IN THE ENGLISH SYNAGOGUE
If you happen to travel about the provincial England you will be charmed by Eastbourne - a small resort town located on the bank of La Manche, which the British stubbornly call the English Channel. Though, in our case the notion "province" sounds rather conventionally: an hour and a half's trip by the local train will take you to London. Yet the quiet county Eastern Sussex fascinates visitors by its rural landscape, seaside- fishing villages, ancient castles.
The Eastbourne embankment remotely resembles Yalta or Sochi: the hotels stretch along the quay, the beaches strike the eye with bright tents; only here everything is more fundamental, richer.
When I came to this town I immediately went to look for a synagogue. Some time later I asked myself: what directed me? I am not a religious man and I went to look for a Jewish temple not to pray there. The explanation is very simple: the synagogue is the very place to find local Jews, to talk to them, to learn about their life. What language do they speak among themselves: Yiddish or totally unknown to us ladino? The English Jews, as is known, once came to Britain not through Poland, Lithuania, Romania, but via Spain, Portugal, Italy... These are, predominantly, the Sefards-the descendants of Marrans I used to read so much about.
The English literature is abundant in the Jewish characters - from Shakespeare's Shalock to famous Fagine from "Oliver Twist". The names of Great Jews - Disraeli, Montefiore, Rotshield - entered into the history of England.
The Jew Rifkind has quite recently been the Cabinet of Ministers' member in charge of the defense of Great Britain. Isn't it worth while getting acquainted with the local community?
It took me some time to find the synagogue in Eastbourne. I had been to many places until, finally, the owner of a small perfumer's shop - a handsome young man - agreed to show me the way to it. On the way there he told me he came from Turkey and his name was Hussein. I was even surprised at the affability and friendliness of this man. Why should a Muslim, having left his shop unattended, take a stranger to the Jewish temple located several blocks away? At first, we came to a big shop selling TV sets which owner was a Jew. Hussein didn't ask him about the synagogue, he just introduced me and we continued our way. Then he ushered me into a semi - dark garage where several cars were shining with black varnish. Hussein disappeared somewhere. I got a bit terrified: I suddenly pictured myself (I've seen many American action films on our TV) a gangster coming out of the darkness with a large - caliber gun and demanding my cheque book...
But, instead of a gangster I saw the same smiling Hussein show up from a side door. He was not alone. I was introduced to the garage owner - another local Jew -we exchanged a couple words with him and went farther. Why did Hussein take me to all those places? It was, obviously, pleasant to him to acquaint the local Jews with such rarity as their fellow from the faraway, almost unknown here Moscow. It is noteworthy that some local inhabitants asked me questions on how we defend ourselves from bears; in their opinion, these animals in Russia wander about the streets and enter almost every building's doorway.
Finally, we arrived at the synagogue. This turned out to be not a massive majestic building, which is a usual thing in the European capitals. We stood near a white two-storeyed house over a narrow door of which one could notice a TV-camera eye. But in vain we pressed the doorbell button - no one would open.
The next day we, i.e. me with my daughter who was at the same time my interpreter, came to the synagogue early in the morning. This time they opened the door - it was the Rabbi - an elegant gray -haired man in gold -rimmed spectacles. He smilingly invited us inside. He, obviously, knew about us already. The news about the guests from a faraway Moscow had most likely reached him the day before. There was nothing surprising in that: I think we were the first and the last Jews from modern Russia who unexpectedly visited the tiny community of the seaside Eastbourne. On entering the synagogue we found ourselves in a small room with small tables covered with smart table-cloths already served for the Easter meal. The Rabbi, keeping silence, hastily lead us upstairs to the second floor where we saw a small chapel for fifteen - twenty persons. The prayer had already started but the women, standing nearer to the exit behind several men, cordially smiled at us. My daughter stayed with them. The Rabbi took me to the first row. Somebody took a tales from under a vacant seat, helped me put it on, gave me a prayer-book...
At this point I must confess that I was almost in panic. I looked around in confusion: a big, I would even say, mighty man was devoutly praying next to me... He had, in my opinion, a Bible face unusual for England: a big hooked nose, thick lips turned outside, slightly bulging eyes. It was, probably, possible to encounter such a Jew, wearing white clothes and riding a small donkey, somewhere on the burnt by the Arabian sun hills of the ancient Judea, but in no way in modern Christian. Britain. I had a sudden idea about the glorious Marrans who had once sailed here from hot Castilia and from Madeira... He, as it seemed to me, didn't notice me and continued praying.
I got extremely dismayed; my confusion was caused by the fact that I had NEVER PRAYED IN MY LIFE! I don't know a word from the Jewish prayers. I have never been among those praying in the synagogue! Why then am I here? How should I behave? I found myself in a ridiculous position of a man who, for instance, was invited to the theatre to stand behind the scenes but suddenly appeared on the stage blinded by the footlights in front of the full house!
At the same time I understood everything was logical. A Jew is looking for a synagogue and, having found it, arrives there early in the morning. Naturally, he has come to pray, hasn't he? Nobody can even imagine that these Russian Jews have grown up under the totalitarian, merciless atheism (and not only under that), when synagogues were if not totally forbidden then, in any case, little attractive to people due to a number of reasons!?...
I was benumbed for several minutes unaware of what to do next. Should I pretend to pray? In my opinion, this would have been blasphemy, though my old friend, having listened to my troubled confession, said I should have pretended. I cautiously pulled the tales down and headed my way through those praying to the exit looking down and burning with shame. I wished the earth could swallow me up. It was so much painful to have appeared a rara avis among these people whom I had been so eager to meet. I cannot even picture to myself how the Jews of Eastbourne later assessed our arrival at and hasty escape from the synagogue.
We told the Rabbi the bus was waiting for us (that was true) and agreed to meet the next day by all means. But we were not fated to keep our promise: the next day our route about England suddenly changed, and we left the town on the English Channel seaside forever.
Several years have passed since that event but I still experience a sharp, incessant feeling of shame when I recall the tiny Jewish community in that town and my disgraceful behaviour in the synagogue.
Some Moscow Jews, having heard my story, try to sooth me "There is no need to worry about it, forget it!" But I consider this episode a serious lesson, which helped me draw a strict conclusion, rather, several of them:
1. Every Jew should know if not all then, at least, main Jewish traditions and rules of behaviour ascribed to a Jew.
2. You should know main Jewish prayers, at least, approximately. You are not a Jew if you don't know them.
3. You should speak the Jewish language, if not Hebrew then, at least, Yiddish to feel yourself at ease among the Jews in any country.
Unfortunately, till how I can't boast of observing all these rules. You should have a colossal will -power and, probably, a definite environment to overcome the might of the age-long inertia...
But what do I observe among my coevals-Jews? I am sure the majority them, should they get to Eastbourne; wouldn't start looking for local Jews, speaking nothing about a synagogue. At home they visit synagogues only to get some benefits. Almost all of them married non-Jews in their youth and accept their children and grandchildren's contempt towards Judaism without any objections...
One of them, a journalist in the past and unemployed at present, only laughed at my offer to write for the Jewish press; another one just asked, "What do you have in common with Jids?", the third one is eagerly telling about 'shchy with sour cabbage' and 'sucking-pig with garlic' his wife is so apt at cooking; the eighty year old fourth one knows only two words in Yiddish; the fifth one departed to Germany having announced he would never go to Israel... I am not the worst Jew among them. Though, this is not a very big consolation.
That episode in the English synagogue still lives in my memory making me confused. I'd like to ask you, dear readers, whether my conduct in the English synagogue was right...