Jewish I-Spy

August 22, 2012

In a vain attempt to maintain his normally even temper, my father would begin a long drive in our Rover 75, or indeed any tedious activity likely to last more than two hours, by presenting each of his children with an I-Spy book. Readers who grew up in 1960s Britain will recall I-Spy books. For the rest of you, the I-Spy series was a range of paperback spotters’ guides, each on a particular subject — trees, cars, insects, and the like — that educated while encouraging the reader to identify examples of the subject matter, awarding points for a successful spot.

These marvellous little volumes were conceived specifically to minimise the number of times a child asked questions such as “Are we there yet?” and “I’m bored. Can I have an ice-cream?” by making them so consumed with the detective work that whole summers would fly by as he (and let’s be clear, no girl was ever OCD enough to fall for such manipulation) sought to note a striped antelope bouncing along the Essex coastline near Walton-on-the-Naze.

Not being of a competitive disposition my enquiries as to arrival time would begin some five minutes after being handed the guide. Nevertheless, I remember the books with affection, and that recollection has formed the basis of an idea for passing the time in synagogue — I-Spy Shulgoers. While sitting in shul, award yourself points if you manage to spot any of the following:

Screaming babies (20 points): I’m sorry if you belong to one of those synagogues that discourages parents from bringing infants. Not because I think it’s a good thing to allow the noisy little blighters into shul, but because it will make those 20 points difficult to bag. Indeed, if yours is one of those synagogues that would rather children were left at home than learning to feel at home in shul, write to me care of this newspaper with its name and I’ll join immediately.

Now, to collect the full 20 points it’s important that the mother allows the screaming to persist for at least five minutes before they accept that their silent pleadings are in vain, grab the little cherub and saunter out of the prayer hall cracking an embarrassed smile. Those that remove the child immediately are only worth five points.

The next category is “friends of the barmitzvah boy” and again specific circumstances dictate differences in points awarded. If the barmitzvah attends a Jewish school then expect terrible decorum from his friends and collect 15 points. If the child attends a state school then you can be sure that his friends will be quiet and well-behaved — 20 points.

Award yourself extra points if you see any of the guests playing games on their mobile phone. This is no less likely among Jewish kids than gentile ones so both occurrences are worth five points.

There’s an old saying: “Former synagogue presidents don’t resign, they just sit in the back row and kibitz”. Award yourself 50 points if you find yourself sitting next to the previous incumbent and are forced to endure hours of prattling on about how he transformed the place and how it has declined in the three weeks since he stepped down.

Thirty points are up for grabs if you are unable to daven because your neighbour doesn’t let up about how bad business is while insisting how smart a businessman he is, and 40 are available if he doesn’t stop going on about Theo Walcott’s goal in the game against Sweden.

Finally, we approach the upper end of our generational journey. Less an I-Spy than an I-Hear, award yourself 15 points for a whistling hearing aid and a further 20 if an elderly congregant asks: “What’s ’e saying?” in an uncomfortably loud voice during the sermon.

When you’ve completed the list you can start on the second in my series. This one is for those outings to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. It’s called I-Schmy.

I’m out of Tune with Modern Ways

June 1, 2012

There are limited opportunities for lovers of choral music to attend recitals on a Saturday morning.  The Wigmore Hall is famous for its lunchtime concerts but for those whose tastes are, to put it as delicately as possible, a little less sophisticated, I can heartily recommend your nearest Reform or Liberal synagogue where a group of mixed voices (and I mean that in terms of quality rather than equality) add all-important terpsichorean accents to the proceedings. 

And by “accents” what I mean is: sit back, enjoy the show and keep schtum.  This is not an opportunity to step aside from the mundane, corporeal week and into the spiritual realm.  You are not invited to find solace and peace, or search for a sense of perspective and place in the universe.  You are not there to consider how you have behaved in the week just gone or what you can do for others in the week to come.   You’re at a serious concert performance and you are there to appreciate how hard the choir has worked on singing vaguely in tune and time with each other. 

I attended a bar mitzvah at a Liberal synagogue this Shabbat past.  Regular readers will be fully aware that visits to shuls other than my own are not made in order to deepen my understanding of Anglo-Jewry, they are made in order to placate Mrs J, for whom any opportunity to see behind the doors of someone else’s ark is not to be missed.  Personally I’d be much happier going to my own place of worship and sending the kid a £10 book token.

Apparently I should be flattered.  Mrs J tells me that she enjoys talking to me when we sit together in a Liberal or Reform synagogue.  She has completely failed to pick up on the fact that an orthodox service separates men from women for one very good reason.  That reason is not, as commonly perceived, to stop men from being distracted by women.  On the contrary, it is to enable men to be distracted by women, without being distracted by their own women.  Wives should understand that Shabbat is the day of rest for our ears as well as the rest of our overworked bodies.

Another aspect of the progressive service that I struggle with is the amount of English used.  Again, there’s a very good reason for the orthodox sticking to Hebrew.   It’s because nobody really wants to know what they’re actually saying.  It’s all a bit too religious and mentions God more than most people are comfortable with.  Couple all that embarrassing English with the rather melancholic droning and we end up with what might happen if an airport announcer was drafted in to present Songs of Praise.  This isn’t so surprising because I’m bound to say that I find Liberal and Reform synagogues to be indistinguishable from churches except that they have radiators. 

Something else I find somewhat disconcerting is the way men are excluded from participation in any religious aspect of the service.  I understand this is because progressive synagogues have fully embraced egalitarianism.  I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do draw the line at forcing the men to give over their tallises and yarmulkes (or ritual prayer shawls and skullcaps as the more assimilated prefer to call them) to the ladies.  Sorry, women.

Whenever I write about progressive synagogues my inbox overflows with a letter from someone complaining about my lack of tolerance towards Liberal and Reform Jews.  So, just to show that I’m not completely against them I want to end on a positive note about their services: they’re thankfully very short.  If only they’d start at nine o’clock instead of eleven I’d have time to nip down to the Wigmore Hall to enjoy a lunchtime recital.


Who Will be the Chief Behind the Chief?

May 31, 2012

It’s not usual for a columnist of my stature to debase himself by commenting on actual “news” but today I feel I must throw my two shekels worth at the vexed question of the appointment of the next Chief Rebbetzin.  Besides, it’s hardly news any more.

While employment lawyers are wringing their palms in excitement at the possibility of an unfair treatment claim I think it’s time to get one thing clear:  while the advertised job was for a Chief Rabbi, this is no different to any other appointment of a Jew.  You may ask for the man, but what you get is the woman.  Ask any recruitment consultant and they will tell you that it is unwise to offer a Jewish man a job if you are eager for a quick response.  If you need an instant answer you must bypass the candidate and go straight to the decision-maker.  Married Jewish men simply don’t have authority.  Only this week I took my suit into the dry-cleaners and I’m still waiting to for Mrs J to let me know whether I can tell him his offer has been accepted.

Do you think that the incumbent has ever made any decision alone since he tied the knot?  Of course not.  He’s an honourable and loyal man.  First he finds out what the Dayanim want and then he asks Lady S to ratify their decision.

Given the importance of the woman’s role, then, you’d think that the sensible approach would be to interview them together.   However, this defeats another objective, which is to find the couple that is most knowledgeable, and by that I don’t mean Jewishly knowledgeable, I mean knowledgeable about each other.  Only in this way can Jewish role models the equivalent of Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh be identified, for that is exactly what this appointment is all about.

Did you ever see the 1970’s quiz show “Mr and Mrs”?  This is essentially the format for the appointment of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  If you remember, one partner was whisked away into a soundproofed room while the other was asked a series of questions about their temporarily encased spouse.  The spouse was then released and asked the same questions, the couple with the greatest consistency in their answers being the winners of the show. 

A source inside the United Synagogue has passed me the interview questions, a selection of which follow:

Does the Rabbi prefer kneidlach or those little square croutons in his soup?”

What colour is the Rebbetzen’s favourite snood”

Does your husband prefer the old, the centenary or the green edition of the Siddur?” 

How long before Kiddush does the Rebbetzin like to arrive at shul on Shabbat?  Is it five minutes, ten minutes or twenty minutes?” 

In a bid to demonstrate the openness and transparency of the United Synagogue the entire interview process will be televised and Derek Batey-Din has been coaxed out of retirement to head the selection panel.  However, you’ll need to set your recorders because like almost all programmes with Jewish interest it will be screened on a Friday evening.

That’s just the first stage of the interview process.  When they get down to the final two candidates a special edition of Family Fortunes will be the format employed. The purpose of this will be to establish the Rabbi most in touch with the hoi polloi.  Typical questions might be:

Name a road with free parking on a Saturday morning in the vicinity of St John’s Wood Synagogue ”, “Name something a child would like to do on a Sunday morning even less than attend cheder”, and “Name a popular topic of pews conversation on yom kippur.” 

You may think this selection method devalues such a serious appointment but really, can it be any worse than a bunch of old men sitting in a room for days on end trying to get a wood fire started?  There’s nothing entertaining in the Catholic approach and the advertising opportunities pale in comparison. 

Personally I can’t wait to find out who is named as the first Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Sponsored by Ozem.


The Best Friends’ Speech

March 27, 2012

While the eighteenth century philosopher Voltaire has been branded an anti-semite, the man’s writing clearly points to a political and religious tolerance that is beyond reproach, and a set of values that surely all Jews should share.  Nonetheless I feel obliged to take issue with him, or at least with his admirer and advocate, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who epitomised Voltaire with the quote “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.  I take issue because it’s clear that neither of them ever attended a batmitvah party.  If they had surely an unequivocal qualification would have been included in this defence of free speech, for there isn’t a person on the planet who can seriously justify the best friends’ speech given at a girl’s batmitzvah.

The Lynne Truss’s amongst you may at this point be bristling at my use of the apostrophe in “friends’ ”.  This is no grammatical error. As anyone who has witnessed one of these abominations of public speaking will attest, there are always at least three, and usually in excess of five best friends to torture the guests.  If you ask the batmitzvah girl about this peculiar plurality she will explain that her best friends are ranked from “best best friend” down to “worst best friend”, a position that rests the width of a cigarette paper from all her other friends.  What she doesn’t understand is the futility of this whole exercise because within three months her best friends will be her worst enemies and her new best friends will be whichever girls have invited her to make a speeches at their batvitzvahs.

The format and content of the best friends’ speech is so standardised that one only need attend three batmitzvah parties to acquire sufficient competence to deliver it oneself.  I therefore fully expect readers to know all this, but for those who have just arrived from the age of enlightenment here’s what happens.

The best friends stand in a row each holding a copy of the text, passing a microphone up and down the line as the words are revealed, one by one, girl by girl. At some point there’s bound to be an error in this choreography but it doesn’t matter because the whole thing is such an incomprehensible shambles anyway.

This one word relay is unsustainable and it stretches to sentences as the speech evolves into a cutesy version of Monty Python’s four Yorkshire-men sketch – “we’ve been best friends since our first day at senior school two weeks ago”, “we’ve been best friends since we met at tap dancing when we were five years old”, “we’ve been best friends since NCT classes” and then finally one girl trumps all with, “our mums were childhood best friends so we’ve been best friends longer than we’ve been alive!”

No best friends’ speech is complete without the obligatory “you were amaaaazing this morning in shul and you look really amaaaaazing tonight”.  It doesn’t matter that the words were composed several days previously or that the speaker in question was not in shul that morning owing to a fitting appointment for the dress she’ll be wearing at her own Batmitzvah.

Another essential component is a poem, again collectively written.  Truthfully it is less a poem than a series of clichés, some of which vaguely rhyme with each other.  Remembering that most of these girls attend expensive private schools it’s staggering how poor their imagination and command of English proves to be.  If I were a parent I’d be straight to the head-teacher demanding a full refund of the fees.

Finally, the ten-minutes of respite from the evening’s enjoyment is rounded off with the presentation of some useless piece of artwork that will have been painstakingly cobbled together using in-jokes and photographs.  The girls will be supremely proud of their joint effort, representing as it does the amaaaazing time they spent together constructing it and proof of their unimpeachable admiration for the batmitzvah girl.  The recipient will be not the slightest bit interested in it because it didn’t come from Hollister.  It will therefore arrive home from the party crumpled and torn where it will languish in the corner of the girl’s bedroom before eventually finding its sad and neglected way into the bin once those best friends have morphed into the worst enemies they were always destined to become.

It would be nice to imagine a future without best friends’ speeches but like Voltaire’s Candide, I’m not optimistic.

If you build it…

January 2, 2011

Kevin Costner has been coming to mind while reading the JC recently.  Rarely does a week go by without one synagogue or another revealing plans for a new building.

What has struck me most about these announcements is that many seem to follow an inordinately long period of gestation.  It’s not uncommon, for example, to read that a community has, after 36 years, finally found a course of action that satisfies the neighbours, the local planning department and the members (especially the members), such that ground will be broken for their magnificent new home in weeks.  And by weeks I suspect they mean “some unspecified time in the future when we have raised enough money for a builder to take us seriously”.

How can the Shard be piercing the sky within days of the unveiling of its plans, yet it takes years for any quick drying cement to make its acquaintance with the foundations of what is, let’s face it, the equivalent of a small warehouse space?

I’ll tell you how. Outside a synagogue everyone’s an anti-Semite, and inside a synagogue everyone’s an architect, a planning expert or an interior designer.  Especially an interior designer. Or more accurately, everyone is all three of them.  Everyone knows best and everyone else is a schmuck.  If one person says the walls should be green, everyone else says it should be another colour.  What colour should it be?  “I don’t know’, one will admit, “but definitely not green.  What about gold? Gold is nice.  Or Magenta?” Then another expert will cry out “Gold?  Magenta? Don’t be ridiculous!” And so it goes.

The simple truth is that no Jew should be allowed anywhere near shul design, especially not the internal bits. Not unless you want the inside of your prayer house to be in the style of Juif Quatorze.  You know what I mean: white marble floors, Ionic columns everywhere, plastic protectors covering burgundy velour upholstery.  Do you want the walls of your shul festooned with bronze and gold lamé drapes?  Do you want your ark to be in mahogany veneer with rolling doors like a 1970’s television cabinet? Do you want a four-ton crystal ner tamid with a thousand glistening lamps hanging off it?

As far as prayer venue design is concerned we’d do well to look to our Christian neighbours for inspiration. They have a penchant for images of nearly naked men being tortured, there’s neither leg-room nor sufficient comfort for a quick shluf, and they have clearly never heard of heating.

All this is deliberate.  Vicars realise that the last thing they want is for their places of worship to be welcoming.  This will only lead to people hanging around and arguing with each other about the curtains, the furniture and the minister.  Whereas we Jews lay on a small feast after the service, priests give their congregants one wafer, a sip of wine, then shoo them on their way, standing by the door to make sure they all disappear quickly.

That’s the attitude to adopt.   If you build it they won’t come.

Fame at last, without the fame.

March 25, 2010

I received one of those annoying joke emails today.  They’re usually more of an irritating distraction than an amusing diversion.  This one had come from a very close friend and, unusually, I enjoyed reading it immensely.  It looked as if it had come from America but it hadn’t.

It was one of my own articles and it had been picked up somewhere, probably the JC website, and was now floating around in the internet ocean like a great big oil slick.   No wonder I enjoyed reading it, I later mused.

I decided to do a Google search for the article and found that it had made its way, without acknowledgement, onto several websites in America and Canada, with ever such slight changes in the wording for those audiences.

Flattered, and yet feeling a sense of injustice, I contacted those website owners asking them to add my nom de plume.  Some did immediately, others have still not.  Ach, so what?

The friend who sent it to me has no idea that I am the original author.  The only people who know my true identity are one or two people at the JC and my wife.  Not my parents, not my children, not my doctor, not even my rabbi, boruch Hashem.

And so here I sit, the originator of one of those stupid viral emails, and nobody, except my wife, to be famous for.

Perhaps that’s how it should be.