Life & Culture

Brilliant insights from our much-loved Secret Shulgoer

This is an enthralling collection of writings from our late columnist


Being Rina: The Collected Writings of Rina Wolfson

Amazon, £20

If you want to know what it was like to be a British Jewish woman between 1972 and 2021 – the all-too-short 48 years in which the writer and educator Rina Wolfson was alive – then Being Rina is essential reading. It won’t be long before you are nodding in recognition as Rina nails it again and again.

Take, for example, her description of group bat mitzvahs in the 1980s in which she learned how to kosher liver, plait challah and sew a challah cover. “I don’t recall boys having to build a bimah in a parallel woodwork class in preparation for their bar mitzvahs. We had no training in embroidery, no talent and even less interest. But hey, overlooking talent and championing a lack of interest is all part and parcel of the Jewish Women’s Experience.”

JC readers will most likely remember Rina without knowing her name: she was the anonymous writer of our much-loved Secret Shulgoer column. Between 2017 and 2020 Rina visited 40 synagogues, reviewing them for sermons, warmth of welcome, decorum and kiddush and her fair, witty, effortlessly readable insights meant that each review would zoom to the top of our online “most read” list.

Anonymity was essential to the column’s success. But then Rina was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and died in 2021. The secret was only revealed at Rina’s funeral, to audible gasps. Now her family have gathered the columns, and much more into a book, Being Rina. It is nearly 600 pages long and it is wonderful.

The book is in four parts. First there is a blog which Rina wrote online from 2004 to 2006 called Surburban Hymns, which chronicles a time of her life when she lived in London as a single mother to her seven-year-old son. “There was a time when being a single mother was something to be proud of,” she writes. “My smug married friends would tell me that they were actually a little jealous. Being a single mother was a bit rebellious, It was different. It was cool. But not any more. Single motherhood is over. Being a single mother is distinctly last season.” (This turns out to be a prediction, and a year and many blog posts later she’s announcing her engagement, in the JC, naturally.)

Next comes a section of Rina’s Jewish writings, in which her prodigious learning is delivered with a lovely light touch. I love especially the limericks that Rina wrote about the “daf yomi” daily sections of the Talmud. Berachot 13, for example: “Mid-Shema, you sense someone near/ You look up. It’s someone you fear!/ Can you say a ‘hello’/To this scary fellow?/Yes you can, says the sage R Meir. The Shema requires intent/It’s not just recited, it’s meant/But we cannot condone/Reciting it prone/Unless sideways, with legs slightly bent.”

The third section, the Secret Shulgoer columns, I knew and loved and had the privilege of editing (although remarkably little editing was needed). But the heart of the book is the Facebook blog that Rina wrote when she was diagnosed in lockdown, in 2020. “Nobody needs another cancer diary” she called it, and she promised it would neither log details of treatments nor be “a pity party for everyone to marvel at my bravery and courage. I’m not brave…I’m terrified”. She didn’t know what the blog would be: “I just feel the need to write. Writing has long been my go-to stress reliever. And… I think the egoist in me wants to do something creative. Just in case this really is the end. I never did write that novel. Or finish that PhD. Or record that podcast, But I did write some bloody good Facebook posts.”

And so she did, until the last heart-breaking post where she writes that when she sees glimpses of the women that her young twin daughters will become she feels like Moses surveying the promised land from the distance of Mount Nebo. “Look,” says God. “Isn’t it magnificent? This is what you cannot have.”

I barely knew Rina. Our relationship was editor and writer, not – alas – friends. I assumed we had all the time in the world for that. This marvellous book gives me a glimpse of what our friendship would have been like.

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