Last weekend – from Thursday, April 16 through Sunday 19, to be precise – I attended a very special conference of Jewish women activists, academics, artists and rabbis. We gathered under the auspices of _Bet Debora_ – ‘the House of Deborah’ – a network which was set up in Berlin in 1998 to provide a forum for Jewish women in Europe. I attended the first two conferences, both held in Berlin in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Since that time there have been a further five gatherings – in Berlin, Budapest, Vienna and Sofia – and just now at the High Leigh Conference Centre at Hoddesdon, just off the A10, seven miles north of the M25.
Compared to Berlin, Budapest, Vienna and Sofia, Hoddesdon, albeit close to London, was an unglamorous location to say the least – but that only served to highlight the brilliance of the programme, which included contributions from an amazing array of talented women living and working in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovakia, Poland, Russia, Greece, England, Israel and the United States, who gathered to share experiences, concerns, insights, research, projects and creative work. It was not a huge gathering – 40 participants at the core – with others dropping in to participate in particular sessions. Most of the sessions took the form of panels on a variety of themes: Art, Memory and Identity; Women in Politics; Reviving Jewish Culture in Europe; Jewish Feminism and Jewish Tradition; Ways to Equality; Coexistence, Jews and Other Minorities; Gender and the Politics of Memory; Reviving Jewish Education in Europe; The Politics of Forgetting and Remembrance; and Slave Labour and Forgotten Victims – including the Roma.
I chaired the opening panel on Rabbi Regina Jonas – who ordained in Germany in 1935, was largely forgotten until the 1990s – which brought together Diana Groó, a Hungarian film-maker, whose film, ‘Regina’, was recently screened on British television, Dr Gail Twersky Reimer, Founder and, until recently, Director of the Jewish Women’s Archive in the United States, and Rabbi Dr Elisa Klapheck, who ministers to the egalitarian congregation in Frankfurt, and has published a biography of Rabbi Jonas. I also contributed to the panel on The Politics of Forgetting and Remembrance, sharing my experience of embarking on research into Rabbi Jonas in the early 1990s, and gave a paper in another session, entitled, Building Tents of Meeting: Jewish Feminism, LGBTQIQ Practice and Rainbow Judaism.
Uncovering a number of forgotten women, the conference paid particular attention to the issues involved in failing to preserve the memory of the women who went before us. In addition to Diana Groó’s wonderful film, ‘Regina’, , which drew on archival material and testimonies to tell the story of Rabbi Jonas’ life and work, the conference also screened the work of some other women film-makers. I was particularly struck by the film ‘Return to a Burning House’ by Slovakian filmmaker, _Anna_ _Grusková_ about Haviva Reick, a Slovakian Jew, born in 1914 in the village of Radvaň, who grew up in Banská Bystrica in the Carpathian Mountains. Formerly named Emma, as a teenager, Haviva Reick joined _Ha-Shomer_ _Ha-Tza’ir_ – ‘The Youth Guard’ – a Socialist Zionist secular youth movement, and made _aliyah_ – immigrated – to Palestine in 1939. Haviva became a member of _Kibbutz _Ma’anit_ (founded in 1935), but she wasn’t destined for a life of farming. She entered the _Palmach_, established on May 15, 1941 as the elite fighting force of the _Haganah_, the underground army of the _Yishuv_ – Jewish community – during the period of the British Mandate for Palestine, and was amongst a group of thirty-two, who, as she put it, returned to ‘the burning house’ of Slovakia in September 1944. Haviva Reick became involved in a plan to save the Jews of her hometown, Banská Bystrica a few months after it had become the centre of the Slovakian uprising against the Nazis. The plan was audacious, and may have succeeded, but someone gave the game away. She was captured along with others and murdered by the Nazis on November 20.
I have to confess that I had been unaware of Haviva Reick’s story. But I’m not the only one who has failed to take note of her. _Anna_ _Grusková_’s fascinating film provides some clues as to why Haviva Reick may have been forgotten. Most significant, perhaps, unlike her Hungarian counterpart, Hannah Senesh, who also left _kibbutz_ life to return to Europe to save her people, Haviva wasn’t a writer, so didn’t record her experiences. In addition, she was a more challenging woman, and so a figure less amenable to romantic popularisation: Images of Haviva Reick riding her motorcycle and the photos of her – many with the men who were her lovers – reveal a powerful, thoroughly independent character.
The fact of the film also tells another story: _Anna_ _Grusková_ was commissioned by the Slovak National Uprising Museum in _Banská _Bystrica to make a film about Haviva Reick in order to reclaim her as a national hero_,_ as part of the campaign to remind people of that progressive antifascist chapter in Slovakia’s history. The necessity for this reminder was prompted by political developments, which saw the instalment of a far-right Mayor of the town in 2013, with virulent racist and anti-Semitic views, who was voted into office with the support of 55.5% of the local electorate.
This very particular context for the revival of the story of Haviva Reick exemplifies the central theme of the Bet Debora conference – ‘the politics of forgetting and remembrance’ – which in an important sense, serves as a framework for understanding the significance of what Jewish women activists, academics, rabbis and artists are doing as they engage in their particular projects and areas of work across a range of social environments in Europe. After the Nazis were defeated in 1945, Europe became divided between East and West, between societies governed by liberal democracy and those under the yoke of the Soviet Union. When the Iron Curtain came down and the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, the nations of Eastern Europe were free to go their own way. Freedom took many guises. New possibilities arose for cultural flowering and interchange. And alongside the benefits of liberation, also the challenges of freedom – not least the inherent economic insecurity that accompanies a liberalised economy and the unleashing of nationalist sentiments that had been suppressed by communism. The Balkan conflict of the 1990s was one horrendous outcome. The current situation in Haviva Reick’s hometown of _Banská _Bystrica in Slovakia, is a more recent and very particular example of the way in which xenophobia, hatred of ‘others’, can be whipped up when the economy fails to deliver improvements in people’s daily lives.
But then in this case, action was taken to help people remember their forgotten past: a courageous director of the Slovak National Uprising Museum and a Slovakian feminist filmmaker combined their efforts to retrieve the figure of Haviva Reick – also represented by a statue outside the Museum – a Jewish woman _and_ a Slovakian national hero. The hope is that the citizens of _Banská _Bystrica will learn that national pride need not be overtaken by a narrow xenophobic nationalism, but rather can be a means of expressing progressive, liberal values.
The same, of course, can be said of any nationalist movement – including Zionism, and, as the pre-election campaigning going on in the UK at the moment makes abundantly clear, Welsh and Scottish Nationalism, too. But what we can learn from the revival of the story of Haviva Reick is much more than a lesson in putting national sentiment to progressive purposes. The entire Bet Debora conference was an exercise in uncovering the past for the sake of the present, and forging new connections and understandings out of the diverse and plural materials of our lives across Europe today.
Indeed, the conference demonstrated that the past is not just about legacies that can sometimes be a burden – overshadowing and constraining us. The past is also a resource of stories and teachings. I’m reminded of this each week as we follow the _Torah_ reading cycle. Simply reading is not enough. The point of rereading the _Torah_ is in order to interrogate the ancient texts with our lives. Two weeks ago, we read the _parashah,_ _Sh’mini_, which includes in Leviticus chapter 11, the details of the animals that may and may not be consumed – and so, the first rules of the Jewish dietary system known as _kashrut_ – which concerns that which is ‘fit’ to eat – _kasher_ – usually pronounced _kosher_. For many observant Jews – perhaps the majority – the dietary rules are at the centre of their lives. But what about those Jews who don’t keep _kosher_? At first sight, the _kashrut_ regulations may seem irrelevant. But if we look a little deeper, the dietary rules we find in the _Torah_ can speak to us today, regardless of whether or not we observe them. At the most basic level, the rules remind us that human beings rarely eat _everything_. Each society is characterised by a dietary culture, which includes and excludes foods – mostly on the basis of availability – and which regularises eating with communal and familial mealtimes and customs. In traditional societies, families and communities eat together. Eating is highly ritualised and structured. Eating a meal together is a containing experience. The need for food as fuel is satisfied, and at the same time relationships are reinforced. Of course, there is a downside to these conventional settings. In many traditional Jewish families, for example, in addition to a kosher diet, the male head of the family, sits at the head of the table, and the woman of the house prepares the food, serves it and clears up afterwards.
Nevertheless, there are positive aspects of traditional approaches to the consumption of food. In recent years, modern societies have become characterised by mechanised food production and distribution, and a 24/7 global food culture, which has lost a sense of seasonal and local availability, and no longer seems to be related to our basic needs for nourishment. Moreover, disconnected from its role in reinforcing relationships, eating has become, increasingly, an _individual_ pastime: individuals choosing to eat what they like, whenever they like, and as much as they like – and often at great speed, while engaged in doing something else. The crisis of obesity today, while the causes are complex and related to the explosion of the fast-food industry, is also closely connected with the transformation of eating from a _social_ to an _individual_ activity. Further, as the links between food and nourishment, eating and socialising, have been broken, eating at ad hoc times has also become a way for individuals, not only to satisfy their hunger, but also to comfort themselves in an effort to keep difficult feelings at bay.
Of course, I am not suggesting that we try to turn back the clock and reinstate the patriarchal family structures that regulated the consumption of food in the past. The point is that there is something to learn from the Jewish dietary laws and any dietary system in which eating is ritualised and contained within a social setting. And the broader point is that when we read the _Torah_ with our own lives in mind, we find that it takes on a relevance we hadn’t expected. True of _food_, this week’s _parashah,_ _Acharey_ _Mot_ demonstrates that this is equally true of _sex_. The last section of _Acharey_ _Mot_, Leviticus chapter 18, lists at considerable length, a host of sexual prohibitions. We may disagree with some of the items on the list – not least, the ban on sex between men (Leviticus 18:22) – and the emphasis on men as active and women as passive. But there is another feature of the treatment of the sexual prohibitions in the _Torah_ that may be read in a way that is relevant to our lives today: the repeated imperative not to ‘uncover the nakedness’ of others – _gillui _ervah_ in Hebrew. Once you think of the prohibition against ‘uncovering nakedness’ in ethical terms as proscribing sexual behaviour that involves exploiting another person in their vulnerability, the rule becomes acutely pertinent to the task of developing a framework for sexual ethics today – something which in the current climate of the sexualisation of children, rampant sexual abuse and sex trafficking is badly needed.
I began with a Jewish women’s conference and I’ve concluded with the contentious issues of food and sex in contemporary life. Of course, there are connections between these themes. One connection which I’ve already mentioned concerns how the past may provide us with crucial resources as we attempt to address the needs of the present. Another connection concerns how networks like Bet Debora create a context for those who are engaged in reinterpreting, renegotiating and transforming Jewish life and teaching. As we, too, grapple with our Jewish inheritance, may each one of us find inspiration and guidance for our own lives today. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
25th April 2015 – 6th Iyyar 5775