A stranger in Jewish Britain

The notion that Jews are Jews all over the world and will go out of their way to help one another is appealing as it is romantic, although sadly it isn't always true.

closed synagogue cartoon 521 (photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
closed synagogue cartoon 521
(photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
I’ve always had it in my head that Jews could (and should) find fellow Jews in nearly any city. Writing in the late first century, Josephus Flavius remarked that Jews inhabited every major city of the Roman Empire. He did not, I should note, indicate that these communities were opening or welcome. The writings of the Apostle Paul, who visited Jewish communities all over the Roman world, would seem to suggest otherwise, as he was frequently run out of town on a rail. But rabbinic literature is peppered with stories of traveling rabbis who stopped in this town or that village and were put up in local synagogues which doubled as hostels for visitors. Arriving unannounced, they would enjoy the hospitality of their brethren for a night or two before continuing on their journey.
It was this sort of hospitality that I’d expected when my wife and I moved to the large city of Middleford in the United Kingdom. (The real name of the city has been changed so as not to embarrass anyone.) At the end of our first week, I decided to seek out the local synagogue.
While the non-British communities of Middleford are fairly large – particularly the Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Korean communities, with a healthy dose of mixed groups of Muslims – the Jewish community barely registers. There is no kosher butcher or bakery, and you won’t find any specifically kosher foods sold in the supermarkets. Lord help you if you have a craving for gefilte fish or a half-decent bagel with lox.
Living abroad is not a new experience for me.
Whenever I arrive in a new city that I’ll be calling home, I feel compelled to contact some local Jews.
Maybe it’s just an old feeling of security. The notion that if things really go wrong, it’s good to have someone local in your corner. I suppose it’s silly to think these strangers would take in my family, like in those old rabbinic stories. After all, that sort of thing doesn’t happen in the modern world. But still, the romantic notion that Jews are Jews all over the world is an appealing one. I’d like to think that we’d all have a place to spend Shabbat if need be.
I don’t consider myself an Orthodox Jew – I’ve always attended Conservative or Reform synagogues.
But as a stranger in a strange land, you take what they got. So I decided on one drizzly afternoon to put on my raincoat, cover my feet with an extra layer of socks and make the 35-minute trek to the Orthodox synagogue.
Why I chose such a rainy day, I’ll never know. (Maybe because there’s little choice in Britain.) I’d been caught offguard that morning when I took my son to day care and it started raining. We arrived at the day-care building, both of us soaked. I walked home in the rain with a busted umbrella.
But that afternoon, I was rejuvenated and defiant. I didn’t want to be cooped up because of a little rain. I felt like walking through puddles and getting a little wet and maybe a bit muddy.
That feeling lasted about 15 minutes into my walk, when the hills started.
I hadn’t seen any hills within Middleford, a coastal city. These inland hills simply appeared out of nowhere. Water rushed down them like a river. It was probably in my effort to keep my feet somewhat dry that I took a wrong turn.
Not every street in Middleford is marked. It’s a bit annoying (but I’m from Boston so I shouldn’t complain). But it was even more annoying when I realized that I’d forgotten my street atlas. All I had was the now-soggy instructions I’d written out on a scrap of paper, telling me where to turn. The ink of my sloppy handwriting ran with the flooding rains at my feet.
TWO WRONG turns later, I happened upon the synagogue. The building was set back from the road and enclosed by an iron fence. I could see lights inside, as I thanked my lucky stars that there’d be someplace warm and dry to rest for a bit.
I pushed the small, rubber doorbell.
I waited 30 seconds. And pushed it again.
The rain picked up a little, and frustration set in. I’d walked all this way and no one was here? On the website, it had clearly said that the synagogue shop was open until 3 p.m., and it was only 2. And I could see the lights on inside. Why was no one answering? Three more minutes went by, as I passed back and forth in front of the gate, contemplating what I should do. Maybe I could hop the fence. The pointy tops of the wrought iron discouraged that idea.
So I pushed the rubber doorbell again, not knowing if anything was happening within the building.
Moments later, the door of the synagogue opened, and a middle-aged blonde-haired woman with a long black skirt and no raincoat or umbrella emerged. She ran out to me.
“Hello, yes?” she said, through the iron bars of the gate.
I supposed that was the British version of may I help you? “Hello, my name is Steve,” I said through rain echoing off my nylon hood.
“My wife and I are new to Middleford and I’d like to visit the synagogue and get some information.”
“Well, we keep the gates locked for security purposes. Do you have anything you can give me?” “You mean identification?” I asked, hoping against all things decent that she wasn’t asking for a bribe. It was at this point that I realized my wallet was in my other coat’s pocket. “Well, I don’t have my wallet on me, but I have a business card.”
I put my bag down on the wet pavement.
The rain picked up a little.
As I was bending down, she asked, “Where are you coming from?” I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant, since my accent was clearly American.
“Well, the States,” I replied. “More specifically, Tucson, Arizona.”
At the time, Tucson had a bad reputation, since earlier that week the news had broken worldwide of the attempted assassination of a US House member who happened to be Jewish and the collateral murders of several others present, including a young aide, who also happened to be Jewish. So “Tucson” may not have been the best response.
I handed her the business card, which declared my name, phone number, e-mail address and status within the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
She said, “Okay, I’ll be back in a moment,” and she quickly disappeared within the building. I didn’t see her again.
FIVE MINUTES passed, and I contemplated leaving altogether. What was going on in there? Were they running my file in some sort of world Jewish database? Finally, a gray-haired man in a sweater vest with an umbrella emerged. He sauntered out to the gate where I was getting rained on. I could only imagine how I must’ve looked. Soaked from head-to-toe and a little muddy, unshaven, with a baseball hat and hood on. Although I stood on the outside of the fence, I felt like I was behind the iron bars, imprisoned, and he was coming to visit me, some sorry wretch.
“Hello, yes? What do you want?” he asked.
Not exactly the warm welcome I was expecting.
“Well, um, as I told the woman who was just here, my name is Steve and my wife and I just moved to Middleford from the States. I’m looking for information on your synagogue – times for services and such – and I’m also wondering if the shop is open.”
“Okay, well, the man who sells things is gone for the day.”
An awkward silence followed for a few second or two. And then he asked, “Are you Jewish?” This question is like nails on a chalkboard to me. Having spent considerable time in Israel, I’ve been asked this many times before, and it always shocks me. It’s not obvious that I’m Jewish by the way I look. I suppose there is a Jewish “look,” though certainly this man and the woman I had just met didn’t have it any more than I. But it’s an awkward question because it presumes that I would be treated differently depending on my answer.
Maybe it’s my American egalitarianism, but, frankly, that offends me. If I had said no, would they have been any less cordial (if that were possible)? I stared at him blankly for a second, and then answered, “Yes. Actually I’m looking for Shabbos candles in particular.”
“Well, I believe he does sell candles, but as I said, he’s gone for the day.”
“Okay, well,” I continued, seeking some way into this place, just to get out of the rain for a moment, “is there any information you can give me?” “Look,” he said, “we don’t open the gates for security reasons, and the rabbi’s not here.”
“Um, uh,” I staggered, not knowing what to say. I’d just trudged through the rain to get there. I’d expected some sort of welcome as a Jew from out of town.
Instead, I stood soaking in the rain, being spoken to through iron bars as if I were a threat. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Perhaps I could have the rabbi contact you,” he suggested. “What is your telephone number?” I was growing increasingly agitated, a feeling that I often express with bitter sarcasm. “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t give out my telephone number, you know, for security reasons. And I’m sure I can find the rabbi’s number myself.”
I’ve come to realize that Brits don’t particularly like such confrontation.
Maybe it’s the tradition of the stiff upper lip, but the British people seem to prefer a unique brand of passive aggression. But now I’d made my frustration perfectly clear, and even the smallest amounts of cordiality this man had to offer vanished.
“Right,” he said, as he began to turn away.
“But thank you for your hospitality!” I was pushing it, but, as they say, in for a penny, in for a pound.
He walked away, without another word. Apparently, he didn’t care to stand in the pouring rain as someone hurled implicit insults at him through iron bars any more than I did. But at least he had a refuge from the rain to go to. I, on the other hand, had a wet, 35-minute walk home ahead of me.
AS I HEADED back through puddles, somewhat dejected, I was reminded of the final scene of the Steven Spielberg film Munich, about an Israeli secret agent, played by Eric Banna, who is sent all over Europe to assassinate the Palestinian terrorists involved in the murders of the Israeli Olympic team hostages. After fulfilling his assignments, Banna leaves the life of a secret agent and moves his family to New York to escape his life in Israel.
Geoffrey Rush, who plays his intelligence boss, visits him at the end of the movie to convince him to return to Israel, but Banna refuses and the two argue briefly about the ethics behind what they did. At the conclusion of the argument, Banna, in an attempt to reconcile, invites Rush to dinner. Rush refuses, and Banna pleads, “Come on, you’re a Jew, you’re a stranger. It’s written some place or other, I’m supposed to ask you to break bread.” And Rush still refuses.
The scene’s message is fairly obvious: Life as Jews had changed irrecoverably for these men, and indeed for Jews everywhere. The ugly game of international espionage and murder changed how Jews related to one another and, as a result, what it meant to be Jewish.
The film takes place in the 1970s, but the final shot of the last scene, where Banna looks out over the East River from Brooklyn and sees the World Trade Center towers standing in the background, reminds us that it is really the filmmakers’ statement about Jews and Israelis in the post-9/11 world. It was this final scene that I thought about as I walked away from the Orthodox synagogue in Middleford, having been turned away as an outsider.
You might say that this is all a sign of the times in which we live. The Apostle Paul may have been booted from nearly every synagogue from Tyre to Rome, but, let’s face it, no one likes proselytizers.
But even Paul would have expected some measure of hospitality. Today, such hospitality has unfortunately been abandoned for paranoia.
But that’s not really why I wasn’t welcome.
The reason is that some Jewish communities in the Diaspora are simply isolated and xenophobic. I grew up in Boston and have lived in Chapel Hill and Tucson, and in those places, Jews are well-integrated into the greater community. The American Jewish experience is generally not hidden behind security guards and iron bars, where the fearful pray that no one notices them. Synagogues in America are as much a part of the urban landscape as churches and (increasingly) mosques. Religious and ethnic diversity in America is a value that is safeguarded by official sanction, social mores and (God willing) public outcry.
But in Middleford, the Jewish communities have separated themselves from their own home city. In doing so, they have alienated their Jewish brothers and sisters abroad, one disappointed visitor at a time. They are sadly teaching their children that a Jew from another land is no different than any other stranger, and that strangers are to be suspected. They have shown me in no uncertain terms that a world of united Jewry does not exist, and that it’s tough to be a stranger in a strange land, even when you’re Jewish.
The writer is a PhD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has taught in the Jewish communities in Chapel Hill and Tucson, and in the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona. He currently completing his doctoral dissertation on the Jews of Byzantine Palestine in the UK, where he lives with his wife and son.