As Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, approaches I am reminded of how the Duchess of Cambridge last year saved me from making a dreadful faux pas during this holy festival. Unbelievable as that may seem, this is how it happened.
While in most Western cultures the New Year is celebrated with a night of revelry the Jewish New Year, also called the Day of Judgement, is marked with two days of protracted synagogue services directed at reminding He who is known as the perfect judge that he also has a reputation for being merciful.
Center-piece to the Rosh Hashana service is the shofar, a ram’s horn that trumpets a call for repentance and self-reflection among the congregation. It is doubtful that there is any other religion in the world that has a similar element of such unintended comedy.
Wherever Jews gather for prayer on these auspicious days those attending listen intently and take heed from the warning voice of the shofar. The program includes a total of 100 notes and by tradition they are dispersed throughout the service, a musical interlude during the lengthy liturgy. As each group of notes is performed the congregation falls quiet, children are hushed and idle chatter banished, lest any sound interfere with that of the shofar. In pin-drop silence a designated prompter announces a sequence of notes and the shofar-blower responds with, one hopes, a correct treble or bass blast on the horn.
This ancient practice, prescribed in the Old Testament, brings with it a problem that plagues worshipers every year. While the shofar may be the simplest of wind instruments by design, it is notoriously difficult to play. Blown with skill, its soulful tones strike a chord deep within the audience, inspiring awe, respect, and piety on the occasion of the new year when G-d judges all living things. By contrast, in the wrong hands, a shofar can vent an extraordinary range of sounds that are devilishly akin to flatulence from both man and beast.
The side-splitting strain of keeping a straight face while listening to a reproduction of such ghastly gastronomy is unenviable and many a pious worshiper has been reduced to helpless sniggers by a rude-sounding shofar. However, synagogue protocol frowns on laughter during services, and in particular during the solemn prayers of Rosh Hashana, so no matter how indecent or riotous the performance may be it is sacrilegious to acknowledge that anything is astray. To make matters worse, the religious obligation of hearing the shofar also demands each note be played perfectly, otherwise the hapless horn-blower must go back and try again until he gets it right. The spectacle of a shofar player who, after first rattling himself and the bemused congregation with a misfired toot, then steadily loses his nerve as he tries to make amends, is excruciating.
Just where the amusement lies in the sound of what is, after all, a perfectly natural bodily function, is a mystery. There is nothing entertaining in a snort and an outrageous sneeze seldom draws more than a grin from those within earshot. Yet the sound of even a modest postern indiscretion can delight an entire roomful of friends.
At the Rosh Hashanah service that I attended proceedings had been unbearable all along. The robust-looking fellow who blew the shofar for us strode with confidence to his post at the front of the room but while his heart and mind may well have been up to the task, alas, his lips failed him. Throughout the service he spluttered forth a cacophony of cheeky rasps and naughty peeps, though he soldiered on and we admired him for it.
His ultimate downfall came in the home stretch when he floundered during the last set of notes. Try as he might, and mightily did he try, he was unable to avoid squeezing out a staccato of hoots, raspberries, dribbling squirts and embarrassing woofs that wickedly tickled the imagination.
At the back of the room I fought hard to suppress giggles that demanded to be set free. All around me men stood rooted to the spot, each engaged in his own internal battle to remain stoic in the face of adversity. With every absurd puff on the horn it increasingly became a battle of nerves to see who was man enough to take it all standing, and who would crack first under the pressure. Out of the corner of my eye I spied erratic squirming in the women’s section where two young ladies were silently convulsing and seemed ready to draw several others after them.
And then came the “Great Blast”.
Towards the end of the shofar ceremony, as the quota of trumpeted notes reaches completion, the prompter calls on the shofar-blower to deliver the Tekiah Gedolah, or Great Blast. This long, drawn out, monotonous bass tone is a final note that underscores all the others, a stern warning that now is the time to repent.
An air of silent expectation filled the room as the bugler took up a firm stance, threw back his shoulders and raised the shofar into position.
“Tekiah Gedolah!” enthused our prompter and the horn-blower responded with a moist squeak.
You know the kind I mean; quiet enough to pass unnoticed in a busy roomful of people but loud enough to crack the polite silence of a crowded elevator.
It was all too much. From deep within me a surge of mirth welled-up out of my stomach and rose through my chest, gathering speed and momentum the rush of laughter became a torrent and then a flood, roaring up through my throat as it thundered towards the inadequate dam of my already quivering lips. I needed a distraction and I needed it fast.
So I thought about Kate Middleton’s breasts.
Just a few days earlier a French magazine had published the now famous pictures of the future Queen of England baring her chest to the sunshine and an unscrupulous photographer. The pictures caused outrage at the invasion of privacy since Kate and her husband Prince William were at the time guests in a private villa. On the other hand, there were those who suggested that anyone who is destined for the highest chair in the land should not sink to appearing undressed in the light of the sun.
Within a day the grainy photos were on the Internet and, although her pride may have been hurt, by the look of things the Duchess of Cambridge has nothing to be ashamed of.
Thankfully, it did the trick. The disastrous trumpeting continued but Kate’s glands had my attention and I was able to remain poised, focused, and stern-looking till the end of the service.
I doubt that I will every be able to personally thank the duchess for her help, but if you are reading this Your Highness, then I wish you, and your now expanded family, a Happy Jewish New Year.