As I decided on the title of this blog I had a flash-back to the 90’s.
The Singing Detective.
The BBC masterpiece written by Dennis Potter, starring Michael Gambon.
Images of the protagonist’s face coruscated with infection and scales of psoriasis, interspersed with hallucinatory dancing and surrealism. Maybe I am misremembering.
The rabbi is Rabbi G of Sheffield.
I won’t give you his name, I am sure you can Google him.
Unlike most of those characterised in my blogs, he is not a melange or anonymous interweaving of fact and imagination. He lives!
He is big and bearded with a large belly.
He wears his kippa tilted at 45 degrees and his large black Platchige sits straight.
I encountered him on Monday at Sheffield’s Holocaust Remembrance Ceremony. I was going to type, ‘Remembrance ‘Festival’,’ when I realised that would be wrong.
City of the flag.
Remember the media event when a man scaled the City Hall and removed the Israeli flag replacing it with a Palestinian one in the days after 10/7?
I don’t want to venture into the cultural and ethnic wars raging within Sheffield today, enough has already been written.
The event was not secret although it was not publicised.
In the preceding days I searched online to confirm details; there were none. I had learned about its existence via my synagogue WhatsApp group.
Now, after the event it is here.
The lack of advertising, presumably a strategy to minimise the risk of protests or attacks, or, it could be the council’s inept communication team. I suspect the former.
I learned the event is held annually in Sheffield. I had never heard of its existence despite living here for over 20 years.
A secret remembrance.
In attendance was the chief executive of the council, mayors, and other dignitaries but no publicity.
I sat with my daughter and listened to the speeches.
The rabbi arrived late.
The special guest was the 94 year old Hedi Argent, Holocaust survivor who extemporaneously related her story, sans notes or prompts. She was frail although her strength was obvious.
She described her early life in Vienna, the Anschluss, Christalnacht, attacks on her and her family and ultimate escape to England.
I watched the rabbi.
He slept fitfully through most of her talk.
Perhaps he had seen her before.
I diagnosed likely sleep apnoea although I note he didn’t snore; perhaps this is a skill acquired in Yeshiva.
After Hedi, the rabbi took the stage and related the remembrance to some biblical lessons which I have unremembered.
Then he sang.
It was the song I can’t forget.
In a watery baritone he sang in English, accompanied by a schmaltzy electronic recording of amateur piano and drums.
The lyrics recalled ‘the numbers on my arm’ those being the tattoos assigned by the Nazis upon arrival at the concentration camps and a separate allusion to the time when all those alive then ‘will be gone.’
I thought of Hedi and her future death.
I didn’t laugh although I caught my daughter’s eye.
There were six or seven verses.
I flashed back to the Late Reverend Levy of Giffnock Synagogue whose voice would still even the most distracted heart.
After the ceremony my daughter asked to say hello to the rabbi.
He was involved in conversation with some of the dignitaries; I was anxious to get home for the dogs.
‘Let’s go,’ I said.
‘I never got to say hello to the rabbi,’ she later expressed.
And, had my haste been solely inspired by my dog’s needs?
During the interminable singing I returned to a separate memory.
That of my mum’s funeral.
I am a member of the Sheffield Reform Synagogue.
She and my dad in their later years joined the Reform Synagogue in Glasgow; for them this was more a social act than one informed by spiritual ideology.
Their American female rabbi whose name I have forgotten was warm and welcoming, supportive at the end of my mum’s life.
The break came when the owners of the Jewish Cemetery in Glasgow forbade her (the rabbi) from officiating at my mum’s funeral.
It is a grudge I have never overcome.
My siblings and I, rather than inviting the Orthodox male rabbi from the other congregation officiated ourselves.
It was more heartfelt.
Orphans together, leading the Kaddish.
This, and various other niggles over the years – my departure from the Rabbi’s house in Jerusalem mid-meal as thoughts of A Handmaid’s Tale overcame me back in the 90’s.
The angry attitude of some Orthodox hypocrites I have known, had distanced me.
We left without the hello.
At the back of my mind was the consideration he might not look at my daughter as Jewish, as per his interpretation of the Halacha she is not; within the more inclusive world of Reform Judaism, she is welcomed.
A toxic division I wanted to avoid.
I ran scared.
The week before, I had travelled also with my daughter to Manchester for the Northern March Against Antisemitism.
The rally, chaired by the redoubtable Baron Mann, had speakers from different political parties as well as the 94 year old Ike Alternman.
On the train to Manchester, we sat in first class. A rare extravagance.
Next to us a friendly man in his 60’s engaged in conversation.
He was conducting train customer satisfaction surveys.
The rest of the train was overcrowded, UK 2020’s style, with people standing, some sitting, perhaps lying on the floor.
I don’t usually talk to strangers; my life as a doctor, Monday to Friday is so draining that I find myself wiped-out from additional conversation, for the most I keep myself to myself, I read my book or complete the crossword.
There was something about him that was different.
Something that encouraged discussion.
I couldn’t tell what.
I watched him in action; he joked with other passenger and the two staffers with the drinks’ trolley (which they couldn’t move through the train because it was so rammed).
‘Where are you going?’
‘We are off to Manchester Cathedral.’
‘Have a good time.’
The march was affirming. Peaceful with an interesting mix of people from the North of England. A smattering of Israelis, an occasional Chabadnik.
A group of young Yeshiva boys danced in a circle and sang.
Chants of ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ rang out.
When the rally was over, concluding with God Save the King then Ha’Tikva, we returned to the train at Piccadilly.
Our customer survey man was on the train as were the same staff; we smiled, ‘I see you are back,’ I commented.
‘Successful trip? What did you do?’
This time, I was perhaps a little more emboldened by my experience, ‘We attended a march against Antisemitism.’
‘My sister was going, unfortunately I couldn’t as I was working.’
We talked further.
This skein of improbability had placed us both on the train at that moment.
The likelihood of this encounter was miniscule and yet, it was.
I later further considered why I had not announced at the outset, ‘We are joining a protest against Antisemitism,’ rather than my guarded, ‘We are going to the Cathedral,’ (where the march began).
I guess the same subservience or fear that made Sheffield City Council hide the Holocaust ceremony.
I am a diasporic Jew.
No matter my allegiance to The Land.
No matter my idiosyncratic ways, many of which were influenced by my time in Israel as a child.
When you exist within a minority of a minority of a minority you learn to walk between the shadows.
I am not proud of much, except perhaps my children.
I accept my existence as it is.
No better or worse than my peers.
My constituents are the same stardust as everything else.
Now and Zen.
Singing rabbi or detective, all scintillations.