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Philip Davis on Serious Jokes

Written by The Reader, 25th May 2010

Philip Davis, editor of The Reader magazine, is a professor of English literature at the University of Liverpool and author of Bernard Malamud: A Writer’s Life.

In the United States, it is currently Jewish Heritage Month and he was asked by Oxford University Press USA to reflect on his own Jewish heritage. Below we learn about serious jokes.

More than forty years ago, Mr Zold was the shamas – the Jewish church warden, as it were – of the Orthodox Synagogue to be found in Shakespeare Street, Nottingham.

As a boy I was more interested in Shakespeare than in Judaism, but the address was only part of the incongruities of assimilation: just along the road, in a not dissimilar white-stone building, was the local YMCA. My father was an orthodox Jew, a Yeshiva-educated boy from Hackney in London, who as the years went on became more and more disillusioned with orthodoxy. He hated the thought that the more money you paid, the better your seat in the synagogue – meaning, not some superior cushioning (he could have put up with that), but a place closer to the Ark of the Covenant and by implication to the Lord Himself. My father also disliked the new Rabbi. I remember one Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur, which follows hard upon Rosh Hasshanah, the Jewish New Year – when towards mid-afternoon, my father went upstairs to the separate ladies gallery above us males, to see how my mother was doing during the fasting. That was his custom as a husband every year around three o’clock; it was like a religious ritual. Only as he did so, the ‘new Rabbi’ (meaning he had probably been in post for five years by now) made a loud announcement in English that the men were not allowed to visit their wives upstairs – which, in point of orthodoxy, was correct. My father, however, had his own laws, and even as Rabbi Posen renewed his prohibition from the dais, the bimah, there was my father visibly leaning over the rail of the ladies gallery in profiled assertion of his greater loyalty. Defiantly, he expected to be seen in his silent protest, and I sitting alone downstairs awaiting his return was (I now recall with some surprise) not in the least embarrassed but delightedly proud. I knew even then that this was the minority within the minority, the righteous law-breaker, the stiff-necked hook-nosed Jew of the prophets recalling spirit against letter.

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