IN MY fam­ily, we have two sto­ries about pray­ing dur­ing the High Holy Days. Around 80 years ago, the first tale goes, my great grand­fa­ther Joseph walked into his shul, some­where off the old Commercial Road in Lon­don’s East End, only to find some­one sit­ting in his seat. Joseph Sugarman was not a reg­u­lar shul-goer, fall­ing firmly into the three days-a-year cat­e­gory. But he was a mem­ber of the shul, and paid for a spe­cific seat — a seat which was be­ing oc­cu­pied by some­one else.

He po­litely asked the gen­tle­man in ques­tion to move. The man wouldn’t budge.

It turned out that the per­son sit­ting there did go to shul reg­u­larly — ev­ery day, in fact. And that was where he al­ways sat. It was al­ways avail­able, be­cause my great grand­fa­ther never came dur­ing the year.

And the reg­u­lar shul-goer didn’t see why he should have to move now.

Now, as far as I’m aware, from a ha­lachic stand­point, my great grand­fa­ther was in the right. He paid for that seat — that spe­cific seat. And al­though he only used it on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur, he had the pri­mary claim on the seat. I am not aware of any Jewish ver­sion of squat­ter’s rights in such cir­cum­stances.

How­ever, the syn­a­gogue au­thor­i­ties did not see it that way. They de­ter­mined that the man who sat reg­u­larly in that seat — de­spite not pay­ing for it — should re­main there. And they asked Joseph to sit some­where else. Ap­par­ently this ran­kled with my great grand­fa­ther, so much so that he was still com­plain­ing 40 years later.

I al­ways think about that story at this time of year, be­cause it seems that, at the heart of things, very lit­tle has changed.

There is still fric­tion be­tween those who at­tend shul reg­u­larly and those who come three times a year, as de­scribed by Su­san Reuben in this space last week. She went from High Holy Days only (if that) to reg­u­lar at­ten­dance. David Hy­mans, who goes to the same syn­a­gogue as Su­san, has had the op­po­site jour­ney. “When I used to go ev­ery week I al­ways used to look down on peo­ple who only came once a year,” he told me. “Now I’m one of those peo­ple.”

An­other friend, a keen shul-goer ,de­scribed this ten­sion thus. You’re a foot­ball fan, he said, and week in, week out, through thick and thin, you turn up to sup­port your team.

But there’s an­other type of fan — the ones who only turn up to the big­gest, most im­por­tant games. The reg­u­lar fans tend to view th­ese part-timers with a jaun­diced eye, he said, and the same is true of shul and the High Holy Days.

I don’t agree. For one thing, the metaphor needs work — syn­a­gogue at­ten­dance is not a spec­ta­tor sport.

More to the point, it is not our job to crit­i­cise other peo­ple for how many times a year they go to shul. That’s be­tween them and God. Many may have rea­sons why they do not go more of­ten.

And shul at­ten­dance should not be the barom­e­ter by which our Ju­daism is mea­sured. Rather, we should be judged by how much we help our fel­low Jews.

This brings me to the sec­ond fam­ily story about the High Holy Days.

Joseph Sugarman’s son, my grand­fa­ther Al­bert, was not at all re­li­gious. He went to shul on the High Holy Days when my fa­ther and two aunts were grow­ing up, pre­sum­ably to set a good ex­am­ple. But once his chil­dren had reached their teenage years, he stopped go­ing.

How­ever, de­spite not at­tend­ing shul ser­vices on those days, my fa­ther no­ticed that my grand­fa­ther would still book those three days — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur — off work.

My fa­ther even­tu­ally asked him why. “If you’re not re­li­gious, and not go­ing to syn­a­gogue, why take those days off at all?”

The an­swer my grand­fa­ther gave never fails to move me.

It was true, he wasn’t at all re­li­gious, he said. But he held a fairly prom­i­nent po­si­tion in a ma­jor com­pany, and peo­ple knew that he was Jewish.

He knew that if he were to go to work as usual on those days, it would make life a lot tougher for more re­li­gious Jews at the firm who were try­ing to get those days off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kip­pur.

My grand­fa­ther knew that if he had gone into work, peo­ple would have pointed to him and said “Ber­tie Sugarman is Jewish and he comes to work on those days. Why can’t you?” And so he stayed at home.

I put it to you that my grand­fa­ther, who didn’t even go to shul on those three days a year, was, in his own way, a bet­ter Jew than many of us.

The man in my great­grand­fa­ther’s seat wouldn’t budge

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