Holocaust Memorial Day – Helene Rothschild

My great aunt Helene Rothschild was born on the 6 May 1862 in Ottenstein, the daughter of Siegmund Rothschild. She never married. She stayed in the village and ran the grocery business among her other activities. Family lore recalls that she kept charge of the sefer torah from the synagogue built by the family, and that it was one of the possessions she tried to protect till the end – but while my grandmother saw much of her furniture and linens and silver and art work after the war in the houses of her erstwhile neighbours, the scroll disappeared.  We have one beautiful tablecloth of hers that one neighbour gave to my grandmother.

She had expected to die where she had been born and lived, where her family owned the Jewish cemetery and her father and mother were buried.  Indeed family lore speaks of the grave she had organised for herself there, brick lined, as she didn’t like the cold.

But on 27th July 1942 she was taken first to Hanover -Ahlem along with her carer (she was 80 years old), and from there deported to Theresienstadt.

Amazingly she survived until 14th February 1943, where in House L 120 she died of dysentery.

Here is her photograph as a young woman.

HRothschild Helene from Ottenstein

Here is a photo of her home, and the shop was in the downstairs area to the left of the door.  The photo was taken in the 1970’s when my father went back to see what he could find of family traces.  The house is now entirely gone with no trace that she lived there.

ottenstein house of helene rothschild 8 breiterstrasse

and here, amazingly, is her death certificate, all carefully written out as if her death had been a normal thing


helene rothschild death certificate terezin


There is no grave, brick-lined or otherwise, but she is not forgotten. My father said that after she died he dreamed of her, and she reminded him of her photograph in the family album, and he knew she did not want to be forgotten.


She is not forgotten. And her story will not be forgotten

May her soul be bound up in the ropes of life.





Beshallach/ Shabbat Shira: the Song of Miriam

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal for God is highly exalted: the horse and its rider God has thrown into the sea.”

Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, is named for the Song at/of the Sea (Shirat haYam) and this name takes precedence over the usual format of the first important word giving the title to the week. Shirat haYam was the song of victory sung by the Israelite slaves after they had successfully crossed the Reed Sea, and the pursuing Egyptians had drowned there following the miraculous opening and then closing of the waves to allow the Israelites safe passage but not the heavily armed Egyptians.

Along with the poem in Deuteronomy (Ha’azinu) it bookends the story of Moses and the people of Israel as they leave Egyptian slavery and journey through the wilderness to arrive at the edge of the promised land, and tradition ascribes its authorship to Moses.

But tucked into the text a little way down we are introduced for the first time by name to Miriam, described as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron” and she takes a drum in her hand and leads the women in singing and dancing and drumming to celebrate the victory. And while apparently singing the same first line, Moses and the children of Israel sing “I will sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted” while Miriam sings “Sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted”. She uses the imperative version, whereas Moses and the Israelites use the personal pronoun.

The order of the text makes us read this as the song of Moses, but is there a clue in the wording of the text to tell us that this is the song of Miriam?

In the fragments of text found in Qumran (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) we find a tantalising addition. Just as in the biblical text we find that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron took a timbrel in her hand and led the women out with her with timbrels and dancing”, but then there is a break, and then the fragments of seven lines NOT found in the biblical text, followed by the narrative being picked up as the biblical verse 15:22 where Moses leads the Israelites away from the Reed Sea into the desert, and the people find no water until arriving at Marah they find undrinkably bitter (Marah) water.

Is the Qumran text a gloss on the biblical poem of Moses, answering the question of what Miriam might have sung and paralleling other songs of victory or was it the original text which took away words from Miriam and the women in order to give them to Moses and the Israelites? We know that women sang songs of victory after battles – Deborah is a prime example whose song is recorded (Judges 5), and Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34) comes out with timbrel and dancing on his return home. Unnamed women come out dancing and singing with their timbrels when David returns having defeated the Philistines (1Sam 18:6-7) celebrating his success and humiliating King Saul’s record. Hannah (1Sam:2) sings when she achieves her goal of a child, and the late book Judith has her sing in the final chapter, having beheaded Holofernes…

So why not Miriam and the women singing their song? Miriam the prophetess was also Miriam the musician and song leader. Her voice and her words deserve to be heard and to be recognised.

miriams timbrel

Whatever the reason for the biblical canon to contain just the remnant of her singing with the women, apparently echoing the words of Moses and the men, so that tradition could claim her as the song leader for the women only, I think there are enough clues left for us to give her the power and place she deserves.

The first place that Moses leads the Israelites to is called by the narrator “Marah” , after the bitter and undrinkable water found there and there is much murmuring against Moses until on God’s instructions he finds a tree whose wood will sweeten the water. Moses uses this as a teaching aid to remind the people that God is their healer, and then they move on to Elim where there are twelve good water sources and seventy palm trees. Is this a veiled reference to Miriam, whose name is impossible to translate with certainty but which is often understood as coming from “Mar – yam – bitter – water/sea”? Are the people murmuring because of Miriam and her treatment by Moses that he appropriated her rightful role? And are they pacified by the oasis of plenty represented by 12 springs and seventy palm trees and so forget their indignation?

But more intriguing I think is the possibility that Miriam’s name is not derived from bitterness MRH) but comes from a rarely used root MRR to mean a flow of water, drops of water or a watercourse. In which case her name would mean the flowing of water or the directing of water – something that would come to fruition not only in the midrashic idea that wherever Miriam was there was water for the Israelites in the desert (which comes from the drought that is the first reported event after her death), but from this text about the Reed Sea, which changed direction, flowed differently and intentionally while the Israelites crossed it. The name Miriam, introduced exactly here, is I think a clue to her purpose –  we are already explicitly told that she is a prophetess, she has real and intentional meaning and understanding – it is Miriam who causes the sea to part and the miraculous redemption of the fugitive people. Her name, hiding in full view, tells us exactly that.

So the Song here attributed to Moses yet called slightly confusingly Shirat HaYam , the Song of (or at) the Sea (a name first recorded in the 2nd Century in Talmud Yerushalmi), might actually have been Shirat MirYam, the song of Miriam. And how powerfully that simple change could have affected our understanding of our foundational texts and shaped the hearing of the voices of women in our tradition.

Drop by drop as we look again at the texts, we who see Miriam as a role model, who see ourselves reflected in her life as prophetess, sister, organiser, carer for children, provider of life giving water/nourishment, song leader, drummer and dancer , as well as a hard worker behind the scenes who protested injustice done to others and the arrogating of power to the male leadership – we need to take notice of the effect that the flow of water can have – it can wear away the hardest rock. Drop by determined drop we take up her mantle and raise our voices in song and in challenge and in prophecy, and hope that this time the words will not disappear from the canon.

(Photo of Miriam’s timbrel and the reeds in Egypt/water of the Reed Sea from an embroidered Torah Wimple made by Caroline and Naomi Ingram for the author)

Parashat Bo -the moon waxes and wanes and we learn to count time

The first mitzvah given to the people of Israel occurs in this sidra just before the cataclysmic tenth plague, and the people are finally freed from slavery. Moses is instructed to tell the people “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you” (12:2) from which the mitzvah of Kiddush haChodesh, the determination of the New Moon, is derived.

Of all the possible choices to be the very first commandment to the new people being formed, the declaration of the new month seems at first glance to be a surprising one. And coming as it does just before the final act that leads to their redemption, the context makes it all the more critical. So why is the very first shaper of the people Israel the requirement to notice the phases of the moon and to declare the new month?

There are, of course, any number of commentaries on this mitzvah. That as the moon does not have light of its own, but reflects the glory of the sunshine, so do Israel reflect the glory of God. That in counting the phases of the moon the people return to the awareness of the God of creation, and as the moon appears to travel with the traveller, so God too travels with us and appears wherever we are. That the moon is sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed, like the God we constantly seek. That the phases of the moon, which waxes and wanes, remind us that ‘this too will pass’, that our own fortunes come and go, but nothing is forever. That by watching the phases of the moon in order to declare the new month, we are looking up and away from our own situations. That by declaring the new month we are moving away from the Egyptian system whereby the movement of the heavenly bodies is predicated on the actions and the kingship of the Pharaoh. That declaring the new month will be a human initiative, not a divine one….

They are all good glosses as to why this mitzvah is the first given to the people, and timed just before they leave Egypt for an uncertain future, but I think there is another more powerful reason for why this is the first mitzvah for the people to learn to do.

Structuring our time is one of the most powerful ways we take control of our lives. For the Israelites leaving slavery, the idea of structuring their own time must have been both difficult to imagine and frightening to think about actually doing. The bottom line of slavery is that one is not in control of one’s own time, and the parallel bottom line of freedom is that one has to learn to use time in the best way. Having recently changed my work practise after 28 years of being a community rabbi always chasing my tail and trying to catch up with the work, with never enough time to do everything I wanted to do, I find that managing my own time is even harder when there isn’t the pattern imposed externally by ‘work’. So I may continue to write ‘to – do’ lists and doggedly work my way through them but somehow I am still chasing my tail, still trying to catch up on the day’s expected tasks, still frustrated at the amount of things to do in the time available.

Cyril Northcote Parkinson observed that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” (known as Parkinson ’s Law) and this is certainly borne out by experience – both as an individual and as a society. Everyone who has worked in a pressured organisation is aware of the issue of ‘presenteeism’ – the need to look efficient to others by working many more hours than one is contracted to do. Indeed I remember being told by a congregant who worked for one of the big consultancy firms that while normally when buying a suit one would buy one jacket and two pairs of trousers (which show signs of wear more quickly), in his world it was normal to buy one pair of trousers and two jackets, one to be left on the desk chair so that it would look like you were still in the building and working.

Structuring time so as to work with efficiency and still have the opportunity to have a life outside it is one of the hardest things to do – the pressures imposed upon us by our employers or clients or congregants alongside our own needs to look busy and important and necessary mean that we are generally very bad at this skill. And when one works at home or for oneself, or when we are connected through various devices to the rest of the world almost continually, it is even harder to disconnect, to put the boundaries in place and then to keep them.

Looked at in this light, it is very clear that the one thing the people of Israel needed to become aware of is the rhythmic passing of time and that it is we who count and notice and determine the time, not some external power or internal need. Control of time is the paradigm of real freedom and it is hard to do well. But the moon, the gentle moon with its renewal and growth, with its regular phases and reminders during dark times that light will come again, and most of all with its nightly appearance that gives us hope, that helps us to keep count of the passing of time, that means we look up an out of ourselves when we might be tempted only to keep our eyes focussed on the task to be completed – the moon is the most wonderful object to follow and to see. And add to that the requirement upon us to pay attention to its monthly cycle, to requirement to make of each new moon a moment to renew ourselves and refresh ourselves, to sanctify the time we are living in – this is so obviously the most powerful commandment to give to a people embarking on freedom who will find the structuring and controlling of their time the most difficult thing to do, and possibly even a terrible burden. As we see the time pass in this most powerful and beautiful changing image in the sky each night, we can both be aware of what is not done and be refreshed and renewed to work differently in the coming days, both mark the passage of time and join its flow. The word ‘Bo’ is the command to both ‘come’ and to ‘go’. The moon is its visual representation as it comes and goes each month. And we too are able to leave behind and travel towards as we learn to use our time to best advantage.

Va’era: Does God hear prayer? Does God appear to us when we pray?

When God speaks to Moses at the beginning of the sidra, God says to him “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant (6:5)

 וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַֽאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַֽעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָֽאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

In Bible, God hears prayer and frequently is recorded responding to the request. Be it Isaac’s prayer for a child for Rebecca (Genesis 25:21) or Jacob asking for deliverance from the avenging Esau (Gen 32:12), be it Moses and Aaron asking for the healing of Miriam’s skin disease (Numbers 12:13) or the desperate request for a child from Hannah. Be it David asking for God’s blessing and support (2Sam 7:18ff) or Solomon asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5ff) It seems that people prayed for what they wanted or needed and God reacted.

Jewish traditional texts assume that prayer comes from the heart and finds its way to a divine hearing. Later in rabbinic Judaism, prayer was more formalised, the wording more fixed (or at least the themes of the prayers, their introductions and endings were organised and prescribed) and while there was room for spontaneous prayer there was also a structure of community prayer, with the underlying assumption that the prayers of a community together would somehow strengthen the power of the words, that God would more readily listen to the combined communal prayer. Hence the minyan, the minimum of ten people for some prayers to be recited, and the extraordinary effect it has of creating community and awareness of the needs of others. Jewish tradition teaches that our communal prayer reminds us not just to think of ourselves, that our prayer must be broader, and when we pray in the right way, with our hearts and minds fully engaged and within the community of our peers, that God will hear our prayer.

But this all begs the question – does God hear all prayer? And if so does our prayer make a difference to the outcomes we seek? What does it mean for God to hear our prayer? And what does it mean if it appears that God does not hear us, or at least does not give us what we want?

The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer –tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive, we do something to or for ourselves in prayer, albeit in the gaze of the divine. Prayer is not so much for God as it is for us. In one form, alluded to in the English form of the word, prayer, it is indeed about asking for something, usually for God to influence and outcome, but tefillah is much more than this – it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.

And yet we persist in praying as if our prayer is heard by someone outside of ourselves who has the power to effect change for us. Our core texts all assume this to be true, even while our lived experience shows no real evidence. And we continue, despite everything, to pray to God as if such prayer is heard, as if it matters, as if God will be impacted by our words and the world will be different.

The later books of the Hebrew bible record many prayers uttered in desperate times. The book of Psalms can be read as a liturgical resource bank, and it is no coincidence that so many verses from this book are the building blocks of our liturgy and prayers. Prayer is seen as a natural and human response, and Maimonides reminds us in the Laws of Prayer that “It is a positive commandment to pray each day as it is stated, “And you shall serve the Eternal your God (Ex. 23:25) … They taught that “serve,” means prayer, as it is stated, “And you shall serve God with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages asked, “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).”

Prayer is understood in tradition as being rooted in the behaviour of our founding Patriarchs, has the status of being a mitzvah, a commandment, and is one of the spiritual pillars upon which the world stands, taking the place of the sacrificial system of Temple worship that brought God closer to our world.

Right up to current responsa, prayer is seen as being the obvious and most basic demonstration of belief in God. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that “The essence of belief in God is that only God can ultimately guarantee our livelihood or cure our diseases. And when a person does not trust in God and does not pray to God, it is as if he is denying belief in God for the sake of belief in something else…” (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. II, Chapter 24)

Yet if asked, many people of faith, who pray regularly and with kavannah (focus/intention) will still hesitate to sign up to such an idea that it God has such activity within our daily lives so that our livelihoods and our health are entirely at the mercy of the divine. How can we live with a God who can capriciously save some and condemn others? How can we live with a God who sees the righteous suffer, when by an act of will they would not have to do so? How can we live with a God who demands praise even while the world is in pain?

Like so much of Jewish experience, we seem able to live with two contradictory ideas both being true, to be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of both/and, of eilu v’eilu – that many ways of being can be ways to live a righteous and blessed life. We pray because we have to pray, it is hard wired in our souls. We call to a God we don’t always believe in, a God we are sometimes uncertain might be there. We act ‘kiv’yachol’ – as if our prayer will be heard and answered, and yet at the same time we call it the act of le’hitpallel, of judging ourselves, of working upon ourselves.

Does our prayer change God’s mind? In many ways it is simply the wrong question. Our prayer is essentially the internal dialogue that keeps us true and keeps us aware of the direction our moral compass must direct us towards. Whether God hears and responds, hears and takes note, hears and ignores, or does IMG_1791not hear – who can tell? It is enough that we believe ourselves to be in God’s presence when we judge ourselves and we work to change ourselves. And sometimes, rarely, we suddenly have the encounter, we recognise the presence of God and hear the voice of slender silence resonating in our soul and we know that God is listening, that God is there. And we have the strength to go on.