Friday, July 10, 2020

Thinking of Helga

Going through old papers, I came across diary notes from a trip to NYC for Helga's ordination in 2000, and wanted to write something about her. We became friends on the day that we met, in a classroom in Jerusalem. Helga was born in Essen, as was my grandmother, and that's where our conversation began. It was a dialogue that continued for 21 years, in person and on the telephone (that quaint old way of communicating). I miss the sound of her voice: the touch of a German accent, the hint of a lisp with s's and z's, and especially the mischievous chuckle that she had. Here are a couple of memories that come to mind.

I started with a look at what is out there. If you google "Rabbi Helga Newmark" there are a few links, but very few photographs. Most of the articles refer to her being the first female Shoah survivor to be ordained a rabbi. Of all the articles to read, start with Betsy Morais in the Tablet. It makes a big deal out of Helga not liking Anne Frank, but I don't remember that at all. I was excited to learn that Helga's family lived on the same Amsterdam street as the Frank family, and of course I asked what she remembered. Helga told me that Anne was a couple of years older, and played with the older girls, and the main thing she remembered was that Anne was very bossy. I don't doubt that Helga said, more than once, that "Anne Frank was a brat." But I suspect she said it with a twinkle in her eye, if not with mischief in her voice. If you have read Anne's diary, especially the unexpurgated version, you will know how human Anne was. So she probably could be a brat sometimes, just like any of us.*

It was a struggle for Helga to get accepted into rabbinical school. Although she was well-known as an educator throughout New Jersey, she was initially rejected for not having the appropriate academic qualifications for graduate school. Nevertheless, she persisted. She went away, got the necessary certifications, and reapplied. She was warned that her age would make it extremely difficult to find employment in the field. This did not deter her. In fact, the five year programme took her eight years - she took time out to support family members in difficulty, returned, and then had to take more time off for health reasons. Nevertheless she persisted, and in May 2000 I travelled from my pulpit in the Shenandoah Valley up to Temple Emanu-El to attend her ordination ceremony.

Things had changed since my own ceremony four years earlier, and there was a new custom that when the ordinand went up for their smicha, their family stood up in the pews and applauded. I was rather dismissive of this:  "you're not supposed to applaud in the sanctuary during a ritual!" I said to my neighbour, indignantly. And then it was Helga's turn. I wrote in my diary:

"Instead of being led right up to the ark, Rabbi Zimmerman took her to the podium to tell us all about her. Hypocrite that I am, I had turned to Michael (Mandel) and said, well if everyone is applauding their guys then I am jolly well going to stand up for Helga!  Well, as she went up on the bima, the entire class and the entire congregation all of Temple Emanu-El rose and gave her an ovation. Yes I cried again. And then Helga was ordained."

That was an incredible moment. I remember that as she ascended to the bima, she was blowing kisses to the congregation. After she had received her smicha, I had to dash off back to Virginia to make the annual congregational meeting that evening. According to the diary:

"I had to leave early ... so I got the security lady to let me round the back and entered the other side of the sanctuary and snuck into the pew next to Helga. "Hey, rabbi," I say. "I have to go, and wanted to say goodbye." "Is it really true?" says Helga, "Am I really a rabbi?" "You bet!" I say, "and I am so proud of you!"

The community celebrated Helga's achievement as the first female Shoah survivor to become a rabbi, but was not so supportive when it came to offering her the opportunity to share her knowledge and experience in pulpit positions. Her life continued to be challenging. Nevertheless, she persisted. A few years later, I moved back to Europe, and by then Helga was dealing with several health problems. Even when she no longer remembered who I was, we still spoke regularly, and I might hear that mischievous chuckle as she told me about an incident with her carer or her meds.

After Helga died, many people shared their fond memories of her. She had been lonely and depressed for a long time, and I was rather angry and judgmental for a while, wishing more of them had spent more time with her when she was alive. Of course I was wishing that I had done better by Helga. This was pre-Internet and WhatsApp etc, and I was thousands of miles away, but I still felt guilty. But I also know that she knew I loved her, and vice versa. 

Although, as chronicled by herself and others, Helga had a dark and disturbing past, I will always remember her laugh and her love. May she rest in peace.

* after writing this, I came across this article by Rachel Kadish, who tells us more about Helga and Anne Frank.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Caught on Camera - the Cat that got the Cream

Thanks to my friend Martin for sharing a humorous video from Canterbury Cathedral. The minister is trying to share his biblical wisdom, but his audience, including the cameraperson, who zooms in on the table, is distracted by a feline visitor who decides to slake its thirst. You may see the whole minute here.

Sara the (Rabbi's) Cat, however, is not a dairy fan. She loves water, preferably from the bidet tap, but she's not averse to a cheeky dip into my glass if she can get away with it.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Remembering Friend & Teacher Rabbi Dr A Stanley Dreyfus Z"L

Remembering that today is not only yahrzeit for my father, but also for his friend and my teacher Rabbi Dr A Stanley Dreyfus. For those who were not lucky enough to meet him, you may read a little about his life here.

Wishing a long life to Marianne and all the family. 

When thinking about him today I remembered what he would say to me at moments of departure, both in person and on the phone:

"Be good."

I'm trying! 

(and now I can hear my dad responding, "yes, very!")

Rabbi Stanley Dreyfus. Still loved and missed by so many. May his memory continue to be a blessing.

How Many Rabbis Do You See in this Photo?

In March 1965, Dr Martin Luther King Jr and other US Civil Rights leaders marched in protest from Selma to Montgomery. On this particular march, they wore Hawaiian leis (for the story behind that, have a look here). I'm sharing this photo today to mark the yahrzeit of my darling father, Rabbi Albert H Friedlander.

I've mentioned elsewhere that we grew up with the story that when he brought his students from Columbia University to join the march, he spent some time with Dr King. We kind of found that part, that they had a chat and shared a sandwich during a lunch break, a bit hard to swallow. Some years after our father died, my sister found a photo from the march that appeared to show the top part of his head within arm's length of Dr King. Anyone who knew him knew it was him, but only half of his face was visible. I recently found this second photo that definitively proves he was up at the front of the march (4th row, in the middle, wearing a kippah, under the red X I added to help you find him). We were wrong to doubt him, and I am very sorry. 

As we remember him today, considering what is going on in the world at the moment, I am proud that he was part of this fight during his life. But that was then, and this is now. According to our tradition, we wish that someone's memory will be a blessing. 16 years after my father's death, he continues to remind us of what we ourselves should be doing. I do wish he were here now to help us continue the work that must be done. However, he isn't, and it is my turn. 

(btw, I can see two)

Friday, July 03, 2020


Our lovely friends W&S have an allotment outside town. They've gone on a mini-break (my opposing heritages tend to struggle over this weekend - Happy Fourth of July! O yeah, right, happy goodbye to the English oppressors, sure! etc.) and suggested we stop by their patch and pick up some salad for the weekend. So we did. Well, L did most of the picking, because she wore wellies. I went in my tough Teva sandals, which immediately turned into mud clogs. So I took some photos of the sunflowers instead.

Did you know that every sunflower is actually thousands of tiny flowers? This sunflower fact and more may be found here. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Carl Reiner, z"l

Sometime yesterday the news began to filter through that Carl Reiner had died. Having reached the age of 98, this actor, comedian, director, screenwriter, author, parent and source of joy to myriad people was blessed with a fruitful life. The multiple tributes I've seen on social and other internet media so far focus mainly on Carl Reiner's work with Mel Brooks, especially the 2000 Year Old Man sketches, and the Dick van Dyke TV show from the early 1960's. Strangely enough, I just started watching the Dick van Dyke Show last weekend. I have loved the sketches for a while longer. For me, there is nothing more healing than laughter, and Carl Reiner brought so much of that into my life, for which I will always be grateful.

Here is a selection of links that may be of interest at this time:

New York magazine on how the 2000-year-old Man was born.
Two hour old baby sketch (suggested by Cary Grant)
First appearance on Late Night with Conan
2000-year-old-man in the year 2000 on Jay Leno
and again on Charlie Rose
tributes on the BBC website
Mel Brooks' tribute as reported in Rolling Stone
a few words from Max Brooks in the Forward

Obituaries from
Corriere della Sera (headline:  Carl Reiner is dead - friend of Mel Brooks & winner of 9 Emmys)
NY Times (paywall)
The Times (paywall)

and the last word for today is from Max Brooks:

"It's expected, but it's unbelievable," Brooks said of his father's reaction to Reiner's death. "No more Carl? How do you reconcile no more Carl? It's like you wake up in the morning and the sun never comes up."

Tuesday, June 30, 2020


It's finally up! For my whole life, this poster was on a wall in my parents' home, first in Wembley and then at Kent House. My father always had a thing about owls, and we kind of thought that he was one (for those of you that knew him - wise, blind in the daylight, slightly ruffled feathers). There were many owl-connected gifts and purchases through the years. This has always been my favourite. Now it is on a wall in my own home. We received it several months ago, but I kept putting off the moment of hanging. My parents are gone. Their home of 49 years is gone. And giving the owl a new place to roost is a confirmation of how final those facts are. But we are very lucky and happy to have our home, and delighted (as you can see from my goofy grin in the selfie) to welcome this owl to our wall.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

DrawingTogetherGM 13: A Conversation Between Your Selves

Our drawing prompt this week was to develop a conversation with a part of our self that perhaps is not heard as much as she should be. First of all we were asked to fold the page in half, and then on the left, in one minute, draw a figure representing ourselves, but not necessarily a traditionally accurate drawing. It could represent that self in any way we wanted. Then, on the other side of the page, in a different colour, possibly using a non-dominant hand to draw, a figure representing the unheard or unseen self, also done in a minute. Finally, one of the characters had to ask the other one a question.

I seem to be a bit wound up, rather tense. Everything is coiled. And it's been quite hard to take pictures during lockdown. For the past couple of years at this time I have been in parks and gardens shooting bees and flowers. Not now. 

The final instruction was to do 3 panels, each in 3 minutes, of a conversation between the characters:

I thought of an ending, but not sure how to get there. Maybe if I knew, I could fix the world, eh?

Thanks to all those at Drawing Together/Graphic Medicine for creating the group and taking time out of their lives to lead us through the warm-ups and prompts. Hope we get together again soon.