Tag Archives: Jewish

I’m getting restless again.

israelscenicIt happens every now and then, usually a couple of years apart and so I guess it’s due round about now. My thoughts are turning to the eastern Mediterranean and I’m poised on planning another solo trip to Israel.

You will see from the cloud tag on the right of this page what subjects I tend to write about most in this blog and so you will see how much Israel features in my thinking.  I have been out there many times since my virgin visit in back in the 80’s.  I think I have actually lost count now of the number of trips in total but certainly into double figures.  I’ve had many reasons for going.   A number of them have been work-related where I have been responsible for the radio broadcaster I work for taking a number of our shows and presenters out there to broadcast live back to the UK.   Some of my visits have been with friends and family where I have acted as their unofficial tour guide (and loved every minute of it).  Other trips I have made alone neither to work or research but just to be.  I guess that’s where I’m at right now.

One word I have never used and will never use of my visits is ‘pilgrimage’, yet that the number one reason Christians do visit the country.  They go to experience the place they read about in the Bible.  Depending on what expression of Christianity they practice, they go to pay homage to saints and people of the past or they just want to see the places they have read about and imagined in walls2their church services or private devotions.  I never have. When I visit, for me I’m less concerned about Israel’s ancient past than about its present and future.   Even from my very first visit staying with Jewish friends and so not part of a tour party (for me the very est way to experience the country for the first time), I remember saying to them as they toured me round this church site or that, that I didn’t want to ‘do the churches’ but would rather meet ordinary Israelis, something I think perplexed them a little – I had after all made my conversion to Christianity while sharing a house with one of my hosts at University and so what’s not to like about churches in the Holy Land?  I guess my thoughts concerning the place and my experience of it the first time were rooted in the fact that I was first inexplicably drawn to the Jewish people and their brand new country when I was around 10 years old.  I had never heard of the Holocaust or Jewish people and never really understood that baby Jesus meek and mild, who I did know about, was one of them.    From that time on I read any book I could on the country, whether fact or fiction, and in me grew a burning desire to be there.  At high school I even stayed after History class one day to talk to my teacher, Mr Chisholm, and I persuaded him to change the class syllabus we were due to study for our ‘O’ Level exams to include the Arab/Israeli Conflict as part of our course components and to drop some dull study of US socio-economic politics.  I’ve never fessed that up to any of my class mates (in case any of them struggled as a result).   The school teachers I think were also puzzled by my interest and I guess I must have been talked about among them, but one other thing from High School I do remember was my Art Teacher, a Jewish Lady called Mrs Rubin, who had recently returned from Israel and brought back for me a full set of Israeli currency coins.   Little did she ever know about how much I treasured them and would hold on to them at night in bed wishing myself away.

aaa

Yes, of course I was young and naive back then and still for many years, even to this day to a degree, I still haven’t fathomed out why I am drawn to that place.  Yes, my perceptions are more complex now and in many ways conflicting, but one thing I have always known is that when you have a calling to something or somewhere – you can’t argue with it or even reason it out and you certainly can’t sanitize it so that it is comfortable and respectable enough for you and others to accept.   Just mention the name ‘Israel’ and it will divide people either pro or against quite vehemently.  I am not deaf or blind to the political, moral and religious arguments on many sides, nor to those that uncomfortably co-exist in my own heart.  Yet none of any of this has managed to smother the watchman in me that is always following events in the Middle East as a whole and the desire in me that rises from time to time that makes me restless and longing to be in Jerusalem again. I’m feeling that restlessness again now.

Jerusalem-Sunset-viewWhen I visit Israel on my own, I usually stay in the Old City in one of the Christian guest houses, not because I want Christian company or activity, but the Church is one of the biggest land-owners in the country and there are many guest houses and hospices they own within the walls of the Old City that are cheap, well looked after and right in the throng of the ancient citadel.   I’m not a recluse there – it’s nice to exchange pleasantries with other visitors over morning and evening meals and especially to listen to what first timers make of their visit.   But Jerusalem is the only place I have visited on Earth that makes me just want to go hushed and quiet in my soul when I get near as the bus upland from Tel Aviv turns the final winding curve in the road and the city is laid out on the hills before you.  When I visit the city, I’m there usually just a few short days just to be and to think but never to reason.  In times like that it is very hard not to find yourself wanting to pray for all that has been there, all that still is and all that yet will be.  One thing I always make a point of doing when in Jerusalem is to go down to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount and pray.  There is something about praying there that is like no other. I don’t believe God hears you any better there or that your prayers are more likely to be answered there.  Ancient History beyond my understanding oozes from the very stone walls as if it were their life blood. At the risk of sounding a tad squiffy at this point, on my last visit to the sanctuary to pray, I had the most unusual encounter. As I stretched out my hand to the wall to pray, I just felt a presence around me, Western-Wall-in-Jerusalem-006something I can’t describe, and from the Wall I felt a strange energy or force like electricity whenever I took my hand away from the wall, the feeling subsided only to return when my hand was raised again. Not only my hand and my arm, but my whole body was trembling.  Make of that what you wish. I’ve prayed there on all of my 10+ visits but never encountered anything like that before.  More strange too that I’m not the only one in my family to have encountered something like this.  My Mum has also visited Israel on 2 or 3 occasions, only once with me, and on her last (without me) she too encountered something strange while praying at the wall. Neither of us shared our experiences with each other until fairly recently, but she also felt a strange power that she also described as ‘like electricity’ when she was drawn – compelled as she describes – to touch the wall with her forehead and pray and in that prayer, she was given a vision for the city and its people that she still holds in her heart today.  Well, either a couple of strange encounters or else the Jerusalem Electricity Company needs to urgently check its wiring.  I can only speak for what happened to me.    No. I’m not going back to seek the same experience again.  Each time I go is a whole new experience.   Just being there makes me very hushed and still inside.

I guess  anyone reading this or even just a casual observer of world events must surely puzzle over why this tiny strip of a country, only 12 miles wide at its narrowest, commands such a disproportionate measure of the world’s media and political focus.  This is set only to increase in the coming times.

This year, Israel turns 65 years old since the modern state was founded in 1948.  The country marks the day of its rebirth by celebrations both home and abroad and I was among the group of guests invited to a celebration Reception by Israel’s Ambassador to the UK at London’s prestigious Guildhall.  I can’t put my finger on just why, but I came away from the event knowing that I need to be in Jerusalem again.

telav

Sirens over Jerusalem

It may not have been reported in the news, but yesterday the air raid sirens sounded all across Israel and the entire Jewish nation to a man woman and child stopped what they were doing and stood still.

I remember being in Jerusalem when I encountered a similar experience back in the 1980’s on my first of 14 visits.   I can remember walking with the friends I was staying with along one of the city’s bustling streets.   People on the pavements and in the markets going about their business, cars and buses almost bumper to bumper along the main roads.

And then at some point in the mid morning, the air raid sirens sounded.    Not a comforting experience for a first-time visitor to a place you only heard of in the news back home when there was trouble and strife.  I turned to my friends with a look of concern to ask “what on earth……?”.   I never finished the sentence.  They had stopped walking and so had fallen a couple of steps behind me.  They stood with their heads bowed and pressed a finger to their lips instructing me to be still and quiet.

Quiet it was.  A split second later I noticed that not just had my friends stopped what they were doing but everyone around us for as far as I could see.  The markets were still.  The sidewalks were still….the cars and buses were still.   Incredible though it may seem, but all the traffic on the roads had all stopped.   Not just that…..but drivers and passengers had got out of their vehicles and stood by their open doors, heads bowed and silent.   At the same time, unbeknown to me, these scenes were being replayed in every Kibbutz, village, town and city all across Israel (at least in the Jewish areas)….even in shiny, brash Tel Aviv.

It was Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel and as I write it is that day there now until sunset in a couple of hours.   The memorial day for the 6 million Jewish lives butchered in Nazi concentration camps in WW2 is heralded in by the blowing of the air raid sirens and the surviving generations living in the only land many Jewish people feel is truly safe for Jews remember the lost.  I’ve no doubt that in their reflection they are acutely aware of their present and the ever-present hostility they still face as a race and a nation.

What moved me so much about the experience was the deep and sincere respect evident on every contemplative face I saw as I looked around dumbfounded.  I have experienced a number of public commemorations of tragedy in my time – Armistice Day, the Hillsborough football disaster, 9/11, 7/7…

Only on the streets of Jerusalem did I encounter a remembrance of a different kind. A mourning and evergreen recognition of the escape of nearly an entire race from total annihilation.

 

 

Goa, India.

You’re kidding me…I might be Jewish? (pt2)

Goa, India.

I suppose I ought to conclude this thread I opened a little time back. Life’s been too busy of late to pick it up again and I don’t want to blog without thinking about stuff.

So, as I mentioned in part 1, there I am on my way to work
on the London Underground flicking through the latest Lonely Planet magazine, when I was drawn to a piece on the wonders of the small, south-western coastal Indian state of Kerala. It certainly looked a wonder – swooning Coconut Palms brushing powder white beaches under Azure skies…what’s not to like? But what had it to do with me?    Looking down the list of Lonely Planet’s ‘must sees’ I saw a place that caught my attention: Jew Town. Jew Town? What an odd name for an Indian city.

Jew Town is part of the
Cochin district of Kerala state and was once home to the oldest Jewish community in India, I later discovered after being engaged to research. ‘Cochin Jews’ or
‘Malabar Jews’ as they were also known, can trace their historical roots back to ancient Israel during the reign of King Solomon. They are one of the first communities thought to have been visited by one of Jesus’ 12 Disciples, ‘Doubting’ Thomas. There are only a handful of Jews left in the region now as virtually the entire population emigrated to modern Israel when it was founded in 1948. I never knew India had a Jewish population – seriously. There I was on the train, my Lonely Planet magazine open on my lap while Googling
‘Kerala….Jew Town….Indian Jews’ on my iPhone. So I discovered India once had
a Jewish population centered on it’s south western coastlands. Wait a minute.
Isn’t Goa near there somewhere???

Such is my ignorance of the land where I was born, that I thought Goa was a city in south-western coastal India. I got the coast right…but Goa is itself a state, India’s smallest and it’s a good deal north of Kerala, but in the same region. The significance of Goa? Well, it’s all I had as a teenager, starved of historical identity and any knowledge of my roots. My mother’s line has been impossible to trace. There was just the vague
glimmer of something on my father’s side because his sister, my Aunt, had also
tried before me when she was young to find her roots and my only ‘knowledge’ of
any direction at all came from several conversations with her when I started my
own search. Her search into her lineage had led her to family origins from the
state of Goa, that we were originally Roman Catholics by religion and to the
Portuguese original family name of ‘Pereira’ (my current surname, I
discovered at the same time was not my ancestral name but was adopted by my line
of the family on my father’s side after cutting up rough with and being thrown
out of the Catholic church).

 

The Portuguese Inquisitoin.

So then I turned to researching into Goa too and as with what I was finding with Kerala, I started to come across something more and more frequently – The ‘Portuguese Inquisition in India’. The Portuguese gained a foothold in India after the arrival of explorer, Vasco de Gama in 1498. Settlers came to the emerging colony from Portugal but also neighbouring Spain
and from the latter particularly to escape the Spanish Inquisition, which
started in 1478. Many of the fleeing Spanish settlers were Jews escaping the
Inquisitions in Spain aimed at eradicating or converting the Muslim and Jewish
populations. The Portuguese were not originally interested in converting the
local populations in Goa to Catholicsm, but after the the unification of Spain
against the Islamic ‘Moors’ (as airbrushed by Hollywood in the classic movie ‘El Cid’
starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren) but the rout of the Moors and
the re-Christianisation of Spain were formative in the creation of the evils of the Spanish
Inquisition and that then extended to Portugal after their royal family
inter-married with that of Spain. The Portuguese, in defference to the senior
partner in the royal liaison, implemented the Inquisition in their Indian
colonies in Kerala and Goa and torture, execution and the forced conversion of
Jews…but also Hindus and Muslims to Catholicism… began in earnest with brutal consequences.  The records of what happened in Goa were destroyed in the 19th Century.

So what has all this got to do with me?  All I know is that my connection with Israel and the Jewish people pre-dates my own ‘awakening’ to my living Christian faith. Why was it that as a 10 year old child, 11 years before I made an adult decision to become a Christian after an encounter with the living God , I woke up to this land and the Jewish people? Was there something drawing me that  comes from way back from a history I have been denied from discovering? Is my family  line somehow connected to the Jews of Goa? Am I the result of a forced  conversion  under the Portuguese Inquisition?
In the Bible there is a phrase in Psalm 42 verse 7 that says: ‘Deep calls to deep in the roar of Your waterfalls…’ The verse describes in poetry a physical law of nature…the
searching of water back to its source as water will always do. It rises from the
oceans by evaporation into the skies to form clouds and then falls as rain when
those clouds reach land and the rain falls on the mountains and the lowlands,
but the water always seeks to run lower and lower until it finds a gulley, a
stream, a river, a waterfall…an inlet…..and then back into the ocean from
where it once came.  It’s the word ‘call’ here that speaks most to me.  As the scripture describes, the water is compelled – ‘called’ – to seek the deeper places, to return to the place from which it came.  It has no choice.  That is quite different from the word ‘desire’, which is all about choice. All I can say is that in my life I never chose this path and from what I sense of the way ahead, It’s not one that I would ever choose for want of an easy life.  None of this proves anything in terms of a Jewish heritage I may or may not have.
Is there a Jewish root somewhere in my family? Is there something in me that has been drawing me back to my source from the day I was born that can help me to understand why Israel keeps coming across my path even when I don’t seek it? I don’t know and probably will never know down here in this mortal life on Earth. There’s also a serious question I Have asked myself in all this. OK, so what if it turns out and can be proved that I am after all from Jewish roots. So what next? Am I going to all of a sudden learn Hebrew, drape Israeli flags from my walls, learn to dance the ‘Hora’ and, as my Boss quite indelicately pointed out when I discussed this with her, have bits of me sliced off to qualify for the Kosher ‘passport’? No. And again  no.  Even if I did find out I have Jewish roots, the knowledge will not validate my faith any more or make me feel,
act or believe any different from how I do now.
But it might just help me to understand for me……why Israel??
Goa, India

You’re kidding me…I could be Jewish? (pt1)

Goa, India

This is an unexpected post.  I have my Godson to thank for that, though at this point of writing he’s oblivious to it.  SJ (my Godson) with his mum (one of my best friends), gave me as a Christmas present last year an annual subscription to Lonely Planet’s monthly glossy magazine.  So I’m flicking through the October 2011 edition featuring 10 ‘Trips of a Lifetime’. I focus in on their feature on Kerala, India. Yes that is a strange and unlikely occurance for me but ironically a spot-on follow-on to my previous post and here’s why.

Dad & Mum

I was born in Calcutta, India into a  now dying out sub-culture that was the result of European-Asian interbreeding during and before the British Raj. My parents were raised in western schools, brought up in the Christian tradition, spoke English as a mother tongue and dressed in western dress. We ‘half-casts’ lived in the no-man’s land between the ruling British Raj and newly emerging and independent India. Under the Raj, we were the the next level of skilled labourers after the Brits themselves. The Civil Servants, Police force, office secretaries and Chief Engineers. When the Brits left, to the Indians we were the unwanted vestiges of Empire. During the 1960’s, most of Anglo-India left in an orderly fashion to Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and of course the ‘motherland’ as we saw it – Great Britain. At 18 months old I arrived in London in a swinging 1960’s Britain…that also didn’t really want ‘WOGS’ like us.  But we stayed and assimilated.

I sometimes think I have an inner enmity with India. I have never been back. Never think about it either. There is no ‘back’ to go to.  I’ve listened over the years to my parents’ generation talking about the good old days when they had servants who cooked and cleaned. Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Jive, Elvis, American G.I’s in port. All sounds great – for them. It’s not my past. Friends over the years have been bemused when talking to me about India. They can not understand why I don’t share their enthusiasm for visiting this vast, complex, beautiful, awesome country.  And I do appreciate India in that way from afar and can easily see the fascination.  But I’m equally bemused as to why those same friends don’t share my enthusiasm for visiting Norway, the Faroe Islands, County Clare, Ireland or the Scottish Western Isles. I realise that I don’t have any inclination to visit India because I’m just not interested enough.   I don’t have any yearnings to go ‘back’ because I never felt I belonged in the first place.

Although we certainly encountered racism in the UK, my experiences of it were pretty mild. I once remembered shopping with my mum and some white ‘lady’ letting a shop door slam in my mum’s face deliberately and then come back screaming at us in public that she didn’t hold doors open for WOGS (‘Western Oriental Gentlemen). My parents suffered from it more than me, but I guess this is testimony as to how much they protected me and my kid brother Geoff that we never really felt the full impact others like the Caribbeans faced. Even though we Anglo-Indians had a head start being westernised before we arrived, the Motherland was still embarrassed about her bastards.  Geoff and I assimilated even better than mum and dad. At school, apart from the odd ignorant git that you get everywhere, we mixed in, made our own circle of friends and grew up ‘normal’ lower-middle class kids.

It wasn’t the racism that brought me to heel one day to wonder who I was and where I belonged. It was after a history class at High School. I don’t know why but I came out of class pensive and depressed.  I loved history class – all history, no matter what time or period. I loved it. The class was on the Victorians I think. That day I came out of the room and I remember clutching my books to me as the afternoon Autumn sun streamed into the corridoor and I for the first time realised that the history I had just been taught was not my history. It was British history and I thought I was British and I was… but it was not me. As far as I knew my roots weren’t any part of it and once again I was back in No Mans Land like my sub-culture before me.

A yearning to find some roots, to understand some of the key themes that keep appearing in and physically influencing my life has always been with me. It caused me to try to uncover my past when I was around 16 or 17.  I got only so far then before hitting some brick walls and a bit more than I was comfortable with.  Then SJ’s Christmas present this week set me off on a road I’d never have gone down ever because I was never interested enough to look that way. I’ve no idea where I’m going or how to take the next step.

But I’m engaged enough to want to try…