Happy new year! The Jewish holidays don’t always map well onto the Gregorian calendar or London seasons, but I do love starting the year in autumn, when everyone’s returning from summer and ready to set out on a new cycle of school and work.
Rosh Hashanah was last Thursday, and I spent the morning like I usually do, standing in front of 200 children and their parents in a ’50s swing dress pretending to be a rock star. I play violin in the synagogue band, which does a musical service once a month for kids, parents and teens with particularly good taste, plus the Rosh Hashanah service, which usually packs out the main synagogue (for non-Jews – Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are like the Christmas and Easter of the Jewish calendar, in that all the people who never turn up to shul turn up for them. The traditional service up the road in Finchley is even more packed). While it is a little harder to pretend to be a rock violinist than a rock guitarist or drummer, like the others, generally it’s a good time making goofy band faces at each other and doing mic checks and sorting out sound cables like we’re real musicians.
After getting to fulfil our college music star dreams, the best part of being in the shul band is the small children, who come in ideal portion sizes, ie their parents bring them to you for a few minutes, prod them to say nice things to you and then remove them. On Thursday, a dad brought his three- or four-year-old son up to the musicians’ huddle to meet me; he stared at me with big googly toddler eyes as his dad explained his name was Ben, and he was just starting preschool, and he liked the violin and lately had been asking if he could have lessons.
“That’s great!” I said. “Nice to meet you, Ben! Are you looking forward to preschool?”
Ben looked terrified and stuck his face into his dad’s armpit.
“He’s usually more talkative,” his dad said. Sure.
(Ben was nevertheless better than the 14-month-old girl a mother brought up to meet me – “She loves violins”, she said, jogging her slightly – who just sat in her arms gazing steadily at me with a faint air of disappointment. Well, it’s better you learned it young, kid, never meet your heroes.)
The service was especially good because the band has now been playing together for five years (!!). We rehearse exactly once a year, about a week before Rosh Hashanah since it’s our Big Gig, and as we’ve got to know each other and know what we’re doing musically slightly more, the rehearsals have become a little less stringent. In the first few years, we’d take three hours and sit down with photocopies of the liturgy and tunes, go through them very carefully, trying things a few different ways, picking the one we liked best, discussing how they fit into the structure of the service, making detailed notes and then doing a full run-through.
This year the rehearsal was more like:
“Okay, we’re doing this in D, right, and maybe that boom-shaka thing to intro?”
“Boom-shaka or boom-a-shaka?”
“I like boom-a-shaka.”
Our entire preparation for Avinu Malkeinu – a haunting, modal plea to ‘deal kindly with us, even though we have little to commend us’ that’s sung only at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and is basically the high point of the whole liturgy – was this:
“Avinu Malkeinu – schmaltzy shtetl?”
(It went beautifully, except for when I misinterpreted the rabbi’s finger-twirling of ‘going well, let’s repeat’ as ‘quick, wrap it up’.)
A few other things have changed since I joined the band: five years ago I was poor and living alone and didn’t have close Jewish friends in London yet. Since I was in full-time work, doing a full-time MA and spending any remaining free time at the pub playing in Irish music sessions, Rosh Hashanah and a handful of other festivals were the very, very few times I’d stop and make the time and space to simply not do anything. After the service, everyone else at shul would head off to big, celebratory family meals; I’d go back to my 15×7 studio flat in Kilburn, splurge on a curry takeaway and a £5 bottle of Sainsbury’s table red, sit on the bed in my pajamas and watch sitcoms on my computer. It wasn’t particularly Jewish, but for my life at the time it was one of the most festive things I did all year.
This year after the service, Ewan and I walked to the flat of two old friends who live near the synagogue for lunch. We met their new dog, a grumpy spaniel named Panda, caught up with each other’s lives and got sloshed on holiday-themed cocktails (apples and honey are traditionally eaten on Rosh Hashanah; we mixed apple juice and honey with rum and fizzy wine). After a long afternoon we ran out of booze and gossip, and in the early dusk Ewan headed off to his poker league and I wandered home via our local wine shop, where the manager handed me an open bottle of Aussie shiraz he wanted to get rid of, then I stopped to pick up a curry so I didn’t have to cook myself dinner.
When I got home, I poured the red wine into one of our nice glasses and set out the food. As I bit into the garlic naan I was hit by a disorienting sense memory – and I realised I’d accidentally managed to get dinner from the exact same curry chain I got my festival meals from in Kilburn. (Holy Cow, for the record, on the spendy side but extremely delicious.)
So I turned on my little computer, changed into my pajamas, sat on the sofa and pulled up a few Frasier episodes to watch while I ate and drank. A lot may have changed in five years, but you do have to keep up some traditions.