Saturday, 4 October 2014

In Search of a Common Humanity

Despite the best efforts of a local MP and assorted fathers of terrorism, the Yorkshire city of Bradford has not become an Israel -free zone. Indeed, defying the best hopes of the hatemongers, members of the local tiny Jewish community get on famously with many of their Muslim neighbours.

Atar.HadariWhat’s more, thanks to the work of two Muslim women, the recent Bradford Literature Festival featured a performance by Israeli-born Atar Hadari.

And with what seems perfect symmetry, ‘Sacred Poetry’ was staged at the Bradford Reform Synagogue which last year was saved from closure  with financial help from local Muslims.

Explained Syima Aslam, festival co-director: “The purpose of this event is to bring people of different faiths together and highlight the common spirituality and humanity that unites us, whatever our other differences may be … If in Britain we start making distinctions about people who live here based on where they were born, where does that lead us to as a country?”

Hadari was raised in England, trained as an actor and is a  prize-winning writer  and translator who has served as Young Writer in Residence with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  

While Jewish readers will note that Hadari’s Bradford performance took place just after the start of the Jewish New Year, I’ve been fascinated by his essay in  Mosaic Magazine in which he compares the mid-summer harvest biblical story of Ruth to a novel by the Victorian writer, Thomas Hardy.  As this is a post  packed with  revelations, it is fitting that I end with two more ….



Woman of Secrets


“My mother was a woman of secrets.

When I came out to her, it was on Oxford Street

Because I figured, it was a public place,

She’s not going to hit me. I was wrong about that.

She hit me – wham – and crossed the road.

There weren’t taxis braking, there weren’t horns, not a sound

Suddenly she was across the street

And staring daggers at me, right up to the Strand.

She never told me things. Like this place

She used to take me to –

It was a cabbage and sauerkraut joint

But in the back there was a smoky room

Where all these old people would sit

And eat their black forest gateaux

And tell me stories about Maidanek

And how they got all those tattoos.

I used to go there year after year

Stuffing myself with profiteroles

Then one day I must have said something,

This old woman called me a “self-hater”

I opened my mouth to say, “Excuse me?”

– my mother took my arm

And dragged me all the way to air,

Next day she met me at a coffee bar

And said, “Two things. I smoke, and we’re Jewish.”

The first I knew. I can’t believe my father didn’t.

The second – I looked at her.

“What’s all this about going to church?” I said,

“Why was I baptised?” She didn’t say another word.

“I smoke,” she said, “You want mince pies?”

She left me all these photographs,

Not a name, not a date, on any one.

I look at them sometimes and make up alibis.

All she left me is this skin

And sometimes the sound of a train

Makes me want to eat cakes in the outdoors

And then I light a candle alone

And make up a song to the strange names”.

© Natalie Wood (04 October 2014)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

‘I’m a Jew As Long As There’s One Antisemite Alive’

The death this week of Dannie Abse made me reflect  not only on the silencing of an engaging poetic voice but how spending a childhood in a domestic intellectual hothouse must help to spark and then nurture a natural talent.

Even as the three Nottingham-bred Attenborough brothers went on to top their respective professions, so their exact contemporaries, the Welsh-Jewish Abse lads,  Leo, Wilfred and Dannie shone variously in politics, psychiatry and a combination of medicine and writing. 

I have not discovered anything about their sister, Huldah save that she lived in France until her Dannie.Abselate 90s but  interestingly, the siblings’ maternal grandfather, Tobias Shepherd (né Rosinsky) is buried in Haifa.

No wonder Dannie told Phil Morris of the Wales Arts Review

“If somebody is talking about Israel, I certainly feel more Jewish at that moment. There are certain occasions, of course there are, when someone is being antisemitic – then I feel yes I am a Jew. And I have said before, I think quoting somebody else, ‘I’m a Jew as long as there’s one antisemite alive”.

He added later that as fellow Welsh poet Dylan Thomas had already become famous when he was writing his early autobiographical novel, Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve, he emphasised his Jewish background and politics, to contrast as much as possible with Thomas’s own autobiography, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog.

I conclude here with the opening two verses of Abse’s White Balloon:

“Dear love, Auschwitz made me

more of a Jew than Moses did.

But the world’s not always with us.

Happiness enters here again tonight

like an unexpected guest

with no memory of the future either;


“enters with such an italic emphasis,

jubilant, announcing triumphantly

hey presto and here I am and opening

the June night into our night living room

where, under the lampshade’s ciliate,

an armchair’s occupied by a white balloon.

As if there’d been a party” …...

© Natalie Wood (01 October 2014)