The giggling girls who momentarily turned me into a hellfire rabbi
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 19 June 1999
In my time, girls knew their place and left the whole rites-of-passage business to the boys. We were the ones suffering the sudden fluctuations in body temperature and voice range. Girls had always been women about to happen. We became men in a sudden rush. We needed a ritual to mark the change. Today there's a bit of a fad for female bar mitzvahs, on quasi- feminist grounds I suppose, though it is interesting that you don't see any equivalent rush for female circumcision. Can't have the one without the other has always been my position, and that position has hardened since the weekend when I watched a couple of sweet girls with plastic daisies in their hair make a dog's breakfast of a solemn ceremony.
You will understand if I don't say where exactly I attended this double bat chayil, but I can tell you that the rabbi's name, as if he didn't have his hands full enough already, was Portnoy. Now, in any altercation or difference between a rabbi and his congregation, I am invariably on the side of the rabbi. I like rabbis. I am easily persuaded that a beard and a long jacket are earnests of moral seriousness, and I am a sucker for sophistical theology. "Ah, but do the words actually say that?" they have only to ask, and I am theirs to do with as they please.
In its essentials, being a rabbi is like being a literary critic: you pick at texts, affect a deracinated Central European accent and tell people how to live. I would be one if I could. Failing which, I see everything entirely from their point of view, not least the uncontrollable giggling of two schoolgirls called up to address Hashem, the One and Only, the Dark and Nameless Warrior God of Israel.
So I'm the rabbi and I'm sitting behind the girls, stroking my beard, giving them time to come to their senses, reorganise their expressions, and remember the awfulness of the occasion. I am a man of wisdom, so I know that giggling is something you do when you are nervous and self-conscious and need not mean that you have a disrespectful nature. But the giggling won't stop - the girls even giggle over the name Hashem itself, an offence which brought a visit from the Angel of Destruction in the good old days - and the generosity with which the congregation at first greeted their girlish hysteria has turned to embarrassment, to shame and, in some hearts, to anger.
In my heart, for example - mine, not the rabbi's - it has turned to boiling rage. Funny that, for as a rule I welcome a seasoning of blasphemy. Or maybe not so funny, since to be a blasphemer you must understand belief, whereas to be a giggler you need understand nothing.
I am surprised, too, by the weight of tears behind my eyes. True, I have been softened up by the cantor's exquisite sobbing to the God Who Never Shows His Face. But it's the two indecorous girls who finally make me weep. For they are loosed from themselves, and to be loosed from oneself is a sort of madness, and the sight of madness is always desolating.
I am the rabbi again and I know what I think. I think an accomplished woman, who can find? I remember that I didn't giggle during my own bar mitzvah, but that I might if I were doing it today, because a contemporary child is given over to popular influences so disinheriting that he is neither the owner of his face nor the familiar of his nature. Are the girls unable to confront solemnity because they are, at this very moment, dreaming of David Beckham? Probably not. The links are less direct. But triviality will have its way. Here a trickle, there a droplet. Until the human soul is worn smooth by banality and nothing of consequence can ever find a sticking place.
We are as one on this, the rabbi as I imagine him, and me. We wish woe to those who make slop buckets of the minds of children. But where I suspect we differ is over the accomplished woman-who-shall-find of the panegyric to ideal femininity - "strength and majesty are her raiment, she joyfully awaits the last day". Between living only to die and living only to watch another Spice Girls documentary on Channel 4, is there nothing?
Rabbi Portnoy has now decided it is time to put an end to the fiasco. Enough is enough. He rises with imperious calm, addresses the girls in words of fire, opens his palms as though he can part the Red Sea with his fingers only, and chases the imps of inconsequence from their hearts. Thrilling. I am so excited by the spectacle that I can hardly speak. Someone older castigating someone younger in our time! Isn't this what rabbis and literary critics are for? To impose authority on an uncultivated populace? To clear a channel for seriousness in the intelligences of the young?
The girls recover, do well, even manage to say "Her hands she stretches out to the distaff" without collapsing into mirth again. But they waver when the rabbi embarks on one of those interminable parables about two communities, one free to read Torah, one not, the moral of which - surprise surprise - is that the one that's not tries harder than the one that is. This is what I hate about rabbis; no sooner have they got your attention than they treat you like a moron.
But it was fun being religious while it lasted.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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