“What kind of a Jew are you?” enquired one of my colleagues when I - someone who betrays very few signs of religious attachment - announced I was going to the traditional Passover dinner at a friend's house. “Are you a cultural Jew?” he asked. This was an interesting question, and one I didn't really know how to answer. What's a “cultural” Jew? Someone who gets every joke in a Philip Roth novel? Someone who's conversant with gefilte fish? A person who only buys wholesale? A devotee of the works of Woody Allen? Perhaps, to borrow Woody's great joke, I'm not a real Jew at all. I'm just Jew-ish.
It's true that I went to the Passover dinner - known as Seder night - in a spirit of curiosity and interest, rather than feeling it was my duty to remind myself of the suffering of the Jewish people when they were exiled from their homeland more than three millennia ago, and of their miraculous deliverance from the Pharoahs. The Seder night takes place in a family home, and comprises a service in which everyone around the table plays a part, even someone like me who has not been to a synagogue for decades and for whom religion does not form part of my identity.
Neville, my host, told me before dinner that once a Jew, always a Jew. Even those who decide to convert to another religion are still thought of as Jewish. The late John Diamond, when asked what being Jewish meant to him, replied that it meant being clever and funny, and there were times during dinner when it felt like a live version of the TV show “Old Jews Telling Jokes”. Neville did his best to remind those present of the serious purpose of the evening, adding helpful textual analysis, and explaining the significance of the bitter herbs (to signify the bitterness of the years of enslavement to the Pharoahs), the salt water (tears) and the unleavened bread (the exodus from Egypt meant that the Israelites didn't have the time to wait for their bread to rise).
It came to my turn to read from the order of service. I was given a short passage which ended with the pledge that those who are faithful to Israel “will come out with great wealth”. Although these words were written long before the advent of political correctness, or racial stereotyping, it left me to wonder whether the text should be updated. Surely, if it were written today, the promise would be of freedom, or equality, or health. Or maybe the reference to wealth was in terms of spiritual richness. You never know.
The tone of the whole Seder night was light, bright and evocative, and, as a way of introducing young people, unbelievers, and sceptics to a religious tradition, it has a lot to commend it. It didn't make me reassess my feelings of identity, and it's not going to turn me into a born-again believer. But you can take the boy out of Judaism....etc. I arrived at work the next day almost involuntarily telling a Jewish joke. I hear they're building a new by-pass in North London. It's called the Golders Green Passover.