This week, I’m planning to talk about the nineteenth-century constitution of the Sunderland Jewish community. I feel that this makes a satisfying contrast to my last column, which was about toffee apples. No one will be able to accuse me of always banging on about the same topic.
I read the constitution in question a few weeks ago, during a Shabbat afternoon at my brother-in-law David’s house. It was in a book called Jewish Historical Studies.
This is not at all the kind of book that would normally draw my attention. Usually, I like to read thrillers and comedy, literary fiction and children’s picture books. But then again, that is the joy of other people’s bookcases: you get the opportunity to dip your toe into a world of reading completely different from your own.
In this particular instance, David pulled the book out to show me. Because I am a Sunderland girl born and bred, he thought I would be interested. And he was right.
In the 17 years that I lived in Sunderland, I witnessed a community with two thriving shuls dwindle to one struggling shul with a handful of members. There was a real fascination in looking at a document that was written at the very opposite end of the community’s history — back in 1823.
The constitution is written in Yiddish, and — wonderfully — transliterates Sunderland as סונדערלאנד, the presence of the vav meaning that you have to say the word with a Wearside accent. It has an accompanying commentary by the late Bernard Susser.
The 32 regulations boil down to the following: how to get the congregants to behave themselves, and how to make enough money to run the synagogue. These two concerns are inextricably intertwined.
For example, if you have an aliyah, you are expected to give a donation. (Of course, this is still the case in many congregations today — a fact that I find extraordinary.) But if you leave the synagogue during the Torah service in order to avoid an aliyah — and hence a donation — you will be fined half a crown. That was the equivalent of about a day’s pay for the average working man at the time.
The penalties do not stop there. If you engage in idle speech during the service, that’s threepence; don’t sit in your assigned chair — another threepence; let your children run in and out — threepence again.
If you throw things on Simchat Torah, (an “obnoxious custom”), it’s an eye-watering half a guinea (four days’ pay). That would certainly encourage me to keep my individually-wrapped jelly beans tucked safely in my pocket.
This particular regulation came about after one Simchat Torah, where the general shenanigans resulted in a brawl and the police had to be called. The same rule applies on Tisha b’Av — which I find a bit perplexing. Who would want to throw things in synagogue anyway, on a fast day? Did congregants tend to go a bit loopy due to low blood sugar and start chucking their tallitot at each other? It’s hard to imagine.
Even the synagogue officials are not exempt from financial punishment. If the cantor turns up late, he has to pay; late again and the fine increases.
The regulations state that each time you say a Mi Sheberach, the president and the treasurer of the shul must be mentioned before anyone else, even if you don’t like them. It’s entertaining to imagine the situation that must have arisen to cause this rule to come about.
It’s clear that the very worst thing you can do, however, is to go and join the other Sunderland synagogue: ‘One who goes to pray and takes a seat in a strange synagogue, then he loses his rights and has no more to expect from the old synagogue and has no more portion or inheritance or any other matter in the world.’
In other words, if you decide to join the rival shul, that’s it mate! Don’t come crying to us if you change your mind. By the 1850s this other congregation was extinct, so that warning was clearly effective.
It’s of little surprise that women do not get a mention in the constitution, except once in relation to childbirth. I don’t know if this is because, tucked behind their mechitza, they were deemed simply unworthy of comment, or whether they didn’t attend at all.
I’m glad things have changed a bit in the last 200 years. My family would have made very bad Sunderland congregants in 1823. I would have failed to sit always on the same chair and sometimes even sat on the floor.
My children would have kept saying “I’m bored” and “Can I have a snack?” and “Whenzitkiddushtime Mummy? WHEN?” And, most scandalously of all, I would have tried to join in the leyning and had to be escorted off the premises.