Feb 02

28 January 2021

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

The main feature of this week’s parashah (Beshallach) is Shirat haYam. Conventionally translated as ‘Song at the Sea’, there is another, perhaps more timely translation as well for Shirat haYam: ‘sea shanty’.

2020/1 has had many strange surprises in store, but perhaps the strangest is the sudden and extreme popularity of sea shanties. Yes, sea shanties. For those who don’t have the privilege/punishment of being on TikTok, 2021 began with the unlikely viral success of Nathan Evans, a 26 year old Scottish postie, whose TikTok video of himself singing the 19th century New Zealander sea shanty ‘The Wellerman’ nearly broke the internet.

Two weeks after the story really first broke, Evans has a record deal, and his version of ‘The Wellerman’ has been copied and shared millions of times. The logistics of how such a strange thing happened are explained more here, but I don’t think it actually requires much explanation for us.

Like the original Shirat haYam (Exodus 15), sea shanties are popular because they have a simple tune, are sung a cappella, often rhyme, and because they tell a good story. To be fair, ‘The Wellerman’ is quite a banger. I dare you to listen to it all the way through and not find yourself singing it later when you least expect it! (Seriously, try it)

So too, all good folk music– which uses story, theme, and repetition to convey some aspect of a shared culture. In fact, there has been an incredible revival in Jewish folk music in recent years– and like The Wellerman and Shirat haYam, it’s appeal is obvious. If Yiddish is your thing, check out this contemporary band of Montreal millennials writings and recording traditional Yiddish folk music (it’s haunting). Or, alternatively, check out contemporary Israeli singer Nani, who is reviving medieval Ladino romances in a modern style.

There’s plenty – and much to appreciate – especially on this, Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of Song. This Shabbat, try and find a moment to appreciate the music which we have carried with us for so long, and which today, even on TikTok, still helps us to connect with our culture.

Shabbat (Shirah) Shalom,
R. Adam

PS. For a special treat, check out my friend and colleague, R. Yoni Dahlen singing Adon Olam to the tune of ‘The Wellerman’

Jan 22

21 January 2021

By Editor | This Weeks Words

Dear Friends,

This upcoming Shabbat, Parashat Bo, has been designated by Jami as Mental Health Awareness Shabbat for several years now. Each year we’ve tried to mark the occasion by sharing resources or information on how important it is to challenge stigmas and seek support around mental ill health. However, no year has this probably been more important than this one. 

I was really glad to see this Wired piece this week: It’s Not Just You, Everyone’s Mental Health is Suffering. That is rather focussed on the situation in the US, but as has become clear the last two weeks, the UK is not faring much better. The Guardian wasn’t being sensationalist at all when it ran the headline, just after Christmas, Covid poses ‘greatest threat to mental health since Second World War.’ The statistics there are bleak– and the outcome clear– it is more important than ever to look our for our own mental health, and that of the people we love and care for. 

Thankfully, much good work has been done in recent years in breaking down the stigma of seeking mental health support. The next step is to make those services and resources accessible, and the threshold to accessing them as low as possible. Therefore, this week, for MHAS, I’m linking below several great, online-based, mental health resources.

The greatest resource we have though, is each other. We have a wonderful group of volunteers at SAMS on our Care Committee who help look after members needs and wellbeing, and both they, and myself, are completely accessible. I want to be really clear about this: you can contact me anytime if you need any support, are struggling, in a crisis, or just need to talk.

In the meantime, please look after yourselves and your loved ones, this week and every week. The impact of the pandemic goes far beyond the obvious physical health concerns and addressing our physical wellbeing is equally as important as taking seriously our mental wellbeing.

Shabbat Shalom,
R. Adam

Online Counselling through Jami:

Qwell (Online Counseling and Support)
Kooth (Online Wellbeing for Students)

Crisis Support:

Samaritans (Crisis Support)
Shout (Crisis Text/SMS Support)

Peer Support:

Jami Carer and Family Support Groups
Side by Side (Mind’s Online Support Community)

Information Pages:

Coronavirus and Wellbeing (Mind)
Coronavirus and Your Mental Health (Young Minds)
Jan 06

31 December 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

I have always found the Jewish practice of Gematria (ironically, a Greek word), simultaneously fascinating and frustrating. Gematria is the discipline of exchanging letters for numbers and vice-versa, which is made possible by the fact that in Hebrew the numerical system is the same as the alphabetic one. This means that א (Alef, the first letter) means 1, and so on. The numbering goes 1-9 (א-ט), and then by tens from 10-90 (י-צ) and then by hundreds for the remainder (ק-ת).

What this means is that every word (made of letters) is also a sum (made of numbers). Sometimes the correlations are remarkable, and sometimes a stretch. One of my favourites is the fact that if you add the word father (אב = 3) to the word mother (אם – 41), you get the word for child (ילד = 44). There are many such like this – but what occupies me at the moment, largely in jest, is what we can learn about 2021 from Gematria.

2021 as a number can be converted into many Hebrew phrases, some meaningful, some ridiculous. One which I found very amusing was בראשית שנת משיח (bereshit sh’nat mashi’ach / “the beginning of the year of the Messiah”). Let’s hope not, right? Probably my favourite equivalence to 2021 in letters is והאמת תשחרר אתכם (v’ha-emet tishcharer et’chem / “and the truth shall set you free”). This of course is the Hebrew translation of the New Testament’s John 5:30!

Aside from all the weirdly christological connections that Gematria may make for 2021, one is a quote from the Talmud, which, coincidentally also relates to this week’s parashah, VaYechi. In Jacob’s final will and testament he offers a series of blessings and curses to his children (mostly curses really), and one significant bit is in his treatment of Judah in which he says “the sceptre shall not be removed from Judah.” (Gen. 49:10) This is understood to refer to civic and civil authority and power – and of course posed a dilemma to our Rabbis.

They, in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 5a) suggest that what this verse means is broader than just the Land of Israel, and they say: לא יסור שבט מיהודה – אלו ראשי גליות שבבבל (“The sceptre shall not be removed from Judah – this refers to the Exilarchs which are in Babylon”). This justification of the verse, demonstrating how, even in the absence of sovereignty, the people were still able to claim that Judah had the sceptre of power, is an oft-quoted maxim in rabbinic texts– reminding us that Jewish community exists, even beyond disaster. Even after the destruction of the Temple, even after wars and plagues and societal collapse, the sceptre remains in Judah’s hand in one form or another. Also, this famous quote from the Talmud just happens to also equal 2021.

I don’t know what 2021 will bring. I hope it is better than 2020, just as every year should be better than the previous one. What I do know is that we can take some comfort that, even as we read the blessings of Jacob this week, spoken to his children some 3,600 years ago, we can be comforted that whatever 2021 brings, we will persist. As we have done many times we will reinterpret and re-envision what Jewish life and leadership looks like – and the sceptre shall not be removed from Judah. 

Happy 2021 – whatever it brings, and whatever it may be equal to!

Dec 04

3 December 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

What do crushed dates, horses’ bridles, GSCEs and the Maccabees all have in common?

Though I do love a good riddle, this isn’t one. Rather it is a moment to appreciate the magic of the Hebrew language. As a rabbi, I spend so much time interested in the wonderfully ambigious connections between meaning and language. Trying to grasp the meaning of a given Hebrew root-structure is like trying to catch the breath that leaves your body when you exhale; maybe you can get a bit of it but you know there’s always more. The ways in which particular symbols (letters/morphemes) and the sounds associated with them (phonemes) create meaning is proper and pure magic.

So, to our riddle, then. Consider the three letter root ח.נ.ך – Ch.N.K(h). It means to train something (or someone), or retrain them, to educate them, to habituate them, or to acclimatise them. The base of it seems to be a real practice. When midwives put crushed dates on the palate of a baby’s mouth to teach it how to suck, thats called ‘chanaka‘ (حَنَكَ) in Arabic. From there it becomes used to teach a horse to be submissive by putting a rope in its mouth. From there it comes to mean ‘training someone/thing to understand’, and from there it means ‘to train a skill’ or ‘to educate’. And yet the last (and most well known) meaning is the most curious. As we know it best, Ch.N.Kh means ‘to dedicate’.

So the question of course is what is the connection? What links the consecration of a building or the re-dedication of the Temple on Chanukah to a midwife placing date paste in an infant’s mouth? I suppose you could make many interpretations, but to me it is clear: dedication is made possible by habituation. It is the ritual of training and practice which makes a skill flourish– just as it is the sustained and consistent support of a community that dedicates its space as sacred and holy.

Next week you will be hearing more from Darren and Nick about a fundraising campaign that we are beginning as a community. Like most, COVID has hit us hard, and we find ourselves, this Chanukah, needing to rededicate our community and consecrate its holy work. To do that, we need more than just the spectacle of a dramatic victory. What’s missing from the Maccabees’ story is what happens after they regain the Temple. How do they sustain the newly re-sanctified worship? By practice, custom, routine and sustained effort. Like a horse training to be ridden or a baby training to nurse, a community needs consistent and sustained injections of energy, passion, time, and of course money – in order to dedicate and re-dedicate itself anew.

Please consider whether you can help us. Consider whether you can habituate yourself to give a little bit each month to help us re-dedicate our sacred mission during this difficult time. The Maccabees’ glorious victory is lovely, and worthy of celebration (as we shall do)– but the unsung heroes of the Chanukah story are all the people who gave of themselves to get the Temple back up and running again after such a crisis. When we say Chanukah (Dedication/Training/Education/Habituation), we should have in mind those people as well, those who focussed on creating a sustainable future through the gradual dedication to renewal and regeneration.

In unpacking all that those three letters can mean, we can understand more about what we mean when we say Chanukah. It’s not just the champagne bottle smashed on the side of the boat or the ribbon cut with comically-large scissors, Chanukah is also about the small things: the habits and behaviours which made rededication stick.

Wishing you all an early Happy Chanukah! Let’s hope it brings not only light to this dark season, but also a rededication to our community and our lives. Let us not forget that the dedication we seek comes about through small acts of habit, practice, and custom – that we must train ourselves both to educate and to dedicate.

Shabbat Shalom,
R. Adam

Nov 27

26 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

There’s a great accidental pun that occurs for American Jews who celebrate Thanksgiving (which is today), centred around Psalm 136, which many will cite as a double entendre: hodu l’adonai ki tov. It can be translated (as it usually is) as: ‘Give thanks to God, for [God is] good.’ But it can also be read as ‘Turkey for God for it is good.’ To that rare subset of people who find this funny– it is hilarious.

The reason this happens is because of yet another misunderstanding – about the bird which we call turkey. When European colonisers encountered turkey in the ‘New World’ they didn’t know what it was, and believed that it was the same as the bird which they knew as a ‘Turkish Chicken’ (actually a guinea fowl). However, in Hebrew the bird (Meleagris gallopavo) was called ‘hodu‘ – this time not a reference to Turkey (which guinea fowl weren’t from, but rather from Africa but reached Europe via Portuguese traders and North African ports), but instead to India.

In Hebrew, India is called Hodu – and Hebrew inherited the bias of Russian, French, Polish and Yiddish who call the bird which English calls ‘turkey’, ‘india’ instead. This came from a similar misunderstanding (that the Caribbean was the ‘West Indies’ and the people the same as those in the Indian subcontinent). Perhaps most amusing is that in Turkey, turkey (bird) is called ‘hindi’ (India).

The result of all this avian confusion is that we get the amusing fact of ‘hodu’ in Hebrew meaning three things: ‘Give thanks’, ‘India (country)’, and ‘turkey’ (bird). For Hebrew-literate American Jews, the refrain of Psalm 136 is thus a wonderful pun; giving thanks and turkey are related not just by American custom but by Hebrew grammar (however dubious the origins).

Whether you celebrate Thanksgiving or don’t (I don’t)– we are all due to remember the importance of gratitude, and of giving thanks. Perhaps this jumbled history of birds, countries and verbs can serve as a mnemonic– reminding us to make each day one in which we find ways to give thanks– for it is good.

Shabbat Shalom,
R. Adam
PS. for more background on this, see here

Nov 18

12 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
One of the questions I’m often asked is whether meditation is described by the Torah. The answer is largely, no– excepting one verse, part of this week’s parashah Hayyé Sarah. Genesis 24:63 seems like an unlikely candidate for the basis of Jewish meditation– as our narration turns back to Yitshak who is about to meet Rivkah for the first time (a rare and beautiful scene of romance in the Torah). In describing Yitshak at this key moment, the Torah says: “And Yitshak went out lasu’ah in the field around evening…”. Most translations have lasu’ah as ‘walking around’ or ‘wandering’. It’s related to the word for converse (as in a conversation), but it’s quite ambiguous. However, to the mystical tradition of Judaism it has always been clear what this little verse is referencing– Isaac is meditating.
Meditation is nothing other than conscious thought. Most of our thinking occurs by accident– thoughts invade our minds unbidden or we jump from one to another unthinkingly, responding to external stimuli. To consciously direct one’s thoughts is harder than it sounds– and the practice of meditation is entirely about finding ways to gain insight over one’s mind and to do so with intention. Like many things, meditation is simple in theory but complex in practise– and there are many practices.
Yitshak’s meditation in the field when he met Rivkah may have been the first mention of something we might call meditation, but it certainly isn’t the only place in Jewish tradition where conscious, intentional, practised thought takes centre-stage. Our tradition is rich with meditative techniques– some quite simple and easy, some very bizarre and difficult. Yet, by and large, in contemporary Judaism (1789-today), this aspect of our tradition has been ignored, if not actively repressed. That has led to a bit of a crisis.
With the explorations of the 1960s and the new age movement that grew from it, Jews began to seek more ‘spiritual’ practices in their own faith. Many were disappointed by what they found. As a result, masses of Jews left Judaism to become Buddhists, Sufis, Hindus, Christian monks, and more yet. Fun fact: a significant portion of Western-born teachers of Buddhism are Jews. In response to this, many Jewish organisations sprung up which attempted to blend Vedic traditions and westernised versions of meditation practices with Jewish traditions.
The most prominent result of this today is the prevalence of ‘mindfulness’. I have some problems with mindfulness, a few of which are discussed well by this article, a great quote from which sums it up:
“In claiming to offer a multipurpose, multi-user remedy for all occasions, mindfulness oversimplifies the difficult business of understanding oneself. It fits oh-so-neatly into a culture of techno-fixes, easy answers and self-hacks, where we can all just tinker with the contents of our heads to solve problems, instead of probing why we’re so dissatisfied with our lives in the first place.”
 

What really troubles me about the state of Jewish meditation today is that there are plenty of Jews meditating, but very few who are practicing meditation within a traditionally-developed Jewish framework. Yitshak meditating in a field and the numerous traditions and cultures which developed within Jewish life are deserving of rehabilitation. There is nothing wrong with Buddhist, Sufi, Hindu or any other meditative approach, but before we appropriate other cultures’ traditions or dilute metaphysically-problematic notions into quick-fix self-help mumbo jumbo, we need to be willing to look at our own faith and recover that which was lost. 

 
A huge initial effort towards this goal has already been made by R. Aryeh Kaplan (z”l) whose books, Meditation in the BibleJewish Meditation, and Meditation and Kabbalah have done an amazing job of bringing authentic Jewish meditative traditions to new readership and accessible for new practitioners. In the new year, I’ll be leading a meditation group as part of our adult education programme, where we’ll explore some of these and try a few out. 
 
Whether or not meditation is for you, it is worth reflecting on the fact that this important facet of spiritual life is far from absent in Jewish tradition. Rather there is a rich heritage, which is simply understudied and underdeveloped, which we can revisit, if we are so inclined– and in doing so follow in the steps of our forefather Yitshak, going out to the field at evening to meditate. 
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Adam
Nov 05

5 November 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,
I keep having to remind myself that it is Thursday, as it seems like it has been a week since Tuesday night at 11pm. That was when I began obsessively following the counting of votes in the American election, and however many hours later, I haven’t stopped. Waiting is hard– and finding accurate information isn’t easy, but as the hours pass, I’m increasingly feeling like the major issue here is not who has won, but the fact that who has won is the operative question at all. 
By all accounts– polls, journalists, psephologists– this should have been a landslide. The ambitious predictions of America’s pollster-prophets anticipated that Tuesday would be a day of judgement in inverse proportion to Reagan’s landslide win in 1980, a ‘blue wave’. Alas, the wave has not arrived– and it isn’t because the tide is simply out. 
The reality of America is what is on display right now, as handfuls of ballots are tabulated and uploaded and shift the few remaining states by fractions of percentages. The reality of America is the distance between 48.9 and 48.7. The reality of America is that there is a division that runs so deep that for the first time in a century and a half, everyone is talking about another civil war as though it is an inevitable outcome. 
It very well may be, but as the last days have demonstrated, it would be foolish to try and predict anything. The prognosis is a mystery– my question is different: what is the prescription? What needs to be done to shift America away from a confrontational 50/50 split which makes every contest heated and every discussion fraught? Obviously I don’t know (if I did, I could make an incredible career as an election consultant). However, I do think that our Jewish tradition has some wisdom (as usual) to offer. 
In the early memory of our rabbinic tradition, there is a civil war of a different sort, that between two leading figures and their schools, Hillel and Shammai. For a time, this divide threatened to tear rabbinic Judaism apart. As we read in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b): 
For three years, the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai argued. One said, ‘The halakha is like us,’ and the other said, ‘The halakha is like us.’ A heavenly voice spoke: “These and these are the words of the living God, and the halakha is like the House of Hillel.” A question was raised: Since the heavenly voice declared: “Both these and those are the words of the Living God,” why was the halacha established to follow the opinion of Hillel? It is because the students of Hillel were kind and gracious. They taught their own ideas as well as the ideas from the students of Shammai.
There’s a really important concept here (several, really): both sides have merit (both these and these are the words of God), but one side ultimately has to win. We, by and large (there are 18 listed exceptions), follow the House of Hillel, not Shammai. The reason is not because Hillel was right and Shammai wrong. There were good arguments on both sides– and they were motivated by different and legitimate considerations. 
Shammai wanted war with the Romans (and got it) and partnered with the Zealots to encourage people to violence. In the aftermath of that war– the war that cost us our homeland– Hillel was victorious. In the end, the fact that the school of Hillel behaved better won the day. Not at first, and never completely– but ultimately Hillel won in a way that he could not have expected- as we, two millenia later, still structure Judaism almost exclusively around his teachings. 
The division of America, cloven in half, will not stop when the election results are finally announced. It will not stop due to any election– nor will it stop due to a civil war. Yet, in the long run, it will be the side that stands for integrity, honesty, compassion, love, and kindness which will be victorious. In the meantime, perhaps we should accept the view of the Talmud, that while both may be (at least in part) correct, one side is better
I am under no illusions about Joe Biden or the Democrats. They have failed to respond to real issues, they have failed to understand rural America, they have failed to push for reform and instead enriched themselves as a political establishment class. That is why half the country is willing (and some eager to) vote for Trump. It is not because they are dumb, nor uneducated, nor deceived easily by Trump’s gimmicks (although some are). Lives are at stake, and lives will be lost, and Americans, as usual, are behaving as though elections are a sporting event, rooting for their team. 
When the dust settles (whether this week, this year, or this century), we may look back and say that both sides had merit– perhaps even that ‘both these and these are words of God’, but it will be unquestionably clear which side will be victorious, which side is kind and gracious, and which side will go on to shape the America of the future. If the Democrats want to do more than squeak through a win (and they should), then they should be like the House of Hillel, modeling what it means to lead with integrity, justice, righteousness, and kindness. 
I believe they can do that, and ultimately will. The anger that motivates Trump voters is similar to the anger that drove people to the Zealots and to back Shammai. There is a legitimacy in that rage that is unquestionable. But it isn’t enough. Eventually, Hillel wins – maybe not on election night, maybe not even within our lifetimes, but the longer the trend line, the more it favours decency and kindness. That’s something that no amount of refreshing my phone will show me, but which I think is reason for hope nonetheless. 
Shabbat Shalom,R. Adam

Mar 12

12 March 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

 

Artifice and illusion. That is what was promised to us, the audience, at a performance which Mikayla and I attended this past Sunday by Sasha Velour (real name: Alexander Steinberg), an American drag queen. Sasha was the winner of Season 9 of the now-mainstream show RuPaul’s Drag Race, and, like many of the winners of RPDR, has brought the art (and artifice) of drag to a much bigger audience. There is no better evidence of this than the fact that we were sat not at some bar or dive, but in the plush seats of the historic London Palladium.

 

Sasha’s show was amazing– it was clever, beautiful, extremely intellectual, and incredibly artistic. There was more creativity and invention on display in her two hours of lip-synching, monologuing, and dancing than in most modern art museums. If art is meant to interpret and comment on life, then Sasha has used drag as an art to do that brilliantly.

Indeed, the show was timed very well as additional inspiration for an annual Purim tradition for me and Mikayla: going out in costumes that are purposefully gender-swapped. Some years this has meant the barest suggestion (a dress, a wig, poorly executed make up) and other years we put more work into our illusions. The first time we did this was six years ago and it became a tradition because of the reactions it garnered from friends and strangers. People mentioned it was “frightening” when the illusion was done well and we felt the need to push back a bit against those comments by continuing with our Purim drag. It seems to me that the visual reminder that so much of what we associate with gender and sex- make-up or hair length or jewelry or clothing- is artificial prompts unsettling questions as a result.

 

One of RuPaul’s many quotable maxims is: ‘we’re all born naked and the rest is drag’. Indeed, what well-done drag artists like Sasha can do is expose the artifice and illusion of how we present ourselves to the world. All of us, regardless of sex or gender identity, compose and construct a persona which we walk out of the door every day having put on. We fall into comfortable patterns of appearance, behaviour and dress based on our gender identity, our culture, our community, or our family. We act and dress and talk the way that we do because we are creating a character, even if we don’t think of it that way.

 

What’s so interesting about drag is that it exposes, through exaggeration, how much we’re all engaging in the same endeavour: dressing, pressing, and presenting ourselves to be a particular version of our many possible selves for the world around us. There is no better time than Purim, the day of turning things on their head, to consider how costumes and illusions aren’t just for fancy dress parties, but are a piece of ourselves and the armour that we wear each day before we face the outside world.

Whether we often push our own boundaries, whether we do so daily – or whether only on Purim – we would do well to consider that although we’re all born naked, the rest is certainly artifice and illusion.

Shabbat Shalom,
R’ Adam
Mar 06

5 March 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

Today will be a very notable day for those of us with school-age children: World Book Day. This is a phenomenon more or less totally new to me. Although World Book Day is a truly international event (originally World Book and Copyright Day), in the UK and Ireland it takes place separately. Of course the highlight is the distribution of books in schools and the custom to come in fancy dress (Azi today, is a triceratops).

Watching the parade of superheroes, Harry Potter characters, suddenly-found Wallys, and the odd Darth Vader this morning, I felt a real swell of appreciation for the cultural value of literacy here in the UK. Interest in reading, publishing, and in a culture of bibliophilia seems to be considerably more pronounced here than in most of my experiences in America. Unscientific as it may seem, I have found the UK to be a profoundly pro-book place to be.

That’s excellent news for me, and I think for all Jews. One of the things that distinguishes us, and one of the things I always make sure to emphasise to school groups, is that Judaism is a religion more or less obsessed with literacy. The primacy of text, interpretative techniques, linguistic intrigues, and the endlessly complex aesthetics of books themselves are all key elements of Jewish life.

Among observant Jews, publishing houses are treated like film studios, and arguments over cloth bookmarks, leather bindings, deckled edges, and the best weight and colour of paper are endless. We are undoubtedly a book-obsessed people- that’s visible in every synagogue (in which The Book is front and centre) as well as in non-religious cultural events (like Jewish Book Week).

I think this is something to be incredibly proud of, and I think that we should encourage a love of books as much as we can. It is our literacy– with text and with language– which has so often defined, and saved, us. An affection for books, for reading, for story-telling, and for debate are all honed and developed by virtue of our insistence on a culture of literacy and literature.

To some extent, every day is World Book Day for us. I am always available to give recommendations for reading- whether Jewish or non-Jewish, fiction or non-fiction. We have an extensive and growing library at SAMS – and an active book group as well! Today, whether sanctioned by the UN or not, whether you’ve dressed up special or not, happy World Book Day, from one bibliophile to another.

Shabbat Shalom,

R’ Adam
Feb 28

27 February 2020

By Editor | Blogs

Dear Friends,

 

Please forgive the missing dispatch last week! I had the privilege of spending a chunk of my half-term with six of our lovely young people in Amsterdam. Together with Yoni Stone and Georgie Friend from Noam, I and a half-dozen of those having their b’nei mitzvah this year explored the Anne Frank House, the Resistance Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, and the lovely city of Amsterdam.

 

I feel particularly bad that they all had to deal with me majorly nerding-out over the Portuguese Synagogue (never travel with a rabbi!). The affectionately labeled esnoga is indeed absolutely legendary. It is the centre of the small but significant Spanish-Portuguese Sefaradi community (including being the ‘mother’ synagogue to Bevis Marks, Lauderdale Road, etc), and also an important component of Jewish and world history. A few photos from our time there last week are below.

 

It is a brilliant place– and its uncomfortable wooden pews have hosted many interesting people: Rembrandt (who had many friends and colleagues there), Barukh Spinoza (who was put under ẖerem (ban) there at age 23), and Menasheh ben Yisra’el (who helped get the Jews readmitted to England by petitioning Cromwell), among others.

It is also a tragic place– filled with such ancient history and gravitas, the pews are sadly empty. In 2012, the esnoga refused to remove the ban on Spinoza, despite community pressure to do so. In 2015, a group of young, active members left to form a new community following the same Portuguese rite. Today it is visited primarily by tourists, and while it does maintain a Shabbat community, there is an air of faded glory all around.

What struck me about visiting with our brilliant Amudim students was how taken aback they were by some of the features of community life: the wealthiest and most important people sit closest to the Torah, the mahamad (trustees) sit in a special, elevated box, the Torah is gated off and inaccessible unless the parnas (Gabbai) gives you the honour of opening it. Women, of course, are seated upstairs – which I’m glad to see most of our young people find atrociously backwards.

It was a mixed feeling- to enjoy so much being in this beautiful, historic, interesting synagogue while also sharing the concerns and objections of the students. At the end of the day, I have to agree with our brilliant young people: pretty buildings are nice, but it is a community which is egalitarian, equal, and accessible which will survive. A synagogue, whether SAMS or the esnoga, is not the building but the people in it, the culture they create, and the community which is formed by their being together.

 

     
Shabbat Shalom,
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