Ancestors, Descendants and the Search for Temps Perdu
I blame Proust. It was Marcel Proust who made such a great case for the romantic appeal of memory. Proust's greatest memory is of little biscuits dunked in tea. Ah - on a fast day, remembering food - I hope you aren't feeling hungry yet - a long way to go.
For Proust this taste had a power to evoke that, I'm pretty sure, isn’t a power we, as Jews, should rely on.
In fact even the title grates on me, somewhat, tonight of all other nights.
A la recherche du temps perdu.
Seeking that lost and gone.
It grates because, I think, this is how too many of us see our Judaism; a temps perdu. They are gone, those times, capable of evoking warm memories but definitely not coming back. It's not that I mind seeking out familiar evocations of a past, but I'm more interested in how I live today. I get nervous when engaging with a Judaism that is overly reliant on warm fuzzy memories of long ago. It replaces the true call of Judaism – to do what is right – with a call to do what is cozy.
Chicken soup is cozy. There's a tune or two that evokes in our souls a memory of our ancestors in ancient times - Kol Nidrei and all that jazz. There's a slightly morbid fascination with those of our co-religionists who dress like the Polish nobility of 200 years ago, but we gaze in on the black-coats, and sup the soup, secure in the knowledge that neither has anything to teach us about how we live our lives today. We look in on the frummers with our head cocked slightly to one side; they don't really believe all that do they? Meanwhile we congratulate ourselves on an intellectual sophistication that boils Judaism down to chicken soup.
Judaism in search of temps perdu becomes an exercise in the mathematical function of derivatives. What one generation did because they believed their Jewish commitment mattered, the next did even though they didn't, and the next did to remember the past, and the next relied on the occasional evocation - a nice bowel of chicken soup, and in a generation to come we will sup on minestrone.
So here comes my Kol Nidrei appeal, an appeal to all of us who consider this extraordinary multi-millennial narrative of ours passé and perdu.
The appeal is this – it’s not enough to be a descendent of a Jewish past, please become an ancestor of a Jewish future. Be a Jewish ancestor because the journey towards a Jewish future is necessary, holy and vibrant. Be a Jewish ancestor because our great history is not perdu, it's not even past.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by being a Jewish ancestor – actually it’s more than any old example, it’s the ur-example. This is the single thing that more than anything else awakens within us the possibility of being a Jewish ancestor. It was Ahad Ha-Am, the great poet of 19th C Zionism who said that more than the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.
Here's why you should take Shabbat seriously - and it has nothing to do with an evocation of the past.
Mohamed El-Erian was the CEO of a multi-billion dollar investment fund until January this year. Then he found himself trying to persuade his young daughter to brush her teeth - multiple times. He reminded his daughter that she should know from the tone of his voice that he was being serious. His daughter, El-Erian subsequently wrote, 'asked me to wait a minute, went to her room and came back with a piece of paper. It was a list that she had compiled of  important events and activities that I had missed due to work commitments. I felt awful' he continued, 'I got defensive, I had a good excuse for each missed event! Travel, important meetings, an urgent phone call. But it dawned on me that I was missing an infinitely more important point.' El-Erian quit his job and is trying to find more of a work-life balance. Aren't we all? The point is that balancing priorities, relationships and obligations is hard work, regardless of your professional or domestic situation, frankly regardless of your religion.
I think we need two counter-weights to stop us being run ragged and emptied out by the competing tugs on our waking hours, our wallet and our emotional energy. We need a centre to ground us and we need to practice.
This is where Shabbat comes in. It's a perfect storm of a reset, a centering and an escape. It’s a reminder that we have responsibilities, a reminder that there are ultimate loyalties and then there is everything else.
25 hours without telephones, computer screens, or televisions. No shopping; 25 hours to cease to be a consumer - a data point. 25 hours to be human; a son a daughter, a spouse or parent - if we are so blessed, a grandparent even. 25 hours to remind ourselves of our humanity and our place in the universe. Have you never tried it, seriously I mean, more seriously than serving chicken soup? You should.
When we abstain from col melachtecha - all the work of the week - we plug ourselves into the core of our Jewish identity. It's not searching for a lost past, but rather in living our way into a Jewish future - we are doing the thing itself, we are not evoking a memory. By celebrating Shabbat, especially if we celebrate Shabbat with friends, family members, and strangers too, we take our place in a chain of tradition that stretches both back into history, and forward with every weekly engagement with the most vibrant, most timely and most powerful part of what it means to live as a Jewish Ancestor.
I should be honest on a night like tonight. Trying Shabbat is fine, but Shabbat only really works when it becomes both regular and central. Like any good thing in life it requires practice and commitment, it needs to be defended. Try making the lighting of Shabbat candles on a Friday inviolable. Turn down the party invite because you are doing Shabbat. If Shabbat is just another thing on the to-do list, taking its place among all those other tugs on our time and energies it won't work; it will disappear between your fingers like so much sand. Shabbat only works as a regular commitment but give it three weeks, three weeks of turning off the chatter and turning on the commitment to being part of a Jewish future, and let me know how it goes.
That's part One of why and that's how to be a Jewish ancestor - keep Shabbat.
Part Two - Synagogue, actually, what I really mean is this Synagogue.
We are fifty years old this Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur season. The Yad on the picture on your ticket points at the phrase the 'fiftieth year' as it appears in our Torah. I was hoping someone would notice, but sometimes you have to tell people about the sort of details that can so easily get lost. Let me share some other lost moments, overlooked, especially by some of us who weren’t here 50 years ago.
I've been re-reading the stories of the foundation of this community. As many of you will know this building had been sold to be turned into flats, and the demolition team were just about to move in when it was sold again - to become my Jewish home, our Jewish home. In an early edition of the New Londoner: Magazine of the New London Synagogue, Oscar B. Davis's address to our first Annual General Meeting is reproduced in full; here he is telling the story of moving into 33 Abbey Road.
"What we took over had been neglected for years, the roof leaked, the dirt was indescribable and even the Minister's Seat had been wantonly destroyed. [But] our members surpassed themselves, young and old [they] turned themselves into a brigade of handymen and Mrs Mopps."
I've flicked through the photos of our founder members on their hands and knees, sanding the floor. I've reread Shula Jacobs, zichronah l'vracha, sharing how she cried when she came into the Synagogue finally ready to welcome a community. I've read Rabbi Louis Jacobs, zichrono l'vracha, sharing, in his autobiography, 'It really did look as if this was an instance of direct divine providence, though, I encouraged my supporters [said Rabbi Jacobs] to be skeptical of any too close a theological interpretation.' Glorious times.
But I'm not saying any of this in an attempt to evoke a warm memory of temps perdu. If you were there I salute you and I'm grateful for everything you did back then, but I want to make a different point. New London Synagogue was not built to evoke a past long gone. It was built to create a home for a Jewish future, both for our own Jewish minds Jewish hearts and Jewish bodies, but also with focus on something bigger and broader – we wanted to change Anglo-Jewry, world Jewry. That was the job then, that’s the job now – even if you were a founding member – we are not there yet. Even the name is forward looking. New London isn't about being impressed with a bisel of yiddish, we are not, I am not, interested in offering an ersatz recreation of Reb Tevye's shteibel. New London cannot and must not be primarily concerned with the temps perdu.
New London is, and has always been about, an open Judaism, afraid of nothing, drawing together the very best of our tradition and testing it, again and again, in the crucible of contemporary experience and understanding. Is that why you are here, to feel the dynamic energy that bubbles up as Jewish tradition and secular modernity dance alongside one another? Are you here not just because of your own personal proclivity to do Jewish this way, but because you believe that in this dance there is something important, other, Godly even, not just for Anglo-Jewry, world Jewry, even all humanity? That's why I’m here – that’s the Torah I aspire to teach. That’s what I was trying to do over Rosh Hashanah. I'm trying to be a Jewish ancestor and I hope you are too.
Of course I'm a Jewish descendent, we all are. We all sit here today as descendants of the founders of this special community. And this space is beautiful enough, though the paintwork needs redoing, some of the plaster is coming away, the brickwork's a mess. We are in need of ancestors to vouchsafe our future. We've a big fundraiser coming up, at Abbey Road Studios no less. It's going to be a fabulous evening. The wine will be better than that served at New London Synagogue's first fundraising dinner when the menu suggests Palwyns was served to accompany the melon. Here's the reason to come to the fundraiser - come to pledge your commitment to being a Jewish ancestor of this very special community.
Oh, I know there are lots of other ways to be a Jewish ancestor that have nothing to do attending a fundraiser, nothing even to do with New London Synagogue. For example there's a big glossy £50m building just 2 miles from here - and I wish them every success - but they are in the business of chicken soup; evocations of a temps perdu. It's not bad, actually the restaurant is terrific. But it's not about being an ancestor. At New London we are doing something very different.
A couple of weeks ago I stood up here and watched as a member over there sobbed one kind of tears for their recently deceased mother and another member over there sobbed very different tears as their newborn baby received a first blessing. In ten days time we will, please God, celebrate Simhat Torah. And as we finish the last lines of Deuteronomy we will turn the Torah over and go right on with the first lines of Genesis. When we cry, at New London, we do it as both descendants and ancestors. When we dance we dance as both descendants and ancestors. It’s not an evocation of a temps perdu – it’s the thing itself, being lived out day by day, week by week on a bridge that connects the past to the future.
This is my call tonight, and I’ll have more to say on the matter tomorrow;
Be unsatisfied with a Judaism that is driven by a nothing other than the evocation of temps perdu. Be unsatisfied with a Judaism that is driven by nothing other than a sense of being a descendant. Be a Jewish ancestor. Embody your creation of a Jewish future through your engagement with Shabbat. And embody your commitment to a Jewish future by committing to the future of this very special community. In that way, please God, we will be blessed with wonderful tomorrows, and a wonderful year to come.
Gemar Chatimah Tovah,
A good year to one and all,