Our Shul AGM

November 29, 2009

I’m not going to pretend that our Annual General Meetings are the friendly, supportive events that the Rabbi hopes for, in vain, each year. However, he ought at least to be relieved that only a tiny fraction of the synagogue membership bother to turn up for this ancient and honoured ritual often referred to as “bashing the lay leadership and taking a barely concealed sideswipe at the spiritual leader while you’re at it”.

I suspect that my shul is similar to yours and that the following pen portraits of AGM stalwarts will be familiar.

The Keeper of the Book. Always sitting in the front row of every meeting. This is the person who leaps to his feet every time the most obscure procedural detail is not being followed. While the rest of us study Talmud he studies the synagogue constitution and he knows obscure clauses down to the sub-subsection by heart. As a result, approval of the previous year’s minutes takes approximately two hours. We’ll be hearing from the Keeper of the Book again. And again. And again.

The Founder Member. There appear to be about 300 founder members still active in my shul, which was founded in 1924. Go figure. Anyway, the founder member performs an invaluable function ensuring that we keep sight of the original principals upon which the synagogue was formed. He will not hesitate, for example, to leap to his feet during a discussion about decorating the function room to remind us that while the paint may have been curling away from the plaster for the past 27 years, we mustn’t abandoned the original colour of the walls which he personally chose. What was the original colour? Nobody can remember but the best guess is that it was the colour one’s face turns when attacked by food poisoning.

The Treasurer. This is a crucially important role for the synagogue. The treasurer must possess the skill to describe enormous budget shortfalls without anyone being unduly perturbed. He does this by not leaping to his feet at any time while droning on, at length, and barely audibly. When he has completed his report it’s time to put it to the vote. With most of the members now fast asleep the budget is passed by a majority of two votes with only the Keeper of the Book voting against.

The Guildswoman. Inexplicably there have been no new members of the Ladies Guild since 1983. Some have speculated that the cabal – I mean guild leaders – are reluctant to allow in women who don’t wear enormous hats with fruit on top. At each AGM the chair of the Ladies Guild reports on all the scandalous complaints she has received over the year concerning, amongst other things the stale biscuits at Kiddush and the hay fever inducing flower display at Yomtov. This speech earns her the longest and most enthusiastic applause of anyone at the meeting. What she doesn’t realise is that the applause is a front so that members can kvetch to their neighbour about the flowers and stale biscuits.

And so the meeting eventually comes to a close. Nothing is decided and everyone goes home asking why they bothered. But don’t worry; they’ll all be back next year to show their appreciation of the poor suckers who volunteer for official posts because they certainly don’t reckon they could do a better job of it themselves. Not much they don’t.

A family Breugus

November 23, 2009

A wonderful thing happened.  I recently re-established contact with a part of my family generations after a disputed will split three siblings forever. One went to Israel, another to America and the third remained in the East End of London.


A conversation with a New Yorker meandered onto the topic of family history.  My great-grandfather had been a successful importer of leather and it was he who, rather thoughtlessly, forgot to add his youngest daughter (my grandmother) to his will, having written it before she was born. More inconveniently, he passed on when she was still in her early teens as a result of a freak accident with a tram.   All this would have been less problematic had it not been for the fact that their mother had succumbed three years previously to a mystery illness that involved acute flatulence. (Her demise was regarded as something of a mixed blessing by the bereaved, I understand).


The details of what then transpired are lost in the mists of time; however, here is the gist of it.  The older brother refused to do the right thing and the other sister reluctantly went along with him.  When my grandmother came of age she sued them both with the help of her uncle and custodian who chanced that he might somehow benefit from the outcome.


The action failed.  Predictably only the lawyers were successful, with most of the estate disappearing down the judicial drain.  The affair left such a bitter taste that not a word passed between any of the siblings for as long as they lived.


This story was the family shame for years, serving as a warning to subsequent generations not to fight over money. (It may have been better as a recommendation to study law, but that is by the by).


Then, when the unusual surname shared by my great-grandfather, his one son, and, as it turned out, a good friend of this fellow from New York, came up in the conversation, cogs began to turn in my American companion’s head.  Two days later a phone call confirmed that his friend was my second cousin (once removed) and a descendent of my grandmother’s brother.


Emails were exchanged and we arranged to meet in London.  I was proud to have made this effort to rebuild the family and couldn’t help feeling that my grandma and her siblings were looking down with pride.  Finally, a nasty episode would be put to rest.


I walked into the lobby of his hotel and recognised the family resemblence immediately. He shook my hand with a warm smile and it was then that I felt the pain of the years fill me up, in particular my grandmother’s pain.  I said something I possibly shouldn’t have.


“Where’s our money you thieving swine?”


My cousin and I have no plans to meet up again in the foreseeable future.



Lechem Lout

November 20, 2009

I was once banned from the bread shop.  It was a few years ago so my conviction is now spent and I can talk about it without risking my reputation as an upstanding member of the Jewish community.

When I was a teenager I would go to pubs with friends, some of whom may not have been Jewish.  One was banned from the local where we liked to play pool.  He had drunk a fair bit more than he needed then started a fight with someone about something insignificant.  I was in awe.  Banned from a pub. Could I ever reach these heights of street cred?  Not by nursing a pint of weak shandy for 3 hours I couldn’t.  I considered switching my tipple of choice to something harder but wasn’t sure nursing a pint of cherry brandy was such a good idea either.  Still, if you can’t be banned from a pub, at least be banned from a bakery.

This particular Friday morning I was, as always, in a hurry on account of participating in Jewish blood sports.  I was the fox; the traffic warden was the hound.  The idea is to park, run in for the bread and get back to the car before a ticket is slapped on the windscreen.  This is especially challenging in Golders Green Road as the wardens have any number of places to hide so lulling shoppers into a false sense of security before pouncing.  Any rational person would stump up for a ticket, but I resent paying the council 30p just so I can buy a couple of loaves of bread, and besides, I can’t resist an adrenalin pumping contest when the prize is to get back to the car and smile provocatively at the warden just as he thinks he’s earned his first commission of the day.

So there I was in the shop, hopping from one foot to the other, one eye on the vicinity of the car, the other on my place in the queue. When I say queue, of course I mean I was keeping an eye on the person I had randomly decided had pitched up after me, so as to ensure that they didn’t get served before me.

I placed my order:  two medium challahs and two sesame bagels. Off the assistant trotted and returned with my bag.  I quickly paid and dashed out to the car just as one of the corporation’s finest was making his way towards my motor.

As I arrived home I realised there was something wrong.  The bag wasn’t bulky enough.  Sure enough I was one loaf light.  I was furious.  It was Friday morning for heaven’s sake. Who buys only one loaf of challah on a Friday?  Surely these dimwits would at least have been putting two loaves in every bag by muscle memory if, as in this case, they lacked the capacity to understand a simple instruction?

I stormed back to the shop and demanded to see the supervisor.  “If it wasn’t for your stupid assistants chatting with each other instead of concentrating on the job in hand…” I huffed, “…you people are USELESS!”

As cool as you like the woman took my bag, checked the contents, reached into the till, extracted the appropriate sum and handed it to me with the following quiet admonishment:  “It’s not acceptable to talk like that. Take your money.  You’re not welcome here again”.

I was flabbergasted.  I was talking in an unacceptable way?  I am English.  An Israeli was accusing me of being rude?

Mumbling something feeble along the lines of having no intention of ever setting foot in the shop again, I departed.  The coup de grace was the plastic yellow envelope attached to my windscreen as I sloped back to the car with as much dignity as anyone could muster following defeat by a four year old in an arm-wrestle.

Still, I had the last laugh.  They didn’t recognise me in the shop the following Friday morning when I went to buy my challah.