherent in the state of Israel, including in the title of its moving national anthem. Israel is a vibrant, brilliant country, remarkably so given both its youth and the circumstances it was created and built under. To me, etched into every part of Israel is an unwritten message: just look what is possible in life.

This is the ultimate example of how one can start afresh, even after the cruellest of blows. And that truth is there to inspire anyone who cares to connect with it.

And that is what I am admiring and supporting.

In my efforts for Israel I don’t generally aim for loud, controversy-seeking pyrotechnics. Although fireworks can be fun, the Jewish people have shown me candles last a lot longer.

I’ve a busy day ahead.

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Spitting is often rude, but sometimes it can save a life.

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Silly but true: as a kid, I thought God’s name was Peter. I kept mishearing in church when the vicar said: “Thanks be to God.”

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I’ve always been a fan of voles. They’re so cute.

Did you know that some species of voles form lifelong, monogamous partnerships? This is brilliant, and it’s rare in the animal kingdom – fewer than five percent of mammals are habitually monogamous.

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David Ward MP and cartoonist Steve Bell have recently provoked controversies about criticism of Israel, antisemitism, and where the two phenomena meet.

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When Gilad Shalit was on the brink of freedom, I wrote about a particular resonance his case held for me, and recalled my experiences during the years of campaigning for him.

I was thrilled to spend the afternoon with him yesterday.

I felt nervous as I travelled to meet Gilad. I wondered what emotional state he might be in after all he’s been through, and I dreaded the thought of accidentally saying the wrong thing and upsetting him.

He greeted me with a broad smile and firm handshake. We had a delicious tea with his family and then went on a sightseeing drive around London. We stopped to look around several landmarks, including St Pauls Cathedral, and then took a stroll down the South Bank, before stopping at the National Theatre for a drink.

It was blissfully surreal to see Gilad, who was held hostage in Gaza for five years, out and about in London, eagerly snapping photographs of landmarks on his iPhone.

He seems, on the surface at least, to be remarkably well following his five years of captivity. He has a deeply curious mind and seems determined to see and understand as much of the world as he can. He’s interested in London architecture and loved the stunning red twilight that hung over the city ahead of dusk yesterday evening. He told me that in Israel the sky usually moves from light to dark in an instant.

He’s quietly observant and sharp. He asked me how old I am. People always say I look young for my age, so I suggested he guess my age and then readied myself for another flattering estimate. His guess was just four months out. I was crushed but impressed. Nobody ever gets that close.

We talked about football a lot. I was disappointed to learn that Tottenham are his favourite English club. “What’s wrong with Arsenal?” I asked. He giggled and explained that he always prefers teams with white shirts rather than red, due to his football and basketball loyalties back in Israel. He actually has a great sense of humour (by which I mean he laughed at most of my wisecracks).

I did feel like I’d put my foot in it at one point. I was telling him about the time I was waved through security at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport because I was wearing a Shalit campaign t-shirt. He asked me if I’d ever been stopped for questioning at the airport. “Yes,” I replied, “they kept me for two hours and 45 minutes once.”

It suddenly felt preposterous to have said this to a former hostage, so I nervously added: “But I don’t know why I’m complaining to you of all people about that.” I was relieved when he burst out laughing.

He laughed and smiled a lot during the afternoon. His vigour and humour after all he’s been through are inspirational. They certainly put my troubles in perspective. He is really living.

Really nice to meet you, Gilad. I wish you a beautiful life.

© Copyright Chas Newkey-Burden. All Rights Reserved. Thanks to Chris Morris.