Sunday, November 04, 2007

Lots of ups and a down or two

First of all, a big congratulations to Gatsby and his girlfriend, who have just got engaged. Mazal Tov!
It feels like a very very long time since my last post – even longer than the 5 months it’s actually been. My final exams seem like a distant memory, my graduation was 3 months ago, and summer is well and truly over. I got a comfortable 2:1, which I was pretty gutted about, but I finally worked out that (a) with all the illnesses etc that messed up every single one of my three years at Southampton, a 2:1 was quite an achievement, and (b) I managed to do so many other things alongside my degree that I wouldn’t have missed out on for the world, and that were far more valuable in the long run. That made me a bit happier about it – but yes, I do still blame myself for not trying that little bit harder. I did get a First in German, though.

Halfway through the summer I decided not to do the MA in Musicology after all, and I'm now back home in Exeter doing an MRes in German Literature. I have also discovered that the best conversation stopper in the world is a description of exactly what I’m working on. “Intermediality in the work of E.T.A. Hoffmann”, I say, and the response is invariably something along the lines of “Oh, that’s, um, interesting…nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?” in a tone laden with regret at ever having asked in the first place.

I’m not sure exactly how I feel about being back home. After three years of seeing each other for finite periods of time (weekends, holidays), suddenly finding ourselves together full-time has been a bit of a shock for me and S., and we’re both still getting used to it. I find I miss the independence I had in Southampton, my social life (it’s only now that I realise I actually had one!), access to the Parkes Institute and Collection, the University Chaplaincy. I miss having my own space, only having to worry about what I want to eat (S.’s lactose intolerance means macaroni cheese is out, for example, and I love macaroni cheese!), going out for an impromptu drink in the evening with friends, not having to worry about housework because everyone expects a student house to be a tip anyway… On the other hand, I like being able to have a cuddle whenever I need/want one, having a house that looks nice, having an excuse to cook decent food because it’s not just for me, being near my family, being involved in the Jewish community in Exeter, simply being in Devon where the accents are familiar and wide green open spaces are less than 10 minutes away on foot.

For S., I think things are more clear-cut. His job doesn’t really allow him to make friends, and the hours he works are so horrendous that there’s no time or energy to meet people outside of work. Although work stress at the moment is making him long for his carefree bachelor days (which just happened to be before he joined the family business!), he didn’t see many positives from me being away at uni, and is just glad to have me back. He is deeply hurt that my feelings are more ambiguous. Not really sure what to do about that.

I am gradually building a sort of social life for myself. I’ve made friends with one or two people on similar courses to mine, I’ve joined the University Chamber Orchestra, and I do various things at shul (though there’s hardly anyone my age there, so it doesn’t feel quite the same). I also get to see my brother more, which is a definite bonus, and even my 17 year-old cousin from time to time.

One of the biggest things I miss at the moment, I think, is the regular contact with other people my age who are religious. At Southampton I had friends in J-Soc, and I had loads of contact with the Chaplaincy and its core of SCM people, and we had the kind of slightly off-the-wall theological debates that I think only students could have so comfortably. Here the J-Soc has done nothing apart from a trip to the pub in the first week of term, no one’s ever been in the Chaplaincy any time I’ve gone in, and there isn’t a single other person my age who goes to shul. I’m considering ways round it, but haven't come up with much yet. I could always go to Bristol occasionally, but we'll see.

The High Holidays in Exeter were lovely. We had a very young Israeli called Assael Romanelli doing the services, and a few of us slept over in the shul on Yom Kippur, which was quite an experience. It was the first time I’d managed the entire fast without drinking at all. Assael brought three friends with him from London – all about my age, which may be what got me thinking about the lack of young people here.

I wasn’t going to commit to anything in the shul here this year, and then I got caught up in my usual crusade (ok, bad word in the context!) to get provision made for children in shul over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In the process, I did a silly thing. I casually asked if anyone might be interested in a weekly children’s class.


As far as I can gather, there doesn’t appear to have been a formal cheder (Jewish religious school) in our shul for at least a decade. In fact, as far as I could tell we only had two or three Jewish families in the area. Everyone in the community looked sceptical, but a few almost inaudible murmurs prompted me to try. I sent out some emails, met up with the couple who organised the last children's group a few years ago (nothing as formal as a cheder, but at least the mailing list still existed), and waited to see what would happen...

11 children turned up, with an age range of 2-10. We have since picked up another two, and may possibly be gaining another two. Another one can't make the session times at the moment but is staying in email contact and may be able to join next term.

That’s 16 children. In a community of 80-ish, where a good week will see 10-15 people for a Shabbat service. Nuff said.

So much for “try it for a term”! It’s already definite that we’ll keep going after this term. I’m using songs to teach them a little bit of Hebrew, and we’re doing lots of crafts and activities to introduce some basic topics. We’re halfway through the term now, and I’m hoping our Chanukah party at the end will also be the party for the whole community. Here’s what we’ve done so far:

Week 1: A look round the shul, including getting out a sefer torah (we have a titchy one we use for school visits etc). Then made a big sign for the cheder to go up in the upstairs room of the shul so that the kids feel there’s something of them there.

Week 2: Shabbat. Talked about why it’s important, what we can do to make it special. Made challah (with chocolate sprinkles and hundreds & thousands – I was very glad I didn’t have to eat any of it!), then acted out Kiddush.

Week 3: Tzedakah. Talked about our responsibility to help make the world better, who might need help, different ways to help. Decorated Tzedakah boxes. We had a bit of time left at the end, so had some fun with the story of Noah (Torah with some artistic license – did you know that Noah’s zebra was allergic to the cats?!).

Week 4: Havdalah. Talked about the differences between Shabbat and the rest of the week, ways that Shabbat can improve the week, the meaning of the different objects used for Havdalah, a bit of revision on Friday Nights. Had a spice-mixing session, with each child making their own mixture to go into a spice sachet, then acted out Havdalah.

This week the AGM hijacked our time, so we had a half term break. Rather than have nothing at all, we had a trip down to the local arts & crafts shop 5 minutes from the shul, and the kids all decorated Shabbat plates. Considering that it was a different day and time to usual, we had a good turnout – 8 children, 5 parents and 2 grandparents!

With Chanukah approaching, the next four weeks are easy to plan. We’ll be making dreidels, cooking something vaguely Chanukah-ish, making menorahs, and finishing with a drama session so we can perform the Chanukah Spiel at the party. Add lots of Chanukah songs, a song to learn the beginning of the Hebrew alphabet, and some stories, and we should have some fun!
On a sadder note, we’re approaching the first anniversary of my aunt’s death. She had cancer and died in November last year – it was too painful to blog about at the time, and that hasn’t really changed since. I thought I was gradually getting used to it, but with the onset of autumn, and little things like bringing out the winter coat I bought just a few days before her death, I’ve found the last few days difficult. I’m going to ask my dad and uncle if we can have something to mark the anniversary – roughly equivalent to the stone-setting in the Jewish tradition, although she was cremated and the stone was put in place months ago. It hurts really badly at the moment, despite (or maybe because of) all the other things in my life that are going well. I miss her so much.