Years ago, I played a part in setting up a hashkomah (early morning) minyan at my local shul. Starting on Shabbat morning at 7.45am, and finishing by 9.30am, it proved very popular; particularly among the substantial ex-pat South African community who had colonised the neighbourhood. At the conclusion of the service the participants would sit down (they still do) for the best kiddush in London; copious amounts of single-malt whisky, cholent and herring.
As a dyed-in-the wool vegetarian, the second and third items on that menu were off limits for me. Fortunately, I am partial to a wee dram so at least my thirst was slaked. Once I suggested that we provide vegetarian cholent; a Boer immediately retorted: “There’s no such thing!” The following week an apologetic tub of hummus appeared on the table.
A humorous message arrived on my WhatsApp last month. Under the banner of ‘Yiddisher COP 26’ it exhorted that we should “do our bit for the climate this Shabbat” and “cut out cholent to reduce emissions”.
This got me thinking (not for the first time) about how much Judaism requires us to engage with the world around us, and the extent to which we choose to separate ourselves. Jewish schools, kashrut and in-marriage (for example) safeguard our space; pandemics, climate change and international conflict (for example) remind us that we are but one piece in a global jigsaw sharing our destiny with the entire planet.
One of the things I do when I am not hoeing carrots or herding sheep, is maintain my professional role as a family lawyer. In discussion about the impact of divorce, I often tell my clients (Jewish and non-Jewish) about the redoubtable 18th century Lithuanian Rabbi known as the ‘Vilna Gaon’. He spoke about the ‘Get’, the Jewish version of a Decree Absolute. Get is not a word of Hebrew origin, it comes from Aramaic. It is a generic word for a legal document. Originally it was not confined to divorce matters but, over time, it gained that specific meaning.
In due course the word “Get” found its way into Hebrew, it is spelt with the letters gimmel and tet. The Gaon taught us that it is a unique word: nowhere in Tenach (the Hebrew Bible) will you find these two letters written alongside one another. Not Gimmel followed by Tet. Not Tet followed by Gimmel. Not within a single word. Not at the end of one word and the beginning of another. (In truth it has been shown that there is an exception to this rule but, as we all know, it is the exception that proves the rule). The Gaon’s point was that when a Jewish couple divorce they become totally separated. Divorce, in the form of a Get, is the most fundamental and complete form of disengagement.
There is a scary twist to this. In modern Hebrew there is one word where gimmel and tet do appear alongside one another. It is not a Hebrew word (it is imported from Italian) but it is commonly used. The word is Ghetto.
Ghettos were the device used by non-Jews to confine and contain Jews, to separate us from wider society. At one and the same time (as the gates of the Jewish Quarter were locked each evening) they offered us both security and vulnerability. In modern times, on the micro level, we have created our own ghettos; those ‘bubbles’ within modern cities where we herd together (often within an Eruv) and which, increasingly, we don’t need to leave.
We have done the same on the macro level, Israel has become an international ghetto. Jews from all over the world leave their ‘home’ (or ‘host’) countries to live there. For some it is a religious obligation, for others a nationalistic choice, or a matter of aesthetics, or convenience.
We derive a sense of safety from these enclaves, but who can say whether or not they increase our vulnerability? It is part of our collective narrative that antisemitism is increasing in this country and across the world. Yet it is entirely possible that our fears are driven, at least in part, by withdrawing from that world and concentrating ourselves into narrow territories.
Moving to the English countryside, whilst maintaining a strong Jewish identity, is a personal choice that G and I have made. It is far from innovative, many of our forebears in Middle and Eastern Europe did the same thing for centuries, but it isn’t fashionable today.
Every year, during chol hamoed Succot, we invite our neighbours for an evening in our Succah. Surrounded as we are by laurel and conifer hedges, we have no difficulty in roofing our large structure with ample quantities of green branches. No rush matting for us, thank you very much!
Among our invitees are one or two Jews, or half-Jews, or people who grew up in London with Jewish neighbours. But mostly our guests knew nothing of Succahs until they met us. We devour latkes and strudels and drink a l’chaim. For precisely two and a half hours our Tabernacle of Peace reflects the universality of the Festival (which anticipates the time when the 70 nations of the world will gather in Jerusalem).
We have learned that an invitation for 7.30pm means that everyone arrives at 7.30pm on the dot. At precisely 10.00pm everyone leaves. In the blink of an eye we go from partying to washing-up. G says that’s the difference between Jews and non-Jews. When a non-Jew says “goodbye”, (s)he goes!
The villagers are respectful of our Yiddishkeit. They know not to expect us at events that take place on Shabbat. They know we will not eat in their homes nor drink their wine. They also know that the range of gifts they may bring us is restricted. One or two of them have gone so far as to google the word ‘kosher’. They are the ones who bring us delicacies marked with a “U” in a circle, sourced from the cash-and-carry in Milton Keynes or purchased online from Tesco. One or two think us odd, possibly mad, but we have encountered no hostility.
I am not so naïve as to suggest that we have found the answer to the separation/engagement dilemma; nor that we have found an antidote to antisemitism. But I can say that it is far from obvious that we need to construct an elaborate bubble to protect ourselves.
A story about the Belzer Rebbe concludes with him admonishing a Jewish innkeeper isolated in the Ukrainian countryside: “If you separate yourself from the community so that you never go to shul and your children never go to cheder, the least you must do is ensure that your hospitality to wayfarers is generous beyond reproach”
If ever you feel the urge to burst the bubble, give us a call. We will make you very welcome during your stay. Terms and conditions apply.