fredag 25 maj 2012


I was sitting on the boat to Brännö this afternoon when a half dozen or so young men in the "uniform" of the Chasidic Jews - dark suit, trilby hat and white shirt without a tie - got on and sat behind me, and one next to me. They were well away from where one would usually expect to see them, so I asked them where they had come from. The conversation went on and got to the point where I said I was of Jewish origin. The boy - he cannot have been much over twenty - promptly pulled out a bag with  tefillin (phlacteries) in them and said I should start using them. I told him, in the nicest possible way, that I would not use them if he gave them to me.

Tefillin are leather boxes containing passages from the book of Exodus. Their use is a literal interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:8 "You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes."

The conversation then went on with a mention of the forthcoming feast of Shavuot, which he asked me if I knew about. I replied that as a Catholic, I knew it as the Feast of  the Pentecost, which we would also be celebrating on Sunday. It is the descent of the Holy Spirit.

[1] And when the days of the Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place:
[2] And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.
[3] And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them:
[4] And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak.
[5] Now there were dwelling at Jerusalem, Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
[6] And when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded in mind, because that every man heard them speak in his own tongue.

This did nothing to quell the boy's enthusiasm, and I had to tell him that he was behaving like a Jehovah's Witness. We parted on good enough terms but I felt I had been imposed upon unreasonably. Anyhow there was a nicely done Mass in the evening, in Latin, which is my practice.

But there was a time when I wore tefillin myself. This was at the boarding school I attended. The boys over the age of 13 were expected to put on them on. At first, I used a set that had been given to me at my 13th birthday. We had our morning service under the watchful eye of on of the more orthodox of the teachers. After a few days he inspected my tefillin. They were, apparently, not up to standard. The boxes were too small and their condition rendered them too poor to be used. I was hauled up in front of everyone, made to stand on the platform at the front of the room, and harangued about the inadequacy of the tefillin. It was humiliating, although on reflection I doubt if most of my fellow pupils cared. But it was the most stupid imaginable way of dealing with the matter, especially when this was a new boy who must obviously have been lacking in confidence. I duly stopped using the defective tefillin. In fact I never used any tefillin at all. Ever again. From then on I sat at the back and made myself as nearly invisible as I could. If heaven was a place for Jews only, this teacher would have borne a large responsibility for making sure that I never got there. When, a few days later I was moved up into class four, the daily prayers were then in the large hall, where it was easier to continue with the strategy I had developed, of keeping to the back and imagining myself far away.

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