Archives 2010-2011

Posted: May 1, 2017 in Uncategorized


The Century of Women



This year’s International Women’s day is different from so many I have celebrated since the 1970s. Millions of women have been active and on the march over the past few months. You don’t have to give it a name to recognise it’s a movement. Women’s anger and women’s power are issues for the whole world now.

We can’t be content with just one day of international protest and action. Not even a year will  be enough for everything we need to do to win equality and freedom for women. Let’s go for the whole century. Let the 21st century be the century of women.

To do that we have to start now and we should try to include everybody who wants to change the lives of women and girls and those of men and boys in the world we will shape together.

Here’s a poem for this special International Women’s Day.

The pictures below are from my childhood in South Africa. Even then I can remember refusing to do what girls are supposed to.


Poem for a newborn girl on International Women’s Day 2017

for Masha who is very new

and for Moon who is already asking why

Welcome to the world of limited opportunities.

it is yours to make your own.


From child to woman

is a wondrous transformation.

Chance is always possible.


Grasp this world in your hands

as you grasp the first finger

feel it take shape

as you mould it to your will

your world, a girl’s world


Gulp its freshest air

to swell your open lungs

you’ll need them later

to shout your demands

a girl to be heard


Kick away the barriers

with your agile heels and toes

run far enough, climb high above

no one can stop

a girl who won’t be caught


Open your eyes

beyond history & tradition

you can see the path

you can choose to follow

a girl who wants to learn


Welcome to the world of unequal distribution

let’s tip the scales together

when you’re ready to decide.


A thinking woman’s life

is a voyage of resistance. Still.




© Karen Margolis

March 2017


Posted 7 March 2017





He remained uncompromising, even in old age. “If I were 20 years old again, I wouldn’t think twice about the Communist revolution,” he told the Spanish paper El Periódico. “I would set up a blog in Internet and spread inflammatory ideas.”


the great Spanish writer who fought Franco’s fascism in Spain and Nazi fascism as a French Resistance member, and survived Buchenwald concentration camp.  

He died in Paris aged 87 on 7 June 2011.  

Wörlitz national park June 2011

Back to Buchenwald

  in honour of Jorge Semprún

When in the dawning light I turn the radio on
Smooth voices tell me of the crimes of former years
Each day begins with suffering that’s never gone
The evening shadows harbour numbrous fears.
A people’s eyes are turned toward the past
Their evil deeds are thrown back in their faces
Fate has entrapped them in an iron cast
The blood of millions keeps them in their places.
Today the victims speak their tragic stories
Another Sunday full of incantation
A nation bends its knee and grimly glories
In swamps of guilt and self-recrimination.

Once there was a beechwood, they took its name in vain
Besmirched its tree trunks with bad blood. It can happen again.
Once there was a beechwood, so proud in sun and rain
Why don’t they give it back to nature? Let silence heal the pain.

© Karen Margolis 2011

This poem was written in April 1995 as part of the poetry cycle “The Ballad of the Wrapped Reichstag”.  

Jorge Semprún (10 December 1923-7 June 2011)

Photos from Wörlitz National Park

(UNESCO world heritage site), Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, 31 May 2011



Tireless: Anita Lasker-Wallfisch

Anita Lasker-Wallfisch reads from her memoirs in the Zionskirche, Berlin 26 May 2011

1. Overture: Bomb chaos

The event begins with a bomb. On the afternoon of 26 May, Berlin local radio announces that
a 250-kg British aerial bomb from the Second World War has been found near the
Oberbaumbrücke between the city districts of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain. It used to be the
bridge where pensioners from East Germany were allowed to cross the Berlin Wall border to
visit their families. Recently it has become a place for scene parties and art happenings. And
today, a bomb site.

All through the afternoon police are busy closing roads and evacuating thousands of residents
living along the River Spree. Buses and subway trains stop running in the area. Experts from
the Berlin state police force are preparing to defuse the bomb at May-Ayim-Ufer. A few years
ago this street along the riverbank was renamed in memory of May Ayim, a Ghanaian-
German writer and poetess who committed suicide at the age of 36 in 1996. An outspoken
anti-racism campaigner, she was renowned for her pioneering work on racism and skin
colour, and fiercely criticized by conservative academics.

The historical event of the day hasn’t even begun and already we are wrapped in layer upon
layer of circumstance, an agglomeration of periods and places because the city doesn’t just
breathe and move, it continually emanates threads that weave the past into the present in an
invisible fabric that swaddles every facet of daily life.

The bomb from a British fighter plane buried in the ground for almost 70 years under a street
whose name changed how many times on a political whim was discovered on the day of Anita
Lasker-Wallfisch’s reading in Berlin. At the time the bomb was dropped, Anita Lasker-
Wallfisch was a prisoner of the Nazis, stripped of her German citizenship and
all her worldly possessions because she was Jewish. She returned to Berlin in May 2011 at the
age of 88 as a British citizen. A survivor who escaped the hell of Auschwitz and Bergen-
Belsen and came back to show the power of resistance. By just being there, in the centre of
Berlin, she was defying the spirits of destruction that caused the Holocaust. She was a living
celebration of the survival of the Jews and all the other victims of Nazi racism and
warmongering. As a purveyor of memory she was the human counterpart to the bomb that
stopped the traffic that day.

2. The Setting: Zionskirche – the Church of Zion
It is a cool, windy May evening. Blowy enough to play havoc with the hair of the people
waiting patiently in line at the church door for tickets — but most of them have little hair left
to wave in the wind. The audience is distinctly elderly, as on so many similar occasions.
Many of the people are familiar from Jewish Community and civil rights events. Two active
social groups overlap here: those concerned with Nazi fascism and its aftermath and those
interested in the history and effects of 40 years of communist rule in East Germany. Together,
they make up the regular local clientele for Berlin’s much-cited “culture of remembrance”.
Here in Zionskirche we are reminded once again that it’s just as much a culture of forgetting.
The church looks rundown and dusty. A good example of 19th-century Lutheran church
architecture, built by Kaiser Wilhelm I to raise the tone of the surrounding working-class
urban district, it has no elaborate stained glass windows with Biblical figures and scenes. The
tall windows around and behind the altar are filled with small diamond panes in yellow and
orange. The evening sun shines through like a blessing. The only thing that disturbs this
pleasant shabbiness is a huge bright cross made of heavy cloth hanging over the altar table.
It’s like a patchwork of primary colours, with a large red spot on one side of the horizontal bar
and the words, “Ich habe keine Angst” (“I am not afraid”) stitched across a blue and green
wedge on the other side. This primitive, aggressive modernism makes the peeling splendour
of the surrounding walls and gallery look almost elegant, like a faded Hollywood star from
the silent movie era.

Zionskirche feels like a poor relation in the city’s ecclesiastical family. A leaflet on the
entrance literature table titled “Zion – building site”, appeals for donations for urgent
restoration. “Zion needs refurbished windows, toilets and more heating.” By the end of the
evening our cold toes are saying amen to the heating plea. And we have heard an impassioned
speech by historian Michael Wolffsohn, a leading expert on 20th-century Germany and the
Nazi period, reminding us that this was a church of resistance. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the
key figures in the Church resistance against Nazism, worked here in the early 1930s. Under
East German communism the church became famous as a centre for punks and other young
dropouts and outcasts. Rock concerts and alternative happenings were held on the premises,
and it was even the target of an attack by East Berlin neo-fascist skinheads. Like most East
German churches, it was left to decay by a state that wished religion would disappear in the
process of communist evolution.

“Memorial centres and sites commemorating the perpetrators are all well and good,”
Wolffsohn said. “But we should make a special effort to keep the memory of resistance alive
in places like this church.”

Still, I’m running ahead. Michael Wolffsohn said this after Anita Lasker-Wallfisch had read
from her memoirs. He had to talk about the future because after she told us her story there
was nothing anybody there could add about the past. The voice of a survivor telling her story
is unique.

3. Anita Lasker-Wallfisch reads.
She needs no introduction, and mercifully there is none aside from a brief greeting. She
begins reading without any preamble. A low, well-moderated voice tells a story of loss,
torture, destruction and extermination in a measured tone that precludes any false emotion. As
she reads, her head with its thick covering of short white hair radiates quiet pride and dignity.
Here she is, in the middle of Berlin, not far from the headquarters of the Nazi terror machine,
and she tells us she has conquered an inner refusal to come here and feels proud of that
conquest. She comes as a survivor who made a new life in another country. “The rupture
between my first and second life was too radical,” she says. She comes here from her
“second” life as a British citizen, a mother and grandmother, and yet there is so much that still
connects her to that first life as a child in a Jewish family in Breslau, now Wroclaw, in the
former German Reich.

Her family wasn’t very Jewish, she says. Later she regretted that her parents hadn’t taught her
something of Jewish tradition that she could pass on to her own children and grandchildren.
But why should they? They were assimilated, and proud to be German. Her father was
especially proud of his Iron Cross won in combat in the First World War. He and so many
other Jews. Not that it helped. Later, after all the racist laws and decrees and being forced to
hand in radios and bicycles, and seeing the wilful destruction of the Reichskristallnacht when
the streets around Jewish shops and businesses were covered in blood and glass shards, later,
after all that, and after all the futile attempts to get exit permits and visas for safe countries,
her father realized there would be no return. On the night before Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s
parents were due to be deported, her father called her to his study and told her that at 16, she
was old enough to look after herself and her younger sister, Renate. True to his German
training, he had carefully prepared all the accounts for the time after his departure. “This is for
the rent and the gas bills…”  The following morning the parents left for the assembly point.
The two daughters never saw them again.

Though Jewish education may have been lacking, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch is grateful to her
parents, and especially her father, for educating her in the best German tradition. After her
reading, Michael Wolffsohn complimented her on her beautiful written German, her ability to
tell a story clearly and accurately. The word he used was “Bildungsbürgertum”, the classical
tradition of German education that emphasized hard work and the disciplines of the
humanities but also prized poetry, prose and music as great achievements. Anita Lasker-
Wallfisch thanks her father to this day that he made his daughters speak French every Sunday
— although she found it tiresome at the time. The twists of fate that decide between life and
death made it possible for her to put that French to good use in forging identity papers in
Nazi-occupied France, just one of the stations in her odyssey to the death camps.

In December 1943 she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. “Incredible,” she exclaims. “They
actually made me sign a document saying I was going to Auschwitz voluntarily!” (Of course
“they” — the Gestapo — did. Then they could claim she had abandoned her property so they
could impound it. The Nazis robbed the Jews of millions with tricks like that.) In Auschwitz,
once again, she had reason to be grateful to her parents for that excellent education. She
remained alive in the death camp because she could play the cello. A fellow prisoner, Alma Maria Rose, niece of
the composer Gustav Mahler, told her, “You will be saved.” She was picked to play in the
“girls’ ensemble” that accompanied the prisoners going to and from work in the

“Black figures, baying hounds, the terrible stench…” – those were her first — indelible —
impressions of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Finally, after more attempted escapes and a proliferating scenery of carnage as the Allies
advanced, she was reunited with her sister and they arrived among the mountains of corpses
in Bergen-Belsen. Nearing the end of her terrible story, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s voice
quivers only slightly as she describes being ordered by the Gestapo to drag piles of bodies
towards the crematorium, and being too weak to obey. Even after they realized the guards had
abandoned the camp, she and her sister sat exhausted, propped up against the wall of a prison
hut. Suddenly she heard a loud voice over a megaphone (I quote from memory):

I have been weeping pretty much nonstop for the past half-hour of this reading. Since Anita
Lasker-Wallfisch’s parents were deported, in fact. Suddenly I give my eyes a final dab and sit
up straight. I’m proud. Proud to be British. Proud to be a naturalized citizen of a country that
fought fascism at great cost and liberated the concentration camps with bravery and gave
shelter to many victims of the Nazis and their families. A country that integrated refugees and
victims of political and racial persecution and made them feel proud to be British.

I only wish I could say the same about Britain today! — and Michael Wolfssohn, pointing to Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s beautiful German prose that didn’t protect her from ostracism and attempted genocide, warned us to be wary of immigration policy in Germany as well.

Integration isn’t merely a question of language, it’s a way of being and feeling, of embracing while preserving difference and distance. .

4. Signing the books.
After Avitall, the cantor of Berlin’s Jewish community, has paid musical homage to Anita
Lasker-Wallfisch, saying how moved she was because many of her own family perished in
Auschwitz, the author shows her incredible stamina by signing scores of copies for eager
buyers of her book. She takes the trouble to talk to each of them. Especially the younger ones, who smile shyly in the presence of living history.  The young man on the bookstall
is beaming. A model author. A woman with a mission endowed by life. An unforgettable personality.

5. Mrs. Courage and a heap of rubble.
The streets are clear, almost empty as we drive through the city centre. The bomb was defused
without further incident at 6.30 p.m. There are still plenty more buried under the city. Large
tracts of land in the city centre, the heartland of the bomber raids, remained waste ground or
no man’s land after the war and the building of the Berlin Wall. The excavations for the
massive redevelopment after the fall of the wall uncovered masses of unexploded bombs.
According to Berlin historian Laurenz Demps, “In the period from 1 January 1991 to 31
December 2007 the firefighters of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal Service defused and
salvaged a total of 7,819 bombs (including incendiary bombs) and 1,069,390 kg. of buried
explosives and war rubble. In April 2009 the newspapers reported, “3000 bombs still buried
in the ground”.* I’m reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s comment when he arrived back in Berlin in
1946 after exile from the Nazis. “Berlin? – that heap of rubble near Potsdam.”

Near Jannowitzbrücke, a bridge not far from the scene of the bomb, we drop off our friend
Simone who was with us at the reading. As she gets out of the car, she points towards the
looming the TV tower at Alexanderplatz, its facetted ball winking and blinking in the
floodlights. She has a clear view of it from her apartment window in a former communist
concrete slab block overlooking a huge expanse of wasteland. All of this — the renovated
East German tower blocks, the empty site with the rusty fence destined, no doubt, for a
glorious real estate future, the landmark TV tower, the rows of shiny new buildings along the
embankment, the lingering traces of the Cold War border, the undiscovered aerial bombs
buried under the streets… all of that and so much more in this city and its people is a direct
result of the brief period of Nazi rule that left its mark on the world indelibly, forever.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Anita Lasker-Wallfisch’s reading in the Zionskirche
in Berlin is that she had the courage and greatness of heart to come here at all.

*Laurenz Demps, “Berlin and the Consequences of Nazi Tyranny”, Berlin 1933-45: Between
Propaganda and Terror, ed. Claudia Steur, Berlin 2010 (Engl. translation: Karen Margolis).

Avitall Zionskirche 26 May 2011


The music to go with this article:

Ofra Haza: Kaddish

“For salvation – Kaddish

for redemption – Kaddish

for forgiveness – Kaddish

for health – Kaddish

for all the world’s victims – Kaddish

for all the Holocaust’s victims – Kaddish.”

© Karen Margolis   29 May 2011


… sometimes it just doesn’t work out…

Wunderkammer Olbricht, Auguststr. Berlin

Stillborn Poem

for Ruth

Sat down to write a poem

a man came into the room
to use the telephone

the title flew out of the open door

a boy came into the room
to tell me why Russia is cold

the first line fell into an ice hole

a postwoman came up the stairs
to hand over a registered letter

the rhythm fled with her departing footsteps

my mobile rang twice
the display was blank

a harsh voice shattered my rhyme.

The poem came out unripe
shrivelled and aged before its time.

Grieving, I cut the cord
to my botched creation

and gasped for breathing space
until the next interruption.

© Karen Margolis  2008 / 2011

Wunderkammer Olbricht Auguststr. Berlin

Gallery Weekend, Auguststr. Berlin 30 April 2011

Wunderkammer Olbricht, Auguststr. Berlin

Wunderkammer Olbricht, Auguststr. Berlin


Berlin – city of change


change money
a prelude to spending
change a man

change tactics
make a list
minus side longer
draw an ultimatum line
impose a fine
change trains

change habits
hack away at them
they grow teeth — bite back
chop them off
they flourish all the more
like snakes on the gorgon’s head
pull them out at the roots
they multiply in the hand
change cigarette brand

change hairstyle
a prelude to hoping
change heads

change clothes
a prelude to dieting
change sizes

change shoes
a prelude to dancing
change feet

change drugs
a prelude to flying
change carpets

change homes
a prelude to moving
change routes

change work
a prelude to retiring
change partners

change places
a prelude to parting
change faces

change shops
a prelude to consuming
change products

change cases
a prelude to declining
change contents

change colour
a prelude to blending in
change scenery

ring the changes
a prelude to cashing in
change rings

change choices
a prelude to deciding
change free will

change dates
a prelude to lying
times change

change a man
do it fast
exchange rate falling
all the time

change money
do it fast
change gets smaller
all the time
the dime stores fuller
change change

© Karen Margolis  2011

Tempelhof Airport is the latest setting for change in Berlin. A few years ago flights still took off and landed here and passengers walked through the old halls, footsteps echoing in the original 1930s stone halls, with the feeling of occasional glimpses of 20th century history behind the square pillars and deco moulding.  Tempelhof, the scene of some sinister and some heroic airborne missions, is now closed for flying and open for future speculation.

What to do with the world’s largest interconnected inner-city space? In the gap between temporary use licenses, urban planning resolutions and architectural competitions, the Berliners, adepts at improvising after a century of upheavals, have claimed the space as their own.

Watch this space. It’s the perfect venue for Berlin’s contribution to the international poetry event

100 Thousand Poets for Change

on 24 September 2011.

More later…

…meanwhile, here’s a look at Tempelhof Field over the Easter weekend:


…. heard something about a wedding? ….

Picture: Thomas Schliesser / Karen Margolis 2011

Retro not Metro

The royal nuptials nostalgia show

The bride has been groomed
the groom has been briefed
they both passed the test
without coming to grief
from the dead princess’s hand
a symbolic ring
the world media rights are sold
the show can begin

They say family
it means patrician loyalty
they praise tradition and glory
it’s a nostalgia orgy

There’s gold stick-in-waiting
and silver stick, too
street liners, path liners
and licensed film crews
eight 20-foot-high trees
inside the old abbey
and a disinvited despot prince
for the sake of diplomacy

They say marriage
we see military
they say carriage
we hear cavalry

160 army horses
all along the route
eight hours of polishing
the infamous jackboots
swords, plumes, horse tack
helmets & cuirasses
1000 men-at-arms or more
and military musicians

Valiant and Brave
the trumpeters will play
a wing commander’s fanfare
composed for the big day
valiant and brave
the bride & groom must be
to get through this marathon
of pomp and ceremony

household guards, honour guards
Grenadiers, Blues & Royals
historical escort troops
for queen and bridal couple—
while to show they’re in touch
with folk of the nation
sports idols and popstars
will be at the reception

They say renaissance
we hear patriotism
they talk of values
we see militarism

The battle is on
for marketing and media
saturation bombing
with sentiment & trivia

In the master plan, after
the kiss on the balcony
two billion viewers
across the globe will see
the ghosts of the past
as vintage aircraft
the Battle of Britain
memorial flypast:
a Lancaster, a Spitfire,
a Hurricane, and then
two Typhoons & two Tornados
paired in box formation—

a royal air force in the sky
of oldtimer jets
under the enduring motto

union and reunion
for an heir to the throne
a fitting initiation to
the connubial combat zone

© Karen Margolis  April 2011


There’s a jar of gefilte fish (Hungarian-style) in the cupboard waiting with the matze boxes (family pack). Passover is on the way. This year in Berlin, next year in Jerusalem. Maybe. The preparations awaken thoughts of Pesachs long ago.

Matzes v. Trotsky

On a homeopathic cure for residual religious and political ailments, our narrator Karen tries a dose of Passover at a festive dinner in Berlin — and breaks out in a memory rash.

By the time we arrive at Middenweg, most of the guests are already seated. The synagogue has been transformed into a noisy banqueting room with two parallel tables along the length of the hall. At the centre of the head table running across the top are the rabbi and his wife, flanked by the synagogue elders and their families. The glamorous young woman sitting next to the rabbi is Ronia the cantor, wearing an embroidered prayer shawl and a decorative pillbox cap on her luxuriant blonde curls; a feminised oriental version of the ceremonial garb. We find two empty seats at the bottom end of the table near the kitchen. The rabbi’s wife waves to us. The treasurer, a small man with greying moustache, comes over to collect the dinner money. There are already around 60 people here, with more arriving all the time. The TV crew that recorded Purim is here as well, with the lady producer also in oriental style in a long glittery dress and extravagant earrings. A tall dark photographer with an enviable Nikon is hovering discreetly; he looks professional. Everybody’s talking except the boy next to me, who’s got that bored-and-scornful teenage look I remember so well: “I wouldn’t be here at all if my parents hadn’t dragged me along. Can’t wait till next year when they won’t be able to stop me going to the disco instead.”

If I were he, I wouldn’t be here either. Teenagers usually want to be among their peers. This seder company has a smattering of small children, but most of the guests look like grandparents. The chair waiting for the prophet Elijah isn’t the only empty space. There’s a big gap where the teens and twens should be; and the few 30-somethings are mostly married couples with young kids accompanying the grandparents.

The homeopathic Pesach dose is stronger than I anticipated and has instant effect. My mind goes into split screen. One part is watching the scene around me, showing Thomas the picture in the Haggadah that identifies the symbolic bits and pieces on the plate in front of each guest. This is the first time I have ever brought a non-Jew to a seder and I realise how mysterious it must seem to the uninitiated. The glaring neon lighting in the room doesn’t help; it makes the items on our plates look limp and grey compared to the bright colours in the book.

The other half of me is on fast rewind, spooling back, back, back to the last seder 25 years ago at my parents’ house in Hampstead. Every springtime after my twin sister and I left home, my mother would phone up in advance to make sure we were coming to the seder. Our Spanish flatmate Rosita, who had her own share of family duties, dubbed Passover “your Christmas dinner”.

At the age of 24 I decide to duck the roll call. When my mother phones, I tell her that on seder night there’s an important meeting of my political group, the International Marxists.

“But nothing can be more important than the family,” my mother says.

“Well, this is,” I reply firmly. “There’s a crucial vote and I have to be there.”

“Why don’t you ask for a postal vote?” my mother says with sweet reason. “I’m sure they’ll understand if you tell them it’s Pesach.”

“They won’t. Trotskyists don’t believe in all that,” I answer impatiently. “You know what Karl Marx said: religion is the opium of the masses…”

I realise my mistake as soon as I’ve said it. The mention of Marx brings out all my mother’s wrath. “That man Marx said a lot of stupid things. Just look at Russia. How they persecute the poor Jews behind the Iron Curtain.”

Now I’m hopelessly entangled. “You can’t blame it all on Marx,” I argue. “It was Stalin who betrayed the revolution — ”

“— I wasn’t asking for a history lesson,” my mother interrupts. “I only phoned up to tell you that your place will be set at the seder like it is every year. Just because you lead a bohemian revolutionary life doesn’t mean you can turn your back on the family.

“And anyway — “, she pauses for the parting shot, “— your brother is looking forward to seeing you. He’s built a kind of computer he wants to show you.”

My mother knows my weak spot. I can resist anything but my younger brother. He was born when I was 11, and I can clearly remember the day when my aunt fetched my sisters and me from school with the news. We took the 24 bus from Hampstead to University College Hospital in Bloomsbury, and saw a greasy wriggling little bundle through a glass window. Perhaps it was his naked ugly perfection that made me love him wholly and unconditionally from that first moment. I can remember whispering a soothing song to comfort him eight days later for the little gauze bandage on his penis after the circumcision (to which his sisters were not invited). Friends and family arrived to admire him, commenting: “At last the family is complete.”

We three sisters looked at each other, astonished. We hadn’t realised we were incomplete.

Sitting at the seder table in March 2002 is not the time to start meditating on the irrevocable harm caused by learning at a tender age in a past century that your sex is the wrong one. I’ll only say that the hurt I had long thought healed resurfaced another springtime in Berlin almost twenty years later when I wrote the bitterness and anger into a poem.

Family History

Mother tied my hands behind my back

with the umbilical cord

Father beat me with the stick of conformity

Long-suffering sisters stuck pins of jealousy

into the moulded picture of me.

Baby brother took a long time to arrive.

Great rejoicing. A manchild:

Now, they say, the family’s complete.

On the eighth day

initiation rites

secured his place within the tribe

(His sisters were not invited)

He had a godly property

that won my mother heart and soul

I only a hole

the emptiness

I try to fill with love.

Still, life’s getting easier

since I stopped looking for my good parents.

Berlin, April 1995

I never held a grudge against my little brother. At his bar mitzvah in 1977 shortly before that last seder, I was every bit the proud older sister. (Though I did manage to annoy my elders by wearing a big Women’s Liberation badge to ward off the patriarchal spirits in the synagogue, and pointedly asked Reverend Bronsky how long it would be before girls were allowed the privilege of a bat mitzvah under his conservative ministry.)

When my brother was still in his infancy I taught him Beatles songs and his first mathematics and chess. Now he’s a computer prodigy. I don’t see enough of him. I can’t disappoint him by not coming to the seder.

At the next International Marxist meeting I tell my comrades that I won’t be at the crucial debate the following week. The chairman demands the reason. Passover, I say. I have to go to the family celebration.

“That’s not a valid reason,” he says.

“It’s the only one I’ve got,” I reply. (Stifling the impulse to fish for sympathy by invoking my little brother.)

Silence falls over the smoky back room of the pub. From the saloon bar next door you can hear the sound of billiard balls colliding, and the satisfying rattle as they fall into the side pockets of the table. There are at least three other Jewish people at the meeting. They avoid my gaze.

“Do you mean to say,” the chairman asks slowly and deliberately, “that you’re going to let your family dictate to you with their ancient superstitions?”

The sneer in his voice with its carefully cultivated Irish brogue rouses me to anger. It flashes through my mind that I could call him an ignorant Guinness addict. What dogmas did he imbibe with his mammy’s milk before he developed his taste for the harder stuff? He’s also got a weakness for IRA-style bomber fantasies. Unconditional but critical solidarity, he calls it.

This is what happens when people insult me for being Jewish: I want to hit back. A gut reaction. I’m hurt that he’s questioning my revolutionary credentials just because I can’t deny my family.

All this in the split second while I’m listening to the chairman asking the others for their opinion. Nobody knows what to say. They’re embarrassed at this religious family stuff intruding on the agenda. The chairman is proposing a vote.

“Hang on,” I say. “You can’t seriously mean you’re going to vote on whether I can go to my family for Passover? — that’s a personal decision, not a political issue. I did you the courtesy of telling you I wouldn’t be here. But I’m going anyway — whatever you decide.”

“Don’t interrupt in the middle of a vote,” the chairman snaps. “Now: hands up all those in favour of Karen having leave of absence for her… ”

He pauses to pick his words, and blurts out awkwardly: “… for her family religious do.”

I get up and walk out of the room without looking back.

Afterwards I heard that the twenty-odd comrades at the meeting voted two to one in favour of my being allowed to miss the crucial meeting for Pesach. Some of my supporters kindly advised me to reconsider my priorities. The rest never mentioned the incident again; but from then on I knew I was regarded as a weak link.

That last seder 25 years ago was the moment I finally cast off the fetters of Judaism. It was also the beginning of my drift away from the Trotskyist movement. A passionate, overwhelming desire for personal freedom eventually led to my renouncing creeds and parties. They seemed to be run mainly by men and to demand exclusive loyalty. I wanted to be a free citizen of the world, not a prisoner of a family, a party, a sect or a particular nation. Let alone a prisoner of my sex.

The following year, I left the International Marxists. In my resignation letter I didn’t mention the pre-Passover meeting in the pub, but it obviously still rankled. I accused the group of being like a 19th-century school where authoritarian masters whipped the pupils into line with a principle called democratic centralism: top-heavy on centralism and ultra-light on democracy.

Since then I have been wary of organisations of any kind, political or religious. I finally tossed the legacy of patriarchy into the dustbin of history and stopped being a good girl.

© Karen Margolis 2008 / 2011

Excerpt from Chapter One of A Renegade Jewess

  1. Richard Jarrette says:

    Dear Karen,    I thank you so much for sending me the “news.”  I have been away from Facebook to concentrate on writing.  I think I finished another poetry collection on Christmas Eve to be called (for now) Wild Church.  It shall be edited by Dan Gerber whose SAILING THROUGH CASSIOPEIA (Copper Canyon) has just been released.  Beso the Donkey has been translated into Chinese by Yun Wang, Ph.D of the University of Oklahoma Department of Physics and Astronomy.  She is the author of poems, The Book of Jade and her forthcoming The Book of Totality.  She also wrote her own textbooks on Dark Energy and Expansion of the Universe Physics, etc.  We meet in Long Beach, California in a few weeks to finalize her translation.    I am very moved by your “news” which bears such fine witness.  Many gasshos and deep thanks.  Please continue keeping me informed!  Living in America is a deep challenge these days but I count our lucky stars that Romney didn’t win.  We have got to take on the NRA.  The GOP has simply fallen off the edge of their flat earth.  I don’t think Obama has the personality to express nor court conflict.  I believe he eschews a role as “angry Black Man.”  This leaves him seemingly spineless against the right wing loons, but I think he is more complicated than that characterization.  He is too enamored of the drone wars and tolerates so much needless death.  I agree with our Michael Moore that this casualness with civilian death feeds our tolerance of school massacres ultimately.  We have so far to go.  Thank you for your efforts to push the great wheel of life with your fine and strong shoulder. Richard Jarrette


    • Dear Richard, Thanks so much for your news. It’s a pleasure to hear your poems are getting published, read and translated. Facebook is boring, staying away is good for writing. I hope you’re enjoying life generally and wish you a joyous and fulfilled new year. Many, many good thoughts, Karen

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