One of the disadvantages of being a regular shul-goer is that the rabbi knows me. This means that I am, at this time of year, guilt-tripped into volunteering my time as a steward when extra help is needed to guide members around. Members who can’t remember from one year to the next where the gentlemen’s entrance is, for example.
As a steward, I am also required to mediate between members fighting over a seat. Mr Levy turns up toward the end of the avodah service, as he does every year, just as he turns up half way through mussaf on Rosh Hashanah, the only other time he comes to shul, and starts raising merry hell because somebody is using the seat his family has “owned” since 1957. The fact that the building is filled to the gunnels and has been for three hours doesn’t diminish Mr Levy’s fury that someone is in his seat when it should have been left vacant until, and in case, he decided to saunter in.
“Do you know who I am?” he asks, rhetorically.
“I assume that’s a rhetorical question,” I reply.
“My family has been associated with this synagogue since before the war,” he smugly informs me.
“Is that right? Well, I’m sure the shul is very grateful for your fees, especially as it appears you demand very little in return,” I smile and politely ask the squatter to move for fear that Mr Levy will decide to start coming on a weekly basis in order to ruin my life.
Then there was the gentleman with the mobile phone.
“Sir, could I ask you to turn your phone off please?”
“I’m just phoning my brother — I won’t be a minute.”
“Sir, I really must insist. It’s not appropriate to be using a mobile phone in synagogue on Yom Kippur. If you must make a call, please will you go outside the shul gates to do so?”
“What would be the point of that? My brother is outside now, I’m calling him to let him know where I’m sitting so he can join me. If I go out I’ll lose these seats.”
Leaving aside this unpleasant duty I look forward to Yom Kippur. Why? Because I love eating and YK is all about eating. Not only do we book-end the day with large meals, hurriedly eaten in order to perpetuate the ingrained Jewish paranoia that “you never know when the next meal is coming”, but we think about it all day long in between. It is truly the foodies’ festival.
Our rabbi is no exception. He’s a portly fellow who clearly loves his seudah shlishits. Three years ago his morning sermon was all about chocolate pudding. Then in the afternoon he elucidated on the book of Jonah, spending an interminable hour twisting and turning his way through various obscure talmudic tractates, kabbalistic incantations and gematria calculations in order to convince his flock that Jonah was swallowed by a kosher fish. Included in his treatise was a long and detailed section describing the laws of kashrut and how he likes his salmon served. It was clear from looking around the room that several congregants were looking distinctly queasy by the end.
After he finished I quietly took him to one side.
“Rabbi,” I tentatively ventured, “would you mind if I offered you a little feedback?”
“Of course not. Are you playing the part of Greg Wallace?”
“Ha ha,” I politely forced. “It’s just that I think you might have planned your sermons today a little more sensitively. That’s all.”
“Why?” he asked with a large dollop of surprise. “What did I do wrong?”
“Judging by the number of congregants that rushed out during the sermon, I think you probably should have given them the dessert after the fish course, not before.”