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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Words Kill, Words Cure

As Rabbi Lord Sacks  published a powerful biblical commentary discussing the dangers of evil speech, the municipality of Karmiel posted advertisements all over town advising motorists not to text and drive.

WORDS.KILL.02The harsh message from them both was clear: “Words can kill”. Moreover, noted the former  British Chief Rabbi using a well-placed truism, the cost of free speech can be very expensive indeed.

But as he pointed out the following week, judicious praise may  heal. CHIEF.RABBI.04So I can’t overstate the feeling of generous goodwill engendered by the presence of several modern Orthodox rabbis, their families and members of their communities at the batmitzvah ceremony and celebration of the daughter of a former rabbi of the Masorti synagogue to which I belong in Karmiel.

They came knowing  the 12-year-old girl at the centre of attention would wear a prayer shawl and skull-cap, chant from a Torah scroll and lead most of the prayers.  Some days earlier, she had  donned tefillin (phylacteries) during morning prayers in Jerusalem with the Women of the Western Wall. “It’s been a lot of hard work”, said her justifiably proud mother. It was also one helluva leap for Jewish egalitarianism.

TefilinWoW.IWD.I was really pleased to witness it and have attempted to encapsulate my feelings thus:


‘Girl swathed in prayerPink.Tallit

Betrothed to Torah -

We rise, enchanted, singing’-


This is where I so often find attitudes in Israel markedly different from those in the U.K. – the only Diaspora community of which I have personal knowledge.  Such is the social and moral pressure exerted by Orthodox authorities in the U.K., a gathering like that I have described simply would never happen now.

This is the reason for the regular rows about Orthodox rabbis attending the pluralistic educational Limmud conferences  and why some years ago attempts to establish a Masorti congregation in Manchester were laughed out of court. The quite stupefying vilification of and derisive contempt held for non-Orthodox Judaism and its clergy  by their mainstream Orthodox counterparts is without end. I also know from deeply sad personal experience how the attitude infects young people and that the embitterment is being passed from one generation to the next.  The question most often asked now is not ‘who is a Jew?’ but ‘who is a real Jew?’

I suggest therefore, that a stern reappraisal of the concept of lashon hara - the  Hebrew term for evil speech - that Rabbi Sacks discussed so ably in his essay,  is needed most sorely and should be tackled soon.


Meanwhile back here in Israel, the affectionate cordiality I sensed in Karmiel on the Sabbath of the batmitzvah was present again the next day further south at the seaside town of Netanya where I attended a headstone unveiling for a late cousin-in-law.

Netanya.CemeteryAfter the South African-born rabbi had led prayers, there was a deeply sincere tribute to the deceased by his son. Then in stark contrast to my experience when my mother died and was buried in London, the rabbi stepped aside and allowed the widow to pay her own tribute. This included the recital of some favourite lines from the Scots poet, Robert Burns.

Here’s my own take on those moving few moments:

‘Sunlight glances on etched

Stone; four red roses fall -

He was truly a poet’

I know nothing about the officiating rabbi that day, so I’m unaware whether his generosity was instinctive or if he had had to accede to the family’s wishes following an incident at the resort during January 2011 when a woman sued the local burial authorities for NIS 32,000 – about £5,800 - because she had been forced to stand separately from the men during a funeral. I fervently wish I’d ever had the guts - and the spare cash - to do something similar!


Instead I conclude with another self-authored poem. This is a longer one about a devout man’s feelings at the end of a Jewish Sabbath:   Tefilin

‘When Sabbath Leaves

‘Sabbath lingers,

Sips the last spice-wine-scented,

Flame quenched drops,

Then slips silently away.

A flinch. A sigh.

Her accustomed treason

Never fails to pain.

But Her gift -

His extra soul – is nimbly shed.

He shrugs free,

Steps out to bless

The moon.

A new week is born’.

© Natalie Wood (17 April 2014)

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Freedom Is, As Freedom Does

"An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation”.

(Deut. 26:5).

When members of the Karmiel Women’s Writers’ Group met for the last time before Passover,  we spent five minutes jotting our random thoughts about freedom.

Solomon.NorthupThe most vivid words came from someone who had just seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave and was very, very angry. “It made me ashamed to be an American” she said.

Although British, I know how she felt. I, too, had experienced a terrific wave of involuntary fury surge through me as I’d watched Steve McQueen’s take on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York State, who was kidnapped and then sold into slavery during which time he both endured and witnessed the most vile and degrading abuse imaginable. No wonder there continues to be so much black violence. All the bad energy in the collective memory has to be channelled somewhere!

That aside, I found the storyline occasionally incomprehensible as well as emotionally draining, but viewed the movie finally as reminiscent of both Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple and Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes where dirt-poor, uneducated women of all backgrounds were – and sadly will be  forever - at the bottom of a very brutal, de-humanised heap.

The film also made me feel ashamed as a Jew living in modern Israel, knowing that Jews had even a proportionately small share in the international black slave trade in Europe, the deep south of the USA and also the Caribbean.

Some people will point out that there are many texts in Jewish tradition governing the ownership and decent treatment of slaves. But these were formulated in ancient times when Jewish thought and practice was almost always very much in advance of other contemporary  societies.I

So it is sobering to consider that 10,000 US Jews fought on both sides of their country’s Civil War and that it ended only 74 years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, when and where millions of their co-religionists were hurtled into slave labour or just murdered wholesale by the Nazis.

Still, long after the Egyptian Empire and centuries before the Americas were colonised by the Europeans came the Romans by whom the Jews were also enslaved. But never mind us!

I close with a passage from V S Naipaul’s A Writer’s People about a runaway slave belonging to the Roman tragic actor Aesopus. The man was recaptured and  the orator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who knew of the affair, is recorded as wondering whether the slave  was jailed or sent to a private mill where the conditions would not have surprised Northup.

Licinius, the slave in the company of Patro, an Epicurean, had posed as a freedman in Athens and then had gone to Asia. He seems to have been making his way as a free man, but then he became over-confident. He went back to Athens and fell into the company of Plato, another Epicurean, who a little later had a letter from Aesopus about his runaway slave. Plato put two and two together, and had poor Licinius arrested …. Aesop was ‘grieved at his slave’s criminal audacity’ and wanted the  man back … (he was considered of) no great value. He is a mere nobody’”, wrote Cicero about the incident.


** Wishing all readers a happy Passover and Easter

© Natalie Wood (13 April 2014)

Thursday, 10 April 2014

PerfectlyWriteFamilyTales: ‘Like Putting Band Aid on a Weeping Wound’

PerfectlyWriteFamilyTales: ‘Like Putting Band Aid on a Weeping Wound’: It wasn’t all peaches for Ms Geldof. She preferred Sprouts. Or juice. Once a day.   So she’s been returned from Whence she came to th...

Saturday, 5 April 2014

My Case Against Same-Sex Marriage

Rabbi.Laura.Janner.KlausnerBritish Reform Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner insists that everyone in the Movement for Reform Judaism is wildly enthusiastic about the start of same-sex marriage in England and Wales.

"Amongst our rabbis and our membership people are united on this issue. People are thrilled," she has said.

Oh no, they’re not! Look behind you, Rabbi Laura!

I’m dead against it, as is my husband and the vast majority  of congregants at Sha’arei Shalom North Manchester Reform Synagogue, which is a stalwart constituent of the MRJ and where we retain honorary membership, despite having lived in Israel for four years.

Rabbi Janner-Klausner, who bears the title of ‘Movement Rabbi’ and is therefore an important official spokesperson for Reform Judaism in Britain, sees the start of same-sex religious marriage as a reason to celebrate equality.

I view it as a cause for short-term junketing by wedding planners, bridal outfitters, florists and caterers;  for weird and wacky characters who  love the idea of getting hitched on the stroke of midnight – and for a Prime Minister who has been determined to  act as stage manager of this acutely embarrassing Westminster and Whitehall farce although it was not in the Tory Party’s pre-election manifesto. What, by all that’s holy, has been going on?

I’ve said – and written countless times that I strongly support civil unions and that gay people are entitled to every practical equality under the law. However, a service of any religious denomination steps beyond the bounds of reason and common sense.

This is because the act of homosexuality was legalised in England and Wales only 47 years ago and to allow any sort of religious marriage for the LGBT community overturns thousands of years of universal tradition designed for the union of one man to one woman, no matter their denomination. If it had been considered normative, same-sex religious marriage would have evolved organically like its heterosexual counterpart.

It was estimated in 2005 that only six per cent of  people in Britain were gay or lesbian. But although it makes no material change, I am genuinely worried that the new law  for religious union will further a potentially  grave imbalance in society, where children born via some artificial means or other will grow up believing that having  two mothers or two fathers is the norm. I also believe that many will start to resent their situation and then question their identity.

Every new generation considers itself better and smarter than its elders and every so often there is a societal shift – just like the revolution we’re now experiencing – and often a period of excess is followed by one of extreme restraint.

What will happen in fifty years time  – about two generations hence? Will dozens – even scores – of kids  manufactured from the seeds of same sex unions demand to know their true origins? Will sperm bank donors  want to meet their offspring; will surrogate mothers yearn to see what has become of the eggs they donate and the babies they carry? Will the legal  parents of children born by artifice demand maintenance payments from the original sperm and egg donors? Finally and most frighteningly, will any of this lead to genetic mutation?

I won’t be around long enough to see the results. This will be the privilege of the generation of my five-month-old step-grandson, the product of a loving, heterosexual union. I earnestly hope  he and his friends like the answer. But I’m not convinced they will.

© Natalie Wood (5 April 2014)

Thursday, 27 March 2014

How Joanne Entered the World of Sound

I don’t normally post items like this but Joanne Milne’s story deserves special mention.


Ms Milne, from Gateshead, U.K.  and now aged 40, was born profoundly deaf, then went blind in her twenties. This is because she suffers from Usher Syndrome, a genetic (or inherited) condition which affects a person’s hearing, vision and balance. Her case has received a lot of publicity as she’s  been given bilateral cochlear implants that allow her to hear for the first time. Be warned: The video clip above showing the moment of revelation is highly emotionally charged!

Ms Milne’s accompanying sight loss was caused by retinitis pigmentosa.  This results in night-blindness and a loss of peripheral vision (side vision) through the progressive degeneration of the retina.

Many of us who begin to suffer age-related hearing and sight problems often remark that they may be easier to manage if a patient has had these disabilities from birth. But now I’m not so sure!  Usher Syndrome

The full story may be found at:

© Natalie Wood (27 March 2014)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Anti-Jewish Feeling Used As Weapon In Ukraine’s Latest Revolution

There is more than a whiff of  times past in the latest wave of violence engulfing the Ukraine and Russia’s role in the heightening drama.

Most especially, we’re all drawing parallels between the events unfolding in Crimea with  Hitler’s aggressive tactics in Europe during 1938.

The comparison  was even aired publicly in March by Hillary Clinton,  former U.S. Secretary of State while her distinguished predecessor, Henry Kissinger has since warned that the Ukraine must  not be used as an outpost against the east or west but “should function as a bridge between them”.

Previously, world leaders had avoided making the link although British Foreign Secretary, William Hague had described the escalating conflict as  Europe’s biggest crisis of the 21st century.

Indeed,  for those with a basic knowledge of 20th century European history, the lines have appeared to be all too clearly marked. But there are huge differences:

Most important, Russia has used the concept of anti-Jewish hate as a stick with which to beat the Ukrainian nationalists. Pro-Russian allies have accused their opponents of being “rampantly antisemitic”. This is something that the anti-Russians have denied. Meanwhile, Jewish leaders across the religious-secular divide have written to Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging him to withdraw troops and to stop referring to Ukrainian antisemitism.

Ukraine.Simferopol.Reform.Synagogue.2014This war of words is most definitely a hallmark of the electronic age when instant, international communication proves as deadly as a missile drone. This means that when the Reform synagogue at Simferopol was vandalised,  Rabbi Misha Kapustin, head of the Reform movement in Crimea was able to email fellow Diasporan Jews for help.

“Our town, Simferopol, is occupied by the Russians,” he urged. “Help us, save our country, save Ukraine! Ask your government for help”!

According to a Jewish Chronicle report, Rabbi Kapustin, who was trained in London, explained: On the same day that the Russians entered Crimea, our synagogue was vandalised with Fascist graffiti. They wrote ‘death to kikes’ and drew swastikas. For the first time in my life, I asked my congregation to go home on a Friday and not return for the Saturday service — at least until we’ve significantly improved our security measures. “There were troops with machine guns only 100 metres away from the synagogue”.

While there are Jews involved in both the pro-Russian lobby and in the efforts to retain Ukrainian independence, Rabbi Kapustin is among those calling for continued Ukrainian sovereignty in the Crimea.

Meanwhile his Kiev-based colleague, Ukraine Reform Chief Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, has tried to quash communal fears by claiming the few antisemitic attacks that have so far occurred during the revolution were deliberately provoked so the Putin government could claim it was fighting antisemitism. He has insisted that most Jews, apart from those in the Crimea, feel quite safe.

    • The history of true antisemitism in the Ukraine is long and brutal. It began during the reign of Catherine the Great who had welcomed Jews to the area as a buttress against the Turks but later had them confined to the Pale of Settlement after their success enraged their non-Jewish neighbours.
    • Jews fought in the Crimea War of the mid 1850s, when Russia was dragged into a fight against an Anglo-French alliance. This was the first war where photography and the electric telegraph were both employed.

    • The technology may have been new but the ancient, unreasonable hatreds continued unabated. Many of the Jews were enforced child recruits – boys known as kantonists, who  had been destined for 25 years’ army service after completing their schooling at a kanton or military academy. KANTONISTSBut while most never saw combat they also experienced a  ‘valley of death’ as they were starved, beaten and tortured on the orders of Czar Nicholas 1  who thought they could be forced to convert to Christianity once they were torn asunder from their birth families.

The pictures below were taken by Roger Fenton, generally credited as being the first world’s first ‘modern’ war photographer. He was born in Bury, Lancashire, the town where I lived before I emigrated to Israel.


Mark.UlyseasThis piece first appeared in the April 2014 edition of Live Encounters magazine ( edited by Mark Ulyseas, a faithful supporter of Israel and all matters Jewish.

© Natalie Wood (25 March 2014)

Sunday, 23 March 2014

It’s Only a Waxing Gibbous Moon!

1 On The Tracks

I can’t resist accepting the invitation to share this stunning image .  

Captured by US cameraman, Mike Taylor,  it first appeared on the Google+ Night Photography Community site.

Taylor, based in Maine, New England, USA explains:

“This is one frame from a time lapse I recently set up along these (unused) train tracks during a waxing gibbous moon. This is one of my favourite local spots for observing & capturing the features of the night sky while including some prominent leading lines in the foreground - and it's going to make for a great night photography workshop this coming June! This image has been processed through Lightroom 5 & Photoshop CS5. 
Nikon D600 & 14-24mm @ 14 
f/5 - 30 secs - ISO 1000 
01/13/14 - 1:38AM”.


And the music clip?


Suitably stark and startling, it’s Gibbous Moon – an experimental piece by Athenus Music.

So now we know!

© Natalie Wood (23 March 2014)