Spot the difference

My favourite place in the whole world is a sukkah, a temporary home of totally natural materials that’s the heart of Sukkot, the week-long Jewish autumn harvest festival. A sukkah could be put up anywhere outside: in a yard…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

on a balcony…

TALPIOT SUKKAH 1 (2)

or on a roof.

KYOVEL SUKKAH 4

The walls—even if they’re flimsy —always go up first

sukkah under cover!

and then the roof that’s made of foliage or cut branches—which is what makes it a sukkah.

sukkah Floor - or ceiling

There can be decorations inside.

KYOVEL SUKKAH 3

Sukkot is a celebration of the senses—the fruits of the earth and of human hands—and also historical: over 3000 years ago my Jewish ancestors escaped slavery but had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years on their way to the Promised Land. As they went, they built short-term shelters. We get a sense of what they went through and it seems they learned a lot about what life’s all about—that physical comfort isn’t everything and what counts is what’s inside you… that it’s when you are most weak that you can be most strong… To re-live the same experience, we re-create the same conditions, by building and living in a sukkah, and learn to cope with a bit of insecurity.

Sukkot is about openness and hospitality, with guests for meals and sleepovers in the sukkah.

KYOVEL SUKKAH GIRLS 2

In its awesome atmosphere, we have a sense of the blessings of the world and of each other. It’s a special time for celebrating relationships and we believe that the sense of warmth that comes from living in a sukkah is a taste of the world to come. Our hope is that one day everyone will be united and we’ll all live in the sukkah of shalom—under the covering of peace—in the enduring love of God.

As the sukkah shakes in the wind and we wonder whether it’ll hold out, we’re painfully aware of those who are forced to live in precarious situations—and our heart goes out to them: victims of disasters, the homeless, refugees and besieged people everywhere. That this is so is a condemnation of our civilisation.

This year—more than ever—the sukkah is no metaphor, no existential memory. Right now, there are hundreds of thousands—who knows how many, actually?—rowing boats, clinging to trains, trudging along roads… Like my Jewish ancestors, they’re fleeing oppressive and life-threatening regimes. They’re taking huge risks by stepping into the unknown, in search of their ‘Promised Land’. The echoes with the sukkah experience are absolutely deafening.

In many ways, my sukkah on the outside—with its old curtains for walls—

outside sukkah

strikingly resembles the outside of some of the ‘tents’ at Calais…

outside tents Calais BBC

Source: BBC

but the similarities end there. There’s a huge contrast between the conditions inside my sukkah…

inside sukkah

 and those inside a ‘tent’ at Calais…

inside tent Calais source Denis Charlret slash AFP cropped

Source: Denis Charley/AFP

The main difference is that we Jews choose to live in a temporary, shaky sukkah and we know we have a home to go back to afterwards.

We know, too, that the real meaning of faith is compassion for the vulnerable, a striving towards justice for them and a commitment to share what we have. 

I decided to eat and drink on £2 a day for 30 days, to express some level of empathy for and solidarity with asylum seekers, to contribute to my education about their situation, and to raise funds for ‘Separated Child’. If you’d like to contribute to ‘Separated Child’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount or your name on the public page.

Advertisements

Who will live and who will die?

Warning: This contains many distressing images.

Not many people know that Leonard Cohen’s haunting song ‘Who by fire?’ (vocals from 4′ 35″)—with all its contemporary references—is inspired by a passage that’s recited on the Jewish New Year and the Day for Atonement. It’s a medieval Jewish meditation on the meaning of life—its vulnerability, sensitivity and uncertainty. As I ponder its words, images of refugees—in many parts of the world—flood my mind…

“How many will leave this world and how many born into it?
Who will live  

art-refugees-620x349 netherlands

and who will die?

Who will live out their days

railway-tracks_650x400_41441373795 slovenia

and who will not?

Calais_migrant-sit_3351825b

Who will perish by fire

reuters_burma_refugee_camp_fire_23Feb12-878x642 fire

and who by water?

resized_de1ef-97f8migrantboat off coast libya

Who by the sword

camerawoman-trips-refugee

and who by beast?

Refugee-confronted-by-police-dog-Dan-KitwoodGetty-Images-Europe-Sept-20-2015

Who by hunger

201412981119574734_20

and who by thirst?

MDG Refugee girl in Niger

Who by earthquake

article nepal earthquake

and who by plague…?

g_imageCholera epidemic hits 3,000 Burundi refugees in Tanzania

Who will rest

sleeping croatia

and who will wander…?

article-2561748-1B4BD10800000578-664_964x558 wandering syria

Who will be at peace

and who tormented?

Who will be humbled

Mosney-protest Eire not bad people

and who exalted?

aDm8zRw_700b danish policeman

I’m eating and drinking on £2 a day for 30 days (extended from 20 days). If you’d like to sponsor me to benefit ‘Separated Children’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount on the public page but I’d love a message from you to encourage me.

 

Too young

I was so happy when I bumped into Ethan, who’s aged 13—but going on 30 in lots of ways. I hadn’t seen him for a while, and he and his family are very special to me. They’re health-conscious as well as caring and he was intrigued about my £he €o$t of Refuge challenge.

“What do you actually eat?”

“Well, for breakfast I have porridge made with oats, water and sultanas. So far I’ve managed a weekly salad and, lately, an apple or a little orange every day and yogurt or milk every week. My main vegetable is tinned tomatoes. Basically, it’s lentils and rice, or beans and pasta. But sometimes it’s lentils and pasta, or beans and rice—just for a change! (Come to think of it, I haven’t tried rice with pasta yet. Now there’s a thought…) I’ve also been having an egg every other day.”

So, Ethan, here’s my lunch today, an ‘egg day’:

egg on toast apple

[Emma, a Purple Packer and the editor of Separated Child’s page on Facebook, commented on my first, cack-handed attempt at frying an egg in a deep saucepan with a wooden spoon. I hope she can see that my egg on toast has improved.]

As Ethan and I spoke, I sensed him computing in his mind what he might be able to get for £2… His eyes widened and his jaw dropped, and this articulate teenager became uncharacteristically speechless.

“You know the expression, Ethan: ‘Don’t try this at home!’ There’s loads of ways you can support refugees but in a different way. Sorry to be so grown-uppy but you’re still developing and you’re too young for a diet like this. You need much more protein with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables—which is what you do get.”

We said goodbye and, as he walked away, I found myself thinking about the separated children and young people about his age. Most are 13+ but some are younger and there was once a three-year-old boy with an older brother. They don’t get enough—and certainly not good enough—food. They’re too young for a diet like mine right now.  

They’re also too young to see what they’ve seen, to hear what they’ve heard, to go through what they’ve gone through, and to lose what they’ve lost.

Perhaps none of us would ever be old and grown-uppy enough. But you’re definitely too young when you’re 13, even if you are going on 30.

I’m eating and drinking on £2 a day for 30 days (extended from 20 days). If you’d like to sponsor me to benefit ‘Separated Children’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount on the public page but I’d love a message from you to encourage me.

Beginning again

There’s nothing like a new year to make us, well, new. The appearance of the skinny moon in the sky on Sunday evening heralded Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year—a special period for reflection, repentance and renewal. As a conscious and committed Jew, I both respect and treasure that time.

The main ritual of Rosh HaShanah is the morning blowing of a shofar, a ram’s horn—probably the world’s oldest musical instrument that’s still used. It has a poignant, resonant sound and the sequences of blasts have symbolic meanings: a message or announcement, an expression of brokenness, or the sobbing of either ecstasy or agony.

shofar 1

On Monday morning, in my congregation, Alexander stood to blow the shofar. He’s at the end of his school career, I’ve known him since he was a little boy and I’m very fond of him and his family. What a fine young man he is, as well as an accomplished shofar-blower!

As I watched and heard Alexander, I was struck by how different his life is from the lives of the children and young people we support in ‘Separated Child’. They have no one at all— and almost nothing— with them and their future is at best uncertain. Alexander is not in the least pretentious but he has his whole wonderful family around him and wonderful life chances ahead of him—which is exactly as it should be.

Perhaps there was something in Alexander’s shofar-blowing or perhaps there was some idea or feeling already forming in me—or both—but when it came to the last long blast, I realised that I’d made a decision. By Sunday I’d already completed the 20 days of £he €o$t of Refuge that I’d set myself (21, actually) and now I was in the middle of a festival that’s both joyous and meaningful. I’ve learned a lot from my challenge but maybe not enough. The people I know—and even some that I don’t— have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. I’ve felt spurred on by them to go further. So I decided that, when Rosh Hashanah ended, I would return to my challenge, adding another ten days to it.

And that’s what I did. I began again. What else is a new year for?

I’m eating and drinking on £2 a day for 30 days (extended from 20 days). If you’d like to sponsor me to benefit ‘Separated Children’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount on the public page but I’d love a message from you to encourage me.

Full of beans

I feel full of beans—literally. They’re a cheap staple and I’m living off them but I confess to running out of different ways to cook them, with the small range of ingredients I can afford to go with them. I’m no cookery photographer but this is the most exciting and extravagant bean dish that I’ve accomplished so far (chick peas and red kidney beans cooked in a ‘sauce’ of fried onion and tinned tomatoes, with some boiled potatoes and a dollop of yogurt):

beans potatoes etc & yogurt

But full of beans in the figurative sense—as in British English—I’m not. My energy levels are beginning to flag and it’s hardly surprising. The NHS ‘Live well’ guidance is for at least five-a-day portions of fruit or vegetables but, even with time-consuming, careful shopping, I’m hard pressed to get even two-a-day. In American figurative English, I understand, ‘full of beans’ means ‘mistaken’ and that’s what this diet is.

Since almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work in the UK, they’re forced to rely on state support and the allowance is £36.95 per week at the most. The government information on this says that this “will help you pay for things you need like food, clothing and toiletries”. The operative word is ‘help’. It’s on that basis that I came to a £2-a-day budget for food and drink. I now know in practice what I knew before in theory: it’s woefully inadequate.

How on earth was the allowance for asylum-seekers set? Who thinks anyone could possibly live on that in 2015? It’s even significantly lower than the job-seeker’s allowance, which is:

  • up to £57.90, for the 18—24 age group
  • up to £73.10, for the 25+ age group

That means that an asylum-seekers gets:

  • 61% of what a job-seeker aged 18—24 gets
  • 48% of what a job-seeker aged 25+ gets

Job-seekers almost certainly start with some clothes, toiletries, household items and the like—which asylum-seekers palpably do not. So how are asylum-seekers supposed to be able to manage on even less than British and Irish citizens claiming job-seeker’s allowance? Are asylum-seekers thought to be better at household budgeting? Are asylum-seekers thought to be less hungry? Or are asylum-seekers thought to be less worthy of support? What other reasons could there be for these huge discrepancies?

The allowance for asylum-seekers is definitely full of beans.

I’m eating and drinking on £2 a day for 20 days. If you’d like to sponsor me to benefit ‘Separated Children’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount on the public page but I’d love a message from you to encourage me.

Jabs

It comes as a surprise to a lot of people that I haven’t actually been hungry on £he €o$t of Refuge. I’ve had as much as I wanted of rice, oats, pasta, bread and pulses, as well as an egg every other day. I even saved enough on last week’s budget to afford some plain yogurt and a little cheese this week. So I haven’t experienced hunger pangs—those jabbing motions in the belly that I get when I’m fasting and which I imagine are a mild version of the experience of starving.

Not so in ‘La Jungle’, in Calais, where there are major problems of quantity as well as quality, because there’s only enough food for one meal a day. La Jungle is mainly populated by teenage boys and young men who are still growing—not fully-formed women like me—and they need quantity as well as quality at that stage of their development.

Before I started £he €o$t of Refuge, I wondered whether it would make me complacent as if to say, “Well, if I can eat this way, why can’t refugees?” It’s had the opposite effect. I’m in increasingly bewildered awe at people who can—and have to—eat this way not for 20 days but for 200 or 2000… I cannot begin to fathom how they cope with the lack of flavour, the lack of variety and the lack of nourishment.

What I’ve begun to notice is a different kind of hunger developing within me. £he €o$t of Refuge has made me more incensed about cruelty towards other people and more impatient for them to be accorded their rights: insatiably hungry for justice.

When Ember, Hugo and a group went to La Jungle, they took food, along with a van-load of Arrival Packs. They observed first-hand the living conditions, the scant educational arrangements for children and young people, and the meagre medical provision (one clinic for 3500). They ‘brought back’ many insights and several images, including this:

vaccin racism

Roughly translated from the French: “Anti-racism vaccine sold here.”

I have no idea who chalked those words on the rickety black-board but I salute them. What a jibe! What humour! And what a tribute to the human spirit that rises above the grimness of their situation to proclaim a clear, strong message of their intrinsic worth—with wit…

It gives ‘jab’ a whole new meaning.

I’m eating and drinking on £2 a day for 20 days. If you’d like to sponsor me to benefit ‘Separated Children’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount on the public page but I’d love a message from you to encourage me.

Passing by

I took a tumble in the street yesterday morning. I must have stepped on something slippery or tripped on an uneven paving slab. One minute I was walking along the High Road, minding my own business, and the next I was falling forwards and gasping, unable to right myself. I landed on the ground, face down with my arms stretched out in front of me.

levalet-psfk-2-962x644

(I have no photographic evidence of my collapse because, when you’re sprawled across the pavement, it’s not the most convenient time to take a selfie. But art teacher Charles Leval, who paints humorously on to the urban environment in Paris, has vividly captured the essence of it—though my fall was both less dramatic and less elegant.)

I’m left with nothing worse than a bruised shoulder—oh, and certainly bruised dignity. The only real pain is the sad lesson I learned.

I was naturally winded and didn’t get up immediately; initially I wasn’t sure if I could stand. I guess it’s the body’s defence mechanism to make us still. It felt as though I was there for hours but it was really only a few minutes—though long enough for me to see various pairs of feet passing in front of my face, with no one stopping to help or enquire as to my welfare. At one point, a pair of very large trainers planted themselves in front of my eyes—and I realised that a big, burly man had actually stepped over my head.

Finally, I heard, “Are you all right? Do you need help?” I got to my feet. “Slowly, slowly,” she said. She wanted me to sit down in one of the shops; she wanted me to have a glass of water; she wanted me to talk to her. She kept checking that I was able to walk again. We exchanged names and Marie’s last words to me were: “I hope we meet again—but not on the floor!”

It’s an almost biblical story of the one and the many. What’s the mind-set that enables dozens of people to literally walk on by, without stopping to help someone in both visible and audible need? Is it because I was a stranger—not one of their friends or a member of their family? What would they wish to happen if they were ever thrown headlong in the street?

It also strikes me as a metaphor for the ‘refugee crisis’. What’s the mind-set that enables individuals and governments to figuratively walk on by refugees who are so palpably in need? Is it because they’re strangers—not their friends or members of their family? What would they wish to happen if they were ever thrown headlong?

We are one people. We share one world. That’s all we have— but it’s a lot.

It makes me all the more appreciative of the many ‘Maries’ that I know—in ‘Separated Child’ and other refugee organisations—who do recognise our common humanity and have a heart and hands big enough to help.

Never be a perpetrator.

Never be a victim.

Never be a bystander.

I’m eating and drinking on £2 a day for 20 days. If you’d like to sponsor me to benefit ‘Separated Children’, you can donate through JustGiving here. Please gift-aid, if you’re a UK tax-payer. You don’t need to reveal the amount on the public page but I’d love a message from you to encourage me.