Telling tales out of shul
Howard Cooper enjoys a rabbinical rarity. Jenni Frazer fails to enjoy a bestseller’s sequel Confessions of a Rabbi
Biteback Publishing, £12.99 Reviewed by Howard Cooper
NEVER LET it be said that Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain conforms to the old-style image of the AngloJewish rabbi: “invisible six days a week and incomprehensible on the seventh”. On the contrary; having graduated from Leo Baeck College in 1980, as did I, he has become one of the most high-profile of media rabbis in the UK — by his own counting, more than 1,500 TV and radio appearances.
As well as his post at Maidenhead synagogue, a community that has grown tenfold under his enthusiastic tutelage, his workload embraces prison and police chaplaincy, interfaith work, a JC column, and posts for the Reform movement. His latest book (he is also a prolific writer and editor) is testimony to this almost hyper-manic professional life. It offers an entertaining and intermittently reflective mélange of anecdotes, adventures and pastoral dilemmas, along with the life lessons he has derived from them.
Although he’s taken controversial stances on a num- ber of issues — welcoming mixed-faith couples, supporting assisted dying, opposing faith schools — it’s clear from Rabbi Romain’s meandering narrative that his dedication to his calling has resulted in him being consulted by both congregants and the wider public, Jewish and non-Jewish, on an immense range of personal matters.
His anonymised accounts show him involved with people wrestling with divorce, infidelity, depression, alcoholism, financial misdemeanours and domestic violence, along with the many idiosyncratic ways that Jewish families generate a broiges out of thin air.
Weddings where estranged family members turn up; barmitzvah boys who walk out before the ceremony; female congregants who disrobe in his office; Jews for Jesus who want to get married in his synagogue — it’s all in a day’s work for a rabbi who, although dedicating his book to his teacher the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, often seems to be channelling the wit, wisdom and flair for storytelling of another of his teachers, Rabbi Lionel Blue.
The author admits that he is not so much interested in God and theology as with practical ethics and the foibles of the human heart. Confessions of a Rabbi, a patchwork of poignant, surreal and morally complex incidents — do you tell a child that the father he has grown up with is not his biological father? — is a compassionate, opinionated account of one contemporary rabbi’s efforts to bring to bear Jewish values within the everyday lives of those who look to him for guidance in a bewildering world.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a writer and practising psychotherapist
Rabbi Jonathan Romain: prolific