I’ll skip the ‘unlimited exercise’ if you don’t mind, Boris

Being of an over-literal disposition, Jews take government edicts personally, says Norman Lebrecht


A woman jogs past Buckingham Palace in central London on May 26, 2020, as lockdown measures are eased during the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

May 28, 2020 14:59

Barely were the words ‘unlimited exercise’ out of Boris’s mouth than I knew we were in for more pain than gain. Being of an over-literal disposition, Jews take government edicts personally.

The rabbinic injunction dina demalchuta dina comes into play. It might turn up on Google Translate as ‘Diana should have been Queen’, but every halachic Jew bar N16 black hats on Lag Ba’omer night gets the idea that you go along with a government order no matter how much it hurts.

If the Tsar says ‘exercise’, that means press-ups. If he says ‘unlimited’ that’ll be morning to night.

This new situation will be painful for us in more than the obvious ways. Jews are not designed for exercise. In my book Genius and Anxiety, I report the horror experienced by the head of a Lithuanian yeshiva at seeing his boys playing football in their lunch break.

Aside from neglecting their studies, these lads were chasing to no purpose a pigskin spheroid that was treif in oh-so-many ways. Even if it wasn’t pig, sweating over an animal hide had to be idolatry (Google spell just made that adultery).

Jews and exercise are historically antipathetic. When the Greeks started their silly games on Mount Olympus, their first requirement was for runners to take off all their clothes, regardless of catching their death of cold, and the second was to have their circumcision reversed, an operation that has yet to become available on the NHS.

The point of the Olympics was to run. To run, in the Jewish way of thinking, is a transitive verb. A person runs a business. What else does it mean, to run?

No good came of the Greek fitness fad. We celebrate its downfall with doughnuts. Ever since, when a doctor has told us to get fit, we have adopted a routine of vacillation. First, ask which gym your friend belongs to. Then spend several weeks choosing Italian trainers and lycra garments online in highly unsuitable colours. Finally, meet friend at the café of the designated gym. Throw up hands in horror at the exorbitant price he paid for a coffee, then at the actutal membership fee. Order a second croissant and go home feeling better. They can’t say you didn’t try.

No matter how often you are advised to take a constitutional, it is obvious to every thinking Jew exercise is against our constitution. Our book of rules is called The Laid Table, suggesting an amplitude of consumption. They have a fetish about fitness. The first thing they give you at school is an exercise book, ever wondered about that? Nothing about learning. The bible of the English game is so resistant to wisdom that it manages to misspell the word in its title.

When I was at school, I aimed to come one before last in the 100 yards. Obviously to lag a furlong behind everyone else was a disgrace but to come higher in the field was an incentive for a yelling PE master to demand greater effort. I attended a Jewish school. We participated once a year in county games. It was made clear by wink and gesture that our job was to come last in everything to keep the Gentiles happy. That seemed sensible.

No English Jew has ever won Wimbledon or (I think) scored a century at Lords. We go to Wimbledon for strawberries and to Lords for Panzers’ bagels. In the press box, they used to serve smoked salmon. We know our place at Lords, high above the fray ‘as the run stealers flicker to and fro’. If we go out to bat in a friendly match, we take a runner.

Exercise, like income tax, may be worthy in principle but irksome when personal.

Unlimited exercise, a Boris bike of a bad idea, adds a vestige of infinity to an undesired outcome, like Purgatory in the Catholic faith. Not good in this world, terrible in the next.

I’m struggling to find an upside to the new rules. Perhaps the Chareidim of Stamford Hill thought they were obeying Boris by shuffling hand on the next man’s shoulder around a bonfire to celebrate the cessation of Rabbi Akiva’s plague. On second thoughts, maybe not.

Even mental exercise aches. In normal times we would sit up all night on Shavuot, studying texts or listening to lectures beside a smorgasbord of cheesecake before we receive the Torah at dawn. I’m not a fan of this rite. Coming from a tribe of German Jews who mumbled interminable piyyutim in their morning prayer, I never got to bed before nine and the whole festival was ruined by fatigue.

This year, since our rabbis in their Wisden (Google spell, again) have continued to rule out Zoom, I shall skip the learning and take unlimited sleep.


May 28, 2020 14:59

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive