MY CAREER AS A JEWISH MISSIONARY
My career as a Jewish missionary was necessarily a short one because (a) I am a goy, and (b) I am an atheist. It probably wouldn’t have happened without Gerry Cohen.
There are two ways of telling this story, which is why it interests me as a writer. In one I figure as a hero, bravely championing religious freedom at considerable personal risk against the might of a totalitarian state. In the other I am the idiot who lacked the wit to tell a Jewish monomaniac where to shove it when he proposed that I carry a case of Hebrew prayer books to communist Bulgaria. The second version – of course – is the true one. Gerry was the Jewish monomaniac.
During the 1980s I frequently travelled to Eastern Europe and enjoyed its gloomy, half-lit charms. Gerry was a colleague I liked: a pudgy fellow, twenty years my senior, with a certain music hall yiddishness about him. We tipped up in various places together: once in Milan, I believe, where we went to the ballet, and once in Sofia where we saw Carmen performed in the original Bulgarian to an audience of unemployed navvies (or, possibly, the Politburo, who look the same on these occasions). Gerry was musical.
I encountered his monomania several times. Famously he created chaos in the Bulgarian economy by seeking to replace a broken shoelace. And on another occasion he tried to convince our Bulgarian clients that they should become supporters of the Lancashire County Cricket Club. After an hour or so of haranguing, they seemed good-natured enough to agree. Wherein lies Gerry’s secret. He was irresistible.
In his personal life Gerry was religiously orthodox, though not in a way that imposed on his friendship with the likes of me. Some weeks before the incident in question, he visited Sofia about our business and, finding himself at a loose end on a Sabbath, dropped in the local synagogue where he was welcomed enthusiastically and allowed to do the special stuff that only Cohens can do (change the flowers and play the organ – I can’t swear to the details). This so impressed him that he resolved to do something for his co-religionists, and accordingly he bought a heap of Hebrew prayer books which he proposed to donate. If only someone would carry them there.
Which is where I come in.
It was illegal to import religious items into Bulgaria except for personal use and subject to re-export. A present of a case of prayer books did not qualify under the exception and the penalty was to be expelled from the country in ignominy, fined or banged up for a few months in a local slammer.
To this day, other than my generally lackadaisical nature and friendship for Gerry, I have no idea what it was that converted me into a smuggler of religious paraphernalia. Certainly it wasn’t any point of principle. Although not actively evil, I am probably morally careless enough to shoot the last panda and wear its pelt as hat. And even if I am becomingly modest about my ethical standards (which I deny), propagating the Jewish faith is not where I would choose to make my stand. Nope. I was just stupid.
`After this build-up, the occasion itself was thankfully uneventful. I breezed through customs with my box of books and duly delivered them to the synagogue, an elaborate late nineteenth century building in need of repair. I handed them to the official in charge: not a bearded and side-curled rabbi but a bemused bureaucrat in a cheap suit who seemed more frightened of the prayer books than I was, and perhaps with reason. He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him, and we treated each other with wary civility. In due course I left, and my moment of heroism and missionary zeal was over.
Oddly enough – and perhaps revealing in itself – I forgot about this incident for years until recently when I was lecturing on a cruise to the Caribbean and I was calling to mind funny stories to tell to our new friends on the ship. And that’s how it came to me: as a funny story. If it were anything else, I should be seriously worried.