We exist on “the only planet where Life has found/ a land of milk and honey” (Harry Martinson, Aniara). And this appreciation of Life, in all its manifold and divine flourishing – human, animal, natural – has always been close to Jeff’s heart. The first sermon I ever heard Jeff give demonstrated this. Literally demonstrated it. I was a young teenager in Manchester, and the small Reform community that my parents had helped to set up (they were migrants from Orthodoxy) had invited a young rabbinical student from the Leo Baeck College to lead services for the Jewish New Year. Services were makeshift, in a rented hall with uncomfortable chairs.
For his sermon, Jeff was accompanied by a long thin leafy branch of a tree or bush – in my mind’s eye it has small blossoms on it, but as it was autumn this may not be the case. (But let the blossoms stand as symbol of something that happened within me that day). He held the branch in his hand, turning it over, running his finger along it, and back again, and hesitantly, slowly, after a long initial silence, Jeff began to talk about the Life within that branch, the extraordinary miracle of natural life in trees and plants, life on the planet, the mystery of it (beyond any scientific understanding), the ways in which growth flowed through nature (and human nature), how the Jewish New Year was a celebration of ‘the birthday of the world’, a poetic image for a celebration of, and gratitude for, Life itself, in all its richness and superfluity. Or words to that effect.
He brought a branch of a tree into the synagogue and talked about it! Hard to convey now, more than 50 years later, how extraordinary this was, how unprecedented, how bizarre, how divisive (what kind of craziness is this?), and for some (me) – how electrifying this was. Gratitude for, awe for, the Life energy within the natural world? This natural world all around us was a channel for the divine? (Hadn’t Wordsworth spoken of this? But a rabbi? With a branch on his hand?).
And so, now, it is that passion, that commitment to the sanctity of the natural world and the environment we inhabit, that unabated commitment to speaking about what really counts - what it means to live in a finely-tuned and precious world – it is that same passion that brings Jeff, now Emeritus Rabbi of Finchley Reform Synagogue, to his latest demonstration-sermon, on the streets of London.
The action in the video is the sermon, the demonstration: a sermon accompanied this time by a lulav and etrog, the symbols of this seven day festival of Sukkot - symbols of the fertility of nature, the fragility of nature, demonstrations of the ancient Jewish awareness of the preciousness and precariousness of Life on this planet.