A moment of communal grief in York helped me begin to heal

I never thought that I would feel the way I feel now


York, England reputed to be the most haunted city in the world. , Cliffords Tower is part of York Castle. It is a keep atop the motte of the medieval fortification.

November 23, 2023 15:31

These are dark times. I never thought that I would feel the way I feel now. Such huge shock, sadness, loss and grief. The horrible realisation that antisemitism around the world is burning like a fire ready to engulf. The late, great, Rabbi Sacks described antisemitism as a virus that has mutated over the centuries, and said that a hatred of Israel is the latest mutation. Not all condemnation of Israel is antisemitic, as we know, but the recent rise in Jew hate has been swift and shocking.

I use my platform on social media to speak out on behalf of our community. I have done for years and the huge number of responses and private messages I am getting is unprecedented. They speak of our collective grief, trauma and fear since October 7.

Even my most non-observant Jewish friends and associates are traumatised by a UK that seemingly cares little for our raped women and girls: The hurtful silence of feminist groups, the celebrities who never hesitate usually to speak out on these matters who have not uttered a word of condemnation about the sexual violence committed against Jewish women on that day, let alone commented on our dead and our hostages suffering who knows where.

And then there’s the weekly marches where nice middle-class mums I know from Notting Hill take their kids for a day out to scream “From London to Gaza we’ll have an intifada”,  and the showbiz friends who haven’t bothered to pick up the phone to find out how I might be feeling amid the huge rise of antisemitism in London. So many people write to me to talk of the loneliness and the pain. Yet we do have some amazing allies, and there is light in the darkness — I experienced it this week.

My bubbe, Annie, a pogrom survivor, used to say things were “bashert” — destined to be. Good or bad was bashert in her book. And I am coming to the realisation that she may have been right.

I was bereft when the project of my life, The Merchant of Venice 1936, with my female Shylock heading it up, was cancelled due to Covid. Later, due to funding cuts, it looked like it might never happen. And yet it did happen, it’s happening now, and the timing of it — coming to fruition right at this moment, touring the country theatre by theatre, reaching places that do not have any Jewish connections or even an understanding of antisemitism — couldn’t be more apt.

The play is selling out every night with audiences waiting behind afterwards to pledge support and care for the Jewish community. It is healing Jews and non-Jews alike.

When the producers mooted a national tour the first place I insisted we go was York.

In 1190, York became the site of one of the worst antisemitic massacres of the Middle Ages, when the city’s entire Jewish community — an estimated 150 people — was besieged by a mob inside York Castle, where Clifford’s Tower still stands. Most of those trapped made the agonising choice to take their own lives rather than renounce their faith or be murdered by the crowds baying for their blood.

Juliet Forster, the artistic director of York Theatre Royal, has turned out to be great ally. She and I had long conversations about my desire to seize the opportunity as a Jewish actress playing the first female Shylock to go to Clifford’s Tower and make an event happen. Juliet couldn’t have been more supportive in understanding why this was so important to me.

Little did I know when we were discussing this years ago that a few weeks before the play arrived in the city, York would also be welcoming its first rabbi in more than 800 years, Rabbi Dr Elisheva Salamo. Beshert indeed.

This week when I have been feeling so wounded and despondent, meeting Rabbi Elisheva has lifted me. She is wise and comforting even while dealing with her own grief about October 7. Her spiritual guidance has truly healed something in me.

On Friday, just before our evening show, I walked up the steps of Clifford’s Tower with her — a female Shylock, a female rabbi, each holding a lantern, leading the way with a large group following us. York Theatre Royal and English Heritage helped me to arrange the ceremony. At the top we were greeted with hot chocolate and doughnuts.

To add to the enormity of connection it was also Interfaith Week in York, so we were joined by representatives from the Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities.

I gave a speech about the importance of being at Clifford’s Tower and honouring the Jews that had died, of the flourishing and flowering of this new community, of the importance, during this horrific time, of minorities standing together against evil.

And then, in one of the most extraordinary moments of my career, I delivered that famous speech: “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?”

I can honestly say that I lost myself in that speech. Even though I say it nine times a week, and always from the depth of my soul, this time it felt different. I was transported. It wasn’t me, it was Shakespeare’s words reaching out to the souls of those medieval Jews murdered at this spot. I felt that they were around me being acknowledged and in a weird moment of synchronisation a flock of doves nesting at the top of the tower started cooing. I cried. The rabbi cried. The audience cried. It was a sharing of communal grief for a world that is in pain and needs healing.

November 23, 2023 15:31

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