I read something in Granta magazine recently, which had never occurred to me before, and which raised my opinion of the Jewish religion. In a piece about her father, Francesca Segal wrote:
Proselytizing is strictly forbidden in Judaism, which explains why across the centuries in has remained tiny compared to other monotheistic religions.
Yes, hats off to the Jews, I thought. I have never had any of them knocking on my door trying to convert me, nor seen them shouting their heads off in the middle of the street telling me that I'm going to burn in the eternal fire. They keep themselves to themselves, and don't try to ram their religion down other people's throats. Good on them!
But, in her intersting piece, Segal also explained that there is at least one branch of Judaism which does a teensy bit of proselytising:
To an outsider, the Lubavitch are indistinguishable from any other brand of Orthodox Jew. They wear black hats and sidecurls, speak Yiddish and obey the 613 commandments handed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. Men and women study separately, work separately and a man is forbidden even to shake the hand of a woman who is not his wife. In their belief that modesty is paramount, the men all dress the same, a sombre garb of black and white, and women, often well into their eighth, ninth or tenth pregnancies, cover their bodies almost completely in long skirts and long sleeves…
But [despite the ban on proselytizing] what is not forbidden, and what remains at the core of Lubavitch philosophy, is outreach to people precisely like myself—non-practising Jews for whom cultural and intellectual identification has become more important than religious practice. Other Orthodox groups have no interest in adding to their ranks and might even be hostile to a lapsed Jew wanting in, but the Lubavitch would like nothing more than to see me shed my jeans and don a long wool skirt in their place.
The branch of Tesco where I do my weekly shopping is situated in an area with a large population of Orthodox Jews. Their kosher section is to die for. Yesterday, as I pushed my trolley out of the store, I spotted a line of about 10 men and boys standing in the entranceway in full bib and tucker. It looked like a Blues Brothers convention. They were questioning people as they left. Looks as if they're on a membership drive, I thought.
One of the senior Jews hiding at the back spotted my beard and clearly thought I must have potential, so he pushed a poor lad of about 14 forward to do his dirty work. I felt quite sorry for him with his hat and sidecurls: he was clearly very embarrassed.
"Excuse me," he said. "Are you Jewish?"
"No, I'm not," I replied. "Are you?"