One of the greatest things I inherited from my grandfather was a tattered red paper folder, containing jokes. I’ll give you a pertinent example: “On the first day of school, a new student hands his teacher a note from his mother. It reads: ‘the opinions expressed by this child are not necessarily those of his parents.’”
My granddad, John Rayner, was the rabbi here for decades. I am now a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College, where he once lectured on liturgy and codes. Today is Leo Baeck College shabbat: a chance for congregants to see what the future progressive rabbinate might look like. I’ve been invited to speak here because today the LJS will install a new stained glass window in the room named in my granddad’s honour. Rabbi Alex realised that the coincidence of these two events was too fortuitous to pass up. I am here, then, to speak about both Liberal Judaism’s past and its future.
I am often nervous to speak about my grandfather. Whenever I go to preach or lead services at any Liberal synagogue, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how much they loved him. I blush and tell them: “he was a wonderful man.”
I think what worries me most when I talk about my grandfather is that I’ll only disappoint people’s expectations. I don’t have his knowledge of Jewish thought. I can’t even repeat his views on it, because I haven’t read enough of his books. I suspect that most of the people who greet me so enthusiastically know what he thought much better than I did. That’s because I never really knew him as a scholar, or a liturgist, or a homiletician. I only knew him as a lovely man.
So, on this day, in his honour, I’ll share with you something of the lovely man I knew. The John Rayner I knew used to skip along by the brook in a park in Finchley with his two West Highland terriers, Sasson and Simcha. He used to love word games and, when driving along, he used to point out to us the registration plates of the car in front to see who could come up with the best word from the letters on the plate before the car drove off. He used to sing. Really, really badly. He broke into song, because he couldn’t find the key. When we went round for dinner at his house, he always had a stash of jokes that he’d memorised to tell. The rest of us would make sure that we also had new jokes.
That’s why the greatest inheritance I’ve received from him is this red folder containing his collections of jokes. He was so organised that he kept them and catalogued them. Some are hilarious. “Saul Epstein was taking an oral exam, applying for his citizenship papers. He was asked to spell cultivate, and spelled it correctly. He was then asked to use the word in a sentence, and responded ‘Last vinter on a very cold day I was vaiting for a bus, but it was too cultivate, so I took the subvay home.’”
Some are only good in the context of sermons, like this advert he found in a shul newsletter: “Don’t let worry kill you. Let your synagogue help.”
Some just seem wholly inappropriate for sermons: “Where do you find a dog with no legs? Right where you left him.”
Some are completely outdated. Jokes about the pitfalls of this newfangled creation called the internet. Jokes about politicians in the Clinton administration. There are some that seem doubtful whether they were ever funny, some that were probably funny at the time but have since become offensive, and some that I just don’t understand.
This little red folder is a treasured inheritance because it reminds me of my grandfather the man. It isn’t valuable or useful. Nobody else would get much out of it. It’s just a collection of old jokes. But when I look through it, I hear again his sense of humour. I see his yeckerish impulse to organise everything, even joke collections. I remember what his laughter sounded like.
This little red folder stands in for something of what matters most about Judaism. Much of it can be read about in books or understood from watching documentaries on TV. But the essence of Judaism, that part of it that makes it really Jewish, is completely intangible. It is the relationships we have with each other. The feeling of lighting shabbat candles with friends. The shared references. The warmth of sitting in a synagogue together and feeling the gentle strength of community.
That is what I inherited from my grandfather. It is what I hope to pass on. Part of the reason why I decided to pursue this path was because that Jewish world meant so much to me. The experiences that those who gave their time to make Judaism live created for me an oasis in a challenging world. I want to pass on those experiences and create that sanctuary for others.
That little red folder is a microcosm of Jewish inheritance. Just as I filter through these old jokes and find ones I want to pass on and discard, so we modern Jews do with our heritage. In every generation, we look anew at the traditions, rituals and beliefs of the past to see what is relevant in our time. Some of what worked in the past might not work today. Some of what did not work in the past might well work today. Going through that process of filtering through what we have received is what keeps Judaism alive, dynamic and engaging.
Right now, Liberal Judaism is going through just such a process. We are reviewing our old liturgies and customs in the hope of developing new ones. As we go through these changes together, we must of course bring our heads and a sense of intellectual integrity. But we must also bring our hearts. We need to be able to look at the changes our movement needs and ask: how can we make this warmer? How can we make it more heartfelt? How can we be more loving to each other as we disagree and work out new ways of being Liberal Jews?
That is the greatest inheritance I received from my grandfather: a little red folder, reminding me that a good sense of humour, and a desire to share it, matters more than anything else.
I delivered this sermon on Saturday 9th February 2019 at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John’s Wood.