In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, the Ministry of Information published three posters to stiffen morale and fortify the popular will. The first, Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory, had a print run of 800,000; the second, Freedom is in peril, had a print run of 400,000, and the third, with a print run of two and a half million, was Keep Calm and Carry On, topped by an image of the royal crown. After the war, most of the surviving posters were pulped but in 2004, a book shop owner in Alnwick, Northumberland discovered a copy hidden among a pile of old books bought at auction; the poster was put up in the window and almost immediately prompted enquiries from passers-by as to whether it might be purchased. Quickly realising that they were on to a good thing the owners, ascertaining that crown copyright on the poster had lapsed in 1989, had copies made and the slogan, whether in poster form, or on t-shirts, mugs, bags, cufflinks and a myriad of others, started selling in huge numbers. When the recession hit at the end of the noughties, the slogan was adopted by nurses in the United Kingdom, was bought in huge numbers by American financial services companies and advertising agencies, and, in a most delicious twist, became a best-seller in Germany of all places!!
The slogan has also inspired a number of parodies, of which the most popular is Now Panic and Freak Out, but other noteworthy examples are Keep Calm and Consolidate all of your Debts into One Easy Monthly Payment, Keep Calm and Drink Beer, from the States Keep Calm and Fake a British Accent and, beneath a cawing raven, Keep Calm and Carrion (think about it…)
The original slogan bespeaks a need to hold oneself together in circumstances which are deeply disturbing, to have hope that the worst may not happen, and to be determined to get through whatever is coming and emerge the other side, if not completely unscathed at least as whole as possible.
The haftarah for this Shabbat, from the book of Jeremiah, takes us back to another time of threat and danger; first, resulting from the disastrous death in battle of the charismatic King Josiah, whose religious and cultural reforms may be found in the book of Deuteronomy, and on whom Jeremiah had pinned such great hopes for the future of his country, and second the build-up of Babylonian power which was to result in the invasion and destruction of the kingdom of Judah, the demolition of the Temple and the exile to Babylon of many of its citizens.
Jeremiah, one of the most human and understandable of the prophets, had a role that brought him torment and the deepest depression, for it was his task to give a message to his people that they were unwilling to hear. He it was who warned the citizens of Judah that seeking to rebel against Babylonian authority was wrong, and that it would bring calamity in its wake; he it was who told his people that God was displeased with the way they behaved and would bring a devastating punishment upon them, he it was who ridiculed the Temple authorities and accused them of being charlatans.
No one, unless they have a profoundly masochistic frame of mind, seeks to make themselves unpopular, and we know from his own words that Jeremiah suffered acutely from melancholy and anguish at having to castigate, threaten and unsettle his fellow Judeans. But he had been called by God to his role, God had told him that he had even been singled out in the womb for it, and so he had no choice. The mark of the prophet rested upon him and he had no option but to speak the words that God gave him and to be the transmitter of the divine message.
Rembrandt’s powerful and moving painting of Jeremiah contemplating the destruction of Jerusalem, completed in 1630, really says it all. Jeremiah sits on a rock, in a high viewing point, partly slumped, his head resting on this left hand; he sits on an ornate carpet and is wearing fine robes, albeit that he is barefooted, and near his left elbow is what looks like an ornate hat, or it might be a washing bowl. He has a white beard and a white head of receding hair, but it is the eyes that next draw the viewer, for they are wide open and staring, as of someone who has seen terrible things, and they are looking not outwards but at the ground just beyond his feet; his sense of trauma is so great it is palpable.
Because of the role he had to play, and the circumstances in which he had to play it, the suffering prophet unwittingly gave his name to a word, jeremiad, defined as being a long, mournful list of complaints, or tale of woes; it was first coined in the late 1700s, and is still used today by those of a more literary inclination of a statement or pronouncement that does the opposite of lift the spirits! Entrenched as it is in the English language and depicting a negative attitude towards almost everything, it is hardly surprising that some of the negativity that is associated with the word is linked to Jeremiah himself, perhaps putting off some who might otherwise be tempted to engage with him and the book that bears his name.
But as my students discover when they read through the book of Jeremiah we found not a depressing figure but a person of real courage and determination, a man who suffered for and with his people but nevertheless was capable of the greatest hope in the future, and who ultimately gave those people the greatest gift of all, a belief that one day they would return home and be restored to their country, and in the meantime should get on with living their lives and making the most of them.
The story of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster is an eloquent reminder that though circumstances and life experiences may change with the passing of the decades, centuries or millennia, basic truths remain the same.
At a time when we are fearful of many things, almost all of them completely beyond our power to control, it is excellent advice to stay as cool as we can, to keep our heads while all about us are losing theirs, and to carry on, as normally as possible, with our lives. Jeremiah may have lived millennia ago, but the truths he pronounced in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE are as valid today as they were then, as is his frustration and depression at the failure of his contemporaries to engage properly with the excellent advice he gave them!
Rabbi Dr Charles Middleburgh (LBC 1986)
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.