Introduction/ Narrated by Harry Hurst
A podcast series compiled from oral histories and produced as part of a digital exhibition exploring how Liberal Judaism has evolved since it was co-founded by British visionary Lily Montagu in 1902.
This episode explores the theme of ritual and worship
In this episode Liberal Jews of all ages recall aspects of the synagogue service and the way it continues to change. The memories recorded here describe recent innovations such as the new prayer book.
Others remember the early years of Liberal Judaism. Recollections include the preferences of individual synagogues, particularly in relation to the style of music at services. In addition to these differences over time and between congregations, individual liberal Jews also express their personal preferences in terms of their faith, belief in God and feelings about inclusivity.
Participants also consider how Lily Montagu might regard Liberal Jewish Worship as it is practiced today. Their voices reflect the diversity and dynamic nature of Liberal Judaism which is often at the forefront of change and refuses to stand still.
“we don’t go the synagogue that often. But it’s there. We’ve suddenly become a happy clappy synagogue, which I personally like. I like the guitar. I like the singing. I like the jumping around, etc, etc. It’s nothing like the synagogue it was in 1972 when very few people wore kappels, very few people wore Tallitim. We’ve moved in one way more to the centre as far as the religion is concerned. But we’ve moved very much more to the left as far as beliefs are concerned.
So the things have changed on both sides. In one way we’ve become much more real religious, i.e observing what Judaism ordains as far as orthodoxy’s concerned, in another way we are now way out [we are almost an offshoot of the green party]”
“It’s very different from when I was a child, it was much more churchy. A lot more of the service was in English. You also had the influence of the organ. And what you found a lot of the congregation in those days was that they came to listen to the music and listen to the performances of the choir and the cantor rather than be involved in the services. And there was far less tradition. The design for instance, in this synagogue now, I don’t think in those days, they would have liked it.”
“Well, it does change originally, but I would say it basically remains the same, you have bits of Hebrew, then you have English, then you have the Hebrew blessings, and then you had you saw the Torah come in, you read the Torah, and then you had the sermon and then we had the prayers for the sick and prayers for the dead, further blessings and that was it. Men and women sat together by the way, that was the main thing.”
“It’s changed a lot. When I first started, we had the original Liberal Judaism prayer book, which went back to the 1920s, I think, or early 1930s, with ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. And some of them still had George V in them as the monarch. And the services were mostly in English, with maybe the Shema, and a couple of other prayers in Hebrew and there’d be English hymns. And then we had – in 1967 we introduced Service of the Heart. I remember, I would have been ten at the time, so I remember that being introduced. And it didn’t have thee and thou and it had a bit more Hebrew – actually, quite a lot more Hebrew, really. And it had a prayer for Israel and it was very different in feel. And that lasted till 1995, when we had yet another, our present Siddur Lev Chadash where we introduced gender neutral language, which was seen as very radical at the time. There were a lot of people opposed, but enough people in favour of it. And it was more radical and also more traditional. So it opened from right to left, reintroduced some more traditional prayers. And I think most of our synagogues have much more Hebrew than they would have done and also many of the service leaders will chant more rather than reading.”
Rabbi Margaret Jacobi
“I’ve been at liberal services when somebody, somebody who’s been there, who obviously got an orthodox background And they’ll do the, shuchaling you know, backwards and forwards and so forth. And the real liberal Jews says, Oh, that’s terrible. How dare they do that? And a more amenable person will save it that they feel that’s helpful. Now they want to pray that way, why shouldn’t they do it, you know? But if I said, a person that came along and said, I’ll only go to this service, if it’s all in Hebrew, then no, that’s gone beyond what you should have. There are certain things in Liberal Judaism, I think it’s sine qua non is the Latin for it. It’s something which we won’t have an exception to.”
“I find services, to be honest, more and more meaningless. Especially if they are in English. I like the emotion of the Hebrew, but I don’t like the words of the English. So I go to all the social events, I go to the occasional service – but I’m not nearly as committed as I was.”
“So we try to support everybody to have the kind of Jewish life that they would want and that I really really value about the fact that we’re a Liberal Community – certainly we’re that we’re a Progressive community. That our services are shorter than orthodox services that we have flexibility about. We’re quite traditional in some ways, in the way we use the liturgy. We do a lot of Hebrew, we sing a lot of traditional melodies. But we have the flexibility to be able to do more or less of our service in English, and to make it as accessible as it needs to be to who’s there that day. And yet, we also really love the elements of our religious life, for example, which are very traditional. There’s not often a guitar to be seen at our services – sometimes – but there’s enough people who really don’t like it that, that we don’t do it so much.”
“in our congregation, Pete Tobias plays the guitar and I love it but I know people who hate it and say oh I’m not coming because it’s going to be one of his guitar services. I equally like a service where it’s where there isn’t any music other people say all it has to be a choir other people say I don’t like the choir because they want to listen to a performance I want to take part so you just have to have parameters and stay within those.”
“We said right from the start, we were not going to have a choir, because then everybody sits back and it’s a choir who mainly sings. So we very much had an attitude of, we all join in somehow whether you hum along or sing along or lalalalala or whatever. And it would be in Hebrew and in English, you know. We always had it I think that inter-generational things are important. And also being in the kind of area of London we’re in, it’s very diverse. And so everybody who came is welcome. And now you know, I mean, we’ve got United Nations really, I mean, there’s Jews from all over the place and friends who come and stuff. So it’s very open, inclusive, but still very much keeping, you know, that it is a Jewish organisation. And we take prayer and spirituality seriously and social things seriously.”
“Previously it was almost like literally anything goes, um, and I think, you know you can go too far with this, I mean if anything goes what is the point? You know that, so I do actually think the tradition’s quite important, but obviously not to the extent where you put the women behind a curtain and tell people like me that we’re not Jewish because our mum’s weren’t Jewish, there’s a huge spectrum, like anything there’s a spectrum. So for my personal view, I actually think that from what I can tell, having nothing to compare it to, but from what I can tell I think the balance that is happening in my synagogue between tradition and liberalism, I think it’s a really good balance, ‘cos there is a tradition there – you know people do wear kippahs, I don’t, I haven’t worn a shawl or anything like that but a lot of people do – there is a lot of the tradition that’s there, there’s a lot of the songs that are there, um, but obviously it’s very open and inclusive as well.
“I think it’s that sense of belonging to a community, like you’re all there, you’re all singing the same songs, if you can sing in Hebrew which I’m learning, you’re all connected to that same story. So it’s part of being part of the people. And it’s also knowing that these, some of these songs and some of these rituals are happening all over the world and have been happening for thousands and thousands of years. You know, so when you go and, you know, open the Torah scroll and dadadada that’s happening everywhere and always has done and I think that’s really powerful. I think I would like to have a Bat Mitzvah, an adult Bat Mitzvah, I’ve kind of talked that briefly with my Rabbi, we haven’t put any plans in place yet but you know I’d like to do that”
“Yuval gave me my second Bar Mitzvah when I was eighty three. I had a lovely Bar Mitzvah at Southgate. And a lot of my friends from the Orthodox said it wasn’t what they expected. They expected Liberal Judaism to be not what the service was. They said, okay, they cut prayers out …the repetition but all the prayers we say in United, the same prayers are said but shortened version”
“I wasn’t Bat Mitzvahed, I was confirmed and that was what was considered the route into sort of mature Judaism in those days. And that involved it was like Kabbalat Torah now. But I know that Liberal Judaism was criticised then for the confirmation process that it it made it too much like the Christian confirmation and more recently, Bat Mitzvahs and Bar Mitzvahs have come back into fashion I suppose. And both of my daughters were Bat Mitzvahed.”
“I had a B’not Mitzvah with Esther, my twin. And we had the service and the party in a marquee in the Hurst Avenue playing fields. We split the kind of marquee into the service and party everyone who was invited to the party was invited to the service, which is also really nice because all my friends aren’t Jewish could come and just see the service and it felt really, really special having everyone there and feeling like everyone was on your side. It wasn’t anything too complicated. It didn’t feel like it was closed to the people that couldn’t read Hebrew or even, you know, had never even met somebody Jewish, it felt really special.”
“And things have changed. Like I said, I had my marriage blessed, but it couldn’t be here, but it can be now. You know, people can have a blessing here if one partner isn’t Jewish.”
“I think in a lot of ways I’m, I’m maybe more engaged with the spiritual religious side, than like, some of my peers, in Liberal but that’s fine. I think because I’m really into kind of delving deep into Torah, and doing a lot of intense Torah study and religious practice, which I think a lot of my peers, they like the liberal Judaism, for the reason that it gives them a space to engage in that when they want. And also to have the community. But I think it’s quite nice that both sides can exist within one space.”
“Spirituality should not disappear. And it’s very easy to get all into Jewish learning but I think lots of people have enough intellectual stress in their jobs, and that the spiritual side, and the artistic and cultural side are all part of being Jewish as well. And that’s what we’ve got to try and pass on. so I think there’s a lot more work to do.”
“I honestly don’t know what I believe. I go to the services, I go to quite a lot of the services, and I really enjoy the services, um, I particularly like the singing because obviously a musical background so, you know, a lot of the singing really appeals to me, um, and I do believe in, it sounds really trite, I believe that there’s something bigger than us.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m a secular Jew exactly but I’m probably more secular than religious, but I enjoy a spiritual engagement with a possible God.”
“I never could and still can’t sort of believe in a being, a personal, a personal God, so I have, so I find my connection by translating those concepts. So I translate, and I, you know, I don’t think I’m the first Jew to have done this. you know, they’ve been proper Jewish thinkers in history who have theorized in this way too, and I, you know, I’ve learnt so much in that direction, but, I can sort of use the word God, although I don’t very much. But I use it with a, an instant translation in my mind of it being the universe or all that exists. To me, that’s what God is. And that’s how I translate it when I’m in Synagogue. And that’s what I think of. So yeah, I wouldn’t call it faith because it’s in a way for me it’s not a belief. It’s, it’s a connection.”
“I had a great sense even from quite an early age of kind of connectedness being more than just yourself. And a sense of God as something we can’t understand. There’s more to life than just us as individual, separate units.”
“When I go to synagogue and I hear the music, I can feel quite tearful, really about it quite emotional because it has such a strong memory for me of my childhood and my parents. But, it doesn’t really go any further than that, I don’t think.”
“For me when I go to the synagogue, for example, I enjoy engaging with a good sermon and reflecting and having that space just to be quiet and still and to be part of something. For me, it’s about being part of a community that is there, right then, at that moment, and that is part of my family and that is part of a bigger cultural group that makes me feel strong”
“The most important thing for me is just more that sense of being part of the community and the people, and I think the ritual is kind of, it’s a reflection of that but it doesn’t have to be that, it can just be like going to a book group or a social event or arguing about politics [laughs] or something, you know, there’s other ways that you can be part of that people without necessarily the ritual. But I think, you know, I wouldn’t want the ritual – now that I’ve found ‘the ritual’ and now that I’m doing it I wouldn’t want to not do it, you know, I wouldn’t want to lose that, because I think it would lose something, but it’s not everything, if that makes sense.”
“I know that going to shul and letting go however stressful things are, you can let go and get the flow going and have a good sing. And you’re hearing about the past and hearing about loving kindness and all these lovely things. And you’re going “into yourself” and you have the peaceful time. All that kind of stuff is very relevant to modern life. That idea of letting go and connecting to one another and doing good that to me is what Judaism is all about.”
“Because they were revolutionaries, they, you might say threw out the baby with the bath water. We became too left wing. If you compare Orthodox Judaism and liberal Judaism, right wing and left wing, we became too left wing we threw out too much. Very, very little Hebrew in the service. It was nearly all in English. We had a non-Jewish choir, who sang all in English. So they went too far to the left, but probably as a revolutionary you have to.”
“I do feel the Liberal movement has become too involved in de-genderizing everything. I object in the Avinu Malkenu to have it translated ‘our parents our sovereign’ – it’s ‘our father, our king’. And if somebody female objects to that, I’m sorry, let her object.”
“I’m the co-editor of the new siddur and we’ve had a huge amount of opposition to what we’re doing. Because we’re meeting the needs of the age, we’re producing a prayer book that is multi vocal, and not singular in its approach, that allows different voices to speak, that has feminised some of the Hebrew. That’s saying, this is the age we’re in now. Let’s really instead of lip service to the three Ms. Let’s really, really go back to the three Ms and say ‘what would Lily Montagu say today’? And what I think she’d say, ‘You’re right, right on’.”
“And in fact, I saw it in my own kind of development my own rabbinate with John Rayner, when I was in his liturgy class, and we were trying to talk to him about the importance of inclusive language. And that when saying ‘man’ and ‘he’ was exclusive. He was saying, ‘no, no, no everybody knows it’s inclusive and it means everybody’. And, but then a few years later, at the ordination of Rabbi Miri Lawrence as she was at the time and Rabbi Elaina Rothman at the LJS and he basically said, I’ve learned from the women rabbis that have come through the college and you know, and this is where we are now. And then produced a prayer book that was all inclusive in English. So John Rayner himself, ‘Zichrono livrachah’ may his memory be for blessing, moved along. That’s what I that’s what I stay with, as Lily’s legacy. That’s Lily’s legacy.”
Rabbi Elli Tikveh Sarah
“So that was quite funny when it everybody’s idea of liberal Judaism, just slightly different. And that probably says something about liberal Judaism, because means it is a wide range of things that you do. There are certain things that you would never do, whatever your viewpoint was. Whether Lily Montagu would recognize a service now be an interesting point. She was a very open my open-minded woman.”
“You’re Jewish for a purpose. A purpose is an ethical purpose, not a ritual purpose. Which is exactly what the Hebrew prophets are saying the Hebrew prophets never said, we don’t want you to bring the sacrifices or don’t bring the sacrifices, if you’ve stolen the stuff you’re bringing for sacrifice off somebody else. And that’s really what Liberal Judaism is about. It’s about saying, being Jewish is about creating a better world for everybody. It has, of course, ritual aspects, but above the ritual aspects above the particular aspects even of course, there’s a balance to be struck, is a universal one.”
This podcast series of oral histories is part of the exhibition: Lily’s Legacy – Voices and Visions of Liberal Judaism, a project supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It was produced by Miri Lawrence and Lucia Scazzocchio, Sound editing and design by Lucia Scazzocchio, and special thanks to all the contributors who agreed to share their stories. For more information about what you’ve just heard, do visit the exhibition website, www.lilyslegacyproject.com