By Liam Hoare
This month, the British Jewish community, and the progressive community in particular, mourned the passing of Rabbi Lionel Blue, who died December 19, aged 86. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, senior rabbi to the Movement for Reform Judaism, said, “Rabbi Lionel, as a teacher, writer and much-loved national broadcaster transformed how Britain viewed Jews, Judaism and most importantly, ourselves.”
Aside perhaps from the Chief Rabbi, Blue was the best-known rabbi of his day outside of the British Jewish community. This, in no small part, was because of his frequent appearances on the BBC, on a popular radio segment called “Thought for the Day,” which offers ten-minute “reflections from a faith perspective on issues and people in the news.” Rabbi Blue’s monologues were often light-hearted and jocular, but his friendly tone disguised a serious moral underpinning.
Rabbi Blue was also significant as he was the first rabbi to publicly come out as gay back in 1980. Part of his work involved supporting groups such as the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Jews. Surat-Shaan Knan, the LGBTQI+ project manager for Liberal Judaism in Britain, wrote that Rabbi Blue “was the great Jewish LGBTQI+ pioneer” who showed that there was a place for gay people in the synagogue and whose visibility helped those who were “struggling to come out and worrying about finding acceptance in our families and faith communities.”
Further loss came in the world of literature, when last month, Ilse Aichinger – the writer who became best known in Austria for her work about the Holocaust – died, aged 95. Born in the northern city of Linz of a Jewish mother who converted to Roman Catholicism, but raised in the capital Vienna, her family was persecuted during the years of fascism – her mother lost her job and her apartment – yet Aichinger and her mother were able to escape deportation.
Jeremy Adler wrote recently that Aichinger “was the first Austrian writer to address the issue of the concentration camps,” specifically in her 1945 essay “Das vierte Tor,” which would by 1948 evolve into the novel, Die größere Hoffnung (recently published in English as The Greater Hope). The novel “traces the journey of a handful of young Jewish children during Nazi occupation,” Stephanie Homer summarises.
“Unable to obtain a visa and without a sponsor, Aichinger’s main protagonist Ellen is left with her grandmother. Ellen, together with some similarly abandoned and marginalized children searches for meaning and hope in the face of death.”
Aichinger’s reputation in Austria was also built upon her 1949 short story “Spiegelgeschichte,” which was “unusual both for being written in the second person, and for telling the story of the life of a young woman in reverse,” her obituary in Deutsche Welle stated. Gruppe 47, the Austrian avant-garde literary tendency formed after the Second World War, gave “Spiegelgeschichte” its Literature Prize in 1952.
Individually, it rather goes without saying that people like Rabbi Blue and Aichinger are irreplaceable, and yet it is heartening that their loss does not mean an end to the traditions or principles they embodied. In the case of Rabbi Blue, he provided a model for how rabbis can become public educators in the national media. Today in Britain, there is no shortage of rabbis from across the religious spectrum for whom part of their work involves engagement beyond the Jewish world.
The former Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence) and the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism Jonathan Wittenberg (My Dear Ones: One Family and the Final Solution) published new books this year grounded in Jewish ideas and Jewish stories. Rabbi Janner-Klausner, meanwhile, has used her public platform to highlight the plight of refugees from the Middle East and north Africa who were trapped in encampments near the French port of Calais.
In the German-speaking world, the novelists Jenny Erpenbeck (most recently The End of Days) in Germany and Doron Rabinovici (Elsewhere) in Austria are widely read in their native countries and their work has also been translated into English. In the case of Rabinovici, he also maintains a political platform from which he is able to intervene in Austrian national debate.
One could even take the example of Marion Pritchard, who in December died at 96. Pritchard was “a Dutch social work student who rescued Jews during World War II and killed a policeman who discovered a Jewish family she was sheltering,” the JTA reported, and was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1981. When the Bulgarian Jewish community raises $6,000 to help victims of an explosion inside a heavily populated Muslim village, or Hungarian Jewish individuals and groups put aside their work to give comfort to and open up their homes to refugees, this notion of providing shelter and helping the stranger quietly continues.
2016 was a year of loss, to be sure, but it was not a year of decline for European Jewish culture at all. Between the ongoing Jewish revival in eastern Europe and the continuation of these traditions of public and intellectual engagement in the west, the foundations of Jewish culture and Jewish life in Europe, whatever the challenges, remain strong.