A shul without rav or walls, it’s a bed of roses

'Rabbis have discreetly implored street minyan men to return to their pews — but the men I met are, like English Zionists, are in no hurry to test the Law of Return'

August 16, 2020 11:37

As my tallit got caught in the rose bush, drawing blood as I untangled it, I knew nothing would ever be the same again. Shuls may have reopened and services are scheduled again, but an awful lot of people are not going back to synagogue because they are having far too good a time on the outside.

The roses are in my son-in-law’s front garden and I got snagged while sniffing them as we waited for a lad from round the corner who was booked to read from the Torah. Not that’s there’s anything inefficient about this street minyan. It meets three times daily, seven days a week and they don’t have to knock on doors to reach a quorum. Two to three dozen is par for the course.

One house has put up a green gazebo in its patio for the reader. The neighbours hang out over hedges and low walls, communing in the unforeseeably responsive acoustic of a suburban crescent. God must approve of the street minyan as the rain has mostly held off; when it does fall, people come out and pray regardless.

This, then, is the new normal: a shul without rav or walls, without wardens or committees, without gripes or long-held grudges or, indeed, any narrative that predates Covid. Might it be the future?

I described a crescent. This minyan serves just one side of it — actually, the upper half of one side, since people who live below a certain number have decided not to attend. No idea why. Probably because every Jew needs a shul he doesn’t go to. Over the hill, on the other side of the crescent where we don’t go, there a rumours of a different minyan. And one more in my cousin’s cul-de-sac. The crescent is a public highway and that could be a right-of-way issue. All I can report as your mole in the minyan is that over two hours of a Sabbath morning I saw just three vehicles — one Royal Mail, another from Amazon and a startled white van that must have been looking for a short cut to Brent Cross and retreated with a squeal of wheels. First rule of street minyan life: pick a quiet street. The rest runs like clockwork. When a question arose about the inked-in-ness of a letter vav in the ten commandments, the Torah scroll was swiftly rolled up and replaced with another. I know great and hallowed synagogues that cannot produce a spare Torah scroll at the drop of a vav. On this street, there was maybe a two-minute delay.

The minyan is not, let’s be clear, egalitarian. Women don’t seem to be bothered, although they are not excluded. In any case, old-style galleried shuls are hardly an advertisement for equal-opportunity prayer. The absence of women on street level reflects only the terrapin pace of progress in Orthodox Judaism. Any sign of change is terrifying.

Rabbis have discreetly implored street minyan men to return to their pews — you’ve had your fun, now the break’s over — but the men I met are, like English Zionists, are in no hurry to test the Law of Return. They don’t like being counted like sheep or wearing a mask in shul. How can one kiss the tsitsit during the Shema or pray “Lord open my lips” when your mouth is covered by cloth? Better to pray beneath God’s open sky.

Synagogue services will be truncated to 90 minutes max at the High Holy Days. Street minyanim can, by contrast, pray all day. And many will. Heaven knows what they’ll do when winter comes. I guess someone will throw a canopy at bedroom level across the street, warmed by a pair of outdoor heaters from a defunct treif restaurant (not a kosher one, they are doing nicely on Rishi’s freebies).

Once the service ends, out come the whisky and the herring, each man beneath his hydrangea and his rose-bush, as the prophet predicted. This smorgasbord can, I am told, last as long as the service itself and women are welcomed.

The minyan members invited me to be their guest speaker and I happily obliged. After elaborating an idea for ten minutes in the middle of the road, it dawned on me that I was making eye contact with an audience for the first time since Covid killed my Genius and Anxiety book tour. In the past five months, I may have Zoomed away to large audiences on three continents, but it’s not the same as having real people in your eyeline, their responses reflected back in smiles and frowns, hands raised with a question, feet tapping in pleasure or irritation. It took a street minyan to bring me back that essential, emotional contact. I want a minyan now on my street.

August 16, 2020 11:37

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