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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Who Will be the Chief Behind the Chief?

May 31, 2012

It’s not usual for a columnist of my stature to debase himself by commenting on actual “news” but today I feel I must throw my two shekels worth at the vexed question of the appointment of the next Chief Rebbetzin.  Besides, it’s hardly news any more.

While employment lawyers are wringing their palms in excitement at the possibility of an unfair treatment claim I think it’s time to get one thing clear:  while the advertised job was for a Chief Rabbi, this is no different to any other appointment of a Jew.  You may ask for the man, but what you get is the woman.  Ask any recruitment consultant and they will tell you that it is unwise to offer a Jewish man a job if you are eager for a quick response.  If you need an instant answer you must bypass the candidate and go straight to the decision-maker.  Married Jewish men simply don’t have authority.  Only this week I took my suit into the dry-cleaners and I’m still waiting to for Mrs J to let me know whether I can tell him his offer has been accepted.

Do you think that the incumbent has ever made any decision alone since he tied the knot?  Of course not.  He’s an honourable and loyal man.  First he finds out what the Dayanim want and then he asks Lady S to ratify their decision.

Given the importance of the woman’s role, then, you’d think that the sensible approach would be to interview them together.   However, this defeats another objective, which is to find the couple that is most knowledgeable, and by that I don’t mean Jewishly knowledgeable, I mean knowledgeable about each other.  Only in this way can Jewish role models the equivalent of Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh be identified, for that is exactly what this appointment is all about.

Did you ever see the 1970’s quiz show “Mr and Mrs”?  This is essentially the format for the appointment of the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth.  If you remember, one partner was whisked away into a soundproofed room while the other was asked a series of questions about their temporarily encased spouse.  The spouse was then released and asked the same questions, the couple with the greatest consistency in their answers being the winners of the show. 

A source inside the United Synagogue has passed me the interview questions, a selection of which follow:

Does the Rabbi prefer kneidlach or those little square croutons in his soup?”

What colour is the Rebbetzen’s favourite snood”

Does your husband prefer the old, the centenary or the green edition of the Siddur?” 

How long before Kiddush does the Rebbetzin like to arrive at shul on Shabbat?  Is it five minutes, ten minutes or twenty minutes?” 

In a bid to demonstrate the openness and transparency of the United Synagogue the entire interview process will be televised and Derek Batey-Din has been coaxed out of retirement to head the selection panel.  However, you’ll need to set your recorders because like almost all programmes with Jewish interest it will be screened on a Friday evening.

That’s just the first stage of the interview process.  When they get down to the final two candidates a special edition of Family Fortunes will be the format employed. The purpose of this will be to establish the Rabbi most in touch with the hoi polloi.  Typical questions might be:

Name a road with free parking on a Saturday morning in the vicinity of St John’s Wood Synagogue ”, “Name something a child would like to do on a Sunday morning even less than attend cheder”, and “Name a popular topic of pews conversation on yom kippur.” 

You may think this selection method devalues such a serious appointment but really, can it be any worse than a bunch of old men sitting in a room for days on end trying to get a wood fire started?  There’s nothing entertaining in the Catholic approach and the advertising opportunities pale in comparison. 

Personally I can’t wait to find out who is named as the first Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth Sponsored by Ozem.

 


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.


If you build it…

January 2, 2011

Kevin Costner has been coming to mind while reading the JC recently.  Rarely does a week go by without one synagogue or another revealing plans for a new building.

What has struck me most about these announcements is that many seem to follow an inordinately long period of gestation.  It’s not uncommon, for example, to read that a community has, after 36 years, finally found a course of action that satisfies the neighbours, the local planning department and the members (especially the members), such that ground will be broken for their magnificent new home in weeks.  And by weeks I suspect they mean “some unspecified time in the future when we have raised enough money for a builder to take us seriously”.

How can the Shard be piercing the sky within days of the unveiling of its plans, yet it takes years for any quick drying cement to make its acquaintance with the foundations of what is, let’s face it, the equivalent of a small warehouse space?

I’ll tell you how. Outside a synagogue everyone’s an anti-Semite, and inside a synagogue everyone’s an architect, a planning expert or an interior designer.  Especially an interior designer. Or more accurately, everyone is all three of them.  Everyone knows best and everyone else is a schmuck.  If one person says the walls should be green, everyone else says it should be another colour.  What colour should it be?  “I don’t know’, one will admit, “but definitely not green.  What about gold? Gold is nice.  Or Magenta?” Then another expert will cry out “Gold?  Magenta? Don’t be ridiculous!” And so it goes.

The simple truth is that no Jew should be allowed anywhere near shul design, especially not the internal bits. Not unless you want the inside of your prayer house to be in the style of Juif Quatorze.  You know what I mean: white marble floors, Ionic columns everywhere, plastic protectors covering burgundy velour upholstery.  Do you want the walls of your shul festooned with bronze and gold lamé drapes?  Do you want your ark to be in mahogany veneer with rolling doors like a 1970’s television cabinet? Do you want a four-ton crystal ner tamid with a thousand glistening lamps hanging off it?

As far as prayer venue design is concerned we’d do well to look to our Christian neighbours for inspiration. They have a penchant for images of nearly naked men being tortured, there’s neither leg-room nor sufficient comfort for a quick shluf, and they have clearly never heard of heating.

All this is deliberate.  Vicars realise that the last thing they want is for their places of worship to be welcoming.  This will only lead to people hanging around and arguing with each other about the curtains, the furniture and the minister.  Whereas we Jews lay on a small feast after the service, priests give their congregants one wafer, a sip of wine, then shoo them on their way, standing by the door to make sure they all disappear quickly.

That’s the attitude to adopt.   If you build it they won’t come.


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?