Welcome to Spiel, the JC’s blog.

  • Impressions of Israel - from a Jew struggling with life in France

    Le Blog Français
    Jun 20, 2016

    We have visited Israel regularly since our honeymoon in 1972 but still marvel at its miracles. Truckloads of surplus oranges and austere kibbutzim have given way to superhighways, wifi-enabled trains and hi-tech innovation. Water treatment, solar panels and underwater gas supplies have made water and energy shortages a thing of the past. Israel’s intelligence and defence capabilities have universal respect, while a precariously small population has grown to more than 8 million. Viewed from France, aliyah looks more like an opportunity than a sacrifice as the economy keeps growing and everything seems possible.

    We left Paris struggling with unrelenting strikes, street violence and floods. We flew into Ben Gurion to bright skies, warm sun and a palpable sense of freedom, the weight of minority status lifted from our shoulders. Israelis ask anxiously about life in France and encourage aliyah with a smile, but their remarks feel welcoming while in Paris questions about aliyah feel like a form of expulsion.

    In Israel we take pleasure in everything. A “sound and light” night walk through Jerusalem’s Old City the extraordinary Hurva synagogue beautifully restored after Jordanian destruction in 1948, a miniature Eiffel Tower on Ben Yehuda, the lively Germany colony and train station, the new top floor restaurant at Ticho’s House, Mahane Yehuda transforming itself under our eyes. The French tramway rolling quietly through the city centre carrying Haredi rubbing shoulders with bare-armed tourists, Arab families and secular Jews. An assertive modernity dressed in Jerusalem stone.

  • Being a Jewish student at Oxford has been a mixed bag - but one I'm glad I experienced

    Student Views
    Jun 15, 2016

    Last week, as I walked down Oxford’s busy High Street on the way to hand in my dissertation, I felt myself overcome by an enormous sense of nostalgia over the four years I have spent at the University of Oxford. Without a doubt, some of my happiest memories will be forever attached to this place.

    Yes it is true that there have been a number of stories about antisemitism in the Labour Club and the wider student body (a topic I covered in an earlier blog post). It is also true that the town has played host to inflammatory anti-Israel speakers such as Norman Finkelstein and Ken Livingstone. I have also directly experienced the tensions that can sometimes arise between Jewish and Israeli students regarding Israel advocacy. This, however, is only one aspect of my experience at university. No Jewish student should feel put off studying at Oxford. For me, it has opened up many academic and personal opportunities and nurtured my enthusiasm for involvement in the Jewish community.

    Firstly, it goes without saying that the Chabad house and the JSoc have been wonderful. I am truly grateful to have had spiritual leaders as welcoming and caring as Rabbi Eli and Friedy Brackman, and Rabbi Michael and Tracy Rosenfeld-Schueler. I have spent many a joyous Shabbat dinner in their company. While it is often the case that Jewish students have found it difficult to have their needs met at smaller campuses, this was never the case in Oxford. Chabad and JSoc provided everything from weekday Kosher meals to educational events, film showings, external speakers and festivities.

  • Why I was questioned by airport security in wake of Tel Aviv attacks

    The JC Blog
    Jun 14, 2016

    "So you recently went to Dubai," the Israeli security guard said as she peered suspiciously over her desk, while her male colleague looked me up and down as if I had just touched down from Syria.

    "Yes," I replied.

    I was at the end of my second trip to Israel, about to head home to London from Ben Gurion airport. I had visited Boys Town Jerusalem, a school for underprivileged children, for an assignment for the JC.

  • Being a French Jew - in London

    Le Blog Français
    Jun 10, 2016

    The views of a group of French Jews who are now living in London

    The first time Rabbi René Pfertzl told me about a “French Jewish blog”, I admit I hesitated. As with many French Jews, I’m fed up with all these articles speaking about “Les Juifs de France” as L’Express wrote on its front page a few months ago. For those of the readers who do not speak French and/or do not know L’Express, it means “ The Jews from France ” and L’Express is one of the most important weekly newspapers in France.

    Why am I stressing this point ? Because words are important. I’m not a “ Jew of France ”, but a French Jew. Writing about “Jews of France” simply means that Jews are not considered totally French. The media has some responsibility for the rising of antisemitism in France, writing articles and news only when there are some attacks or other tragic events between French Jews and French Muslims. But never when they are working or simply living together like anybody else. And this obviously happens very often.

  • After university how will I reconcile the religious life I grew up with and the one I adopted while away from home?

    Student Views
    Jun 7, 2016

    In 2014, a bunch of friends and I sat around on camp and discussed organising our own kehilah which would meet over Shabbat to daven, eat and hang out. The arguments were that larger communities aren’t good at empowering young people, don’t allow room for changing values and aren’t exciting social spaces where we want to spend a large chunk of the weekend.

    So we started meeting that summer, organising our own services, borrowing a torah generously lent by one of our rabbis, singing our own tunes carried over from our Noam days and spending long hours after lunch wandering around North West London between people’s houses. On a fairly regular basis we were still sitting round someone’s kitchen table when it was time for Havdallah.

    But on the other hand, I missed my shul. I may not always get to sing the tunes I like, hear drashot from friends or lead my favourite parts of Mussaf, but it’s still my shul – my community, the place where I grew up, where I know everyone and everyone knows me. Our new kehilah was fun and exciting, but I couldn’t sit next to my mum or hear my rabbi say something amazing, or join in the singing filling the Beit Knesset. Twenty voices just don’t have the same effect as two hundred. I couldn’t even complain about the bar mitzvah boy singing Anim Zemirot, because we didn’t have any bar mitzvah boys and we didn’t sing Anim Zemirot (because we all hate it).

  • Torah and cheesecake

    Simon Rocker
    Jun 3, 2016

    Next weekend we’ll be celebrating what a friend the other day referred to “the cheesecake festival”. While Shavuot remains probably remains the least observed of the five major festivals in the calendar, it has been undergoing a revival in recent years.

    More synagogues these days offer a nocturnal learning programme on the first night of the festival, a tikkun leil Shavout, a practice that originated with the kabbalists. In Israel, study programmes have even become fashionable among secular Jews.

    If you can’t make it to one of the organised events, you can always opt for a DIY alternative at home. Limmud has compiled an online Shavuot pack which you can simply download and print out for discussion among family or friends.

  • A list of football managers' woes

    The Arsenal Blog
    Jun 2, 2016

    Louis Van Gaal was his usual ebullient self in his final press conference as manager of Manchester United. But for once, I don't blame his stubborn self-defence. Angrily placing the lidless FA Cup on his desk, he thanked the media for “sacking me for six months”. The English media is a brutal machine. The endless rumour mill and constant criticism have driven many managers over the edge.

    To add to the manager’s woes, the impatience of the football fan has grown in recent years. To sack a manager who has won the FA Cup and come fifth in Premier League, as Jose would say, a ‘transitional period’, seems mad. But fans of the ‘world's biggest club’ have been calling for Van Gaal’s head since day one. Fan protests are so commonplace that it seems like a miracle when no banners are unveiled criticising the owners or the manager, or, often, both. Post-match analysis focuses more on the managers and the referee than the game itself.

    According to the League Manager’s Association, there is an endemic problem in British football. Arsene Wenger is the only long-serving manager left in the Premier League, after 20 years, more than 16 years longer than second place, Eddie Howe of Bournemouth. Watford have had five managers in the last 18 months alone, and Manchester United have struggled to hold down a head coach since the reign of Sir Alex Ferguson ended. Jose Mourinho has never been a long-term option for any club, and I don't suppose that United will be any different.

  • On Simon Schama, whose Zionism defies simple explanations

    Student Views
    May 31, 2016

    I was fortunate enough to recently experience Simon Schama deliver a series of talks for the TORCH project at the University of Oxford. In his customary charismatic style, expounded with much chutzpah, he took in everything from Herodotus to hip-hop. It was also fascinating to see him engage in a roundtable discussion with respected historians Craig Clunas and Margaret MacMillan.

    Across these events, Schama touched upon a number of pertinent themes that deeply resonated with me. He laments what he terms “the return of atavism.” He detects it in Donald Trump, elements of the Brexit campaign, as well as the rise of ideological extremism across the Middle East and Europe. He remarks that this was something he could never have predicted in the 1960s when he was a student at Cambridge during the height of the Cold War.

    Schama’s historical understanding and Jewish sensibilities are keenly informed by an awareness of the fragility of open societies. He repeatedly referenced the late publishing giant Lord Weidenfeld, a pillar of the Anglo-Jewish community who had also sponsored the TORCH project. Weidenfeld was himself a refugee of a decaying liberal democracy crushed by the jackboot of totalitarian darkness. Schama said it was as if Weidenfeld’s shadow towered over everything.

  • No one should have to compromise religion for politics - but the NUS elections made me doubt myself

    Student Views
    May 24, 2016

    Today I voted in a university-wide referendum over whether our student union, CUSU, should remain affiliated to the National Union of Students. I’d been debating for weeks over what the right decision was, agreeing and disagreeing with people left, right and centre, and changing my mind about it every 48 hours. And this morning I held my breath, selected my choice from the drop-down menu and clicked ‘Vote’.

    And then I thought to myself, am I going to share my decision online? Am I going to tweet about this, citing the articles which convinced me, and encouraging others to vote the same way as I did? During the London mayoral elections a couple of weeks ago, I shared my support for Sadiq Khan all over my social media accounts and tweeted congratulations to him when his victory was announced. Last year, I resolutely supported Labour through their entire campaign and shared angry anti-Tory articles in the aftermath of the election. I’ve never before been afraid or embarrassed to share my political views; I completely understand why some people don’t and I’d never harass anyone to tell me which way they voted, but I’m just not fussed about what people think of my political choices. I’d rather make my voice heard and try to persuade people to agree with me than keep schtum.

    But something held me back from wanting to let everyone know about my choice over NUS affiliation. It’s not to do with whether or not I’ve made the right choice – believe me, I’ve wondered regularly whether or not the Labour Party deserves my membership and my vote. Nor do I think it’s to do with my relationships with people on either side of the campaign, either those whose politics I usually support but cannot condone in the context of the NUS, or those whose ideology is so far from mine and yet seems so right (or, at least, reasonable) at a time like this. As I said before, I’m not fussed about what people think of my politics, and I’m more than happy to disagree with friends and agree with…well, others.
    I think what’s holding me back from wanting to share my decision is the fact that it’s a decision linked so fundamentally to my Judaism. When I vote Labour, I’ve always been able to detach my choice from that part of myself; or, even, recognise how my Judaism commands me to support socialist policies. My Judaism has never come between me and my automatic preference, and I’d go so far as to say that it’s informed and strengthened it.