Meeting the Velveteen Rabbi

I have been dipping into the Velveteen Rabbi blog for at least nine years, which Rachel Barenblat began writing when she was a rabbinical student (“When can I run and play with the real rabbis?”). She is a beautiful writer, covering all sorts of rich and varied topics, from poetry-writing to parenting her young son. I especially appreciate her weekly commentaries on the Torah portion, as many Christians tend to neglect these Old Testament books and we miss out on a lot. And even if her blog weren’t so interesting, I’d like it anyway because of the pun in the name.

A few months ago she told me that she was coming to the Holy Land to celebrate a family bar mitzvah, and invited me to meet her in Jerusalem. I have never seen her in real life before, as she lives in the USA and I’ve never gone further than a metre into the Atlantic (when paddling off Lancashire beaches as a child). I was so excited at the prospect of finally meeting a long-standing blogging friend that last night I took a while to get to sleep, which wasn’t great considering that the clocks went forward and took with them an hour of my morning snooze. I hurried out with my hair still wet, hastily cramming things haphazardly into my handbag as I went, and scurried up the Via Dolorosa fifteen minutes after our agreed meeting-time. (Which is still punctual by my standards.) Luckily she was staying in the guesthouse at the Ecce Homo convent, which is easy to find, even for someone who possesses my remarkable talent for getting lost in places I visit every week.

Rachel must be a lovely rabbi. I say this because I usually feel very stiff and awkward around people whom I’m meeting for the first time, struggling to make eye contact and to speak in anything other than scripted stilted sentences (“How are you? It’s a hot day, isn’t it?”), but almost as soon as we started talking I felt completely at ease. By the time we reached the place where we were having lunch, I felt as though I’d known her for years. A clergy person who has the knack for making people feel like old friends must be very good to have around.

The Educational Bookshop and cafe in Jerusalem

As food options in the Old City are limited, I introduced her to the bookshop-cum-cafe on Salah ed-Din Street, which is perhaps where good activists go when they die. It is furnished with plentiful mint tea, zaatar wa zeit, chocolate cake, and what feels like every book ever published on or in Palestine – novels, poetry, thick glossy coffee table books on embroidery and cuisine, history books, folk music, photography, language textbooks. “I could easily spend all my money in here,” commented Rachel, and I know the feeling. This place brings me perilously close to bankruptcy every month.

I had brought her two presents from Bethlehem, chosen after intensive negotiations with a horde of local children and the shopkeeper, who seemed to feel that she had power of veto over anything that she judged to be an unsuitable gift. In the end the collective settled on an olive leaf pendant, delicately moulded in silver, and a vibrant pink keffiyeh. I wanted to choose one in a more muted colour, but the children were adamant: it had to be pink. (Luckily they did not absolutely insist on my choosing something that was covered in sequins and sparkles.) Rachel had a gift for me too, a copy of her poetry anthology 70 Faces. These poems are all woven from Torah and I have earmarked the anthology as my next devotional book, once I’ve finished reading Jim Forest’s The Ladder of the Beatitudes. Talking to Rachel about prayer and faith felt very natural (again, it’s a topic I’m hesitant to discuss in-depth with many people) and I got the sense that despite being in different religions, we are similar in these things – so similar that I spontaneously suggested visiting one of my favourite Jerusalem churches, St Peter in Gallicantu, so she could see it. She loved the intricacy of the mosaic work, and the stillness; for a few brief minutes we had the main part of the basilica all to ourselves, in all its pure silence.

Inside the Church of St Peter of Gallicantu.

The Church of St Peter in Gallicantu.

As we drank our tea and ate our chocolate cake, we talked about many things: books, Rachel’s experiences visiting Hebron, the bar mitzvah at which she had just officiated, her little boy, my work in Bethlehem and my studies, her desire to learn Arabic, the occupation, religious responses to injustice. I have a newfound respect for Rachel, having learned that her politics are quite different from those of her relatives and some congregants; it can’t be easy to be a religious leader in her circumstances. But she makes it look – not easy, but certainly beautiful and worthwhile, to the point where I think that even people who disagree with her must stop and look twice at what she does and how she is.

The day passed so quickly. Only my backache and the sun’s tingling on my face tell me how long we spent outside. Just before we parted, Rachel to go to Shabbat services, me to come home and collapse early to bed, we stopped for falafel near the Damascus Gate. The friendly proprietor (immediately in my good books because he didn’t go into a spasm of horror when I said firmly that I didn’t want hummus or tehina in my sandwich) took a slightly blurry photograph of us:

Me (left) and Rachel (right).

Me (left) and Rachel (right).

I hope that when Rachel returns, she will be able to give some summer classes in poetry-writing and perhaps a short taster course on Judaism for the children in Bethlehem – both could be worked into our interfaith and cultural heritage programs. Maybe one day I will get across to her mind-bogglingly huge country (how is it even allowed to be that big?!) and see her there.  For now I don’t know when we’ll meet again, as she has a very busy life on the other side of the Atlantic, but I’m sure there are lots of interesting blog posts in between now and then.

‘The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust’

I mustn’t be this sad. It’s just a Holocaust. My Holocaust. After all, there are many other things worth living for, such as love and the simple pleasure of existence. Not everyone has a Holocaust…And I got mine by birthright, never had to do a thing to earn it. So it would not be fair for me to mourn its loss. And it still hurts, losing my Holocaust. It hurts so very much.

 I am in bed with a chest infection and a wooze-inducing virus, feeling well enough to sit up at last but not well enough to do anything that involves being vertical or going much further than the toilet. Luckily I have a new book, Noam Chayut’s The Girl Who Stole My Holocaust, so wryly and slyly reminiscent of Shalom Auslander in its opening paragraph. It has alternately been making me laugh out loud and causing a lump in my throat (neither of which feel very good when you are coughing so violently that you fear a lung might plop out of your mouth onto the page, followed closely by your coccyx and everything else in between). But this book is worth the discomfort.

he Girl Who Stole My Holocaust

Noam Chayut was in the Israeli army for five years during the Second Intifada, which included both combat service in the occupied West Bank and fundraising PR trips to America. He’s now an activist with Breaking the Silence. Although my attention was caught by the quirky title as soon as I saw it in the East Jerusalem bookshop, I hesitated to buy it. The centrality of army service to Israeli life has spawned its own literary and cinematic genre, commonly known as ‘shoot and cry’, and I didn’t want to read yet another sob story from yet another former soldier who decries the occupation while simultaneously employing it as a plot device in his personal epic of catharsis and redemption. But tears are limited in Chayut’s book. The autobiographical element – thoughtful, often funny, cheerfully self-deprecating – is paralleled by an exploration of just how far the Holocaust shadow stretches, the fears it instills and the social environment it creates. Chayut does not treat it as a justification for occupation or ethnic cleansing, but is acutely aware that it functions as one in Israeli society, and in the short final chapter – which shifts sharply into a letter to the girl of the title – he is grateful to the unknown child for divesting him of the excuses that accompany this historical legacy. In his letter, he is also clear that the book is not just an individual tale (“This is not my – or your – personal story…”). The specific incidents that make up his book serve as windows onto something wider: the secret fable of the pine trees that Chayut creates as he hikes across the country, for example, is a not-so-oblique reference to the ethnic cleansing of 1948, couched in his own experiences. The personal is woven seamlessly into the political, with seemingly disparate events (large and small) coming together in a narrative that encompasses more than the autobiography of just one former soldier.

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In the shadows of memory

A few days ago I was shanghaied by a desperate hospital administrator into working in a ward for elderly people with neurodegenerative disorders and acute mental health needs. My feeble protests that I’ve never cared for elderly people before and I know hardly anything about dementia were waved aside, and at seven o’clock in the morning I found myself standing in the bedroom of a lady who was more than a little displeased to find me there, trying to work out how to put the brakes on her commode. The last time I worked in an unfamiliar psychiatric ward everyone kept mistaking me for the on-call doctor and thrusting their foot infections in my face, but today it was clear that I wasn’t going to be taken for anyone so competent.  After despairing of my inability to make her commode safe for her to sit on, my first patient of the day started yelling, “Nurse! Nurse! Get this bloody woman out of my room!” and, when the nurse came running, she enquired in long-suffering tones, “Nurse, is this girl dead? I can’t do anything with her!” As the morning progressed she became more tolerant of my deficiencies. Having delivering a stinging critique of the way I pulled up her trousers after the toilet, she sighed and said, “Well, one of us is pitiful, and I don’t know which.”  By breakfast time we were quite pally, and we were sitting holding hands in the living room, looking at the fish in the aquarium.

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Telling secrets in Palestine

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference on political violence, justice, and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, led by members of the Corrymeela Community. One of them read out a poem by Pádraig Ó Tuama, ‘The Facts of Life’, taken from his little volume Sorry for Your TroublesThis poem (and the woman’s reading of it – it was obvious that this was a text that meant a lot to her) caught my attention. I ordered my own copy of the book and yesterday it came. I spent the afternoon absorbing each poem, some of which are bleak and some of which are terrifying and all of which are beautiful. There is one in there that stands out to me.

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The wedding I won’t attend (and the gift I’m getting instead)

It is a long-standing grievance of mine that I have been to more funerals than weddings in my life. Over the past few years several of my childhood and university friends in England have got married (it seems to be the fashion) and I haven’t been able to attend a single one of the weddings, even though there are fewer things I like better than the opportunity to wear one of those formal hats that teeter on the brink between the stupendous and the stupid.

A few days ago I received another invitation, this one electronic. It looks like this:

A photograph of Sameeha with Ayman

Wedding Day

Because no borders can stand against the will of friendship, we would like to invite you to share with us the happy moments of our wedding day.

Date: 3 September 2013.

Place: Gaza Port, Gaza, Palestine.

Your presence, real or virtual, is going to bring us so much happiness.

Ayman and Sameeha

Regular readers of my blog will know Sameeha. Our friendship began over Twitter in the small hours of the morning, when I was up with period pain and she was up with fighter planes. I didn’t know if or when I would see her in real life, but then she was awarded one of a handful of Master’s scholarships issued each year by the Durham-Palestine Educational Trust. She made her first journey outside of Gaza at the age of twenty-three, and I saw her for the first time in the crisp Durham autumn. We’ve been close ever since.

I started looking for ways to get to Gaza as soon as I knew that she was engaged. It didn’t work out. To stand a good chance of getting across the Egyptian border, I would need a press pass or credentials from a Gaza-based aid organisation that I do not have. Getting that stamp in my passport would also jeopardise my chances of being permitted to return to Bethlehem. I couldn’t take that chance. I resigned myself to being one of the virtual guests at her wedding day.

And then, last week, she wrote to me. She told me that there was to be a conference in Ramallah at the end of August, relevant to her work with the women’s rights unit at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. She had applied for a permit to go.

“I’m not getting my hopes up.”

“Same here. I’ll wait until we hear whether you’ve got a permit or not.”

“I don’t want to get too excited in case I don’t get it.”


“This should be a week prior to my wedding. You’d better throw me a henna party. And you’d better take me clubbing.”

I snorted. Sameeha’s attempts to get me into a nightclub have failed every time. “You want me of all clumsy articles applying your henna?”

“I want you to throw me a henna party, you and Wala’.”

“We will do it. I can give you your wedding present personally then, and on time.”

“Ah, habibti Vicky, I can’t not get too excited. I miss you and Wala’ like hell.”

Wala’ was another DPET scholarship student, a good friend of us both, who lives just down the road from me in Hebron. The last time she visited, we sat together in a little cafe and gossiped over cake and occasionally caught ourselves glancing at the vacant third chair at our table. “Let’s call her,” Wala’ said at last.

During Operation Pillar of Defense, Sameeha and I talked deep into the uneasy night, for as long as she had electricity. “I don’t want to die until I’ve lit a candle in Bethlehem and been to the beach in Jaffa.” Her voice, thin and frightened for much of that horrible conversation, had some of its normal strength back. “It will happen,” I assured her.

“Do you really think so?”


Don’t get your hopes up, I’ve been telling myself over this past week, even though said hopes were flying higher than your average Israeli leftist on some New Age shanti kibbutz. Hardly anyone in Gaza gets permission to come out. You know that. The days passed. Yesterday, realising that the conference in Ramallah began in twenty-four hours, I accepted that she wasn’t coming. Then I logged into Facebook and saw that I had a message.

It’s nearly five a.m. here. Soon she will be at the crossing, entering the rest of her own country for the first time in her life. I’m too excited to sleep. When I saw that message – “I got the permit today” – I began to laugh and, inexplicably, to cry a little. I’ve missed her. When we hugged goodbye for the last time in England I didn’t know when I would be seeing her again or having to brave the results of her efforts in the kitchen or being bullied into wearing toenail varnish or receiving her forthright opinions on my personal life. Her final piece advice to me, delivered with an emphatic kiss at Manchester Piccadilly train station, was not to fall in love with idiots. Then, catching sight of the Gregg’s bakery outlet that was just behind my shoulder, she started fretting that once in Gaza she would no longer be able to get hold of a decent cheese and onion pasty.

I doubt she’ll get one in Bethlehem either, but hey, you can’t have everything in life.

I’m going to try and get some sleep. She might be here by the time I wake up.

Night-time in Ramadan

Yesterday evening, as the heat was finally receding and the sun dusting the sky with pink, I met my friend Deema. She is a children’s social worker in East Jerusalem, and one of the most creative and insightful specialists in children’s mental health whom I’ve ever met. “I love the way they think, children,” she has told me more than once. “They can take a simple incident, like seeing an ant walking by, and make it into a big story.” As we hadn’t seen each other in far too long, she invited me to join her family for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the Ramadan fast, and to spend the night with them in their house in Jerusalem’s Old City.

At Damascus Gate she descended on me with the velocity of an avalanche. Being hugged by Deema is enough to get you sent to the spinal injuries unit. “I’m so excited to see you! You look good, habibti! Where have you been? What have you been doing? I’ve missed you!” – and I struggled to draw enough oxygen into my lungs to wheeze out, “Tamam, alhamdullilah,” before she pulled me into the intricate maze of little alleyways and courtyards that surrounds her home.

She lives in a rooftop apartment, the front door of which opens onto a steep staircase that totters unevenly down to street level. As she rummaged for her keys, I noticed that something was different about that door. Half of it was missing. The frosted glass had been replaced by strips of cardboard and matting. “It was the army,” Deema said wearily when she saw where I was looking. She pushed open the dilapidated door and guided me into the courtyard. “Some boys in our neighbourhood were throwing stones, you know how it is. So they came looking for them.”

“What happened?”

“It was one o’clock in the night when they came. They wanted to climb on our roof, because we are the highest. We were sleeping. We woke from the crash of the glass when they broke the door. Then they came in with their guns, and we were all here in our pyjamas.” Deema’s ten-year-old sister nodded. “I was in bed,” she added, before losing interest and poking open a tin of crayons. And did they get you out of bed themselves, Zeynab, or did they let your mother do it? I almost asked, but I didn’t. It would have done her no good to tell. It would do me no good to know.

I remembered an incident when a young border policeman had stopped Deema in the street, asking for her ID. She had given him an ominous stare, like the one a python might bestow on a particularly wholesome-looking rabbit, before swelling up with characteristic indignation. “You want my ID! You want my ID!” His commanding officer had hastened over to rescue him, only for Deema to turn the full of force of her attentions onto him. “‘Give me your ID!’ he says to me. ‘Give me your ID!’ He will fall over if I blow one breath on him, and he says, ‘Give me your ID!’ Why do you send this child to say ‘Give me your ID’?! He is like a – “

But what else he was like neither the magavnik nor his officer waited to find out. I imagined the army having to confront Deema in her pyjamas and for once I found some sympathy being diverted to the army. “What did you say to them?”

“I laughed at them. And they said ‘Why are you laughing?’ and I told them, ‘Look at yourselves’.” She shrugged slightly as she pulled off her headscarf. Her usually animated face was suddenly tired. “Laugh. What else can we do?”

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Some good news (and a thank you)

People who have been reading for a while will remember that about eighteen months ago I started to raise funds to take teenagers from one of the youth projects I work with to Rwanda. Organised by the Taizé community, an ecumenical community with quite a radical emphasis on justice and reconciliation that emerged during the Second World War, it would have enabled young people who live in very difficult situations to meet with survivors of the Rwandan genocide and explore issues surrounding the fight for justice – and the importance of trust. Unfortunately we could not raise the necessary money in time. So we decided to send them to Taizé itself, in summer, when the community is flooded with thousands of young people from all over the world. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) came forward with a grant that partially covered our costs, and last week it arrived. A few blog readers and friends also donated (which I am very grateful for, as none of the people I know are what you could call spectacularly rich). We have just enough for the teenagers to fly out. All that remains is to raise enough money to cover train and bus travel within France, and hostel costs in Amman. (Being from the West Bank, the teenagers have to fly from there – they aren’t allowed in the airport at Tel Aviv, which adds extra complications.) I’ve created a fundraising page to collect the remaining amount. It will expire in a week, as the trip is to happen in August. If you haven’t yet done so, please donate if you can, or share the page with people who might be able to. And pray for us.

Thank you once more to everyone who has helped. With the exception of the ACN grant, this whole thing really was cobbled together from ten-shekel donations, and it’s pretty amazing that we’ve managed it at last.

Kids with guns

I’m too tired to write a detailed account of today’s thrilling journey to Jerusalem and back (and the content would be predictable anyway) so I am posting this song instead.

It’s an accurate summary.

Conscription of teenagers is a wicked thing.

If you pray at all, please pray for them.

And on that note, goodnight.