A Jew for all Seasons…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram

September 19, 2015 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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The Proms are an annual institution in London. From July to September each year, the Royal Albert Hall on the south bank of the Thames hosts an array of nightly concerts of mediaeval, renaissance, baroque, classical, romantic and contemporary music to suit all tastes.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

Season-tickets are at a premium and are usually sold out long before opening-night.

I recall two acquaintances of mine from the old days – let us call them Nigel and Clive – who each bought season-tickets one year. However, while Clive attended religiously every promenade-concert that season (except for Shabbat of course) getting near-to-maximum value from his season ticket, Nigel attended only those concerts featuring performances of the epic symphonies of Gustav Mahler. Not knowing in advance when they would be held, he was happy to fork out a large sum of money just to be sure he could attend each Mahler concert as and when it occurred.

Naturally I assumed that Nigel was a Mahler connoisseur, not to mention devotee. Imagine my astonishment when he confided to me that not only did he not understand Mahler’s music, he didn’t even like it very much. “Frankly, large sections of it bore me to tears” he remarked. “I’ve even been known to talk my way through concerts until I’m told to shut up!” When I asked him the obvious question “then why do you pay so much money to go?” he told me that his father was a great Mahler enthusiast, as was his grandfather before him. “In fact, my great-grandfather was distantly related to him” he explained. “I suppose it’s a sort of loyalty to the family and to family tradition” he added.

Puzzled, I spoke to Clive some weeks later. “Are there a lot of people out there like Nigel” I asked. “Definitely” he replied. “There are some people who buy season-tickets just so that they can be sure to get in for the special last night of the Proms. They never use the tickets otherwise. They hardly understand a thing about music.” When I asked him if that also applied to him, he remarked “It used to. All my friends went to the Proms and I went with them. I have always liked music, but so much of it went over my head. I thought to myself ‘there must be more to this stuff than being able to hum a few jolly tunes’. I did a short music-appreciation course, and now I understand the concepts of musical form, structure, tonality, texture, genre and everything else. When I come away from a concert – yes, Mahler too – I feel a sense of uplift and inspiration that I never remotely used to feel.”

No doubt those reading this looking for a prospective son-in-law or employee with a modicum of seikhel would be far more inclined to enquire after Clive than Nigel! And yet how many hundred of thousands of Nigels will be in synagogues throughout the Jewish world this Yom Kippur intending not to return until this time next year– despite having dug deep into their pockets for an all-season ticket entitling them to occupy their seat at every service of the year. When asked if they are devotees of this ‘epic’ kind of service, the Nigellian response will be: “Are you meshuggeh? I come to Shul for Kol Nidrei because that is what my father and grandfather did! It’s tradition!

Will ‘tradition’ alone keep our children and grandchildren coming to shul? Probably not – no more likely than Nigel’s grandchildren continuing to attend Mahler concerts without appreciating a note of the music?

The epic symphony-in-five-movements that is Yom Kippur is a masterpiece of structure and design, texture and content. But not only Yom Kippur. This Shabbat we shall read from the Torah about the command from G-D to Moses and the people to “write for yourselves this song” (Deut. 31:19). The overt reference is to the song of Ha’azinu which will form the next week’s parasha. But the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) explains that it refers to the whole Torah (from which we derive the 613rd mitsva of writing a Sefer Torah). The whole Torah is a song. This is one reason why publicly it must always be chanted with a melody. Similarly we might say that every daily, Shabbat and Festival service is a symphony, each as diverse as are the symphonies of Mahler and Mozart   It is only the Clives of the Jewish world who will be able to appreciate not only the design, texture and content of the epic Yom Kippur symphony but also those lighter, simpler ‘symphonies of the Shabbat service or the Succot service, not to mention the ‘last night of the Jewish Proms’ – Simchat Torah.

Are we going to be Nigels and talk our way loyally through one, two or three services a year, or are we aiming to be Clives, aspiring to be a Jew for all seasons? The choice is ours! May we all, this Yom Kippur, be inspired to choose wisely!


3 Responses to “A Jew for all Seasons…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram”
  1. Harold Zvi Slutzkin says:

    The solution is we need both the Nigels and the Clives. However without the composers and musicians, those to whom music is the breath of life, the Nigels and Clives of the future will have no concerts [or Yom Kippurs] to go to

  2. Liat Nagar says:

    That’s a wonderful story, Col. Cody Flecker.
    As to music and the Yom Kippur Service, essentially they are experienced through the soul. It’s true that it can add dimension to understand the technical aspects that make up their structure, however real understanding is felt through the soul by way of the senses.
    Tickets and money should be by the by.

  3. Col.Cody Flecker says:

    It’s true, people go to a concert often times to be seen, and not to necessarily hear the music; so true is the story about Yom Kippur. Our religion is one of tradition, which is the foundation stone of our belief.

    Teaching history to Mexican Army officers in the State of Chihuahua, I was invited to the home of one of my students to meet his parents and sister, it was Friday evening when this happened. They were devout Catholics with a picture of every saint on just about every wall, along with crucifixes and other objects of the Catholic faith. Before we sat down to dinner, the woman of the house all put on shawls on their heads, took out candles, placed their hands over their eyes, and blessed the candles silently. I asked why did they do this, and the reply was simple….it was a trodden on every Friday to do that, but they didn’t know why. I was also told that these people never ate pork or shell fish, and again didn’t know why. I explained that maybe when their relatives came from Spain back in the 1530’s they were most probably Jewish. They were absolutely astounded at that fact, after all they were one of the largest landowners in all of Mexico, how could that be?

    I introduced them to an Orthodox Rabbi in El Paso (Texas) who explained more fully what these people were experiencing. The result was that the entire family re-converted back to Judaism after discovering exactly who they really were.

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