In my family, we have two stories about praying during the High Holy Days.
Around 80 years ago, the first tale goes, my great grandfather Joseph walked into his shul, somewhere off the old Commercial Road in London’s East End, only to find someone sitting in his seat.
Joseph Sugarman was not a regular shul-goer, falling firmly into the three days-a-year category. But he was a member of the shul, and paid for a specific seat — a seat which was being occupied by someone else.
He politely asked the gentleman in question to move. The man wouldn’t budge.
It turned out that the person sitting there did go to shul regularly — every day, in fact. And that was where he always sat. It was always available, because my great grandfather never came during the year.
And the regular shul-goer didn’t see why he should have to move now.
Now, as far as I’m aware, from a halachic standpoint, my great grandfather was in the right. He paid for that seat — that specific seat. And although he only used it on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he had the primary claim on the seat. I am not aware of any Jewish version of squatter’s rights in such circumstances.
However, the synagogue authorities did not see it that way. They determined that the man who sat regularly in that seat — despite not paying for it — should remain there. And they asked Joseph to sit somewhere else. Apparently this rankled with my great grandfather, so much so that he was still complaining 40 years later.
I always think about that story at this time of year, because it seems that, at the heart of things, very little has changed.
There is still friction between those who attend shul regularly and those who come three times a year, as described by Susan Reuben in this space last week. She went from High Holy Days only (if that) to regular attendance. David Hymans, who goes to the same synagogue as Susan, has had the opposite journey. “When I used to go every week I always used to look down on people who only came once a year,” he told me. “Now I’m one of those people.”
Another friend, a keen shul-goer ,described this tension thus. You’re a football fan, he said, and week in, week out, through thick and thin, you turn up to support your team.
But there’s another type of fan — the ones who only turn up to the biggest, most important games. The regular fans tend to view these part-timers with a jaundiced eye, he said, and the same is true of shul and the High Holy Days.
I don’t agree. For one thing, the metaphor needs work — synagogue attendance is not a spectator sport.
More to the point, it is not our job to criticise other people for how many times a year they go to shul. That’s between them and God. Many may have reasons why they do not go more often.
And shul attendance should not be the barometer by which our Judaism is measured. Rather, we should be judged by how much we help our fellow Jews.
This brings me to the second family story about the High Holy Days.
Joseph Sugarman’s son, my grandfather Albert, was not at all religious. He went to shul on the High Holy Days when my father and two aunts were growing up, presumably to set a good example. But once his children had reached their teenage years, he stopped going.
However, despite not attending shul services on those days, my father noticed that my grandfather would still book those three days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — off work.
My father eventually asked him why. “If you’re not religious, and not going to synagogue, why take those days off at all?”
The answer my grandfather gave never fails to move me.
It was true, he wasn’t at all religious, he said. But he held a fairly prominent position in a major company, and people knew that he was Jewish.
He knew that if he were to go to work as usual on those days, it would make life a lot tougher for more religious Jews at the firm who were trying to get those days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
My grandfather knew that if he had gone into work, people would have pointed to him and said “Bertie Sugarman is Jewish and he comes to work on those days. Why can’t you?” And so he stayed at home.
I put it to you that my grandfather, who didn’t even go to shul on those three days a year, was, in his own way, a better Jew than many of us.