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.


Funeral Parties

August 16, 2011

Today I wish to turn my attention to delicate subject of death.  I’ll do my best to treat is as sensitively as possible knowing as I do that it’s distressing for all concerned, most especially the deceased.

I’m aware, for example, just how many JC readers anxiously turn to the Social and Personal section before anything else to check if they need to ring round their friends to make up a recently vacated place at the Monday evening kalooki table and I know how inconvenient prayers can be when at such short notice you have to find someone to take Tuesday evening’s Spurs tickets off your hands.

It would be cheap of me to make comparisons with non-Jews, so I’ll get that out of the way quickly.  A notable difference between Jews and Gentiles when it comes to dealing with death is to found in timing; they like to get the drink in their bodies before they put the body in the ground, while we prefer to get the body in the ground before we turn to the drink, which, in our case, happens to be tea.

Irish Catholics treat the mourning period as if it were a party, filling the funeral home with the trappings, sounds and smells of gaiety, while the emotional reality is lachrymose.  Jews, in contrast, conduct themselves in a sober and reflective manner, while talking endlessly about parties.  “On simchas” we all say to each other, “only on simchas”.  And what happens at those simchas?  We remember dear old Harry who would have loved to have been there had it not been for the fact that he died 37 years ago.

Actually this approach is rather clever.  Happiness is not an emotion Jews are comfortable openly expressing for fear of attracting the evil eye.  We therefore choose our moment to be happy precisely when the evil eye is not looking, that is, when it thinks it has already done its vindictive work.  Ha ha! We’ve worked out how to double bluff the evil eye.

Let’s admit it, we Jews love a shiva don’t we?  If you don’t believe me, go to any shiva house and I guarantee you’ll meet several people who have no connection with the family whatsoever.  They’re simply there for the craic.

These hearse-chasers can be seen scouring the streets of north-west London between 7.30 and 8 on any weekday evening, looking for open front doors.  In they slip, shuffling their way toward the mourners where they proffer a sympathetic hand and gently grunt the customary words “Wish you long life”, to which the reply comes, “Thank you.  And how did you know my father / mother / sister / brother?” The answer to this being “he / she knew my father / mother / sister / brother”, a tactic that removes the need for any knowledge of the deceased.  The visitor then takes his place for prayers and is later rewarded for his concern with a slice of cake and a cup of tepid tea, during the consumption of which he will wander around the room gently murmuring the words “on simchas…only on simchas” as if he is spreading information about an illegal warehouse party.

Then, before leaving he returns to his host (for that is essentially the role of the mourner under the circumstances) and repeats the blessing for a long-life, whereupon the mourner will thank him for visiting.  “It’s a pleasure”, will come the honest but somewhat insensitive reply.  Like I say, a Jew loves a shiva.

Happy clappy services

December 6, 2010

A few weeks ago I was subject to what the Spanish inquisitors would surely have considered a far more effective conversion tool than strappado and the rack: singing and clapping.

Let me explain.  I attended a shul service that suddenly went all happy clappy on me.  Now, I could understand if this dreadful happening had taken place in one of those progressive reconstructionist deconstructionist post-denominationalist gatherings, but this was not the case.  I’m talking frum.

At this small Shabbat minyan all was droning along perfectly acceptably.  There was no chazzan, as is often the case in such situations, just a service leader whose method of creating a holy atmosphere was to make like a secret service operative surreptitiously whispering into his lapel pin.  Then all of a sudden someone started clapping and yelling during the Kedushah!

Don’t these people know that clapping is prohibited anywhere on Shabbat, let alone in shul!  The reason is perhaps a little flimsy in that it is to guard against the possibility that a person who, in his excitement, temporarily loses his mind and feels compelled to fix or make a musical instrument for the purposes of accompaniment.  Nevertheless, the law is the law.


I’m aware that some chassids are happy with clapping on the basis that unlike in the temple days when every other Jew was a skilled instrument maker, that particular competence is now confined to vast factories in Shenzhen, thus rendering it highly unlikely that this particular law of Shabbat can be broken.  However, I must insist that chassids do sometimes adopt rather too cavalier an attitude toward our traditions.  Clapping and dancing can lead to fixing a utensil, obviously, and fixing a utensil is one of the 39 prohibitions of Shabbat; one that I’m more than willing to go along with it if it means an end to caftan clad hippies strumming along to Jewish Kumbaya.  I tell you, Rabbi Schlomo Carlebach (Zt”l) has much to answer for.


Were I, on the other hand, to attend a Liberal or Reform service I would be prepared for the prospect of such entertainment.  It’s a well-known fact that the choir does the communing, or should I say, performing, on behalf of the audience – I mean congregation – in their synagogues.  I know of at least one chap who was expelled from a reform synagogue because he disturbed the choir by having the temerity to try to pray for himself.  I’ve also been to one shul where they didn’t provide siddurs at the door but tambourines and penny whistles instead.


Let me be plain.  I don’t attend shul to watch or participate in a concert performance; I go to pray.  If I am present at an orthodox shul services and someone alongside me finds himself suddenly moved to yelp and dance I would be the last to object should he find himself just as suddenly moved into the street via the nearest window.


In Christianity it’s known as rapture and typically reserved for athletic types who do gymnastics down the aisles of churches.  Can you imagine what it would be like to sit in shul with people chanting “Praise the Lord” every twenty seconds while cartwheeling around the place? Think of the potential damage when the ark is open, not to mention the danger to over-excited women up in the gallery!  They may lose their hats.


No, I need the Jews who pray around me to maintain a sense of decorum and limit their public expression in the way that those secret service operatives do.


I am English after all.