Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Kol Nidrei

I’m presently sitting in a MacDonalds after the Kol Nidrei service at the New West End Synagogue. It’s a big old sing! We started at six o’clock and basically didn’t stop until 10.30pm.

I am actually fasting. I’m not doing it for religious reasons. I’m doing it as an act of solidarity after experiencing my first dose of anti-semitism. On Sunday, as I came out of Highgate tube, someone on the A1 unwound his car window and shouted “yid” at me, simply because I was wearing my kippah after returning from a rehearsal at the shul. I wasn’t really upset. I was more confused. Had I been with children, or anyone who had been frightened by the incident, however, I would have been irate.

It felt like such a peculiarly old school thing to shout, and I was instantly transported back to the Midlands in the 1980s, when words like “poof” were casually thrown out of the windows of passing cars. In those days, those occurrences made me feel shame because being gay was my dirty little secret. I wondered how the people shouting knew. Was it my slight lisp? Was it my shambolic gait? I felt like a failure for not covering my tracks properly, almost as though I deserved the homophobic abuse because I wasn’t a proper man.

I feel no such shame about my sexuality these days, in fact, I am hugely grateful to be gay. I feel the same about my Jewish blood and have always worn my kippah proudly to and from services in the shul. My general ambivalence towards religion, of course, allows me the luxury of taking the kippah off as and when I choose, but I’ve always felt that the least I can do is wear it to and from the synagogue when I’m going there to facilitate worship. I feel uncomfortable when I see Jewish people guiltily (or out of fear) removing their kippahs as soon as they leave a synagogue to blend back into the community at large. There’s actually a school of thought which suggests antisemitism only happens when the community isn’t visible.

And of course we’re all reading a great deal about antisemitism at the moment. We’re told it’s seething beneath the surface on the far right and the far left. Perhaps Sunday’s incident proves that there’s still a fight to be fought, and if I’m supposed to be in the battle, I’m happy to report for action.

So why, if I’m fasting, am I in a MacDonalds? Well, I wanted somewhere quiet to sit for starters. The Kol Nidrei service was ever likely to be an emotional roller coaster for me. When I was a teenager, my theme tune, if you like, as a ‘cellist, was Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei. I loved playing the piece. It engulfed me emotionally and touched my soul. What I didn’t realise is that Bruch’s composition was based on an ancient Jewish melody which was exclusively performed at Kol Nidrei, the eve of the day of atonement. So the first thing our choir sang tonight was that very melody and I was instantly transported into that seventeen-year-old self. Once again, I was that young lad who was so terrified of being gay. It was a curiously cyclic and highly emotional moment.

The other reason why I was sitting in a MacDonalds was that I needed a cup of tea. It would be damaging for me to sing for four hours today and seven hours tomorrow without taking on liquids, so, even though I’m fasting, I am drinking water and tea.

Sunday, 16 September 2018


There was a bar mitzvah at shul yesterday morning. The lad centre stage was a young chap called Todd who talked about the Holocaust during his speech to the congregation. He actually made me aware that Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel, regularly “twins” young Jewish people up with one of the 1.5m children who were killed in the concentration camps during the war. The idea is to give living people the responsibility of protecting the memory of the dead. So if the bar mitzvah boy from today takes his responsibility seriously, then the memory of at least one child gassed at Auschwitz, is cherished for another 80 years. In this case, a 13-year-old Romanian boy called Shalom Tesler.

A staggering and chilling fact, which was brought to our attention by the rabbi today, is that, if Todd lives until he’s 93, the 6 million Jewish people who were killed in the holocaust could be seen in context as 200 people being killed every day for the rest of his life.

There’s always a kiddish meal after the Shabbat service. Sometimes it’s a rather simple affair - a few crisps, some pickles, fruit, olives and pastries. On special occasions, however, like yesterday, they can be rather lavish affairs...

The interesting thing, of course, is that kosher food can only be either meat or dairy-based. It would be impossible for food to be prepared in a kitchen with both food types present. Kosher restaurants will therefore typically declare which of the two they are. Cafes, bakeries and Italian-inspired restaurants will tend towards being dairy-focussed, for obvious reasons. The rules for dealing with dairy are far less stringent, but, unless you’re happy to serve only vegetarian cuisine, you have to get really imaginative with fish. It’s why you often end up with somewhat bizarre-sounding things like salmon lasagne! The rules regarding meat are much more complicated, which is why someone who keeps kosher is most likely to eat vegetarian food if they can’t be sure how something has been prepared. I think I’m right in saying that someone who keeps kosher has to wait four hours if he or she wants to switch from meat to dairy.

As a result of all of this, our kiddishes are usually dairy-based, but yesterday’s was meat-based, and, as a result, the entire shul got turned upside down. All the kitchen surfaces had been carefully covered in tin foil and all milk had been removed from the building, which was a desperate nightmare because the choir is basically fuelled by lovely cups of tea!

Thursday, 13 September 2018


Another hideous commute this morning. I thought leaving the house at 9am would mean I’d miss the rush hour, but actually, as I crossed the road to Highgate tube, I could see a backlog of people jostling at the top of the causeway which snakes down the dell to the station itself. I’ve made Highgate sound very un-London by talking about a dell. Highgate Station is actually situated at the bottom of a very charming wooded hillside which could be in the middle of the countryside. I remember coming to the station in 1993, and being terribly confused, but very charmed. There’s an abandoned overground station from the 1920s in the midst of all the trees which was part of a line which, for a few glorious inter-war years, linked Finsbury Park (and therefore the Piccadilly and Victoria Lines) to the Northern Line at Highgate via Crouch End. It went on up to Muswell Hill and Ally Pally, which, I think would have given those places a very different feel. Part of me wonders how much easier life would have been with that handy little line. The larger part of me is hugely grateful for the nature reserve, Parkland Walk, which runs the full length of the old line.

I have got to get used to this commute, as I will soon be starting rehearsals for Brass at Mountview School, which has been relocated from Haringey to Peckham of all places. Aside from being a little miffed that I can’t walk to work, as I was able to earlier in the year, I am also rather disappointed that North London has lost its drama school. Mountview was utterly synonymous with Crouch End and Wood Green and its students partially defined those areas. They bought energy, glamour and more than a whiff of Bohemianism to the borough. After graduating, they hung about because it was the bit of London they knew. Having studied there myself, I am more than aware that the drama school is the reason why I chose to make North London my home.

Mountview was forced to move to Peckham due to the short-sightedness and ineptitude of Haringey Council, who have to be one of the most self-serving and shambolic councils in the UK. On so many occasions, the drama school, lacking in space at its premises, attempted to purchase new buildings in Haringey. At one stage they wanted to take over a wing at Ally Pally, but this was blocked. Then, for the longest time, they were going to move into the iconic town hall in Crouch End. It happened with other premises as well. In all instances they were kept dangling on the end of a rope by Haringey Council, who would take them on a merry dance before announcing that the building was needed for housing stock and that they couldn’t justify a drama school being there. It’s a terrible shame.

So, Mountview has moved to Peckham, where the council welcomed them with friendly open arms. It’s very sad to think that London’s home of musical theatre is no longer on my doorstep.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Fenella Fielding

I was incredibly sad to read today that Fenella Fielding has died. As many of you will know, I had a very troubling and upsetting experience when we tried to film her for the 100 Faces project a month or so ago. I now realise that she wasn’t a well woman. I actually wonder whether she had a mini-stroke the day that we filmed her, because her mood changed so dramatically.

She remains, of course, an absolute legend and I was hugely excited to meet her and, despite the very difficult circumstances of our encounter, I am genuinely honoured to have met her.

We asked all those involved in the project what being Jewish meant to them. Fenella wanted to say, “it’s a pain in the arse from beginning to end. It really is.”

It’s very sad to think that the end has finally arrived, and that extraordinary light has gone out. RIP Fenella.

Rosh Hashanah

Shana Tova! A happy Jewish New Year to you all. The complete dearth of blog posts of late is partially due to this particular festival and the sheer amount of diary time that rehearsals and services have required from me. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is celebrated over two days in this country - as is so often the case with Jewish festivals, which are only celebrated on a single day in Israel. It may well have something to do with time zones. I’ve never really been sure. Perhaps someone reading this blog knows?

Anyway, the Rosh Hashanah service is something of a roast for singers. On Monday and Tuesday, we arrived at shul at 8.30am, and essentially didn’t stop singing until 1.30pm, without so much as a break for a cup of tea. In fact, I dashed out of the service to go to the loo and by the time I’d come back, the next number had started.

We sing a mixture of music including a large number of pieces from the Blue Book (amongst which is some of the repertoire from the album we’ve been recording) and a number of arrangements by Stephen Glass, who has cut out a successful career for himself scoring religious Jewish music for male voice choir. It was a niche which desperately needed to be filled as the majority of materiel hitherto out there was desperately awful. Fortunately, Glass writes stunningly beautiful arrangements, which are both challenging and well-conceived for vocalists, lovely to listen to and carefully written out (which makes all the difference.) He’s very much a legend within Jewish choral scholars. The reason he’s not a household name is that he’s dealing with such a small (and ever-dwindling) audience. 

Monday’s service was, as you might expect, not hugely brilliant. You never quite get enough rehearsal time when you’re singing three hours worth of material, and, however much careful prepping you do, there are always going to be issues. I sang like an old dog, which was partially due to my being utterly knackered. The first thing which goes with me is the Hebrew words, which can often prove to be quite a tongue-twister. If I’m not right on top of them, I can end up singing a load of old rubbish. It makes me feel quite self-conscious as the place is always filled with people who have been studying Hebrew since their childhoods! When I’m on top of the words, I’m able to utterly emotionally engage - and, more crucially, listen to - and blend with - the other performers.

Today’s service, as you might expect, was a much better one, but, as you might also expect, there were far fewer people in the congregation to actually enjoy what we were doing.

One of the highlights of Rosh Hashanah is the blowing of the shofar which is a ram’s horn - or at least was traditionally a ram’s horn. It makes a somewhat other-worldly sound which reverberates around the shul like the scream of a demented harpy. I learned today that the shofar is blown on a number of occasions to confuse the angel of death. It’s played in three patterns of varying lengths from ear-splitting, almost endless notes, to strings of short, sharp blasts.

There are all sorts of other strange and beautiful rituals including the moment when those with the surname Cohen (traditionally the priests) stand in front of the arc without shoes, their tallises over their heads, swaying like ghosts, singing a call-and-response with the cantor. If done well it can be quite moving. Unfortunately one of today’s Cohen’s was, how should I say, a little tonally challenged. That, or he’d been listening to a lot of medieval music. His use of parallel 4ths would have excited my good friend Sam Becker!

So I’m home now. I have to work. I don’t want to work. I might take the night off. I can feel my telly calling me.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Kickstarters and noxious gasses

And there was I yesterday morning all excited about getting a seat on the tube to do a bit of work whilst commuting to the UK Jewish film offices. I thought, if I started my journey after rush hour, I’d be able to have a lovely relaxing time. Maybe a nice cup of tea. An hour to format another score for Brass. A precious hour to stay on top of the game. 

How wrong I was! I’ve seldom seen a train so full. I genuinely don’t know what the solution is to London’s transport woes. Public transport into the city is becoming more and more expensive and less and less reliable. It’s now considerably cheaper to drive in, despite congestion charges and local councils making unfathomable parking laws to catch us all out! Meanwhile, pollution levels grow out of hand. In the summer, London feels like one of those cheffy meals, served up under a cloche filled with scented smoke. Except it’s not a nicely fragranced smoke. It’s a noxious, rancid, fume-filled haze, and we are all being slowly poisoned!

...And yet the tourists continue to fight their way into the city to see the sights. I changed trains at Kings Cross, hopeful that I’d be able to sit down on the far less popular Hammersmith and City Line, but was instantly engulfed on the platform by two of the largest groups of people I’ve ever seen. About seventy students from an American university were chewing gum and looking vaguely unimpressed. I waded my way through them only to find an even larger group of English old duffers who were on a lovely day out in the capital and probably on their way to visit Madam Tussauds.

Incidentally, I have launched another KickStarter campaign. As many of your reading this blog will already know, 100 Faces is now in the can, and it’s a film I feel incredibly proud of. I am working with a young producer called Max on an associated campaign which, all being well, will see us entering the film for festivals and competitions across the world. The only snag in all of this is that these things all cost to enter, never that much, but they all add up.

We have therefore set ourselves a target of £600. I put the fundraising page up on Facebook yesterday and, perhaps because it was in great competition with mothers posting pictures of their children going to school, I’m not altogether sure the post reached its full potential. Slightly humbling though, to see where art comes in the Facebook pecking order!

Anyway. I’m posting it here as well, so if any of you are flush enough to afford a tenner or so, please make a donation.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Self fulfilling prophecy

The weekend rolled into a bit of a blur. I spent a rather lovely afternoon with Philippa on Friday, working first in a hotel bar in Shoreditch, before going back to her house to walk the dogs. Yes, the dogs. Philippa has acquired a pair of dogs! They are rescue hounds from Cyprus. I can’t tell you what make and model they are, largely because they’re something I can neither spell nor pronounce nor had ever heard of before, but they are black, and look a little like a cross between a King Charles Spaniel and a dachshund.

We took them for a walk in Haggerston Park and, despite having foul breath, they are incredibly good-natured animals. It strikes me what a wonderful cure for loneliness having a dog must be. Dog owners always talk to one another - often in quite a lot of depth - whilst their dogs tear about in the fields. Of course, the great tragedy is that the dog owners you want to talk to are often the ones with dogs your own creature snarls at or tries to tear apart! Treacle and Cocoa latched onto the dog of an incredibly boring, somewhat loquacious and slightly clingy woman who we were forced to hide from in the end.

I was up early and in shul on Saturday morning. We had a six-voice choir on account of it being Trevor Toube’s birthday. He’s a stalwart of the synagogue and a great lover of music. We stood in the middle of the space, and it turns out that this has a very positive effect on both the acoustic and our ability to watch the conductor and listen to each other. Possibly as a result, we sang rather beautifully. My own setting of Eitz Haim Hi had been programmed, which is always a treat, and it was good to see how well it went down. The Rabbi even made a point of coming up to me afterwards and telling me how beautiful he thinks the piece is. I am now determined to become the John Rutter of the orthodox Jewish music world!

On the way home, a massive gust of wind, caused by a train coming into the tube platform, lifted my kippah clean off my head and sent it spiralling onto the tracks like a frisbee.

There, of course, has been a lot of talk about anti-semitism in the Labour Party of late. It’s quite interesting: I chatted to Julie last week about the issue and she firmly believes that Jeremy Corbyn is not an anti-Semite. She feels that disillusioned people within the Labour Party, intent on discrediting their leader, have stirred up this particular hornets’ nest.

Personally speaking, I believe Corbyn IS an anti-Semite, not in a brutal, knowing way, but on a sort of subconscious level which has meant that his entrenched, and worthy desire to support the underdog has led him to see the Israel question in binary terms rather than as a very nuanced problem which certainly won’t be solved by viewing all Palestinians as inherently oppressed and all Israelis as aggressive colonialists. I shudder when this uniquely left-wing stance makes people say “I’m not anti Semitic, I’m just anti-Israel.” Be anti-Netanyahu by all means, but saying you’re anti-Israel is surely denying that Jewish people should have a homeland, and that, in my view, is profoundly anti-Semitic. Jewish people have been systematically chucked out of every Arab country (including Palestine, Israel, or whatever you want to call the ancient Kingdom of Judea). Deny them the relative safety of Israel, and there will surely be yet another pogrom. By simply being clumsy in the language we use to describe our feelings on the subject, we open ourselves up to cries of anti-Semitism. Just because it’s not meant, it doesn’t mean it’s not felt.

On a more subtle level, one of the reasons that I believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic is the way that he has handled this particular crisis and turned a molehill into a massive, unscaleable mountain. Better handling could have nipped this whole issue in the bud months ago, but for some reason he’s digging in, petulantly holding onto his principals to the point where I believe he’ll make himself entirely unelectable. If could well be that the anti-semitism row is the final nail in his coffin. I genuinely think his fear of Jewish people, and his dogged belief that the Jews are aggressors, is forcing him to subconsciously allow himself to be brought down by Jewish people in a sort of bizarre and ironic self-fulfilling prophecy.