Friday, 5 September 2008

Back from Hols

I’ve been away.

It has been good to be away.


Holidays, in particular holidays in foreign climes, raise all sorts of interesting questions about Jewish life.

Does Shabbat get suspended when ‘For six days you shall do all your weekday work’ doesn’t apply?

Do the laws of kashrut not apply in countries where you don’t know the local word for ‘fins’ or ‘scales?’

I’m not raising questions as a point of Halachah, from a Halachic perspective of course shabbat and kashrut don’t disappear as you step onto the plane, but the feelings, as we perform (or fail to perform our Jewish obligations) are different on holiday – at least they are for me.

For me holidays provide a wonderful opportunity to become re-acquainted with parts of my Jewish identity that I take for granted in London. Davenning in the bright morning sunshine praising God ‘the creator of light’ is suddenly shocking again.

Standing at the fish counter, flicking scales off a ‘merluza’ or ‘lubina’ (whatever they are in English), is suddenly a way of re-affirming my commitment to recognising how important my Jewish identity is to me.


But perhaps the most challenging aspect of ‘doing Jewish’ on holiday is the way observing Jewish ritual life on holidays is more public than it is in London. Many of my own most powerful Jewish experiences on holiday have involved being prepared to be thought of as a little strange, exposing my commitment to God and Israel in an airport, on a beach, on a hotel balcony. It’s not that Londoners see tefilin, for example, so often, but when I’m in London my observance is much more private – in the seclusion of my house, our shul. Doing Jewish on holiday is a little more uncomfortable, a little embarrassing.


I had a strange experience in the mini-cab back from the airport last night. As the sun set our driver pulled to the side of the road and said he had to stop to eat. He bent his head in prayer for a few moments, drowned half a bottle of water and offered my wife and I a date (Mohamed broke his fast with dates) before tucking into an airport-bought tuna sandwich. It is the month of Ramadan.


It was an odd experience and I’m sure my driver felt a little embarrassed, but surely also felt affirmed in his own commitment. Indeed acting, in the knowledge that someone is watching is a good thing – a religious desideratum. Many synagogues have the following injunction written above the ark ‘Know before whom you stand.’ The point is that we should always consider our religious behaviour (or lack of it) exposed and on view. Someone is watching. We should say our Amidah, even the so-called private Amidah, as if standing before a King – no slouching, no mumbling. It’s not supposed to be comfortable, it’s supposed to be a little disquieting.


We are now into the month of Elul. As Jews we make the claim that all our actions and inactions are recorded. God knows. The ledger books are open. We should consider our deeds and misdeeds exposed to the gaze of an all seeing eye, regardless of whether we are on holiday or in the privacy of our own home. It should make us sit a little straighter, it should make us take an extra moment to check on the decency of our speech, it should make us better human beings.


It’s good to be back.


Shabbat shalom

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