My Great Grandfather, Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer z’l

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In memory of my great grandfather, Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer z’l,

In my sermon at Rosh Hashanah I presented the thought that human endeavour and the expression of human goodness and progress is an essential quality of humanity. In Judaism, the view of humanity is not naïve to the brutality that human beings are able to inflict on one another. Nor does Judaism regard an optimum expression of self to be one of total altruism. Self interest is an important part of being human and the drive for self-preservation and protection must be recognised. At the same time, we are not born into sin, we are endowed with potential. The potential is always in the balance – that really is the point of the penitential period: if you are not blessed with the ability to choose blessing or curse, good or evil, how can the idea of repentance and atonement mean anything?

In light of this continuous human striving, I think it is true to say that we were buoyed artificially by an optimism of the late 20th century. We saw the Berlin Wall come down (the anniversary was yesterday) and the other anniversary of yesterday, Kristallnacht, seemed  unlikely to happen again, after we finally learnt the lessons of multiple genocides and embedded human rights law into the fabric of our society so firmly that it was impossible to ignore. This unbridled optimism made us think the values of equality, of universalism and autonomy were finally going to endure, though many battles were left to be fought, the sense of the arc of progress gave us the impression we would never slip back again.

But if there’s one thing Jews know and one thing that I learnt in my psychology degree, it’s that human nature does not really change and the grounding of values can easily be overturned. The durability of cultural ideas is not permanent. In fact, nothing is really permanent, save the beginning and end of life. Which means that as cultures grow, interact and evolve we must be constantly striving to work hard at them. We cannot take culture for granted, which is, by the way, correlated with not taking our humanities for granted – where students learn to think and imagine about the human condition. Culture, in this sense, is what humans transmit and interact with, that is impermanent and non-biological. It is what makes human beings unique in the known universe.

[By the way, I sense that the durability of Jewish culture (such as Jewish culture stands alone, as if any culture is alone), to some extent, is that the frameworks of existence allowed the Jewish people to exist almost ahistorically. If you wanted to kill us we still went to synagogue and learnt and worked and celebrated festivals and lifecycle moments.]

So from the midst of late 20th century optimism we did not notice that actually religious literalism, fundamentalism and religio-fascism was able to take root. We forgot that identity politics could be easily reignited, especially with the apparent collapse of economic models and geo-political positions. We discovered it was fairly straightforward to degrade the discourse of how we viewed humanity and our vision for the future. And we did not notice that the evaporation of trust of our politicians, economists, journalists and other figure heads, meant the evaporation of truth and respect for expertise. Snake oil merchants had always succeeded because people looked for hope amidst desperation of their health condition, when all else failed. We think we’re rational but the truth is our decision making and our rationalisation is anything but logical. So snake oil could be sold to us by anyone with a modicum of ego, arrogance and charm – straightforward solutions that the experts refuse to take seriously, and so are obviously better, have always worked in theology, politics, economics, medicine. As the complexity of the world, and the speed with which we’re able to access ideas and knowledge has increased, our appetite for simplicity and easy solutions appears to have grown. Now a simple slogan is enough to suck us in. We see conspiracy around every corner – be it the rather annoying MSM (Mainstream Media), Liberal Elites, or Jews.

But we Jews have been here before. This is not the oy vey history lesson – the lachrymose view as it’s known – where everything is negative. But it is true that we’ve built up resistance to our own snake oil sellers – disbelieving anyone who thinks they’re the messiah. And we’ve also borne witness to the politicians, philosophers, religious leaders who have used us as easy targets for their own attempts to whip up hatred. We’ve been through it all. And yet we come out each time and build again. Because even when the arc of progress appears to be cemented into place, we know it can crumble with a puff of wind. So we never stop building and usually do not succumb to naïve optimism.

In our current climate. Regardless of our politics. That is what we must do. Build and build again. Renew our commitment to making the world better and never let anyone or any ideology push us of the path.


Thinking about rebuilding life I wanted to share this:

Yesterday, I learnt again about my great grandfather, Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer. He had a Doctorate in Jurisprudence and was a sort of circuit judge in Munich. Apparently he favoured resolution outside of the courts and my grandmother remembers when he used to come home very occasionally from prisons and would strip and shower straightaway – fearing the lice so prevalent in prison. In 1933, he was removed from office. In fact he was 47 and pensioned off, but thousands of Jewish lawyers and judges were removed from office then. I learnt that he never slept at home after losing his job and Hitler’s rise to power. In March 1933, after my grandmother’s 10th birthday, he never slept at home (or maybe only once or twice a week). When the Nazis came knocking at the door for him, his wife, my great grandmother, would respond and get rid of them. But he wasn’t at home for that reason. He developed depression and paranoia. Later in 1933, he went to England and whilst there, the family member he was staying with phoned his wife to say she should come to him. There was a wisdom to this – he was ill and needed her, but also the family in England saw the writing on the wall. My grandmother remembers that phone call came on Saturday and on Sunday she and her mother packed their bags and left. That saved their lives. Had they not left, in the words of my grandmother, her fate would have probably have been akin to Anne Frank’s – murder at the hand of the Nazi death machine.

In England, Alfred never retrained. At 47 he did not have the energy to re-enter law. But he set up a new business, manufacturing glass eyes. Initially, they were for fox furs, which were very fashionable and a family member was in the furrier trade. But he eventually realised that teddy bears also needed them. So they set up a small workshop in Angel House in Islington. The idea had come from recollection that the glass eyes were not available during the First World War, because they were a German import. Predicting that this problem might recur, the glass eye business seemed a good option. He and his wife variously employed different girls to make the eyes and paint them. The single wire attaching two eyes was cut by the teddy bear manufacturers and inserted into the teddies. The glass was sourced from Stourbridge in glass rods, and eventually they were able to purchase coloured glass. My grandmother vividly remembers the Bunsen burners and workshop. The eyes were supplied to such toy manufacturers as Chad Valley.

I find this family history devastating and hopeful in equal measure. Dr Alfred Dahlsheimer, my great grandfather, never fully recovered from the experience of victimisation in Munich that he endured. He was always depressed afterwards. But here I am, with my children whom I can tell about him. We live in a world that is better than it was, in spite of the blips. I will do everything in my power to ensure Judaism lives on and that my children cherish it and understand how it obligates them to work for a better future for the next generation. There is much to build, but we have great opportunity to do it, like never before.

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Shared Hope and the Dispossessed

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Mira Awad, Shay Alon (guitar) and Mark Greenfield (drums)

הַשְׁכִּיבֵֽנוּ יהוה אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְשָׁלוֹם וְהַעֲמִידֵֽנוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ לְחַיִּים
וּפְרוֹשׂ עָלֵֽינוּ סֻכַּת שְׁלוֹמֶֽךָ
Source of our life and our Sovereign, cause us to lie down in peace, and rise again to enjoy life.
Spread over us the covering of Your peace.(Evening service liturgy)

I’m about the same age as Mira Awad and our families have histories that are microcosmic reflections of the 20th century. Her Palestinian family were dispossessed in the birth of the State of Israel. My family were migrants, fleeing hardship and antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the turn of the 20th century and then dispossessed refugees fleeing the rise of Nazism in the mid-20th century. She and I have every reason to feel bereft of hope for humanity because the scars of family trauma run deep through the generations. Yet, I discovered quite the opposite as I sat with her for Friday night dinner and then heard her perform.

As I explained during the week to my children (who are born into a family of refugees on both sides, whether from Germany or Egypt, where my father-in-law was born and fled from in the 1950s) – Mira was a Palestinian Israeli who sang in Arabic, Hebrew and English. They innocently asked, “What’s a Palestinian and what’s Arabic?”

If ever there was a question loaded with the heavy weight of political discourse it was those two questions. Yet, I found great freedom in telling my children that the land of Israel was important to peoples not just a people. Jewish people live there and so do Palestinians and also Bedouin and Druze. I told my children, the Palestinians feel connected to the land and call it home and that Arabic is one of the national languages of the State of Israel. We share, at least theoretically, the land with other peoples. That was enough for two under 6 year olds. But it was a moment of great congruence between my values, my professional life and raising my children.

We share the land

The Hebrew is HaChevrah HaMeshutefet – Shared Society. We all teach our children about sharing. We teach them about the way in which we ask them to give up monopoly control even with the pain that might entail. And through sharing, our children discover that the enjoyment of life can actually be enlarged, not diminished. We teach that possession of a thing, of a space, is never absolute and we see the pain when they are dispossessed.  Sounds simplistic right? But I’m not simplistic: I know that children ‘sharing a toy’ is not the same as national aspirations for self-determination nor a counter to terrorism and the rhetoric of violence.

Yet, I still do not know how we’ve reached this point in the arc of human history. On Saturday night, I watched Mira with her stunning voice and beautiful music, justify describing herself as an optimist. She has every reason not to be optimistic. She’s a Palestinian Israeli, born to a Bulgarian mother and Palestinian father in the Galilee. Her family know intimately about the twists and turns of history, the impact of conflict and belonging. She knows the challenges of walking the complex path of identity, in which you can be attacked from all sides for being a traitor, participating in white-washing, and betraying your heritage. It’s for that reason she describes herself as an acrobat Bahlawan in Arabic (the title of her enchanting Album).

Bukra – Tomorrow

So as she gave a concert at West London Synagogue it saddened me to hear her introduce her song ‘Bukra’ (Tomorrow) by saying she was an optimist and that she was not going to accept being criticised for saying she was an optimist. She believed in tomorrow, not through naivety but a profound and strident humanist vision of tomorrow.

I was inspired by Mira, because she did not have to see beyond the depressing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, nor did she have to work for a shared society in Israel where Palestinian Israelis are one of the most obvious victims of inequality, racism and exclusion. But she did. Mira let us hear through her music (the most simple of shared human expressive forms) that we could all be humanists. To be a humanist is to recognise the essentially human failures but to believe in the hope for that other essential part of humanity – we can work together, feel empathy, strive for betterment, prosperity and create things for beauty and advancement of humankind, share time and space and make peace.

Shared Space

Our shared space for that evening was the West London Synagogue. Mira had joined us for the Friday night service, something new to her at WLS at least and then we joined her in the same space the following evening only this time I was in the pews and she was on the bimah. She listened to our prayers, for Israel, for peace and we listened to her songs of fragility, of love and of hope.

We need compelling visions of the future more than ever. Mira offered us just that.  Never should any of us have to apologise for a vision of trust, of faith in humanity and of peace. It is a disgrace that anyone should be forced to justify her optimism and it is a sign of the depths to which we have sunk that it is necessary. Only a fool would not see that human beings can inflict terrible acts of harm on one another. But only someone with no tomorrow would allow that to dominate their relationships.

The Zenith and the Faithful

We have lost sight of the truth that the thing we all are in search of most of all, is a kind of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Self-actualisation is at the top of the pyramid and is the most new-agey of concepts. But beneath that aspiration are basic needs of safety, security, family, friendship, respect and so on. We have reached a nadir in human relations. We suspect our fellow human beings of wishing us harm before we remember that what most of us want is a quiet, good life where we can provide for our families, feel valued and loved and safe and secure. Our mistrust of our neighbours will be civilisation’s downfall (and I’m not talking about the battle of civilisations, I’m talking about the work of advancement and betterment of the human condition).

It is time we left the lack of trust to our politicians. Religious leaders, musicians, artists, gifted voices: we are in the business of hope and of faith. And that faith and that hope begins with each other – our faith in human goodness and our hope that tomorrow we can share the creation of a world that is better, more radiant and more beautiful than ever. Let us be the faithful, let us be the hopeful for tomorrow.

Bukra 
Is a brand new day
Things can still be going our way
If we make it through the night
Soon will come the morning light.
(Bukra, Mira Awad)