Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Parshas Eikev, London Bridge Is Falling Down with Brexit

Parshas Eikev

Coming up soon, in Parshas Eikev, we read of defending the cause of the orphan and the widow, of loving the  stranger  residing among us, and of the giving food and clothing to the stranger (specifically from verses Deut. 10:17-19). Reconciling the disconnect between our reality and this holy aspiration is traumatically and dramatically challenging. Recently, I had a dream. It was no prophetic, miraculous dream, but rather a reoccurring dream whose meaning remained elusive to me at first. Later, however, I learned to appreciate it as illustrating the dissonant disconnect of these two very different worlds.

My dream recalls a hypnotic children’s video I have been exposed to in the past year.  In the past year, Netflix has generously provided “Little Baby Bum,” which are music videos of popular children’s songs. “London Bridge is Falling Down” has been my son’s favorite song for about six months. After hearing it every day for half a year, I can’t help but think of the jingle every single day. About two or three weeks ago, the jingle finally began to upset my sleep and eating cycles. Could I eat dinner while it plays on the T.V? Certainly not. Could I sleep with the soundtrack revolving as a Mobius strip in my head at night? No! At night, I lay awake in deep, esoteric thought, searching for meaning. Gazing at the ceiling late at night, I am full of wonder, and, as my imagination sets in and I slip away into sleep, Little Baby Bum’s absurd “London Bridge is Falling Down” would appear in my dreams. I pondered, what is this jingle trying to tell me? Why does it fundamentally bother me?! I needed to get to the bottom of this if I was to move on with my life.

The opening to the Netflix video that repeats itself in my dreams is the picturesque landscape of London. Out in the distance, you can see Big Ben, Southwark Cathedral, buggies, and the iconic red buses of London. As the cheerful nursery rhyme begins, a rotund, gelatinous amoeba has swollen to the size of Big Ben. The creature – which looks like it has stepped straight out of our archaic, evolutionary past – begins to smile. As the ever-joyful music jingles away, the creature goose-steps down King William’s Street across London Bridge to the cheerful melody of the song. As the amoeba moves, his body’s vibrations cause the foundation holding up Big Ben and Southwark Cathedral to give way. Eventually, the bridge connecting Southwark to the city of London crashes down with the other buildings, leaving the city in rubble.

My long search for the meaning of this dream led me to pour myself over our traditional rabbinic sources. Dreams are important in rabbinic tradition. The Babylonian Talmud states that most details of dreams are purposeful, arguing that the absurdity in dreams is also meaningful (Goldwurm, Berechot 55a-57b). In a profound passage, the Talmud states in Berachos 55 (Rav Chisda) that “a dream that is not interpreted is like an unread letter” (Nothing will come from it because dreams depend on the interpretation).”  Elsewhere in the Talmud, in Berechos 55- 57, the text suggests that every image in a dream may reflect deeper, even Freudian, underpinnings. A donkey may suggest the Messiah, and other images may reveal other aspects of oneself, ones kept rather private. To my dismay, our great rabbinic sources say nothing about giant amoebas.

For some time, I remained frustrated by the reoccurring dream. I was no Joseph. The Talmud left me with no direct interpretation for a dream amoeba. I still lay awake at night bothered by this jingle, thinking of London in smoldering ruin. Driving home recently, I was listening to the BBC. As the newscaster described the many month-long pandemonium of London in preparation for Brexit, my haunting dream came together in a very relevant way, involving our modern disconnect to the descriptions of welcoming tolerance: of defending the cause of the orphan and the widow, and of loving the stranger residing among us from our Parsha, Eikev.

For me, the sites in the video of London evoke deeply warm memories of people and places that welcomed me in as a stranger.  In 2011, I lived in London for a year of residence and study at the School for African and Oriental Students (SOAS). While studying in London, I lived in Robeson House with students from all over the world – from the four corners of Great Britain’s former colonies, including Pakistan, India, Chad, Zimbabwe, and Jordan. Most of my classmates were Muslim. Each day, every student on my flat met in our building’s basement for Salat, the Muslim call to worship. In 2011, I was living a fully observant Jewish life. I always wore a kipah, and I proudly hung an Israeli flag from my window. It greeted my classmates coming in and out of our dorm every day. For most of my classmates, I was the first Jew they ever met. For me, I was stepping far outside of my comfortably homogenous Jewish world. My outward Jewish observance was met with mutually proud Islamic observances. We found more commonalities than differences. To this backdrop, in 2011, Great Britain appeared to be transitioning for good into the European Union. I could travel freely from Great Britain to Paris on the Chunnel; and my classmates could just as easily travel across Europe with me. In 2011, I felt free to walk in London wearing a kipah as a Jew and proud Zionist with Muslim friends.

It seems unfortunately clear that the Great Britain of 2011 is far removed from the Great Britain of today. Recent changes in Europe have moved the continent in the opposite direction, from a place of cross-cultural dialogue, tolerance and of welcoming the stranger. In 2019, Great Britain is now on the verge of Brexit. In 2019, Euroscepticism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism have run rampant across Europe. Intolerance has goose-stepped its way into Great Britain as a gelatinous, destructive amoeba. It has rocked the very foundation of Great Britain and obstructed once-great bridges between nations in trade agreements, refugee amnesty, and international relations. It has rebranded Great Britain as Britain First. It has commandeered Parliament with Boris Johnson’s bigotry and with Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism. It has jeopardized the foundation of key British institutions. The very foundation of Southwark Cathedral, the royal family and the Anglican Church, feel it. Its face belongs to a now-archaic period of our historical past; we need to send it back to where it belongs. We need to mind the ominous, crucial wording and visual effects of Little Baby Bum’s video, “London Bridge is Falling Down.”

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a third year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native of Israeli-American nationality, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both a M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and a M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European anti-semitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience from teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading Shabbat and Holiday services at Greenwood House in Trenton, New Jersey, and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently, in Cincinnati, he leads services for Beth Boruk, in Richmount, IN and teaches at Adath Israel in Cincinnati.
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