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Weekly Thought - Ellul. Deuteronomy 21.10

by: Rabbi Jeremy Rosen - Last updated: 2003-09-04

I often get asked why I am so critical and cynical. So here's a more positive one. Here we are again in Ellul, the month before Rosh Hashanna.

Ellul brings daily shofar blasts, extra prayers and selichot and theserious mood of awesome anticipation which replaces the carefree happy fundays of the summer season. Ellul always reminds me of the birth of my voluntary interest in things religious.

I was sixteen when my father decided that I needed a change and so he packed me off to Yeshiva in Jerusalem. My father was worried that my heart belonged to the soccer pitch rather than to the Gemara or the prayer book. So I was seen off at Victoria Station in London, went by train down to Marseilles and boarded the Theodore Herzl luxury liner to sail to Haifa.

Haifa from the sea was idyllic, with its golden Bahai dome halfway up the wooded Carmel. The port itself was rather different, coarse, hot, rushed and frenetic and I was amazed to discover that wearing a cappel meant that I was looked at with scorn, jostled and even spat at! In the fifties Haifa was the outpost of secularism and the only city in an even more secular Israel then than now, that refused to close public institutions and transport on Shabbat.

I was hosted by very kind ex-Mancunian friends of my father who after a few days shipped me off to in a communal taxi up to Jerusalem to arrive in time for the start of the religious academic year. Eventually, several mishaps later I arrived at Kol Torah Yeshiva in Bayit VeGan. My father picked it from the others because it was a new building and therefore not
too primitive for a relatively spoilt English kid. It was run by old colleagues of my father from Mir in Lithuania and Dayan Abramsky, my father's mentor, lived nearby. I only stayed a few months in Kol Torah before I shipped myself off to Beer Yaacov but a couple of experiences I had while I was there had really profound impacts on me.

The centre of the yeshiva was a huge hall where hundreds of young men were studying, shouting, arguing, gesticulating in an atmosphere of noisy enthusiasm that was initially confusing and strange, so different from the decorum of the English academic tradition. But soon the freedom, the ability to argue, to challenge, to go to someone else for another opinion the feeling of study for the pleasure of it not the burden or duty was liberating. Then at prayer time, to see the chaos transformed in to a solid, disciplined communal expression of concentrated spirituality, was unlike anything I had ever experienced in any synagogue ever in my whole life so far. This was stage one in my transformation.

The first Friday night the two other English boys in the yeshiva decided I needed further educating. Together we walked down the five miles to the Gerrer Chassidic centre which was then in Machane Yehuda. It was midnight, the building was crowded with hundreds of black coated Gerrer Chassidim with their tall fur spodiks on their heads, swaggering around the hall, erect , tummies stuck out in front of them, pacing up and down nodding to each other, altogether like a hive of busy bees. Suddenly there was a hush. In came a small little man dressed in the same way as the others. Wherever he walked the crowd parted. Like thrashing sardines in a net they pushed back to make way. The Rebbe strutted about, his look split through the throng and everyone struggled back to get out of the way of his glance.  After walking around the hall he retreated to a top table behind a wooden crash barrier. Everyone swept up to the barrier. Those behind pressed those in front to get nearer, young strapping youths hurled themselves over other bodies to get closer.

As a well brought up Englishman I stood back from the fray. My rugger-playing friend grabbed me and together we bored through the bodies to the front. There sat the Rebbe at a long table with apparent clones sitting solemnly on either side while his assistant stood on a chair called out individual names to come up for a glass of wine. There was singing, strong martial rhythms, everyone joined in. Then silence. The Rebbe talked, quietly, briefly, something to do with the opening words of the weekly Sedra, which I didn't understand. But the power, the control, the enthusiasm, the excitement and the ecstasy, were totally unlike
anything I had ever experienced anywhere. Could this really be the same religion as the United Synagogue I experienced in London?

The following day I was taken to lunch at Sam Khan's. Sam was as far from a Gerrer Chassid as you could imagine. He was a German Jew who had fled to England where his Germanic rigidity was softened by a dose of English reserve. He was as morally straight and correct and ethical a person as you could ever wish to meet, living modestly, a little haven of European Gemuttlichkeit in a Middle Eastern turmoil of primitive and uncontrolled
chaos. He devoted his life to others, to charities and good works, to saving others from poverty, humiliation and from missionaries. He and his wife had an open home and bestowed abundant hospitality particularly on English waifs and strays.

Within a day or so I was exposed to three entirely different paradigms of religious Jewry, the Lithuanian academic, the Chassidic ecstatic and the Germanic controlled and highly ethical, all of them impressive in very different ways. I realized there was so much depth and variety and choice in Judaism, something I had no inkling of in Britain. This was the first Ellul I consciously remembered as a religiously positively experience.

Each year I try to recreate the excitement and the novelty of that year. Recurring routines, even annual ones, can be the same, uninspiring, unless we try to make them otherwise.