Sermons

Hygge: The Stories We Tell about Who We Are

This July I spent a wonderful day and half in Copenhagen with my mum and eldest niece at
the close of a summer holiday spent visiting family in Sweden. It absolutely poured with rain
most of the time. Damp but undeterred, we still managed to have an amazing time, enjoying
the delights of the Tivoli Gardens, a boat trip on Copenhagen’s waterways and some mouthwateringly
delicious Danish food.

How could we not enjoy ourselves, despite the rain? Denmark is, after all, world renowned
as being the happiest nation on the planet, a phenomenon studied by psychologists and
sociologists, and brought to prominence amongst the Scandi-loving general public in Marie
Tourel Soderberg’s best selling book: Hygge, The Danish Art of Happiness.

Hygge is what helps to make Danes so happy. But what exactly is it? The word originates
from Old Norse – hyggja - and means thinking and feeling satisfied. It is related to finding
shelter, rest and safety, and regaining energy and courage. With no equivalent in English,
this word describes a moment of happiness, warmth or togetherness, and is found in the
little things in life.

Soderberg’s book explores the meaning of hygge, how to find it, how to appreciate it, and
how to create it. It seems that Danes talk about hygging quite a lot, drawing attention to
hygge as they direct time, energy and effort to creating moments of hygge, as well as
sharing an appreciation of hygge as it’s happening.

Danish Psychologist Torkild Fogh Vindelev describes the fundamental function of using
language to tell stories about who we are and thereby to shape our identity. Vindelev
writes:

Within the newer branch of psychology, called narrative therapy, we talk about identity
being created by the stories we tell about ourselves and about each other. Therefore, the
language and the words we use and have available to us are crucial to who we are and how
we understand ourselves.

In the original Inuit culture in Greenland, there are over twenty different words for snow.
That not only makes it possible for Inuits to share the experience of the various types of
snow, it also sharpens their attention to nuances in weather and helps to broaden their
experience of nature’s richness and diversity.

That’s what it’s like with hygge. The better we are able to talk about hygge and all its
nuances and forms, the better able we are to realise it, create it and share it.

When we call an experience ‘hyggelig’, we associate – perhaps unconsciously – a range of
values with this experience. In that way, hygge claims its place in the stories and narratives
about who we are and what we value.

This season is a time for each of us to examine the stories we tell ourselves and each other
about who we are and what we value.

In the year and half since I came to this community, coinciding with the 60th Anninversary
celebrations, many people have shared stories about SWESRS with me, helping me towards
an understanding of the identity of this community, and highlighting the things that are
valued here.

These stories include: memories of the early rabbis, Alan Millar, Dow Marmur and Henry
Goldstein; the Club where young adults came for discussion, dancing and socialising, often
spending 4, 5 or 6 nights a week at shul; the successful Youth Club, run by Stan Brodie; the
Settlement, a second home to its members, with its proud traditions and melodies, and
closely-knit sense of community; the larger-than-life characters who made their mark on
this community, from Ralph Burns to Cecil Dalton to our keenly missed Frances Brodie, each
dedicating themselves with passion and commitment to building a thriving, active Reform
presence in the East End and Redbridge.

Earlier in September we held here the first of a series of Strategic Planning meetings to
share with each other our stories about the past and what we hold as important at SWESRS,
and together to think creatively about what we want the future of SWESRS to look like. You,
too, will be invited to participate in this process going forward. We are an aging community,
in an area of declining Jewish demographic. Will there even be a Reform community in
Redbridge in 15 years from now? Or even 10? Like all Progressive communities, SWESRS is
self-funding. It would not exist without the membership fees paid by each and every person
in this shul today; and for this, we are grateful. But just imagine if each and every one of you
here today directed time, energy and effort to this community! Imagine if each of you
contributed, in addition to your membership fees, one hour a month of your time to this
community. Or even one hour a week! Think what we could achieve then! Or if it’s easier to
donate money than time, imagine if someone here today donated the funding for a social
care co-ordinator so we can care adequately for those of our members in need. Just like the
Inuit’s multiple words for snow, the language of community should sharpen our attention to
the possibilities, and to our responsibilities, in building, sustaining and maintaining this
community.

A few Sundays ago Eleanor Bloom recounted earlier stories of who we are and what we
value in a guided tour of the Jewish East End. We visited the Jewish hospital, the Stepney
Jewish Primary School, the Beth Cholim Jewish hospital for the sick and lying-in women
established by the Sephardi Hebra Guemilut Hassadim in 1665 on the Mile End Road, and
the plaque dedicated to Daniel Mendoza, the Jewish boxing champion of England in 1792–
1795.

Meeting up at Stepney Green tube station, we started off at Beaumont Grove, site of the old
Settlement synagogue, and today home to Jewish Care’s Stepney Day Centre. The building is
named after Phyllis Gerson, who devoted much of her life to Stepney Jewish B’nai Brith Girls
Club and Settlement, eventually turning the club into a welfare complex serving all
ages. Her goal, and those of other inspiring philanthropists and tireless agents of social and
welfare provision, setting up clubs like Oxford and St George’s and Brady, was integration.
Phyllis Gerson aimed to equip the new immigrants from Eastern Europe, crowded into
poverty stricken areas of the East End, with the skills and confidence to escape their
foreignness, move on to greater affluence in the attractive suburbs of Gants Hill, Ilford and
Newbury Park, and to help them integrate into British society.

This grand ideal of integration was achieved with stunning success. Perhaps, as we each
create the story of who we are today, we might even say, a grand ideal of integration that
achieved too much success.

During this High Holy Day season the language of our liturgy tells us the story of who we are
and what we value, expressed through the 3 key themes of Rosh Hashanah musaf:
Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot.

In Malchuyot: We call on God as King, establishing God’s sovereignty, enacting a drama of
royal coronation, in which we choose to name a power beyond ourselves as the source of
true judgment and protective power in our lives.

We sing psalms of praise and gratitude, connecting with a sense of eternity that too often
we leave no room for in our lives. In the words of the late Oliver Sacks, renowned neuroscientist
and author, ‘The spirit is undervalued and forgotten in a way that impoverishes life.
The need for praise and gratitude and thanksgiving and appreciation seems to me central. I
don’t know whom to give thanks to, but I have an impulse to praise.’

The Zichronot meditations are named after the Torah’s reference to the first day of Tishri as
Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance. As Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg writes: On Rosh
HaShanah, ‘We are not asked to recall any specific historical event, such as the Exodus from
Egypt, or the destruction of the Temple. Rather, it is creation, the value and purpose of life
itself, on which we are called to reflect.’

On this birthday of the creation of humankind, we ask ourselves: Who are we? Why are we
here? What are the unique gifts God has given me? Do I open my heart to others? Do I act
to make this world a better place? This year, am I more compassionate and generous, more
kind and patient? If my achievements and failures, joys and heartbreak have not helped me
to be more understanding of others, then what is my life worth?

‘With what?’ asks the Talmud simply. How are we to make this journey of reflection and
self-examination? ‘With the shofar,’ answers the Talmud. In the Shofarot of Musaf, the
blasts of the shofar invite us to awake from our slumbers, connecting us back through three
thousand years of Jewish history and Peoplehood, and forward to the unborn generations
that lie ahead.

And not only on Rosh HaShanah do we listen to the words that shape us. Each and every
Shabbat we gather together to hear the words of Torah, read from a scroll, just as Nehemia
the prophet and Ezra the scribe gathered the People at the Watergate in Jerusalem two and
a half thousand years ago on the return from exile in Babylon. The language of the Torah is a
language of compassion and justice, of caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger, of
loving our neighbour, of human dignity, of stewardship of the environment, and of being
created in the image of God. As we engage with these words we shape our identity, creating
a living story about who we are, what we value, and how we understand ourselves.

The Danish concept of hygge is undoubtedly calmer and quieter than the Jewish version of
Happiness. We are, after all, Yisrael – Middle-Eastern God wrestlers. Like Jacob our
ancestor, we wrestle with God, wrestle with our tradition, and wrestle with our place in the
world.

Yet here, in the heart of community, hygge can be found. In this community of SWESRS it is
possible to experience togetherness, purpose, the satisfaction of meaningful relationships,
contributing to something greater than ourselves. This Rosh HaShanah, as we tell ourselves
and each other the story of who we are, and who we want to be, may we all find
satisfaction, shelter, rest and safety, and regain our energy and courage. May we be
strengthened to find, appreciate and create true happiness.

Shanah tovah! Wishing you all Good Health, Happiness and a Sweet New Year.