A couple of weeks ago my friend and I decided with utter certainty that the following Friday, we were going to synagogue.
I am Jewish in the most “ish” of senses. My grandfather fled Nazi Germany in 1938, when he was twelve, but prior to Nazi rule, he did not know he was Jewish. My grandmother’s mother was disinherited for not marrying a Jew. As a child, the only time I went to a synagogue was for a girl from school’s Bat Mitzvah.
My bacon-worshipping grandmother’s deepest delve into Judaism was a phase of Friday night dinners when I was at primary school. She would pick me up and we would make challah bread that was ready and glorious to eat by the time my parents finished work and my cousins arrived. In the last year, my mother has done similar, but without the challah. I like to think my mum’s Friday night dinners came into being as a ploy to see me weekly, but I think they were actually an intervention - to quell my loneliness and Friday night FOMO as many of my friends disappeared into relationships or moved abroad. Or, less poignantly, she may have been inspired by the Channel Four sitcom, Friday Night Dinner.
Last year, we endured an election in which “anti-Semitism” was a defining issue but that’s not why I’m exploring my own Jewishness. Most of my relatives have assimilated with such dedication they can’t understand this urge. When my great-aunt heard her granddaughter was having a Bat Mitzvah, she was perplexed. “We aren’t Jewish!” She scolded. “We are,” said her son. “No we are not,” she insisted. “Don’t be so ridiculous.” Like her brother (my late grandfather) she didn’t know she was a Jew until she had to flee Berlin aged ten and the Jewish religion has never been part of her identity - so why do I feel it’s part of mine?
The easiest answer is that I’m a lost young thing - a snowflake that’s drifted. It is not uncommon for my to-do lists to consist of “book tarot reading” and “look up crystal healer”. I have not one but two astrology apps on my phone. At my most aimless I fill my phone with screenshots of potential Scorpio tattoos. Last month, I bought a book in a charity shop called The Ladies’ Oracle (1857) because it had a cool name and a pretty cover. A few days later, my friends and I were poring over it for hours. The oracle has a hundred questions and a grid of symbols on the first page. It was complicated at first but once cracked, your fortune’s told: “How many husbands shall I have?” I asked. “As many as you will have children,” was the response. Hand me a large glass of Pinot.
It may seem crass to liken such activities to my desire to explore Judaism but its all derivative of very similar neuroses. The lapse between leaving full-time education and managing to earn enough to buy an M&S salad for lunch is a difficult, undecided time for those privileged enough to dwell on it and you only have to turn on the news to feel that society is splintering. Since I’ve reached peak confusion, my craving for spiritual support makes sense - to me, at least.
My great-aunt didn’t know she was a Jew until she had to flee Berlin aged ten. The Jewish religion has never been part of her identity - so why do I feel it’s part of mine?
In part, what I’ve so far sought succour in has been about bonding and belonging. For instance, a couple of years ago I met a girl called Flora who guessed I was a Scorpio thanks to a very fleeting exchange. The moment she told me she was a Scorpio too, I felt like she was declaring we were on the same team. Now we’ve become friends I wonder if in aligning our star signs, she was saying she understood me. But other than such brief and often tongue-in-cheek exchanges I’m not sure the starry kind of spiritualism has helped me - more often I log onto horoscope.com when it’s 2am and I’m too anxious to sleep.
Ultimately, perhaps, I’m turning to synagogue because London is lonesome. My friends and I are rarely awake at the same time let alone able to meet each other much - as we used to do at school and university. Sky-high rents mean we’ve no spare money and are scattered across the outer suburbs to the North East and South East with wretchedly bad transport links between us. In February last year, one friend suggested that - instead of us meeting in the pub - we each buy a bottle of wine and Skype each other from our respective homes. Eventually, we managed to drag her out to meet us face to face - where we bought drinks that cost us an hour’s wages and sat on a street curb which was being marketed as a trendy bar.
I don’t seem to have a community anymore: synagogue is a place to go, with actual people to chat to about simple things - such as how the week’s gone. I also want to believe in something that means more than economics and Instagram.
As the pop-philosopher Alain de Botton states: “One of the good things about religion – Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism – is that they all start from a premise that life cannot be perfect, and it’s by recognising the imperfectability of life on earth and human beings (Buddhism starts off with ‘life is suffering’), you can then progress”. Ignoring the fact that this seems like the sort of quote Khloe Kardashian might post, the notion that life is suffering, and flaws and failures are central to human existence provides a sort of refuge for me. As religious belief has declined the notion that we can perfect ourselves has increased - exponentially - as evidenced by the self-help trends of the 90s, the plastic surgery of the 00s, the wellness movement of the 10s, and the social media pressures of the present. None of this helps you grapple with the grim “who am I?’ existential questions - religion might. I know that a place of worship isn’t just a free, booze-less pub. I hope it will help me connect with something larger than myself and to my ancestors too.
My friend and I first decided to attend synagogue after a few beers - conversation time I usually reserve for ranting about why dating apps don’t work until my drinking partner’s eyes glaze over and they start muttering about what time it is. Might synagogue also present the prospect of love? Men on dating apps get away with all sorts of behaviour which would never be permitted if you had friends in common or had to see each other afterwards at work and since we’re all essentially strangers there is no imposing any sort of social responsibility.
I need a place to meet someone organically. And so I’ve added “dating” to the Venn diagram I’m drawing up trying to work out why I’m so attracted to synagogue because what is more likely to foster respectful behaviour than a whole religious and familial community assessing your potential partner’s every move? What young man would dare to mess me around underneath Tamsin Greig’s eagle eye? Now, on Friday night, when I head out to attend, that old Elton John song gets stuck in my head - with lyrics slightly changed: “Because we’re going to the synagogue/ And we’re gonna to get ma-ma-married…” When it comes to my life, Judaism has so much to sort out, it feels like a very real leap of faith.
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