Our master iced dessert chef, Cynthia Dea, developed a special sweet new year flavour, Cinnamon Honey, for the occasion. With help from volunteers, staff and patrons of Kisharon, we gave away free scoops of Antonio Russo – to help raise some donations for the exceptional work of Kisharon in the Jewish community, providing support to people with learning difficulties and their families.
We thought long and hard as to what we could name the flavour, and provisionally decided on “Cinnamoney”..!
We wish all supporters of Kisharon, and Antonio Russo, as well as our friends at Yarden, and of course, you, a sweet, rich and healthy new year ahead. L’Shanah Tovah!
David Russell talks to newly created peer Maurice Glasman about the ‘Blue Labour’ ideas he derived from Jewish tradition
Maurice Glasman, now Baron Glasman of Stoke Newington and Stamford Hill, intrigued me from our first meetings. These were in 2006. We had both been invited to the Faith and Citizenship Training programme at the St. Ethelburga’s Peace and Reconciliation Centre in the City of London, I as a member of the local Jewish community, along with local Muslim and Christian leaders; Maurice to lead a series of sessions on community organising – identifying and acting together with others to pursue mutual self-interest.
Erudite and enthused, Maurice Glasman would roll up cigarettes from the tobacco pouch which would emerge regularly from the side pocket of his corduroy jacket. During the breaks, we would talk about the history of the Jewish community of the East End, as I was then based in Bethnal Green and Maurice was living in Stoke Newington and working in Aldgate.
Campaigns that we worked on together with TELCO (The East London Communities Organisation) focused on calling for a cap on exploitative interest rates amongst financial lenders (as laws on usury exist in all three Abrahamic faiths) as well as agitating for a living wage, the minimum income that is required by a worker to meet their basic needs – also a value that is shared across all three faiths.
This extracurricular practice blended seamlessly with Maurice’s academic interests at the time, as Director of the Faith and Citizenship Programme at the London Metropolitan University (LMU) and Senior Lecturer in Political Theory. As an acolyte and international authority on Karl Polanyi, the Jewish Hungarian-Canadian political economist who authored The Great Transformation, which documents the evolution of today’s market society and the incumbent dangers of capitalism, Maurice has always propounded a leftfield view on the politics of the day.
The perspectives that he advocated then never made front page news – and he didn’t expect they would ever do so: “I have never had any ambition. I have never had a conventional career path. I have always done what I felt was right at the time.” His elevation to the House of Lords in 2010 came as a complete shock.
Born in 1961 In Walthamstow, and brought up in Palmers Green, Maurice Glasman won an exhibition to study Modern History at Cambridge, and after several years as a jazz trumpeter, moved to Florence where he wrote his PhD on Polanyi and then became a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s European centre in Bologna. On his father’s death in 1995 he returned to the UK, where he took up teaching at LMU.
He became involved in community organising through a friendship with the Chaplain at LMU, William Taylor, reinforced by his involvement in the Labour Party, of which he is a lifelong member. It was through this work that he began to develop his theory on how faith and citizenship can check the free market.
“You need a wall of moral traditions, such that you can find in faith and citizenship, to resist the domination of the market. If we are to not live in a world of walled rich people, we must have a democratic commons of association.”
It is this concern with association, with power, with resistance to the market, which led him from Polanyi to organising, to Labour strategist. “Labour has become very statist, very policy-based, quite technocratic and elitist in lots of ways. The idea of giving power to people to make their own mistakes, to build their own lives together, is being a bit awkward but resonates”. What he means, is that politicians today are more averse to mass democracy than ever before, including Labour, which was traditional the party of the people.
It is this position, which has led Maurice to conclude “that Labour can be a transformative party but it has to redistribute power and not be exclusively concerned with the redistribution of wealth.”
It was the provocation of Phillip Blond’s ‘Red Tory’, a call to the Conservative Party to reclaim its community values, which sparked Maurice into developing a counter-manifesto that called on the Labour Party to rediscover and re-engage with its core values of “reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity”, some of which had been hijacked by the Conservative Party – most notably in its conception of the Big Society.
It was this manifesto that brought Maurice’s thinking to the attention of the newly elected Labour leader, Ed Miliband. Miliband saw this political philosophy, which Maurice coined as ‘Blue Labour’, as no less than a foundation upon which to rebuild the Labour Party. It was for this reason that he was elevated to the House of Lords.
Maurice has left his fellow Lords in no doubt about his Jewishness, a trait that is unusual amongst the Jewish peers. Yet one aspect that Maurice did not publicise until he talked at the South London Day Limmud this May is the inspiration he has found in Jewish thinking. He cites the concept of Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, of Torah im derech ertz, which emphasises the importance of worldly involvement to realise the values of Torah.
Also key to his ideas is the philosophy of the Bund (Secular Jewish Socialist Party) in pre-war Russia and Eastern Europe. “The Bund was concerned with the beautiful things that we do together – music, literature, art – and fostered solidarity with the poor of the world. Hirsch represents the conservative side and community, such as the honouring of parents and children and a moral concern to build genuine relationships, as Jeremiah teaches: ‘seek the peace of the city for in its peace shall you have peace’.”
“Blue Labour is equally Hirsch and the Bund. The Bund adds a focus on building relationships with others, building a common life with strangers, and of creative exploration.”
Out of this evolves the foundational campaigns of community organisers, as well as Blue Labour.
“The Living Wage is core to the menschlichikeit (integrity) that unites Samson Raphael Hirsch with the Bundists; that you should pay people enough for them to live. It used to be called a Family Wage, which was a core demand of the Jewish trade unions in the East End.”
“Just because Jews are on the whole no longer poor – in that we are no longer cleaners, cooks, dustmen – and that we have found our way up the housing ladder, does not mean we no longer have interests in people being paid properly or in the good of the city.”
It is this conviction that has driven Maurice to work to engage Jewish institutions in community organising in the UK, to play a more active role in working alongside Christians and Muslims in developing broad-based campaigns for a living wage and affordable housing.
It is clear that Saul Alinsky, the Jewish academic cum activist who developed the practices of community organising in 1930s Chicago, is very much an inspiration for Maurice too. “I realised that many of the great community organisers were Jewish, but Jews were not organised. But what I see all the time is that there is a deep longing in Jews for a good meaningful life and for a better life, which will be never-ending and will never end.”
It is this that he believes the Jewish community, particularly in the UK, has managed to get so right over the years. “Society as the association, as the kehilla (congregation), needs leaders and leadership and practices, such as the minyan (quorum of men at synagogue). This is the meaningful conception of the community – self-organised institutions. And the impulse to lead a good life and to lead others in that good life that is a very distinctive Jewish trait that I do not think is going to go away.”
This love of self-organised institutions, as vehicles for association, has been fostered since his childhood.
“I was brought up in the bowels of the Jewish community. I grew up in Palmers Green. I attended Clapton Jewish Day School (now Simon Marks) and JFS (Jews’ Free School). I was involved in the Jewish scouts, a Jewish Jazz Big Band. My family comes from a tradition of Orthodoxy and Labour, which once was a lot more common. My father was a Labour Zionist. And there were three institutions when growing up, that every Jew I knew supported: the United Synagogue, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and the Labour Party.”
It is a renewal of such institutions that he wants to see in the Jewish community today. This, he believes, will renew the Jewish tradition of genuine civic engagement.
“The concept of the kehilla (congregation) is very dear to me. Jews should make the effort to go to shul on Shabbos; make the effort to meet other Jews and to talk to them, and to do things with Jews that Jews do together, which is politics, make music, make friends, and argue all the time – and to keep Jewish life strong. It will flow from that. The stronger our Jewish institutions and practices, the stronger our civic engagement will be.”
Maurice leads by example, attending regularly different minyanim, including the new Stoke Newington Masorti Synagogue that he helped establish, as well as being actively involved locally, particularly in Jewish education – as Vice-Chair of the Governors of Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, which all four of his children have attended.
“Pirke Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers) calls on us to make ourselves a teacher; which I always understood to have three meanings: to be a teacher; to find yourself a teacher; and, to build educational systems and be a teaching people. In that Jews have always excelled. And for that I love the Jewish educational system, not only because of the care of the child but because of the love of learning, and we must value Jewish schools as real treasure troves of that tradition.”
What then is he teaching his children?
“To be menschlich, which means being nice to your mum. Be as horrible as you like to me, but be nice to your mum. I share that as a general maxim of life. And just do the thing that feels right. Be with the person that you love. And, don’t get bullied, and don’t get defeated, as life is surprising.”
It was as much a surprise to receive the call informing him of his nomination to the Lords, as it was when an interview that he gave a few months later to the Fabian Society magazine became front page national news. In the interview, Maurice noted that the Labour Party should seek to engage with disaffected communities such as those that were voting for the English Defence League (EDL).
“Unfortunately, the comments were misconstrued. I was saying that we needed to speak to the supporters of the EDL, not, as some people made out, that we should speak to the EDL itself. The idea that we should speak to upset, angry and dispossessed people, to try build a better life together, must be addressed and historically the Labour movement has been the vehicle to do this. It is a broad-based approach. Where there are mass outpourings of discontent, you have two choices, either you demonise them or you break them.”
“My view is the latter, in that we have to create divisions within the EDL.” By creating divisions between the leadership and membership of EDL, the hope is that it will be possible to bring back into the traditional Labour fold the predominantly working classes that have become disillusioned and excluded from mainstream politics leading them to the radical fringe.
It is this call for engagement with the radical fringe, which has led Maurice into trouble not only with the Labour leadership, but also the Jewish establishment too. In the same manner, the Jewish Chronicle has criticised him and London Citizens for engaging with Muslim communities that also have a radical fringe.
“The people I call the liberal elite have a big difficulty in engaging in democratic politics. We have to find a way to engage poor people, which is both locals and immigrants, in a democratic discussion in which they can speak. But a bit like the Jewish Chronicle on the State of Israel, they want everybody to sign up to a politically correct ideological position before they can say anything.”
But ultimately, it is this building of relationships, bridge building, which is at the heart of his politics.
“I love my country and I want to build and broker a politics of the common good, which can bring together immigrants and locals, working class and middle class, north and south, faith and secular, a common good which upholds the dignity of the human being and the power of association against the overwhelmingly powerful markets. I love that, and that is my politics. And what is amazing is that I am in a position to fashion such a thing.
So what has he learnt then over this whirlwind couple of years. “That it is impossible to engage in serious politics without being misunderstood. The misunderstanding is an important part of politics. And, you shouldn’t let your position get ahead of your relationships. Relationships precede action, so I take a great deal of time just meeting people, talking to them.”
This is the advice that he is giving to his four children, who are beginning to follow their father’s lead by being politically active, his son considering his father’s politics to be “bourgeois outrage”. However, they are drifting into internet activism, of which he continues to be sceptical. “I am like the grumpy old dad telling them to go out and to meet some people.”
What other advice does he give to them?
“Before you get angry, have a conversation with the person. Meeting people, doing things together, is the best thing in the world and is transformative. Foster a love of England, a love of Yiddishkeit, and a love of the Labour movement. If I could do that, I will be happy.”
About his time in the House of Lords, he notes that “out of 700 or so lords, about 120 are Jews. A third of High Court judges are Jews. This is the golden age of Anglo-Jewry and sometimes we should take pause and recognise that the country is completely open to us and what we do – which is get into trouble, be busy, have arguments, do our jobs properly, and to be a blessing to the country.”
There is still much work ahead for Baron Glasman in doing his new job properly, as he advises the Labour Party on its strategy for victory in the next general election, likely in 2015, “which is not a straightforward task”. And if Labour is to win, then it will need to secure the support of the Jewish community the ‘bellweather’ for the country.
“Jews are very independently-minded people and if Labour represents liberty and compassion, Labour will get the support of the Jewish community, but if we represent State spending and an administrative view of politics we won’t. Labour has not yet articulated any vision that can generate any enthusiasm, which is what we need to do. We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
As we part ways, Maurice comments finally: “I never expected to be in this position. I never planned to be in this position. But I trust the story.” How that story will unfold, and how he will be a blessing to the country he loves, only time will tell.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2012 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
I meet Professor Nasser David Khalili at his office in Mayfair, on the top floor of a building shared with a fashionable clothing brand. Beautiful young people come and go through the lobby in which posters of exhibitions of Khalili’s collections are on display.
I am shown to the lift, but there is no button to press. The concierge waves a fob and the doors close. When they open again, I see Professor Khalili across a beautifully adorned, airy office. He is sitting behind his desk. There is no anteroom, no secretary. I am fortunate to have secured a rare audience with one of the richest men in the world.
Around the room is a host of intriguing works from Khalili’s personal collection. They include a contemporary photograph of two arms upstretched, one with tefillin wound around it and the other etched with Arabic calligraphy. This is no doubt representative of Khalili’s two great passions, Judaism and Islamic art.
He has in front of him a copy of my article, in this series on benefactors of the arts, about Elizabeth Sackler (JR, October 2010). “I knew Arthur, Elizabeth’s father, well. A great man and a great patron of the arts, who truly left his mark. It is good to see Elizabeth extending that legacy.”
As Elizabeth Sackler is synonymous with feminist art, Khalili has become synonymous with Islamic art. He has endowed Chairs in this field at his alma mater, Queen’s College in New York, where he received his BA, and at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, where he was awarded his PhD. There is also a Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East at Oxford University.
Khalili also has smaller but equally distinguished collections of Swedish textiles, Spanish metalwork, Japanese decorative art and enamels of the world. Adding his property interests, managed through his company Favermead, currently developing an innovative energy-efficient 220,000 square foot office block at Holborn Viaduct in central London, his worth is estimated as more than £5 billion. Not bad for a selfmade man from Iran.
Khalili was born in 1945 in Isfahan and brought up in Tehran by parents who were not fabulously wealthy but, according to their son,“rich in spirit”. His father was an antiques dealer and it was from him that Khalili developed his own love of art, often accompanying him on home visits. On one such trip, the young Khalili was wowed for the first time by an artwork, a lacquer pen box. It was given to him by its owner who was moved by his interest and it became the first piece in his collection.
In 1967, after completing his national service as an army medic, Khalili left Iran and travelled to the US to study computer science. It was in New York that his collecting first began, as a means to pay his way. He only resorted to collecting art professionally when he was fired from his job flipping burgers. Within two years he was a millionaire.
He would travel across the country buying up lots of work, keeping only the best and selling the rest. His skill lay in his eye and knowledge of Islamic art acquired from his father and his own study of the genre since childhood, though he admits that he was lucky to begin collecting when there was such a glut of good pieces.
He settled in the UK, which has been his home since 1978, after meeting his wife, Marion, on a visit to London in 1976. Marion was working in an antiques centre, and he knew on first sight that this would be the woman he would marry – if she was Jewish. He bought from her a brooch for his mother and an emerald ring and bracelet, which he gave to her.
Khalili always knew that he would wed within the religion. “The issue is very simple but because people follow their emotion, it is often overshadowed.” As he often does, he explains his position through a quote. “I always follow a beautiful biblical saying, used in Fiddler on the Roof. To paraphrase, when a bird falls in love with a fish, it is all okay; but where are they to go and build a house to live?”
In the early 1990s, Professor Khalili bought 18-19 Kensington Palace Gardens, which previously housed the Russian and Egyptian Embassies. It was this that first propelled him into the public domain, as the renovation he oversaw for the next three years created a residence equal in size to the White House, and second only to Buckingham Palace in London, and seemingly as grand with marble imported from the same quarry in Agra as the Taj Mahal. When finished, their children, Daniel, the eldest, and two twin sons, Benjamin and Raphael, had flown the nest, and as Bloomberg has reported, Marion refused to move into the house, considering it too “palatial”.
“I run a very democratic family, and my family has a huge say in what we do. I have a saying that if you are in a crowd and you do not know where to go, put your child on your shoulder and they will point you in the right direction.” He compares his family to a secure home. “Myself and the three boys are the columns, and my wife is the roof. Any weakness will bring the house down.”
The house of Khalili though is constructed on strong foundations. 18-19 Kensington Palace Gardens is still the most expensive private residence in London, now owned by the Indian steel tycoon, Lakshmi Mittal. It is one of the many records Professor Khalili holds, of which he is evidently proud. These include being the longest-serving governor on the Board of SOAS (for 17 years); the youngest published author in Iran, at just 13 years old, when he wrote a compendium of 223 geniuses, a response to ridicule from a teacher at his Jewish day school for aspiring to be one himself; and, most famously, the custodian of the largest private collection of Islamic art in the world, in addition to collating the largest publication in art history, which will catalogue the 20,000 artworks in 27 volumes.
The secret to his success? “You dream, you plan, you pursue. If you don’t do that, you don’t get anywhere.” He adds: “In every field in which I have collected, I became an expert in the field before I collected.” This and a famously retentive memory have helped him to assess better than anyone the value of the art in his chosen fields.
Though amassing his collections is his life’s work, he has still to realise his most long-held dream – a dedicated museum for his collection of Islamic art in London. He reveals to me, exclusively, that this will happen before his 70th birthday in 2015.
“Many great collections have become dispersed because they did not think about how to maintain a museum. But we are working to establish a large enough endowment to secure our museum in perpetuity.”
Though I do not ask, I assume the museum will be named the Khalili Museum of Islamic Art. I note that each project he funds inherits the Khalili name. Is this the legacy that he wants to ensure? “I am not here to be praised. The praise should be reserved to go to the souls of the artists who have produced the magnificent works. I have just been lucky to be able to put them together for humanity.”
He tells me that it was the University which offered to give his name to the lecture theatre he funded at SOAS. “They insisted on there being a bust of me made to sit outside the theatre, alongside which there is a beautiful Japanese vase for which I give fresh flowers to be arranged every day.”
Though no longer a governor of SOAS, Khalili continues to teach at the controversial hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment. I ask whether he ever has difficulties with the politicised students there. He has not personally experienced any antagonism. In his view “religion and politics have their own particular languages, and their own agendas. Art and culture are unique in having a universal language; ‘it is an ocean without shores’.”
Sharing the art he has collected with humanity is his mission. “I hate telling people I am here to educate you. I am here to inform you and to allow you to form your own opinion. It is my philosophy.” He refers to the need to learn about others’ way of life as being the philosophy of Maimonides, which he follows, “because by learning about it we will find there is more that unites than divides us.” It is for this reason that he set up the Maimonides Foundation, to foster dialogue and understanding between the Abrahamic religions.
This is a view he shares with Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, with whom he has a “special relationship”, and who is a mentor to his children and an inspiration to him. “I consider the Chief Rabbi one of the greatest brains in the history of Judaism.” At Rabbi Sacks’ request Khalili funded the refurbishment of the Bloomstein Hall at the Marble Arch Synagogue.
Unlike many other billionaires, he has not offshored his great wealth. He takes pride in paying his taxes, believing it important to play a full role in contributing to the economic well-being of his adopted home. “I am a good advocate, because I talk to other wealthy people who try to avoid taxes and tell them to use their energy for making money and not to waste t avoiding taxes.”
Though he identifies first as an Iranian Jew, he is proud to be British too. “I am extremely fond of the UK, its tradition and its contribution to humanity.” He is proud also of his Iranian heritage. “Iranian Jews are the oldest Jews in the world and Iran has been a cradle of democracy since Cyrus the Great. Empathy has always existed between the Jews and Muslims in Iran. If anything, the way that Jews have been treated by the Muslims in Iran should be used as an example.”
Khalili continues to support the Jewish community in Iran, “but under the radar, as I learned from my parents, G-d bless their soul, that you should do things not for the heck of it, but for the sake of it.”
It is this value that he hopes to have instilled in his children. He does not plan to pass down all his wealth to them. “I wanted to ensure that my kids had an education, that they had independence and can follow their passion like I did. If I do more than that, I will dilute their mission in life. I want them to live and look forward to something and to achieve their own thing and get credit for it.”
Professor Khalili concludes the interview with an appeal. “Don’t concentrate so much on me, but concentrate on the art. I wish to shed light and understanding on how people run their lives. Each time I give an interview I want to have a message: the role culture can play in the betterment of people’s lives. There is no better bridge-builder. If I can change the life of even one person, then I will have succeeded.”
And what of his plans once the museum is established? “I plan to write my autobiography, but not for another 10 or 20 years.” This will be quite some story, of the Jewish man from Iran and his plan for the world’s greatest collection of Islamic art.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2011 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
In 1999, Habonim celebrated its 80th Anniversary. What lasting impact has the youth movement had on its graduates?
Growing up in Leeds during the Thatcher years, each Sunday I would head to the Habonim ken (meeting place) to participate in some activity on Judaism, Socialism, Zionism – one of the three pillars of Habonim’s philosophy. Each winter and summer I would head off to camp under the guardianship of the madrichim, leaders, not much older than myself. Not being allowed my own money, contributing according to my means to the kitty and living on kibbutz in Israel (a year of preparation) between school and university, I learned about and lived socialism.
Habonim (the builders) was founded in the East End by Wellesly Aron in 1929 and merged with the East European youth movement, Dror (of which many Warsaw ghetto fighters had been members) in 1982. Sacha Baron-Cohen, Mike Leigh and Baroness Deech have all credited their experience in the movement as a seminal influence in their lives.
As a boger (graduate) myself, I too found that the values learnt, friendships made and skills acquired during my time in Habonim, have influenced me greatly.
The impact of Habonim is not restricted to the UK. In the US, President Obama’s new ‘car czar’ (senior counsellor on manufacturing policy), Ron Bloom, says Habonim infused him with values that influenced the way he views public service. “We sang the songs, but it wasn’t about that. It was a broader sense of identifying with the underdog, and of observing the world through a lens, through people who don’t have as much and aren’t as lucky.”
Seth Rogen, the writer and star of recent comedy blockbusters Superbad and Knocked Up, is a recent graduate of Habonim Canada. And closer to home, there is David Baddiel, for whom: “Habonim was my social life for my early teenage years”.
The most famous recent graduate of Habonim, continuing to take Hollywood by storm with his blockbusters Borat and Bruno, is Sacha Baron-Cohen. Speaking on his experience in the movement, he notes, “There’s something about Habo that makes you feel slightly rebellious and as though you are challenging society a bit. Without sounding pretentious, I suppose I get a buzz out of the kind of comedy I do, which is taking the piss out of really important people. I think that comes from the ideology of ‘let’s not join the mainstream’, which was what Habonim was all about.”
And of course there is Mike Leigh. Those who saw Two Thousand Years, his production at the National Theatre, will recall that most of the characters had grown up in Habonim. The most perceptive will have noted the sofa, placed stage centre, matched exactly the blue of the Habonim chultzah (shirt).
Mike Leigh discussed the influence of Habonim on the style of his work in the JC a few years back. “The way I conduct things – people get together and we talk very openly and have discussions, and everybody’s equal – absolutely comes from being in the movement. It’s the spirit of how I work and the atmosphere of my rehearsals. Everyone has input, it’s a real democracy.”
Does Habonim wield as great an influence on the lives of its members today? Sam Green, the current general secretary, believes so. “We continue to encourage our chanichim (members) to find meaning in their connection to Israel, their Judaism and to the rest of the world. Our machanot are run in the traditional ‘Habo’ way, in an open, inclusive, creative and free-thinking environment. Our bogrim leave the movement actively contributing to the communities they find themselves in and with strong belief in the values of justice and equality.”
As I consider the jobs that my own year group have chosen – doctors, teachers, civil servants, charity professionals – I find myself nodding my head.
Eighty years on from its establishment, I will continue to argue that Habonim is still the movement that moves, moving those lucky enough to be in the movement.
an age of innocence when Israel was the hero of the world
Habonim was a Jewish lifeline for me. I was an only child, growing up in Clapham, south of the river and, as my mother said, we were an oasis of Jewish life in the desert of South London. It was a traditional, very Zionist, but not at all orthodoxly observant family. My father was a refugee from Austria and worked for the World Jewish Congress and in journalism. To compound matters, I went to a non-Jewish boarding school. I longed to meet like-minded young Zionists and so, in my teens, in the school holidays, I made the trip by tube from Clapham North to Finchley, and then another 20 minutes walk up the Finchley Road and there they all were. Exactly as in my imagination: blue shirted, Hebrew-speaking, hora-dancing, poised for aliyah.
It was absolutely wonderful, not only because it nurtured my belief in Israel, but also because it was an age of innocence – the 1950s, when Israel was the hero of the world, the unblemished flag-bearer for all that was decent and innovative, and we were so proud to be a little part of it. That love and admiration for Israel has never left me and I was delighted that my daughter, in her turn, was able to go to Habonim in our small community of Oxford and make friends from all over the country.
Finchley Road was also the site of my first cigarette and my first kiss, but that is another story!
Baroness Ruth Deech
Academic, Lawyer and Bioethicist
a ludicrous degree of responsibility
Plenty of people speak about school or university as their formative years, the time when they made their friends for life. For me that was Habonim. I was involved for ten straight years, from age 12, as a chanich in the always small and struggling Edgware ken, right through until I was a second-year student at university. I avoid saying they were the happiest years of my life — who knows what lies ahead? — but they were, in many ways, the easiest, the most free and the most fun.
Central was the laughter: I remember so many times — whether huddled in a tent during summer camp or washing saucepans in a huge, industrial kitchen in winter — being consumed by the most sustained, joyful laughter. Next, and we shouldn’t deny it, came the hormones. For a boy at an all-boys school, a night around the campfire with so many girls was nothing less than the garden of Eden.
And we can’t forget the politics: long arguments, raging deep into the night. I am sure some of my deepest convictions were formed then, shaped by so many of the charismatic, talented people who were our madrichim, our leaders. It was, in a way, the perfect education. It gave you a ludicrous degree of responsibility at an absurdly young age. I was 21 when I was ‘in loco parentis’ of 101 teenage children on a two-week trip to Holland. After that, you felt you could do anything. I think it’s no coincidence that so many Habo folk have gone on to do great things. What Habonim offered was the joy that is being young, distilled into an especially intense form. I am not lying when I say that I dream of it still.
Guardian Policy Editor and award-winning novelist
an incredible sense of humour
Habonim had a huge influence on me. I first became involved when I was about 10, but I always felt slightly alienated from all the Southern Olim as I was in Oxford, so soon left. But at the time of my barmitzvah, I was having a bit of a crisis and I didn’t know what to do. It was then that I heard Habonim were organising a group visit to see Under Milk Wood at the cinema. It was an AA film, and you had to be over 15 to see it, so I wouldn’t have been able to go along myself. But as part of a group I would be allowed entry. A sad motivation for coming back, I know, but what kept me returning was a wonderful madrich, Steve Israel, a student at Oxford University, who led the ken on Sundays. He gave me a direction that I was missing, particularly as regards my perspective on Israel. Though my parents were Zionists, my father taught Modern Hebrew Literature at the University and he gave me a different view.
Besides Israel, it was the incredible sense of humour that I loved about the movement. I became the guy that always did the sketches. There was a muscle there that I was able to exercise. Everyone would always ask, “Dan would you do something”. And I would just do it. You develop this confidence, standing up in front of people, and trying stuff out. It was a remarkable free education.
Who knows whether I might have ended up where I am today without it.
I actually began feeling sorry for my friends who were not Jewish. I was leading this weird double life where I would commute to London and be with wonderful people, and of course girls!
Creator, Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Mock the Week
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2009 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
Arthur M. Sackler, along with his two younger brothers Mortimer and Raymond, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Between them they donated to many of the world’s leading cultural and academic institutions. In fact it is hard not to take note of a Sackler Wing or Sackler Center. There is one at the National Gallery in London, the Smithsonian at Washington DC and the Louvre in Paris and at Tel Aviv, Oxford and New York universities.
Arthur’s second daughter, Elizabeth, has continued along the path illuminated by her father, and two uncles. As President and Chief Executive of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, she is responsible for maintaining and lending over 1,000 of the most important works of Asian art collected by her father over his lifetime.
However, it is as “matron” of the arts, as she coins the term for her role, that she is emulating her father. Her first endeavour that brought her international reclaim was her pioneering activity in repatriating Native American ceremonial materials.
“Of all the work that I have undertaken, it is the most ‘Jewish’. The return of ceremonial objects, repatriation and restitution, is only a relatively recent phenomena. Questions of Nazi war looting, and the need to return looted art for example, only really came to prominence in the 1990s. Only then did people begin to fully understand the issues.”
“To assist the uninitiated, I equated what a Jew would have felt seeing the bones their grandmother on public display with the exhibition at the Natural History Museum in New York in the 1970s of the human remains of a Native American woman.”
It was this empathy that moved her to act by publicly purchasing three katchina masks at auction at Sotheby’s and returning them to their rightful owners, the Hopi and Navajo Nations. Out of this act, developed the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation, which she founded in 1992, and which continues today to educate about the importance of repatriation, and the distinction between that which is appropriate for sale or exhibition and that which is not.
Then in 2001, at a meeting with the Director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, she presented him with a book about Judy Chicago’s iconic feminist megasculpture, The Dinner Party. Enquiring whether he would like it, he responded enthusiastically. However, she did not mean the book, she meant the work itself. Lehman was stunned.
Elizabeth was first introduced to Judy Chicago in 1988. The Dinner Party, her most epic work, consists of a triangular table 48 feet long on each side, with place settings for 39 notable women from Primordial Goddess to Georgia O’Keeffe, and set on a white floor inscribed with the names of a further 999 notable women.
Chicago is a pioneer of the feminist art movement who in the 1960s changed her name from Judy Cohen in a move that denounced the masculinisation of her roots. When Elizabeth arranged The Dinner Party’s gift, through the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, to the Brooklyn Museum as the centerpiece for a center for feminist art, Judy’s dream for its permanent housing was realised.
“My relationship with Judy was first a friendship, then a supporter of her work. She had been concerned about The Dinner Party, which had not found a permanent home. In addition to being an extraordinary work of art, The Dinner Party is a unique educational exposition on women’s history – as so many of the women it features are under recognized or not known at all.”
This is the point of connection between her projects – erasure. “The erasure of women in history; and the attempted erasure of American Native history; to that extent there is a common bond between the projects. As a Jew, it is also something that resonates strongly.”
Not only did she offer the work for permanent display but also the gift of a new wing of the museum to exhibit it. “Initially, I had no desire to have my name carved in stone, as it were, but after lengthy discussions with my sister I thought: Well, ‘the boys’ (as my grandmother referred to her three sons, my father and my uncles) have, with all the Sackler Wings here and abroad, created a great launching pad. My name could be a service to raising awareness of women in the arts – to which people might then pay more attention.” Thus came into being the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art – now the pre-eminent (and still possibly only) institute of its kind internationally.
Elizabeth’s interest and passion for art developed at an early age. Her earliest memories were of being taken to museums. “I remember vividly when I was 8 years old being in the Louvre and staring up at the Winged Victory of Samothrace (the classic sculpture honouring the goddess Nike), and being overwhelmed by her beauty and power.” When she was 15, the first Sackler gallery opened, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York – featuring monumental Chinese sculpture that her father collected.
As a Jewish family, the Sacklers placed greater emphasis on the values than the practice of the religion. “There is no question that the world in which I grew up in was one steeped in justice and equality, and that this informed the education I received at home and in my schooling. I cannot speak for my father, or his brothers, but Jewish principles and ethics continue to infuse all my work – both as a social activist and public historian.”
“My father was a true collector, a connoisseur. He did not consider himself a philanthropist though. Giving was not a cheque writing exercise, nor about naming opportunities, but about participating in the cultural landscape which improves knowledge, education, and understanding. He felt it an honour and privilege to envision what was possible, and making that a reality.”
“It has taken me until now [referring to the establishment of the Center for Feminist Art] to know what he meant by that – when you see a vision grow and take hold.”
“What I also learnt from him is the importance of having an intellectual and cultural and emotional relationship with the work that one does. Practically, he taught me how to have a relationship with institutions and how to negotiate with museums.”
It was this that held Elizabeth in good stead in later years.
She recognises that her interest in the feminist movement also can be traced back to her family. Throughout his medical career, Arthur Sackler was a forerunner in acknowledging and supporting contributions of women doctors and nurses and at the height of the feminist movement in the 1970s, he worked with established groups to increase the number of women accepted into medical school and related fields.
“Any father with daughters is likely to become a potential feminist activist, naturally wanting the best for his children. I grew up in a family where sexism did not exist. But I am aware that in the Jewish community there is a tension.”
She recalls the time that her son was preparing for his Bar mitzvah, and she took the opportunity to study too, at Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York City. Under Rabbi Marc Angel, she became aware of the tension within the Orthodox tradition from the separation of women from the Torah.
“He was struggling with how an Orthodox synagogue, how a man of Orthodox faith, can both acknowledge the role of women, but respect the separation commanded by Torah. It is a difficult area, and though I do not engage in the debate, I do observe it.”
Elizabeth’s son Michael, now 27, along with her daughter, Laura, 37, have made her a proud parent, and grandparent. “As I learnt from my father, my children are watching and learning from me. Laura founded Global Children in 2000, which is dedicated to assisting disadvantaged children in Cambodia.”
“This strong involvement in social causes I observe with my cousins too. Many are very active. Whether we do things on a small scale or a large scale, relationship with the family, betterment of community, is what life is all about.”
Her focus in the immediate future is on the Center of Feminist Art. “It is still just a toddler in terms of the life of a cultural institution. I want to ensure that I give it a good solid upbringing, and that the child – which is how I see it – grows up healthy and strong. The Center is beloved in New York, has increased the value of feminist art and as importantly is influencing museums worldwide to recognise and engage with it.”
Returning to her father, she recalls him first and foremost as a scientist. “His approach to art was scientific, collecting the largest corpus of data with an eye to synthesise information from a variety of places, and produce new thinking. He truly was a genius, a member of MENSA, with a passion for art which he had the fortune to share with the world.”
Arthur Sackler once said, “Art and science are two sides of the same coin. Science is a discipline pursued with passion; art is a passion pursued with discipline. At pursuing both, I’ve had a lot of fun.”
Concluding the interview, Elizabeth mentions that she is currently reading “The Lost” by Daniel Mendelsohn. “As a Jew, one comes across a book on the Holocaust, and the echo of the history of the Jews is such that one is just grateful to be alive, to be a Jewish woman at this moment of time. It is a privilege as my father told me. I take it with great joy. I am pleased and proud.”
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, October 2010 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
Kehillas Ya’akov, or The Congregation of Jacob, is no ordinary synagogue. From the outside it looks unremarkable, sandwiched as it is in the middle of a parade of shops on the Commercial Road in Stepney Green. But step inside, and you enter a fusion of two worlds: one disappeared, and the other said to be fast disappearing. It is where East European Jewry meets the Jewish East End of London. And it is where hope springs eternal.
The East End is the cradle of Britain’s Jewish Community. At the turn of the century, there was said to be as many Jews living in this one square mile of London than there are in the entire country today – over 250,000 souls. Sam Melmick has recorded the existence of over 150 synagogues in the area, not beginning to count the multitude of shtiebls that will have served the Jewish community. But today, there remain only four synagogues still in use. Kehillas Ya’akov is one, with a regular minyan meeting each Shabbos eve and morn for over one hundred years.
Kehillas Ya’akov was founded by Morris Davis Koenigsberg and Abraham Schwalbe in 1903, probably beginning life in the front room of Mr Koenigsberg’s family house on Commercial Road (Mr Schwalbe lived a few doors along). The Ashkenazi Congregation largely consisted of first generation immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, orthodox Jews from small shtetls such as Stetziver, Kalisz and Vilkaviskis.
The shul originally was a constituent member of the Federation of Synagogues (though it is independent today), an organisation established by philanthropist Samuel Montague MP in 1887 to improve the conditions for worship of the numerous small and often ill-ventilated chevras (prayer groups) in the East End. It advanced loans for many synagogue conversions, but often on condition that chevras merged into larger congregations. Kehillas Ya’akov thus incorporates Chevra Yisroel (Society of Israel) and Bikur Cholim (Visitors of the Sick). What we have also cobbled together is that our present location at 351 – 353 Commercial Road was until the War a bootmaker’s premises, being redesigned by Lewis Solomon and Son, honorary architects to the Federation of Synagogues, and reconsecrated in 1921.
Interestingly Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain and to this day remains Modern Orthodox. Most members still live locally though the character of the Congregation is more cosmopolitan than it once was. The service is still very much Ashkenazic in style, but the Sephardic influence can be felt in the soft pronunciation of the Hebrew. The synagogue is independent, owned, managed and maintained by members of the community.
Dr Sharman Kadish, Project Director of the Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage, has commented that at Kehillas Ya’akov “the congregation created for themselves an inner space strongly redolent of the world of East European Jewry which they had left behind.” Today’s Congregation amplifies this sentiment, by reminding guests also of the world of East End Jewry that the British community is leaving behind. But in this latter instance, the abandonment has been chosen not forced.
On entering the synagogue, one is immediately struck by the otherworldliness of the space. Maybe this is just the sentimentality of the author, but one senses the ghosts of members past peering over the balcony of the upstairs gallery as heads are bowed for the Amidah. The gallery that encircles three sides of the shul is accessed by a separate entrance to the main portico and is rarely used now by the ladies of the Congregation, except occasionally on the major Chagim (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). Instead they sit behind the men at the back of the shul, behind a Mechitzah (a curtain partition), praying and talking quietly amongst themselves when the Shammes (warden) allows.
In the summer, light floods the Congregation through the glass roof, a feature imported from Eastern Europe along with the wall painting above the ark. This was crafted by former member, the late Dr Phillip Steinberg, and features traditional Jewish symbols such as the Menorah and Arba Minim (four fruits of Succot). It adds to the folk-like feel of the space, as do the blue walls (to ward off the evil eye) and simple decor.
But these descriptors do nothing to capture the atmosphere or personality of the Congregation. One may feel the cold in the winter months due to the energy efficiency, but the congregants compensate by extending a warm reception and a dram or two of whiskey at Kiddush. And it is not only for this reason that we are known as the Cheers of shuls, as it is here ‘where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.’
At the time of writing two thousand Jewish souls live on in the East End. Though the demographic is elderly that is reason enough for shuls to remain open in the area, more so now as young Jews begin returning to their roots. At last, thankfully, the community at large is recognising the importance of preserving this fast disappearing heritage. With the will, will come the support, to ensure that the remaining East End synagogues – Fieldgate Street, Nelson Street, Sandy’s Row and Kehillas Ya’akov – will not only survive, but will prosper for this generation and many more to follow. And as Herzl famously once said: Im tirtzu, ein zo agadah – If you will it, it’s no dream. I need not remind you that through no fault of our own we lost for posterity much of our East European heritage. Let us not stand idly by and allow the loss of our East End heritage too.
From an article originally published in Jewish Renaissance, Winter 2003 Edition. For more information, please see www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk
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Charitable giving is a requirement of Jewish law. It is prescribed as a mitzvah (commandment). “When your brother will become poor, you will extend your hand to him” (Leviticus 25:35) and care for the “the stranger, and the orphan and the widow” (Deuteronomy 19:29).
Ever since the time of Abraham, there has been an obligation “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right (tzedakah)” (Genesis 18:19). But “what is right” has been a subject of rabbinic interpretation ever since. The primary sources on this vast subject are Mishneh Torah, the first systematic codification of Jewish law by Maimonides in the 12th century, and the Shulchan Aruch, collated by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the 16th century.
The practice of ma’aser kesafim, giving 10% of one’s income, derives from Jacob’s commitment to God: “of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you” (Genesis 28:22). In the Talmud, an upper limit of 20% of income is set, based on the reasoning that a higher percentage may result in the giver himself becoming needy (Talmud, Ketubot 50a), but this does not apply if there is a need to save life.
Maimonides records eight levels of giving. The highest level is to help the recipient to become self-supporting, by finding or giving a job to the person in need, or making a loan to enable them to start up a business. “The giver who knows not to whom he gives and the recipient knows not from whom he receives” is the second highest level. The least good is the giver that is pained by the act of giving.
Rashi postulates in his commentary on Leviticus 25:35 that there is an even higher level of giving, that is to help people before they even require help on the basis that if a load “is still on the donkey, one person can grasp it and hold it in place. Once it falls to the ground, however, five people cannot pick it up” (Torath Kohanim 25:71). Giving before one is asked is particularly important in protecting the self-esteem of the person in need – as well as encouraging others to give as: “greater than one who does the mitzvah, is one who causes others to do a mitzvah” (Talmud, Baba Batra 9a).
The Talmudic concept of tovat hana’ah affords givers the right to choose the recipients of the money in a manner which provides them indirect benefit (Matnot Aniyiim 1:8). It is advised, though, that all funds should not be given to a single level of priority.
The amount that one gives should be calculated with care and ideally a separate fund should be established for funds to be held in trust for the ultimate recipients (Sefer Ma’aser Kesofim 50-54). Tzedakah should be given with compassion and happiness (Mishneh Torah 9:4). It should be made easy for recipients, so each community should have tzedekah administrators so the poor do not need to go house to house collecting (Sefer Tzedakah U’Mishpat 43). One should not brag about one’s giving, but it is acceptable to put one’s name on a gift for communal use (Shulchan Aruch 249:21).
Talmudic sources also wrestle with the ever-present issue of how givers are to decide on priorities. Most sources place the saving of life first (an interesting insight into the life of the times is the inclusion of ransom for captives in this category). We are told elsewhere that first comes closeness to the giver (relatives ahead of non-relatives); second comes intensity and nature of need (priority for those requiring food over those requiring clothing); thirdly, level of education (Torah scholars take precedence over non-scholars); fourthly gender (women take precedence over men). All these come before lineage, where a Jew takes precedence over a non-Jew.
Whilst strong ties of kinship and community are priorities for giving, as they are amongst all peoples, elsewhere in the Talmud we read: “We feed non-Jewish poor together with Jewish for the sake of peace (good relations).” (Talmud, Gittin 61a).
To conclude, there are no definitive answers to practical dilemmas of giving. Every Jew is commanded to give charity and help the needy. Jewish law leaves that open to interpretation, though within the parameters of these guidelines. Ultimately, this is our choice, and privilege.
First published: Jewish Renaissance Magazine, April 2010 Issue.
For more information on Jewish Renaissance, please visit: www.jewishrenaissance.org.uk