SELWYN DORFMAN

IN Florence, they take shul security very seriously. In Exeter, less so. Regular readers may recall a visit that Mrs Dorfman and I made to Florence a few years ago on Succot.

The shul is surrounded by steel railings.

Several soldiers, all with rifles, were standing or sitting outside the entrance.

Anyone harbouring “bad thoughts” about Florence’s Jewish community had better come properly tooled up.

By contrast, there is no one standing guard outside Exeter’s shul, though in fairness it was a weekday and everything was shut.

There’s nothing, in fact, to inform you that it is a shul — no sign or anything; just a mezuzza.

So how come I spotted the local shul while wandering aimlessly round the town?

Well, the street sign, Synagogue Place, is a bit of a giveaway. My Poirot instinct immediately told me there might be a shul there!

I doubt there are many Jews in Exeter these days though I remember reading a while back that the shuls in Exeter and Plymouth are among the oldest in the country.

And yet, as I continued my aimless wandering, it didn’t take me long to find a real live Jew in the town.

Just a few minutes’ walk from Synagogue Place heading away from the centre you find yourself on a steep hill called New Bridge Street; lots of small curiosity shops, including one actually called, originally, “The Old Curiosity Shop”.

But what caught my eye was “Rivka Jacobs — Milliner And Hat Maker”. So I venture in and there, sitting at the back of the shop, is Rivka, busy sewing away as she makes hats for Royal Ascot, which is fast approaching.

She tells me that passing Jews often pop in to chat with her (subtext — go away and stop bothering me). She’s even had rabbonim in the shop urging her to go to shul.

Well, I explain, that’s what rabbonim do, isn’t it?

So I leave Rivka with her hats and cross the road to “The Hidden Treasure Tea Room”. Through the window I see that they use loose leaf tea, a rarity there days unless you go somewhere posh like The Ritz or Betty’s Tea Room in Leeds or Harrogate.

I’ve long thought that loose leaf tea tastes better than teabags — though I wonder if I could tell the difference under a double blind test?

We used to have loose leaf tea at home until Mrs Dorfman banned it because of all the mess she said I was making. The ham sandwiches suggest that “The Hidden Treasure” is not under the supervision of the Devon and Cornwall Beth Din.

But the young lady proprietor, who is busy baking cakes on the premises, assures me that all her scones and cakes are made entirely with vegetarian ingredients, so you might want to stop there if you’re ever visiting.

Back on Rivka’s side of the street is the Exeter Peace Shop, plastered with CND posters and Stop the War paraphernalia. Time for a good old argument, I thought.

I’ve often said there’s little point arguing with lefties and religious hardliners — they’re too blinkered, bigoted and bonkers.

I now realise there are exceptions, though I still think that most of them are deluded. The owner of the Exeter Peace Shop couldn’t have been nicer. Smiling and jovial, he accuses Tony Blair of being a war criminal and claims that Britain is a warmongering nation.

But he listens patiently as I put the opposite point of view.

I argue that Western interventions can be justified to tackle modern fascism.

Blair’s wars in Sierra Leone and Kosovo were widely hailed as successes while the international community’s failure to intervene in Rwanda proved a disaster.

The Iraq invasion was also initially successful in removing a fascist dictator before local factions, aided by outside elements, pulled the country apart.

And the invasion of Afghanistan was necessary to destroy the al-Qaeda camps from where 9/11 had been co-ordinated.

Nuclear weapons are unusable, but good people must hold on to them as a deterrent against the machinations of bad people. Which is why bad people like Kim of North Korea refuse to give them up; they guarantee his security.

The Peace Shop owner does not agree with me entirely, but after 20 minutes acknowledges that I’ve made some good and interesting points and says it’s a pleasure to hear the other side.

We agree that it’s all very complicated, shake hands and depart as friends. The Exeter peace man did not abuse me or get angry. He is a role model for other lefties.

My faith in the power and legitimacy of rational argument is restored. And my prejudice against leftie agitators is dented.

I’d like to say I visited Exeter cathedral and the other places of historical interest during my one day stay in the town, but it was sunny and hot and I was too busy drinking loose leaf tea, bothering local Jews and arguing with peaceniks.

But it’s an interesting city and well worth a visit though there’s not much to detain you for more than a couple of days.

And if you forget where the shul is, just look for Synagogue Place.

Doh!

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