My worst case scenario? The cancellation of kiddush

Norman Lebrecht reflects on the history and theology of the Anglo-Jewish ritual, now suddenly suspended amid the pandemic

March 19, 2020 11:58

Among all the worst-case scenarios that crossed my screen in the last few weeks, none predicted the suspension of a vital institution of Anglo-Jewish ritual.

Those of us who ventured out last weekend to join Sabbath morning services, many against rabbinic and scientific advice, were shocked to discover that the kiddush had been cancelled. Just like that. An article of our faith annulled.

With the exception of a few Chasidic shtiebls where vodka flowed like holy water, and the cholesterol heart of sacred Hendon, which cannot survive four hours without cake, Jews turned up at their place of worship to find the halls of plenty locked and the drinks cabinet sold early for Pesach.

Now I don’t want to get into the science of this directive because it’s even more complicated than trigonometry, and I failed trigonometry twice: ‘O’ Level at Hasmonean, and again in relation to the characters of a current BBC2 series by that name about young people at work and love in London before the plague.

So, leaving science to the boffins and my ultimate fate to the actuaries, I’d like to reflect on the little-known history and theology of the kiddush and its role in our collective unconscious, a term you may have heard me discussing at Book Week before the kissing had to stop.

The synagogue kiddush — pronounced ‘kid-ish’, as if it were an infantile pursuit — derives from an awareness that there were people who could not afford wine to perform the sanctification at home or, alternately, lacked the Hebrew to recite the blessing.

Some rabbis opposed reciting the kiddush blessing in shul, arguing that it would diminish the individual’s obligation to perform the rite at home. These learned sticklers were, however, stampeded in the rush for the tables as Anglo-Jewry embraced the shul kiddush as obligatory, like sweets thrown at a barmitzvah boy.

I cannot date its inception with any precision, but I would place it somewhere between the Leone tune for Yigdal of 1770 and the induction of Chief Rabbi Hertz in 1913. Give or take half a herring.

Actually, it arrived some time before Hertz arrived since Israel Zangwill mentions it in Ghetto Comedies (1907) with the line, “I c--an’t keep my family waiting for kiddush”. You can still hear that line in shul halls to this day.

The kiddush habit spread swiftly north and west; Anglo-Jewry’s compass has only two points. 
Chaim Bermant mentions a Glaswegian kiddush in honour of Mrs Baranowitz in his best book Jericho Sleeps Alone and I seem to remember a Mancunian reference somewhere in Louis Golding. Or maybe Jack Rosenthal. Whatever, the kiddush went national, albeit on a frugal scale.

When I was growing up in the last century, the choice of vintage was Palwin 4 or 10 and the height of luxury was the biscuit with the glacé cherry. That’s all there was. Herring was not served until the rabbi’s shiur at twilight and a slithery thing it was, like a homeless Jewish escargot with added tear-jerk onion. Put me off snails for life, it did.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the herring has been resurrected at the shul kiddush as Jewish sushi, with more varieties than Heinz.

Sweet herring, sour, with mustard, mayonnaise, capers, jellybabies (I made that one up). Not to mention real sushi, which has become a staple even at a four-star kiddush, that’s to say the one without waiters and steaming vats of meat.

For a barmitzvah, it’s five-star. There were a couple of lads at my shul who used to grade the kiddush with marks out of ten. The absolute Lucullan kiddush spread was the one with an actual fatted calf slewed across a central table. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Then there is the kiddush club, an invitation-only affair for gentlemen of means who retire to a room during the reading from the Prophets to sample a range of single malts and oligarch vodkas.

You can see why the Prophets got so upset. Scottish malts, I grant you, are singular, but I’ll bet a Singer’s prayerbook to a Venetian Bomberg Shas that no expert alive can tell a supermarket vodka from a £100 brand.

It seemed we had reached the point of no discernment when, out of Wuhan, came corona and the kiddush had to stop.

Just like that. No compensation. Not even a kosher slice of cold turkey. So where do we go from here?

Home, of course. No more spousal warnings at the kiddush to “save some room, I’ve made a lovely lunch”. No more marks out of ten. No more culture of excess. See this coronavirus as a correction. What was it Zangwill said? “I can’t keep my family waiting for kiddush.” That’ll do.

Norman Lebrecht’s latest book is Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947

March 19, 2020 11:58

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