On visiting my birthplace
Not too long ago, I visited my birthplace of Coventry, for the first time in twenty five years. For those of you who don’t know, Coventry is a small city in the British Midlands, a little in the shadow of its larger and better-known neighbour, Birmingham. Has anyone of you been there? I could be wrong, but I’m guessing not - although it is (more or less) home to the University of Warwick, and certainly to the University of Coventry. Or let me put it another way: have any of you been “sent to Coventry”? It’s an English idiom meaning to “deliberately ostracise someone”, or more simply to stop speaking to them. These days we have “ghosting”, but when I was young we used to “send people to Coventry”. It’s probably one of the reasons why I tell people I’m from London. The others being that Coventry is not renowned for its beauty, given that most of the city centre including the Cathedral was destroyed during the Blitz - Coventry being a major industrial centre at the time, and most famous for its car production - think Jaguar but know that in the early 20th century there were more than 20 different car makers in the city and it was one of the birthplaces of the motor industry. And while we’re here, and it may be another 25 years before I go back again, Coventry is also famous for its statue of Lady Godiva, now a Belgian chocolate goddess but remembered since the thirteenth century as the lady who rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest her husband’s heavy taxation of its residents. All the citizens were asked to stay indoors and shut their windows as she rode by. And of course just one person disobeyed this request, a tailor known as Peeping Tom.
My grandparents moved there in the 1930s, where they continued my grandfather’s tailoring business. They were in the rag trade - but I don’t think they called their shop “Peeping Tom Tailors”, although it could have done wonders for trade. My father was born in Coventry in 1938, and grew up there. He did his bar mitzvah in 1951 in the synagogue that had been there, just outside the ring road and a few minutes walk from the City Centre. It was a never a large community; the records suggest that the community peaked in the 1950s and 1960s with 200 or so members. When my parents got married in London in 1972, the community presented them with a silver cup, engraved with their names, which I treasure until today. And when I was born in 1980, I presume it was the first synagogue I set foot in, and I somehow have early memories of attending and sitting with my mum and sister in the Ladies Gallery, which must have been prior to 1994 when my grandmother passed away and was buried in the cemetery there.
My reason for going there? Two steps forward, one step back. In order to make aliyah I need to provide the Jewish Agency with many documents. These include an original copy of my birth certificate. For somewhat mysterious reasons of Crown Copyright, this can only be produced by the local Registry Office. And so I found myself entering the same building (I asked the lady) where my father had gone, on the fifth day of my life, to register my birth almost forty years earlier. The day was cold and grey but there was something heart-warming at recognising my father’s handwriting and signature on the document, confirming my existence.
As we journey through life, it’s important to recognise who we are and where we are from. This has a narrative element to it - for example I say I’m a Londoner because I lived there from the age of four months’ old and grew up there until I was 18 and went off to college. But we also are somehow inextricably linked to the physical places we were born, and that means that really I should say - and say proudly - that I am from Coventry too.
Our Torah portion this week is also concerned with identity and belonging. As the Israelites travel ever onwards through the desert from Egypt to Israel, they are also negotiating this sometimes thorny question of where they are from. Are they Egyptian, the ones who are born there? This is downplayed, although of course it’s the next generation who were born in the desert who are allowed eventually to enter Israel in lieu of their slave-born parents. But in the jacket of the High Priest, in Aaron’s priestly coat, are sewn in the twelve jewels, each one representing a different tribe that together make up the people and the children of Israel. And this is highlighting their distinct yet common origins - not the years in Egypt, both better and worse - but rather the previous era when all was forgiven, and Joseph’s brothers came and joined him in Egypt. The Cohanim may be the new, priestly class, the Levitical elite, but they shine with the gemstones of all the people they claim to represent.
In a country like Singapore, in a community like ours, it’s often a question we ask: so where are you from? And someone, I think it’s Gayle Rosen, told me once that there’s a better question to ask, which is: where are you going? I think there’s a lot to be said for that approach, and in the Bible too we are always looking forward, to the Promised Land, to Israel, but to understand who we are, it can help to have a look back as well. I am not suggesting that you all go back to your birthplaces straightaway, but maybe, a little more frequently than once in twenty five years, it’s good to reconnect with who you are, as you tentatively or confidently put your best foot forward for the way ahead.