Monthly Archives: January 2009

Lest We Forget

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. I’m sorry to say that normally it would pass without much thought. Often as the distance widens between our reality and the horrific events past, their impact fades and we become less concerned to think about them. Like most people in the Western world, I’ve grown up hearing about the Holocaust. I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was ten, as well as other fiction set during the time. As a young girl, it left a deep impression on me. I distinctly remember watching footage of the concentration camps at a museum and being completely stunned. I’d never seen living beings in the skeletal state that they were in the film, what to speak of knowing that it was being inflicted by other humans. Still, over time I’ve seen the same footage several times, and like anything repeated, you eventually become used to it. My trip to Israel gave me a new perspective.

There, the Holocaust seems to be part of the national consciousness. It was explained to us one evening by a lecturer in Israeli film and culture, who told us that as a Jewish state, the events of the Holocaust are eternally relevant for Israel and are explored time and time again through the country’s artistic output.

An essential part of the Birthright trip is visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, located in Jerusalem. The 45 acre complex, comprised of numerous memorials, museums, and educational centres, stands on the mountainside, overlooking the white city below. The design of every building and sculpture invites contemplation, and holds multiple layers of meaning. Our group walked around the outside first, through the silver birch trees and hedges of fragrant rosemary. We first stepped out of the sun and into the children’s memorial building. After walking through a dark passageway, dimly lit only by projected photos of children’s faces, you enter a large hall, full of glass and mirrors, and lit candles. Each candle is reflected hundreds of times, in every direction – it’s as if you were walking through a starry sky. This is symbolic – the stars represent each soul of a child lost. A woman’s voice announces the name, age and nationality of each one as you pass out of the hall and emerge once again into the bright light.

This journey is echoed in the recently built musuem, a prism- like tunnel, emerging from the mountain. Inside, a multimedia presentation incorporates survivor testimonies as well as personal artifacts donated to Yad Vashem by Holocaust survivors, the families of those who perished, Holocaust museums and memorial sites around the world. It was one of the most beautiful, well designed memorials I have ever been to. It was frequently moving, completely compelling and above all, gave more insight than I’ve ever had into the way that the Holocaust affected individual people. It was difficult to digest the amount of information and to process the mixed emotions I felt in response, especially in such a large group. Some members of the group felt that the events of the Holocaust presented a major question as to the existence of God. To me, this didn’t hold together, but I felt unable to offer a sweeping scriptural explanation, or a vague attempt at justifying it all according to the principle of karma.

Hearing each story, seeing each treasured photograph and diary, it was hard to do anything but cry.

Hundreds of folders in the Hall of Names commemorate those who perished.

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Overheard on an Evening Walk

The couple stride purposefully down the quiet road, eyes fixed ahead.
‘Maybe. One day,’ he says.
She says nothing, looking unconvinced.
A moment later they disappear beneath the tunnel of trees.

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Triple Ginger Cookies!

I just made these cookies from a recipe on 101 Cookbooks.com. I’ve been meaning to for ages but it took me a while to collect the ingredients. Some, like star anise and crystallised ginger, took a teensy bit of extra effort. They came out great though. Of course, I substituted the egg for a guestimated amount of yoghurt.

Give them a try!

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Dandiya on the Dance Floor!

After a day at our regular Saturday dance class, where we’re preparing for a show in London next month, Tulasi and I changed and went straight to the Saanji of a friend. A Saanji is a traditional Gujarati event preceding a wedding, consisting of an evening of dance and music and general merriment. The best part is the Raas-Garba – a Gujarati folk dance form that everyone can join in with – young and old, dancer or two left feet, men and women, Guju or (in my case) not! I was really excited. Last time I went to a Garba event was for another friend’s wedding almost two years ago. This was only my third time doing it but it’s pretty easy to pick up, especially if you’ve learnt any other kind of dance.

How aware I am of my skin colour varies depending on the context. It’s surprising how little it crosses my mind for the majority of the time that I’m surrounded by Indians – probably because I feel pretty Indian myself. Sometimes though, I become aware when other people are surprised by something and comment. At events like this, Tulasi and I often get people telling us how amazed they are that we can dance traditional forms like this, as if we’ve grown up knowing them. I suppose if nothing else, it’s more evidence that we are not our bodies. Being born a certain skin colour does not predispose you to to act or think in a certain way. The subtle differences in style and culture are learned through environment, but the joy of movement comes from within, regardless of race. It was great to see all the wedding guests getting up and dancing with abandon, especially all the first timers, who looked like they were having a blast!

Arguably the most fun part, is the Dandiya – the stick dance. Everyone gets one or two sticks and after getting into two lines, beat the sticks of the person opposite in a rhythmic pattern. After going through the pattern with one person, everyone moves down the line to the left, and the pattern repeats again. The live musicians gradually get faster and faster, so slowly that before you know it, you’re twirling and hitting and skipping at a dizzying rate! If you can’t keep up the pace, the line gets messed up – one incentive to keep going!

By the end of the night I was totally exhausted. My legs wobbled dangerously and my feet felt like I’d been dancing on sandpaper cobblestones. It was so much fun though – I can’t wait until next time.

Speaking of Gujarati, since Slumdog Millionaire came out, every Patel I know (that means lots) is trying to claim their family ties with the lead actor of the film, Dev Patel. He hails from Harrow, just a ten minute drive from here – so everyone seems to know someone that went to school with him, or who used to be his peer mentor, or was his cousin’s best friend – the list goes on. They’re rightly proud. It’s a fantastic film and he really performed well in it, even more remarkable considering it’s his first feature film. The critics in the West have been almost unanimously proclaiming its glories, but there’s been a lot of controversy over whether it represents the ‘real’ India. I read a great article the other day by an Indian reviewer, that examines the issue, including whether or not it’s relevant to scrutinise a great piece of entertainment on such a deep level. Like any country, ‘India’ is comprised of so many different realities, none of which I think this film was seriously trying to portray. You can read the article here: ‘Fiction not Fact’.

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Son of a Preacher Man

I’m taking a module in Children’s Writing at the moment. In class yesterday we were reading folk tales from different cultures, like the African Anansi tales and Aesop’s fables. One story spoke of a bird that perished when it tried to fly higher than the others. The story had been told as a cautionary tale to warn a certain nobleman not to aspire to become king, but the essential message was for all – know your place. This sparked an interesting discussion in the class.

In another era, twelve year olds were preparing to start work, most often in the family business -if they had one. Now twelve year olds face at least six to ten more years of education. University is the destination of choice for the majority – whether or not it will actually help them get any further in life. Our tutor made a point that the bank jobs that once asked only for school leavers ‘A levels’, now require a degree, just because it’s the new standard, not because the demands of the job have changed.

Society’s expectations have changed too. We’re expected to try and reach higher – not settle for the position we’re born in. I suppose it’s a positive thing to try and better yourself, but there’s something to say for having a career plan from birth too. There’s so much confusion these days. Everyone wants to be something. Everyone wants to be the face on the screen or the voice on the radio. Perhaps there’s no change there though. After all isn’t it one of man’s eternal follies to desire fame and fortune?

On the way home after class I listened to a report on the dramatic rise in unemployment here in the UK. Each week since the start of the economic crisis, the number of job cuts grows by the thousands. People that are both skilled, educated and reliable are struggling to find a job anywhere. That’s not really related to the first point, but it’s something that made me even more thoughtful about my future.

So what lies ahead for me? I graduate in four months. Competition in the job market is fiercer than ever. If I lived fifty years ago, perhaps I’d already be a typist or a secretary, or a mother of three! What’s my family business? Where do I go from here? Where’s the escape button!?

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Monday Morning Blues?

This morning on the Tube to my work placement, I was eyedropping (you eavesdrop with your ears, and eyedrop with your eyes – let’s get in dictionaries by 2010 – yes we can!) on the magazine of the girl next to me. The article was decorated with pink swirls and a beautiful stylised sunrise, and a sentence from the article had been enlarged near the top: ‘You have to have faith that if you put enough energy into the getting the life that you want, everything will turn out alright.’ I didn’t read the rest of the article. The print was too small, and I suspected if I moved any closer, the next unexpected jolt would find my face firmly planted in her lap. It got me thinking though. The author seemed to be promoting radical optimism as the answer to life’s problems.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard it – from the fairly popular new-age film ‘The Secret’ to countless self help ‘gurus’, there are countless people preaching positive thinking as a the ultimate path to success. Perhaps in times such as these, with the world’s economic situation getting ever more grim and political trouble ever rumbling in the distance, it’s tempting to think that a sunny outlook holds the key to happiness. Of course I’m not denying that there’s truth in it, but I do wonder how helpful this kind of optimism is in the long run.

Being brought up with the teachings of bhakti yoga, I’ve learned that ultimately everything in the world will eventually disappoint, unless it is centred around Krishna. Hearing this, people often cry pessimism, but I don’t think it is. Seeing the world for what it is – warts and all, is realism. Anticipating difficulty; assuming that life entails struggle; understanding the futility of the search for material happiness – all of these things empower us and help to bring us to a state of equilibrium. It’s this state that is favoured by those seeking lasting happiness, for only when we can keep our heads clear above the choppy waves of life, can we see the horizon.

Perhaps if the 25% of the London workforce that called in sick today knew this, they might not have felt so down upon waking to the grey skies and rain. Maybe that’s too much to ask. The English weather can probably get to anyone in time. I wonder what people will feel tomorrow, as Obama formally begins his presidency? I suspect that for every cheering supporter, there is a pessimist who feels that America can never hope to improve, whatever the presidential promises. I think it’s best to be realistic. It’s a wonderful thing that America is getting a new president, and I’m sure the whole world will feel the effects. But regardless of how many times he calls for change, some things never will. As taught in the Bhagavad Gita, this world is a place of suffering – our position here is as fish out of water, and the discomfort we feel will continue to rise until we return to the place we belong – with Krishna.

Perhaps the easiest way to invoke Krishna’s presence into our lives is to chant his names. Tonight at the Church of the Holy City in Washington DC, my friends from As Kindred Spirits, along with other well known kirtaniyas, are holding a kirtan festival to bring auspiciousness to the inauguration tomorrow. All the tickets are sold out, but you can still watch ‘Chant for Change’ in a live webcast tonight.

Chant loud enough for everyone to hear, dance until your feet hurt and come closer to a happiness that transcends all else.  Happy Monday.

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The Prodigal Daughter

I’ve been so touched at how many people have said they were worried about me whilst I was in Israel. I didn’t think many people would notice I was away, let alone remember where I was. I think it becomes that way when you travel a lot – people get used to you disappearing and reappearing. I also didn’t realise how worrying the situation looked from outside of Israel. Though people in Israel were understandably anxious, it was easy to be lulled by their sincere reassurances of safety, and the fact that they do ‘just get on with it’ even in times of conflict. The Birthright trip was intensely packed, barely giving us time to stop and get worried about the escalating conflict. Then again, having six young soldiers from the Israeli army with us was a constant reminder of the reality of the war. It was wonderful to get to know them and hear their perspective on the situation, but it was also humbling, knowing that after ten days, we’d be leaving it all behind. For them, it’s their life.

Tomer, Ma’ayan and Gili – photo by Guy Stern

Each night we’d watch the news updates as the troops began their ground attack in Gaza. Many of our soldiers had close friends on the front lines and each news report would provoke fresh tears and frantic attempts to call them – though they knew that all soldiers in Gaza had been forced to give up their mobile phones for security reasons. They accompanied us in all of our activities, from riding camels in the desert, to touring the Old City of Jerusalem, and it was humbling to see how they put on a brave face for our sake. Many were apologetic that we were in Israel at such a turbulent time – they just wanted us to see their country in a positive light. I’m not if they understood one of the most positive aspects of being there, was seeing their mature and spirited way of dealing with such difficulty.

L-R: Maya, Tomer, Gili, Natalie, Ma’ayan, Sivan and Niv (he was the only boy, as the others got called back to fight before they could join us.)

Then again, I sometimes wondered about the lasting effects that these circumstances have on Israeli youth. After spending even a short time with the soldiers, I feel convinced that the compulsory army service in Israel gives young Israelis a maturity and strength that surpasses many from other countries. However the stress levels during these times of greater conflict must also have a negative effect.

One girl told me that one of the reasons so many young Israelis travel to India, is that it allows them to leave the stresses of the army behind and represents a level of peace and spirituality that is so far from the war fuelling religion of their homeland. Whether that’s really true is debatable, but it’s a fact that Israelis flock to India in droves every year.

Maya, who celebrated her last day in the army the day before we left.

There’s so much more I want to write, in fact, I had planned to report everything we did in Israel. It was a short trip, but we covered nearly the entire length and breadth of Israel, learning about so much of the history and culture along the way. I found the trip enjoyable but also a great challenge. Travelling in groups is always demanding at times, but it felt particularly difficult sometimes to be the only person who admittedly practised a religion other than Judaism. Surprisingly, even though the trip is aimed to provide Jewish youth with an opportunity to get in touch with their heritage, not one of the participants was very religious, with many being openly atheist or apathetic. Anyway, too much to say, too little time. Essays to write and projects to plan – roll on graduation!

Collecting shells on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret) – Photo by Guy Stern

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