Just Remarried: my nightmare Shabbat

By Paul Lester, January 17, 2013

There are certain people you don’t say no to. Your parents, say. Or the Queen. The PM would be another example. As would your rabbi. If they call, you come running. So when our rabbi phoned the other week to invite the wife and I plus my three kids to Friday night dinner, I immediately accepted — after checking, of course, that I didn’t have any prior invitations from my mum, Dave and Sam Cam, or Her Royal Highness.

Actually, we weren’t just being asked over for a Shabbas meal. The rabbi had an ulterior motive. He wanted us to give a talk, after dinner, about our jobs, because we both work in the media and in our community that makes us quite rare, surrounded as we are by accountants and IT consultants, ie people with proper jobs.

I’m not suggesting we have cachet, mainly because I don’t know what cachet is, but the idea was that the rabbi’s other guests would be able to luxuriate in the reflected glamour of our respective occupations and share the benefit of our wisdom.

How could they not? After all, I once spent the afternoon at the Los Angeles home of The Beach Boys’ frontman Brian Wilson during which the legendarily drug-damaged songwriter rambled incoherently for several hours about the ’60s and his rivalry with The Beatles and such before abruptly ending the interview and with almost childlike glee bounding to the front door and announcing that he wanted to buy a hamster. Who could fail to learn from an experience like that?

But first, there were the rituals of the Friday night meal to negotiate. And get wrong. Would it be my last supper, at least at the rabbi’s house? Very possibly. I made more faux pas in the first half-hour than… I’m trying to remember a biblical character who compressed an equivalent number of mistakes into an equally short space of time to convey my buffoonery, but I honestly can’t think of anyone from the Old Testament with similar levels of social ineptitude.

To cite just a few examples: on arrival I went to shake our rabbi’s wife’s hand — our Orthodox rabbi’s wife’s hand; I offered as explanation for my passing on the offer of wine the fact that I was driving (“D’oh!” as Homer Simpson might say); I proceeded to gulp down the grape juice I’d been given instead well before the blessing, not because I don’t agree with the prayer but because I was gasping and so forgot to wait; and I gobbled down the hors d’oeuvre, taking helping after helping, believing it to be the main event, only to discover that there were three more courses to get through.

Of course, all of this was under the watchful eye of the other couple at the table. They looked distinctly unimpressed.

'First, there were the rituals of the Friday night meal to negotiate. And get wrong'

They looked even more sour-faced when I told them what I did for a living, although they did perk up a bit when we started talking about the stars I’ve worked with during my many years as a music journalist. So I asked them to guess who I’d met, smug in the knowledge that I’ve interviewed everyone from Stevie Wonder to Kylie Minogue, and they still managed to name the only five musicians on the planet who I have yet to encounter. That cheered them up no end.

I actually got to list the Five Musicians I’ve Yet To Interview — for the record, they are Prince, Madonna, David Bowie, Sting and Lady Gaga — later on, up the road. Yup, I got that wrong as well. I thought I was going to be speaking to a grand total of about 10 people — the rabbi and his wife, their children, the other couple and their kids — at the rabbi’s house. Not so. Over dessert he broke the news that the talks would be taking place at another venue, and that there would be a few more there than I had assumed.

By “few”, read “about 100”. When we arrived at the place — it was more of a hall than a home — we were greeted by row upon row of expectant Jews, sitting there, arms folded, waiting to be informed and entertained. This was no “chat over dinner”, this was a formal speech before an assembled congregation demanding useful insights and witty repartee. Nice one, rabbi, cheers.

Somehow, I managed to get through the next half an hour, without recourse to notes (mainly because I didn’t have any) and with a minimum amount of booing, although I did notice several yawns. My wife was far more relaxed about it, and as a consequence her talk was more riveting.

The audience lapped up her stories about life as the only Jewish TV producer at Al-Jazeera’s London HQ. She only had the one heckler — the man who stopped her mid-flow to harangue her about the news station’s supposed tendency to show hostages being beheaded live on air. The truth is, she calmly told him, Al-Jazeera English have never featured any such acts of barbarism.

At which point I thought to myself, no, but the next time I get roped into something like this, fully expect physical reprisals, even if, unlike Brian Wilson, I wouldn’t know a water-board from a surf board.

Last updated: 11:23am, January 23 2013