An Obscure Religion

September 26, 2010

An anthropologist friend of mine was telling me about an intriguing religious group that has been quietly performing its strange rituals for thousands of years, the most peculiar of which takes place during the autumn.  It is a harvest related worship ceremony and my friend witnessed it here in London just a few days ago.

The first part of the ritual is a kind of journey where the people of the sect leave their homes and set up a temporary camp.  This is not a long journey, in fact the camp is positioned no more than a few feet of their permanent home.

The shelter is notable for the fact that it is designed to let the rain in, the roofing material being a flimsily concocted collection of foliage and hanging fruit.  The beauty of this arrangement is that if it does rain, the members of this sect are allowed to return to their permanent dwelling place.

Little else is know about the purpose of this practice.  Even sect members have only a vague idea of why they do it.  One interpretation is that it recalls a time when this ancient people was a traveling tribe.

Apart from the requirement to spend a week in the roofless tent the people of this sect undertake a quest whereby they must obtain various items: a strange inedible fruit and a collection of three different species of plant.  This search is not physically challenging but can bring about shock and even heart palpitations when the cost of the items is discovered.  Nevertheless, this is a people of deep and sincere faith and they go along with it all, carefully examining the items and even paying a premium for those considered to be the most perfect, because their Lord likes a nice piece of fruit.

The items are then arranged and handled in a specific way as prescribed by their ancestors.  If any of the items are blemished or damaged they will be deemed unacceptable for the ceremony for which they are required.

As my friend related all this mumbo-jumbo I felt myself beginning to wonder if he was trying to wind me up, but he assured me that the crazy sect really did exist and went on to tell me about the ceremony that takes place with the four items.  Starting out by facing east, the people, gathered together within their community groups, shake the foliage and fruit in the four directions of the compass as well as to the sky and the ground while marching in a procession and chanting a repetitive incantation for rain.

This probably also accounts for the requirement for the leaky roof.  It seems that the prayer has been answered if the tent dweller finds that his bowl of chicken soup is still full after ten minutes of slurping.

There’s nowt so strange as folk, eh?

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How to give a great sermon

September 1, 2010

My friend Moishe has a problem.  His rabbi’s sermons are so dull they make the hum of an air conditioning unit sound compelling in comparison.  Moishe is not alone.

I doubt they spend more than half a day at rabbinic college on sermons, which is odd given that it’s the only part of the service the rest of us are ever likely to understand.  Every sermon I have witnessed in an orthodox shul follows the same old pattern.

By way of introduction, your spiritual leader tells you how fascinating and important this week’s sedra is.  There’s an uninteresting paradox here: the more tedious the sedra, the more fascinating he’ll tell you it is, the more irrelevant it appears, the more important it must be.

Soon after embarking on his twisting journey, the rabbi recites a line or two from the weekly portion in Hebrew and continues without pausing into the English translation.  This is the key line around which his message pivots.

The rabbi then links this chosen phrase to something from recent current affairs.  This is a crucial step for without it we would question the relevance of Judaism to our modern lives.  That the link is both as tenuous and as convenient as Nick Griffin’s support for Israel is neither here nor there.

At some point the rabbi may well alight on a “curiosity” in the text.  In other words, something that either makes no sense at all to anyone with a normally wired brain, or something that is so abhorrent to modern sensibilities that we are forced to place it within the category of “Hashem the inexplicable”.  To help with this discomfort the rabbi provides you with some equally incomprehensible reasoning from one of our sages.  This explanatory discourse is about as unfathomable as the Dorabella Cipher but don’t worry – the point is to send your head into a spiral of confusion so that you become unaware of everything you are subsequently told.

The conclusion is a delightful sleight of tongue.  Here’s how the whole thing happens in stages:

1                The sedra for this week is relevant to what is happening in the world today.

2                Our modern lives are built upon ancient traditions.

3                Our ancient traditions are maintained by observing the mitzvot

4                If we don’t keep mitzvot we are not good Jews

5                That means you, buddy.  Thank you and good shabbos.

The only variation on this theme comes at the high holy days when the message is substituted for one along the lines of  “coming to shul twice a year is not often enough”, which is about as encouraging as your doctor inviting you to contract some nasty diseases so you can make more frequent visits to the surgery.

Finally, I must stress that this only holds for those who attend orthodox shuls.  The rest of you probably receive a discourse on human rights in Papua New Guinea.  I’m not sure which I’d prefer.


Jewish Football

September 1, 2010

The World Cup has got me reminiscing about my own playing days.  They are too long ago for comfort, and yet some of those memories are as clear as if they happened yesterday.  Unfortunately I’m now at an age where I don’t remember much about what happened yesterday, but that is by the by.

I do remember those cold, muddy Sunday afternoons when teams struggled to get 11 people into their mish-mash of similarly coloured shirts.  Ours were mainly a shade of deep pink, after one mother failed to read the care instructions when it was her turn to do the wash.

However, my memories are not all rose-tinted.  I’ll let you into a scandalous secret:  some of the Jewish teams fielded players who were not Jewish.  Nobody seemed to notice or care much.  We had one regular, about seven foot three, he was, and our coach had to remind him on at least two occasions to wear his crucifix inside his shirt.  Sammy Goldstein was his name, according the team sheet.

The team I played for competed successfully in the under 13 AJY League.  We were brilliant.  We went through two entire seasons hardly conceding a goal.  This was not because our defence was so marvellous, but because our attackers were superb thus ensuring that the ball rarely crossed into our half of the pitch.  I know this because I was one of those defenders.  I spent most of the games chatting with the centre back about music and girls.

Orange quarters were flung around the dressing room following one match during a row full of recrimination because we had only won 9-1.  So carried away were we having beaten the same team 24 – 0 two weeks previously that everyone decided they were due a hat-trick at least, including the goalkeeper.  The end result was that instead of the expansive passing game that won us so many contests so easily we resorted to what looked like a posse of dogs chasing a bitch on heat.

Still, our domination of the Jewish football world was an embarrassment and we knew that if we were to really test ourselves we’d have to play in a non-Jewish league.  And so the following year found us facing whole teams (plus substitutes) of seven foot three, fully bearded, fourteen year olds and on the receiving end of 24 – 0 drubbings.  Our team, demoralised, broke up at the end of the season and I took up smoking, providing me with the perfect excuse never to undergo such pain again.

I still have my tacky gold medals from earlier successes against the Jewish kids stuck away in a drawer somewhere.  They provide little comfort when set against the reality of our true ability as shown when we ventured out of that genteel world and into the gentile one, and that’s why you won’t find me moaning about England’s performances in the World Cup.  It is, after all, a competition especially for the “goyim”, or “nations”, as my prayer book translates the word.  I know just how Stephen Gerrard and his teammates must be feeling.