Yizkor Etiquette (FYI)

There is a prayer in the Jewish holiday services, to honour the memory of people who are no longer with us. The widespread custom is that it is not said by people who still have both of their parents living. In many communities, those people do not even stay in the synagogue while the prayer is being said.

If I’m honest, I don’t really understand why that latter custom begun in the first place. When prayers are said by other parts of the community that I am not included in, (Men, Kohanim, those in mourning etc) I find it pretty self explanatory just to stand quietly and wait. After all, there is plenty of the prayer which is relevant to everyone, including a prayer for our soldiers and one for the victims of the Holocaust, something we all could benefit from being a part of. Surely it is an odd action in itself to get up and leave the building, basically abandoning everyone with the misfortune of having lost a parent or both.

Superstitious or not, I can however appreciate the reasoning behind it. And if your parents would rather you left the synagogue for those five minutes, or you yourself feel uncomfortable being there, then leave by all means.

But I do have a couple of small requests.

Given that we were standing having a perfectly normal interaction or sometimes even conversation 2 minutes previously, please don’t suddenly act like I have the plague. Yes, you’re being given a reminder that I once lost someone dear to me. I can understand your twinge of awkwardness. But not looking me in the eye? Stumbling over your words? Feeling the need to look apologetic as you leave the room? Bizarre. I do this four times a year, and sometimes it’s harder than other times, but I am in the same mood I was 4 seconds ago, I don’t suddenly need special treatment.

Which brings me to my second issue. The mad scramble for the door. This is different at different places, but in every congregation, there are the people who start gathering their bits and pieces together a good ten minutes before the guy shouts ‘Yizkor.’ They are standing by the door as soon as the Haftorah has finished, and they are pushing past everyone in their way to make it to the coridoor before heaven forbid, someone starts reading from their memorial booklet with them in the vicinity. What are you afraid of? That you might catch my dead parent virus? If its your custom to leave, then leave. In a normal manner. Exactly how you would regularly walk out a door, in a line, at a normal speed. Even if you disagree with me that it’s rude to leave in the first place, it’s certainly not polite to canter out the door virtually shouting silently that we shouldn’t confuse you with one of us.

I’m probably coming across kind of bitter, and it really isn’t that at all. And it certainly isn’t the fault of the people who leave. The custom should never have begun, because it feels to me almost anti what we stand for. Surely the very best part of Judiasm is that we are all accountable and responsible for one another, we share in each others joy and pain and we certainly don’t leave one of our own when we are in need. So where did this custom start, that we should segregate ourselves, even for twenty minutes a year into orphaned and not orphaned? Speaking for myself, and I only say one small portion of the service, it is a very lonely feeling to watch everyone hotfoot it out of the room at arguably one of my most vulnerable times. How must it be for the older members of the community who have so many dearly departed to remember and miss?

I don’t know where it started, and I hope that those who don’t mind either way, would start to make a point by staying in and standing quietly with their prayer books firmly closed. But even if you can’t, or simply don’t want to, I hope you’ll think twice before you push me out the way in your eagerness to leave.

When Superman isn’t available

Today was Purim, a Jewish festival where it has become customary to masquerade in fancy dress. I say become customary, it became customary at the end of the 15th Century. Nowadays it is more social law, especially when kids are involved.

C and I have never had any trouble getting in the festival spirit, and since we got married, as well as since we had R, we have always dressed up as a team. This year, we became superheroes.

Surely you mean you dressed up as superheroes? (I hear you ask.) No no, we actually were superheroes. We spent the afternoon with our parents, and from start to finish it was pretty difficult. We used our super human strength not to cause an almighty row, and our superhuman patience not to walk out. Next to the powers we displayed today, spidey senses are pretty tame.

Why can family holidays only go one of the two extremes? You either have the best time ever, and wonder why you dont see your family more often, or you leave wondering if you can possibly get out of next year already.

Today was the latter. And it was nothing new really. Nothing we couldnt have anticipated. Certainly nothing that we havent discussed to death after many trips to see the generation above us. And maybe our expectations are too high. People say that you either go one of two ways when it comes to being parents. You either repeat your own parents mistakes, or you are so aware of them that you make the huge effort to escape them and do the opposite.

Well, with God’s help, I would like to be able to promise my son the following:

  1. If you tell me something in confidence, I won’t announce it at the dinner table /  secretly tell the rest of the family and make them swear not to mention it. Until they do anyway.
  2. If we’re annoyed at each other, we will always try to discuss it calmly and out of your hearing.
  3. I wont volunteer you to do a million expensive or timewasting errands which you are capable of offering to do yourself if you so choose.
  4. I wont whisper childish jibes about you, just loud enough for you to hear, and then get angry when you ask me to stop.
  5. I wont ignore what you tell me, and then blame you for the results.

Do I really think my expectations were too high? No. Not really. And like I said, it was nothing we didnt expect, and with or without our costumes, the two of us have built up a fairly great arsenal of super-powered weaponry to deal with these battles. What makes me nervous is, there are now three of us.

And just as our little man has no idea he is in a costume today, he has no idea that today is anything different from any other. He doesnt expect any difference from the normal cloud of love and respect that he is constantly enveloped in. Spiderman or otherwise, he hasnt learned to find his superpowers, and I kind of hoped he wouldnt have to, at least not yet. Watching him today, disappearing into his Baby Einstein programme, and whining almost constantly to go home, I was so glad that he had no real understanding of what was going on around him. Most of all, I was thankful that we had the super-power he needed, the one we both have waited for for so many years, to be able to fly him back to a happy home.

Do you remember?

Waking up each morning, with purpose in your smile,
Feeling that hand picked for you, was every twist and trial.
Knowing that you’d taken time, out of your own routine-
To grow and change and learn it all, while you were still a teen.

To move with friends out of our youth, and into being grown,
To contemplate and sometimes change, which seeds had then been sown.
Standing in the sunlight, just talking, me and Him,
I’d never been so open, simply letting prayer in.

Hours of our days went by, we’d argue, talk, debate,
Discuss the meanings of our lives, the love, despair and hate.
That feeling when it came together, we knew our world was true,
I miss those bursts of energy, do you miss them too?

The passion and the zeal to learn, the way we had to grow,
It sometimes seems a distant me, a life from long ago.
Now, going through the motions, I long to be inspired
But life gets in the way somehow, and I just end up tired.

In some ways I have so much more than ‘six years ago me’ had,
A home, marriage, my baby boy, so much to make me glad.
But still sometimes I glance behind, and hope I’ve not forgot,
The girl I knew back then who felt, so strongly, at Orot.

Tree? Check. Santa? Check. Presents? Check. Let’s light those Chanukah Lights.

I have nothing against Christmas. Why would I? As an orthodox Jew, It’s basically a non-event for me. Some years I don’t even remember what day it is until I try to go buy something and realise the outisde world looks like a better version of 28 days later. I even have lots of favourite things about the Christmas period; Starbucks gets all red and white and makes up new and delicious drinks, people seem to get a whole lot friendlier, and I’d never complain about having some time off work. Above all, I’m glad that the non Jewish world has a time of year where they can spend some quality time with their famillies, and I think the spirit of goodwill to all men and being generous to others is a lovely sentiment, especially when done well.

But it isnt for us. We’re Jewish, we have more than enough of our own holidays to celebrate. With incredible opportunities for fun and enjoyment for kids of all ages. Why are so many Jewish people encroaching on a Christian festival?

I’m not talking about famillies who have one Jewish parent and one Christian. That’s a whole other topic, one I’m certainly not venturing into any time soon! I mean famillies, who range from entirely irreligious to what I would call orthodox, who seem to indulge in what’s being dubbed Chrismukkuh, (Thank you OC.) and which is more and more frequently being glorified by Hollywood and TV characters alike.

You know you’re Jewish, you’re proud to be Jewish, your kids may or may not go to religious schools, they certainly have religious friends, you’re often seen at synagogue, and yet somehow, you are proudly displaying a xmas tree in your living room. You’re looking for the least busy time to take your kids to see Santa, and you’re ‘stocking’ up on stocking fillers and crackers.

I probably have a strong opposition here, but I think this is at best unnecessary, and at worst, extremely dangerous.

Unnecessary, because however much you argue that Christmas is not a religious festival anymore, and that it has been secularised to the point where it can do no harm, our kids just dont need it. Judiasm is such a rich culture with so many festivals and celebrations, and Chanukah is at the same time of year! They dont need to feel left out from their non jewish friends, they have something just as wonderful to talk about and look forward to. You want to spoil them with gifts? Great-no need to put them under a tree. You want to take them on a fun outing? Use your bank holidays wisely and have Chanukah outings to wherever you please. Even if you do use the queuing time for Father Xmas to explain to your kids that this is for Christians and not for Jews, but you’re indulging as a special treat, the very best you’re going to come away with is a child who thinks you do things that you arent supposed to do. Then spend the remainder of their childhood telling them what they should  and shouldnt be doing, and see if those mixed messages get you very far.

On the other hand, if you dont tell them that Santa and all the trimmings aren’t meant for Jewish people, then what are you saying? That it’s ok to celebrate both? That you believe in both? Or that it’s fine to celebrate something even if you dont believe in it?

Increasingly, I see parents mxing the two holidays in the oddest ways imaginable. I had a kid who I teach tell me that he has to be as good as possible, otherwise “the Maccabee Soldiers wont leave any presents under my Xmas tree.” I’ve heard people who dub their holiday props “Chanukah Bushes,” call Santa “Chanukah Chaim” and there is even a tree ornament called “Happy Bagel.”

Genuinely, I don’t get it. Unless you dont care if your children remain religious and committed to your faith or not, how can you dangle something like Xmas in front of them at their most vulnerable age and not expect them to come away at best confused.

I’m sure there are plenty of stories of those of you who had trees and stockings and maybe even a full Christmas dinner and have come away faith unscathed. But whatever your arguments for this odd mash-up of religious observance, you cant say it isnt risky.

Where Jew come from? (The Wandering Jew)

I met a lady on the Northern Line home to Edgware today. She stared at me for quite a while without saying anything, and then (as so often is the case) she took my lifting my son out of his stroller and onto my lap as a cue to start a conversation. (See Whatever the blog was called where I talked about kids making you approachable)

“So, ” she asked, “Are you from Golders Green or Edgware?

Already I didn’t like her. Annoyed at having to agree with one of her correct yet stereotypical locations for me, and gutted for the first time in my life that I don’t live in Hendon, I answered briefly,

“Edgware.”

“I dont suppose you would be able to tell me how to get to Dynasty (a clothing shop) from Golders Green station?”

I gave her quick directions, (Straight.) and she excitedly told me, with the enthusiasm of a tourist on a strange voyage, that she wasn’t from round here. Her English being impeccable I was vaguely interested and asked her from whence she came.

“Stamford Hill.”

Of course she did. I had lost interest already, until her next sentence.

“I’ve never been here before, but I’ve always wanted to. I’d like to go to Edgware one day too, but I’ve only ever been in Stamford Hill.”

Sorry? Is the train affecting my hearing? This lady, from half an hour away, has NEVER been to North West London, and despite all the available Jewish society and food, has never entered into two of the most highly Jewish populated areas in London. And she WANTS to. So go! It isnt Cuba. My goodness you’re venturing all the way out of your comfort zone to Golders Green, live a little and take an extra ten minutes to visit the station 5 stops later, then your entire bucket list will be complete and you can live the remainder of your days knowing you’ve seen it all.

This exchange was shocking enough as it was, but then she followed it up with probably the most small-minded and insular comment I’ve ever heard from an adult.

“It’s really not difficult, I went from Manor House to Kings Cross and then to Golders Green. Is this all new?”
“Is what new?”
“This train system.”

The underground. That is seriously what she meant. Yes, quite new, circa 1863, making it the oldest underground system in the world. I can see how you might have missed it. What have you been doing? Does your husband know you’ve gone out by yourself?

Genuinely, it was the most surprising conversation I’ve had in a really long time. I know that these kind of Jews exist, I know they are out there somewhere making us all look bad, but to be caught so off guard and unprepared was a real shock to the system.

We were already approaching Hampstead. I had little time, and yet so much to say. Should I encourage her to treat this small step as the beginning of a vast journey into the unknown? Forget GG and Edgware, believe it or not there are even greater places to go. Have you ever heard the word ‘Museum’? ‘Gallery’? Screw it-‘Theme Park’? I could hand her a tube map with circles around all the best places to visit, and pat myself on the back for bringing culture to at least a small area of barren land.

Or would this scare her off. Perhaps a different tactic was in order. I could get off with her at Golders Green, point out all the restaurants and the people who look just like her, show her that it’s really not that scary after all.

I could kidnap her. Force read her the classics, put on Mean Girls and watch her fail not to laugh. Show her that hiding yourself under a bridge cannot possibly be worth it when there is Haagen Daaz and Novels, Starbucks and Travel and Smartphones in the world.

All these possibilities raced through my head as the train raced out from the tunnel. And I knew that was the only way in which she was going to be enlightened that day. I agreed that it was lovely to meet her, as she stepped off her first ever train, to walk 10 minutes down a straight road she has never walked before, no doubt only to walk right back up it 5 minutes later, onto the very same train, and back to Stamford Hill, and her life, so similar and yet so different from mine.