By Richard Dirigible Abbott, UK
I put on my yarmulke before leaving the house on Saturday; about an hour before. I wandered around the house, occasionally catching sight of my future Jewish self in the mirror in the bathroom.
Someday I’ll be a real Jew, Gepetto, today I am a goy. There’s nothing wrong with being goyish, some of my best friends are goy, my parents, my wife and me.
The thing is I am, as of yet, unfinished.
There is that old question:
“If G-d wanted you to be circumcised, then why does He keep making men with the foreskins left on?”
The best answer I’ve heard is this:
“He lets you make the final cut yourself; one small act in the creation of a new Jew, like pulling the battery-tab on an electrical toy.” All the components are there, just remove this irrelevant slip to prime it.
My front door clicked shut and I descended the stairs from my first floor flat to the street.
It was quiet, blue skies, still air. An air of anticipation. This was my first shabbat service.
I had been to the Schul once on an ‘Open Doors Bristol’ day. One of those quiet events when establishments – otherwise out of reach of the public – draw back the curtain and let you see Professor Oz. That was a special day for me, but it was like seeing the beauty of a cello in a shop, today was a string quartet in full concert.
I tread the pale limestone streets of Clifton, I wore the hood of my big black duffel coat up over my head like a wizard. It shrouded my kippah.
Not out of shame, you understand, out of modesty.
I had not yet earned the right to appear Jewish, some day I will and I’ll wear my kippot everywhere, (different colours for different moods) with a big ginger beard and a Magen David around my neck, but today I’m just a novice.
You know what I’m really scared of, I only realise now as I’m writing this, I don’t want anyone to say “Oh, are you Jewish?” because then I’d have to admit I’m not. I’m Jewish in my head and my heart and I hate admitting out-loud that I’m not yet Jewish in my body. Some day I’ll elevate my body to the Jewishness of my soul.
I met James outside the BBC’s broadcasting house on White Ladies Road. The name of the street may shock you, but Bristol has a history in slavery and they won’t change the name of the road lest we forget our shame. Changing a name changes a history. James is in my phone under the name ‘James Jew’, but he is a Noachide like me.
He knows elements of Judaism better than me and other elements I know better, but he’d been attending shabbat for a year now: Schul’s where he’s a viking. He strolled up straight head adorned with yarmulke like a crown, feeling empowered I let down my hood. He pressed the button for the traffic lights.
“On shabbat?” I asked, but I’m only teasing him. The joke didn’t go across and he started to justify himself. From this I deduced that he was as nervous as me.
“Don’t worry brother I’m just teasing. Anyway today I’m going to be a Shabbos goy.”
The night before Mendy, the rabbi from the Bristol Chabad house had texted me:
Interesting question for you. Please call. Thanks!
“Now that’s an intriguing text for a pre-jew to get from a chasid, I was very curious,” I explained to James, “Who doesn’t love a good question?”
As it turns out a frum family had contacted Mendy asking for help. Their son was in hospital. Very ill but in an unusual turn of wellness the hospital had given him permission to go home for shabbat.
This presented them with a problem. They were very observant and their son was in a wheelchair. How could they get him from the six floor hospital ward, across several roads and to their second floor flat without using lifts or carrying, or any other melachas?
Rabbi Mendy had a solution.
You should know, he never actually asked me. He told me about the situation and I said:
“Of course I will Rabbi!” You should also know that I had not started fully observing shabbat so this did not mean lowering my level of observance. This solution was HaLakhicly sound.
James had received the text too, but had not been free to phone, we discussed it a little.
That was an interesting chat. Two goy, who were competing to keep the shabbat, were now eagerly discussing contravening it!
We arrived at Park Row a couple of minutes after ten, the huge black gates locked in front of us yielded to the kind face of one of the congregants. Above his head was a CCTV camera, one of many. James introduced me around as another future Jew, this was met with friendly curiosity unanimously. James led me inside to the book case, Chumeshim, Siddurim of various sorts for various proficiencies of Hebrew. Above the book case was an array of video screens detailing the outside of the Schul. A wave of sadness struck me that this is necessary, but in Europe anti-Semitism is rising, Bristol is a safe place for Jews but only a fool would take these cameras down.
I turned to face the room. I cannot fairly describe to you the riches that my eyes met.
The synagogue has been the home for this community since 1871. It leans back into the hill, propping up the city like a quiet colossus, inside is Victorian; reds and golds and Hebrew whispers and words written into the very wood and stone, it is stitched together from the surviving Judaica of at least four earlier synagogues from the city. As they wearied and died they poured their treasures into the Park Row schul and here they settled and took root in history. Come here some day, come here and pray, stand beside the descendants of Abraham and Isaac, of David and Solomon of Ezra and Nehemiah, stand with the children of Israel and pray to HaShem.
I took my seat. Rabbi Daniels signalled to the Cantor that he wanted to begin, the Cantor hesitated as flotsom and jewsom drifted in the doors and made their rounds, smiling and greeting and praying and fidgeting.
“We’ll start.” The Rabbi and the Cantor discussed some finer points of the service and then whipped up into song and blessings and prayers and we were begun and I was alive and G-d sat naked and unseen in the air, turning the moon without a hand and listening in peacefulness to Park Row prayers.
Baruch HaShem, what a wonderful thing to hear G-d’s words in G-d’s language, sung by G-d’s own nation that He wrote into existence Himself.
Baruch HaShem, you could weep if you only understood what it means to draw close to He who Is and have Him open the door and reserve you a seat by the Aron Kodesh.
This is my G-d and I will worship Him.
This is His nation and I will learn from them.
This is Judaism son. Read on.
James kindly kept me up to date on where we were in the Siddur. It was quiet the task for him and I noticed that if I made the slightest glance in his direction he would strike like lightning his nimble fingertip upon the word so that after a time we began adept psychics unified in perplexed worship in a language not our own. Two old men chatted beside me, their Kavannah perhaps waining in their elder years or perhaps so heightened, so acute that they could follow the to and fro of the service from the comfort of their divided attention. I found their ease in the house of G-d comforting, they were home here, they could put their feet on the furniture and G-d probably wouldn’t mind.
The bar mitzvah took to the bimah, he made blessings over the Torah, everyone listened in, at the end of the passage we sang and the Rabbis and the Cantor and his grandfather dance around him and we all threw sweets and clapped. His brothers and sisters and cousin and his goyish friend from school ran in and tidied up the fallen spoils of war, tasty kosher chews strewn around the torah, that’s Judaism, son.
His grandfather took to the bimah again, this time to pray and blessing and we all sang for clapped for him too.
Rabbi Mendy leaned in “It’s his 60th wedding anniversary,” he explained. It’s all about family this religion. That’s Judaism, son. I saw the bar mitzvah bounce a sweet of his grandfather’s head and then, surprisingly we all joined in. Singing, clapping, cheering and hurling sweets.
“Happy anniversary, I bought you a helmet.”
When the fire of the shemonah esrei had given way to the embers of the haftorah, we all calmed down and listened to the warm bass tones of the bar mitzvah’s granddad like the last campfire songs and smores of a great adventure. We were invited upstairs for kiddish.
You’ve probably seen a bar mitzvah kiddish before, I haven’t. Oy! Do you remember the food fight in ‘Hook’ with Robin Williams? Yeah it looked good. I took a little wine and I was acosted by an Israeli.
“You should try the whiskey!”
“Oh, yeah, thank you. I’m fine.”
“What?” said he, “are you trying to be sober or something?!”
I laughed, “No, sorry I just have to drive a wheelchair in a minute and I don’t want to crash it.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, accepting the premise with no further questions, “You need your head in the game for this.”
James pointed out all the key characters to me, a rabbi from a far away schul and his wife, who is rabbi of the local reform synagogue, an Irish rabbi, the president a great many esteemed jews from this nation of priests. I felt like I was in the royal court. Rabbi Mendy made his friendly rounds and we two sneaked out to to hospital.
He’s a fine man, Mendy, I consider him a friend though I’ve only known him very recently. He’s friendly and he has a young energetic kind of wisdom. Did you know there were lots of kinds of wisdom? There are. He was wearing his chasidic uniform, but it may as well be his skin he’s so at home in it. We chatted and strode with big strides towards the children’s hospital. The day had really taken up speed.
In a matter of minutes we entered the hospital and I offered to press the button on the lift for him, he politely declined. “You know it would be acceptable, but really six floors is not so much on shabbat, I’ll meet you up there.” He’s a kind, encouraging, man accepting of you on sight. I joined him on the stairs and we ascended to meet Jehuda and his family.
Father and two sons sat variously on bed, in chair and in wheelchair and faces lit up and greeted us as we entered the ward. Thanks and kindness we woven in greetings and I was struck by the humble and genuine warmth of this beautiful family. Jehuda, only eleven years old, thanked us thus:
“Rabbi Singer, Richard, thank you for this. You’ve really helped me elevate my shabbat to G-d.”
Wow, I thought, this boy. I’m a primary school teacher and I have to tell you this is not how eleven year olds talk, or think for that matter.
Jehuda’s father handed me a little box of Kleinblatt belgian cake things – dear me, well You’ll have to taste them to know – but only in hindsight have I realised he was offering me one. I mistook it for a presant and swiftly pocketed them. I feel so bad now I realised my crime! Stealing sweets from this family, but the guilt went away when I tasted them.
Mendy made his exit to join his own family for shabbat and we four men and boys began our short journey to their home.
Our interactions were familial, we chatted and joked, I felt like a visiting uncle and since the father has been in touch, we’re facebook friends. He told me Jehuda said to him after I left:
“What a blessing HaShem is giving the Jewish people to have someone like Richard joining us.”
That’s Judaism son. That was my first shabbat. Baruch HaShem.