24 January 2014

Of Bus Bombs and Bones

In early Nov 2013, pictures flashed across media screens in Israel showing the remains of Yasser Arafat, exhumed for forensic tests:

“My phone rudely rang at 7 am. I ignored it. It rang again and again.   By 7.30 the unwanted invasion had won.  I answered.  My entire day changed.

Jerusalem Bus 19 explosion
“ Did you see the pictures of Yasser Arafat’s bones?” Leah* asked.  I could tell she was breathless, in a panic.  Leah has climbed back from a deep black hole where she, like Joseph of old, was thrown the day her loving husband and father to her four young children was murdered on a bus as he went to work in a hospital kitchen.  Her husband was being buried, while her Mother in law threw her and her children, minus their possessions out onto the street and claimed the dead husband’s house as her own.

“ Did you see how black the bones are?  Is that what happens to bones?  I thought my Shmulik* was still a body, I have never thought of him as black bones.  How did that happen?  Where is he?  Where is his soul?  How did his body disintegrate?  Was he eaten alive down under the ground?  Can we take his bones up, clean them and put them back again?  Will you help me do this?”
It does not take much to trigger the memory, to trigger the pain, to take a person back to an open grave with a body covered in a prayer shawl which is being tipped into the damp soil.  Most lay the required stone on the grave and walk away.  Leah is still there, beside, if not inside the grave. Who will help her to walk away?”

Springs of Hope is a Jerusalem based organisation that assists the recovery of families personally impacted by acts of terror, usually involving the loss of a close loved one.  In March this year, they are organising ‘Walk With Me’, a sponsor powered event that will give people like Leah the opportunity to join a team of ‘terror survivors’ as they take part in the annual Jerusalem Marathon.  The idea of moving past

13 January 2014

The Autograph Book

Martha came to the UK on the 'Kindertransport' – part of an operation which brought 10,000 unaccompanied children to England as they sought refuge from Nazi persecution. Martha originally came from Austria and rebuilt her life in London. Her entire family was murdered in the Holocaust.

One of Martha’s most treasured possessions is a small book, quite worn with age that doesn't appear to be worth very much from the outside, but inside it is full of handwritten messages in German. Some of the messages are amusing, some quite serious but each message represents an untold story.

In January 1938, Martha celebrated her eighth birthday. Friends and family gathered to make the day special. Martha’s cousin gave her an autograph book. Martha was delighted with this present and asked the people she knew and cared about to write personal messages in her new book. Her school friends and relatives filled the pages with their thoughts. The entries were varied. Some wrote witty comments whilst others wrote earnest statements about the importance of good behaviour and getting on in life. Martha’s father gave her some serious advice: ‘He/She who puts the effort into their studies will achieve their life goals.’ Martha was pleased with all the messages. They were a record of a happy time. A few months later, the Nazis entered Austria and her life changed forever. The small autograph book and its messages to an eight year old girl would soon represent a vanished world. 

In 1939, only a year after her birthday,  Martha's parents decided to send her away, fearing the dangerous anti-Semitic developments they were witnessing in their country. Her family sent her on the ‘Kindertransport’ to safety in the UK. In her suitcase she carried her favourite doll and the autograph book.

Nine months before the Second World War, the UK opened its borders to about 10,000 children. Most of them, like Martha were Jewish, and their families sent them to escape from the terrors of the Nazi regime. The children arrived, without their parents, from Austria, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia, in a process that became known as the ‘Kindertransport’. This lifeline organised by the Red Cross, enabled unaccompanied children between the ages of 5 and 17 to travel to the UK by train. The ‘Kindertransport’ saved the children’s lives but separated them from their families, often forever. By the end of the war, many of these children were orphans.

09 January 2014

"When You Come to the Land and Plant a Tree ..."

Throughout Israel on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shv'at, children will be leaving their classrooms to go out and plant trees. This is Tu BiShv'at, the Israeli equivalent of Arbor Day or National Tree Week. But what is behind this tradition?

Tu BiShv'at is a transliteration of the Hebrew date of this holiday. 'Tu' pronounced 'too' is not really a word but is the number 15. Hebrew letters also carry a numerical meaning (a bit like Roman numerals) 'Tu' is constructed from the Hebrew letters  (tet) which is the ninth letter and  (vav), the sixth letter. 9 + 6 = 15. 

The 15th of Shv'at was chosen by ancient Rabbis as the date to mark the boundary between the previous year's fruit crop and the current year's crop, for the purpose of calculating the tithe. Any new blossom on the trees after this date would be counted as part of the current year's harvest. In Israel, the first tree to blossom is the Almond, and this date usually coincides with the time when the the Almond tree starts to bud. In the book of Levititcus (19:23-25),  God gave this command to Israel concerning trees:
“When you enter the land and plant fruit trees, leave the fruit unharvested for the first three years and consider it forbidden. Do not eat it. In the fourth year the entire crop must be consecrated to the Lord as a celebration of praise.  Finally, in the fifth year you may eat the fruit. If you follow this pattern, your harvest will increase. I am the Lord your God."
So, Tu BiShv'at was chosen as the birthday or new year for trees. There are actually four New Year's in the Hebrew calendar: 1st Nisan is the new year for calculating the reign of Kings and Festivals; 1st Elul is the new year for calculating animal tithes; 1st Tishrei is the new year for calculation of the calendar, sabbatical years and jubilees, planting and sowing; and finally 15th Shv'at is the new year for trees. The idea of multiple new years is not as strange as it may first sound, when we consider we also assign different start dates for such things as the school year, for the fiscal/tax year and for the beginning of the calendar year.

How to Celebrate Tu BiShv'at