The much-loved children’s author Michael Bond died this week. His memory is truly for a blessing, as the flowers and jars of fine-cut marmalade which currently adorn the statue of his most famous creation, A Bear Called Paddington, testify.
I grew up with Paddington. The young bear gentleman with his entourage of the Brown family, Mrs Bird and Mr Gruber, was more frequently at my bedside table even than Winnie the Pooh, or Jennings, or Professor Branestawm. Like millions of children, I loved those stories, and still do.
As a rabbi, I maintained the fantasy that one day I would invite Michael Bond to bring Paddington to the synagogue, out of which a slim new volume might emerge: Paddington Goes to Shul.
I even half thought that the author could be Jewish, in which case, a fortiori, his creation might be too. But this is unlikely, since the very first breakfast the bear enjoys in his new home in London consists of bacon, which he likes so much that he puts the leftovers in his suitcase, leaving the perplexed Mrs Brown wondering why six dogs should have followed them into the Underground later that morning.
But what might have happened had the intrepid bear ventured into the service one Shabbat morning? I never got very far in my musings:
‘Would you like an Aliyah, an honour?’ asked the shammes, or synagogue orderly, kindly, bending down to speak to the young bear who had just entered the service. ‘We could call you up for Shishi?’
Paddington looked upwards. All he could see was the ceiling; there didn’t seem to be anywhere to be called up to. And who, and where, was Shishi? All around him were only men. Then, because he didn’t want to seem rude, he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and lifted his hat politely.
‘No, no; you keep that on in synagogue,’ said the kind shammes, taking the bear by the hand. ‘In fact, you’ll need one of these’ he added, fetching a tallit prayer-shawl and putting it round the bear’s shoulders where it clung instantly thanks to little lumps of marmalade left over from his breakfast.
A moment later, Paddington found himself perched on a small stand on top of the podium, in front of a hushed congregation. ‘You have had your Bar Mitzvah, haven’t you?’ said another gentleman, in somewhat urgent tones. ‘You do know your blessings?’
Who were they talking about now? Paddington began to feel a little anxious. He’d seen a bar once, on the boat from darkest Peru, but he was sure it hadn’t also been called Mitzvah. ‘Bar-who?’ he said. To his surprise this seemed to go down remarkably well.
Or perhaps there could be an incident over the kashrut of Paddington’s marmalade. Whatever the case, the strange and perplexing rules and rituals of the synagogue are rife with the potential for good-natured incomprehension.
In one sense Paddington really could be Jewish. The little, forlorn bear on the platform at Paddington with his note ‘Please look after this bear’ is like the hundreds of children from across Nazi Europe who found themselves at the end of the platforms of Liverpool Street Station with a number attached to them like a luggage tag, and bewilderment in their hearts. Or, more likely, Paddington represents all the children evacuated from London at the start of the war, in which his creator went off to fight.
I’ve written many painful emails and sent many tweets about terrible events in the last months. I thought I would choose a different tone this week. It’s not because the world has suddenly become free of evil, but because all of us, whoever we are and wherever we live, want our children to be able to be children.
We want every child to enjoy a proper childhood, surrounded by affection, with curiosity, adventure and wonder. We want them to breath in the joy of innocent mornings, with life safe, plentiful and unending; before danger and mortality creep like shadows behind the half-open windows and stare out across the landscape of the future.
And even when they do, we still want Paddington to take his jar of marmalade with him under his hat, and sit down with Mr Gruber to a large cup of cocoa and his elevenses bun, and intrepid and eager, look the world straight in the heart.
Thank you, Michael Bond, for what you have given us: Paddington Marches On.