Rod Kersh
Person-centred physician

From a narrow space; in and out of suffocation

Culture by K Kersh April 2024

The Jewish festival of Pesach – Passover is upon us.

Pesach commemorates the period in Book of Exodus where the Israelites fled Egypt. It is core to Jewish belief and culture – from the ritual search for fragments of chametz – bread and other leavened items in the nooks and crannies of the houses prior to the start of the festival, through to matzah, the ten plagues and Next Year in Jerusalem.

Events start this Monday with prayers in the synagogue followed by the ceremony, then evening meal, conducted in line with the ancient order – seder, according to the guidance of the Haggadah.

And so, it is.

I remember as a child, my grandfather and father reading through the book in its ancient Hebrew and Aramaic (Chad Gad Ya), cantering at speed through the prayer sections and pausing at the songs for everyone to join-in; sitting with my family, my brothers and sister, me, the youngest always delegated to sing ‘Ma nishtanah’ –What makes this night different from all other nights.

They were good times, now locked away in my memory.

Over subsequent decades, with children of my own, whilst adhering to cultural Judaism/Zionism, I moved away from religion. If you want to understand the reasoning for my actions, you can read-back through old blogs; it is all there.

Something changed in the past couple of years, I am not sure what triggered this move, perhaps triggered by my mid-life, possibly a shift towards different Podcasts that influenced me even before October 7.

In part, this was a realization that at the root of Judaism is not necessarily an absolute requirement to believe – there are many devout Jews who know that God is a fiction invented in Babylon, the stuff of legend, instead, the religion encompasses all. It is not necessarily the belief that dictates adherence, rather the practices or actions.

Do as the rabbi says, not as the rabbi does – a central tenet of my early life frustration.

If you (a man, I’m afraid) visit the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you will be approached by another man in dark suit, peyot and Stetson who will offer to help you don (put-on) Tefillin (phylacteries) – these are two prayer-containing cubes attached to lengths of leather one of which is wrapped around your left arm – close to the heart – the other around your head followed by blessings in Hebrew or transliterated English.

I am confident that a significant number of Jews visiting Israel do not have a deep understanding of Hebrew, consequently, the prayers are often said without the individual knowing their meaning.

And this for the rabbi/Habadnik is adequate. The act is the start. First begin with the prayer then move to understanding.

Traditionally such acts have been against my principles – I am a life-long seeker of meaning and here, the act is associated with relative meaninglessness.

Our tradition says, that is enough – another Pesach cliché, dayenu – sung at the Seder – ‘that would have been enough for us.’

And so, there is a split.

You have people like me who refuse to do anything without an understanding of what they are saying or doing and others who are happy to go-along, daven in synchrony, recite, and go home for a well-earned meal.

In part I reflect on the trope:

‘You are shouting river to the sea… Do you know which river and which sea?’

‘… The Potomac?’

Words sans understanding chanted, shouted repetitively. Equivalent also to waving a Hamas flag or banner without a deeper understanding of the symbolism.

How does all this link to a narrow space?

Well, as I said, we are facing Pesach; this name relates to the Hebrew for Passover, which is a reference to the tenth plague, where the Angel of Death (Moloch Ha-Movet) passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt (those who had daubed their doors with the blood of a lamb) and killed the first born of the Egyptian households.

The escape from Egypt ensued, the parting of the Red Sea and so on.

In Hebrew, ancient and modern, Egypt is Mitzrayim, which has an alternate Talmudic translation as being not only the Pharaonic Kingdom but narrow space – akin to, strait is the gait and narrow is the way (Matthew 7:14).

We (Israelites) were in Egypt and in a narrow space (slavery), confined, restricted in our actions and movements; this led to Exodus, the return then exiles and subsequent return.

And, currently, April 2024, with fellow Israelis (and non-Israelis) captive in Gaza, situated on the border between Egypt and Israel, we are shifted three thousand years.

I recall another song from my days as a boy – during my ill-spent time in the Calderwood Lodge Choir (Apologies Mrs M).

There was a song (from Proverbs 24:17) commemorating Exodus – an event, wrought large in the biblical narrative.

In the song, the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea, into Sinai we presume, rejoiced first at their escape then at the deaths of the Pharoah’s soldiers. And with this, the focus of the song, God telling this Israelites not to celebrate the defeat of their enemies, not to rejoice at death or disaster even of those who would have either killed or returned them to slavery.

If your enemy falls, do not exult;
If he trips, let your heart not rejoice,

The earliest sanction against schadenfreude.

And today, we have the same lesson.

We pray for the release of the hostages, and we pray for the wellbeing of those injured and the memory of those killed in the war – the innocent Palestinians, the Israeli soldiers, the Bedouin girl injured by Iranian shrapnel on Sunday.

It is a neatly and circular argument that displaces the notion of action without meaning.

We remain in a narrow space.

Israel and the Jewish People are now marginalized more than at any time.

No, we are not in 1930’s although to some, the comparison is mortifying.

My daughter was recently attacked for her support of the genocide in Gaza.

It is not genocide, and my daughter is not responsible for the actions of the Israeli Government, nevertheless.

Yesterday, on a poster advertising a Culture Day at her school, the Israeli flag was defaced.

I learned of this recent event while I was visiting patients on my Friday rounds.

She and I both felt in very narrow albeit different spaces.

This takes me to the Sheffield Half Marathon, a fortnight ago. I ran with extreme effort up a very long and very steep hill, passing middle-aged, middle-class people waving Palestinian flags.

At one point, towards the end, there was a narrow space, both sides of the road with jeering flag wavers.

I later heard that one old man was shouting anti-Jewish slogans. I was fortunately spared the listening as I shlooried past with noise-cancelling headphones and the voices of Yonit and Jonathan of Unholy.

I remember the Ellie Wiesel aphorism about the Holocaust… Not all the victims were Jews, all the Jews were victims.

In my head I am thinking, as I try not to take the flags personally, not all the flag wavers are haters although all the haters wave the flags.

Perhaps not.

Perhaps I am paranoid.

They are after all, anti-Israel, not anti-Jewish.

Although, for the most (not all, I concede) Israel is the Jewish Nation, it is the ancestral homeland of the Jews, not returning to 1948 borders, returning to year 700 (BCE/BC), before the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, British Mandate and Romans, way, way back.

I wave this flag in support of the Palestinians.


Where is your Ukraine, Syrian Liberation Army or Rohingya flag?  (I did see two Ukrainian flags on my run).

We call this Jewish or Israeli exceptionalism.

One rule for the Jews another for everyone else.

Last Sunday Iran launched the biggest drone and missile attack in history against Israel and yet, the advice was, ‘don’t.’ (It is now Saturday, 20th 2024 – it seems yesterday they did.)

10/7 was equivalent (and more barbaric) than multiple 9/11’s and yet, the Israelis should have sat on their hands.

Boycott Israel but not Russia or Yemen or Saudi or Qatar – indeed, take your sporting money and live it up for a few weeks during the footie.

Again, exceptionalism.

Here it is, I support the Palestinians.

They are also in a narrow space – the Gaza Strip being the essence of geographic narrowness and yet, I also support the oppressed across the world.

I don’t wave flags as I don’t know enough about all the different situations and yet hundreds or (tens of thousands if you live in London) believe they have enough information to take sides, to deliberate on right or wrong.

All very narrow.

I return to my original principles which are contrary to mainstream belief.

If you don’t understand the essence of your prayer, don’t say it.

Going through the motions might work for some, not for me.

Admittedly, thanks to my life in Israel, I understand the prayers, I don’t however accept the God or Elijah narratives.

Actions have meaning and without understanding and intent you are just another flag waver or poster defacer.

It has been a strange spring, with Easter then Ramadan now Pesach one after another, a holy run of monotheistic season-changes.

Does this bring us closer together or further apart?


As an aside,

Last week I visited our local big hospital for an MRI scan of my heart.

These are the things that middle-aged men find themselves doing on Sunday mornings.

The scan was on time, the staff warm and friendly.

The experience a mild trauma.

Lying for an hour in a different kind of narrow space – 10 cm between my chest/nose and the top of the scanner, I remained motionless for an hour.

It felt like a coffin.

I reflected on the radiographer’s perceptions and sight of me that would entail a view within; not seeing Rod’s surface as you might if you meet me, instead my innards. My heart, lung, internal organs.

A room with a view of my bones.

A side of me that I will never see.

Will they know me better than I know myself?


They look within.

And the experience lasted an hour… Breathe in, now out… Now hold.

Not the six months our captives have been waiting for release in the sands of Gaza.

About the Author
Dr Rod Kersh is a Consultant Physician working in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. He blogs at
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