Dr Hilary Firestone

by | Jul 14, 2017 | Education / Academia, Healthcare, Interview, Science | 0 comments

Hilary FirestoneHow would you describe your religious or other beliefs?

What’s called middle of the road Judaism.  More to the right wing than to the left.  I am a dying breed within Judaism, most people are to the right or left.  Very few are observant to the level that I am observant, I sort of pick and choose my observances.

Did you grow up in this tradition?  Were you parents more or less religious?

I grew up in a traditional background.  My father was not religious my mother was.  We were brought up to keep the Sabbath, I left school early on a Friday to do that.  I took all of the holidays off from my non-Jewish school.  Then when I left home to go to university I dropped out of all of that a little bit. There were two things I never did.  I never ate non-Kosher meat and I never worked on a Friday evening or a Saturday, as I felt that I would get poor marks if I did.  Then when I came back to Manchester and got married, I sort of resumed the level that I was at before.  When my children were born, my husband who wasn’t too religious when we married at all and we sort of agreed a pathway.  In some ways I am more observant than I was as a child.  And I should add that Sabbath is my sanity, I am very busy during the week which I love, but I look forward to my 25 hour oasis where I do very little.

In so far as it is possible to articulate this, what made you consciously decide to adopt this way of life?

Because it is a very good way of life and it introduces principles of discipline.  You can’t always have what you want when you want it.  It is a good lifestyle to live by, it give you rules. It’s ethical, moral and it suits me.  Do I believe in God?  I do.  All of my children went to Jewish primary schools, and my two daughters went to Orthodox high schools.  The older one left for the sixth form and went to a another school in Manchester, that was her choice, the next one down stayed on and my son went to a non-Jewish high school.  My eldest daughter is irreligious, but her knowledge is fantastic.  My middle daughter is religious, and manages to combine a very active secular life with a truly religious life.  My son is still at home and therefore just does as he is told.  One of the reason I sent my children to a religious school (I would have done if it had been appropriate for my son but it wasn’t) was to put them in a position where they were making their life choices from a position of education not a position of ignorance.  To have the knowledge make informed choices, I cannot dictate how they live their lives but I can give them the wherewithal to make informed choices.  And I hope that my daughter, the non-affiliated one, will come back to it.  I know that it is still there, deeply buried within her. 

Do you think that Great Britain is an open and a tolerant society, particularly in relation to religion?

Probably the answer is no, but I have never encountered any problem.   So if you are asking me from purely personal experience, no.  Having said that, I have always bent over backwards.  If I have taken a day off I have paid it back.  With my son who is at a non-Jewish school, I have always asked for permission to take him out and on the proviso that he catches up with the work and hand it in by the right time.  So it is give and take.

How does Judaism regard human rights?

Human life according to Jewish teaching is the holiest most precious thing we have, so therefore human rights would be respected. 

Do you think that it has contributed to the world’s understanding of human rights?

I don’t know, but it has sure as Hell contributed to everything else.  To everything, from medicine, to English to music, the guy who was in the paper a few weeks ago, who transplanted the olfactory bulb into someone’s spine in Poland, Jewish guy. So we’re everywhere, remarkably for our numbers. 

Is living in a democracy a good thing?

Completely. 

Are you happy with the first past the post system?

Yes, absolutely. 

Do you think that Jewish people are reasonably well represented in terms of the political system?

Well, Ed Milliband, the leader of the Labour party at present is Jewish… there is the Anti-Semite Gerald Kaufman who is Jewish, a Labour MP. He’s outrageous.  There are…….Michael Howard is Jewish, Oliver Letwing, Nigella Lawson’ s father, Nigel Lawson, the other guy Leon Brittan.  Not necessarily by affiliated Jews, but we are well represented… Ivan Lewis, Luciana Berger and others. 

How do you feel about Church of England bishops in the House of Lords as of right?

Well, considering some of the dames that are appointed, and lords, I would rather that it was somebody with some sort of learning, and hopefully humility and sense sitting there.

Do you think that there should be other religious leaders there, as of right (as opposed to having been appointed on their personal merits)?

They last two chief rabbis were phenomenal.    Lord Sachs is amazing, whatever your religion.  I have heard him tell stories of things that happen to him, of how he was on a flight with Prince Charles and Tony Blair to the funeral of an Israeli leader, he is a remarkable man.  Lord Jakobovits was as well.

Should there be formal mechanism for appointing religious leaders to the House of Lords?

Well, the House of Lords is another matter.

Yes, it does depend on what you think about the House of Lords?

I like to think of them sitting there in ermine, I like all of that tradition.  They should be there.  But I think that we make far too great a fuss of athletes and footballers and not of people who genuinely should have a right to be there, who talk sense. 

Any more time for the Scottish and Welsh assemblies?

I’m quite happy for them.  I was very much against independence, it would have been a shame to have lost Scotland.

What do you think that Judaism teaches about people with power and how they should be help accountable?

During the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) prayers we ask for forgiveness for the sins we have committed in business, man against man, in terms of any economic or political or personal relationships where we have not treated them appropriately.  Judaism promotes fairness, honesty and ethical handling.

Is there enough distance between politicians and the judiciary?

I don’t know.

How does Orthodox Judaism seek to challenge decisions which it perceives as problematic?

We came here as refugees, so most of the Jews living in this country were refugees one or two generations back.  I’ve always believed that we are in no position to be anti-refugee.  You can be integrated without being assimilated.  It is about mutual respect.  You respect society and they will respect you back.

Do you think that public authorities are good at meeting the needs of Orthodox Jews?

I am not sure generally. But I can tell you that here in the dental hospital we try very hard to accommodate people’s needs and wishes, so I would assume that is across the board.

Is it important for you personally to act within secular law?

Yes, you always observe the law of the country.  I can’t think of an occasion where they would clash.

Do you think that the law does a reasonable job of being applied equally to all citizens?

I would have that maybe yes, but now that they have withdrawn legal aid, and it is much more difficult to get legal aid if you don’t have money or education, I suspect probably not. 

Are you aware of any legal rules which have an adverse impact on you personally?

Yes, the rules of ritual slaughter of animals. It would create enormous problems for those of us who only eat kosher meat if laws were passed which prevented this.

Are you aware of any more local problems?

Oh, you mean the Eruv going around?  The Eruv in Whitefield, in North Manchester is up.  I live in South Manchester and there is talk of getting one up.  It doesn’t bother me if it is there or not.  I am not going to see it, it’s just a bit of wire.  The thing about Jews is we are quite difficult people.  Have you listened to Jackie Mason……we are caricatures of ourselves, so we can be difficult.  I think that at the back of some people’s minds is this ghetto feeling, but we already live in a ghetto.  The road I live on, we live mainly in an area which is half Asian….well maybe 30/40 % Jewish, 30/40% Asian and the rest white Anglo Saxons.  We are less concentrated than North Manchester. 

Anything else you would like to add?

I am very proud about being Jewish, it is very important to me.  There’s a lot of that sense of pride.  We take the piss out of ourselves, but our achievements are phenomenal and we have always been treated badly.  I went to Budapest at recently.  I had been to Berlin a few months back and the Germans have done everything they can to inform people about what happened there, they have monuments in the street.  They have done really everything they can do.  Hungarians much, much less and they have just put up a very controversial monument that was totally wrong.  This had stayed with me, we were walking along the side of the Danube, I noticed some bronze shoes nailed to the floor and asked what this was.  The Hungarians used to line up the Jews at the edge of the river and tie them together in threes, they made them take off their shoes first as their shoes were valuable commodities.  Then they would shoot the middle one, so they only had to use one bullet and as he/she fell forward into the river, she took the other two with her.  And that is what the Hungarians did to Jews, within living memory. I have friends, his father is 90.  He was in 8 different concentration camps and he was liberated.  Have you been to Auschwitz?  You should go, everyone should go.  Our numbers are small………..but we are survivors. 

Additional reflection

I think that one of the most important things about Judaism is the way we treat the dead, how we bury immediately, with great respect.  I am involved in the chevra kaddisha[1], and it is a great honour and privilege to do this.   I am part of a fairly young community and we’ve had some sad tragedies, however the respect which is shown to the dead body is remarkable.  And then the network which comes out of the infrastructure to look after the mourners.  So that first week, the week of Shiva[2] the immediate relatives are looked after by the community, they don’t have to cook or take the children to school, that is done for them.  And in my own family, my nephew, my sister in law and brother in law’s child died as a cot-death, and the support they had within the community and others in similar positions is quite remarkable.  Yes maybe, we have the appropriate skill set, but it’s not the skill set, it is the fact that the community jumps into action.  And we derive comfort and strength.

Jewish attitudes towards the end of life?

You can withdraw drugs, but you can’t starve or dehydrate somebody to death.  There is no prolonging of life just for the sake of it.  The sanctity of life is greater than anything else.  The Israeli army will never leave a soldier to die on the field, whatever the cost, and will go out to recover even a dead body.  Thousands of Palestinians will be released for one soldier, human life is sacred.

[1] The Holy Society-group of volunteers within the community who care for the dead.

[2] First period of mourning, shiva=seven as it lasts seven days.

Hilary is married to Terry and has three children and three jobs :

  1. 1 day a week as a General dental practitioner
  2. 1 day a week as a Clinical teaching fellow at  University Dental Hospital Manchester
  3. 7 days a week as an expert witness providing reports and giving evidence in the field of general dental practice for both clinical negligence, personal injury and fitness to practice matters.

Her self-asserted true expertise is shopping at which she excels!

She exercises early in the morning 6 days a week and have done so for the last 32 +years. Hilary also enjoy films, good TV drama and gossip….what more can she say. Her busy week is sustained and managed by my 25 hour oasis which is the Sabbath when there is no phone, internet, exercise, work, car, shopping. Just family, friends and food.

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