Fleeing and Finding According to Paddington Bear
The story begins like this:
“Mr and Mrs Brown first met Paddington on a railway platform. In fact, that was how he came to have such an unusual name for a bear, because Paddington was the name of the station.
The Browns were waiting to meet their daughter, Judy, when Mr Brown noticed something small and furry near the LEFT LUGGAGE office. “It looks like a bear,” he said.
“A bear?” repeated Mrs Brown. “On Paddington Station? Don’t be silly, Henry. There can’t be!”
But Mr Brown was right. It was sitting on an old leather suitcase marked WANTED ON VOYAGE, and as they drew near it stood up and politely raised his hat. “Good afternoon,” it said. “May I help you?””
Paddington doesn’t seem like a particularly Jewish story, but, while I was scrolling through social media a few weeks ago, I saw a video that made me think differently. Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond, whose books have sold 35 million copies to date, grew up in Reading, Great Britain, and frequented the Reading railway station as a child to watch the Cornish Riviera Express pass through, beginning his love of trains. It was there that he first saw children from the Kindertransport, an effort led by Jewish social service agencies which ultimately brought 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children under the age of 17 from Germany and German-held territories to Great Britain between 1938 and 1940.
At the time, Bond was a child and young teenager himself. He remembered seeing the young refugees with large name tags pinned to their coats in the railroad station and later, weeping in front of his parent’s fireplace, as they had opened their home to these youngest victims of war.
Later, he became well acquainted with the atrocities of World War II; he survived an air raid in which the building where he was working collapsed killing more than 40 people and injuring many others. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force and, after his discharge upon the realization that he suffered air-sickness, joined the British Army.
Years later he saw a lone stuffed bear on a store shelf at Christmastime and decided to give it a story. The bear’s imagined loneliness inspired the author, but so did the children of the Kindertransport. Late in his life, he was quoted in an article in the Mirror saying,
“They were all these tiny tots with all their possessions in a small suitcase with a label round their neck. “The label is important because it says ‘Thank you’. I remember their labels... refugees really are the saddest sight.”
The children of the Kindertransport that Bond remembered were dressed in their holiday best. Though they were terrified, they had been counseled to use their best manners. So Paddington is neatly dressed, though he has clearly made an arduous journey, and, when approached, he speaks the King’s English.
Each year, as Passover begins, we are asked to act k’ilu, as if we, ourselves had been slaves in Egypt. Each year, as the holiday ends, as we did this morning, we once again read the story of our trek through the Sea of Reeds to dry land on the other side. We picture an exultant Moses reciting a poem of praise to God and an exuberant Miriam leading the women in song and dance.
Human beings like to see positive images, human interest stories. Over the past week our hearts were warmed seeing images of Ukrainian Jewish refugees around Seder tables across the world. Collectively, we made a photograph of strollers left by parents at a railway station for Ukrainian refugees who could only carry their children, not their wheels, go viral. For years, we have cried over pictures of Jews from Yemen, Ethiopia, and the Former Soviet Union kissing the ground as they got off the plane and reached the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport.
Of course, the experience of fleeing and finding even tenuous safety can’t be wrapped up in such a neat and tidy package. There have been other pictures…of train platforms crowded with people tightly packed waiting for the next train, of former train stations demolished, leaving one fewer means of escape. And an iconic image of a mother who, like other parents eighty years previous, wrote a tag with her child’s name and the phone numbers of both she and her husband then, thinking better of it, wrote the same information directly on the toddler’s skin.
The same is true of our images of our ancestors fleeing Egypt. After having left the only life they had ever known. After packing their bags and setting out in haste. After camping for a night in the desert sand. Refugees. They were not perfectly dressed. They were not wearing name tags awaiting a welcome, warm or otherwise, on the other side of the parted sea.
Picture yourself after just a few hours at the beach with the family. You’re tired, your clothes are in disarray, you’ve likely lost some belongings along the way, there is sand in places where there shouldn’t be sand. Happy? Maybe. Disheveled? Bedraggled? Discombobulated? Probably.
These past two years have both made us crave the joyful pictures and understand the images of struggle in far deeper ways.
In the children’s book, Paddington hails from Darkest Peru. The word Darkest, is not a descriptor, it is part of the fictional place’s name. It’s a signal. The same thing is true for the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, which is most often translated to mean narrow places. Being forced to live in dangerous circumstances, where there is literal fear for life and limb feels dark and narrow.
The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson had the following to say about dark places: "Darkness, no matter how ominous and intimidating, is not a thing or force: it is merely the absence of light. So light need not combat and overpower darkness in order to displace it – where light is, darkness is not. A thimbleful of light will therefore banish a roomful of darkness. The same is true of good and evil: evil is not a thing or force, but merely the absence or concealment of good. One need not “defeat” the evil in the world; one need only bring to light its inherent goodness."
The Exodus from Egypt left us with responsibilities, two of which I want to focus on right now. We are obligated to take care of strangers because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We should take greater responsibility for refugees, because our people have been refugees countless times. We can bring our considerable light with strollers and seders. By finding those proverbially sitting alone at the train station and welcoming them into our communities and our lives.
We also have an obligation to act k’ilu, as if. Like the Israelites, we can choose to come out of the narrow places singing. As the Jewish proverb says, A little bit of light pushes away a lot of darkness.
For many, the last two years have had elements of darkness. Though the majority were not touched by war, we still experienced constriction and lived narrower existences than we had become used to. And still, there was so much light. We found new family rhythms. We connected to people we hadn’t seen or heard from in too long. We picked up creative hobbies and made our homes more comfortable. We found creative ways to celebrate.
We may have been disheveled. Our hair wasn’t always combed, we might have been wearing sweatpants, or possibly no pants. We lost things. We broke things. We fixed some things, replaced some, rebuilt some, and some, we realized we didn’t need, they had been weighing us down without us even knowing it.
We’ve learned so much. We are grateful for so much. We know that even if our clothes aren’t pressed and we aren’t speaking the King’s English, or even in full sentences, it is possible as we stand on the outside edge of our collective narrow place, to sing like our ancestors did
The coda to the video on Paddington I watched a few weeks ago is that the current president, former actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, voiced Paddington when the movie was released in Ukraine. This hero. This Jew. This grandchild of refugees, no longer wearing pressed clothes, speaking from darkened basements, bringing light.