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Monday, July 07, 2008

Offering a toast to the kosher life

Scotland's Jewish population is small and in decline, but within the community are some dynamic ventures encouraging lapsed individuals to give their religion a re-think. Emma Cowing meets a Glasgow Rabbi doing everything he can to keep the faith alive.

IT'S A busy Tuesday evening at L'Chaims restaurant on the south side of Glasgow. A young waitress rushes between the tables, candles flicker invitingly, and a low hum of conversation accompanies the steady stream of plates arriving from the kitchen. Look closer, though, and all is not quite as you might expect in this popular eatery. All the male customers are wearing the traditional Jewish skull cap, the Kippah, every last item on the menu from the butter to the wine is Kosher, and the man presenting the credit-card machine is not a maître d' but a rabbi.
L'Chaims is Scotland's only Jewish Kosher restaurant, named after both its owner and a traditional Hebrew toast: "To life". Situated within the heart of Glasgow's Jewish area and run by local rabbi, Chaim Jacobs, and his wife Sora, it has become a potent symbol of rebirth in a community that is battling a slow yet steady decline.
Across the country Britain's Jewish population is falling. At the 2001 census there were 270,000 Jews in Britain, almost a quarter of whom were over the age of 65. The Board of Deputies believes this number has since dropped, and just 11 years before, in 1990, there were estimated to be about 340,000 British Jews. In Scotland there are around 6,400, compared to more than 8,000 in 1905. It is a subject that will be explored tonight in Vanessa Engle's BBC4 documentary Jews, which follows the efforts of one man – the millionaire Jonathan Faith, former owner of Faith shoes – to resuscitate interest in this ancient and often misunderstood religion.
Engle, herself a secular Jew, believes there are a number of reasons behind the decline. "People are marrying out of the faith, they're having fewer children, daring to be gay, living an alternative lifestyle. But society is
also becoming increasingly secular," she says.
It is still, she says, a misunderstood community. "When I started to research the subject I discovered there are many aspects of Jewish life that are still invisible. People have a lot of assumptions about Jews and Jewishness and what I found for myself is that people actually know very little about it."
Engle set out to document Faith – who was a secular Jew until the birth of his first child, 20 years ago, when he became what he describes as a "modern Orthodox Jew" – and his attempts to reignite interest in Judaism.
This he does primarily via the Jewish charity Aish, which takes non-religious Jews, many of them young men and women, on holidays to Israel in an attempt to reconnect them with their heritage.
Faith confronts his mission with the same techniques that made him a success. "Judaism is a product: I look at it as a product like anything else," he says. "For somebody to buy an idea, they've got to be shown the product in its best way possible. No-one likes the idea of Judaism being thought of as a product, but
sometimes you really need to look at it from a commercial point of view."
His plans are met with mixed levels of success. Some of the children who go on Aish's holidays seem more intent on drinking than attending Shul, and his own eight-week course on teaching the faith is not an instant success. By the end of the documentary he seems almost despondent about the future.
Those involved in the process admit it's not easy. As Glasgow-born Rabbi Malcolm Herman, director of another London-based Jewish educational initiative called Seed, points out in the documentary: "We're talking about applying ancient wisdom to contemporary living."
In Glasgow this same philosophy is being applied, not just at L'Chaims, but throughout the community. I meet Rabbi Jacobs, who as well as owning L'Chaims is a community rabbi in Giffnock and runs the Scottish arm of a Jewish educational organisation called Lubavitch, at his Giffnock home. In accordance with Jewish law
he does not shake my hand, but the warm welcome from both him and his wife Sora is genuine.
Rabbi Jacobs is on a mission to bring lapsed Scottish Jews back to their roots. Via Lubavitch, the New York-based Jewish educational initiative that is the world's biggest Jewish outreach organisation, he hopes to offer secular Jews who have abandoned their faith a reason to return.
"Formal practice of religion is on the decline, but there is still an interest in spirituality and Judaism within our community," says Rabbi Jacobs. "What we're offering is spirituality and we're offering it to people who no longer just want to go to the synagogue and read the prayers. They want to get some buzz out of it, and
spirituality that has some depth."
Was that, I ask, as they settle me in their cosy living room, while from the kitchen wafts the irresistibly comforting smell of chicken soup, why they decided to open a Jewish restaurant?
"There isn't really a Jewish community centre like there used to be," Rabbi Jacobs replies. "Because there are so many other things available, it's not a big attraction any more. So therefore, outwith the synagogue, the restaurant is probably the most active focal point where people can gravitate to and socialise within the
Jewish community."
There are around 5,500 Jews left in Glasgow's community, by far the biggest in Scotland. Walk through Giffnock today and you will see traditionally dressed Hasidic Jews, Kosher delis, a synagogue, a Jewish primary school and two Jewish care homes for the elderly. As a community it may be small but it is close-knit and, in its own way, still thriving. Rabbi Jacobs and his wife have lived in the area for 40 years
and say they've seen many changes over that period.
"It's swings and roundabouts," says Sora. "Forty years ago there were three or four Kosher butchers in the area. Now there's none. But, at the same time, I can go to Sainsbury's at 9:30pm and pick up a Kosher chicken."
The eminent Jewish-Scottish scholar David Daiches wrote in his autobiographical Two Worlds: An Edinburgh Jewish Childhood, that there are grounds for believing that Scotland is the only European country which has no history of state persecution of Jews. And indeed, the Jacobs family say they have been unconditionally accepted here since they moved from Manchester, four decades ago, to raise their children.
"We've never felt anything but warmth and friendliness here," says Jacobs. "Wherever we've gone, people couldn't do enough to accommodate us, whether it was with Kosher food or to generally make things easier for us."
I ask what sort of response a non-Jew interested in the faith would receive. "We don't seek non- Jewish people but we welcome them," Jacobs says. "If somebody comes and they want to convert, there are various laws to try and persuade them not to get involved, but if they are obstinate, so to speak, and they want to pursue being Jewish, of course we will welcome them."
Meanwhile, Lubavitch in Scotland grows from strength to strength. This year they held a Jewish Burns supper, complete with Kosher haggis, at L'Chaims, and there are regular 'Shul in the Park' services for younger members. There have been Kosher wine tastings on the calendar, and a children's birthday party with Kosher McDonald's-style food. Jacobs' son Mendel, also a rabbi, even launched a Jewish tartan in the Spring – made with Kosher non-wool linen of course.
"The way to get hold of people is to try and reach them at their level and then bring them to ours," says Jacobs. We can do that through food, hospitality – invite them to a Shabbos dinner and show them the beauty of the candle-lighting and the family atmosphere at that meal."
Apart from the obvious attractions of mealtimes, the food and the social life, though, I'm interested in why Jacobs feels people would want to return to a religion they have abandoned.
"People are looking for something," he says. "They've done everything in life. They've tried drugs, they've been around the block a few times and it's not given them any more happiness. Suddenly they look around and say, 'Where is happiness?'
"And that's when they give us a try."

• Jews: Keeping the Faith, BBC4 9pm

• L'Chaims Restaurant, 222 Fenwick Rd, Giffnock, Glasgow is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. For more information call 0141-638 6116

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