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Sunday, 25 January 2015

70 Essays Over 70 Days for 70 Years

70 Days For 70 YearsThe figure ‘seventy’ has great resonance in Jewish tradition:

  • Psalm 90 suggests 70 years are the span of a person’s life.
  • Seventy people went  to Egypt to begin the Hebrews’ period in  Egyptian exile and slavery (Genesis 46:27).
  • There is supposed to be a core of 70 nations and 70 world languages, paralleling the 70 names in the Table of Nations.
  • There were 70 men in the Great Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. (Sanhedrin 1:4).
  • The Aggada (collection of rabbinic homilies) states there are 70 ‘faces" to the Torah (Numbers Rabbah 13:15).
  • Seventy elders were assembled by Moses on God's command in the desert (Numbers 11:16-30)

Now the United Synagogue of Great Britain is marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp with the publication of a book of 70 essays, each to be read over 70 days in memory of a Holocaust victim. The U.S. project is intended to engage a worldwide audience ”in an uplifting educational and memorial programme”.

Participants will receive both a copy of the book and a memorial card with information of the Holocaust victim in whose memory they  will study. The victims’ details are provided by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Central Database of Victims’ Names.

The collection is opened by former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks with an essay, Surviving Exile in which he describes how the Jewish people has escaped extinction.

Full details of participation and book purchase are available at:

© Natalie Wood (25 January 2015)

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Tales of Burial and Resurrection

No wonder adults never used to remark on a child’s extensive vocabulary. Please look at the opening words of a book I was given to read aged eleven in 1965.


So starts the story of The Buried Candelabrum, a historical novel that twins the destruction of the Second Temple and the beginning of the Jewish diaspora with the second sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455.

But loath to rely on a hazy childhood memory, I instead offer a verbatim review from

The Buried CandelabrumBeautifully handled, the story mirrors the tragedy of the Jews of the Roman world trying to keep their traditions alive in the midst of scorn and exclusion. The legend in the making is created out of the fate of the seven branched candelabrum from the Temple of Solomon, seized by the Vandals in the sacking of Rome, carried to Carthage, kept there for a generation and taken again in the plundering of the Emperor Justinian who takes it to Constantinople. The connecting link between the two is Benjamin, who as a child was the last to see and touch the candlestick, and at eighty is called upon by his people to attempt to rescue it and restore it to Jerusalem. A fable which is symbolic of a great race, with its strength and weakness, and which rings true to the spirit of legend. The appeal will be first of all Jewish, but it should be wider than that, and Zweig's name will give it broader scope …

Yes, the author was Stefan Zweig, the once universally esteemed and popular Austrian-Jewish novelist, whose work fell into obscurity but is now enjoying a revival thanks in part to the Oscar-nominated film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose director,  Wes Anderson says is based on some of his settings and characters.

But more interesting even than Zweig’s output - which ranged from essays published by Theodor Herzl in the Neue Freie Presse to his memoir, The World of Yesterday - was why he and his second wife Lottie died in a suicide pact during February 1942. Stefan.Zweig

It appears that both were natural depressives, so perhaps the often-cited reasons  of exile and  dispossession are almost secondary.

Instead, I’d like to look at a piece by Francis Phillips in the current issue of the Catholic Herald which examines why Zweig chose suicide, when unlike so many  other Jews he was able to escape the Nazis.

It may well be that Zweig was too morally weak to cope with exile; that he feared growing old;  that the increasing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany made him fear further displacement and that he became uncomfortable hearing German spoken as the language had been hijacked for Nazi propaganda and he felt ‘imprisoned’ by a tongue that he had grown reluctant to use.

Then Phillips argues that “even deeper, as a secular Jew and grand man of letters, was his sense of alienation from other (religious) Jews … in retrospect one can see Zweig’s final years of exile as a conscious descent into despair. Removed from all his purely human props and resources and without religious faith to sustain him, he simply felt he had nothing left to live for. Phillips adds that  Zweig had an “entirely selfish wish to die, knowing that his young second wife, completely under his influence and caught up in his deepening pessimism, would not consent to live without him”.

While Phillips’s argument  is reasonable, I suggest it has flaws. First, I argue that The Buried Candelabrum displays Zweig’s innate cultural attachment to Judaism; second that he and Lottie  had spent a good number of years in exile before their deaths and last, while Lottie was indeed almost half his age, she was also a mature adult with her own history of depression. In fact, for all we know, she may well have encouraged Zweig’s decision.  Most sadly, these sort of double-deaths are not uncommon in an artistic milieu, and I quote that of  the Hungarian-British author and journalist, Arthur Koestler and his wife,  Cynthia as a further example.

© Natalie Wood (24 January 2015)

Friday, 23 January 2015

PerfectlyWritePoetry: Giving the Killing Fields New Life

PerfectlyWritePoetry: Giving the Killing Fields New Life: Elizabeth Rose Murray blogs as the ‘ Green-Fingered Writer , living for adventure and word’. A poet and short fiction writer, she is curre...

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

How Billings Fought Only Half Its Hate

Billings Montana I had never heard of Billings, Montana until late December last year and had to search for its location on a map.

My interest in the north-western American city was sparked by the re-telling of a once well-known story about a spate of anti-Jewish attacks there during Chanucah, 1993. But the tale of hate and redress is not nearly as straightforward as it first appears.

Tammy Schnitzer BillingsDifferent reports estimate that in the early 90s no more than fifty Jewish families  lived in Billings. Moreover, while Montana Jewry had thrived during the 19th century gold rush and the development of the railway, the population had since dwindled and barely 1,000 Jewish people lived throughout the entire state.

But none of this prevented white supremacist thugs breaking widows in private homes and committing other hate-inspired vandalism on any targets daring either to display  a menorah  - Chanucah candelabrum - or to support the Jewish community in other ways.

Still,  other local citizens were not prepared to let this go unanswered and a smashed window at the house of convert to Judaism, Tammy Schnitzer and her then-infant children, Isaac and Rachel, triggered a huge wave of sympathy.

It started with a feisty editorial in the local Billings Gazette which also published an image of a menorah for readers to cut out and stick on their own windows in solidarity with their Jewish neighbours. Then came  an avalanche of help from many different individuals in the wider community and the attendant publicity included a picture spread in Life magazine and two documentary films.

Not in Our Town by Californians, Patrice O’Neill and Rhian Miller won a prize and the two films together produced similar inter-community tolerance campaigns in many other American cities. Further, Billings’  city fathers were honoured at the White House while the city itself received awards from major Jewish organisations. Then there was the now celebrated book and children’s play based on the incident by psychotherapist, Janice I Cohn. Indeed, it was her story that I heard during Chanucah last year and which led me to research this piece.

Twenty-one years – almost a generation – have passed since the above events occurred so I decided to examine the ‘back story’.  Superficially, it was  a heart-warming tale of seasonal goodwill. But why did it happen during a time of generally little anti-Jewish activity? And why, Cohn’s play aside, has it largely been forgotten?

The truth is that the Jewish community was only one minority community targeted; that the racists behind the outrages also victimised local black and Native American homes and that about 10,000 Native Americans then lived in Billings against a Jewish community of only several hundred.

So the campaign started by and then promoted on behalf of the Jewish minority was successful largely because its members were perceived as attractive, articulate and educated - similar to the surrounding white non-Jewish majority population. The other minorities were not so well-organised; became somehow excluded and this was discomforting for the campaigners.

Indeed, in 2008 when Billings people renewed their anti-hate initiative for the 15th anniversary of the national tolerance campaign that had started in the town, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that it was planned and held with very little Jewish input. It was said that Jewish  residents had become media shy and that anyway, isolated Jewish communities generally preferred to blend into surrounding American society.

Tammy Schnitzer had meanwhile moved far away to South Carolina and  returned to her old town just for the anniversary.

A seasoned human rights campaigner, she agreed that her candour had unsettled her family.  She admitted that she had always felt uneasy with the way the attack on her home was presented solely as a Jewish concern. “It was an issue that left behind a lot of inconvenient truths … I lost friends, people judged my motives. I wish others in the Jewish community had stepped in a little more quickly”, she said.

Rabbi.UriSo I’ll give the final word to Uri Barnea, an Israeli-born rabbi and musician who has become a US citizen and was conducting the Billings Symphony Orchestra when the attacks began in November 1993.

He has also since moved from Billings but reveals that he suffered harassment, including death threats, when his background became known. Eventually he won an out-of-court settlement against the white supremacists who were ordered to leave town. However, the harassment did not cease until some years later.

“If I’d decided not to (report) it because of the danger”, he told the JTA, “I’d give strength to the perpetrators. “You can’t prove it, but to a certain extent the town’s reaction had something to do with the slowing down of attacks”.

Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the February 2015 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.


© Natalie Wood (21 January 2015)





Tuesday, 20 January 2015

A Doggie Tale to Capture Your Heart!

UK-born Mark Watson says that as a child he would amble to school through a park and daydream about being chased by a shark hiding under the grass!

Watson.MichauWatson never lost his whimsical imagination – or his love of children’s stories – so it’s no surprise that when he and South African illustrator  Pablo Michau met in  Mataro, Barcelona, Spain where they now live, they decided to collaborate on producing children’s story books.

Watson, an English teacher, explains on the Writerscafe website: “We met through our children, they attend the same school and are the only English speaking kids in their class”.

As Michau is an illustrator and graphic designer  they took one of Watson’s existing pieces “and put it together. We are much happier with the result than we could have hoped …

“Pablo”, adds Watson,  “has the ability to see the pictures I have in my mind,  he has also managed to faithfully reproduce the park of my childhood, in all it’s mysterious glory”.

Milo and ZeNow the pair have come up with Milo & Ze - another sure-fire hit -  that features Milo, a bulldog who travels the world guided by a fallen star seeking the little boy who’s destined to become his best friend.

Milo & Ze is available on Amazon in kindle digital and paperback editions at:  and

Now, if you’re sitting comfortably, I’ll end with a video clip of John QuiƱones reading the first page of  The Shark in the Park …. 


© Natalie Wood (20 January 2015)

Sunday, 18 January 2015

PerfectlyWritePoetry: A Tea Ceremony

PerfectlyWritePoetry: A Tea Ceremony: Grandpa once made tea in this – his stout silvered pot with chain. He’d rise at six; sit sideways on his bed; grunt, shuffle on well...

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Naughty – but Nice!

‘Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe,

who hast not made me a woman’.

(From the Jewish morning prayer service)

Yiscah - Jeffrey - SmithThe Israeli weekend news-sites blew in on Friday with an eye-popping profile of an American chassid who’s  transgendered from male to female but kept the ultra-Orthodox Jewish faith.

The true-life tale of Yiscah (formerly Jeffrey) Smith may serve as the inspiration for UK author  Helen Laycock’s knock-about comedy, Occupational Therapy, a tale from her short story collection, Light Bites,  in which fairy Lily Blue becomes a goblin and lives happily ever after.

 Helen.LaycockThis allows me to reveal that Laycock is herself a sort of changeling – a delightfully mischievous one! - who has moved from school teacher to writer and penned prize-winning poetry along with adult and children’s fiction.

She says: “As a teacher, I loved nothing more than inspiring my students to write”. 

This mirthful collection of a dozen cheery tales makes clear  that she revels in her present work  and causes me to wonder how much her school students must miss her – even now.

© Natalie Wood (January 17 2015)