In her very enjoyable biography, published this week, the actress Rula Lenska talks about her adherence to a Japanese form of Buddhism where if you want or need something to happen you chant for it and it often comes to pass. How well the want-chant success rate stands up to statistical examination I cannot say. What I do know is that it’s very different from the Jewish way.
Go through the full Yom Kippur liturgy and there is absolutely nowhere for specific requests. Yes, we beat ourselves on the chest innumerable times and catalogue every possible sin from aleph to taf , but nobody invites us to specify to the Almighty what sort of assistance may be most useful in the coming year — help with weight loss, an improvement in the demand for my friend’s light fittings, a not-too-expensive solution to my car’s gearbox problems and other such pressing matters. All we are offered is the rather nebulous possibility of being sealed in the Book of (good) Life.
I had gone to shul with just one specific and infinitely tiny request of the King of the Universe. It was Saturday and I really like to watch Match of the Day without knowing the football results; this can be hard to achieve in the outside world but as I was in my seat at 9am and didn’t move from it once until 8.15pm, I was fairly confident. I have often felt the Yom Kippur service isn’t long enough, and so it proved. There was a half-hour break between musaf and minchah, from 4.30 to 5pm. The man a few seats away from me left and returned a few minutes later looking redeemed and uplifted as one might after hours of fervent prayer. Clearly, he had something spiritual to impart to those who had remained through the livelong day: “ Sunderland 1, Arsenal 3,” he proclaimed, “Spurs 2, Norwich 0.” It was enough to make me want to become a Buddhist.
A Buddhist might have brought better weather over Succot. We are less hardy than we were. When I was young we had no central heating and there would be precious little difference in temperature between our house and a succah (not that we had one). Succot of course is the only time Jewish men are supposed to do DIY as part of the religion. “Could you build a shelter?” asks Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs. ‘”Shelter, shmelter...”
To be honest, I don’t celebrate the festival any more, which is ungrateful of me because when I was at Jewish boarding school it was a godsend. If we were already back for Rosh Hashanah and none of the festivals fell on Shabbat the whole autumn term became a work-free zone. So thank you, Shemini Atzeret!
How very different from the sorely-tried Bruce Gold in Joseph Heller’s novel Good as Gold. His elderly father, who lives in Florida, returns north only for (very painful) family High Holy Day gatherings. Much to Bruce’s dismay he stays until after Simchat Torah, a festival he wonders if Dad was making it up. Another fortnight is too much to bear. If only he’d been a Buddhist.