Tales Of The City: Where else could you see the Chief Rabbi dance and Lord Bragg sing Al Jolson?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I think it was the sight of the Chief Rabbi dancing with Melvyn Bragg that most brought home to me the fathomless oddity of modern marriage. Or maybe it was the sound of the Associate Editor (Arts) of the London Evening Standard singing a 20-minute post-prandial grace in fluent Hebrew.

I think it was the sight of the Chief Rabbi dancing with Melvyn Bragg that most brought home to me the fathomless oddity of modern marriage. Or maybe it was the sound of the Associate Editor (Arts) of the London Evening Standard singing a 20-minute post-prandial grace in fluent Hebrew.

Or perhaps the sight of AC Grayling, the distinguished but incontrovertibly Gentile philosopher, wearing a skull cap the dimensions of a super-size contraceptive diaphragm. Or the spectacle of a few hundred marathon stragglers sweating their way along the Thames Embankment as a kind of moral corrective to the small platoon of Fleet Street newsmen enjoying a fag round the back of - no, not a bike shed but the Savoy Hotel ...

We were a wedding party, at a wedding the like of which you've never seen. Generations yet unborn will have to endure, around the year 2030 or 2040, their parents' and grandparents' heftily burnished remembrances of this frankly surreal occasion.

The groom was Howard Jacobson, novelist, columnist of this parish and peerless cartographer of modern, crabby, had-it-up-to-here middle-aged masculinity. The bride was Jenny de Jong, the documentary maker, who linked up with Mr Jacobson while filming his trenchant investigation of global Jewishness, Roots Schmoots.

Job's comfort

Fans of the author could tell something was afoot four years ago, when he published Who's Sorry Now? During the launch party, the most celebrated literary curmudgeon since Kingsley Amis announced that, if we could detect a new lightness of spirit in his paragraphs, it was because he had, unexpectedly, fallen in love. Had Philip Larkin returned from the grave to announce he was now writing Valentine odes for Hallmark cards; had Job emerged, boils and all, from the Old Testament, blowing squeakers and singing "There's a Bluebird on My Shoulder", we could not have been more surprised.

It was my first Jewish wedding. I was prepared (for we are all slaves of cliché) for the gloomy singing, the angst and schmaltz, the motherly figures urging guests not to stint on the gefiltefish ... But it wasn't like that. It was weird in all kinds of way. Men and women were parted at the door and sent into separate aisles, like an Irish country dance circa 1960, and all the chaps had to wear yamulkas, which you clamp on to the back of your head and feel sliding surreptitiously down your neck half way through the service.

What a service. Nothing prepared me for the combination of high Biblical seriousness and low, Broadway-baby showbiz. Under a tented canopy, bride, groom, best man and sundry lieutenants were harangued with belligerent geniality by the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks. Of the grave prophet familiar to listeners to Thought for the Day on Radio 4, there was no sign. He came on like a kosher cheerleader, the Topol of the village. He even did jokes - like the classic Jewish telegram: "START WORRYING: DETAILS TO FOLLOW".

When the groom smashed a glass underfoot - a memento mori that all Jewish enjoyment is tinged with regret for the fall of Jerusalem - and the air was full of cries of "mazel tov!" the rabbi seized the married couple and pulled them into a little folk dance. Lord Bragg, the best man, tried without avail to pick up the steps in this ancient, spontaneous revel. Agnostics and Protestants tried to imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury (and, come to think of it, Lord Bragg) doing anything remotely similar at another wedding a week ago.

Surreal foxtrot

One moment, the choir and cantor were singing a dirge about the memory of Zion; the next, they seemed to be auditioning for a Sondheim musical, with the congregation clapping on the off-beat. I'd never understood before how Zionism can be made personal by twinning the future of the bride and groom to the future of Jerusalem in this passionate intertwining under a floral canopy.

The reception in the Savoy ballroom offered similarly surreal moments. Watching the groom perform the first foxtrot of his life was one. Melvyn Bragg ended his best-man speech with a bold, gesticulatory rendition of Al Jolson's "April Showers" that brought the house down.

An octogenarian lady friend of the bride's mother told me of her time in occupied France, working for the SOE and forced to live for a week in a tree, supplied with provisions by some 19-year-old Jewish members of the Hitler Youth with a crush on the deracinated English rose who was, technically, their enemy.

Mr Jacobson conjured a picture of his bride's Lithuanian forebears fleeing the Russian invaders, all clad (like her) in several layers of thermal underwear, and quoted Leigh Hunt: "Say I'm weary, say I'm sad/ Say that health and wealth have missed me/ Say I'm growing old, but add/ Jenny kissed me."

High jinks

As the band played "In the Mood" and "Satisfaction" and "La Bamba," elderly Jewish matrons in brocade frocks flung themselves across the floor like schoolgirls, while the groom's son Conrad took disobligingly frank snaps of your humble scribe sashaying across the ballroom like Christopher Walken in the celebrated video of Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice".

It was the strangest wedding I've ever attended, and one of the best. The combination of high seriousness and high jinks, of grave tradition and low comedy, of problematic headgear and nifty footwork, of solemn greybeards behaving like extras in Fiddler on the Roof and nervy lapsed Catholics (like me) tut-tutting at the shocking levity - it's enough to make you want to convert to Judaism tomorrow. Of course I'll hire the Savoy to do it in. I might even put the Chief Rabbi's name on my dance card.