Limmud is sooooo nice

December 28, 2008

And so we come once again to the highlight of the Jewish year; Limmud, or as I call it, camp for grown-ups.  Well why not?  Every summer the children go off at great expense to be with hundreds of other Jews, so why shouldn’t the adults do the same?

I’ve decided to stay away this year.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is to take advantage of the traffic free streets in north-west London.  You guys stuck up at Warwick University have no idea what it’s like here at the moment. Tumbleweed is drifting across the North Circular Road at Henley’s Corner.  I can pick up a takeaway schwarma from Solly’s without queuing for an hour and a half and I even got called up on Shabbat, although this was partly because there was a spectacularly large number of aliyot this week.  By the time we reached the third sefer Torah we were dragging people in off the street.

The second reason is that I’m just a bit fed up with having to be so nice to people the whole time.  I don’t know why I should feel this way.  If Limmud is a family, as the organisers keep insisting, why the hell aren’t there any arguments?  Everyone’s determinedly friendly, tolerant and considerate.  It drives me up the wall.

What’s even more difficult to cope with is that I have to keep smiling at everyone when Limmud is, let’s face it, about as non-Jewish an experience as any Jew could possibly contemplate.  All that queuing and shlepping around the campus, the low-grade student accommodation, the necessity to be here, then here, then there, then back here again, not to mention the stopping to ask people where they’re going, and “Oh, I really wanted to go to that but I have to go to this because I know the person who’s presenting the session” (even though their subject is about as exciting as smallprint).

And then there’s the constant din.  There isn’t a minute of peace from the moment you drag yourself, bleary eyed, into the Rootes Building in the morning until the time you crawl back to your digs after the evening’s entertainment.  By the end of the week last year my ears were ringing so hard that I felt like Quasimodo with tinnitus.

Limmudfest is slightly more relaxed, but only slightly, and at least it offers something priceless for those who like a giggle.  Have you ever seen 500 Jews all trying to put up tents at the same time?  It really is a camp-site for sore eyes.  Let’s put this into context.  Jews haven’t owned tents since we completed our forty-year meander through the wilderness (Norwood missed a sponsorship opportunity there, didn’t they?) and can anyone blame us?  We are, after all, neither practical with our hands not stupid enough to want to go on holiday and live in worse conditions than our own homes offer.  It’s a luxury hotel or nothing for most Jews.  My understanding is that the Jewish Caravan Club appear in the 2009 edition of the Guinness Book of Records under the category entitled Daftest Concept Ever Devised.

But I digress.

Most Limmudfestniks have borrowed their tent from a gentile neighbour and have no idea what to do with it.  While the recommendation is that one practice by setting up a tent at home before using it for the first time, no Jew does.  Peh!  Who needs to practice putting up a tent?  We’ll work it out.  There’ll be someone there who can help.  Oh yeah?  Didn’t it cross your mind that the other 499 people had exactly the same thought?

After about six hours most of the tents are sufficiently well erected to allow one or two people to crawl in, but that’s only because they were designed to sleep twelve.  It’s pot-luck whether your door is facing the way you want it to face or is situated so that you crawl in and out via the brambles and undergrowth.  Nobody really knows how their tent will look by the time they throw in the towel (and seventeen suitcases) and trudge to the mud carpeted, luke warm shower to get ready for Shabbat.

And another thing.  ’Fest is even ‘nicer’ than Conference.  It’s more happy clappy than an evangelical Christian’s sixth birthday party.  It’s all alternative therapy and yoga, which I have no real problem with, as long as they provide drugs to ease the pain, which they don’t.  You’re even obliged to go into the next field if you want to drink anything stronger than camomile tea.

I’m probably sounding like a killjoy and I don’t mean to.  I really am a big fan of Limmud.  It’s just that after a week of it I need a good rest, and it so happens that I’m still resting after last year.

Look what they done to my song, Ma!

December 26, 2008

Before you read this piece, I want it to be known that I do not watch The X Factor. I watched the closing stages of it last night, but only because I had been told that one of my favourite songs was to be sung by the finalists. The song is Hallelujah, a Leonard Cohen composition. It is beautiful and moving. More than anything, it is imbued with Judaism.

Knowing something about the pop industry today (for “pop industry”, read Simon Cowell), I had very low expectations for the way the two finalists, a boy band and a girl belter, would render the song, and yet I was still appalled at the way it was butchered and abused. If Hallelujah were a pet, the RSPCA would be calling for Cowell to be banned from keeping animals for the rest of his life.

As I watched the performances, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up at the crassness of it all. Children singing a grown up song like this is just wrong. It was like turning up for the school concert and hearing the choir singing a version of “Je t’aime (moi non plus)”.

Even more upsetting is that the song has now been appropriated as a festive song. It’s almost certain to be at number 1 in the charts this Christmas and it shouldn’t be. Just because it’s called “Hallelujah” they decided to add some bells to it, so to speak, and turn it into a gospel carol. On the set of the show the singers performed before a big pine tree with a star atop, in the shape of a great big cross. They stole it. It’s a Jewish song. Hallelujah is a Jewish word. It’s a song about David and Saul. It’s about Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah and God. And sex. It’s about as far from a Christmas song as you can get.

The only saving grace for this tawdry affair is that Leonard Cohen is set to make about a million quid from it and he deserves it for such a masterpiece. Simon Cowell, on the other hand, ought to be ashamed, but instead he’ll be wringing his hands at a Christmas windfall he doesn’t deserve.Then again, he don’t really care for music, do he?

Originally posted December 14th 2008

Festive puddings

December 26, 2008

Now I’ve seen it all. The bread shop, under Kedassia supervision no less, is selling “festive puddings”. “Festive puddings”! You know what? They are dome shaped and they come wrapped in brightly coloured foil. If I didn’t know better I might think these were kosher Christmas puddings. But just to check I asked the assistant. “Are these the sort of thing that, erm, you know, the other lot eat at their festival around this time of year?” I said to her. I have no idea why I said it like that. It just seemed wrong to say the words Christian or Christmas in the bread shop on a Friday morning when I was buying my challah. I guess I was worried that it would somehow make my purchase treyf.

Anyway, the girl told me she didn’t know. Why should she? When would a nice frum girl ever have tasted a traditional Christmas, I mean, festive pudding?

After marvelling at the absurdity of this I decided to go the whole hog, if you’ll excuse the expression, and bought one. You see, the thing is, I love a Christmas pudding and while the supermarkets do a very good line in vegetarian versions, I feel obliged to buy kosher if it’s available.

In fact this year I’m going to have a kosher Christmas. The kids will collect their presents from under the Chanukah bush after we light the candles on Christmas eve and I’ll be up early the following morning to get the oven on in order to start cooking the turkey.  I have a special recipe that involves draping rashers of fake bacon made from quorn over the top. It doesn’t keep the turkey moist or tasty, but at least it looks authentic. To accompany the meat will be boiled carrots, brussels sprouts, roast potatoes, mini viennas wrapped in more fake bacon rashers (I call them cows in nylons) and a selection of stuffings, namely cholent and kishke. We’ll eat, drink (lemonade) and be argumentative.

Then at three in the afternoon we’ll all settle in front of the TV to watch the Queen’s Chanukah message to the nation.  No doubt a tear will well up in my eye as I lament the loss of the empire while tucking into my festive pudding along with a big dollop of non-dairy cream. Bleuch.

Originally posted December 19th 2008

Mazal Tov Missiles

December 26, 2008

Some weeks ago the JC printed a story about how a sweet, launched in celebration at a bar mitzvah, hit the rabbi in the face and caused him considerable discomfort.  The word on the streets of Hendon is that this was a deliberate act by a congregant unhappy with recent sermons.  I don’t believe this scurrilous rumour for a minute.  It’s beyond comprehension that someone might react in this way to a rabbi’s preaching.

What I do believe is that Jews all over the country saw this coming (even if the rabbi in question didn’t).  There was a time when there was a degree of decorum in our synagogues.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a simcha and I especially love a bar mitzvah.  Nothing brings me closer to the Lord than hearing some pre-pubescent kid I don’t know screech and yodel his way through Maf and Haf.  Still, this was a time bomb waiting to explode.

The truth is that sweet throwing is the new paint-balling.  In one shul I visited recently three school-friends of the boy were carefully installing a specially converted Gatling gun at the back of the shul when I arrived.

I also noted that nobody in the congregation was the slightest bit interested in what the poor lad was reading or how he was doing.  They were all entirely focused on him finishing, when, of course, the inevitable happened.  Rather than a gentle, celebratory shower of sweetness, the boy, and anyone else in the firing line, was assaulted by a carefully yet violently aimed barrage of boiled confection.  Fortunately the St. John’s Ambulance people were on hand to look after the several casualties.

Afterwards, and with no little embarrassment, I asked one of these volunteers what they thought of the events that had unfolded, expecting some invective about barbaric and inhumane customs that cause deep distress in the name of religion.  Instead the chap told me he thought is was great because usually they just hang around rainy school fetes and have little more to deal with than 4 year old kids with candy floss sticks stuck up their noses.  At least someone was happy.

But what upsets me most is that the bar mitzvah boy is the last person that should be subject to such treatment.  Is this the way we show appreciation for someone who has spent months learning?  Is this the way to support someone in what is quite probably the most nerve-wracking thing he’s ever done?  Is this the way to encourage young men to commit to their faith?  I think not, and what will that mean for a community already in Jewish identity freefall?

It’s clear that people have grown accustomed to sweet throwing.  The tide cannot be turned back – it’s now virtually minhag.  On the other hand we need to protect our young people.   So how about changing things just a little?  Instead of throwing sweets at the bar mitzvah I think we should throw those awful powdery biscuits with the bits of glacé cherry at whoever it is that organises kiddish.  Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll get some decent tuck after the servic

Originally posted December 5th 2008

The O2 minyan

December 26, 2008

There comes a point in life when a Jew starts to like Leonard Cohen.  It’s not the music, you understand, it’s the name.  It’s the fact that there’s this Jewish guy who’s a successful singer, a pop singer, noch, (OK, borderline pop), who didn’t give himself a new name.  If Leonard Cohen were Bob Dylan he’d be calling himself Robert Zimmerman.  Not only that, he’d be OK with his Judaism.  OK, so Cohen plays around with Buddhism but that doesn’t count does it?  It’s not like he’s converted.

And then there’s the secret code.  While the gentiles are groaning along to “Who By Fire”, we’ve got this Rosh Hashannah thing going.   When they listen to Hallelujah they get stuck on the bondage bit, when we listen to Hallelujah we get stuck on the King David bit.

I went to see Leonard Cohen last week at the O2 – the one in Docklands not the one on Finchley Road. (Am I the only person who finds it sad that a major public building is named after a mobile phone provider?  Before long newscasters will be going over to John Sergeant who’ll be standing outside the HP Sauce Houses of Parliament).  During the interval I played a game with my companions wherein we would award ourselves points for spotting Jews we knew.  I scored 14, including 3 for a rabbi.  That’s more than we managed at Shacharit earlier in the day.  Which got me thinking.  Why an interval?  Who does intervals at rock concerts?  The only thing I could think of is that Cohen wanted to give people a chance to daven Maariv. Great idea.  So why didn’t they sell overpriced cuppels and siddurs instead of overpriced T-shirts and programmes?

The other feature of the evening that proved, if further proof were needed, that this was a Jewish event, it was the number of people who arrived late and wandered in and out as if they were in their own living rooms watching TV.  This confirms my original point:  Jews don’t really like the music of Leonard Cohen, they just go to see him in the same way that they go to T-Mobile Square for Israel rallies.  They feel they need to give their support rather than because they want to be there.

Personally I enjoyed it.  I only wish it had started earlier so I could have davened Mincha as well.

Originally posted November 16th 2008

A Bluffer’s Guide to the Shul Service.

December 26, 2008

Worried about looking like a lemon in shul?
Finding the shul service impossible to follow?

Many people suffer from what is known in religious circles as “Mainstream Judaism”. No need to worry, however.  Our team of spiritual healers have devised a cure and we are making it available to you exclusively today.  Please pass it on to anyone you know who may be suffering in silence.

“Shul Rules” is your ten step guide to synagogue confidence:

1    If you arrive after the start don’t sit down right away, but instead open the book near the beginning and spend 2 or 3 minutes turning slowly through the pages while mumbling under your breath.  If you recognise any of the Hebrew words, say one or two of them a little louder so those around you can hear.

2    Find a seat just behind someone who looks like they know what’s going on.  (You can tell this person because they are likely to be mumbling to themselves under their breath).  Make sure this person is using the same prayer book as you.  Keep a note of what page they are on by glancing casually over their shoulder every now and again.  A pair of strong magnification glasses may help here.

3    When putting on the tallit wrap it around your head for a few seconds while mumbling under your breath.

4    Liberally sprinkle your time in shul with more barely audible mumbles as you look intently at the pages of your siddur.  Again, the odd word, phrase or line spoken accurately and a little louder than the rest goes down very well.

5    Don’t jump up whenever the person in front does so.  They may be stretching their legs.  Instead, wait a moment until a significant proportion of the congregation are standing.  In this way, even if they are all stretching their legs you won’t look conspicuous.

6    See those guys near the front that are wondering around with an air of assurance?  These are the shammosim.  AVOID EYE CONTACT WITH THESE PEOPLE or you may find yourself being asked to do something strange like opening the doors of the Aron Kodesh or, heaven forbid, saying something in Hebrew out loud to everyone.

7    The easiest way to look the part is to shockel.  I have met people who have won international shockelling competitions without having a clue about where in the service they were.  Advanced shockellers will even shockel when everyone else is sitting.  (Of course, sometimes this may be a disguised leg-stretch).

Schockelling is an entire lesson in itself but there are two basic forms.  The “lateral swing” is usually seen in ultra-orthodox congregations.  Here the practitioner is perfectly still from the waist down (feet together, naturally), while the top half of the body repeatedly twists at speed.

The “Hammerhead” is more prevalent in mainstream orthodox shuls and, as the name suggests, the congregant looks as if they are trying to bang a nail into the floor with his head.  (I say “his” because women prefer to use this time for kibitzing or kvelling over the way their grandson shockels.).

Shockelling mainly takes place during the silent Amidah.  This is about 10 pages during which you have no idea where everyone else is.  All you do know is that if the others were really reading all the prayers involved they would be contenders for the world speed-reading record.  You know when it starts because everyone takes three steps back, then three steps forward, then they bow.  This is your cue to start shockelling while turning the pages of your prayer book approximately every 15 seconds.  The end of the silent Amidah is signalled by everyone taking three short steps back, bowing to the left, the right and the centre and then looking round to see if they won.

8    Is the Rabbi speaking in English and yet you can’t understand what he’s on about?  If so, this is the sermon and it’s your job to look alive.  Paying attention to the sermon is a skill that may take many years to master rather in the way that one learns how to complete cryptic crosswords.  The formula for this particular puzzle is fairly simple:  The narrative of Torah portion you have just heard plus something from local or national news equals “you should go to shul more regularly” or “your home isn’t kosher enough”.

9    Feel free to talk to people near you at any time.  Business and football are particularly appropriate topics of conversation.  Seeking kavanah and listening to the sermon will be regarded with suspicion in most communities.

10    If you can keep your cool until the end of the service you will be rewarded.  At last something that is familiar, and a chance to clear your throat and give it some as you bash out Ein Kelokaynu and Adon Olam just like you did at cheder all those years ago.

One final word of warning.  If it goes well and you feel confident enough to go back for a second week running you will be classified as a regular.  This means there is a very good chance you will be asked to be the next synagogue chairman.

Originally posted November 23rd 2008

Hagbah: The worst honour

December 26, 2008

I had it all worked out so nicely.

Having pledged to myself at Yom Kippur that I would go to shul every Shabbat from now on (except when I’m on holiday, obviously), this week I was faced with my first challenge; a 12.45 kick-off at the Emirates, and against Man United.  Not a match to miss.  The rest of the games I can usually take or leave, but since they generally start at 3pm, there’s no conflict with shul.  In the winter, with a 5pm kick-off there isn’t even a conflict with Shabbat.  Those anti-semites at the Sky TV knew exactly what they were doing when they set this fixture.

What were my options?  Well, I could forget shul and blow the pledge.  Most other congregants with Arsenal season tickets would be doing just that.  Alternatively, I could use this as the opportunity to test my commitment.  I could make a tidy sum by selling the ticket and even give it to the Rosh Hashannah appeal.  How proud I would be of myself if I did that.  After all these years as a fair-weather Jew, this would be the first time, bar yom tovim, that I put faith in front of football.

But wait.  There’s another possibility.  The Haftorah reading finishes at about 11.15, giving me just enough time to slip out and be on my way to the ground for the match.  I’d be in shul for shacharit and the Torah reading and I’ll just miss the sermon, musaf and a few other bits and pieces.  I’d get to hear Lech Lecha, one of my favourite sedras, and God would be so pleased with me for making the effort that he would even ensure a victory for the Gunners.  Brilliant plan.

At least it was a brilliant plan until I heard my Hebrew name being called from the Bimah along with the word “Hagbah”.  Now I was stuffed.  This meant I would be hanging around until the end of the Torah service, at least 20 minutes beyond my planned escape, and then what?  I couldn’t just run off straight after “As of old”.  My absence would surely be noticed at Kiddish.  Could I quietly tell them I had a sore arm and I was worried that I might drop the holy scroll?  Of course not.  Perhaps this was the Lord’s way of pushing me a little further with my faith.  OK, I may be a bit late for the game, but so what?  Surely the honour of lifting the Sefer Torah outweighs a few minutes of a football match.  And if I did it, maybe my reward would be a victory for the boys?

Clearly I had no choice.  I reluctantly took my place on the Bimah and proceeded to undertake the honour.

I then sat through the Haftorah desperately trying to calculate how this was going to affect things.  Was there a quicker way getting to the ground?  Could I slip away a little sooner?  How about if I ducked out of the shul hall just as we were half way round the closing procession?  How long was the yarzheit list?

As the doors of the ark closed I evacuated purposefully.  They’ll think I’m going to the loo, I told myself.  Instead I dashed out of shul and sped down to the ground, only remembering to take of my cuppel when I was inching through Highgate.

In the end it worked out fine.  I was about 5 minutes late but missed no goals and was rewarded with a win.

I must be a good Jew.

Originally posted November 9th 2008