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.

 

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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.

 


Tefillin

July 3, 2009

“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes”.

I’ve never been totally convinced that the Almighty really did intend us to take a series of lines from the Torah, put them into funny little square boxes with long strips of leather attached and then to put them on every morning to pray, but I’m glad I do it nonetheless. And what about winding the strap round your forearm seven times, but without counting?

Every religion needs something a bit strange, and for me, laying tefillin is just a bit strange. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a unique selling proposition.

I grew up without tefillin and for me they epitomised everything that was wrong with religion; blind faith manifested in a ridiculous ritual. I just couldn’t get over how crazy it looked.  It undermined my pride in Judaism and even made me angry and embarrassed.  I saw the arm strap as a heroin addict’s tourniquet, and imagined an accompanying syringe filled with spiritual claptrap.

Perhaps this is the natural cynicism that one will find in most teenagers, especially those who grow up in an irreligious home.  Maturity should have seen my cynicism become indifference.  I ought to have stopped thinking how daft tefillin are and just got on with life, but that never happened.  I was always fascinated by tefillin, and as my spiritual journey progressed, I realised it wasn’t going to go very far without me buying a set and learning how to put them on.  That’s when I came to understand that laying tefillin, being such an obscure tradition, is something that defines Judaism.

As far as I’m aware, no other religion does anything like this.  Sure, they may have their own strange customs, but they don’t make black boxes out of the hides of particular animals, put particular prayers inside them in a particular order then stitch them up and add straps with clever little knots, and a detailed set of user instructions.

I also appreciate them on an aesthetic level.  Tefillin are beautiful things, and all the more beautiful when one considers how much care and attention goes into making them.  How the sofer writes with his attention fully on the job in hand, not listening to the radio or thinking about the weekend.  They are beautiful in that they look so perfect.  They are perfectly square, perfectly black, and the straps of my tefillin fit me perfectly now that we are familiar with each other.  When I wear them, and I create the “shin” on my hand, it looks great.  It’s a lovely, strong, clear “shin”.

My son has recently started to lay tefillin and now I think I really understand the meaning behind these peculiar objects.  His tefillin are enormous on him and the strap winds around his hand about 20 times. It keeps coming loose as the straps are rather stiff and we’re still trying to get it to fit his head properly (I think his head must swell and shrink with the weather or something).

The first time I helped him to put them on was one of the most wonderful moments of my life.  Here I was, continuing a tradition that stretched back at least 2000 years.  Doing my little bit.  L’dor v’dor.

As he gets older I imagine he’ll wonder why on earth we do this ridiculous thing.  I imagine he’ll stop laying tefillin at some point, or at least he’ll only do it occasionally.  And I hope that if that’s the case they’ll sit quietly in a drawer somewhere, patiently waiting for him to rediscover them, their beauty, and the tradition they represent.  And maybe he’ll start to use them regularly again one day and realise how peaceful one can sometimes feel when bound up in the straps, as I sometimes do when I daven shacharit.   It may look ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than some of the hats I see in shul.


Purim Rap

March 6, 2009

I’m sure I’m not alone with my deep fear for the future of Anglo-Jewry.  Perhaps it’s the fault of soap operas, Facebook and texting, I don’t know.  One thing’s for sure, a good proportion of our young people have the attention span of a gnat with ADHD.  They can’t concentrate for longer than 30 seconds and, furthermore, they talk as if they were brought up in the ghetto – not the Jewish one, the Elvis one.

Purim approaches.  How are we to ensure that our children are able to pass on the tale to future generations?  I have the answer.

Here’s a three minute purim rap (by my calculation the average teenager should only need to deal with five texts in that time) written in a language that will hopefully make sense to them, if not the rest of us.

“ Yo Vashti, let me see you dance”.
“Soz” she said, “you’ve got no chance”.
“You’re dissin’ me, get off the scene
I’ll find myself another queen”.

Virgins from across the nation
Competed to be his relation
Mordechai thought “I’ll eat my hat,
If he don’t think cuz’ Esther’s phat”.

“Esther, try to be his bride
You might as well, there’s no downside.
But keep well shtum, don’t give a clue
That you were born a lowly Jew”.

Dressed up in a fancy gown
Esther won the bling bling crown
While Mordi, waiting by the gates
Heard a plot hatched by two mates.

He’s like “Warn Ahashverosh,
So he can put on the kibosh”.
She’s to the king “these homeys are spies
They want you dead before sunrise”.

Later the King says “Haman’s cool,
I’m gonna let him help me rule”
The people bowed when he passed by
Except the Jew called Mordechai.

Now Haman he was truly wicked
No, I mean really wicked, not like, wicked.
I mean to say he was terribly bad.
I’m saying, bad, not, you know, bad.

So Haman made this evil plan
And mentioned it to the main man.
He goes: “I’m gonna kill the Jews.
Send messengers to spread the news.”

Now Mordechai knew what occurred
But didn’t know if Esther’d heard.
Hatach came back with news at last
And Esther told the Jews to fast.

She then went off to see her husband
Who offered to give her half all his land.
“Come to my place”, she goes, “for food
And bring with you that Haman dude”.

The King said “mmm, this food is sick,
But why d’you call us?  What’s drastic?”
She goes, “come back again tomorrow
I’ll tell you then about my sorrow”.

By now old Haman’s really miffed
Cos Mordi doesn’t get his drift.
“Build some gallows”, Zeresh said
“And in the morning see him dead”.

That night the king had trouble zizzing
So he got up to do some admin,
And decided to reward the man
Who’d grassed on Teresh and Bigtan.

He’s like: “how do I big up someone
Who’s served me better than anyone?”
Haman thinks “he must mean me”
And suggests a procession for all to see.

“Do it for Mordechai who sits at the gate,
Hurry blood, don’t be late”.
Reluctantly he performed the honour
Then rushed off for the second dinner.

Once again the King asked Esther
“Tell me what it is that’s vexed yer”.
She’s like “This Haman and his creeps
Have planned to murder all my peeps.”

Then Charvonah spoke and revealed
The gallows Haman had concealed
The King said “hang the Agagite,
And give Esther his whole estate”.

He then made Mordechai the estate’s new master
While Esther reminded him of the impending disaster
So to help the Jews in fear of attack
He gave them permission to all fight back.

Mordi was safe, reckoned the King
So he made the rules, and he used his ring.
The gentiles were scared and some went over
To Judaism before Passover.

On the thirteenth day of the month of Adar
Jews sought and killed Parshandata
And his bruvs; the sons of Haman
Plus 500, just in Shushan

Two whole days saw Jewish retribution
For Haman’s plan to inflict persecution
Thousands were stabbed, the place was trashed,
And that is the reason we now get mashed.

Innit.


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.


A Bluffer’s Guide to the Shul Service.

December 26, 2008

Worried about looking like a lemon in shul?
Finding the shul service impossible to follow?

Many people suffer from what is known in religious circles as “Mainstream Judaism”. No need to worry, however.  Our team of spiritual healers have devised a cure and we are making it available to you exclusively today.  Please pass it on to anyone you know who may be suffering in silence.

“Shul Rules” is your ten step guide to synagogue confidence:

1    If you arrive after the start don’t sit down right away, but instead open the book near the beginning and spend 2 or 3 minutes turning slowly through the pages while mumbling under your breath.  If you recognise any of the Hebrew words, say one or two of them a little louder so those around you can hear.

2    Find a seat just behind someone who looks like they know what’s going on.  (You can tell this person because they are likely to be mumbling to themselves under their breath).  Make sure this person is using the same prayer book as you.  Keep a note of what page they are on by glancing casually over their shoulder every now and again.  A pair of strong magnification glasses may help here.

3    When putting on the tallit wrap it around your head for a few seconds while mumbling under your breath.

4    Liberally sprinkle your time in shul with more barely audible mumbles as you look intently at the pages of your siddur.  Again, the odd word, phrase or line spoken accurately and a little louder than the rest goes down very well.

5    Don’t jump up whenever the person in front does so.  They may be stretching their legs.  Instead, wait a moment until a significant proportion of the congregation are standing.  In this way, even if they are all stretching their legs you won’t look conspicuous.

6    See those guys near the front that are wondering around with an air of assurance?  These are the shammosim.  AVOID EYE CONTACT WITH THESE PEOPLE or you may find yourself being asked to do something strange like opening the doors of the Aron Kodesh or, heaven forbid, saying something in Hebrew out loud to everyone.

7    The easiest way to look the part is to shockel.  I have met people who have won international shockelling competitions without having a clue about where in the service they were.  Advanced shockellers will even shockel when everyone else is sitting.  (Of course, sometimes this may be a disguised leg-stretch).

Schockelling is an entire lesson in itself but there are two basic forms.  The “lateral swing” is usually seen in ultra-orthodox congregations.  Here the practitioner is perfectly still from the waist down (feet together, naturally), while the top half of the body repeatedly twists at speed.

The “Hammerhead” is more prevalent in mainstream orthodox shuls and, as the name suggests, the congregant looks as if they are trying to bang a nail into the floor with his head.  (I say “his” because women prefer to use this time for kibitzing or kvelling over the way their grandson shockels.).

Shockelling mainly takes place during the silent Amidah.  This is about 10 pages during which you have no idea where everyone else is.  All you do know is that if the others were really reading all the prayers involved they would be contenders for the world speed-reading record.  You know when it starts because everyone takes three steps back, then three steps forward, then they bow.  This is your cue to start shockelling while turning the pages of your prayer book approximately every 15 seconds.  The end of the silent Amidah is signalled by everyone taking three short steps back, bowing to the left, the right and the centre and then looking round to see if they won.

8    Is the Rabbi speaking in English and yet you can’t understand what he’s on about?  If so, this is the sermon and it’s your job to look alive.  Paying attention to the sermon is a skill that may take many years to master rather in the way that one learns how to complete cryptic crosswords.  The formula for this particular puzzle is fairly simple:  The narrative of Torah portion you have just heard plus something from local or national news equals “you should go to shul more regularly” or “your home isn’t kosher enough”.

9    Feel free to talk to people near you at any time.  Business and football are particularly appropriate topics of conversation.  Seeking kavanah and listening to the sermon will be regarded with suspicion in most communities.

10    If you can keep your cool until the end of the service you will be rewarded.  At last something that is familiar, and a chance to clear your throat and give it some as you bash out Ein Kelokaynu and Adon Olam just like you did at cheder all those years ago.

One final word of warning.  If it goes well and you feel confident enough to go back for a second week running you will be classified as a regular.  This means there is a very good chance you will be asked to be the next synagogue chairman.

Originally posted November 23rd 2008