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Archive for the ‘Judaism’ Category

From the Chabad website:

‘The first day of Shavuot this year – Sivan 6, 5770 – May 19, 2010 – marks the 250th anniversary of passing of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, founder of the chassidic movement.

‘Through his teachings – and perhaps even more so through his passionate love – the Baal Shem Tov permanently transformed the Jewish landscape. Forevermore changed was the Jewish perspective on G-d, the Torah, the Jewish nation, and every one of G-d’s creations—and the essential unity within all these previously-thought-to-be disparate components. ‘

As I wrote in this much-discussed post, I’m fascinated by the stories of the Baal Shem Tov (who is sometimes known as the Besht) and other parts of the Hasidic and Jewish mystical traditions. Two of my favourite ever books are the Tales of the Hasidim by Martin Buber and the Light and Fire of the Baal Shem Tov by Yitzhak Buxbaum. I try and read a story from one or other of them every morning and they always inspire me.

So here’s to the Besht, a wondrous man who brought so much light to the world and continues to guide and inspire. And happy Shavout to all my Jewish readers. Have a sweet one!

This is a cross-post from Destination Israel

Wandering through some back-streets in downtown Jerusalem yesterday, I stumbled across a small alley (below) which had been furnished with a few benches and trees. Although it wasn’t exactly pretty, this little passage had certainly been made less drab.

As I walked along the passage, I saw two notices, captured in the picture above, on one of the walls. I didn’t pay too much attention to them at first, but as I approached I noticed that the one on the left was rather different to your average street sign. As I came over to read it, I noticed that something else came, too… a big smile over my face. Here’s the sign from closer up.

For those of you who don’t read Hebrew proficiently, the sign reads:

In the month of Nissan, Jews customarily recite a blessing upon seeing two blossoming fruit trees: “Blessed are You, Hashem, Lord of the universe, that subtracts nothing from his world, and created in it good creations and good trees, so that mankind may enjoy of them.”

It delighted me to see this ancient Jewish tradition being practiced and honoured. But more than that, in this most tumultuous of cities, it was nothing less than lovely to see this simple plaque.

While there can be intense friction between the Haredi sector and the more liberal end of Israeli society, and while Jews and Arabs remain locked in bitter conflict, it was beautiful to see how faith need not be thrust upon others forcefully.

It’s such a simple thing, but yet something that makes me so incredibly happy and thankful. To be able to live in a place where Jewish traditions, preserved over centuries of persecution and near-extinction, are now flourishing once again really is an incredible thing. For me, this is the essence of the Jewish state; it’s what separates us from all the other countries on earth. For all over the religious struggle between the different streams of Judaism, from the Haredi to the reform, we can all agree on the beauty of blessings such as this and be grateful for seeing our ages-old traditions being brought to the fore in our home city of Jerusalem.

For moments such as this, I truly do thank G-d.

As regulars will know I am a bit of a fan of Pesach. I wish all my Jewish friends and readers Chag Sameach.

Here is my latest column for Jewish News…

I think it was probably when I was encouraged to bang my neighbour on the head with a spring onion that I decided Pesach is my favourite Jewish festival. I’ve been part of some tense family get-togethers down the years, but I had never previously considered the pros and cons of using a root vegetable as a dinner-table weapon during any of them. But there, at my first ever Seder at a London synagogue some years ago, I quickly fell for the charms of the Sephardic tradition as I assaulted my neighbour (the wonderful author Carol Gould) with a spring onion. My philosemitic side purred with admiration and I began to wish that Easter or Christmas featured a similar moment of playful vegetable violence.

Actually, I do have to suppress a giggle when I hear my fellow gentiles moan throughout December about ‘what a nightmare’ it is to prepare Christmas dinner. I’ve nothing but admiration for the women (it’s still nearly always women) who cook the Turkey and stuffing, but Christmas comes only once a year while feast-based festivals are regular occurrences in the Jewish calendar and  there is Shabbat to prepare for every week. It makes our knicker-twisting about getting the stuffing and crackers ready seem a bit silly, really.

I love a Jewish feast so I feel blessed that I am sometimes asked to Shabbat meals with Jewish friends and that I’ve just been invited for the second successive year to Seder with the wonderful Schogger family. For me the Seder is a powerful experience as it involves the re-telling of a story from the Torah that particularly moves me. Furthermore, I could sing along to Dayenu and Let My People Go all day and night given the chance. Not sure my fellow diners would be so keen to hear my less-than-dulcet tones though – oy, talk about suffering.

Thankfully, when the food arrives it is absolutely glorious, but then I am lucky enough to attend the Seder at the home of the very best cook in London. What a treat she serves up for us. All in all, my only issue with the Seder is that it’s all over so soon. Just five hours at the dinner table – what’s with the rush? The following morning we had Matzo pancakes for breakfast and they were so lovely they took me to the brink of tears of pure joy. As soon as I got home I tried to make some myself. So hideously did I fail at this task that I barely spoke for three weeks after and – to robust consensus – haven’t attempted to cook anything since.

Honestly, I still dry wretch just thinking about the sorry, soggy excuses for pancakes that I created. I would have been lucky to get one out of 10 for them on Come Dine With Me. Actually, as a fan of that Channel 4 reality series I think they should produce a Pesach-special called Come Lean With Me. These would be epic programmes that would take over the entire evening schedule for a week and it would be great fun watching the competitiveness build, particularly if the contestants included the spring onion moment. Channel 4 should commission it at once: it might even begin to balance out all those vile anti-Israel programmes they have churned out of late.

Back at the real Seder table I love the climactic declaration: ‘Next year in Jerusalem’ as the proceedings finally come to an end. What a moving statement to conclude a meal with. As a festive feast finale it really beats ‘Right, who’s washing, who’s drying?” or  a belched “What time’s the Queen’s Speech on?’ Who knows where I’ll be next year but this year I shall be in Borehamwood, and gleefully so. Wherever you are I wish you a Chag Sameach.

You can read Jewish News online here.

Please rate this post at Jblog here.

There is a touching memorial on the brilliant Chabad website to Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, who were killed in the terrorist attack in Mumbai last year:

“In the course of their short lives, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, India, radiated love, kindness and inspiration to their surroundings. With their cruel murder by forces of darkness, their light exploded into a million points of light that now illuminate across the globe.”

I recommend you visit the memorial page, and watch the inspiring video.

Many thanks everyone for entering the Winehouse v Cowell competition. I’ve selected a winner in each camp. So congratulations to ‘Henry’ for winning the Winehouse book and ‘Beny’ for winning the Cowell one. I’ll be in touch to arrange delivery. There will be a new competition very soon.

I’m going to take a few days off from blogging, so I thought I’d leave you with a quick round-up of recent posts you might have missed:

Firstly, have a read about Boycott Israel Campaign’s ugly protest. Am I right to be suspicious of the timing?

Also, what is the maddest thing anyone has ever said to you about Israel? Do share!

On a happier note, this is what I’ll be doing during Rosh Hashanah.

Speaking of which, I wish all my Jewish readers Shana Tova.

I’ll be back…

jwordBack in March I wrote about the brilliant novel The J-Word and interviewed its author Andrew Sanger. It truly is a fantastic book and I really recommend it to you all. You can read that post here.

Andrew is speaking at the Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival next week. The event is at lunchtime on Monday September 14. You can book tickets here and then start planning what you’re going to eat at Solly’s afterwards.* ‘Citing!

Speaking of ‘citing, Andrew has agreed to give away a personally signed copy of The J-Word through this very blog. All you have to do is leave a ‘pick me’ comment on this post before the end of play Friday. I will pick the winner randomly.

* Lamb shawarma, surely?

Remember when I interviewed author Andrew Sanger about his unforgivably brilliant novel The J-Word? Well, you can see the man himself in discussion at the forthcoming Hampstead & Highgate Literary Festival. The event is at lunchtime on Monday September 14. You can book tickets here and then start planning what you’re going to eat at Solly’s afterwards. If you haven’t read The J-Word yet, buy it at once or I’ll never speak to you again.

In the 1930s, a girl called Margaret Roberts (later Thatcher) was growing up in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Margaret’s big sister Muriel had an Austrian Jewish pen-friend called Edith. When Hitler’s German army occupied Austria, Edith’s worried father asked Margaret and Muriel’s parents if the Roberts family would look after his daughter.

They agreed. Young Edith escaped the tightening grip of the Nazis and went to Grantham to stay with the Roberts. Margaret remembers Edith and the accounts she gave of her life. “She told us what it was like to live as a Jew under an anti-Semitic regime. One thing Edith reported particularly stuck in my mind: the Jews, she said, were being made to scrub the streets.” (Edith eventually moved to build a new life in South America.)

Later, as Thatcher rose to the leadership of the Conservative Party, she continued to earn a reputation as a friend of the Jewish people. She was a popular MP among her constituents in Finchley (which had a high Jewish population) and was a member of the Anglo-Israel Friendship League of Finchley and the Conservative Friends of Israel. She joined in the singing of Hatikvah at a local event in 1975.

When she took the leadership of the party, Foreign Office mandarins feared her Jewish connections and support for Israel would see her viewed as “a prisoner of the Zionists” by the Arab world. Once PM, her cabinets and behind-the-scenes teams often included many Jewish politicians, prompting Harold Macmillan to quip that she had “more Estonians than Etonians”. (Not the most sensitive of punchlines, but it should be noted that Macmillan too had given shelter to Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 40s.)

Thatcher became the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Israel when she spent three days there in May 1986. (She had visited twice prior to becoming PM.) While respecting her for her symbolic trip, I find the fact it took Britain nearly 40 years to send a serving PM to Israel astonishing.

It was not an entirely rosy relationship between Thatcher and Israel. She described Israel’s bombing of the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981 as “a grave breach of international law” and a “matter of great grief”. (Then US President Ronald Reagan also condemned it incidentally – so much for the American/Israel conspiracy.)

In 1987 she had a less than harmonious dawn summit with Yitzhak Rabin, which he later described as “the shortest breakfast meeting he ever had”. (Her ‘Iron Lady’ tag is thought to have been inherited from Israeli PM Golda Meir.) She also imposed an arms embargo on Israel during the Lebanon war.

However, the number of Jewish Conservative MPs rose under her reign, and dwarfed the number on the Labour benches. As PM, Thatcher had a very healthy relationship with the then Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits. One of my favourite political books is Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill And The Jews. I wonder if a similar tone could one day be written about Thatcher’s relationship with the Chosen People?

Today I am expecting delivery of Don’t Tread On Me: Anti-Americanism Abroad by the great Carol Gould. I’ll be interviewing Carol about the book for Oy Va Goy in the coming weeks.

Tonight I am off for Friday night dinner at the home of the brilliant Jonathan Hoffman of the Zionist Federation.

And this Sunday it’s my birthday. Good times.

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