After spending the majority of the past couple of years in rural places, I have to say, it’s good to be back in London again. Although really, it could probably be any city. Any city except Sunderland. For what is a city, if not, quite simply, a large gathering of disparate people squished up together, surrounded in all directions by concrete and tarmac and glass. Personally I much prefer trees and lakes and wild boar to concrete and tarmac and glass, so really, the only good thing about cities, as far as I’m concerned, is the people. People are such glorious creatures. Even the hateful hurtful terrified minority are pretty glorious, once you scrape away the nonsense.
So anyway, what made my second week in London more interesting than it might otherwise have been was the two days’ work that fell into my lap. The work was helping to refurbish a tawdry gambling den in the heart of the West End by filling it with sparkly stuff and fake skyscrapers and the Perspex silhouettes of international landmarks. It was fun physical work and the people I met were cool and in some cases, utterly adorable.
Then after the work was done on Thursday night, a few of us went for a drink on the Charing Cross Road and before very long – due to a combination of enjoyable work, adorable people, alcohol and a couple of crafty joints – I was in one of those sublimely sociable, indomitably blithe moods where every trip to the bar or the loo inevitably includes warm conversation and easy unforced laughter.
Plus there was the hubbub of the street – the rickshaws, the sirens, the endless stream of distressed people stopping to ask for money. That night I was loving it all.
Then it was home-time and on the way to the bus – which the driver let me board for free because my Oyster card was empty, and for which I kind of loved him – I saw this:
A second before I took the above picture, in order to get the attention of the guys on the pavement, I gave a small shout of ‘Oy!’ Then, photo in the bag, I made my way past the van and one of the two behatted young men blocked my path and said, ‘Are you Jewish?’
I answered as one always must when that question is posed, with a waggle of a flat right hand and the words, ‘Well, I’m Jewish.’
‘Was your mother Jewish?’
‘My grandmother was Jewish,’ I told him, although that isn’t strictly true.
‘Your grandmother on your mother’s side?’
We were standing quite close, face to face, and it was clear from his shining, staring, insatiable eyes – like a rabbi caught in the headlights – that he so wanted me to say yes, so it didn’t feel like lying at all. It felt like breaking down barriers, like making another baby step on the road to unification, revolution, evolution. ‘YES!’ I cried.
‘Then you are Jewish!’ he replied.
‘YES!’ I repeated. ‘I am!’
Then he placed something on my head – I guess it was a yarmulke but it seemed when glimpsed briefly more like a small, slightly sexy tea-towel – and he said something to me, a single word that I did not recognise. Automatically, I repeated it. Then, before I had time to wonder if I’d been a fool to repeat it, he said another word. I repeated that too. And on it went, this delicious catechism, this sonorous senseless incantation, flowing into my ears and out of my mouth.
I don’t actually recall the exact words. I had only been a Jew for a matter of seconds at that point and my knowledge of the liturgy was scant. But I could repeat. And it felt good. It also reminded me very much of Larry David’s attempts to convince the head of the kidney consortium that he was an Orthodox Jew…
So anyway, when I’d repeated the last phrase, which may or may not have been ‘Mazel tov!’, my rabbi said, ‘Now eat this!’ and handed me a sticky doughnut (sufganiyah). Then he gave me a Hanukkah kit containing menorah, candles and dreidel.
And then it was all over and I was left feeling pretty much exactly how Saul must have felt after the Damascene conversion. Saul on the road to Damascus, me on the road to Charing Cross station; Saul amazed by a bright light flashed from heaven, me amazed by the sweet, sticky loveliness of a free doughnut; Saul blinded by Jesus, me blinded by whoever it is we Jews believe in. I’ve still got a lot to learn. I recognise that.
Then when I’d more or less recovered, I noticed a Jesus Army van parked up across the street. Sadly, they offered no doughnuts. I shook my head and muttered something in Yiddish. It may have been ‘beheymes’.
So there we have it. Religion isn’t all bad. But don’t let it confuse you. There is no God. It’s just a distraction.
Happy Hanukkah, fellow Jews, and fellow Gentiles alike.
May sweet softling kisses rain down upon you all.