Friday, 16 December 2016

Children of Abraham II

Whilst browsing for Halloween clobber at the local Goodwill, I'd noticed several suit jackets. Now I'd gone back to buy one. I once wore suits all the time - nothing flashy and nothing too businessy, just whatever I'd found in the local charity shop which looked reasonably smart, usually worn with a plain white shirt and sometimes a tie. I've always liked a nice suit. I've always liked that a nice suit isn't jeans and a t-shirt with a slogan, or indeed anything signifying the three years of commodified teenage rebellion traditionally occurring at the tail end of school or college and just before you take that job with Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson, Johnson & Johnson. It's not that I've ever been a mod of any description, but a decent suit works anywhere under almost any circumstances. I went to Mexico in a suit five times and never had any trouble. Taxi drivers assumed I was some kind of businessman rather than a tourist, and possibly also German rather than American or English. People generally left me alone, presumably taking my slightly lived-in appearance to mean that I wasn't the sort of businessman who made any money.

Keen to distance myself from men dressed as giant children - sneakers, shorts, baseball cap, t-shirt sporting a picture of a cartoon character, and often seen driving a truck resembling a Claes Oldenburg recontextualisation of a Tonka toy - I decided I needed a suit. Also, we had a Bar mitzvah to attend, and Bess suggested formal attire would be appreciated.

Previous girlfriends had frowned upon my suits, missing the point, believing I would do better to act my age which somehow meant pretending to be eighteen, pretending to be into either Lush or Groove Armada, and pretending to give a pungent brown one about anything recommended by Time Out magazine. With hindsight, I'm surprised Marian didn't explicitly order me to grow a beard and take to wearing a cloth cap. Possibly that would have been next on the agenda had I not jumped ship. On the other hand, Bess told me I looked very smart, which was nice; and on an unrelated note, it occurred to me that this was the second weekend running of my visiting Goodwill in search of clothing appropriate to the context of an Abrahamic faith besides Christianity. Also, I was pleased to see that the cuddly tiger with the winning smile had gone, suggesting that someone had given him a good home.

We turn up at nine in the morning, an hour which surprises us all as I've long since ceased to associate it with appointments of any kind less dramatic than catching a plane. It's a synagogue identified on the invitation as Congregation Agudas Achim, the Yiddish apparently meaning Fellowship of Brothers. I've reached my fifties without ever having been inside a synagogue or having knowingly had much contact with Jewish culture or anyone Jewish, at least not beyond Sid - whom I suppose might be considered my stepfather-in-law by some definition - and my friend Mhairi, a woman to whom I once delivered mail and whose intelligent conversation rendered the job less of a chore on a number of occasions. Anyway, we're looking at a three-hour ceremony, but I'm hoping it will be interesting for at least some of that time, being somewhat outside of my experience.

The Bar mitzvah is a Jewish coming of age ceremony conducted when a boy reaches thirteen, the boy in this case being Noah, one of Junior's classmates from school. Bess wears heels and a sober dress. Junior and myself are in our suits and ties, and as we enter the synagogue we are each given a red satin yamulke with which to cover our heads as a gesture of respect; just like in the films, I think to myself.

The ceremony is indeed three-hours long as promised, possibly a little over, and - against all odds - remains engrossing throughout. Much of it seems to be based around readings from the Torah, specifically the story of Noah, the one who famously built the boat rather than the thirteen-year old boy stood up front. It occurs to me that Noah the child has probably had thirteen years of jokes about boats, rain, and judicious animal pairings, and might legitimately roll his eyes at some point; but he doesn't, and the more personal testimonials of the morning suggest that he's been looking forward to this day for a long time, even approaching his Rabbi without having been pushed to ask how soon he can get to learning as much as he can of the ceremony; and weirdly, I'm beginning to understand why.

The ceremony is conducted by Rabbi Abraham, reading or else addressing the congregation and talking us through it all, and Hazzan Lipton, who sings verses from the Torah entirely in Yiddish, unaccompanied by any instrument because his voice itself is enough. The role of the Hazzan is to sing, to lead the congregation in prayer. Wikipedia insists there is an equivalent in the Christian church, but I guess not one that does either weddings or funerals, those being more or less the extent of my own involvement with the same. I have encountered music in churches here in Texas, and thus far it has been uniformly terrible - twee modern hymns trying far too hard set to twanging rhinestone-laden country and western, either from compact disc played far too loud through a tinny PA or a live cabaret band. Taking pleasure from music in a place of worship is a new one on me and it catches me out. I find it strange to hear a human voice, loud and clear in the cavernous space of a place of worship, and to hear it unalloyed by instrumentation. The words are Hebrew, and the notation is very clearly Middle-Eastern - reminding me that Judaism and Islam have more in common than we generally acknowledge - and it is very, very powerful. I wonder if I'm having one of those religious experiences you always hear about. I suppose in some sense I am.

We're up and down every few minutes, sitting or standing according to which seems appropriate, and we follow along in hymn books and copies of the Torah with pages ordered in reverse to that with which I am familiar. Each page contains the Yiddish text rendered in both Hebrew and the Arabic script of our own alphabet, then a phonetic rendering which even I am able to follow, with extensive notes elsewhere on the page. The notes are what I find the most interesting, being an insight into a religious system which I realise I really don't know at all. The notes explain that some of what we're hearing expresses good wishes upon humanity as a whole, regardless of faith. Other notes question the various means by which certain verses have been interpreted during the centuries since they were written, and one passage refers to Judaism seemingly never having quite reached a conclusion regarding the possibility of an afterlife. I could be mistaken, but Judaism is beginning to look a lot like a faith which does what a faith should do, actively legislates against becoming an exclusive club, and isn't afraid to admit that it doesn't know everything or that some of those tales may be allegorical. All this and the music is great too.

At some point the Torah is revealed in the form of a book written upon scrolls, held within the ark at the rear wall of the synagogue, and ceremony is made of bringing out the Torah and taking it around the room. Eventually we come to Noah himself and the vows and wishes expressed for his future, with some of those wishes expressed specifically as boiled sweets thrown at him by the congregation. We've been prepared for this by the Rabbi and his aides handing out said sweets with a forceful request that we throw them gently, preferably using an underarm technique. I momentarily envision a thirteen-year old boy concussed by a well-aimed toffee apple at his own Bar mitzvah, which thankfully doesn't happen.

For two hours or more we've been listening to words sung in another language and somehow I'm still not bored. In fact I'm enjoying this far more than anticipated. It's pleasant, civilised, and characterised entirely by charitable sentiments unto others. The contrast is dramatic when I think of those terrible country and western ceremonies, and the Quinceañera in which the priest spent a good hour delivering a speech about how we're going to hear all sorts of disgusting lies told about the Catholic church by those outside the Catholic church and that we should ignore such disgusting liars and the disgusting lies they tell about the Catholic church because it's all lies, I tell you! All lies...

We turn to our neighbours to shake hands and wish them shabbat shalom. I guess we're in the Goyim stalls and I think the woman behind us may be a Hindu, which swells my wishy-washy liberal heart because I like to think that we humans have more in common with each other than not, and that's what today seems to be about, at least in part. I also get to shake the hand of Hazzan Lipton seeing as he's doing the rounds, so I tell him he has an amazing voice because he really has.

Noah reads from the Torah and further blessings are given before we meet the parents. His father is originally from New Jersey, one of those big bear guys whom you see and immediately like, sort of gruff but strong and with a kind face.

'Now it's my turn,' he announces ominously as he takes the microphone. He's the guy who paid for all of this, which he acknowledges in keeping with humorous tradition in some comment about the venue's next ceremony being a funeral to be held for his bank account. Laughter in church is another new thing for me, excepting the uncomfortable, nervous variety.

There is food to follow, so we file out three hours or more after we first took our seats, and fill plates with bagels, salad, salmon, capers, and cream cheese. Junior runs off to compare notes with his friends, and we listen to a fellow guest, a Latino guy who has recently converted to Judaism and is busily learning all that must be learned, including Hebrew. It sounds like an enormous commitment, but I find myself envying, or at least admiring him for it. Then he begins to talk about cutting off his family and having committed certain crimes he can't tell us about and I find I admire him a little less.

We leave with full hearts and full bellies, feeling touched by the spirit of something I'd never really considered. I've never really had anything you could describe as religious conviction, but I've got myself something meaningful out of this one occasion.

עֲלֵיכֶם שָׁלוֹם, as they say.

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