Back to school

Berowne: What is the end of study, let me know?
King: Why, that to know which else we would not know.

I just finished a weekend at the Open Talmud Project, an annual community-run weekend aimed at Talmud study for everybody. It was a bit of a shock as I haven’t done Talmud properly for a few years, since my hardcore phase just after university when I was missing academia.

What I like best about Talmud study is that it’s very difficult lifelong learning that doesn’t have a point.

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A Shakespeare haggadah

Okay, I ended up doing something for HASHTAGSHAKESPEARE400 after all!

Tonight is also the second night of Pesach (Passover), and I put together a sort of Shakespearean accompaniment to the haggadah (the big book that everyone at a seder will have a different version of). It’s not a full haggadah, but you can read it along with most parts of the seder.

There are some bad jokes and probably some mistakes too. Any corrections or comments very welcome!

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A Crypto-Jew’s Guide to Surviving the Spanish Inquisition

Hello! Gosh I had this ambitious plan for writing something for every day in October, though you can see how well that’s gone. So many things happened this summer that I’ve been keeping it all on the shelf instead of telling about it.

I did another History Showoff talk last week, this one titled ‘How to Survive the Spanish Inquisition: Practical Tips for Crypto-Jews’. I got the timing a bit better than the Fascist Romeo & Juliet one, when I had to cut about a third of it, and the venue (in a great scuzzy pub basement) was much more fun. However, the Photoshop work is much worse, as I did it myself, including this slide about New Christians (converted Jews) having to go to church even when they’re menstruating:

Sevilla Cathedral - bloody text

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The Witch of Endor in ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

Wow the second half of November went on rocket boosters! I have little to no memory of the past two weeks and not for the good reasons (although yes, some wine was involved too). So um  AT SOME POINT LAST MONTH I had a few hours free from work, and went to take a breather at the British Museum, one of the secular temples of London. Having already ‘done’ the Greatest Hits when I first moved here – the Parthenon room, the Rosetta Stone, the Lakhish reliefs, the mummies – now I feel more freedom to go straight to the smaller rooms and see how many treasures aren’t shown so dramatically, that the museum can afford to throw away in patchily lit plexiglass cases.

There’s an exhibition called ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ on until 11 January, looking at European artists’ representations of witches from 1450-1900. I’m always up for some historical witchcraft, especially when it covers Shakespeare’s time, although starting at 1450 does miss my favourite medieval witch-related incident, in 1441, when the Duchess of Gloucester allegedly hired magicians to try to become queen (Shakespeare showed this in Henry VI, Part Two). It’s true that medieval European anxiety around witches is very focused on their bodies – often distorted, ugly and unnatural, sometimes titillating and sexy – so I was looking forward to the art as I walked up around the reading room, past Iran, Japan and Mesopotamia, to the little Print and Drawings room.

The first text box says this, which immediately seemed wrong:

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Lekh-lekha and travel

This month I’m trying to ‘be a worse, more prolific writer’ and release posts into the world like little baby birds instead of hoarding them in my grumpy dragon cave.

This week’s Torah portion is one of my favourites, Lekh-lekha, the story of God telling Abram and his family to pick up and ‘go out’ (lekh) from their country.

Biblical Hebrew is very dense, and the two-word phrase lekh-lekha has few possible meanings. The easy reading is just a repeated command to ‘go out, go out’. But the second word plays on how the -kha suffix also means ‘yours’, so it could be read as ‘go out on your going-out’ – the journey that’s only yours – or ‘go out from yourself’, or ‘go out for yourself’, for your own good. Hebrew also uses double words for emphasis – like the title of Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs) – and the doubling of lekh-lekha could mean ‘go out – really go, don’t half-ass it’, or ‘go out, and go far’.

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Rosh Hashanah 5775

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.

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