Despite myself I’ve been having a jolly time recently. And one of the jolliest of these times was at a 60th birthday party the week before last. The man whose emergence from youth we were celebrating is one of those welcome new friends of my middle years, so although I know his past and family a little, most of what I heard that night constituted news.
And almost all of that news was delivered by his grown-up children in the form of ten-minute speeches made from a small dais somewhere between the soup and the coffee (the delivery, that is, not the dais).
These kids, a son and a daughter, are bright 20-somethings who know how to behave, so I wasn’t expecting a maudlin monologue or a vinous ramble. And indeed they spoke well. But there was something else: a particular combination of fluency and feeling that I’d noticed in a few other speeches on a few other occasions. They were able to be warm about their father while hinting at his fallibility. They knew how to navigate the occasionally choppy straits of his life’s journey without once scraping the hull on a rock. I was impressed.
Impressed but thoughtful. Then I realised — these were quintessentially Jewish speeches. Not speeches about Judaism or Jewishness, but Jewish speeches nonetheless.
I had heard their prototypes on the few occasions I had been to a bar- or batmitzvah. There was the wit for the audience, the warmth for the family, the thanks for the guests, the wine and bread of good talking. These excellent speeches were themselves part of a tradition in which Jews had been brought up for who cares how many years.
Now, I am not a ritual man. I am resistant to the trumpeting of the hierophant. My family traditions involved selling the Daily Worker, party congresses and leafletting. When those disappeared I didn’t care to find any new ones and I was unimpressed by everyone else’s.
Handshaking left me unstirred, matriculation found me in bed, my degree went unceremonised by me. If there was a tradition, I ignored it. When fellow Spurs fans sang “Stand up if you hate Arsenal!” my tuchas stayed glued to the plastic seating. No Father’s Day. No Mother’s Day. No Squidgy loves Pudge on February 14. Avoid black-tie dos like the plague. Movies, theatre, opera – yes, yes, yes! But not in tux and bow tie. Just because that’s the way it’s been done for donkey’s, that’s no argument for doing it now.
But just recently this anti-ritualism of mine has begun to become unstuck. And it has everything to do with (a) my children and (b) death. I have begun to feel something for the marking of the passage of our time. Most readers will find this entirely unsurprising and wonder what took me so long, but with me everything has to be tested and argued. And I can’t pretend to feel what I don’t.
I found myself last year unexpectedly in charge of my father’s ashes. Suddenly I wanted a ceremony of sorts to scatter them and we devised one. Also last year my wife and I and my elderly Welsh in-laws went to see my daughter and her friends receive their degrees. The ceremony is quite intricate, spoken in Latin, requires special clothes and some kneeling. It was also not invented in medieval times but by some 19th century romanticist. But it was joyous. That’s the word for it.
And so was Leslie’s party. The bar- and batmitzvahs, whose rituals and combinations of address and emotion mark the third biggest passage in a person’s journey, seem to leave a mark that even the mitzvahed may not realise. Or was it just me not realising?
Bit late now. But you should see what I have planned for my funeral.