Life & Culture

'I'm writing at a cemetery, trying not to think about death'

The space and silence of a Jewish resting place proved the perfect location for a writers’ retreat


I’m writing this in a cemetery, which feels like a very apt place as there hasn’t been a day in the last month that I haven’t thought about death.

The cemetery is Willesden Jewish Cemetery in north west London, a Victorian institution, set up in what was then the countryside outside London as a resting place for the growing Jewish community.

There are merchants and housewives, scientists and scholars here, no cemetery in the country has more Chief Rabbis.

I’m here because the United Synagogue decided to run a writers’ retreat here. It’s the idea of Dr Nadia Valman, an academic, and it was an inspired one because where better to write than somewhere beautiful, full of history and characters and stories, with the utter silence broken only by the rustle of leaves and a squawk from a green parakeet.

There are three writers joining Nadia today and we agree it is a perfect opportunity to step away from the shouting, the screens, the protests and the anguish that has engulfed us since October 7.

It gives us the space and silence to think, whether it’s about the characters in a novel (the writer sitting beside me) or the contrasting lives of two Jewish artists (the writer sitting opposite me), or the writer Israel Zangwill (Nadia is working on a book about the Jewish East End) or, in my case, about how very rare it is to have this kind of silence and space.

What’s more there’s a structure to the day: three sessions of goal-driven writing, punctuated by a kosher lunch and snacks (the United Synagogue has done us proud) and a chance to wander round looking at the graves of famous Jews — from the Rothschilds to Rosalind Franklin — and ordinary ones, and consider the random nature of Jewish fate, which allows some of us to flourish in peace and condemns others to brutal barbarism. There’s nothing like the quiet of a cemetery to make you appreciate what a privilege it is to be alive.

In the last month I’ve cried, I’ve shouted (quite a lot of shouting, anger is so much easier than fear and grief). But I’ve also found a lot of strength from making things.

I’ve walked away from the television and sat down at my kitchen table and made collage and paintings, nothing that you’d put in a gallery, but as DIY therapy, I can recommend it. I’ve made challah and cakes, to raise funds for Israel. Kneading dough, it turns out, is a good way of letting out fury. I’ve sung with other woman and alone in my car, to a soundtrack I’ve made of uplifting Israeli pop, the cheesier the better.

One of those songs has turned into my new mantra. Ofra Haza’s Kol Haolam Kulo, based on a piece of wisdom by Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav: ‘The entire world is a narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to fear at all.”

It reminds me of when we visited the temple at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Our guide showed us around the first two levels, but paused at the steps to the third. “It’s your choice whether you go up there,” he said.

Foolishly, I did not stop to think whether this perhaps meant that I should ask a few safety related questions. We had come so far — half a world’s width — why stop here? So we embarked on the climb, which proved scarily steep, the steps getting narrower and harder to navigate, with at the top, a sheer drop either side.

The children, then 11 and six, managed it with ease. I needed a helping hand from a Buddhist priest, my husband scrambled up behind me.

Once we were there, it was magical: it felt as though we were floating on a magic carpet among the clouds. But getting down the other side, you couldn’t see the steps at all, just a rickety handrail to cling onto as you stepped into seeming nothingness from a great height.

Fear engulfed me. I felt sick and giddy, I sank to my knees. There was no way I could take that step. I would have to stay up on top of the Cambodian temple forever.

But then my six-year-old son came up behind me. “Is this the way down?” he said, grasping the handrail and disappearing over the edge. If he could do it, so could I, I told myself. Yes, I had fear, but I did not let it paralyse me. And I took the step and made it down to the ground.

Here in the cemetery, I decide that after I’ve written this article, I’ll work on something completely different, a diverting piece of fiction based on a fairy tale. Because the narrow bridge of life can’t always be all about death. We need to remember how to laugh and play. We can't think about death all the time.

And when I go home I won’t listen to the news, or to the angry voices on the radio. I’ll stick on my newly-curated Spotify playlist called Am Yisroel Chai, and I’ll try, I’ll really try , to have no fear at all.

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