Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Perennial Problem for People, but Kindness is the Answer

I hope you can listen to this clip from Laura Whitmore's BBC Radio 5 Live show today. If not, she was speaking about the death and life of her friend Caroline Flack, who is believed to have taken her own life yesterday at the age of 40. 

Whitmore, and others today, are trying to open our eyes to the power that mean people have on social media and in several forms of journalism. Several people feel strongly that, while Caroline Flack may have had mental health issues and other pressures about which none of us know, the various media posts and articles highlighting her problems were unkind, unnecessary, and might have contributed to her desperation. It is certainly true that there are many cowards who hide behind their keyboards spewing vitriol anonymously at public and private people. There is also the tabloid mentality, that preys on our weakness for gossip, for which we too need to take some responsibility.

It so happens that while catching up on my Daf Yomi today, I came across the following statement by the rabbis of the Talmud in yesterday's section:

“it is preferable for one to throw oneself into a fiery furnace rather than humiliate another in public.” (Berachot 43b)

It stands out for me today for two reasons:  first of all, it is not new that humans seek to humiliate each other in public. It is only the medium that may have changed. And if our ancestors thought it necessary to teach such a teaching, that suggests it was getting out of hand for them also.

Secondly, when will we learn? If public humiliation has been a perennial problem for people, and humans have always suffered and inflicted suffering in this way, when is it going to stop? Could it be that WE are the ones who finally sort it out? 

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. And if you are already a kind person, thank you, and is it possible to be even kinder? 

Saturday, February 01, 2020

Have a Beautiful Afternoon in Your Neighbourhood

Tom Hanks as Mr Rogers with Daniel the puppet (AP Photo)
I just watched the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. Although I did not grow up with the TV show, I lived long enough in the USA to know who Mr Rogers was. For those of you who never heard of him, this Guardian review will give you a good introduction. On the Graham Norton chat show last New Year's Eve, Tom Hanks shared 3 rules for a better life, as taught by Mr Rogers:

1. be kind.
2. be kind.
3. be kind.

It's a depressing day for many of my friends today. If you are mourning the UK exit from Europe, or  are incredulous that witnesses will not be allowed to testify at the impeachment, or in any country you are horrified at the choices made by your elected representatives supposedly on your behalf, and the future seems bleak, please, watch this movie. Its teaching is simple, and the message is one of lovingkindness. It is worth 90 minutes of your time.

Friday, January 31, 2020

PS HMD Thoughts Update

Thinking of bikes, this is one of my favourite ones.

My last couple of posts were filled with fine words about Holocaust Memorial Day and my attempt to give it contemporary relevance for the students I am teaching. In fact, what probably had the greatest (if any) effect was an image that came to me in the middle of the class, while I was trying to make an intellectual presentation.

All the kids have bikes, and ride them regularly. I said to them, and as I said this I acted my words out physically using the aisle between the desks as my street, I said, so you're riding your bike down the street, and you want to make a right turn. You turn, and there is a gigantic hole in the road and you fall in and the bike is totalled and your legs are smashed ow ow ow ow ow! OR you're riding your bike down the street, and you see a sign that says WARNING gigantic hole if you turn right. So you don't turn right, and go on your way, with your legs and your bike intact.

What is the point of Holocaust Memorial Day? It is a giant warning sign for you, on your journey. That is why we teach you about the Nazi murderers and their victims. So you will remember what evil is possible, and not take that road. Your journey. Your life.

So that's the image that came to mind. I hope it helped make a connection for a bunch of teenage Italian boys who'd just been dragged by their school to see a documentary about Anne Frank, and had little sense of what that had to do with them.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Why it's Important to Remember

the last Red Cross note received from my mother's grandmother, who was murdered in 1942. All that is known is that they went to Riga, then to Stutthof concentration camp. There are no other details on record. Her final message to her daughter expresses joy at the news of her granddaughter's birth. 

Someone on Facebook posted today regarding their feelings about Holocaust Memorial Day. They felt strongly that they did not want to make grief from a dreadful past appear to be the central tenet of contemporary Judaism. They argued that the best way of action is to live a joyous Jewish life, thus making sense out of having survived. I wrote the following in response to that thought:

"This afternoon I shared my previous blogpost with my English language class of 18-year-old Italian young men. The Giorno della Memoria is taken very seriously in Italy. For at least one week beforehand, the television and other media are full of programmes and articles related to it, and there are public events in towns and cities across the land.

In class today I spoke to Alessandro, Singh, Riccardo, Luca, Mohamed, Matteo, Issam and others. I shared a brief version of the short life and cruel death at Buchenwald of my great-uncle Hermann. And then we talked about remembering.

What does it mean to remember? On a personal level, I mourn my family members. Our community mourns its victims. But what are these students of mine supposed to remember? I asked them what they thought. One said, murdered Jews? Ok, I said, Why? They looked puzzled.

It so happens that there was an election here yesterday, and most of these kids didn't vote. I asked them why. Well, the politicians are corrupt, and even if they say they will do what you want, they change their minds after the election. What's the point? I then asked, do you know what important event happened in Germany in 1933? Nobody knew. Someone guessed - did Hitler become Dictator? No! I said. That was when Hitler was democratically elected.

People with extreme views generally vote, I said. Those who decide not to take part leave the field free for such people. And then look what can happen. Hitler got enough power democratically, and then was able to become a dictator. You need to remember this. You need to remember what this can lead to. And you need to remember that it is in your hands to make sure such things cannot happen again.

We are not only grieving the worst thing that humans have ever done. We are witnesses, to help the world remember, so humans do not do it again. So we must remember.

If sharing a little personal remembrance on a national day of memory may help to illustrate the horror in a way that is more tangible than incomprehensible numbers, I will do it.

As for living our tradition joyfully in spite of the Holocaust, that is the other side of the coin. What a gift it is to the world to show that it is possible to live again, to love again, to build lives and families again after such a disaster. For me it goes hand in hand with remembering, rather than choosing between one or the other."

Once the last eyewitness of the Shoah has died, and that time isn't far away, we need to have a good explanation for why the new generations should care about what happened. If they are not Jewish or Roma/Sinti or LGBTQ+ or Communist or connected to any of the most well-known groups that are named when speaking about Nazi persecution, there will be little difference between this historical event and any other throughout history. We need to find a way for this memory to be relevant to all future generations.

When will they realise that remembering what happened, how it all went pear-shaped, will give them vital information for the safety and well-being of their own lives, and their families and their communities. This is work we still need to do. And it begins with telling the story.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

Teenage Bubi in Essen early 1930's

Six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis in the Shoah. Millions of others also suffered and died. These numbers are so large that it is hard to get your head around them. The Paper Clips project was a brilliant way to try and make 6,000,000 tangible. Still, it is overwhelming.

Tomorrow is the annual observance of Holocaust Memorial Day. This year also marks 100 years since the birth of my grandmother's baby brother Herman Albert, known as Bubi, who was one of the victims of the Nazis. There is a Jewish teaching that the death of one person is equivalent to the death of a whole world. Thus this year I begin my observance in memory of my great uncle Bubi.

The story that I was told by my grandmother was that there was a window of opportunity to buy people out of Germany. It cost £50, I think, per person. Omi worked hard to earn the money as a maid. First she was able to save her fiancĂ©, then her sister Ilona. The window was closing, and Omi knew that she didn't have enough time to earn another £50, so she made the rounds of Jewish charities to see if she could borrow the money. Unfortunately, nobody would help. Some did not believe that there was really such imminent danger. Others told her that it was hard enough to have established themselves in the community, and they didn't want any newbie immigrants around to give the Jews a bad name! The window closed, and Bubi remained in Essen.

The situation in Germany deteriorated, and Bubi decided he would have to run away. He was still a teenager. He managed to get across the border to Switzerland. However, the Swiss said that he was a German citizen, and sent him back to Germany. He fled to Hungary, where he had cousins, but in 1944 the Hungarian Jews were also deported, and he was murdered in the concentration camp called Buchenwald.

The Central Database of Victims' Names at Yad Vashem has the following testimony:

Name:  Loewy, Herman Albert
Date of birth:  11.09.1920
Place of birth:  Essen, Germany
Citizenship:  Germany
First name of victim's father:  Simon
First name of victim's mother:  Itta
Permanent residence:  Essen, Germany

Deported from Hungary to KZ Sachsenhausen. Hanged in Buchenwald.

Residence during the war:  Italy, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary

Place of death:  KZ Buchenwald

I think Omi never got over her guilt for not having managed to bring her brother to London. 

As for Holocaust Memorial Day, the randomness of fate meant that my grandmother made it out of Germany. She gave birth to my mother, and my mother to me. And it is my job to make sure that evil such as this does not happen again. Not just to my family. Not just to Jewish people. To anyone. So this is a day to remind each other to stand up against hate. To stand up for tolerance. We don't all have to love each other. But we have to treat each other with respect. It seems so simple, but apparently it is difficult for a lot of people. I hope that these words of mine aren't just hot air. I hope that every student I teach, every person I encounter experiences me walking this walk. And when I fall down, as all humans do, I hope I am brave enough and strong enough to correct my mis-steps and continue walking.

In the name of all whose names are remembered tomorrow, and for all who have nobody to remember them, I remember Herman Albert Loewy.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Moses is Coming to Italy!

A new shirt for Moses (Photo:  Sky Sports)
My love of football is well recorded on these and other pages. As is, I hope, my love of Judaism. Now and then these two passions intersect, usually in a playful way. For example, it makes me smile whenever Robert Lewandowski (a Polish centre-forward who is a prolific goalscorer for Bayern Munich) celebrates a goal

Hurrah, another goal for Bayern!
because, apart from enjoying his skill and success, he also brings to mind my all-time favourite Jewish liturgical composer Louis Lewandowski.

a pensive moment for Louis Lewandowski
I love hearing a name from the world of religion being uttered in such a diametrically opposed situation as a football pitch.

And so it is that today I celebrate the news that Inter Milan, a top-level Italian football team, has signed (for now on loan, but with the prospect of a permanent move) Victor Moses. I look forward to his exploits, especially as described by Italian commentators!

PS sorry I don't have a photo of Moses son of Jethro from the Torah. Best I can do is this from my Jews with Horns post in 2011

Photo: ravaj 2011

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Teaching English: A Difficult Question

Probably the most difficult thing and also the easiest to do as a teacher when faced with a difficult question is to answer simply, "I don't know." Followed, of course, by "but I will find out and get back to you!"

Sometimes, however, I think well maybe I can figure it out as we go along. Probably not the wisest move. However, last week, that is what I did when a student asked me to explain the difference between 'almost never' and 'hardly ever'.

I had made the claim that the two phrases meant exactly the same thing. Ploni asked me why. I started futzing around with something to do with combining positives and negatives, and really should've just stopped and said that I didn't know. Or that this is how it is and we just have to accept it and move on. And then, suddenly, a diagram came to mind, and I drew it on the board. I drew the spectrum from Never to Ever (Always). The diagram is reproduced above. It seemed to work. Ploni went home happy. What do you think?