The Cairo Synagogue Genizah. A visit to an old world.

Scrolling through my notes this morning, there are little snippets of thoughts that have accumulated over the last couple of months: a sentence here, a word there, a sense of a place, a sense of time.
In the period during which Summer gave way to Autumn I’ve gathered a small volume of history. Thoughts, interactions, experiences.
A whole myriad of emotions.
It’s a long time since I’ve had a chance to find a moment to still my mind.

Those who know of my day-job (and to whom I give unending gratitude) will know the last week or so has been one of the hardest. Dealing with a case involving a person whose life is marred with a stamp of shame which, not withstanding the past, will now define their future.

It made yesterday’s visit to see treasures from the old Cairo Synagogue Genizah all the more poignant.
A morning drive with a friend is a joy.
Conversation, clear roads, sunshine and the wonderful palette of colour and shade that nature presents at this time of year.
We walk up to the Cambridge University Library – the building is poised with an air both learned and learning.

 

The exhibition is in a room is smaller than we envisioned. Protecting the ancient parchments, the lights are low, the background is dark red.
Dream-like, it invites a suspension of time, for in the written words that lie before us, we are drawn into the long-ago lives of others.

 

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In some of exhibits, the manuscript is a little worn, in others the writing a little difficult to decipher, and then there are those writings that are clear…
A millennium since they were made and as I read them I feel an inextricable connection through the power of language.
The physical evidence of a life.
The story telling that survived.

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The documents themselves are a revelation. There are letters, contracts, memoranda.
In one letter a woman afflicted by illness writes in anguish, seeking help. Her writing flows with eloquence and her despair is palpable: ‘I wander like a lost bird’.

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In another we have a document marking an engagement. The groom-to-be (plainly a man of loose morals!) declares that he will not keep bad company, spend a night away from his intended wife without her leave and will not ‘take a slave girl’ without his wife’s permission…
There are amulets, designed to protect from scorpions – designed so they can be cut off from a sheet and sold individually.

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It’s hard to leave the room, to disengage from the microcosm that it offers us insight into. I feel that I want to read more, learn more, discover more about this long-gone community and its people.
Its tale is both unknown and familiar.
The notions it raises still relevant and pertinent to the present-day, as we seek to navigate through the choppy waters of life, politics, religion, multiculturalism, our wellbeing as individuals and the never ending need to document our history.

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As we walk into town there is the beauty and quiet confidence of the Cambridge colleges around us.


The never ending quest for knowledge.
Our minds may yet to be satiated, but for now, our souls are nourished.

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Berlin. Journey to my heritage, journey to my soul.

It is early afternoon as we land at Tegel. It’s a small airport and manages to be both efficient and endearingly chaotic…
As the taxi drives into town there is a vague sameness to the roads, as seen all over the world, there is an almost universally determined landscape of open land and a series of industrial buildings that leads from an airport to a city.

Then we are here.
‘Here’ is a German city. Unmistakably so.
Wide boulevards and clean quiet pavements.
This is the city of my history.
This is the city of my family.
This is the city of which an imprint lies in my genes.
And now I am here.

There is often a sense that my relationship with Germany is an unusual one.
I regularly see in those who like me, are generationally removed, a detachment.
Almost a denial.
Where they see void, I find connection.
Stories of the old days and some physical reminders.

10 years ago or so I stood in front of the house my grandmother (the daughter of Siegfried, a scion of the Austrian Strauss family and Doris Elsner) was born in, in Hamburg; a handsome building now converted into apartments. The reality of brick and mortar felt acute.
It was so unlike anything I had sensed before – from a small amount of family silver that survived displacement, a small number of family photographs and a small collection of family stories.

The internet provided more information about Doris’ brother – a great-uncle to me -who was a composer. Siegfried Elsner wrote a waltz that won a ‘waltz of the week’ competition and the Hindenburg Marsch – his music is referenced in works on music in the First World War and the archives of the Imperial War Museum.

Berlin feels different. A city in which bricks and mortar had for many years symbolised a fracture so severe that it is hard to perceive of it, is now changed – reunification has made it whole again, but in small measure and almost imperceptibly so – a word spoken with a particular accent will act as a reminder of the old days of division.

It is a city full of visual stimuli: from baroque opulence to the sparse lines of Bauhaus.
Some structures overwhelm me: the sight of Brandenburg Gate transports me to an autumnal night in Kent, it is October and I am in my car in the university car park when the news breaks on the radio of events in Berlin. How it will shape the future is an unknown then, but the certainty that it is of monumental significance is plain.

We drink champagne at the Adlon – in every big city there is always a hotel that takes on iconic status. Weirdly, I tell my travelling companion, it reminds me of the Rex in Saigon… a place of conflict and sorrow.

Later as I settle in my hotel room I spend some time looking at old family photos on my iPad – A treasure trove.
At some point this weekend I hope to find the resting place of great-uncle James and his wife always known to me as tante Stine… both passed before I was born.
James survived the camps and was re-united with his wife and love Christina in Berlin, where they would live out their lives.
Christina was a blonde blue-eyed beauty and the two had eloped many years before the dark times descended. She had not converted to judaism before the Second World War and so was not interned. Instead she remained certain that her husband and love would return.
I have a photo of the death announcement of James. It was the summer of 1963. From there the cemetery address can be gleaned and a few moments online give the opening times.

First though I want to get a feel for this city. Its rhythm and history. We start at Schloss Charlottenburg. Gilded rooms and halls of splendour. A park that delights and gardens that gladden the heart with colour.


The next day we amble to museum island and beyond. We walk to the Neue Synagogue – a testament to the Jewry that once prospered here. There’s a bustling market in the shadow of an old train station. Summer fruit piled up, bunches of herbs in vivid green and stalls of Turkish food – paper thin just-made flat bread encasing salty fresh white cheese and an ever-so-slightly astringent spinach.

That evening the Long Night of the Museums is a wonderful initiative – till 2am museums are open, some have special events on. The Bauhaus archives are fantastic… At the Neue Museum the sight of Nefertiti is breathtaking…. At the Deutsches Historisches Museum, there is an exhibition of hard hitting early press photography… The courtyard has been turned into a club. We stay a while and soak in tunes and colours.

 

The next morning the sun has broken early, and it is time… the cab ride to Charlottenburg is under blue skies, the cab driver wishes me luck in ‘finding my relatives’.
The path to the cemetery is quiet. On either side there are woods.
The woods are green and lush, there are dappled spots of shadow and light.

When we get to the gates, we are met by the caretaker, a thin man with kind eyes.
I explain my search and he brings out a neat folder containing his lists.

He will take me to them, he says.
We walk a short distance. The air is clear and fresh.
‘There’ he says and points.
And there are their names on a marble headstone.
James. Stine. Elsner.
Dates of birth.
Dates of death.
Either side of them the graves are barren of life.
James and Stine’s plot is overflowing by a lush growth of ivy.

I am overcome with emotion and grateful for the caretaker’s sensitivity: ‘I’m going to go and get some shears’ he says ‘and tidy this up, I won’t waste your time doing it now but I promise’…. then on seeing my tears he slips away quietly returning with the shears after a few moments.
Later we talk, he was born in Budapest at the time of the Cold War and has family back there, in Berlin and in Jerusalem.
He takes care of the cemetery and the dead.

Our last stop is Templehof airport. It is a gigantic monument to the national-socialist ambition. Terrible in its awesomeness. We are taken by a guide for a tour of what is only a fraction of the site. In two and a half hours we experience a strange residue, a compressed energy, in a place through which so many had passed.

 

Then it’s back to Tegel.
Back to London.
The connection I feel to my heritage today is stronger, tighter, tangible.

Their spirit is with me.
Gratitude always.

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Flash

It was close to midnight as I walked home yesterday.
There is a familiarity – built over more than two decades -to my route. I was thinking about time & its own route, its cycles & continuity.

In the dark, the fence to St James’s Church is a an irregular mass… A closer look provided the wonderful ‘first sighting’ of the summer on ‘my’ vine; The recurrence of renewal, revealing itself in this bunch of fruit that was once a bud & is now drawing on its connection with earth and sky.

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My Marylebone vine.

I thought of it as a reminder of our own duality of connection: to the physical that grounds us & houses our spirit in this dimension & to Source that supports us in reaching the fruition of our purpose.

It is a different concept to Advaita – the idea of a whole or a ‘non-two’ – a non-duality of consciousness – but not, to my mind incompatible with it.

The flash on my phone-camera gave a split-second lightning & rewarded me with shape & clarity.

There are periods when feeling our way through an unformed chunk of our journey, we are unable to discern what is there right in front of us as we seek for hidden meaning or a deeper realisation.
We wait for a flash of light to give us certainty & reassurance… then accept it without question… blinded by its brilliance, oblivious to the what may follow.
Actions & reactions.
Choices & consequences.
Yet the path is always there & we will always find the way & the answer, even if not the reason.

Unending gratitude for the gift of what lies ahead.

 

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Marylebone musings

I cannot remember I time when I did not write.

There were always notebooks, diaries, little scraps of paper.. I don’t know when it started but I do know that my reading and writing were self-taught… I would write stories and (so my mother tells me) would read them to a semi-circle of children at kindergarten or to an assortment of dolls and one or two cats at home…

Later there were thoughts, the odd bit of poetry and an incredibly supportive teacher during my IB years.

My legal training taught me to be precise, analytical and critical; for a time it marginalised the idea of writing for pleasure and for sharing beyond the very specific readership my professional life brings. It has only been in the last few years that with places like Facebook offering a space to connect with people I have been fortunate enough to have in/encounter along my path that I started to jot down ideas and construct sentences that were about expression and not argument.

2015 turned out to be a challenging one with some unexpected, unwelcome and painful upheavals which resulted in a period of adjustment, assessment and adapting.
With it came the time to return to old practices (kundalini yoga and meditation), to unlock a new skill (reiki) and when emotions welled and required an outlet, to write; I started to blog again – privately some times, some times sharing with a small number of people close to me at and others on Facebook. I was always touched by those who took the time to read and more so to tell me they have, and where it happened, drew comfort from my words, they are the ones who quietly encouraged me to carry on.
So here are some of my musings, ones I feel able to share – snapshots of moments in time. They have all been posted on Facebook before. New ones will follow…
I’d like to think those who read them may take something away with them when they click off the screen.
I’d like to think that something will be their very own.

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For Manchester

Morning breaks over another grieving city; a dawn-coloured bruise that spreads in reds and blues and all the shades of pain that lie between them.

I was still saying my good-nights to the person I’d been chatting to all evening when the news flashed on my screen; the insidious caution of early reports of incendiary carnage quickly transformed to the self-same images of death, destruction and devastation we have come to recognise with depressing regularity.

I have not been to Manchester for a few years now, but recall walking around the skeletal remains of buildings when I visited 4 months after the 1996 bombing;
it was the age of Cool Britannia and I was there for a birthday party, champagne and a firm belief that acts of evil will not be permitted to disrupt our lives.
When I last went back the city’s regeneration celebrated its resilience and resolve with spectacular results: big, bold and bodacious. A testament to the strength of its people. A strength that I pray will continue to guide them on.

Twenty one years on the shock of a terror attack reverberates once more.
My heart goes to the souls that left our world and to those that will now live with their loss.

Once more the same words of resolve form in my mind:
We shall not permit terror to permeate our lives.
We shall not permit terror to shroud our liberty in a veil of hate.
We shall not permit terror to imprison our beliefs.
We will defeat the darkness and there will be light.

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Lanes and Paths

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Yesterday driving back from visiting a friend who is unwell at the moment, there was gentle light as afternoon became evening; Pretty Cotswalds lanes and patchwork fields of green and gold had been washed by rain and the air was filled with the good smells of wet earth and spring flowers.
My friend and I first met at Bar School – the start of the journey that would define so much of our adult lives. In the years that followed there would be the conversations that continue without end, dancing around each other’s living rooms, the being-thereness when the going got tough and my friend’s words provided encouragement and comfort and support and the unending promise of more to come, more memories yet to be made.
I am so fortunate to have it and so grateful to carry the title of ‘old friend’.

As I rounded roads, I was thinking about friends, friendship and ‘falling in like’ as I call the moment when we meet someone and recognise in them a person whom we know, simply know, will become a fellow traveler on our path.
We won’t always walk at the same pace or follow the same road markings, but our hearts’ SatNav will always ensure that we reach them, and they us, at the right coordinates, at just the right moment.

 

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Westminster Bridge

As I step off the train in Marylebone the sky is the colour of a fairytale with orange pink clouds on a background of translucent blue.
The sky is oblivious to tragedy.
Its never-ending being-there-ness takes no note of the silent scream of the land.
Walking home the streets are a reminder of all that we are fortunate enough to give infinite gratitude to: light and colour and the freedom to be.
I think of fear in monochrome, the place where a mass of despair swirls in a shapeless shifting pattern.
Metallic in the pit of my stomach.
My thoughts are with those affected by today’s attack.
Souls whose journeys have been crushed.
Souls whose journeys will have now veered onto the unknown.
Those whose devotion to public service we owe so much to.
Pablo Neruda’s words that struck a chord with me only a couple of months ago come to mind: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming”.
Tomorrow’s dawn will be the canopy to our resolution.
We will not give in. We will not give up.

4 candles burn at my window tonight.

 

 

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