Sunday, September 17, 2006

crossing the Finchley Road

So, not something you do every day - in fact, the first I've ever been to - but this morning I went to a Hachnasat Sefer Torah (welcoming a new Torah scroll) at (one of my many) synagogues.

Yesterday, I was talking to a couple of people who thought it might be "too Jewish." It's fine being Jewish at home, at shul, in Israel, wherever. And, while I didn't personally feel like that, I could understand that people would have a slight nervousness about PDA in relation to the Torah on the Finchley Road.

But this morning, 10.15ish, walking up from West Hampstead to Hampstead to congregate outside S & H's house, where the procession started from, I had a wonderful sense of shtetl-style community.

It was early. The streets were not so busy. But there were quite a few men with beards and black coats, and people dressed in their shul/Sunday best, walking towards S&H's with a sense of purpose.

For me, the celebration was twofold. The sefer torah (Torah Scroll) came from the recently closed Sunderland community, which S&H had been part of for many years, before their move to London. So this sefer had been repaired - renewed - and was a gift from one community to another, in the name of longstanding members.

My paternal great grandfather was the Chazzan (cantor) in Sunderland, a frum community not that far from Gateshead and its yeshiva. Shomrei (synagogue) has lots of Sunderland emigres, and there's something very special about being in a community where people know where you came from. And something also about being friendly with people who knew your great grandparents, even if you didn't.

Like this morning, H told me that Chazzan Warrentz couldn't pronounce his zayins, and he always said "zjhe la zjhe". I can only presume this was some kind of Litvak (lithunian) tradition.

So, we danced the sefer down the Finchley Road to the synagogue, and we had security and policeman, stopped traffic, and quite a lot of bemused bystanders.

I felt really emotional. Partly the connection of two communities I feel very warmly about, partly about the celebratory environment, but mostly because the things I enjoy most about being Jewish are the "living" bits.

So theory, blackletter law, rules and regulations are all well and good. And valid, needed. But the stuff that really gets me is the "living your values" bit. I love building a succah, making honey cake, inviting guests to share fesivals/shabbat, doing acts of gemilut chassadim (loving kindess), treating people well. I realise that I sound scarily, horribly frumy, I suspect, saying that, and that's not how I am.

I just think that being Jewish isn't something you do on the weekend, it's part of who you are. So I'm Jewish when I recycle, and when I participate in community, and when I visit a friend in hospital, help someone across the street who needs a hand. This is not a Pollyanna thing, and you're not not-Jewish if you don't do these things, and obviously you can do them if you're not Jewish too. And they're values that are parts of lots of other traditions, too.

And also, there's a little bit of me that yearns for my fantasy of what the shtetl was like. My brother is always telling me that there was no running water in the shtetl or hair care products, and it just wasn't as great as I imagine. All true, I'm sure. But for a brief moment this morning as we danced over the pelican crossing on Finchley Road we were both in the shtetl, and in the world. We were both.

Our bothness means we're proud to be the people we are, doing the things we do, and we're part of the wide world, too.

That's the kind of Jewish I like to be.

And also, there was food afterwards.

Here's a full set of photos.

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