The luminaries in our lives who light up the darkness

(Photo: Unsplash/Joanna Kosinska)

'The people who walk in darkness have seen a great light.' Thus starts Isaiah 9:1, which I am currently studying with this country's greatest Hebrew scholar, my strictly Orthodox neighbor of many years.

The light theme continues with Isaiah 60 in the feminine singular where it says 'Arise, shine, for thy light has come,' addressing the individual women amongst us. 

These words are immediately famous because they have been immortalized by my favourite English composer, Handel, although unfortunately misunderstood by most. For the people referred to by Isaiah are specific Jerusalemites, fearful of the attack on Jerusalem led by the Assyrian king, Sennarechib.

The passage in Isaiah remarks on this darkness with the promise of light being restored.

For behold, darkness will cover the earth

And deep darkness the peoples;

But the LORD will rise upon you

And His glory will appear upon you.

As the winter nights grow longer and we feel the uncertainty of our nation ahead of the election next month, the relevance of the passage for our own time is obvious.

It's with this in mind that I want to reflect on the book of my good friend, Rowan Williams, Luminaries: Twenty Lives that Illuminate the Christian Way.

As the title suggests, Dr Williams highlights some of the people who have in their own ways brought light not only to the Christian way but to this world. And five of those lives chosen by the former Archbishop of Canterbury to illuminate the Christian way are Jewish, two of whom were recently murdered at Auschwitz.

One of the luminaries selected by Dr Williams who especially moves me is Florence Nightingale. She revolutionized the care of the sick and at the end of her life turned down the offer of that very rare honour, a state funeral.

Many people want to help others and most make a hash of it. Others look, see, understand and then act.

This is what Dr Williams says about Florence Nightingale:

'[S]he was somebody who was ... able to name with precision, with illuminating exactitude, the need and suffering that was there before her, who was able to see what others couldn't see or refused to see; somebody who, in lifting her eyes to eternal love, at the same time focused her eyes on earthly suffering. It's quite a balancing act....'

If only our present national health service were up to her standards, although I know there are exceptions and I'm lucky enough to live in the vicinity of one such exception. Recently, on a typically north Manchester day - dry, sunny and beautifully cold - our medical practice went for a walk. Led by the senior practice doctor, we made our way through the fallen leaves to a café one mile away.

This doctor, like my Hebrew scholar neighbor, also a member of the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of north Manchester, found us a café in a winding side-street and there over coffee, we got to know each other better.

We learned that one patient presents his own local radio show playing golden oldies (such as the Beatles – I do remember them bursting onto the scene in Liverpool and lighting up our lives in that depressed and neglected city), while the practice manager used to run pubs all over the country.

This small, informal gathering brought together by our local doctors was a real lesson in community, fellowship, health, well-being, togetherness and laughs, something we intend to repeat on a monthly basis. (I'm sure that these sort of outings will save the NHS and the taxpayer a great deal of money!)

Florence NightingaleWiki Commons

After bidding the group goodbye, I was off to see a friend whose father had just died at a local nursing home down the road. It was there that I met Sister Berenice, a nun and nurse, a complete stranger. We got talking and after the visit she offered me a lift to my next venue. It wasn't necessary, but she wanted to do it and on the spur of the moment I offered the nuns a concert if it were ever needed – they did after all possess a good piano just waiting to be played.

The following day I was booked for Christmas Eve in a special Christmas show for residents with a playlist that will include Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Steven Sondheim, Simon and Garfunkel and of course the Beatles, with hopefully Sister Berenice in attendance. Perhaps she too was inspired by Florence Nightingale to see the suffering or the need that others couldn't see. Whatever the case, her act of kindness opened the door to an unexpected and much anticipated Christmas concert in my calendar, as well as the possibility of new friendships.

The key here is taking action, a quality Dr Williams observes in Florence Nightingale as he writes further: 'she reminds us all ... that love needs clear sight, that it is not enough to say the right things ....'

And further: 'It's often said that it's very easy to love humanity – the problem is human beings.... Lift your eyes to the heavens, because that's the only way of focusing them on earth.'

But how did this affect Florence herself?

'She was certainly changed by her encounter with suffering; she was a person who was in many ways a good example of the cost that comes with honest engagement.'

And yet certainly, at least by Dr Williams' observations, not a plaster saint.

'She was in many ways a phenomenally difficult woman - obstinate, self-righteous, generous, sacrificial, angular, judgemental and compassionate all at one,' Dr Williams writes.

'And yet in allowing herself to be changed, to be in some ways almost moulded out of shape by the suffering she encountered, she made a difference that no one else could have made.

'We can't any of us plan to be obnoxious, angular and difficult – mostly we just are by nature. We can't plan to be difficult and unique saints. But we can look at someone like Florence Nightingale and think of the cost of attention.'

Most of us will have encountered people like Florence Nightingale in our lives, people who have held the lamp for us, paid us some attention that changed us for the better, and enlightened us. And like the 'lady with the lamp', they might not have been flawless saints, but inspired or helped us in spite of their flaws.

I am lucky to encounter people who illuminate my life on a regular basis at Shul and in my community. But like most people, too, I have special luminaries, the people whose impact on my life has been profound.

The first one who comes to my mind is my former head teacher at secondary school, Miss Margaret Walsh who largely moulded me into the person I became.

Incidentally, I recently learned from my former head teacher that, like me, she had also wanted to become a concert pianist and loved languages.  Miss Walsh did a great deal for all her staff and students. But for me, her outstanding quality was that she understood completely what my family had gone through during the Holocaust. She therefore nurtured my mother, a Holocaust survivor, by giving her a job that suited her skills completely and also gave her hope for life in this very peculiar country that she didn't really understand.

George Eliot(Photo: The National Portrait Gallery)

My mother had no papers to prove how brilliant she was at French, but Miss Walsh believed in my mother with perfect faith. She knew that Mum wouldn't let the side down and she didn't. She was enabled by Miss Walsh to teach her beloved French to sixth-form students as simple conversations about the France she adored, with no exams in sight. And because Miss Walsh believed in my Mum and my Mum adored French, my classmates ended up loving my mother, who was indeed extremely lovable and who became a different person as a result.

And in addition, the students came to understand better what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, while lapping up information on 19th and 20th century French literature, cheese, wine, chocolate, film stars, Baudelaire and – best of all – fashion, on which Mum was a real expert.

Then there is this country's greatest writer, George Eliot. This most sublime of English novelists understood women like no other, eschewed bitchiness and helped all those 19th century Zionists who knew that the only solution for European antisemitism was to set up their own state, Israel.

George Eliot was also a committed Christian in that she really wanted to understand what humanity is really about. She explores this theme in her novels and translations – life being all about second chances. Fittingly, George Eliot is the only English writer to have a street named after her in Jerusalem and in case you're interested, November 22 is the 200th anniversary of her birth.

Robert Browning, my favourite English poet, went further than any other English writer in his understanding and portrayal of the Jewish contribution to civilization. While living in Italy, he helped to build the English Church in Lucca, which I have visited, but at the same time became aware of that country's very old Jewish community of over 2,000 years.

He witnessed first-hand and described in some of his most memorable poems the contemporary Church's unfortunate attempts to forcefully convert the Jews of Rome and also correctly foresaw that one day soon Jews would have their own country, Israel. Naturally, Browning and George Eliot both had many friends, male and female, and regarded the gift of friendship as one of the greatest gifts in the world.

Then in the early 20th century, we have the Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester with his towering greatness, shamefully scapegoated by the present Church. He was the first to nag the Church against their will to save Jewish children during the Holocaust and with a humanity which is breathtaking. He will no doubt be vindicated one day.

Other luminaries of recent times are Winston Churchill, who had many Jewish friends and famously stated that 'success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm'; and Margaret Thatcher, who did necessary things that men had neglected and was punished for it, although Charles Moore's outstanding biography has gone some way to restoring her towering reputation.

Then in the present day and age, I continue to appreciate Melanie Phillips, the Times journalist and a Jew, who is almost always correct in her assertions and therefore finds it almost impossible to be published in the UK, and Baroness Ruth Deech and seven other extraordinary Jewish peers who have challenged the establishment, both Jewish and political, over the highly objectionable plans for a Holocaust memorial in Victoria Gardens.

I am among those to have raised objections against these plans not least because the building threatens to overshadow other significant memorials in what is a tiny park. These include the elegant and simple memorial to Sir Thomas Buxton, whose parliamentary Bill of 1834 abolished the institution of slavery altogether. The Buxton family have behaved with restraint and dignity in the face of huge provocation, and have not stooped to antisemitism in their efforts to prevent this unwanted construction from being built.

Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama speaks during a news conference at Magdalene College in Oxford, Britain, on Sept. 14, 2015.Reuters

But no list of luminaries for me would be complete without two special friends. At the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, the Dalai Lama made a beeline for me, insisting that I start a charity to promote awareness of the plight of the Burmese people. He felt that only the Jewish people were able to understand the plight of the Burmese people, because of our own suffering. Even though I was at the time only a part-time lecturer in Hebrew at Liverpool University, he thought I could do the trick. Who could refuse?

Fourteen years later, at a ceremony held in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral where he received an honorary doctorate, the Dalai Lama told the Dean of the Cathedral: 'You could learn a lot from the wonderful Jewish people who aren't interested in big buildings like yours, but who know that it's helping your neighbour that counts. That's why Israel is such a great country.'

Much later, in Haifa, Israel, I came to know its outstanding and unique Chief Rabbi, Shear Yashuv Cohen, whose name, 'a remnant will return', stems from a passage in the same book of Isaiah.

His father, the Nazir of Jerusalem, had encouraged him to embrace every living person, not only the Jews but, hardest of all, those in the world who hate us. We worked together on a number of projects, not least trying to set up bilateral talks with the Church of England, at their own request, and I am still very close to his widow, Naomi, now living in Jerusalem, who is a great enlightener in her own right.

The main tenets of Judaism are, as the prophet Isaiah puts it in Chapter 8 of his book: faith, hope and love. This is the practical and specific love which characterizes Florence Nightingale and all the others mentioned above. This kind of love is based not on a kind of woolly and generalized sentimentality - which tends to cause chaos and destruction wherever it goes - but rather in facts, precision, and most importantly, doing something.

Because real giving involves immeasurable personal suffering on the part of the donor. This is the truth learned the hard way by Florence Nightingale, George Eliot and all the other exceptional people who have changed the world for the better.

What they recognised is that it's the community, the others, that count, and that real love and devotion turns you into a different entity altogether and can often knock you for six in the process.

So, as we head for the most important election of our lifetimes, Luminaries is definitely a book to mull over for Chanuka and Christmas. It will remind you of the great people who lit up this world, and the special individuals who shaped your own life, and how dark this world would be without them. Take a moment to remember and give thanks for them, and you will feel the darkness lift.

And if this world is feeling a little too dim for you still, then I leave you with one final thought as we prepare to vote, this time from Psalm 121:1: 'Let us lift our eyes up towards the hills from where our help comes, from the Lord who makes heaven and earth.'

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.