The cancelling of Klinghoffer

As a left-wing, liberal Jew, there is one subject I rarely discuss in private, let alone publicly, let alone in a blog.  The Israel/Palestine situation is heart-breaking, anger-making, painful and divides Jews all over the world.   Violence cannot and never will be the answer.  The hatred on both sides fills me with despair. Of course,  fear of the other, intransigence in opinion and belief in the rightness of the cause is not confined to Israel/Palestine, but because of who I am, because the bus journey from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful in the world and because people I love live in that tiny country, it feels personal.  Of course it does – I’ve never hidden either my Jewishness or my political beliefs, but part of my history – my personal history – lives there.

Today, the Metropolitan Opera said this:

“After an outpouring of concern that its plans to transmit John Adams’s opera The Death of Klinghoffer might be used to fan global antisemitism, the Metropolitan Opera announced the decision today to cancel its Live in HD transmission, scheduled for November 15, 2014.”

Peter Gelb, the Met’s General Manager, says the following:

“I’m convinced that the opera is not antisemitic. But I’ve also become convinced that there is genuine concern in the international Jewish community that the live transmission of The Death of Klinghoffer would be inappropriate at this time of rising antisemitism, particularly in Europe.”

For those who don’t know, The Death of Klinghoffer deals with the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985 by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Front) and subsequent murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish passenger, Leon Klinghoffer.  The opera is devastating on many levels;  difficult and challenging as the greatest art is and should be.  Since its first performance, Adams has been vilified by both sides, being accused of being both antisemitic and anti-Palestinian.  Or rather, pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli.  In my opinion it is neither.  It is raw, it is grief and despair. It doesn’t romanticize terrorism in the slightest – I often wonder how many of those baying for its closure/banning have even seen or heard it?

I had the privilege of recording the soundtrack for Penny Woolcock’s superb Channel 4 film of Klinghoffer – I was singing with the London Symphony Chorus at the time.  John Adams conducted his own work and we recorded just days after 9/11.  No-one who was there will ever forget how it felt to record Adam’s beautiful, heartbreaking score at that time.

Mr Gelb says he is convinced that the opera is not anti-semitic.  However, he is also convinced that to transmit the performance would be inappropriate.  I’m not sure how that works.  How can you be convinced of those two things at once?  And the bigger question – if you are staging it at all (which of course you should) why should the rest of the world be denied the opportunity of making their own minds up?

I am not denying for one second that there is rising anti-semitism across the world – similarly who can deny that there is anti-Muslim feeling across the world?  But how can censorship of great art be the answer?



On friendship (in 667 words)

Apparently, the optimum length of a blog is 500 words – any more and people can’t be bothered to read it straight away and then forget it’s there. I’ve just wasted 35 words telling you this.
Last week, I introduced the song ‘Lean On Me’ into a workshop. One of the participants said it didn’t do it for him and anyway ‘what does it mean?’ You tell me, I said. ‘That friends are always there for you,’ he answered with a certain amount of disdain. ‘ I don’t have any friends, just people I use. I’m using you now.’ The participant taught me the Polish word for friend (male) – ‘przyjaciel’. ‘This isn’t facebook friend, this is real friend’ he said, again with disdain. I then put him straight on the idea of a friend as I see it. There are the closest of friends (Level 1), who I can tell pretty much anything. Level 2, also close but not the ones you’d ring at 3 in the morning. Level 3 is what you might call work-related friends, who you really like but wouldn’t see outside work. Level 4 are those on facebook who you are genuinely fond of. Level 5 are those on facebook that you don’t really want to be friends with but are too embarrassed to cull. Level 6 is Twitter.
I have known most of my Level 1 friends for several decades and my oldest friend since I was three. Some of my Level 1s are around the same age as me, some are younger. Some are male, some are female. Some aren’t in this country.
What do you expect from a friend? Is a true friend someone who constantly tells you how marvellous you are? Who treats your every post on facebook with ‘oh you’re amazing, inspirational, I wish I was like you.’ Sometimes that’s nice to hear – who doesn’t want to be told they’re amazing? But every time? Really? No-one’s that fabulous. Not even me.
I think you also find out who your real friends are when shit happens. Shit happened to me last year, and will no doubt happen again. One of my dearest friends was overwhelmed when I told her I’d been diagnosed with early stage breast cancer (or not – see Blog No. 1). She said ‘I don’t know how to process this for you.’ I couldn’t deal with that and told her so. She is still one of my dearest friends, because she totally understood, and was there every time I called, whether she could think of anything useful to say or not. Another one gave me a bollocking. ‘I know you. You hate asking for help. Well if you don’t fucking tell me how you feel, how am I meant to know?’ She’s done this before and it worked then too. She told me what I needed to hear, not what I might have thought I needed. That’s what I think being a friend is about. Not constant validation of all one’s choices, but clear-eyed support and love and a kick up the arse if needed.
You find out who your real friends are, and sometimes they are not the ones you expected. Unfortunately, you sometimes also find that the ones you thought were, are not. Are not there, for whatever reason (and yes, you never know what’s going on in someone else’s life when you are utterly wrapped up in the shit that you are going through), but still not there, not with a text or an email or a phone call. And then you go ‘actually, you are not important in my life and I no longer feel the inclination to add anything to yours.’ These friends have gone from probably Level 2 to Level 5. They were never really Level 1, even if you thought they were.
My friends are amazing. I would do pretty much anything for them, including give them a kick up the arse if necessary. I would be there at 3am (depending on time zones), though it’s not my best time. They are my inspiration and I love them. In Polish or English or any language.


“You should be…”  “I should be…”  “You should have…”  “I should have…”  ‘Should’ and its little friend ‘shouldn’t’ – may be the most invidious words in the English language.  They take you down dark paths, whether you are saying them to others or to yourself.  And who hasn’t said them to someone, either as an imperative or an accident?

This blog could be the sequel to ‘The arrogance of certainty’ – ‘Should’ is such a certain word, isn’t it?  It implies that the speaker knows the secrets of the universe; that whatever they say is sure to be acted on.  It can be as simple as me being told (this is true): “You shouldn’t use a white cup if you don’t clean it properly.”  Why shouldn’t I?  I like white cups and I know how to clean them, but sometimes I choose not to scrub them back white again as soon as I’ve finished with them.  I choose.  In my own time, and in my own way.  Yay me.

This is also true – said to me, by me. “You should have written another blog by now.”  and “You should have submitted to the next literary agent.”  and “You should do more/be more all the time.”  and “You should be happy.  You have a house, work that you love (most of the time), a family, friends, you aren’t living in Syria, you didn’t get flooded, you should be happy.”  And if I’m not happy all the time because I should be – if I don’t do everything my perfectionist, slightly obsessive head-mind tells me to because I should, I am not happy.  I am anxious, exhausted, striving for more and more, not really stopping because there’s always something else I should be doing.

I’m telling myself a story.  We all do that, we tell ourselves – and others – stories.  All the time.  We change them to suit whoever we’re telling.  We love embellishing, to make ourselves look good or bad or funny or tragic.  We want people to listen to our stories and feel sorry for us, or understand us, or we just need to tell them in order to have some kind of validation.

A man named Don Miguel Ruiz wrote a book called The Four Agreements.  I’ve bought this book for quite a few people now – one of them happily says to me, when I do the ‘Should’ shit – “Time for the Four Agreements,” and she’s right.  He says this: “At a certain point, all the opinions of our parents and teachers, religion and society, make us believe that we need to be a certain way in order to be accepted.  They tell us the way we should be, the way we should look, the way we should behave. We need to be this way; we shouldn’t be that way – and because it’s not okay for us to be what we are, we start pretending to be what we are not.  The fear of being rejected becomes the fear of not being good enough, and we start searching for something that we call perfection.  In our search, we form an image of perfection, the way we wish to be, but we know that we are not, and we begin to judge ourselves for that.”

The first Agreement is this: “Be impeccable with your word.”  And on first glance you might think, oh that’s OK, just don’t be nasty to people.  But it isn’t only that.  It’s about the word you use to others and the word you use on yourself.    It’s bloody hard and when I’m anxious/angry/frustrated/unhappy/depressed, it becomes even harder.  You want so badly to pull yourself out of this state  –  you know that you can, you have the tools to do it, you’ve spent years getting to this point of being able to do it – and your head goes: “You should.”  And there you are again.

February is a ‘should’ month for me – I find it difficult, not necessarily because the weather’s shit.  It’s got a couple of things going for it – short, and no council tax.  But there’s that Imbolc time of new beginnings, spring appearing, crocuses, snowdrops – and the feeling that I should – there I go again – be more galvanised and spring-like.  So why aren’t I?  I just. Am. Not.  Sometimes I am.  Sometimes I can be.  Yesterday I was – I had a brilliant evening with writers and readers, and it’s given me the kick up the arse I needed to rediscover the joy of possibility.  I think that’s the worst thing about ‘should’.  You lose the joy; there’s only other people’s ‘should’s’ and your own beating a path through your head to the heart.

March is looking good though.

The arrogance of certainty

  1. David Silvester blaming floods on gay marriage.  Dubya saying god told him to invade Iraq.  Female Genital Mutilation.  Honour killings.  More settlement-building on the West Bank.  And on, and on.  They’re all so sure that they’re right.  All of them.  How can that be possible?

I know Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans, Jews, CofEs, Shamanic practitioners, Wiccans, atheists and agnostics. Everyone believes something; often they believe the same thing in a different way.  I was born and brought up a non-Orthodox Jew –  I now have a spiritual practice which is not Judaism, but I would never deny my heritage.  I don’t have an issue with religion as such; everyone’s entitled to believe what they want, and who are people like Richard Dawkins to say that people of faith are deluded and misguided?

So, what’s this about then?  Silvester and Dubya are easy targets, anyone of a liberal bent will re-post UKIP weather maps and retweet the UKIP shipping forecast.  (Minor digression: I am amazed at the speed with which those things appeared – how did they think of them so quickly?  Brilliant.)

I can’t possibly be implying that the new-agey, liberal, spiritual, holistic, just-want-to-save-the-planet people are guilty of the arrogance of certainty, surely?  That would go against everything I believe, wouldn’t it?  How about this, then: “Cancer is a result of negative thoughts.”  Or: “Is depression a call to spiritual awakening?”  Or: “the tsunami was because of the negative vibrations of the people living there.”  Or: “You can cure any illness with the power of your belief.”  I’ve heard all of these, at different times.  I’ve heard people who hold themselves up as spiritually enlightened say things that put David Silvester in the shade.  I’ve heard judgements and statements so utterly lacking in compassion that I am left speechless with disbelief.

If someone had said to me last year, “have you considered that your early stage/or not breast cancer might be due to negative thinking, or that you have called it in in some way,” I would probably have decked them.  In what way do they think this might actually help?  “Oh wow, that’s amazing!  Thanks so much, now I know that it’s entirely my fault, I will embrace what you say and you can do some healing on me.”  Fuck. Off.

I did ask myself “What am I learning from this?”  and that’s entirely different.  No judgement, no imposed crap from anyone else.  Have you ever had depression, or felt suicidal, you smug, moral-high-ground-loving people who presume to understand what depression is?  The best story of this week came from the #findmike campaign – Jonny Benjamin, a brave, wonderful mental health campaigner was going to end his life by jumping off Waterloo Bridge.  He was talked down by a total stranger, who just listened.  That was all he did.  Jonny talked, this man listened.  And Jonny came off the bridge.

Sometimes, that’s all you can do.  And all you should do.  There are rarely instant fixes, perfect solutions.  There is compassion, and an attempt to understand someone else’s pain.  It’s not about dropping a ladder down for people to climb out, sometimes it’s about going down the ladder to be with them.

We’re born, we live, we die.  Everything else is up for debate.