Holy Days

Oct. 18th, 2014 08:49 pm
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
So yesterday was Simchat Torah, which is the last of the big season of festivals. And lo, I have survived and all the many many events I needed to run in the past three weeks have worked successfully. There's an Israeli LOLcat / reaction gif doing the rounds of my FB feeds, with the cat looking shocked and horrified and the text saying "when you realize that 'after the festivals' means now". And yeah, there are a lot of things I need to sort out that I've been putting off until 'after the festivals', but many of them are fun social things, and my life really does look a lot more manageable from here on.

Rosh haShana went off very well. There was a real spirit of reverent joy in synagogue, everybody seemed so happy to be celebrating the new year together. Liturgically, everything went smoothly, the serious bits caught people's attention, I managed to get most of the community involved in various ways. My pre bar mitzvah kid did an amazing job of the shofar blowing; he's not a wind player at all but he's musical and has independently discovered using embrasure to get almost tuneful sounds out of a ram's horn, not to mention circular breathing. His tekiah gedolah, the long final note at the end of the sequence, was easily 30 seconds and he hardly seemed to be working at it.

I'm pleased with Yom Kippur too, which is of course more than just a performance, but I think it worked and was meaningful for the people who participated. The temple service bit was awe-inspiring rather than ridiculous, and I could tell that people were moved by the service. We had over 30 people for Kol Nidrei, and never fell below the minimum of 10 adults even during the low parts of the day, and over 40 I think showed up over the whole course of the day. Which is not bad considering that's over 100% of our membership; we did of course have some visitors, but basically everybody who could be there was at one stage or another. Apart from poor [personal profile] adam_in_rabbinical_school who is really quite unwell at the moment.

Physically it was a lot easier than most YK fasts have been; sure, I was tired after standing on the bimah for two hours on Friday evening, most of five hours on Saturday morning, and a further two hours for the afternoon and concluding services Saturday evening, and not eating or drinking during the fast, but I didn't feel ill or in pain, and after a cup of tea and a bite to eat at the break-fast I was basically fine.

I'm liable to forget it in the panic in the last weeks of Elul, but I'm good at this. One thing I did was got volunteers to give some of the sermons; that does help people to feel involved, and I'm building up the community's confidence that you don't have to be an expert to do this. I'm far from an expert myself, I just have a lot of confidence at public speaking so people think I know more than I really do. It also made the preparation a lot more manageable, and having done this for five years on the trot now I know the Torah readings well enough that I only had to do a small amount of refreshing my memory.

Instead of having to prepare three plus sermons, I did just one, after the morning service on YK. I preached on the morning haftarah, which is one of the most inspiring parts of the Bible anyway so that made my life easier, and I drew inspiration from [livejournal.com profile] miriammoules's Hope and Hallelujahs to talk a bit about the kind of people who are the poor and needy that the prophet talks about. I started by asking people to think of things they have done, individually and as a community, to make the world more just; the community are really good at things like giving to food banks, making sure the sick and lonely get visitors, and we donate generously to charity especially considering that our income falls short of our annual running costs. And I asked them to think of taking on something extra in the coming year, cos repentance is a distinct thing from guilt and self-loathing. I then pointed out that Isaiah asks us not just to give money to charity, but to engage personally, to share food with the hungry, to bring the homeless into your home. Even if the needy are not cute cherubic little orphans with big eyes and begging bowls, but troubled teenagers who act out because of their unstable home lives, or adults with mental health problems that they may self-medicate with drink and drugs, or immigrants and asylum seekers with strange customs and unpalatable political opinions. I talked about reputation stuff, pointing fingers and speaking evil, so what are we doing not only to help individuals but to counteract media stereotypes of "chavs" or "scroungers".

Also asked people to look both closer to home and at the broader world; the plain meaning of Isaiah assumes that the community he's addressing are relatively prosperous, but it may well be people we know well who are struggling financially or with hidden health or emotional problems, it may even be us. Equally it's easy to imagine that Isaiah's condemnation of forcing your labourers to toil on the sabbath is irrelevant in modern society since most of us don't directly employ labourers, but what about labour conditions in general, what are we doing for the people, mostly abroad, who produce our food and goods? And since it's the shmitah year, the seventh year in the cycle which commands forgiveness of debt, we are particularly obligated to do something about exploitative loans in this country and international debt which is making it impossible for many countries to build up their economies. It might seem like we have little influence over these huge problems, but the reward promised by the prophet is proportionately great for communities that really do work for justice. It wasn't a lot more than pointing up what is already in the text, but I got a lot of very good feedback about the sermon.

Then we built a succah, a fun activity which was unfortunately only attended by the board members plus my BM student and his mother, but we enjoyed ourselves even if we didn't have as many kids as I had hoped. We ended up not having a lulav because arrangements fell through at the last minute, but that wasn't specifically my responsibility.

And then there was the Stockholm weekend in the middle of Succot. I was very very scared of what seemed like a near-impossible task, but actually it went really well. Thank you all so much for your support and advice, both in comments to my post and other channels. Especially to [personal profile] angelofthenorth and [personal profile] hatam_soferet who gave me reasoned arguments why I actually do have the skills to be able to do this, you two made all the difference in the world to my emotional state.

I spent the whole day travelling, leaving just before 9 am to get the bus to the station and then the train to the airport, and landed at Arlanda airport 5:15, dashed into the city centre and showed up at the hired hall about 10 minutes before the planned event. About half the 40 guests present were old friends from when I lived in Stockholm and it was just so heartening how pleased everyone was to see me! And the other half whom I didn't know were also really friendly. That is, the people who have joined the group since I moved away and the group who are in exile from the main synagogue because they liked the rabbi who has just left in politically fraught circumstances, but who aren't themselves Progressive. The service was fine, I gave a few little words, mostly explanations of what I was doing rather than full on preaching, there was a guy with a guitar which helped a lot with the music, and everybody had a go at taking the lulav. (Yes, you're not really supposed to do that on shabbat, but for a Progressive group who wouldn't have had any other opportunities it seemed the right choice.) The baby blessing was great; I used the liturgy from Forms of Prayer, and got someone to translate the bits said by the parents into Swedish. The parents were really touched by my saying a few words for their new baby, I am very glad I was able to do that.

Then we had a really tasty meal and I got a chance to start chatting to my peeps. And then I started off the discussion about the horrible Israel and anti-semitism theme. The circumstances weren't really perfect; we had people still sitting at the meal tables which is not the best arrangement for either a discussion or a lecture, and we tried to improvise with passing around a fixed mike (with a reasonably long cable) to make sure everyone could contribute and be heard. I started out with almost a guided visualization exercise, describing how we would build a virtual succah whose structure, even if temporary and flimsy, would protect us while we were having a difficult conversation. And I did as many of you suggested, asking the community for their views and experiences rather than just talking to them. The group were really polarized, not so much between supporters of Israel and critics of Israel as I had feared, but between those who feel that Sweden is a really nice friendly multicultural place where anti-semitism is only a minor issue, and those who feel that Sweden is culturally very strongly anti-Jewish. But everybody was respectful even while passionately disagreeing, which is about all you could ask for.

EBH sent me "home" early and didn't let me stay to help clear up. I felt a bit guilty about that, but actually she was right; I really did need to sleep from 10 pm to 7 am to be in a fit state to run anything on Saturday, after all that travelling. I was staying in the guest flat in her apartment block, where I have stayed a couple of times in the past when I've gone back to Sweden for visits, and it was wonderfully nostalgic. I woke up to the sun rising over the not quite identical twin towers of Hogalid church and other landmarks of the city centre.

And Saturday we had another service in a theatre right on Medborgarplatsen, with slightly fewer people but including a few who didn't join us on Friday night. EE and JK were extremely helpful and skillful as wardens, making sure all the stage management bit ran smoothly, and PK, bless him, leyned (chanted) the Torah reading in his magnificent bass, which meant I didn't have that bit to prepare on top of everything else. I gave a sermon about the idea that Hoshannah Rabbah / Shemini Atzeret can be seen as the conclusion not only of Succot, but of Yom Kippur, talking about repentance in the context of Moses asking for forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, and remaking the smashed tablets of the Ten Commandments, and God's declaration of the Thirteen Attributes which plays a key role in the YK liturgy. And then I talked about the final section of that reading which is one of those "difficult" texts with an injunction to utterly destroy the Canaanites and their places. Which gave me a nice segue into talking about Israel and the idea that it's not a gift, we can't just claim that it's the promised land and we own it no matter what, it's part of a covenant, Israel has to be a truly moral society in order to belong to the Jewish people.

Then an improv game organized by EBH's son, where we built a "succah" out of human bodies and talked about whom we would invite into it, a really nice thing that got the adults and children engaged. We had a break for lunch and then came back (mostly just adults at this point, thankfully) for more discussion. I talked a bit about Shmita, based heavily on this manifesto by my old friend R' Young-Somers, and broadened that to talk about moral obligations on Israel and how that connects to diaspora Jewry. Plus I quoted that bit from Dickens' Our mutual friend:
For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, 'This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.' Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough—among what peoples are the bad not easily found?—but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say "All Jews are alike."
And something from the study section in our old siddur, written by a Kibbutznik named Tzur just after the Six Day War:
Our attitude to the country is complex, one of longing and attachment, starting with the dreams of our childhood and involving a deep desire to take root, a desire which is sometimes the expression of fear of being torn away [...] Once it became clear that this was the home of the whole Jewish people, that it was their shelter, the home of their dreams, their creative spirit, then we were left with another great dream, one no less fantastic, perhaps, than the vision of the establishment of the State: that we should be able to take root not only among the mountains, in the soil, but also in the human scene–among the Arabs.

I think that all worked well, we got a bit of discussion that was grounded and meaningful and not just people having opinions. I was free at about 4 pm, so I walked down to Slussen to look at the sea, and stopped in the really nice Emmaus charity and clothes shop on the way. And I'm so glad I did, because I found the most amazing thing, a Gudrun Sjödén winter coat, red with a removable turquoise lining and amazingly stylish, reduced to under £25 (probably less than 5% what it's worth new, Sjödén's stuff is awesome but pricey), plus a really cool purple tweed jacket that has a somewhat cape-style cut, a bit like the thing that Sherlock Holmes classically wears but I can't remember the name for that garment, for even less than that. And walked back halfway round the south island along the quayside, for dinner with EBH so we had a proper chance to talk without having to worry too much about logistics.

Even the Bar Mitzvah class on Sunday was pretty good. Two of the students didn't show up, which is a pain but not my problem. So it was just me and one kid and he was really nice, mature, engaged, a pleasure to work with. After that was done I went to lunch with SA and caught up properly; she's another person I hadn't seen since the wedding, because she mostly socializes on FB and I'm bad at FB. Then I headed out to the southern suburbs around where I used to live and work, and met up with RS and her family, and YXF, former work colleagues. We had a really wonderful evening, talking shop, catching up with eachothers' lives, and recommending books for RS's girl, who has grown up to be a very charming young teenager, and wants to read some English children's / YA classics.

I couldn't be more glad I went, I had a wonderful time even if it was nerve-wracking. And I'm so nostalgic for Stockholm and my little community there, wow. I've started thinking again that I might investigate applying to rabbinical school, because doing all this has just been so satisfying. I mean, I realize that if I were an actual rabbi everybody would criticize me for not doing things the way they want, instead of being so grateful to me for filling in a gap by volunteering, but even so.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-18 08:17 pm (UTC)
cjwatson: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cjwatson
Coming from a Catholic tradition, I am somewhat in awe at the depth and complexity of this. I mean, I'm generally only involved with the musical aspect of services as a cantor, which can be complex enough at the major festivals, and not with preaching or catechesis; but one does sometimes get the impression that people involved mainly dust off the major themes from the last matching point in the liturgical cycle and reuse them. (Although I must make an exception for our Dominican supply priest, who's a good advertisement for why they're called the Order of Preachers.)

It sounds, at any rate, as if your nerves paid off in the form of excellent preparation. Nice one!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-20 09:38 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ghoti.livejournal.com
That generalisation holds for my experience of Christianity too. Colin misspent his youth in Finn palaces and other more normal ways: I spent mine touring churches and studying Aquinas. Ime evangelicals and low churches tend to have a loot less structure so a lot more input in terms of choice of readings, sermons etc. For us, and for Anglo Catholics, there's a sense of 'here are the readings, base it on that' which suits me but there are others who other a broader way and often fit multiple themes into a single service. I like to revisit themes and I value knowing in advance when we're going to have the more problematic bits of Paul, for example. There are other Christians I know who really value more personal input to the liturgy, and that's good. In my Father's house there are many rooms, etc. (Incidentally, that's quite a high church interpretation of that verse: I've had low church Catholics tell me in so many words that there is not room in the church for people like me.)

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-20 09:39 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ghoti.livejournal.com
Er... *gin* palaces.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-20 07:22 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ghoti.livejournal.com
Yes, but Lavery's gin palace makes me giggle everytime. It seems so unlikely! I'm not implying judgement, btw, I meant to say I misspent mine too.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-20 07:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ghoti.livejournal.com
Of course we can :) That would be lovely.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-18 11:03 pm (UTC)
electricant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] electricant
One of the rabbis in my local Progressive community is in an interfaith marriage and she and her husband run social events for other interfaith couples. (I only mention this because last time you mentioned the idea of training to be a rabbi you had some thoughts around where your relationship would fit with that...) I'd be happy to put you in touch with her if you would find that useful?

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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