Elul brings daily shofar blasts, extra prayers and selichot and the serious mood of anticipation, which replaces the carefree happy fun days of the summer season. But for me Elul always reminds me of the birth of my passion for Judaism.
I was born into an Anglo Orthodox family. My father’s parents had emigrated from Radomsk in Poland, my mother’s from Kiblitch in the Ukraine. My father although born in London was sent to study in Mir in Lithuania, and returned to eventually become the Principal Rabbi of the Federation of Synagogues in London. But I found Anglo Jewish synagogues the most boring places on earth and Jewish life lacking in religious enthusiasm and passion. I was beginning to wonder what the point of it all was. I was more interested in playing football than studying Torah.
I was sixteen when my father decided that I needed a change and so he packed me off to Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The route to Israel in the 1950’s was arduous.I was seen off at Victoria Station in London, went by train down to Marseilles and boarded the Theodore Herzl liner to sail to Haifa.
Friends of my father shipped me off in a sherut to Jerusalem to arrive in time for Elul, the start of the religious academic year. Eventually, I arrived at Kol Torah Yeshiva in Bayit VeGan. My father had picked it from the others because it was a new building and not too primitive for a relatively spoilt English kid. It was run by old colleagues of his ffrom Mir and Dayan Yechezkel Abramsky, my father’s mentor, lived nearby. I didn’t stay long. Two months later I transferred myself down the hills to Beer Yaacov which I adored.But a couple of experiences I had while I was in Jerusalem had really profound impacts on me.
The centre of the yeshiva was a huge hall where hundreds of young men were studying, shouting, arguing, gesticulating in an atmosphere of noisy enthusiasm that was initially confusing and strange, so different from the decorum of the English academic tradition. But soon the freedom, the ability to argue, to challenge, to go to someone else for another opinion the feeling of study for the pleasure of it not the burden or duty was liberating. Then at prayer time, to see the chaos transformed in to a solid, disciplined communal expression of concentrated spirituality, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in any synagogue ever in my whole life so far. This was stage one in my transformation.
The first Friday night the two other English boys in the yeshiva decided I needed further educating. Together we walked down the few miles to the Gerrer Chassidic centre which was then in Machane Yehuda. It was midnight, the building was crowded with hundreds of black coated Gerrer Chassidim with their tall fur spodiks on their heads, swaggering around the hall, erect , tummies stuck out in front of them, pacing up and down nodding to each other, altogether like a hive of busy bees. This was the first time I had ever experienced a Chassidish Tisch.
Suddenly there was a hush. In came swaggered a small little man, dressed in the same way as the others. Wherever he walked the crowd parted. Like thrashing sardines in a net they pushed back to make way. The Rebbe strutted about, his look split through the mass of his followers. Everyone struggled back to get out of the way of his piercing glance. After walking around the hall he retreated to a top table behind a wooden crash barrier. Everyone swept up to the barrier. Those behind pressed forward to get nearer, young strapping youths hurled themselves over other bodies to get closer, like swarms of fish caught in a net.
As a well brought up Englishman I stood back from the fray. But my rugger-playing friend grabbed me and together we both pushed and shoved through the bodies to the front. There sat the Rebbe at a long table with apparent clones sitting solemnly on either side while his assistant stood on a chair called out individual names to come up for a glass of wine. There was singing, strong martial rhythms, everyone joined in. Then silence. The Rebbe talked, quietly, briefly, something to do with the opening words of the weekly Sedra, in a yiddish I didn’t understand. But the power, the control, the enthusiasm, the excitement and the ecstasy, were totally unlike anything I had ever experienced anywhere. Could this really be the same religion as the United Synagogue I experienced in London?
The following day I was taken to lunch at Sam Khan’s. Sam was as far from a Gerrer Chassid as you could imagine. He was a German Jew who had fled to England where his Germanic rigidity was softened by a dose of English reserve. He was as morally straight and correct and ethical a person as you could ever wish to meet, living modestly, a little haven of European Gemuttlichkeit in a Middle Eastern turmoil of primitive and uncontrolled chaos. He devoted his life to others, to charities and good works, to saving others from poverty, humiliation and from missionaries. He and his wife had an open home and bestowed abundant hospitality particularly on English waifs and strays.
Within a day or so I was exposed to three entirely different paradigms of religious Jewry, the Lithuanian academic, the Chassidic ecstatic and the Germanic controlled and highly ethical, all of them impressive in very different ways. I realized there was so much depth and variety and choice in Judaism, something I had no inkling of in the Britain of my youth. This was the first Elul I consciously remembered as a religiously positively experience.
Every time Elul comes round, I try to recreate the excitement and the novelty of that year, even though many others of different and even more intensive kinds followed. Recurring routines, even annual ones, can be the same, boring, uninspiring, regardless of where we come from. Unless we try to make them otherwise. But that needs exposure and I don’t know anywhere else in the Jewish world where you can see and experience as much variety of Jewish religious experience ( for better and for worse) as in Benei Brack or Jerusalem.