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Rosh Hashanah Address 5778

Ist Day Rosh Hashanah Address 5778/2017 by Susannah Okret

The Haftorah we heard today is the story of Hannah, a woman desperate for a child, and despairing that those around her do not respect this longing. Her husband asks – am I not enough? And the priest in the temple, Eli, on seeing her lips move during her pleas to God - believes her to be drunk and reprimands her behaviour. Hannah’s response to feeling despondent at being judged by both social and religious authorities was to find a path for herself by offering a private and personal prayer directly to God. This was pioneering; this was a time when prayers were said out loud, so Hannah’s actions were courageous and her story had a dramatic impact on Jewish prayer that is still felt today: she spoke from her heart and focused her whole self on this specific prayer, which was answered in the form of the birth of her son, Samuel, whom she promised to the service of God.

The notion of gender specific roles and responsibilities – with the informal roles of child- rearing and keeping the home traditionally taken on by women, and the more formal, public roles by men, (encapsulated in the meeting between Hannah and Eli) is gradually altering, which presents its own challenges.

Writing this has given me pause for thought to reflect on various strands of community: this is the room where the late Wilf Faust - many of you knew Wilf well, but for those who did not, he was a long-standing stalwart of our community, who died in 2002, and is commemorated in the naming of the Wilfred Faust Hall in this building - saw my nerves just before saying kaddish for my mother Ruth in shul for the first time and told me not to worry about what others were thinking but to concentrate on myself and what I was saying meant to me. This exchange was the reverse of Eli’s judgemental scolding of Hannah, which resonates with what we learn from the Haftorah. 

My daughter Anna’s Hebrew name is Hannah (our next door neighbour, who adores and spoils the girls, has tried to tell me in hushed tones on more than one occasion that our younger daughter, Mila’s, name means circumcision…) and it is an honour to be addressing you here today in the room where I met their father 11 years ago today. Technically speaking Isaac Garson introduced us in the foyer after the service, but… this is the room where I first saw Ale, sitting near the Ark above which read the inscription Da Lifnei Mi Attah Omed (Know Before Whom You Stand), which is inspired by the halacha of focusing in your heart before prayer, of fully concentrating on the action of what you are doing, which is one of the many significant halachot that derive from Hannah’s prayer.

It was here that during the announcements for the Kiddush my brother Bernard Gowers sponsored on the occasion of my engagement to Ale, Jesmond Blumenfled referred to me as a ‘daughter of the community’, and it’s here that Ale and I got married under a chuppah made from the tallit remembering Renee Aronson’s parents, with Freya El Baz amoung our chuppah bearers. It is this tallit that my nephew and niece Felix and Leah (who were delivered by Sarah Montague and Lisa Clayden) are blessed on the Shabbat mornings that they are here in this same building my sister-in-law Kathrin comes to for Shul council meetings and where my mother taught Cheder for over 20 years. It’s here that my mother-in law Ushy, visiting from Buenos Aires, beamed as her granddaughters were named and blessed. And this is the room where I have stood next to Naomi Clayden during Yizkor on Yom Kippor for the last 19 years.

Yet as I have largely lived outside Oxford over the last 20 years, while visiting often, I feel that this provides me an opportunity to reflect on some of the distinctive elements of the kehilla.

I find a great source of comfort in these threads of the congregation that echo the vital nature of community within Judaism. I see that the fact that the Presidents of the OJC I heard giving the Shabbat morning announcements as I was growing up were more often than not women is not usual. Bernard and I were fortunate enough to grow up here in no small part due to the possibilities this congregation offered our mother to transcend traditional gendered roles and live a rich and involved Jewish life unencumbered by social judgementalism.

As Miriam Kochan said of her at her stone setting, mummy was “a totally committed Jew and an active member of the Oxford Jewish community”. She took pleasure in this involvement and would have been overwhelmed by the reaction to her death and the way it seemed to me, through my numbness, to shock and to unite the community in endeavouring to find ways to help me and Bernard in order to honour her. Both of her parents were pillars of the Jewish community in Leicester for many decades, but it was only my grandfather, Papa Eddie, who was able to sit on shul committees.  Grannie Rosie was a frequent visitor to the shul in Oxford, who appreciated both the warm welcome she always received, and the manner in which the community functioned – allowing her family to experience our Jewish identity in a way different to her own.

We are fortunate that the Oxford community is usually so supportive, as communities can also be stifling and disapproving: it is all too easy to imagine versions of Eli’s assumption about Hannah in different Jewish contexts, from generation to generation.  This sort of judgementalism often stems from what is seen as appropriate for men and women.  Attitudes that praise a decisive man yet castigate a bossy woman for the same behaviour (or that praise a nurturing woman while disparaging a weak man) are still deeply embedded.  But what I want to focus on is neither the progress that has been made, nor the work still to do.  Rather it is the new challenges that are created by the process.Abandoning ready-made gender categories for Jewish practice is liberating but also potentially disturbing.  To invert the challenge ‘Know before whom you stand’, we also need to know ourselves, and we have more work to do if we don’t have clearly demarcated gender roles to fall back on. 

The danger is that people might not feel they have any role for themselves: for instance a man who isn’t confident in leading synagogue services, but also doesn’t feel it is appropriate to volunteer for the kiddish rota.  This needn’t only be through gender, of course. Oxford feels mercifully free from the ‘simcha inflation’ that one sometimes sees elsewhere.  It seems to me that here people can celebrate their simchas as they feel appropriate, without fear of social judgement on the nature of their hospitality.


Looking beyond our haftarah, the family stories of Hannah and Eli cast more light on their scene at the sanctuary.  The sincere and questioning Hannah became the mother of Samuel, judge and prophet.  In contrast Eli’s sons inherited their father's priestly role, but were an intense disappointment.  Their greedy and self-indulgent conduct was a sort of precursor to contemporary ‘men behaving badly’. They went far beyond the inappropriate behavior that Eli ascribed to Hannah.

The challenge for Hannah was to find a way to have her prayer heard, in the context of the expectations of gender and community in her world.  The challenge to us all, both individually and collectively, is to find the path we want to set ourselves on, and a way to navigate it. Now seems an opportune moment to consider how we may undertake to achieve this during the year to come.  I wish you all a Happy and Sweet New Year. 

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