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.


Simcha on a shoestring

February 3, 2012

It’s a well worn cliché but that doesn’t detract from its veracity: the recession is affecting everyone, and that includes certain people I know who would never have imagined in a million years that they would need to delay the purchase of a new Merc by a month.  I tell you, some people are really suffering.


My friend Moshe was only able to go two Shabboses before people started to speculate as to why he was in shul but his Merc wasn’t in its usual parking space around the corner.  He was able to shrug it off for a while by pretending the car was being serviced, “Those Nazi’s” he complained, “they say they’re the greatest engineers in the world so why can’t they get my sun roof to close properly?  It’s deliberate!”  After a while however, people stopped believing him, and he was forced to admit the embarrassing truth; the economic conditions had forced him to apply for a Freedom Card.  The upside of this for Moshe is that he is now able to get off the bus outside shul rather than two stops away.


What makes it worse for Jews is that living in a tight-knit community there’s enormous pressure on us to put on a good show regardless of our financial circumstances.  I find myself in exactly this difficult place at the moment.


Thanks to the Almight my daughter, the apple of my eye (crab), is to be wed in the spring and Mrs J is insisting on a simcha that puts every other simcha in the history of spoilt Jewish girls and nebbishe Jewish boys to shame.  My wife has little interest in the financial pressure we, along with the rest of the world, are under.  Her knowledge of current affairs does not extend beyond Radlett.  (Still, there are enough affairs going on there to keep her ears flapping for a good long time so it’s probably just as well).


So I’ve had to do some thinking and I’d like to share a few ideas that are guaranteed to ensure a spectacular simcha on a shoestring.


1      Select your shul carefully.  Some are much cheaper to join than others and many will do a deal if you ask.  My research tells me that you can find some desperate ones out in the sticks, and while they might not have proper rabbis the advantage is that fewer guests will travel to them and that will further allow you to keep your costs down.


2      Go for quality rather than quantity.  A smaller do will save you a fortune and you can announce it as very exclusive to those who might have expected an invitation.  Be ruthless even if that means not inviting close family.  The only criteria upon which you should decide who’s to be on your guest list is wealth.  The advantages to this are manifold.  You’ll be able to hire a tiny venue, many of the invitees will probably not come because they’ll be at some fancy charity do, and they’ll send a good gift anyway.  Your simcha will have a better ROI than General Electric.


3      Of course it would be entirely inappropriate to ask people to stump up for their drinks.  Gentiles may like a pay bar but frankly, for me, that’s a non-starter.  There’s no money to be made from selling alcohol to Jews.  However at my precious girl’s wedding one of the table decorations will be a dish with a label simply saying “Thank you”.


4      While it is forbidden to get married during the Omer there is no prohibition against having the party then, so here’s a nifty tip:  make sure you have other plans for Lag B’omer and arrange for the wedding party to take place on some other date during the 49 days.  The restrictions on entertainment will mean you save a packet by not hiring a band or discotheque.  Instead, borrow a selection of board games from your friends.


5      Finally, you know all those benschers you’ve been collecting from Barmitzvahs and weddings over the years?  Well cross out the names and dates and write in the details for your own do.


So there you have it.  Eat your heart out Money Mensch.




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.

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.


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?

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.

The shameful divisions within our community.

March 23, 2010

Today I’d like to talk about what is without doubt the most bitter conflict to have arisen within our community in living memory. I refer of course to the case of Tottenham v Arsenal.  This fundamental division has existed for almost as long as there have been Jews living in London although for much of that time the two managed to co-exist in an uneasy but stable truce.

This all changed recently, and I can reveal that my very own synagogue was in the eye of the storm.

Let me give you the background.  About two years ago a young lad known as child P (because his name is Pinchas, Pinchas Tucker to be precise), attempted to come into shul wearing a kippah emblazoned with the Tottenham badge.  The wardens, being Arsenal supporters to a man, objected and refused the boy admission.  I felt strongly about the case as I am someone who married out; I support Arsenal while my wife is from a Tottenham family. In subsequent discussions, therefore,  I have supported the boy and his family as an “interested party”.

Over several months the child appealed first to the Services Management Team, then to the synagogue governors.  Each time it was decided that the wardens, being the guardians of the 3,500 year old unchanged tradition of “how we do things when it comes to football”, should not be overturned.

All the while congregants became more and more outspoken. Graffiti exclaiming “Child P (Pinchas) is innocent” started appearing in the local streets; lifelong friends fell out as their allegiances were painfully tested; and letters debating the controversy were even published in the synagogue magazine.  Before long there was an Arsenal section on one side of the synagogue and a Spurs section on the other.  Seas of blue and red-badged kippot marked this unholy division with various members of the CST positioning themselves carefully in order to maintain the segregation.

The anger and frustration eventually had to blow and it did that one Shabbat morning.  An elderly gentleman wearing his Arsenal kippah, returning to his seat having being called to the Torah, was smote down by the outstretched leg of a rival supporter.

This led to a complete breakdown in relations.  Both sides refused to attend any further CCC (Campaign against Chelsea Cupples) meetings and the shul board was damned as a toothless and irrelevant body.

Eventually the issue was taken to the highest possible authority  – the Rabbi.  As if a Chabadnik from Minnesota is going to have the slightest understanding of such a problem.  His ruling was that anyone should be allowed a shul honour based on regularity of attendance. This has delighted the Gunners because Spurs have a lunchtime kick-off tomorrow.