The shuls I wish I didn’t have to go to.

January 4, 2010

I don’t like visiting other shuls.  Once a person is used to a place, they can daven better.  I understand how things work at my synagogue.  That familiarity means I don’t spend my time looking blankly around, being distracted by unfamiliar movements, the pattern of the light, smells, sounds.  At my shul I know when things will happen and the tunes that they’ll happen to.  I  have my own spot that I like to sit in and it’s near to familiar faces.

Most of all, in my shul people are respectful.  You can hear the layening.  Mobile phones go off only occasionally.  There’s hardly any chatter.  These are the little details that mean so much when, as last shabbat, I was forced to attend another shul to witness some useless pre-pubescent kid recite maf and haf with about as much feeling as a patch of  lichen.  Yes, I was at a Barmitzvah.

It’s the mensch in me that drags me along to these things.  I figure that an invite to the simcha requires me to attend the service, just so I can lie about how marvelously the boy performed.  Of course the boy, the parents, the rabbi and the guests all know that that he was rubbish and the only reason he did it was for the loot.  Still, like all good Jews, we conveniently pretend otherwise, just as the Rabbi, in his sermon, pretends that the family are fine, upstanding members of the community, and great role models for their son.  I wonder if that role modeling includes the classy way in which his father had an affair and dumped the family a couple of years back?  Ah, but I can’t really blame the rabbi for that. After all, he’d never met the family until the rehearsal about three days previously and they probably didn’t get as far as those minor points.

Yet if that nonsense is not infuriating enough, this was without doubt the noisiest service I have ever attended. I should have taken to heart the warning about decorum in the shul  when I saw the posters that decorated every wall and pillar alternately reminding woman how to dress modestly for shul and  everyone to turn of their mobile phones, the idea that they shouldn’t be carrying a phone on Shabbat in the first place long since abandoned.

But I digress.  The noise was so overwhelming that I honestly couldn’t hear a thing from the bimah and I was only three rows back.  Nobody was following the layening, preferring instead to generate several hundred decibels of noise by chatting to their neighbour, and, in a few cases, someone several seats away.

It was only when the tuneless barmitzvah himself ascended that everyone quietened down.  After 10 seconds I was wishing they’d all start up their chatter again, so painful was his voice.  At least at my shul I have plenty of people around me to talk to under such circumstances.



December 14, 2009

I’m sitting at my laptop wrapped in a warm glow of smug satisfaction, which is just as well because it’s cold and miserable out in the sukkah I have just put up.  It’s taken the best part of a frustrating day to complete but after several false starts (and one injury where an upright fell and hit me in the tabernacles) I finally succeeded and am jolly pleased with myself.  How good are my tents, oh Jacob?  Huh?

One of the many mysteries of Sukkot is how sections I’ve used in previous years miraculously don’t fit properly without having to chop, shave, saw and jam them into place.  During the year, while it’s sitting in the shed, I suspect it grows extra bits.   That aside, I must say these pre-fabricated steel and MDF sukkahs are marvelous.  I’d hate to have to design and build one from scratch using random pieces of wood, that’s for sure.

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised at my success.  While we Jews are not thought of as particularly handy when it comes to construction, the temporary booth is our speciality.   During the war, my great uncle, a cabinet maker, was sent to build a barracks.  Clearly the army was not fully aware of difference between a sideboard and a hostel.  Nevertheless, Uncle Joe did his best and was commended for his work.  The only negative feedback he received was for the leaky roof and his reluctance to use more than two and a half walls. On the plus side, they loved his inlay work.

This year I am the proud owner of a deluxe etrog. While in every other area of Jewish law something is either kosher or not kosher, when it comes to etrogs some are evidently more kosher than others.  I wish you could see mine.  It is so beautiful you would be struck dumb and your eyes would pop out on their stalks as you jealously salivate over it.  You can be forgiven for assuming that I’m talking about a supermodel rather than a piece of inedible fruit, but agreeing to pay several pounds more for this item than for another because someone had graded it as “exquisite” has adulterated my mind.  Only yesterday I voluntarily offered an additional £8 for some particularly shapely apples at the supermarket.

So, as I gaze at the walls decorated with the deteriorating artworks of lulavs, etrogs and horses created by my daughter (she must have been into horses at the time), of one thing I am confident:  by the time you read this Sukkot will be over, the etrog will be sitting forlornly while someone decides what to do with it (you can’t just sling a £25 piece of fruit in the recycling bin, after all) and I will have probably spent no more than 45 minutes in the sukkah all week.

Recruiting a new rabbi

December 14, 2009

Our shul is struggling hopelessly through one of the most traumatic periods in its history. We have been trying to replace our dear rabbi who passed on to a better place four years ago after illness had kept him from the pulpit for the three previous ones.  A decisive group we are not.

The composition of the recruitment panel posed our first problem. Never before have we had so many members suddenly finding time to give to the shul.   Once our 27person panel was decided upon we had to come up with a job description.  The arguments over this led to several resignations before it was finally agreed and the following was published:

Duties:  Spiritual leader, teacher, moral authority, scapegoat.

Hours:  All day, every day.

Holidays:  Yes, but not the Jewish ones.

Salary:  Before we discuss that, let me tell you about how wonderful and caring our community is and how much our last rabbi loved it here before his debilitating stress related illnesses took hold.

Our next task was to decide on a selection process.   The first stage was to invite each applicant to lead a service.  Four members sat directly in front of the bimah and at the end of each performance they took it in turns to give their verdict.  The one sat on the far right of the four was really rather brutal in his assessments and dismissed one candidate saying he had a terrible voice and had made a very bad choice of nusach. Another panellist who, it appeared, had been coaching the candidate during the preceding week then defended this same candidate vigorously.

Asking them to deliver a sermon tested the candidates’ oratory skills.  Each spoke on the topic of the week’s sedra for one minute without repetition, deviation or hesitation.  They all failed on repetition when it was revealed that it was the same sermon they gave every week: Go to shul more often; stop eating shellfish in restaurants.

Finally, we wanted to be sure that the candidates were halachically Jewish because while they were all descended from great rabbis of the 18th and 19th centuries, they were also all born in outside of the UK.  To be safe, we decided it would be best to insist that they undertake a conversion process.

It was at this point that all the candidates mysteriously decided to withdraw from the process.  We therefore plan to restart the search just as soon as we can persuade one or two people to form another recruitment panel.

Our Shul AGM

November 29, 2009

I’m not going to pretend that our Annual General Meetings are the friendly, supportive events that the Rabbi hopes for, in vain, each year. However, he ought at least to be relieved that only a tiny fraction of the synagogue membership bother to turn up for this ancient and honoured ritual often referred to as “bashing the lay leadership and taking a barely concealed sideswipe at the spiritual leader while you’re at it”.

I suspect that my shul is similar to yours and that the following pen portraits of AGM stalwarts will be familiar.

The Keeper of the Book. Always sitting in the front row of every meeting. This is the person who leaps to his feet every time the most obscure procedural detail is not being followed. While the rest of us study Talmud he studies the synagogue constitution and he knows obscure clauses down to the sub-subsection by heart. As a result, approval of the previous year’s minutes takes approximately two hours. We’ll be hearing from the Keeper of the Book again. And again. And again.

The Founder Member. There appear to be about 300 founder members still active in my shul, which was founded in 1924. Go figure. Anyway, the founder member performs an invaluable function ensuring that we keep sight of the original principals upon which the synagogue was formed. He will not hesitate, for example, to leap to his feet during a discussion about decorating the function room to remind us that while the paint may have been curling away from the plaster for the past 27 years, we mustn’t abandoned the original colour of the walls which he personally chose. What was the original colour? Nobody can remember but the best guess is that it was the colour one’s face turns when attacked by food poisoning.

The Treasurer. This is a crucially important role for the synagogue. The treasurer must possess the skill to describe enormous budget shortfalls without anyone being unduly perturbed. He does this by not leaping to his feet at any time while droning on, at length, and barely audibly. When he has completed his report it’s time to put it to the vote. With most of the members now fast asleep the budget is passed by a majority of two votes with only the Keeper of the Book voting against.

The Guildswoman. Inexplicably there have been no new members of the Ladies Guild since 1983. Some have speculated that the cabal – I mean guild leaders – are reluctant to allow in women who don’t wear enormous hats with fruit on top. At each AGM the chair of the Ladies Guild reports on all the scandalous complaints she has received over the year concerning, amongst other things the stale biscuits at Kiddush and the hay fever inducing flower display at Yomtov. This speech earns her the longest and most enthusiastic applause of anyone at the meeting. What she doesn’t realise is that the applause is a front so that members can kvetch to their neighbour about the flowers and stale biscuits.

And so the meeting eventually comes to a close. Nothing is decided and everyone goes home asking why they bothered. But don’t worry; they’ll all be back next year to show their appreciation of the poor suckers who volunteer for official posts because they certainly don’t reckon they could do a better job of it themselves. Not much they don’t.


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.

Simcha of the Century

May 27, 2009

I’m sorry, but what with Pesach I’ve not had time to write my blog for a while.  However, my nephew, Joel, has come to the rescue by agreeing to tell you about his recent barmitzvah.   Over to you, Joel.

My b’mitzvuh was brill.  I can’t tell you how many amazing presents I received, but it wasn’t just about the gifts, the parties were fantastic too.

Everything started off on Friday night.  We didn’t actually go to shul because the restaurant was booked for 7pm.  Mum insisted we went to the Bling Ju restaurant in Chinatown because the ribs are to die for.  It was a quiet “do” for just 180 of our close friends and family and some people my dad knew from work like Robbie Williams and Joan Rivers.

I was so excited about the Shabbat morning because I finally got to wear the Hugo Boss suit I’d been keeping carefully for weeks.  We had to go to shul, obviously, and that was OK.  We’ve been members for as long as I can remember and I’ve been there at least six times so I feel really at home there.  I did Maf and Haf and fortunately it was short which was good because we didn’t want to keep everyone waiting.  As soon as the service was over we dashed out to a stretch limo that whisked us off to the Ritz for lunch.  We thought it was best not to invite people to the shul service in case they didn’t manage to get to the lunch on time.  It’s just as well because the Rabbi had a dig at my mum in his sermon just because she’d had a row with him when he’d insisted that we couldn’t do the service on the Friday morning instead.  She’d wanted to do the b’mitzvuh then to save having to re-arrange the builders who were coming to do a quote for the extension on the Saturday.

My family entered the banqueting room in a procession accompanied by an amazing gospel group who sang some religious songs.  It was great to have Madonna on my table – my parents thought that because it was my b’mitzvuh it would be good to have at least one Jewish person with me.

The food was fab although Gordon Ramsey was a bit rude to my auntie when she looked shocked after he told her that the mushroom vol-au-vents were prawn and not mushroom.  Still, it was understandable that he might be a bit stressed.  After all, he was cooking a 7-course meal for 450 people, and then there were the other 220 that came later just for tea.

In the speeches my dad’s friend Simon Cowell said some really nice things about my parents and me (although he wasn’t very impressed with my own speech).  Russell Brand spoke also and he was hilarious although my grandpa wasn’t too amused by the story about his day nurse.

After lunch we jumped into more limos to drive us to Hyde Park, which we had taken over for a fun fair. Some of my friends asked me if it was OK to ride on the amusements on Shabbat and I told them it was fine because they weren’t actually paying.  I’m really lucky that my Jewish education has enabled me to answer questions like this.  When it was dark we had a firework display like the one they do at new years’ on the Thames, but it went on for longer.

On the Sunday morning I started to go through all my wonderful presents such as a new Ferrari that I can’t wait to drive when I’m seventeen.  I also received a bunch of Jewish prayer books and stuff.  I don’t know when I’ll get a chance to use them but you never know.  My parents also got me a forest in Israel in memory of my other grandpa.  They said when I’m older I can chop down the trees and build a holiday home.

However, I know that presents are not the important thing when it comes to a B’mitzvuh.  In shul the rabbi said it was to do with becoming an adult and responsibility or something like that. I can’t remember exactly what he said because I was fiddling with my new Rolex at the time.

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.