As a social researcher who studies people to make generalisations about human behaviour and as an Orthodox Jew who loves putting people into boxes, the four sons are the gift that keeps on giving. Near the start of the Haggadah this parable appears to show their different perspectives on the Exodus from Egypt but is more about their personalities. They were as relevant then as they are now. He is my version of the Four Sons, alive and well in 2019.
The Righteous Son
Anyone who meets Benjy will notice his broad shoulders and soft spoken manner. Some people say that they find him hard to understand because he mutters so much, others think he has strong views about a range of issues but his introverted nature doesn’t allow him to express them.
After attending Gush Yeshiva, he studied Law and Economics at Cambridge. He’s works as an auditor at KPMG where he organises weekly Shiurim and on Shabbat he’s the Gubbay at his Shul.
His wife Deborah is effusive about everything and some say her outgoing personality compensates for his taciturn personality. She works as a speech and language therapist for Barnet Hospital. Her colleague Karen describes her entrance into work every day as like a religious nursery teacher on a Kibbutz. She virtually trips on her long denim skirt and struggles to keep on a brown beret under such a full head of hair.
While Benjy grunts Shabbat Shalom at the people he and his wife bump into on the way back from Shul on Shabbat, Rachel gets stuck in long conversations as they vent their concerns about their child’s poor language development. Benjy would never be so rude as to remind his wife that they are fifteen minutes late for the people they’re going to for lunch but does raise his wrist into her field of vision every few minutes, tapping his watch.
Benjy doesn’t like small talk but at least once a week when he has the chance to respond to some bad news about anti-Semitism in the UK says under his breath “If we were living in Israel none of this would be happening.” Every year when reciting the words Lshanah Haba B’yeryshaliyim at the Seder table, he bangs his fist on the table and stares at his wife, hoping she’ll get the hint. Deborah responds, gently holding his wrist “yes Darling once we’ve paid off the mortgage, the new extension and the children’s school fees.”
The Wicked Son
“Can everyone hear me at the back?” The sweat lets his glasses slide down the bridge of his nose, he pushes them back. He is anxious knowing that standing on this stage before so many people in the School of African and Oriental Studies is a critical moment in his life. “Hallo my name is Alex, my mother is Jewish, I am a Jew and as an anti-racist I call upon this University to support the full boycott, divestment and imposing of sanctions against Israel.” The crowd applaud but not long after people will forget who he is and what he stands for.
Alex Greenberg was raised by a single mother. He knew he was Jewish because he was circumcised but also because his mum proudly told him that she withdrew him from a Jewish nursery because the other mothers didn’t respect her as a woman without a husband. After SOAS he went on to complete a PhD at Cambridge University in Social Anthropology. He almost failed to defend his thesis “Bravery and Humiliation; the experiences of Palestinian Olive Farmers living in Samaria” because his supervisors felt his analysis was one-sided and failed to account for the responsibility of the farmers in their own outcomes.
He went on to become deputy head of Communications for the British Friends of Palestine until his colleagues discovered he was Jewish and expelled him (although they preferred to call it redundancy). In between working as a freelance Communications manager for a series of left leaning charities, he continued to lobby for anti-Israel causes such as naming and shaming arms companies that sold weapons to Israel.
And indeed that might have been the end of Alex as a figure of the anti-Israel left but fate proved to be kinder. When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party and the Jewish community was outraged, Alex saw an amazing opportunity. He’d present a refreshing counter narrative to the attentive media. He tweets, he posts, writes letters to newspapers and creates a new Facebook group called Jews for Jezza. At first the Labour leadership ignore him but then one of Corbyn’s advisers sees how Alex could defend them against accusations of anti-Semitism. So, whenever organisations such as the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism confront Labour leaders on the problem of anti-Jewish prejudice in their party the Party Leaders say “We’re not anti-Semitic, how could we be, look at the support we get from people like Alex Greenberg” Very soon, Alex has made himself known to a range of media sources such as the Guardian and BBC. So anytime the problem of anti-Semitism and the Labour Party flares up they ask from a choice of the many hundreds of thousands of willing Jews to raise their concerns and Alex Greenberg to present the counterargument.
When Labour is overwhelmed with accusations of failing to deal with anti-Semitism in the party Alex is recruited by Jeremy Corbyn to independently assess these claims. He goes through all recorded incidents and categorises them as follows; silly stuff that shouldn’t be taken seriously, legitimate claims about excessive Jewish influence in government, reasonable criticism of Israel and genuine anti-Semitism. He concludes that with the exception of a few comments such as “Kill the Jews!” most comments are not anti-Semitic in nature and such claims of Labour anti-Semitism are spurious. After many years of passionate campaigning, Prime Minister Corbyn gives him a peerage. He is now known Lord Greenberg of Archway.
The Simple son
Four years were probably to many for Rob on his Marketing Course at Aston University, he spent most of it drinking and his final year working at a tech start up in was a blast. One day a mate at Uni persuaded him to hear a talk by two Rabbis about these amazing codes from the Torah which predict the future. Initially he’s put off by the hysterical tone of these two New Yorkers with their long beards but when they tell him that five verses in the book of Bamidbar not only spell out the name of Take That but each of its band members as well, he is transfixed.
He decides to stop going to Mc Donalds for lunch every day and quietly begins keeping Shabbat. To his parents dismay he decides not to apply for any graduate recruitment programmes but instead spends the next two years after University studying in Yeshiva in Jerusalem. At the end of that time he considers returning, but the Rabbi begs him to stay with the promise that they’ll find him a good shidduch. And so they do, the Rabbi sets him up with a young woman called Chava from Monsey in New York. Six weeks later they are engaged. Her parents are happy but something about their reaction to their daughters’ engagement leads their friends to think they are not quite as joyful as they seem.
After the ritual of breaking the plate at the engagement party, Chava’s parents quietly take aside their future son-in-law.
“Do you mind if we ask you something?” Her father asks.
“It’s just something, not really that important, we’re just interested to know.”
He looks at them expectantly.
“We know you’re still studying but have you had thoughts about what kind of job you intend to do after?”
He looks around the room, considering his response. “I’m not sure yet, but things will turn out fine.” He looks upward smiling “God will provide.”
Chava’s mother winks at her husband, they know exactly what this means.
The son who doesn’t know how to ask
Pete Robbins lives with his mum in a small flat in Stoke Newington. Every day he cycles to Hackney Council where he works as a benefits advisor. What he enjoys most is the different types of clients he comes across, especially the jovial young scholars in their long black coats and side locks. One in particular he’s befriended over the years is called Ephraim. One day Peter asks Ephraim out of the blue “So how do you become a Jew?”
“You’re either born one or you can convert, but it’s not encouraged.”
“How are you born Jewish?”
“If you’re mother’s Jewish.
“I don’t think my mum’s Jewish but her Mum certainly was. She used to make us chicken soup every month.”
“Well that makes you Jewish.”
The two of them lock eyes like long lost brothers.
That evening Peter’s chatting to his Mum over dinner.
“Mum did you know that because Gran was Jewish, I’m Jewish as well.”
“So how come you never told me?”
She shrugs her shoulders. “No idea, I didn’t really think about it to be honest.”
He looks down into his soup, takes his bread and dips it in. Pete wonders what it might be like knowing that he is now Jewish, then his mind is distracted. “Is the salt beef ready?” He asks his Mum.
“In a few minutes.”