Masorti Judaism and All That

May 31, 2011


An embarrassment was averted at the Masorti shul I happened to visit last Shabbat.  The awkward situation arose when one hapless gentleman called to the Torah didn’t have a tallis.  Fortunately a woman came to his rescue with hers.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Masorti, allow me to explain something of the story of this group whose flavour of Judaism appeals to a small but growing section of Anglo-Jewry.  I have consulted my historian friends W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman and I am indebted to them for the following.  You might call it “1964 And All That”.

Back in the late 1950’s Rabbi Louis Jacobs wrote a book called “Believe Me, We Have a Raisin”.  In it he contended that the children of Israel did not feed on manna from heaven when wandering in the wilderness, but that they probably lived an agricultural life cultivating vines and the like.  To his annoyance nobody took much notice of the book and so a few years later in 1964 Rabbi Jacobs decided to publicise it by having an affair.  This was known as “The Jacobs Affair”.  Rabbi Jacobs’ wife was understanding but the United Synagogue was not and they refused to allow him to hold his affair either at Jews’ College where he worked, or at his old synagogue.  They said his book was a bad thing and that consequently Rabbi Jacobs was a bad rabbi.

Rabbi Jacobs’ followers were upset because they knew he was only saying what many Jews privately believed, so they helped him to form a new synagogue in London.  They didn’t know what to call the synagogue and to this day it is known as the New London Synagogue.

Rabbi Jacobs was supposed to be Chief Rabbi but when the time came to make the appointment they couldn’t get hold of him because his friends had bought the synagogue secretly and the phone number was not listed.  This infuriated Jacobs because he very much wanted the job and he blamed BT for the mix up.  Rabbi Jacobs didn’t want the same misfortune to befall another hopeful for the role of Chief Rabbi and so he wrote a manual called “Helping With Directory Enquiries”.

Time passed and while he hadn’t intended to start a movement the children of Rabbi Jacobs’ synagogue began to move out and open their own shuls.  They decided to call their shuls Masorti which comes from the Hebrew word for “transit”, thus remembering how Rabbi Jacobs was forced to keep shlepping his family and belongings from one place to another when he was trying to find a venue for his affair.

Masorti synagogues can now be found all over Europe and consequently they must comply with equal opportunities laws from Brussels.  This is why some ladies wear kippot and tallitot and some men wear sheitels and snoods.  In every other respect the service is virtually identical to that which you would find in an orthodox shul, which is no surprise because Rabbi Jacobs was an orthodox rabbi.  He just had a thing about raisins.

Jews and Cycling

June 13, 2010

Did you know that every (dry and warm) Sunday, several groups of middle-aged Jewish men take their bicycles out into the countryside north of London on what they call training rides?  They are training for one of the many charity bike rides that take place throughout the summer months.

These cyclists are easy to spot.  They ride fancy bikes, wear lurid Lycra and they puff and pant.  We may turn up our noses at balding beer-bellied football fans in their club shirts but surely they’re no worse than balding cake-bellied cyclists hoping to pass themselves off as Lance Armstrong?  Of course, having the kit doesn’t make them Lance Armstrong.  For one thing, Lance likes to ride his bike whereas a Jew likes to admire his bike through the window of a coffee shop while telling his friends how much it cost.

The other topic of cappuccino conversation is how much they have raised so far for their chosen charity.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good cause, and as a keen(ish) environmentalist can think of few better ways than a cycle challenge to achieve it.  I just think it’s a pity that they have to fly out to the other side of the world in order to participate.  Instead of stumping up hundreds of pounds just to get to the start line, they could give even more to the charity and keep their carbon footprint confined to their fancy schmancy carbon-fibre bikes.

Truth be told, you’ll be lucky if you ever see a Jew actually riding his bike.  If he’s not resting in Starbuck’s after a solid three miles in the saddle he’s trying to fix a puncture without suitable tools.  And when I say he’s trying to fix a puncture what I really mean is he’s amongst half a dozen men crowded around his dismantled wheel, rather like the doctors who examined the Roswell aliens; at the same time curious and fearful.

After several minutes one will suggest using tyre levers to extract the inner tube.  “Good idea” says his pal.  “What are tyre levers?” asks a third as he pathetically pokes around with an old butter knife (the Jew’s universal tool) that lives in the neat little under-the-saddle tool bag – the one that contains, apart from the butter knife, his keys, a wad of cash to pay for coffee and cake, several credit cards in case he needs more coffee and cake, and a couple of energy bars.

Eventually the self-appointed mechanic snaps the butter knife and withdraws in embarrassment leaving the rest to clear up the mess.  Before long they are back on the road and heading for the nearest café.

Of course I’m generalising.  Some Jewish cyclists take the sport incredibly seriously.  My friend Moishe is one such and his speciality is hill climbing.  When he’s managed to negotiate a few speed bumps he heads directly for the coffee shop claiming to be “King of the Mountains”.  Mountains of cake, more like.

The other place you’ll see a Jewish cyclist is in the bike shop.  In every group of Jewish cyclists at least one will be preening proudly aperch his brand new super-lightweight machine.

Why, when he only bought a new bike last year, has he gone and spent the equivalent of Greece’s national debt on another?  “Because this one is faster on account of it being three grammes lighter than that old piece of junk”, he’ll inform you as he squeezes through the doors of Starbuck’s on his way to yet another latte and cheesecake.

It’s Jewish Book Week.

February 26, 2010

Here’s one.

Bought Ledger. Goldberg the upholsterer.

Happy Purim to everyone.

Learn Yiddish with Amy Winehouse!

January 30, 2010

You can’t move in London for Jewish education these days.  On every corner in the Jewish neighbourhoods shops have been turned into learning centres.  Every shul runs evening study programmes and there’s even a Friday morning chevruta in the bakery.  Actually, that’s not true, it’s just the same man arguing with the proprietor about the price of challah week after week.

So, in the first of an occasional series (of one, probably) where I invite famous Jews to teach in my online school,  here’s Amy.  Learning is simple.  Just watch the two videos simultaneously until you are a fluent yiddish speaker (albeit with a limited vocabulary).

Instructions:  run the first video until about 25 seconds before starting the second one.  turn the sound off on the second video.

When you’ve mastered that, translate the following…

“Oy, if only my son should meet someone like Amy”.

An interview with Geoffrey Cohen of Jewdas

March 25, 2009

Some call him elusive while others, well others don’t call him anything really.  It’s true that Geoffrey Cohen is not an easy person to track down but that’s mainly because he’s not very good with email addresses.  Nevertheless, in the interests of providing my readers with insights into the minds that are the future of Anglo-Jewry I traced him and travelled all the way to Hackney to speak exclusively with the 15 year old leader of what is possibly the most insignificant and futile Jewish political movement since my cousin Harry stood as an independent councillor in an attempt to extend the eruv boundary by four miles so it took in his flat in Harlesden.

Here’s that interview in full.

NWJ:  How did Jewdas begin?
GC:  It all started about two years ago as a cheder project.  My teacher was studying for a GCSE in politics at the time and he was, like, so cool.  He told me about anarchy and how it’s all about being rude and stuff.  I thought, that’s just what Judaism needs.  There’s not enough Jewish rudeness.  Everyone’s really serious all the time.

NWJ:  You tend to avoid the limelight. Is this deliberate?  Are you publicity shy?
GC:  Not publicity shy, no.  Let’s put it this way, (Cohen furtively looks all around his bedroom to check there’s nobody listening in, then, drops his voice and leans towards me) I’m really dangerous – I’m seen as a threat to the Jewish community.

NWJ:  How can you been seen as a threat if nobody’s heard of you?
GC: Also I’ve been grounded for two weeks.

NWJ:  What for?
GC:  My mum found out about the hoax email.

NWJ:  You’re talking about the email that purported to be from the Board of Deputies calling off the recent pro-Israel rally in Trafalgar Square.  Some say that the stunt was a desperate attempt to be noticed by the wider Jewish community.   How do you respond to that allegation?
GC:  Absolute rubbish.  Have you seen how many people attend our events?
NWJ:  About 20?
GC:  the last one attracted 36 and three of them were people none of us knew at all really.  Well, I knew one of them because she was at Daniel Levy’s barmitzvah, but I didn’t actually invite her, she just heard about it through Daniel.

NWJ:  And what do you do at these events?
GC:  We talk about how cheder sucks and how our rabbis are stupid, and Converse basketball boots.  Stuff like that.

NWJ:  So what’s next on the agenda?
GC:  We’re going to set up a mobile catering van outside Kinloss Gardens synagogue at Yom Kippur and sell bacon rolls!  It’s going to challenge people to think about why they fast every year religiously without recognising that they only do it because their parents and grandparents did it and because it’s part of the Jewish tradition.  See, we’re radical.

NWJ:  How are you going to cook the bacon on Yom Kippur, if you’re not allowed to light the gas on Yom Kippur?
GC:  (pauses) We’ll have to think about that one.

NWJ:  Well, I think we’d better end it there.  You’re mum said you could only talk for 10 minutes because you have homework to do.
GC:  I don’t take any notice of that bourgeois old bag.  I told you, I’m dangerous. Let’s keep going.

At this point Geoffrey’s mum put her head round the door.

Mrs Cohen:  Geoffrey. Homework.
GC:  OK. We’d better end it there then.

Choosing what kind of Jew you don’t want to be.

February 6, 2009

A friend was thinking about converting to Judaism so I decided to offer her some advice given how important such a step is.  “After all”, I explained rather pompously, “we don’t make it difficult to convert for the sheer fun of it, we make it difficult in order to preserve the integrity of the faith.  Why would anyone choose to become a member of the most oppressed and reviled religious grouping on the planet unless they had lost their marbles?” I continued, now beginning to sound like someone who thinks they’re a bit of a Talmud khokhem when in fact they’re just a bit of an idiot, “and why would we want someone who had lost their marbles?  We have enough problems trying to keep our own from rolling around the floor.  You can’t just become any Jew,” I concluded, “you have to decide what kind of Jew you don’t want to be.”

I recommended that she try out a few local synagogues of different hues and proffered the following guidance:

Liberal or progressive synagogue services are really easy to follow.  Everything is in English and the rabbi does the work for you.  You just sit there.  If you’re going to make or receive phone calls it’s polite to go out into the lobby area.  Also, it’s more common to see a woman wearing a yarmulke and tallis than a man.

Next, Reform.  This time there is a small amount of Hebrew but this is nothing to worry about because, again, the rabbi and the choir will do most of those bits for you.  Please don’t join in the singing as it puts them off, besides, they’re here to entertain you, not the other way around.  Only contribute when you are told to do so,  responsively.  As with the liberal synagogues, the Shabbat service is quite short, often starting at 10.30 or 11am and finishing around 90 minutes later giving you the option of going shopping before or after shul.

Jumping over to the far right you’ll find the chareidi communities.  Here, the married women are easily identifiable as they all have the same hairstyle, and, in some cases, the same person’s hair.  A newspaper popular amongst these very orthodox groups is the Jewish Tribune which is mostly written in English, except the sports page at the back which is in Yiddish.  When it comes to shul, the men and women are separated.  Men go while women stay at home once they start having children, and boy do they have children.  The prayer book contains not a word of English, unless you happen to pick up one of the two Artscroll siddurs which appeared out of nowhere and which nobody with any self-respect would dare use.

Returning to mainstream orthodox synagogues, I explained to my friend that she would notice that while both men and women do attend, they are again separated, either by a curtain or by having the women sit upstairs in the gallery.  The reason for this separation is that if a man should catch sight of a woman there is a risk that his thoughts will be drawn away from the spiritual and towards insatiable lust and desire.  This is because Jewish women are expensively dressed, carefully made-up and have enormous hats that men cannot resist.

Although small, there is a growing group of shulgoers who call themselves Masorti.  Masorti is a corruption of the word “Allsorty”, and refers to the fact some of their shuls have women who wear talleisim, lead services and layen, while others have separate seating for men and women and only men may ascend the bimah.  The Masorti movement is the only one where, to my knowledge, there are members who will refer to another Masorti shul as “the one I don’t go to”.

Last time I spoke to my friend she had decided to become a Jedi because it seemed altogether more sensible.

No Cause for Alarm

January 25, 2009

So what would you do? Your kid’s at a Jewish school. They, quite rightly, have regular emergency drill practices, often without prior notification, including lock-downs to simulate responding to an attempt to gain unauthorised entry to the building. Only this time they sent text messages the parents saying “we have an emergency situation at the school. Please don’t attempt to get to the school” (or words to that effect). The thing is, if such a thing happened for real, should they send such a message to parents?

Well in this practice they did. Naturally, many Jewish parents ignored the request to stay away and the streets of north west London almost went into gridlock. So much for “please don’t attempt to get to the school” (or words to that effect).

What did they think was going to happen? A text back from parents saying “Sure, no problem. Good luck with it. c u l8r’?

Or maybe, “That’s a relief. I’m in the middle of the meeting so I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to the gridlock anyway. Tell the hostage takers to hang on to my kid until about 2 please – I doubt I’ll be able to get away from the office until 1.30 at the earliest.”

Of course this is serious stuff. And my understanding is that the text was a mistake in the first place. It should never have been sent, but isn’t it good that it was? The school now knows what would happen if, in a real emergency, they sent out texts saying “hey folks, we’ve got a real emergency going on down here, but you just carry on as normal and we’ll let you know how it all pans out. Whatever you do, don’t come down here because you’ll cause a right old rumpus with the parking” (or words to that effect).

What they found out is that Jewish parents (and, no doubt, non-Jewish ones in a similar situation) would ignore such an email and get over to the school pretty sharpish. Now there’s a surprise.

So maybe the plan was to let people know that it was a drill, and therefore there was no need to panic, but if so they might, just might, have thought to put “Oh by the way folks, it’s just a drill this time no need to make like the car chase in The French Connection” (or words to that effect).

But why the text at all if it’s a drill? To test the effectiveness of the message sent? If this was the actual text message they would send in a real emergency, they now know what the response would be to the “don’t come down here” bit, as if they really needed to test that. And if it was all a silly mistake and someone sent the message out but didn’t think through what they were composing then the school at least needs to do a little more refining of the plan including setting out clearly what messages say and when they are sent.