I say silence the Shabbat siren

Stamford Hill is not Jerusalem and it is not just rabbis whose views need to be considered

By Daniel Finkelstein, November 20, 2008

I had to read the story twice to be sure I had understood it correctly.

In Stamford Hill, a "Shabbat siren" has been announcing the arrival of the Sabbath. Actually, I'd better be precise. It is not, strictly speaking, a siren. It is "a selection of music and songs being played over a number of loudspeakers". Apparently, those who established it want to make the area "more like Jerusalem".

And now it has been silenced, because "the rabbonim have made their views plain"- not that everyone is pleased about this. There is - I am not making this up - a "Save our Shabbos sirens" group on Facebook.

Where to start? The first is with a sense of awe that there are some Jews for whom Shabbat does not yet begin with a cacophony of sufficient volume. Perhaps they should come round to my parent's house on Erev Shabbat. Encountering eight grandchildren at full cry might disabuse them of the notion that they need to usher in the festival with any sort of loudspeaker.

Then there is the surprise that there are people to be found who want to make Stamford Hill more - more - like Jerusalem.

But, finally, there is this: when a member of the community complained about the siren, he was told that "the rabbonim didn't mind", so the siren would stay. Now the siren supporters say that they are "working with the rabbonim" and still hope that it will be introduced. Isn't this the most extraordinary bit of all?

You see, the rabbonim are clearly worthy of the great respect due to those who learn and lead. But that does not mean that Stamford Hill belongs to them, or that their view - interesting and important though it might be - is the only one that matters.

Apart from the amazing Jerusalem remark, a member of the committee supporting the siren said that local children loved it because "it gives them a great feeling of being in Israel". I am almost embarrassed to make the obvious point. But it has to be made. They are not in Israel. They are in England.

Which brings me to Oxford.

Some months ago, a controversy broke out in that city when a mosque considered broadcasting a call to prayer over loudspeakers. Local residents were understandably resistant. And I supported their resistance in The Times.

The overwhelming majority of readers who corresponded with me after that article, including many Jews, supported the argument that I had made. But a few did ask me what my view was of church bells. If churches can call congregants to prayer with loud bells, why not Muslims and Jews with loudspeakers? Surely, I should support both or neither.

My response was simple, although perhaps it won't be to everyone's taste. I believe that church bells are different because this is a Christian country. And it is not only Christians who value this, and should be allowed to protect it. I value it, too.

My grandmother -- who had lost all her property to Stalin's army, had been imprisoned, and had then found herself a refugee - always used to say that, while the Queen was safe in Buckingham Palace, we were safe in Hendon Central.

I think she correctly saw that the tolerant, mild, stable traditions of England protected our liberty as Jews. And the Church of England is part of that.

I think if England did not wish to maintain its traditions and support its church it would be a lesser place. I want public spaces to be distinctly English. I find the sound of church bells reassuring. I know where to go when I want the music of Shabbat, and the music of the Jews. I don't have a problem seeking out the sound of the Shofar.

But this is my religion and I don't expect the mass of the British people, who have taken us in and accorded us full respect as citizens, to have to sing Zemirot on the way to the pub.

One of the reasons why I believe so passionately in the state of Israel is that there has to be one place in the world where we Jews can go to if we want to play Shabbat songs on a loudspeaker.

So being safe in Britain does not make me any less a Zionist. I think a place where the public religion is Judaism is worth fighting for. But that place isn't here; it isn't England.

Over on the Facebook site, they don't see things quite the same way. Not at all. They have put up the home address and telephone number of the man who originally opposed the siren, presumably so that people can harangue him.

If the rabbonim are to give their opinion, perhaps they can give their opinion about that.

Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times

Last updated: 11:02am, November 20 2008



Mon, 12/01/2008 - 23:50

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We are in Golus [ exiled from the Holy land], however pleasant or even golden a Golus it may be.This is a Christian kingdom, not a multicultural melting pot. We support traditional British values that protect our rights. I no more support sirens announcing Shabbos than I support mosques' calls to prayer. In the Pale of Settlement there was a custom in some places that the gabbay called men to pre-Shacharis selichos by tapping gently on each front door with a hammer. They didn't use sirens or fire cannons!