The reopening of Britain for business and prayer has unleashed a variety of reactions. My esteemed colleague, Tom Utley, recalled in careful detail his yearning for the reopening of his local pub and a pint of real beer. When his wish finally came true there was a rude awakening when he was told he could only order via the pub’s app.
It required a socially distanced bar assistant to lean over him tapping into his phone and a 20-minute wait for the drink to arrive. A friend locked down in his country pile in Somerset drove up to London for the first time to be in the queue for the reopening of the fashionable River Café on the Thames in Fulham. My editor at the Mail craved dining out in central London and was disappointed at ghost town streets and the emptiness of a famous eaterie.
As for this writer, my wishes have been modest. As a person of a certain age with a vulnerable wife who has been studiously sheltering, I have proceeded with caution.
On returning to my office in Kensington for the first time, I vowed to visit the local Italian restaurant for my morning coffee. I sat outside with my Americano and The FT in the milky morning sun. The whole experience was even better when the proprietor greeted me with a big smile and announced there would be no charge!
A bigger challenge lay ahead. Ever since my childhood, I have been a habitual shul-goer, something inherited from my dear late father. When I have travelled for work to Washington, Frankfurt, Paris, Prague, Hong Kong, Sydney and a myriad other places, I have made time to go to synagogue sometimes for the morning weekday minyan, for Shabbat or Yom Tov.
So returning to services is something I wanted to do. The idea of having to go to synagogue websites and sign in was a novelty. My first service was Kabbalat Shabbat at my local Richmond United Synagogue. Rabbi Meir Shindler and the honorary officers had worked tirelessly to make it as hygienic and as spiritual experience as possible.
It was joyous to be back among friends and to sing quietly through my mask, but by the end of the 45 minutes of prayer, I couldn’t wait to get outside and tear off the mask. The whole experience was made a little more pleasant by a kind, anonymous donor who had placed on our seats miniature bottles of single malt and a small sanitised plastic cup.
Since then, I have visited the morning minyan at Western Marble Arch on a couple of occasions, limbering up for some upcoming yahrzeits. While it was great to be back and don tefillin, the masks, vast social distancing and the lack of spontaneous interaction made it feel very different.
I have to admit that when it came to Shabbat morning last week and the prospect of wearing a mask for two hours, on a blazing hot summer’s day and listening to the leyning of two long Parshat, I chickened out. Having ascertained from the rabbi that there would be a minyan (in fact there were 16 or so men), I took the executive decision to daven at home.
As has become the custom during lockdown, I was joined by my younger son Gabriel. I led Shacharit prayers, he led Mussaf and between us we leyned a chunk of the portion of the law from the Chumash. We said the prayer for the New Moon and split the Haftorah. It has proved a great bit of family bonding and something that has brought us closer together in lockdown.
This week, Shabbat Chazon, I will go to synagogue to mark the Yahrzeit of my late elder brother (who died very young) and
The call of prayer with others is strong. But I must admit that in my heart of hearts, enthusiasm for shul has been greatly dulled. It is no longer the full-throated, social experience so much part of my life before Covid-19 arrived.