Monday, November 19, 2007

Speech for the Red Herring Bart Mitzvah on 18th November 2007


Friends, comrades, relatives:

In my memory, the rabbi always began his sermon with the words “this week's sedrah comes from...”. This was a signal for everyone to make themselves comforable and prepare for a little rest. So snuggle down.

Our Torah reading today comes from the portion Va-Yetse – 'and he left'. The chapterisation and verse division that we Jews borrowed from the Christians makes this Genesis chapter 28 verses 10-22. The bit that the kids read covers the very important story of Jacob's ladder, where the patriarch who is going to become the ancestor of all Israelites and therefore all Jews, sleeps in the open with a stone for a pillow. There he has a dream in which he sees a ladder going between heaven and earth, and angels ascending and descending.


This really short passage is so full of symbolism and associations that it's almost embarrassing. For kabbalists, the ladder represents the relationship between higher and lower worlds – because they see the material world that we experience as being only one of many different realms. For those of a more fundamentalist inclination, the story indicates the future location of the holy temple, and of Jerusalem – although there is nothing in the story that says so, they interpret the place where it happens as being Mount Moriah, and therefore confirming the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish worship. For nationalists, verse 13 assigns the land to Jacob and his offspring, and verse 14 confirms the descendants of Jacob as having a special status among all the families of the earth.


Christians interpret the portion as presaging the future coming of Jesus as a bridge between God and man. Even the Scottish Nationalists get a look in, because the stone that Jacob used for a pillow is said to be the Stone of Scone, on which Kings of Scotland were crowned – and which was subsequently looted by the English and carried off to Westminster Abbey.


Very clever rabbis have spent a great deal of time examining the words of the text, finding many levels of meaning, fleshing out the details, and explaining some of the apparent contradictions and inconsistencies. Why do the angels need a ladder – what happened to their wings? How big was the ladder – how many rungs, and how wide were they? How come when God tells Jacob that he will protect him wherever he goes, Jacob is still frightened about something only a few chapters on? The interpretations go on for many pages, and it all makes me very proud to be a secularist.


But secularists don't have to be dreary. We can enjoy rituals, and ceremonies, and symbolism too. The ladder seems to me to be a great symbol for a Coming of Age rite of passage – an event that marks a tranistion from one status into another. Many societies and civilisations have them, and they seem to me to be an entirely good thing.


One of the things we do in our secular cheder is to look at Jewish customs and traditions as something that is evolving rather than static. Nowhere is this more evident than the custom of the big barmitzvah. By now everybody really does know the joke about the elephant safari bar mitzvah, but the big bar mitzvah, as we know it, isn’t a timeless tradition at all. It’s only about fifty years old. Older men here will perhaps remember a small celebration at their own house, with a few bits of plaive cake, some bridge rolls, and some tiny glasses of cherry brandy.

Even the religious bar mitzvah ceremony isn’t all that old – perhaps a few hundred years. Once upon a time the big coming of age event for boys was around five years old, when the child was taken from its mother and given to the Rabbi to be educated. This was a public ceremony, which included the child being carried through the streets, and involved special foods, including food like eggs and cakes on which the verses of the Torah were actually written (and by the way, this led to some very interesting discussions between rabbis as to whether it was permissible to excrete holy words).

It’s only from the fifteenth century onwards that Jewish children were seen as taking on the rights and responsibilities of adulthood at thirteen. The ceremony of the bar mitzvah, to mark the Jewish boy as having attained the age at which he could be counted in a minyan and called to the reading of the law, dates from this time. The big party, the catered meal, and so on didn't come for another four hundred years, and most of that was made up by the caterers.

Well, that’s the end of the history lesson. The point of it is really that social institutions, and especially religious traditions, like the bar mitzvah, are made up by people like us. We’ve got just as much right to make up our own way of doing things as did the rabbis in medieval Germany. What is, is the product of a process of change, and can be changed.

We have chosen to call this ceremony a Bart mitzvah, after the celebrated character from popular culture, Bart Simpson. It's fun to say that in an appropriately rabbinical voice, and if I was really doing this right I am sure I could come up with some really great numerological allusions about the letters of Bart's name. In fact, Bart presents many theological problems, not least the fact that his voice is actually provided by a woman, so that if the character were to begin to sing orthodox Jewish men would have to quickly switch off – because it's forbidden to listen to a woman singing. Once again, reading that it's hard not to feel a burst of pride at being a secularist.


But there is also a wonderful web page called 'The Simpsons Talmud', which presents the episode featuring Rabbi Hyman Krustovskyand his son Herschel Pinkus Yerucham Krustofski (or Krusty the Clown, as he is perhaps better known) as if it were a Talmudic anecdote. It's possible to appreciate this on many levels. The content of the interpretation, which like the Simpsons episode itself treats the issue of parental estrangement from a son with great insight and warmth. The style of the web page really does present itself as it were a page from the Talmud. And the ability to enjoy the joke seems to me to be a vindication of what we are trying to do here – to appreciate the Jewish heritage not in opposition to living in the modern world, but as a way of getting more out of it. The Simpsons Talmud, and Woody Allen, and lots of other things are funnier if you understand the nuances of Jewish culture. Relating to the Holocaust, and other holocausts, and the experiences of refugees, is different if we recognise the relationships of those stories to our own personal stories.


In our group we have tried to cover all this stuff in one way or another. We began, more than three years ago, with the words “Once there was a rabbi, a man of distinction, who lived in the land of Uz.” This is the beginning of the story “The Rabbi who was turned into a werewolf”. We've spent a while wandering in some of the back lanes of Jewish culture and folklore. We spent a long time in the company of the wise men of Chelm. We studied the stories of the Bible, with the help of beanie babies, an assortment of funny voices, and a really lurid comic-book style version provided by some American bible society.


Somewhere along the way, we invented Jewish Top Trumps, merrily infringing copyright as we went. We made cards for important Jewish heroes and leaders – like Emma Goldmann, Rabbi Akiva, and Amy Winehouse. We made cards for fictional characters with some claim to be Jewish, too, like Tevye the Milkman, Krusty the Clown, and Moses and Jesus too. As of today, there are some new top trumps in the pack, because we've made some for all the graduating students – have a look at the version on the laptop over there.


We've learned some bits of Yiddish, including a great number of words for the male anatomy – why are there so many? We've learned, more or less, to read Hebrew, or at least to recognise some of the letters.


We've watched some good films, and some really bad ones – I'm still not sure why it turned out that our version of The Ten Commandments had subtitles in Brazilian Portuguese. We've even made a film, which you will get to see in a few minutes.


We've done a bit of cooking, a tiny bit of singing, and the occasional craft activity – we made clay dreidels, and we used up the clay to make idols like Abraham's dad used to do for a living. We studied interior decorating, Solomonic style. We've tried to make sure that it was never like school, and I think we've mainly succeeded – although there were a few dodgy moments when we slogged through the background history to Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I'll lay odds that no-one remembers very much of that.


And we've had good fun, most of the time. I'm going to miss it, and all the students, terribly. The class is going to continue, with some of the students who aren't graduating yet, and perhaps some new ones. It'll be different – not better, or worse, but different for sure.


Now one of the things about this sort of sermon is that it's really hard to end. Perhaps that's why they go on for so long. When I was young, the rabbi used to finish up by presenting the barmitzvah boy with a present from the congregation – usually the book 'The Torah is Our Guide'. I still have mine, and have kept it as fresh and new as the day it was given to me. Well, if the trick worked for him, it might work for me, so I'd like to end the sermon by presenting the students with a specially chosen book. I'd like to, but those mamsers at Amazon have let me down, so instead I will present them all with a picture of the front cover – alongside their graduation certificates, of course. So it gives me great pleasure to present you all with this picture of the front cover of “Yiddish with Dick and Jane”, and may the book when it actually arrives give you many minutes of pleasure.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

How mobility helps maintain work-life balance

I write about enterprise mobility for a living. One of the oft-cited benefits is that it helps workers to maintain a proper work-life balance. This claim is more commonly made on the left-hand side of the Atlantic than on the right-hand side. Over here, there is at least some recognition that knowing when and whether to turn the Blackberry off, or stop doing the emails on the laptop, is an issue. In North America, it seems much more common to assume that being able to do work outside of normal working hours, away from the workplace, is somehow more 'balanced'.

This piece from AP doesn't claim that it's illustrating a more balanced life, though it does suggest that the impetus for taking laptops on holiday so as to continue working is coming from employees, not from employers. It's hard not to despair reading this sort of thing - another example of computers making people easier to use.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Speech at Lexei's bar mitzvah on 13th January 2007


Hello everybody. Here we all are again. I’ve got five minutes with a more or less captive audience. Once again, for those of you who are familiar with a traditional bar mitzvah, fasten your seat belts. And for those of you who have never been to a bar mitzvah before, rest assured that this is entirely authentic, and that all bar mitzvahs are exactly like this.

If this were a religious bar mitzvah, this would be the spot for the rabbi’s sermon, in which he would expound in a learned way on the significance of this week’s torah portion. Since this is a secular ceremony, it’s very tempting to have a reading from an important secularist text – perhaps an extract from Richard Dawkins’ new book ‘The God Delusion’, on why religion is not only wrong but also stupid and harmful. Fortunately for you, though, I understand that good manners require that I show a little forbearance.

So, back to Plan A, and a little exposition on the torah portion. As you will hear shortly, Lexei’s torah portion, and the associated haftorah portion, are both about somebody being called to a duty that they are reluctant to take on. Well, sometimes we feel the same about being secular Jews. It would have been easier to take the mainstream, religious route. Somebody else would have done the intellectual and pedagological schlepping. We would just have dropped the kids off at a synagogue cheder on Sunday morning, and then had the morning off – instead of having to make up a syllabus, run classes, make up a bar mitzvah ceremony, and so on. Plenty of other people manage like that, and most of their kids more or less get the message that religion, and Jewish culture have their own proper, small place that needn’t spill over into everyday life.

But it honestly felt to us like there really wasn’t any choice. We tried the other route, and in the end it just didn’t make any sense for us. For me the turning point came at a parents’ morning at the synagogue cheder, when one of the speakers – Clive Lawton, for those of you that know him -- asked, rhetorically, what was the point of sending your children to cheder to learn how to daven if you didn’t daven yourself? I had to agree, and Lexei stopped going to the synagogue cheder the following week. Almost certainly not the effect that he had in mind, but there you are.

So we started running our own secular cheder in the front room about three years ago – Lexei, Daniela, Abe, Max and me. We already had a bit of a model, because Leslie had been running a bar and bat mitzvah group in our kitchen for a couple of years – that’s the one Louis went to. But this was the first time that I’d done anything like teaching. So we learned to read Hebrew – and when I say ‘we’ here, I use that particular pronoun carefully. We studied bible stories, some of which were dramatised by a selection of beanie babies and other stuffed animals. We did Jewish history too, and we’ve just spent half of a term learning about the holocaust – Zionism, Israel, and the Palestinians next term, wish me luck!

We studied Jewish folklore – kicking off with the traditional story of the Rabbi who turned into a werewolf. We invented Jewish Top Trumps, merrily infringing copyright as we went. We added Jewish humour – and we learned the famous and important joke about the old Jewish guys who tell the same jokes over and over again, until in the end they just give each joke a number, then tell each other the number and all laugh together. And we didn’t just add stuff – we added people too, so that there were more and more kids in the front room – can we have a wave please, Susie, and Effie? So we added another teacher, too, because with the best will in the world I couldn’t teach Hebrew to ten kids at once. I can honestly say that we wouldn’t have made it through the last two years without my friend and co-teacher, Ms Lukom.

One of the things we do in our secular cheder is to look at Jewish customs and traditions as something that is evolving rather than static. So let’s have a bit of a go now, with a look at how the bar mitzvah itself has evolved. At Louis’ bar mitzvah ceremony, I explained what it meant for us as secular Jews to have a coming of age ceremony in the form of a bar mitzvah. This meant, in effect, to claim the symbolism of the bar mitzvah and to turn it into something that is meaningful for us. Actually, it turns out that this isn’t such a strange thing to have done. Everybody knows the joke about the elephant safari bar mitzvah, but the big bar mitzvah, as we know it, isn’t a timeless tradition at all. It’s only about fifty years old. Older men here will remember a small celebration at their own house, with a few bits of plaive cake, some bridge rolls, and some tiny glasses of cherry brandy.

The form of the big bar mitzvah is to a very great extent copied from the form of the big Jewish wedding. You can see that, for example, in the way that the ritual of lifting up the bar mitzvah boy on a chair has become part of the ritual – among the Orthodox, that’s something that you do at weddings. The same with the entirely invented ritual of the ‘bar mitzvah cake’. In fact, much of the ritual of the bar mitzvah party owes its origins to the traditional enemy of the Jewish people, the Jewish caterer.

Even the religious bar mitzvah ceremony isn’t all that old – perhaps a few hundred years. Once upon a time the big coming of age event for boys was around five years old, when the child was taken from its mother and given to the Rabbi to be educated. This was a public ceremony, which included the child being carried through the streets, and involved special foods, including food like eggs and cakes on which the verses of the torah were actually written (and by the way, this led to some very interesting discussions between rabbis as to whether it was permissible to excrete holy words).

In the Ashkenazic world this event more or less disappeared around the late middle ages, as part of a much bigger set of changes affecting both the Christian and the Jewish worlds. This is when the Christian practice of oblation – when parents gave their children to monasteries – came to an end. In the Jewish world, before this time there was nothing particularly special about the age thirteen. Some rabbinical authorities treated children as little adults, who were eligible for religious duties as long as they were physically capable of them – that’s still the principle in some sephardic communities. Biblical sources tended to treat twenty years as representing maturity, and for some purposes, like studying kabala, the appropriate age is at least forty. Well, at least Madonna is OK on that score.

It’s only from the fifteenth century onwards that Jewish children were seen as taking on the rights and responsibilities of adulthood at thirteen. The ceremony of the bar mitzvah, to mark the Jewish boy as having attained the age at which he could be counted in a minyan and called to the reading of the law, dates from this time.

Well, that’s the end of the history lesson. The point of it is really that social institutions, and especially religious traditions, like the bar mitzvah, are made up by people like us. We’ve got just as much right to make up our own way of doing things as did the rabbis in medieval Germany. What is, is the product of a process of change, and can be changed.

We tend to think about Jewish culture, and Judaism, in terms of its permanence and its resistance to change. Mike Leigh’s play about North London Jews was called ‘Two Thousand Years’ because we are fond of depicting our stuff as being two thousand years old. Everyone knows the joke about the Chassidic rabbis and the light bulb.

But the reality is that Jewishness has changed, in a very fundamental way, several times. The religion described in Judges, for example, is a decentralised affair with multiple holy places and holy men, and probably multiple deities too. The Judaism of the temple period, invented during the Bronze age monarchies that sort of correspond to the Book of Kings, involved a single centre, a hereditary priestly caste, a corps of priestly musicians, animal sacrifices, and so on. Talmudic Judaism, with rabbis and scholars and synagogues and Torah readings, is yet another invention – partly a response to the destruction of the temple, partly a recognition of the fact that even before that destruction huge numbers of Jews lived outside the land of Israel. Much of the familiar traditional liturgy and ritual is from the Middle Ages, or even later.

Right now, most Jews live their lives in the English-speaking world. Most of us are well integrated into the wider community, in terms of economic activity, friendships, and relationships. Cognitively and intellectually, most are already secularists.

So what does this secular bar mitzvah ceremony mean, to our family and our little community? Standing here, in this building which is not a synagogue, in the middle of a ceremony which is not a religious ceremony, we might be engaged in act of pointless frivolity – a departure from the Jewish mainstream which is just a stopping off point on the road to assimilation and disappearance.

Or we might be at the front of the next wave of change – the bellwethers, or harbingers, or whatever word you like, of the next kind of Jewishness to emerge. In which case when Lexei tells his grandchildren one day that he had a secular bar mitzvah, they’ll say, impatiently I hope, “Well duh – what other kind is there?” I can think of no better picture with which to leave you.