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Jewish velvet – a touching memoire

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All my life I have been unable to tolerate the feel of velvet.

That’s not a problem for most people, but as an Ashkenazi Jew growing up in the UK in the 1970s, velvet was the texture of my community. The Torah scroll that we reverently undressed on Shabbat and paraded on Simchat Torah was cloaked in the shimmering blue fabric. The curtain that hid the ark was the same. My father’s tallit bag was similarly offensive to the touch.

Touching velvet was a haptic cringe; creepy, cloying, intolerable. And so, sensually speaking, was the rest of synagogue life. We met for years in an underused church in Bushey. Then we bought our own building; another church, another monument to the decline of home counties Christianity, this time on Radlett high street. We worshipped to the musty smell of ecclesia, cut with the odour of the the sweet Palwin wine we drunk at kiddush. Until we grew to the point where we could afford to refurbish the place, everything felt decrepit and abandoned. When I absolutely had to visit the toilet I opened the door with my jumper cloaking my hand, pulled the chain with the tips of my fingers: turning on the taps to wash my hands was too repellant to contemplate.

And when we streamed out of shul, we were assailed by the enticing smell of Chinese food from the restaurant next door. A taunt of sorts, especially on Yom Kippur.

We were ecumenical in our colonisation of Christian space. Sunday morning cheder was held in a Catholic girls school, run by nuns from the next door priory. The building, a folly-like maze of towers and corridors leading who knows where, smelt of decay and Sunday dinner. Roast meat and boiled vegetables, prepared in a kitchen we never saw, sustained the similarly invisible nuns and the odd tramp.  

Outside of home, the Judaism of my youth was sensually repugnant.  To be Jewish meant avoiding the piss on the floor of the toilets of the boarding school in Cumbria on summer camp. To be Jewish meant screaming with fright as cockroaches scuttling on the floor of our holiday apartment in Herzliya Pituach. To be Jewish meant chewing listlessly on cold, stale fish at oneg suppers.

The senses can deceive. What I smelled, tasted and touched was not the decline and impoverishment of a community that cloaked itself in velvet as the house collapsed around them. No, this was growth, vitality even, built on an insouciant neglect of the material (or at least a sense that material comfort came second to other things). The synagogue community in which I was raised was formed only a few months before I was born. It was built, for the most part, by middle class professionals like my parents; Jews born in this country made good by the post-war expansion of education and opportunity. We were pioneers in the movement out of London to South Hertfordshire. Our community attracted young and dynamic rabbis, keen to innovate in gender equality. Material comfort was subordinated to growth, commitment and participation. The same was true in the Israel we visited on holiday and the youth movements I was a (sometimes) willing participant.

And yet…there was still a sacrifice; for me at least. To be part of my community meant tolerating sensations – like the touch of velvet – that made my flesh creep but that others found beautiful or at least tolerable.

I am a member of a people over 3000 years old; a people who have adapted themselves and sometimes thrived, in a huge range of societies and historical moments. Had I been born in a different place at a different time, my Jewish senses could have been stimulated by all kinds of delights – the incense of the Temple sacrifice, the scent of seasoned timber in a wooden Polish synagogue, the sturdy carapace of a North African Torah scroll, the taste of pepper traded by Sephardi merchants – but I grew up in Jewish Hertsmere in the 1970s, citadel of  an Ashkenormativity that managed to be stodgy and vital at the same time. 

All my life I have been unable to tolerate the feel of velvet.

I’ve worked around it though. My mother finally found me a satin  tallit bag. The cotton one I use today was a gift from my wife. The synagogue I grew up in was finally refurbished and was the venue for my wedding. I’ve learned to love fried fish and the smell of Palwin is an opportunity to tell the story of why it comes in four varieties, all named after bus routes.  When I attend Jewish conferences I stay in hotels that don’t have piss on the floor. Experience taught me that not all Israeli holiday apartments are infested with cockroaches. And the musty smell of churches has become a comforting Christian odour once more; the odour of the underuse far preferable to the militantly packed pews of a US-style megachurch.

Sensually tolerable it may have become (or I have become more tolerant), but my British Jewish home is not a delight to the senses. The most that we seem to aspire to is a sensual neutrality, a benign blandness. Our newer buildings are functional, reasonably comfortable backdrops, a neutral sensorium whose real purpose is elsewhere. No academic has mapped the Jewish communal smellscape, its haptic presence, its sonic and visual idiosyncrasies – not even me, a sociologist after all. How odd that such a fleshy, earthy people should be so uninterested in Jewish body politics! Still, much better that we be sensually dull than we continue the often-repulsive sensory assault I experienced as a youth.

It is home though. And if home were a garden of sensual delights, we’d be very bored, very quickly. Or at least I would.

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Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a senior lecturer at Leo Baeck College, runs the European Jewish Research Archive at the IJPR and is an Honorary Fellow of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck College. His most recent book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).
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Gloria Tessler
Gloria Tessler
3 months ago

I love this! Such an original and quirky slant on ways of feeling and sensing one’s Jewishness. Really well done, Keith. .

Davieboy
Davieboy
3 months ago

An excellent and evocative read. This Bushey Jew thanks you!

Justin R
Justin R
3 months ago

I saw your home on a Twitch stream (Skeptics In The Pub), and it looked like a dump [not a criticism, just an observation – our spare room is worse to be honest].

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