Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Outside looking in - a 2019 Chanukah update

It's that time of year again, when pre-Christmas celebrations fill up my social media feeds. This year, Chanukah starts on 22nd December and lasts for eight days, so it 'clashes' with Christmas Day (two years ago, it started on Christmas Eve). We won't have a Christmas tree, but we will have a lit menorah and other Chanukah goodies. I originally wrote this post two years ago. But it seems relevant to post it again - with yet another update.

Christmas: Outside looking in

At this time of year I sometimes feel like a trespasser. A ghostly apparition peering through a smudged window into a tinsel-draped world I'm not really part of.

On the outside looking in. 

Here, but not here.

I watch the fervent build up and read frantic discussions on social media from the sidelines. Present buying. Christmas trees. Delicious festive treats. Large family meals. I don't join in, but that doesn't mean I don't understand your stress and excitement. I have my fair share during the year, with the weekly Jewish Sabbath and several Jewish festivals (with a strong focus on food!).

I've never celebrated Christmas. 

During my childhood, December 25th was simply a family day with a large lunch, as there was little else to do. No Christmas tree. No presents. No Christmas pudding. We would still eat turkey though, along with home-made stuffing, brussels sprouts and minced pies. I remember Christmas crackers on the table and watching festive TV. After all, that's what everyone did at 'this time of year'.

I knew all about Christmas, don't get me wrong. I had plenty of friends who celebrated it - non-Jewish ones and Jewish ones - and I didn't go to a Jewish school. I didn't take part in the annual Nativity play but would watch the rehearsals from the sidelines, learning the songs and the lines, just as I watch the build up to Christmas now. I didn't go to the school carol services either (we had a day off instead - shopping or cinema, if I remember right, though we were probably meant to do school work(!)). Yet I knew all of the carols anyway.

I guess not much has changed.

For me, this time of year has always been about Chanukah (Hanukkah), the Jewish festival of lights, which lasts for eight days. A festival of miracles and hope and joy. Unlike Christmas, Chanukah doesn't occur on a set date each year, as it's determined by the Hebrew calendar. One year, it may be in November, and the next year in December. This year it begins on 22nd December as soon as darkness falls.

In keeping with tradition, each night we will light candles on a nine-branched Menorah (also called a Chanukiah), an extra candle each night (with the ninth candle called a Shamash (helper) to light the others).

So one candle on the first night, two on the second and so on, until all eight candles are twinkling in a row. The candles symbolise a miracle in the second century BCE, when a handful of Jews defeated the Greeks to reclaim back their Holy Land and rededicated the Second Temple in Jerusalem. When they wanted to light the Temple's Menorah, there was only enough oil for one day - yet miraculously the oil lasted for eight days, known as the miracle of Chanukah.

There's a whole Rugrats episode devoted to this!

At Chanukah, it's traditional to eat fried foods - especially doughnuts (donuts) and latkes (fried potato pancakes like rosti) - and to play a game with a dreidel (a four-sided spinning top) for coins, nuts or chocolate.

We can buy Chanukah biscuits (including candle or dreidel shaped ones).

Chanukah is often associated with presents, but that's not a Jewish tradition so I assume it's down to the influence of Christmas over the generations. We give money called Chanukah gelt (or chocolate coins) to children, as well as to charity. You can now buy Chanukah decorations, as sparkly as the Christmas ones, and lots of crazy Chanukah-themed items.

Even Chanukah socks last year (no, I didn't buy them).

As a child, I would receive one Chanukah present each night (some small, some large), as did my two boys when they were younger. Now they are teenagers, the eight-present tradition has faded away in our house. But not the candle lighting - never that.

Chanukah is also a time for community, with activities and celebrations at our synagogue. Last year we had our second interfaith event with the local church - our rabbi lit a large menorah as the vicar beside him switched on the Christmas tree lights. There were Jewish songs and carol singers, and mulled wine and minced pies and kosher donuts for the children. This year, it's a little different due to the timing, as the Christmas lights are already lit. But our synagogue is still doing a communal Chanukah lighting, encouraging people of all faiths to come along.

Some people worry they'll offend me if they wish me Happy Christmas. But not at all. 

When I say I'm on the outside looking in, I don't mean this in a negative way. I enjoy watching friends building up to their big event of the year - my Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with that positivity. After the last few years of world politics, the election this week (and Brexit (currently still) on the horizon), we all need plenty of that.

People who know I'm writing fiction often ask me what I'm writing. 

I used to be suitably vague and didn't say much about what I'm doing or what stage I'm at. But last year, I was more open about the fact that I'm writing Jewish-themed crime fiction, set in a fictional multi-cultural town in Hertfordshire, UK. I'm very open about my Jewish heritage and proud of it too. My book happens to be set at this time of year - Chanukah and Christmas season.

I finished my novel, The Redeemer, earlier this year. Here's the blurb:


Threatening plaques, vigilante killings, a Jewish community - what’s the link? 
The clock is ticking to the next murder.

After journalist Shanna Regan witnesses an antisemitic incident in Hillsbury, a small Hertfordshire town, she uncovers a series of threatening fake commemorative plaques. Each plaque highlights someone’s misdemeanour rather than a good deed. Delving deeper, she realises these plaques are linked to vigilante killings spanning several decades, with ties to the local Jewish community. As her search for the truth becomes personal, she puts her own life in danger. 
Can she stop the next murder in time? 

I was first runner up (honourable mention) in the DHH Literary Agency New Voices Award at the end of September 2019, as announced at the Capital Crime festival's opening night party. I've had great feedback on my novel and I'm now looking for an agent - the right agent - or a publisher.

I'm hoping that one day you'll get a chance to read my novel (if you want to!) and learn more about Jewish traditions, the worrying rise of anti-semitism in the UK (what it's like to experience it for real 'on the frontline', not what you read in the newspapers) and the huge sense of family and community spirit that I know so well.

2019 has also been exciting on the work front. In January, I launched my own work website (finally). You can visit it here. I also started proofreading for publishers - including Orenda Books - and individual authors, and I added several magazines and websites to my health writing portfolio.

I was one of Jewish Book Week 2019's official blog partners and hope to do the same in 2020.

Thank you for reading to the end of this non-bookish post and for supporting Off-the-Shelf Books, which turns five on 30th December 2019. I'm very behind with reviews, but hope to catch up soon - it's been a particularly busy few months.

I wish you all a Happy Christmas, Happy Chanukah or whatever you're celebrating within the next few weeks. And a Happy New Year too.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

BEST OF CRIME with Syd Moore

Welcome to my latest BEST OF CRIME feature, looking at crime writers' top picks, from their favourite author and fictional detective to their best writing tip. 

Today I'm delighted to welcome 


to share her BEST OF CRIME ...

So tough to boil it down to one author, but I guess it would have to be Wilkie Collins. I remember being a bookseller, i.e. skint, when Penguin brought out their cheapo classics to compete with Wordsworth Editions. The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which at that point I’d heard people mention but had never read, became instantly affordable. The next pay day I bought them, consumed them during my lunchtimes and was pretty instantly hooked. It was the beginning of a life-long love affair with classic crime.  

The Love Witch by Anna Biller. This film is a sumptuous visual feast with the aesthetic of a technicolour Hammer Horror. Anna Biller, the director, also designed the costumes and they are to die for.  Celebrating  kitsch in a serious way its take on women, witches and sexuality is really quite different. Elaine, the eponymous Love Witch, seduces men using love potions and beds them with fatal consequences. The film is feminist, funny, clever and explores the ‘female gaze’. What’s not to love?

I am a big fan of Scandi Noir and really enjoyed the Swedish series, Jordskott. Though it has many of the components of the crime/thriller genre – a vanished child, an angst-ridden detective and a community hiding a dark secret – there is more than a touch of the Brothers Grimm about it. I do like my crime drama with a sprinkle of the supernatural and this one blends both genres wonderfully. 

Is it too obvious to say Vilanelle? She was such a triumph of characterization, the epitome of style, cunning, sardonic humour and grace. Obviously there was that little psychopathy thang going on, but it didn’t prevent me, and most of the UK population, rooting for her throughout Killing Eve.  A third series can’t come too soon. 

It’s got to be Saga Noren from The Bridge. Totally atypical of your usual TV detective, Saga is more complex, more logical and more vulnerable too. The writers handled her Asperger syndrome and the development of her character expertly throughout the entire series so that the final episodewas almost televisual perfection.   I’d love to see her back on our screens again, but at the same I wouldn’t want to jeopardise the legacy of what was, in my opinion, one of the best television dramas to grace our scenes in decades. Some things should be left alone.  

The spoon used in The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon.

This is more a scene of death than a death scene and comes from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas. The epigraph that precedes the story gives you a hint of what’sto come ‘Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?’ (Macbeth).
Simeon Lee, a wealthy git, instructs his four sons to return home for Christmas with the intention of cutting their allowances and changing his will. It’s no surprise then that he doesn’t make it through to Boxing Day. In fact on Christmas Eve the family hear a terrible scream from Simeon’s room. Breaking down the door they are greeted with the most shocking and awful sight. Furniture has been overturned, crockery smashed. Simeon lies dead, his throat slashed from ear to ear, in a great pool of blood. Of course, Christie’s description brings the horror home to the reader. I was a teenager when I came across this and the scene left a very strong impression.  

One of the websites that I come back to time and time again is www.witchtrials.co.uk
It’s a comprehensive resource for anyone interested in the Essex Witch Trials and has been put together by one brilliant and clearly noble man, Steve Hulford, who set it up ‘so that the poor victims are not forgotten’. His fantastic site lists the trials in year order and in order of village. It also records the accused women and men by name alphabetically so is very user-friendly. In addition to all this information you will find transcripts of contemporaneous pamphlets, essays on different aspects of the witch trials, details of the Witchcraft Acts, videos and recommended reading. Well worth checking out.  

1.    Plan
2.    Persist
3.    Finish

If I’m going well, I will treat myself to a cup of tea and a slice of cake from the local baker’s at about 3pm.

Syd Moore is the author of the Essex Witch Museum Mysteries (Strange Magic, Strange Sight, Strange Fascination) featuring Rosie Strange, and two previous mystery books, The Drowning Pool and Witch Hunt.
For nine years prior to writing Syd was a lecturer, worked extensively in the publishing industry and presented Channel 4’s book programme, Pulp.  She was the founding editor of Level 4, an arts and culture magazine, and co-creator of Superstrumps, the game that reclaims female stereotypes and the founder of The Essex Girls Liberation Front. When she is not writing Syd works for Metal Culture, an arts organisation, promoting arts and cultural events and developing literature programmes. In 2017 she became a UK ambassador for the Danish charity which helps Nigerian ‘witch’ children,  DINNødhjælp. In 2018 she was appointed Writer-in-Residence for the Essex Book Festival.

Find Syd Moore on her website and on Twitter - @SydMoore1


Publisher's description
The perfect stocking filler, this collection of 12 spooky, stand-alone stories has been shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger 2019.
Nothing says Christmas more than a good old-fashioned ghost story on a dark winter’s night, so sit back and enjoy a little pinch of Yuletide mayhem!

The Twelve Strange Days of Christmas was published by Point Blank on 26 September 2019

Look out for more BEST OF CRIME features coming soon.

Click here to read more BEST OF CRIME features.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Journeying back to the Holocaust - Day 3

If you've read my previous posts, you'll know that earlier this week I took part in a two-night, three-day journey to Lodz and Krakow, along with around 40 other people, including three rabbis. The trip was run by J-Roots, a Jewish organisation that creates a unique learning experience - and this was certainly traumatic, thought-provoking, humbling and unforgettable.

For Day One, click here.

For Day Two, click here.

When I read these two posts, I feel that my emotions don't necessarily come across as much as I would have liked them to. And I'm sure that in another week, I'll have plenty more to add.

I've always put off going to Poland. It was something I felt I 'should' do but the time was never right. So why now? That's an interesting question...

My eldest teen visited Poland two years ago with his school, the younger one is due to go at the end of January. These trips are part of their sixth form schooling, and it made me wonder why I had put it off for so long. And I realise the biggest reason was 'fear'.

I've grown up hearing Holocaust stories, speaking to survivors, seeing the tattooed numbers on their arms. The Holocaust is part of my Jewish heritage, though I wish it wasn't. I wish it never needed to be. I wish it had never occurred. This week, I've seen first-hand the sheer brutality of the Nazis, the scale of the pure evil that lurked the landscape, the loss of humanity and identity, the ripping apart of Jewish communities and families, the fact that this was all legalised.

At a time when antisemitism is rising yet again all over the world, this is when we all need to come together, to remember, to educate, to share and to never forget. And I felt that to do that properly, I needed to see it for myself.

This was the right time for me.

As many of you who read Off-the-Shelf Books will know, I am writing Jewish-themed crime fiction. In September, I was first runner up in the DHH Literary Agency New Voices Award for my first three chapters of The Redeemer. I'm now trying to find an agent - the right agent - for my book. The Redeemer isn't about the Holocaust, though it does feature within the plot, but it IS about modern antisemitism, beginning with an antisemitic incident in a park based on real experiences.

I'm now going to give you an account of Day Three, which was all about Auschwitz-Birkenau.

If any factual background is incorrect, I apologise in advance as I'm writing this quickly. I took notes and photos during my visit and I'm using those in order. I also apologise for any typos! Some of the descriptions will be graphic (even more so, in later posts), but I'm not apologising.

Auschwitz 1

We began with Auschwitz 1. I'm not going to go into details of the background - Mr Google can help you there. But Auschwitz 1 is a tourist site, with coffee shops and bookstores, DVDs and postcards on sale. This feels wrong (particularly the postcards). Yet this infrastructure enables people to come and visit for a day, to be educated about what went on here and leave with a book or a DVD that may help them to learn more, to educate not just themselves but others too, particularly the future generations.

If you do visit, read up on Auschwitz first. Read the Jewish accounts, read the survivor stories. Don't rely on your Polish guide to tell you everything that happened there - they may not even mention the word 'Jew' very much. Going with J-Roots was a unique experience. We not only heard individual stories of brutality and survival (each one filled with emotion) as we walked around, but we were WITH a survivor, Mala Tribich (see previous posts). Eventually there will be a time when there are no survivors remaining, so it is the duty of the next generation, and the next, and so on, to keep these stories among us, which is why I am sharing them here. These stories are horrific but I'm not going to apologise as they need to be heard.

It's free to visit Auschwitz  but not, ironically, to go to the loo there - that costs 2 zloties each time. We heard the story of a survivor who visited Auschwitz with J-Roots. When they reached the toilets, he pulled up his sleeve, showed his tattoo and spoke to the woman taking the money at the till. She laughed and let him through.

What did he say to her?

'I have lifetime membership.'

There are no words...

As we stood at Auschwitz, we could feel the chill through our layers of clothing (including thick coats, hats, scarves and gloves), even though it wasn't a particularly cold day. Imagine standing for roll call for up to 19 hours at a time, in just flimsy pyjamas (or even naked if that's what the guards ordered you to do), whatever the weather, unable to move. If 1000 prisoners were counted out to work in the morning, 1000 had to be counted back in - the dead were carried among them as they walked back through the gates, as there would be punishment at roll call if the numbers were inconsistent.

The hospital blocks were called 'waiting rooms for the crematoria', used as places for medical experimentation with very few treatments available.

Block 27 is all about names (I briefly mentioned this in my Day 2 post), set up by Yad Vashem (The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre). When we talk about the Holocaust, we talk about six million Jews. But these aren't six million Jews as a collective, these are six million individuals. Each one had a name, a face, a family, a life, before the horrors began.

Inside Block 27, there are pages and pages of printed names, currently around 4.5 million names, so nearly 2 million left to go. Each Holocaust victim has been given back their identity - and they are remembered.

As mentioned in my Day 1 post, I didn't have any immediate family in Europe at the time. They were all in England already. Some of my family names (such as Levy) are very common but two - Motzner and Sumeray - are more unusual (ironically, one of the people on this trip is a distant cousin of mine - her family used the name Motzney). I checked out the list of names and found both Motzners (Motzni) and Sumeray (Sumeraj/Sumraj in Polish) listed there. I will never know if they were relatives, but it's possible that some of them were.

One block contains the belongings of the Jewish prisoners. We weren't permitted to take photos of the hair that was taken from women murdered in the gas chambers and was used by the German textile industry - you can see the hair woven on a loom. The hair was mainly curly, now faded and greying. I can't even describe the quantity of hair behind the glass cabinet frontage. But I felt physically sick as we walked slowly through the room.

There was a cabinet of the Jewish prayer shawls (tallit), which are indicative of life as a Jew, symbolic at all stages of life and even at death.

Then there were the crutches and prosthetic limbs, the glasses (spectacles), the suitcases the families used to carry their possessions (labelled as if going on a family holiday) - all taken away when they arrived at the camp. The shoes, all shapes and sizes, even sandals, many still retaining their colours.

If you have read any of my tweets or Instagram posts, you'll have seen details of a kosher kitchen. People who keep strictly kosher will eat and prepare dairy meals and meat meals separately - so no cheese on bolognese or in a burger. You also don't eat milk after a meat meal (instead, waiting a few hours), so no Dairy Milk chocolate after your roast chicken. Meat includes poultry. We use separate cutlery, crockery, pots & pans, utensils, chopping boards etc for milk and meat. Then there are parev foods (neither milk or meat), such as all fruit and veg, egg and fish. To make kitchens easier to manage, we try to colour-code the items. Meat items are traditionally red, dairy items are blue and parev items are green, yellow or neutral.

So why am I telling you this?

When Jewish families are told to pack for deportation, what do they take? If they want to eat, they need to pack up their kitchen. See the pots and pans below and look at the colours...

THIS is how Jewish families pack.

We entered a gas chamber and saw the ovens used to dispose of the bodies. These ovens have been reconstructed with original parts. In the larger room - the gas chamber - there are holes in the ceiling where the gas pellets were thrown down.

On Tuesday 19th November 2019, we took this journey into this gas chamber and crematorium, the same journey that 1.2 million Jews were forced to take. They never came out alive. We walked in free ... and walked out free, physically untouched, still breathing ...


Birkenau has a very different feel to the other Auschwitz site. There are no coffee shops or bookshops, no cabinet displays and no renovation work. This was the largest death camp in the world - the largest cemetery in the world - and I can't even describe its size. You could spend several days wandering around this camp and still not see it all.

Inside, the men's barracks are on the right, women's barracks on the left, separated by the train track and barbed wire.

There was a stillness in the air.

I barely spoke during my time there.

I had no words.

This is the men's quarantine hut of the camp, with latrines at the end.

Thousands of men, sitting back to back to each other, being told they have just two minutes 'to go'. Each one propping up the man beside them and behind them, willing them not to die. This would be after several days spent in a cattle truck with no sanitation, diarrhoea and dysentry rife among the prisoners. Shut your eyes and just imagine ... compare this with our modern sterile lives.

A group of Jews were told to clean out the latrines with their hats. When they left the quarantine hut, they were told to put their hats back on their heads. Not one of those Jews survived Auschwitz.

If a woman was pregnant in Birkenau, this was a death sentence. Google the story of Gisella Perl, a Jewish gynaecologist deported to Auschwitz. She saved the lives of thousands of Jewish pregnant women, but in order to save the mothers she had to suffocate their newborns - 'a life for a life'. If she hadn't, both the mother and baby would have been murdered. After the war, she opened up a practice in New York. Many of her clients were women from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, women she had saved, women who wanted her to deliver their new baby, born into freedom - this time saving their baby's life, not taking it. Read the phrase 'a life for a life' - and try not to cry.

Here are the bunks where the men slept (top bunk, middle bunk, lower bunk), crowded together, no sanitation, covered in fleas and lice and with rats around their feet. As mentioned, diarrhoea and dysentery were rife within the camp. Which would you choose - top, middle or bottom?

Standing by the cattle truck, where it was decided who lived and who died, we heard the story of two parents arguing over who was going to hold the baby once they were separated to go left or right. The SS officer took the baby from the mother's arms, ripped the baby apart and then handed half back to the mother and half back to the father. Sorry to share this story - it makes me feel sick and tearful too - but these stories need to be shared.

We touched the barbed wire, thinking of what it means to be free.

Finally, as daylight faded, we reached the back of Auschwitz and stood by the ruins of the crematorium and said prayers and read poems.

And then we walked back out again - free.

This is the end of Day 3 and the end of the Poland trip. But this life experience won't stop there. It has changed me in a way I can't describe. This has been an emotional rollercoaster and has put life in perspective, especially as a Jew growing up in the UK.

When I arrived home from Stansted airport at 12.30 am, I peered into the bedroom of my youngest teenager. He was fast asleep. I stood there watching him for a while, thinking how fortunate my husband and I are - that our great grandparents were already here.

I've shared my words. I've shared my thoughts. Yet there's still so much more I can say. We have been 'warned' that our emotions will continue to play havoc with our minds over the coming days, weeks and even months.

We must remember.

We must pass on the stories - the horrific stories - to our children and grandchildren.

We must never forget.