24 September, 2006

Shana Tova

This weekend has marked the Jewish New Year, or Rosh Hashanah.

It's something ordinarily I would have no awareness of or interest in, but now that I'm living in one of the most predominantly Jewish areas of London it's an event that has proved hard to miss.

In truth I didn't know it was happening until I was doing some shopping and noticed the greater concentration than usual of Jewish families out and about, in particular the crowds pouring forth from the various local synagogues and temples.

Two things above all impress me about Judaism: the fact it's a very dignified religion, and the fact it's a very sociable one as well.

The former is self-evident from the pride Jews take in their appearance on important religious occasions and holidays: immaculately dressed, impeccably behaved, unwaveringly polite.

The latter is equally self-evident from the way you'll see large groups of friends and families passing the time of day and swapping chat on street corners, in the parks, by road junctions - anywhere in fact that can lend itself to the exchange of conversation and discussion.

From my limited experience of Christianity (when I was young I used to earn some money by playing the organ at weddings and funerals) you certainly get neither such traits in the Church of England. I recall seeing people show up to services in the tattiest of clothes, then pissing off afterwards without even bothering to return their hymn books.

It's undoubtedly instructive and also somewhat humbling to be exposed to the cultures of the world's great religions. Just living in the same borough as a large concentration of Jews has led me to read up a little on their New Year, ascertaining that, among other things, it's just turned 5767 in their calendar, and the event marks the start of what are known as the ten 'Days Of Awe', culminating in Yom Kippur - a name which, for students of history like me, comes bearing ominous resonances of the eponymous Israeli war of 1973.

The common expression of good wishes, meanwhile, is "Shana Tova", and the occasion is commemorated by eating, among others, round challah bread, apples dipped in honey, and pomegranates.

I'm sure any Jews reading this will think my innocence and naivety laughable. I gladly hold my hands up to any accusation of ignorance you'd care to muster. Yet I've ended the day knowing something more about the ways of the world than when I started it, and that can only be a good thing.


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