Sunday, October 23, 2005

Why I hate Channel 4's 'Rock School'

Rock School (Channel 4, Fridays at 9.30pm) is undoubtedly one of the worst things I have seen on TV for a very long time. Why is it so bad? Let me count the ways.

It pretends that Gene Simmons, the exhumed rock star personality who is the centre of the show, is a musician and a teacher when he really isn’t either. He has no interest in teaching anything, or in managing any sort of learning. It’s almost as if he remembered the bad bits of the classroom situation (teacher favouritism, boring lessons that go nowhere) and consciously decided to recreate them.

More seriously, he isn’t much of a musician, as is evidenced by the pathetic showing he puts up when he tries to play solo to a small audience of local community worthies – my fourteen year-old would really have done a lot better.

The show also pretends that Kiss, in which Simmons plays, is a great rock band, when it knows that Kiss are at best also-rans. If Kiss were really any good, why doesn’t the show play any of their songs? Instead it’s punctuated with lots of good tracks by David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, and Hendrix. For this we must be grateful, but it makes it plain that the producers, like everyone else, know that Kiss are crap.

The show is set in Christ’s Hospital school, just about the only secondary school in the country where it stands a chance of presenting rock music as some sort of subversive influence. The school has all sorts of bizarre Hogwarts-like touches, including the long blue coats that the students wear as uniforms. This lends some shred of credibility to the show’s main premise – that rock is going to provide some ‘real life’ to a conservative backwater.

Even so, it’s pretty obvious that it both staff and students are actually quite open to rock music – the headmistress pops in every so often to see how Simmons’ lessons are going, though some of her occasional remarks suggest that she, too, knows that there are better rock bands than Kiss. The kids are actually much better musicians, and much more rounded in their perspective on music, than the show’s star.

Simmons, and the programme, imply that rock is about rebellion – even though most grown-ups understand that it is a very mainstream part of the entertainment industry. Simmons is rebellious only in the sense that not tidying your bedroom is a protest against authority. When the ‘stultifying atmosphere’ of the school and its community become too claustrophobic for him, he escapes – not to go to a music club, or to hang out with real musicians, but to go to a lap-dancing club. Perhaps next week we’ll see him buying a wank-mag too, to underline just how much of a dangerous rebel he really is.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Speech at the Red Herring Communal Barmitzvah

Friends, comrades, and Gail’s relatives:

How many of you have been at a barmitzvah ceremony before? How many have never been to a barmitzvah ceremony?

When we were planning this event the others explained to me that this was the slot where the ‘elders of the community’ spoke. I’m not quite sure when I turned into an elder – I don’t feel old enough, not even nearly. And it sounds a bit sort of – Mormon really.

I prefer to think of this as the equivalent of the rabbi’s sermon – the long bit where he (or just occasionally she) gets all erudite and quotes from the torah in Hebrew, and the congregation can have a chat or a doze.

So in true rabbinical style, let’s consider the question: “Why are we here?”

The most obvious reason why we are here is to celebrate these four boys coming of age. We are all very proud of our first graduating class, and we hope they will be the first of many. There are already many things that they can do much better than we adults. At least as far as I am concerned foremost among them is the ability to keep time when playing music, which we will demonstrate beyond contradiction a little later in the day.

But why are we here? Why aren’t we in a synagogue, celebrating their entrance as an adult into a conventional Jewish community? And what is this ‘Coming of Age’ thing?

Well, to start with, we think of ourselves as secular Jews – with equal emphasis on both words. That is, we identify with Jewish culture (about which more later) but we are not religious. By that I don’t only mean that we are not frum – not observant. We don’t believe, as Orthodox Jews believe, that the Torah (the five books of Moses) was written by God and dictated to Moses.

Nor do we believe, as Reform Jews appear to believe, that when the superstitious outer layers are stripped away there’s an underlying core of superior ethics and morality. The truth is that those scriptures were written, edited and re-edited, and bolted together over a period of hundreds of years – and that during that long period what counted as morality and ethics changed a lot. Over succeeding centuries really very clever Jewish intellectuals have expended massive amounts of energy denying this, and trying to pretend that the scriptures contain a consistent narrative and a consistent ethical code.

But they don’t. The ancient Israelites were not monotheists (only monolatrists). They practiced animal sacrifices, their society was based on hereditary castes and clan loyalties, and they had a very prescriptive sexual morality with lots of “don’ts”, all designed to prevent practices which did not lead to reproduction. Not much of this is compatible with contemporary ethics and morality, and it takes a lot of intellectual acrobatics to pretend that it is.

Many Jews think the same way that we do. We’ve lost count of the number of people we have spoken to who admit that they don’t believe in God but have joined a synagogue as a form of communal identification – mainly because their cultural identity as Jews is important to them, and because they don’t believe that they have any other option apart from the synagogue. So why have we been able to maintain the courage of our lack of convictions?

Partly because we’ve been lucky. For the last five years we’ve been part of a group of people – the Red Herring Club – which has been dedicated to celebrating Jewish culture in a secular way. For most of those five years we have been organising our activities jointly with another group – the East London Alternative Cheder – so much so that in pretty much everything but name we form a single secular Jewish community.

We’ve celebrated festivals together in a way that felt right to us, allowing us to enjoy the traditions and the customs, and even some of the rituals, without having to take on (or pretend to take on) the theological and moral baggage that go with them.

Fifty years ago our choice, and our way of being Jewish, wouldn’t have looked so eccentric. Then there was a network of secular Jewish organisations – schools, friendly societies, summer camps and youth groups, housing associations – newspapers and magazines, publishing houses – all based on the idea that there was a kind of Jewish identity not based on religious knowledge and practice. In other countries, even now – especially in the US – much of this survives, on a smaller scale. This probably a good time to mention the Congress of Secular Jewish Organisations, which has recently accepted the Red Herring Club as its British – and first ever non-American – affiliate.

But since that network isn’t there any more, why have we bothered? Why try to preserve what doesn’t seem to be capable of preserving itself? Well, the short answer is because it feels right to us. We feel like Jews, and we don’t believe in God, so we’ve chosen this kind of identification. But feelings aren’t always right – maybe this is just a silly sentimental attachment that we should grow out of. Isn’t it time we just threw in the towel?

I don’t think so. This year, as every year, my family made our near-annual pilgrimage to the Womad festival. For those of you who don’t know it, it’s a glorious celebration of human cultural diversity. In a single day we listened to bands from Colombia, Ghana, Italy, Spain, and all over the place. Our favourites are the hybrids, like the Flamenco-influenced rock band that played on the main stage at dusk.

But there can only be hybrids like that if there are things to cross-breed; and our little part of the big picture, our contribution to the recipe, is secular Jewish culture. And if we expect other people to look after their traditions so that they have something to bring to the party, then surely we secular Jews have not just a right, but a duty too, to keep our own culture well watered and looked after.

And why are we celebrating like this? With this sort of ceremony – isn’t a coming of age ceremony, even without the ‘B’ word, inherently a religious activity? Maybe…but let’s not forget that many of the scriptures, the customs, the prayers, and the festivals of religious Jews are actually borrowed from other cultures and contexts – and then given a new meaning that fits them into a specifically Jewish story.

Pesach and Sukkot existed as non-religious agricultural festivals long before they were fitted into the story of the Exodus. The story of Purim was imported from the Bablyonian festival of Zagmuku, with the characters’ names based on the Bablyonian gods. The barmitzvah ceremony didn’t really exist before the middle ages, where it developed under the same influences that led Christians to invent the confirmation ceremony. (For Philip Pullman fans, it’s worth knowing that the latter largely replaced something called Oblation, where children were dedicated to God and given to monasteries at the age of five!)

So why shouldn’t secular Jews mark the coming of age of their children with a ceremony too? After all, once you accept that the Torah wasn’t written by God, you can really start to appreciate it – as a compendium of literature, love poetry, comparative ethics and Bronze Age political propaganda. So we assert the right to pick and choose from the storehouse of Jewish tradition without apology. To light candles, to read from the torah, and to have barmitzvah ceremonies.

So for those of you who have been to lots of other barmitzvahs, I hope you can appreciate why ours – is a little bit different. And for those of you who have never ever been to a barmitzvah before, they are all exactly like this.

Ducks for beginners

Fed up with slugs in your garden, but don’t want to start using pesticides? Tired of going out last thing at night to pull the revolting slimy things off your broccoli? There is a solution, and it’s 100% organic and requires (nearly) no effort. Get yourself a couple of ducks.

I’d wanted to have poultry from the time we first acquired a garden. My great-aunts had had chickens in their tiny yards in North London. As a small child I had watched, fascinated but a little scared, as they strutted their stuff and scratched around the concrete. I’d watched The Good Life as a kid, and as a student I’d read Undercurrents Magazine and thrilled to the idea of urban self-sufficiency. Now that I had all this land (well, thirty metres by ten, actually) I felt like I needed some livestock.

It took us years to get round to it, though. My wife was the one that took the most interest in the garden anyway – I just liked reading about self-sufficiency; actual digging usually left me exhausted for days. She put most of her efforts into growing a few veg – beans, carrots, sweet corn and pumpkins. The slugs put most of their efforts into the veg too, though. We never saw a single sweetcorn. We did get a single pumpkin – some weird genetic mutant that only came up the year after we planted it, and which must have given off some odour that repelled slugs. Nothing much else managed to escape them. We had strawberry plants, some of which even fruited – but the slimy ones always got to the fruit before we did.

We were still committed to not using poisons. We found some organic anti-slug deterrent, which we sprinkled all round the veg beds. The slugs obviously couldn’t read the packet, because they weren’t deterred at all. We made beer traps – we dug great moats around the beds, lined them with bin liners and filled them with the slops from the local pub’s drip tray. We used to go round on a Friday evening with a bucket, which the staff always cheerfully filled. If any of you are reading this, we were telling the truth, we really did want it for the slugs – we weren’t drinking it. The moats worked better, but still the slugs got through. I don’t know whether they flew across, or climbed across on the bodies of their fallen comrades, but they still managed to get to the broccoli, and the courgettes, and anything else we planted.

But a weekend away on an organic smallholding in Cornwall changed our lives. The small farmer – he was quite a big bloke, actually – had half a dozen Indian Runner ducks on his property. We helped him collect the eggs in the morning, and I confessed my long-held desire for poultry in the garden. “They’re really no trouble,” he said. “And they eat slugs, too.” Suddenly my wife was interested. The following week I swung into action with the aspects of gardening I like best. I bought “Country Smallholding” magazine, and a mail order copy of “Raising Ducks in Your Back Garden for Fun and Profit.” In between a terrifying chapter on poultry diseases and a grim section on how to kill and butcher your ducks for meat, I learned the basics.

The first, and most important, is that you don’t need a pond. Ducks are quite happy with a plastic washing up bowl full of water, provided that you change the water every day. They drink out of this, dunk their heads in it – apparently they don’t have very good tear ducts, so their eyes can sore if they can’t dunk – and occasionally jump in it for a bit of a splash.

The second important thing is that you need somewhere to shut them up at nights, a little shed called an ark. They don’t need very much room in there – ours is about the size of a dog kennel, with a door that bolts. We built the first one ourselves, but we made it out of chipboard, so it rotted away in about half a year. We replaced it with a flatpacked affair from Forsham Poultry Arks, which is sort of the Barratts of the poultry world.

The ark is partly to keep them quiet till you (and your neighbours) are ready to get up – they will start quacking when it gets light – but also to keep them safe from predators. Since we got the ducks we have had regular visits from our local neighbourhood fox. In fact, we have put our ark inside a larger (three metres by two metres) chicken run, made out of wooden frames with chicken wire, and with a concrete floor to keep out the fox. This isn’t strictly necessary, and Forsham sell a smaller ‘rye run’ which fits on the front of the ark. When we are in the garden, or even in the kitchen, we let the ducks out to wander round.

We cover the floor of the small ark with straw, which we pile in quite deep. I don’t know if they really need it to be so deep, but it’s the only luxury they get, and it does look a bit more cozy when they are sunk down into it. Changing the straw, which the ducks “enrich” heavily, is the only nasty job associated with having ducks. On the other hand, the straw is great for the compost.

The nicest job is collecting the eggs. Our ducks are Khaki Campbells, which is a good laying breed. Most days each of them lays an egg. They started laying in the Spring, and were due to stop laying once the days got too short. But they didn’t seem to know this, and apart from a few really cold days in December laid all through the winter.

There is surprisingly little to do. Every morning we:

unbolt the door and let them out,
collect the eggs
replace the water in the washing up bowl
put a cupful of grain and a half a cup of layer pellets in another washing up bowl.

The whole thing takes less than five minutes a day. At night we shut them up in the ark – this was a bit fraught at first, because they didn’t really understand what we wanted them to do. But now it’s a well-established routine, and most nights they put themselves away when it gets dark.

Once a week we change the straw in the ark, and put the old straw in the compost bin. At the same time we put a cupful of grit in another bowl. The ducks need grit to replace the calcium they lose by making egg shells, and also because they use it in their gizzards to break up the grain so that they can digest it.

We were a little worried that the ducks would damage the plants in the garden, but it hasn’t really been a problem. They do peck at the grass a bit, but it doesn’t seem to have done it any harm. We put a bit of chicken wire round the vegetable beds when the plants are young. And their webbed feet do much less damage to the garden than chickens’ claws would have. They don’t seem to do that frantic scratching thing that preoccupies chickens for so long.

And the slugs? They love them to death. They spend most of the Spring and Summer poking around with their bills, rooting among the dead leaves and under the plants. They got lots of the slugs early in the year, before most of them had had a chance to lay eggs; and they must have hoovered up most of the remaining hatchlings too. At any rate, we were hardly bothered by them at all last year, even though our neighbours’ crops have been devastated. And we haven’t bought an egg since March 2002.

When I was Irish

First, to be absolutely clear about this, I'm not Irish. None of my parents, grandparents, or remote ancestors are from Ireland. I've only ever been to Ireland once, on a work trip which involved an ecumenical service to dedicate a new halal abattoir, but that's another story.

Four years ago I decided to learn to play music, and hit on the tin whistle as my instrument of choice. It was cheap, portable, and hard to break or ruin. One thing led to another, and I found myself at traditional Irish music classes run by an organisation called Meitheal Cheoil at the Camden Irish Centre -- the only place I could find where it was possible to actually have tin whistle lessons.

Within a few weeks I was beginning to pick out some traditional songs on my whistle. We learned by ear, not by reading music. This suited my musical abilities, but presented another problem; the rest of the group all knew the songs, and I didn't.

I hadn't really thought about this previously. I just wanted to learn an instrument, and was really taking a free ride on the Irish part. But for Methail Cheoil, the passing on and preservation of a part of Irish culture, as a live tradition rather than as a museum piece, was an essential part of the activity.

So I bought CDs, and listened to them as often as I could. There was no point in buying innovative cross-over reworking of the traditional tunes; I needed the raw stuff, so that I could get the songs into my head. To get the simplest renditions, I had to immerse myself in Hiberno-schlock, a twilight world of albums with names like 'Twenty Irish Songs to Warm Your Heart' and 'Irish Party Singalong Tunes'. You'd probably recognise the Jewish equivalent if you saw it, and probably run a mile.

Of course, I did ironically, so that was OK. And there was something rather liberating about taking a dunk in someone else's culture, and not having to worry about whether it was really politically acceptable to enjoy maudlin nationalist sentimentality. Some of the Irish members of the class worried about it rather more.

In any case, it must have worked, because by Christmas I was playing in the beginner's band at the Irish Centre Ceilidh. And that's where I had my revelation; anyone could be Irish if they wanted to.

Even in the whistle class, no one had seemed to find it particularly strange that I as a non-Irish person was participating in their thing. But there it wasn't terribly clear who was and wasn't Irish. Some of the students were first-generation immigrants -- some old people reconnecting with the traditional music they'd grown up with, and some Irish yuppies for whom it was a class that they might have taken back home -- but most were second or even third generation 'assimilated' Irish, on a roots thing. They didn't sound or look that different from me, a third-generation descendant of Jewish immigrants.

But the Ceilidh, which included people from the other music classes and from the broader Irish community, was a whole new experience. Irishness, at least in its North London manifestation, was clearly a much more inclusive category than I had been prepared for. There were quite a few Black Irish people, and one or two Chinese ones. There were a couple of others with what looked to me like Jewish faces, though they might equally have been Greek.

I don't know how everyone in the room felt about this; but I do know that there was no outward sign that anybody had any feelings about it at all. Then and subsequently, I have never come across any handwringing about who the traditional music activities ought to be for, let alone 'who is an Irish person?' The activity was Irish in content, and that was enough. Other, non-Irish people's participation did not detract from its Irishness or threaten its existence or value.

In our community, interest by others in our culture is rarely taken at face value. Although discussions about Jewish culture are often shot through with barely-veiled assumptions about cultural superiority, we are usually suspicious about anyone else wanting to partake. Perhaps it's because we are afraid that it won't stand up to much scrutiny from anyone without a sentimental attachment to it; or maybe we are worried that they are only showing an interest so that they can insinuate themselves into our superior institutions. Why else would non-Jews be trying to sneak into our schools?

Either way, there is an all-pervasive obsession with maintaining and policing a boundary, with determining who is and isn't entitled to come in. Look at the selection processes associated with admission to Jewish schools, or the application forms for joining a synagogue. No-one at Meitheal Cheoil ever asked me for my parents' marriage certificate.

I don't want to imply that Irish culture is inherently inclusive and anti-racist. I'm sure that someone else could find plenty of counter-examples, together with joyous examples of Jewish inclusiveness and syncretism. But I don't think that the Jewish obsession with boundaries and separation, which make up an enormous proportion of our law and our lore, are merely accidental add-ons to our culture either. In biblical and talmudic Judaism, the principle of distinction and separation, and the importance of keeping things from mixing, is always imbued with a moral and theological dimension.

We are forbidden to mix meat and milk; fish and meat on the same plate; wool and linen in the same garment; and forbidden to yoke two kinds of animals to the same plough. God does not like it when we mix things, stuff, or ourselves. It's worth remembering this next time you get into one of those discussions about the essential ethical core of Judaism.

I enjoyed the time I spent being Irish. I think it's one of those things that everyone ought to try at least once. It would be nice, too, if it was easier for other people to have a go at being secular Jews too. If that seems an inherently self-contradictory idea to you, have a think about why. Is it because, despite protestations to the contrary, we only have two models of Jewish identity - a religious one that does allow for conversions, and a racial one, that doesn't?

A version of this appeared in Jewish Socialist magazine.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Rosh Hashana for secular Jews

Most Jewish festivals lend themselves to a secular celebration, based on finding some contemporary dimension to a historical commemoration. Hanukkah is a good time to reflect on both religious freedom and national liberation, Pesach suggests a contemplation of freedom from slavery, and so on.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are not well suited to this approach. Unlike almost all the other festivals, they don't commemorate a real or imagined historical event. And they are all about things that don't seem to make much sense outside of a religious context – judgment, confession, sin.

So is there a way into these festivals for secular Jews? Well, let's start by looking at the historical background.

There's not much about Rosh Hashana in the torah. Whereas Leviticus goes into some detail about how to do Yom Kippur and Sukkot, Rosh Hashana is defined as a day of 'complete rest... commemorated with loud blasts', but there's not much else – and it's not called a New Year celebration at all. That's not too surprising, because the ancient Israelites seem to have celebrated their New Year in the Spring. Originally the Hebrew months had numbers rather than names, and by convention Tishri, the month in which Rosh Hashana happens, is the seventh month rather than the first.

For a herder community, the year did begin in the Spring, with the birth of the New Lambs. For a community engaged in more settled, arable-based agriculture, the Autumn harvest was a better time to mark the end of the year. So at some point the Israelites must have changed the time at which they deemed the year to have started. In fact, it's slightly more complicated than that, because Jews later recognised four new years – a New Year for Kings, used for counting the years of the reign and other civil purposes; a New Year of cattle, used for counting animals for tax and tithe purposes; a similar New Year for trees; and the religious New Year, in Tishri.
Of course, having more than one New Year, and changing the date at which New Year is celebrated, are not restricted to the Jews. Britain has a separate 'financial year', and the custom of celebrating the beginning of the year in January doesn't go back beyond the eighteenth century in this country.

But the transformation from herders into agriculturalists meant more for the calendar than just moving the New Year. Herder could make do with a lunar calendar – one based on the phases of the moon. Farmers need more from a calendar, particularly if they have some form of state organisation with taxes and so on. In particular, they need to be able to fix some dates in a way that is consistent with the seasons – so that the harvest festival comes at the right time of year, for example. As they settled down the Israelites moved from a fully Lunar calendar to a 'luni-solar' one.

The Israelites' dating system was based on twelve lunar months, each beginning and ending at the New Moon (the Hebrew word for 'month' has the same root as the word for New Moon, just as our word 'month' has the same root as 'moon'). But twelve lunar months gives you a 'lunar year' of just 354.36 days – well short of the 365.25 (ish) days needed for a solar year. If you use a purely lunar calendar, you soon get out of sync with the seasons.

Originally the Israelites solved this problem by adding in ten days 'between' the years. These ten days were neither part of the old year nor the new one. Incidentally, lots of other cultures did the same thing, in Asia and in Europe; in medieval France the peasants had a twelve-day between-years period, with each day representing one month in the year to come. For the Israelites, their ten-day period was a scary time. Without the proper preparations, the New Year might not might not start auspiciously, or might not start at all. So the ten day period was marked with rituals of purgation and sympathetic magic. The custom of eating sweet food to ensure that the coming year is sweet, and of eating dishes of sliced carrots (which are alleged to resemble gold coins) are examples of sympathetic magic. Fasting, the scapegoat ritual and its successor kapores, and the custom tashlikh, are all purgation rituals (the Romans did something similar before their New Year in March, and the word 'February' comes from the Latin word for purgation).

There are lots of common elements with a Babylonian festival of Judgment that also took place in the Autumn. This is what you'd expect – partly because the Babylonians had a similar luni-solar calendar, and partly because much of what we think of as the Jewish religion was defined during the period when the Judaean ruling class was in exile in Babylon. The Jewish month names are the same as the Babylonian ones, and follow the names of the Babylonian gods (ask a Rabbi to explain that one).

Eventually, the Jews worked out a better luni-solar calendar. They discovered what is sometimes called the Metonic cycle, after the Greek astronomer who worked out the relationship between the solar and lunar cycles, and concluded that the two calendars could be brought into line by the addition of an extra lunar month in seven years out of every nineteen. For a while, the decision as to whether to add an extra month was made empirically, first by the temple priests and then by the Sanhedrin which succeeded them. In the fourth century (the fourth century by Christian reckoning, that is, though the Christians were not reckoning it that way at the time) Hillel 2nd set down the calculations used to make the decision.

But even though they had a better calendar which no longer needed the ten between-year days, the Jews kept their ten day festival of purgation, just as they'd earlier kept the tradition that the New Year was in Tishri but the first month was Nisan, in the Spring.

Does any of this matter? Well, I think it does. Firstly, because an understanding of some of the historical and anthropological dimensions provides a way into celebrating the festival for those of us who find praying ridiculous. Secondly, because it illustrates the way in which Jewish culture isn't at all something constant and unchanging, but rather is built up of many different layers, each a product of a specific set of historical circumstances. And it's kind of nice to have a link back to something that the Babylonians did.

And thirdly, because it gives a nice insight into the 'watchmaker' argument. Religious people often point to the way in which the universe is, for them, well arranged, and then claim that this is proof of the existence of God – if you saw something as complex and well-made as a watch, you'd assume a watchmaker, they say. Well, the calendar is a brilliant human response to a not very well ordered celestial clock. The cycles that are observable from earth don't relate exactly to each other, and the attempts to make an order out of this has resulted in some of the most brilliant science and some of the most bitter religious and cultural disputes. If the celestial clock is a watch made by God, then he's either an incompetent or a sadist.

(NB. Much of this a shameless plagiarism from Hershl Hartman's "The Jewish New Year Festival: A guide for the rest of us". Hershl is a vegvayzer in the Sholem secular Jewish Community in LA. Naturally, his document is longer and better - all the mistakes and over-simplifications are my own work.

There is also a very good detailed explanation about the Jewish calendar in Wikipedia.