Telling tales out of shul

Howard Cooper en­joys a rab­bini­cal rarity. Jenni Frazer fails to en­joy a best­seller’s se­quel Con­fes­sions of a Rabbi

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - By Jonathan Ro­main

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

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