This is thein the in Newcastle:( View piccy )
It comes with quite a history. It originally stood (along with a matching ark) in the synagogue in Kretinga, in Lithuania. During the pogroms of the 1880s and 1890s, the Kretinga community, like many others, upped and fled, but unlike most, they all went to the same place, and reestablished their community in Sunderland—and they took this shtender with them.
The shtender was reinstalled as the main lectern in the synagogue on Villiers Street there; later, it was moved to thein the Mowbray Road synagogue.
When I was growing up, the Sunderland Jewish community, like all the provincial communities in the UK with the exception of Manchester, was dying. This became apparent when it merged its youth groups with Newcastle's. Then, some years later, there was a mass emigration of Jewish Mackems to Newcastle, and the Joel Intract old age home (of which my great-grandfather was amongst those who opened it, as recorded on a plaque there) moved to Newcastle too (under a new name). Finally, about a decade ago, the Sunderland synagogue closed, and a century and more of Jewish existence in Sunderland came to an end, with the exception of a few die-hards—not enough to get together a—determined to stay even in the absence of a community.
But though the community may be gone (and indeed most of those who moved to Newcastle have since left for London or Israel, as Newcastle follows Sunderland along the road of gradual attrition), its legacy remains in the form of this shtender. Three times a day, the Orthodox community in Newcastle meets for prayer, and every time, except on sabbaths and festivals, the service leader stands before this shtender, embodying a living continuity with the bygone communities of Sunderland and Kretinga.
This Shabbos will be the first yahrzeit for my mother; I shall be spending the day with my father in Newcastle.
To mark the event by remembering her here, here's a photo of my mother on her last outing, in July the year before last. This was taken a matter of days before her illness entered its terminal phase, but you'd never guess from looking at her. The photo was shot by my father (and posted here with his permission); it's taken on the Northumbrian coastline, with Bamburgh* Castle in the background.
* Pronounced like Edinburgh, not Pittsburgh.
But with the return to work, I find myself increasingly disinclined to get off my tochus and leave the house (or even just my chair) in the evening, and keep passing things by. For example, UK Jewish Film are screening The Dove Flyer at JW3 atm; the last two performances are this Thursday and Sunday, but I find myself saying to myself, oh, I can just watch that on a DVD at home some time in the future, for less money, and not having to shlep all the way to JW3. (Only I probably won't.) (Though if anybody wants to talk me into coming to see it with them on Sunday evening, I'm probably game.)
Similarly, Paul WinoLJoDW was recently trying to persuade me to go to the upcoming concert of Fanfare Ciocărlia* concert in Camden. I kept putting it off, on the grounds that it's a lot of money for a group I've never even heard of, but then decided that was more excuse-mongering, and bought a ticket anyway. So, does anyone want to go with me to that?
* Follow that link if you want to know what they sound like.
(Actually, Christmas trees are a mediaeval German custom (though a legend connects it with a much older English saint with a bonny face), and Jeremiah was writing about the manufacture of idols, but it still amuses me.)
Jeremiah 10:2–4 ירמיהו י ב–ד Thus says the Lord: Do not learn the way of the [sc. Gentile] nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the nations are dismayed at them. For the customs of the peoples are but empty air: One cuts a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with an axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it does not move. כֹּה אָמַר ה׳ אֶל־דֶּרֶךְ הַגּוֹיִם אַל־תִּלְמָדוּ וּמֵאֹתוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם אַל־תֵּחָתּוּ כִּי־יֵחַתּוּ הַגּוֹיִם מֵהֵמָּה׃ כִּי־חֻקּוֹת הָעַמִּים הֶבֶל הוּא כִּי־עֵץ מִיַּעַר כְּרָתוֹ מַעֲשֵׂה יְדֵי־חָרָשׁ בַּמַּעֲצָד׃ בְּכֶסֶף וּבְזָהָב יְיַפֵּהוּ בְּמַסְמְרוֹת וּבְמַקָּבוֹת יְחַזְּקוּם וְלוֹא יָפִיק׃
I've posted here before about my love for the Romani band Taraf de Haïdouks. I've been waiting for years for them to do a concert here (that I don't find out about afterwards, if at all!), and so jumped at the chance when I saw on Facebook that they are performing in Glasgow on the 24th of January (as well as Norwich and Helsinki, neither of which was of interest to me). After two days researching the logistics of getting there after Shabbos from Newcastle, where I'll be for my mother's yahrzeit, I bought a ticket, and a train ticket to get there... and just hours later they announced a further tour date in London.
Neither of these tickets is returnable; great, that's £50 wasted. However, there's nothing in the conditions of sale of my concert ticket (I checked by 'phone!) to prevent me selling it on. So, does anyone reading this want—or know anyone who might be interested in—a ticket to the Glasgow concert? The ticket cost £17.50 plus booking fee plus P&P, but I'll knock a bit off to make it worthwhile buying from me rather than the box office.
The blurb for their London concert reads:
Expect riotous Romanian folk from the world’s greatest gypsy group Taraf de Haïdouks – literally ‘band of outlaws’.
Nothing prepares you for seeing Taraf de Haïdouks live. Their shows burst with intense passion and overflowing energy. The clattering virtuosity and passionate gypsy rasp of this orchestra of honourable brigands will steal your breath away and they're guaranteed to get you on your feet. When presenting their BBC Radio 3 award for World Music, long time admirer Johnny Depp stated: “Taraf De Haidouks are the greatest musicians I know – they play a music which expresses the most intense joy, and have this gift to make you feel alive.”
Catch them soon or repent at leisure.
'Their live act is extraordinary – a magical mix of quicksilver melodies, amazing violin and cimbalom solos, earthy songs of lost loves, and riotous traditional wedding songs.' (Daily Telegraph)
This week's lecture, is on mortality and death; it resonated strongly for me with what my mother had to go through last year. If you've not been in a position of watching a family member have to get to grips with their own mortality, this programme might help you prepare for it.
So too was the case davening at every service for a whole year. I'd never done so for longer than a day or two beforehand; even when I was at the Conservative Yeshiva I routinely skived ma`ariv to avoid spiritual burnout. So, I davened every service because I felt it was the right thing to do: it's the Jewish way of dealing with bereavement, it's what we do, and connects me into a thousand years of tradition. Also, it's what my mother would have wanted (if not necessarily to that extent), and it felt a way of obeying the commandment to honour one's mother and father. But it hasn't made me anxious to run off to shul for services now the eleven months are over; I've gone back to my old routine of doing a little davening בְּיָחִיד each day without a backward glance.
Most of the past eleven months, I was attending services as part of a routine; when my routine got disrupted, things became... interesting, no more so than on my holiday this year.
aviva_m had been trying to get me to go to Israel on holiday for some years; I'd been resisting, as, unlike her, I've spent lots of time in Israel and felt I knew the country well. Early in the year, though, she said, "If you want to recite kaddish with a minyan three times a day, there's only one place in the world you can go on holiday where, no matter how obscure a place you are in, how middle-of-nowhere, you'll be able to find nine other Jews for a minyan to recite kaddish." And so it came to pass that we went to Israel.
One curiosity of davening in Israel is that, rather than starting to pray for rain on 4 December as in the Diaspora, they start on the seventh of Cheshvan. This means I started praying for rain on my holiday, stopped again a week and a half later when I returned home, and will start again in another week from now!
aviva_m had experience of Jerusalem and the south, but not of the north, so we spent most of our holiday in the Galil and Golan. Until the Russian aliyah of the late 1980s, the majority of Israelis were Sephardi, and the majority of frum Israelis still are, so I ended up davening mostly at a variety of Sephardi synagogues on my holiday. Amongst Ashkenazim, the most important mourner's kaddish is the one after Aleinu; amongst Sephardim, it's the one before Aleinu. Some shuls didn't even do the one after Aleinu; for those that did, it's only a half-kaddish which meant that (since I was saying the Ashkenazi wording) I'd suddenly find myself the only one still reading for the last two lines of the kaddish!
Back home, weekday shacharis is at 7:15am, or 7:05 on Mondays and Thursdays. In Israel, outside of the big cities, I was unable to find shuls davening later than 6:15; in many places it was at six o'clock. I think this is because in the height of summer, and to a lesser extent even in late October, you really don't want to be wrapping yourself in a thick woollen shawl once the sun's got high enough to start churning out heat; but this did mean that, as aviva_m pointed out, it was the only holiday we'd been on in which we were getting up earlier than we would for a normal working day!
Beforehand, I'd put quite a bit of time into trying to find out locations of shuls in Israel, and service times. (Once we were there, we also made use of the minyan finder on aviva_m's smartphone.) A useful starting point was typing in "synagogue" into Google Maps, but sometimes the shuls this showed me would be ancient ones, not used for over a millennium! (We did end up visiting some of these, but as tourists, rather than to pray!)
A bit after four, we'd have to knock off tourism in order to get me to shul for mincha. (Many touristy places shut at four in the winter anyway.) Occasionally, this would be a bit hairy. After we'd visited Banias up in the Golan Heights, we drove down to Kiriat Shemonah in the Jordan valley for mincha, only to discover that the shul I'd randomly picked couldn't get a minyan now the clocks had moved back and many people were still at work. In the end we managed to get the last three people by virtue of one man standing outside and hollering at passersby to try and get them to join us.
That was supposed to be our one day in the northern Golan, but, having only a bit of time left in the afternoon after visiting Gamla in the southern Golan, I drove aviva_m north to show her the view out over Syria east of the Golan, then further north still (it was further than I had thought!) to the Druze town of Majdal Shams, high on the slopes of Mt Hermon, to introduce her to Saḥlab (mmmm!). The minyan finder said the nearest shul was at Neve Ativ, a ski resort nearby, but when we got there we discovered it had no weekday services, and a passerby told us we'd have to go back down into the valley. Cue a frenzied drive nearly twenty miles west, but more pertinently a thousand metres down to get to Kiriat Shemonah before the end of mincha.
(Every time I'm in Kiriat Shemonah I say I ought to go to Metulla just to the north to have a look down into Lebanon; to date I haven't managed it, and I didn't manage it these two times either, as by the time I was out of ma`ariv it was getting dark.)
I thought the uncertainties of getting to synagogues I'd never been to, and couldn't always discover service times for, would mean that I'd miss lots of minyanim whilst I was in Israel; to my surprise, it wasn't until I came, near the end of my time in Israel, to the city with five thousand synagogues, that I missed a single one, and that turned out to be the only one in the whole two weeks.
* Mussaf is always recited back-to-back with shacharis, and inserted before the end-of-shacharis עָלֵינוּ and psalm of the day; it does not add additional kaddishes to the service. Besides, after the sheloshim I determined to reclaim some of my time by reciting a halachically minimal bare-bones service in the morning from Monday to Friday and then leaving shul after בָּרְכוּ; by chosing not to count mussaf separately it means I don't count the kaddishes after עָלֵינוּ on the times rosh chodesh fell on a non-Sunday weekday as missed services.
† I didn't try and get there for the kaddishes before פְּסוּקֵי דְזִמְרָה because I knew they wouldn't have a minyan; I assumed I'd be able to say kaddish later in the service, like on any other day of the year. I was surprised to discover those were in fact the only mourner's kaddish and kaddish derabbanan in the entire day (aside from those the previous evening).
They have in this country the custom which I am going to relate. When a man is doomed to die for any crime, he may declare that he will put himself to death in honour of such or such an idol ; and the government then grants him permission to do so. His kinsfolk and friends then set him up on a cart, and provide him with twelve knives, and proceed to conduct him all about the city, proclaiming aloud: "This valiant man is going to slay himself for the love of (such an idol)." And when they be come to the place of execution he takes a knife and sticks it through his arm, and cries : "I slay myself for the love of (such a god)!" Then he takes another knife and sticks it through his other arm, and takes a third knife and runs it into his belly and so on until he kills himself outright. And when he is dead his kinsfolk take the body and burn it with a joyful celebration.Which leads Yule into this delightfully morbid (and largely irrelevant) discursion:
I have not found other mention of a condemned criminal being allowed thus to sacrifice himself; but such suicides in performance of religious vows have occurred in almost all parts of India in all ages. Friar Jordanus, after giving a similar account to that in the text of the parade of the victim, represents him as cutting off his own head before the idol, with a peculiar two-handled knife "like those used in currying leather." And strange as this sounds it is undoubtedly true. Ibn Batuta witnessed the suicidal feat at the Court of the Pagan King of Mul-Java (somewhere on the coast of the Gulf of Siam), and Mr. Ward, without any knowledge of these authorities, had heard that an instrument for this purpose was formerly preserved at Kshira, a village of Bengal near Nadiya. The thing was called Karavat; it was a crescent-shaped knife, with chains attached to it forming stirrups, so adjusted that when the fanatic placed the edge to the back of his neck and his feet in the stirrups, by giving the latter a violent jerk his head was cut off. Padre Tieffentaller mentions a like instrument at Prág (or Allahabad). Durgavati, a famous Queen on the Nerbada, who fell in battle with the troops of Akbar, is asserted in a family inscription to have severed her own head with a scimitar she held in her hand. According to a wild legend told at Ujjain, the great king Vikramajit was in the habit of cutting off his own head daily, as an offering to Devi. On the last performance the head failed to reattach itself as usual; and it is now preserved, petrified, in the temple of Harsuddi at that place.
I never heard of anybody in Europe performing this extraordinary feat except Sir Jonah Barrington's Irish mower, who made a dig at a salmon with the butt of his scythe-handle and dropt his own head in the pool! (Jord. 33 ; I B. IV. 246; Ward, Madras ed. 249-50; J. A. S. B. XVII. 833; Rás Mála, II. 387.)
I did my jump with the London Parachute School,* on the day after Yom Kippur—I wanted to see if I'd been forgiven my sins. (It was actually because aviva_m wanted to see me do it, and there were limited dates she was available.) I was lucky with the weather: the previous day and the following day it rained, but on this day it was warm with hazy sunshine.
* Which, despite the name, is about a third of the way between Reading and Oxford: you don't want to actually jump onto London; it's full of spiky things and cars which would run you over.
I was taken up in a Cessna with three other students: two of them tandem jumpers like me, each accompanied by an instructor to whom they'd be strapped and a cameraman who would jump along with them. The other student, who jumped first of all, was doing her second ever solo jump; she jumped with two experts who would instruct her on the way down by means of hand signals.
We climbed to 9000 feet (3km), then they opened the door. (From the ground, looking at those who had gone up before me, it's just possible to make out individual jumpers at that height as they exit the 'plane.) Fortunately, you don't spend long enough sitting in the doorway to get scared; you jump as soon as you're in position. (Actually, I didn't sit in the doorway at all; my instructor sat there and I hung outside the aeroplane altogether, hence the terrified rictus on my face in the video.)
I remembered Abigail Kay telling me the day beforehand about her experience at that moment: "I'm not doing it; I can't go through with it." "Yes you are: You don't have a choice; you're strapped to me!" What I failed to remember (because so many other people had told me other things) was my sister-in-law's father telling me that you do a somersault as you come out. As a result, the first few seconds were the most terrifying experience of my entire life: seeing the ground in front of me, then the 'plane, then the ground again, it felt like I was tumbling out of control.
Of course, I wasn't, and once I was in a stable skydiving posture, it was actually quite enjoyable. The instructor had told me to hold onto my shoulder straps until he gave me the signal, then leave go and wave at the cameraman, but holding my straps gave me a (false, natch) sense of security, and he pretty much had to pry my hands loose!
We had thirty seconds of freefall, taking us down from 9000 to 4000 feet, though if you look closely at the video, you'll see we have a drogue 'chute open almost from the start, slowing down our terminal velocity a little. Then the (main) 'chute opened, the wind noise went away, and I could have conversation with my instructor. The cameraman, however, kept freefalling a while longer, so he could be on the ground in time to capture my landing.
At that point, the instructor started doing manoeuvres to make sure we landed in the right place, and every time he did so I got motion sick. They had in fact told us they would do "spiralling", and said we could ask them to keep it to a minimum if we suffered, but I thought it's part of the experience, and I can put up with it for a short while. Hah. By the time I landed I was sick as a parrot, and spent two and a half hours afterwards just waiting to feel well enough to drive again. Everyone else who had jumped before me had come off the airfield going "That was amazing"; I came off it going "urrrggghhh!" (If you look at the swaying back and forth I'm doing on the video just before I land, you'll understand why.)
And so, to landing. I had read on the Net of a Million Lies that landing after a parachute jump was like jumping off a four-foot wall. In fact, with the large 'chute used for tandem jumps, it was considerably more gentle than that. And I didn't land on the ground at all, as if I stopped my instructor would run straight into me: As instructed, I merely lifted my feet up and let him touch down.
Despite the motion sickness, I'm glad I did the jump. I wanted something to liven my life up, and I certainly got it: I'm not going to forget that in a hurry! And, if I had a way of countering the motion sickness, I'd even do it again (though it's rather expensive a hobby).
Anyhow, as a reward for all those who sponsored me,* here's the video of my jump:
* I set myself a target of raising £1000 for Magen David Adom and B'Tselem. At the time of writing, I've raised exactly that on-site, excluding Gift Aid, but there have also been somewhere in excess of £120 donated off-site directly to Magen David Adom by people who refused to support B'Tselem (which is an issue for another post).
I read this from a link on Facebook a little while ago (can't remember where, or who posted it, so can't give credit, sorry); it's a most... unusual interpretation of the צֵלָע, normally translated "rib", that Eve was created from.
And now you'll never look at the story the same way again
My charity parachute jump in aid of the victims of the recent war in Israel and Gaza will be this Sunday, weather permitting, and I'm still a little short of my donation target of one thousand pounds.
If you've been considering donating but forgot about it, or never got around to it, now's the time to make good. We are in the middle at the moment of the Ten Days of Repentance; our prayers tell us "Repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree" against us. Please dig deep (or even shallow!) and help save lives via Israel's ambulance service.
That depends on what time of year you go, I suppose. Here's a picture of my mother, on her last outing in July last year, with Bamburgh Castle, a little further up the coast, in the background (click on the image for a larger view):
( View piccy )(The subject of the photo is apposite: The reason I'm going up to Newcastle this weekend is because it's my mother's .)