A real simchah

You can’t beat a nice simchah. For those unfamiliar with the word, it literally means ‘joy’ but is used in Jewish circles to describe a celebration, usually a family event such as a party following a wedding or a bar- or bat-mitzvah ceremony. And as a rabbi with more than twenty years in the job, I can say that I’ve been to a fair few. I’ve stood around trying to make polite conversation with strangers, listened to speeches that have usually gone on far too long, and eaten food that I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for. These are occasions when families get together to mark key moments in their lives, ostensibly to celebrate the arrival of one of their number at a particular life cycle event. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the passage of time, to contemplate the passing years and, hopefully, to find simchah, joy and celebration, in life.  

I was recently at such an event. I have to confess that there wasn’t anything Jewish about it, though it did take place at the venue to which I often refer as ‘my other place of worship’. It was a celebration at Watford Football Club of the team's its first ever season in the First Division of the Football League (then the highest level). Thirty years ago, in October 1982, Watford sat on top of that division; six months later they had finished runners-up behind Liverpool, ahead of Manchester United, Arsenal, and many others whom they had defeated during that season. There was a lot of simchah during that year.


My relationship with Watford Football Club is a curious one, but one with which, I am sure, many people will identify. Many years ago, when I was working in Glasgow, I took part in a seminar with my fellow rabbis from across the UK. At one of the introductory sessions, each participant was given a post it sticker and asked to place it on a map of the UK to indicate the place – apart from where they lived or where they worked - that they felt they most belonged, where they felt most at home. I placed mine as close to Vicarage Road as I could manage – at that time I’d seen matches there for more than two decades; now I am in my fourth (though there were a few gaps, particularly when I was in Scotland during which period I only saw them play once, at Carlisle…)


There was something rather pathetic and even embarrassing about that choice of location as the place where I felt I belonged, but those who have an affinity with any sporting team and its home venue will, I think, understand the association. I’ve been there as a schoolboy, a student, a teacher, a rabbi, a married man, a father, a divorced man a remarried man and so on. The players’ names have changed, the appearance of the ground has changed, as have the length of the shorts and the cost of admission, but there is a sense of constancy, of permanence, that is often absent from the world that exists outside the turnstiles.


I suppose there is a hint of that permanence at the family celebrations of weddings or the coming of age ceremonies of thirteen year-old children. The same people gather again, share the same conversations, listen to the same speeches, eat the same food. Only the celebrant and the music to which they don’t dance is different – well, sometimes. They praise one another, make jokes about one another and then thank one another, posing for the latest set of family photos that will be filed away in an album, whether it be in the corner of a cupboard or a computer’s memory bank. I have sat through many such events, finding them generally rather baffling, and sensing that I must be missing something. But as someone who considers the place he feels he most belongs is a football ground, perhaps that’s not surprising.


It’s also not surprising, then, that the recent celebration at Watford’s (and my) home in Vicarage Road has given me a glimpse of what I think happens at a family simchah. Just about every one of the two hundred people at that event had been part of the excitement and the joy that had that had happened thirty years earlier. And here we were in the company of some of those who had made it happen. As they recounted their memories out loud, we all recalled ours in our own heads or in the company of those with whom we had shared them and with whom we were sharing that evening. And the combination of their stories, blurry video recordings of their exploits and our blurry memories of them reminded us of wonderful times, moments of simchah that we had experienced.


Speeches at a family simchah tend to be focused on the achievements (and the embarrassing failings) of the individuals whose life cycle event is being celebrated. It’s become something of a standard routine: at a bar-mitzvah party, for example, the bar-mitzvah boy’s siblings and best friends reveal esoteric and (to them) amusing examples of the boy’s behaviour and he responds by thanking them, revealing some of theirs, giving bouquets of flowers to any grandmothers who are present and telling his mother how wonderful she looks. It’s a rather unnecessary and somewhat voyeuristic glimpse into the everyday life of the celebrating family that can leave one feeling a little embarrassed or simply bored. That’s probably harsh – no doubt it means a lot to the individuals concerned, even though much of the content is either too specific or too general to mean much to anyone else.


But for those sharing in a simchah it’s not really about the content of the speeches or aspects of the relationships between the individuals concerned. It’s an opportunity to mark a moment in time, to recognise that life is fleeting and transient (each successive simchah will see a change in the guest list as one generation departs and another arrives) and to step back and appreciate the opportunities we have in that life. The ratio between those opportunities we have taken (or failed to take) and those that are still available to us changes as we grow older, but the existence of those opportunities should neither be forgotten or ignored.


Any Watford supporter will tell you that when it comes to missed opportunities, our team is as good as any in the land. Evidence of that, and our frustrated responses to it, are on display every week at the place where I feel most at home. Perhaps our lives also match that pattern. We spend too much of our time agonising over missed opportunities, and too little appreciating what we have achieved or aspiring to what we could achieve. We should always take the opportunity to celebrate: not just specific moments in our lives and the lives of those close to us but also events that look back to times of success: three decades ago or three hours ago or three millennia ago; the time doesn’t matter and nor, in truth, does the nature of the success or the event. It’s a chance for us to take stock, to measure our own lives against the backdrop of our or others’ achievements, individual or collective. A simchah is a chance to say ‘I was there’ and, just as importantly, ‘I am still here.’ Because one day we won’t be – a thought that should inspire us all to make the most of what we have and create as much simchah, as much joy as we can with the time and the opportunities we have been given.