Why do we mumble our prayers? They should be belted out

As a newcomer to Jewish celebrations and prayers, I know I’ve no right to be disappointed — but I just want prayers to raise the roof


Two happy Jewish sisters looking and singing at a beautiful menorah candelabra glowing on the eight day of Hanukkah Jewish holiday.

December 15, 2022 12:58

Anything but Kanye,” said the JC comment editor when I checked in about this week’s column. Which was a shame, since I wanted to wonder out loud whether Eichmann’s defence hadn’t missed a trick when they failed to claim their client was bipolar. Well, at least you’ve been spared that.

Instead, however, you have to endure another of my semi-outsider’s impertinent thoughts on the idiosyncrasies of Jewish life and customs.

It was brought on by being invited to a Chanukah party, spending a few hours feeling worried by what one might be expected to DO at a Chanukah party (never having been to one before, and Jewish celebrations always requiring something to be done) and then being told that a clash with the World Cup Final had led to the regretful cancellation of the Chanukah party. Had it been England v Israel I might have understood it, but the best we could have hoped for at the time was Morocco v Argentina.

As I say, that was the spur. Let me explain the background — and for those who know a little about my quasi-Jewishness, you can skip to the final two paragraphs.

So, my father was brought up in the East End between the wars, the son of illiterate but observant Jews.

By the time I was born, my grandfather was dead, my grandmother (who spoke a strange patois I didn’t understand) was eking out her last years in a flat in Clapton we rarely visited, my aunt Rae had died of TB between the wars without even leaving a photograph, and my uncle Joe arrived at our house once a year on Boxing Day and stayed for three hours.

So far as I know, my father only ever did three Jewish things, one of them after his death.

First, he told me the rude Yiddish word for Jesus Christ. Second, the week my eldest daughter was born, he drove me to Ilford to sit shiva for Uncle Joe (one in, one out) and magically he seemed to know these strange words.

And third, eight years later, he died and at his funeral, out of nowhere, like the ending of a movie, a young man got up and sang the prayer for the dead.

I mean sang it. Lifted the roof of the chapel with it. Made the sound take off like a euphonious rocket, taking my dad with it into the sky. Last week, a work colleague told me he’d been at a dinner party with the singer of the prayer. Did I remember him at all?

And he was surprised when tears came to my eyes. I will never, till the day I too depart, forget that sad, sad sound and everything it meant.

We are born to love and to lose. And now we had lost.

The young man was the son of my dad’s oldest friend: a lovely, smiley communist with a pipe and a soft voice who had died a few years earlier.

The boy had done the opposite of what our parents had done — left the party and rejoined the… rejoined the what? The faith? The people? The tradition?

But how had he rejoined it!

Here’s what I want to say. More recently, I have been invited to Friday nights and attended other Jewish events and other funerals. It’s been a privilege and I’m grateful.

But one thing has often disappointed me, though I have no right to be disappointed.

When people say the words to the prayers — words I do not know and never learned — it seems to be essential to almost mumble them and to get through it as quickly as possible, as a shy child says a poem at a school assembly.

At funerals, the prayer is sometimes said as though reading a Hebrew rail timetable.
It’s almost as though it all has to be as discreet as possible in case the antisemites are listening.

But I want to be there when these words are sung.

I want to hear every one of them enunciated, even if they do have to be explained to me.

I want it to be loud. I want the ceiling to be lifted, the walls to be expanded, the floor to disappear, the connection over time and space to be made, almost defiantly.

Perhaps it’s a getting-older thing. As Yeats wrote, “an aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick, unless / Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing / For every tatter in its mortal dress…”

As I become meagre, Jews belting it out is what I want.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times

December 15, 2022 12:58

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