When people talk about “Cooper, the greatest British fighter never to win a world title”, they are usually referring to Sir Henry (right), the former British, European and Commonwealth heavyweight boxing champion. There is, however, another “Cooper”, Rabbi Dovid – Emeritus minister at North Hendon Adass Yisroel Synagogue, and former Jewish Studies teacher at Hasmonean – whose supreme, if unorthodox, fighting skills also went sadly unrewarded on the world stage (coincidentally, for many years, the two Coopers lived in close proximity to one other, in Hendon).
And while the two-time world heavyweight boxing champion, and ordained Christian minister, George Foreman (left) – “The Punching Preacher” – achieved international fame and riches, the pinching ability of Rabbi Cooper left its mark only on the cheeks and memories of ex-Hasmo boys . . . but what a mark!
Indeed, so ferocious was Rabbi Cooper’s pinching that he is thought to have earned his nickname, “Sid”, after the late Sex Pistol, Sid Vicious. On each and every rendition of the school song, Ner Le’Ragli (A Light unto my Feet), the word tzidkecha (Your righteousness) would, instead, be sung – with a hugely exaggerated first syllable – sidkecha, to the clear displeasure of Hasmo’s religious ‘elite’.
Rabbi Cooper (right) was as resourceful and versatile a pincher as the very best of punchers (who can switch between southpaw and orthodox stances, as circumstances and opponent dictate). He would employ the traditional “Yiddishe great-uncle” nuckle approach on cheeks, whilst reverting to thumb-and-index-finger tactics to extract maximum grip on upper arms (often protected by thick school blazers and jumpers). If only pinching were a recognised world sport, he surely “coulda been a contender”.
Rabbi Cooper enjoys a similar place to Cyril in the consciousness of ex-Hasmo boys fortunate enough to have sat ‘ringside’. And his classes were no less eagerly anticipated than the legendary Welshman’s. If the prevailing spirit in Cyril’s lessons, however, was one of the early stages of revolution, that in Rabbi Cooper’s was of all-out anarchy. Whenever a boy was on the receiving end of a pinch, the rest of the class would scream “De pinch! De pinch!” – Rabbi Cooper couldn’t pronounce his th‘s – as if the studio audience at North Hendon’s very own Jerry Springer Show. It was pure pandemonium.
At the point of terminating “de pinch” – which could last for as long as 12 seconds for serial and/or more serious offenders, and often with a final twist for good measure – Rabbi Cooper would let out a “humph”, reminiscent of the sound of exasperation Oliver Hardy would emit when Stan Laurel had landed him in “another fine mess”. And, in his intense concentration, to extract maximum remorse from his young victims, he would bite his lower lip.
We eventually devised an ingenious method of softening the effects of “de pinch”, blowing up our cheeks with air just before impact. But, as Rabbi Cooper always reminded us (and we never stopped to question why), “It’s got to hurt”. When we informed him how much it did hurt (usually exaggerated . . . though it did), he would retort “Yup, dat’s de idea!”
Rabbi Cooper’s corporal punishments – unlike those of so many of his (especially Jewish Studies) colleagues – were the product of an “old school” puritanism rather than a sadistic malevolence. A friend of mine, who used to attend North Hendon Adass, once quoted him as lamenting, in his Shabbos droshoh (sermon), that “We are not six miles from Soho; and I know, because I have measured it in my own car” (though I suspect the second part may have been the product of said friend’s overripe imagination).
Indeed, so naive and unworldly was Rabbi Cooper, that he took it for granted that even young Hasmo upstarts would revere all things Holy in the same way that he did. At one stage, he held his lessons in his Synagogue, adjacent to the school – there was probably a shortage of classrooms and/or chairs in the latter – and, when our behaviour would get out of control (as it inevitably would), Rabbi Cooper would point up at the inscription above the Aron HaKodesh (Holy Ark, containing the Torah scrolls) and scream “Dah lifnei mi ata omed” (Know before Whom you stand).
When that didn’t work (as it never did), he would declare “Rrright [Rabbi Cooper also rolled his r‘s], I am now going to open the Aron HaKodesh.” After all, how could that not fill us with the requisite awe? But after he had done so, and we had all started wildly cheering, Rabbi Cooper had reached the point of no return – he then had to remove a Sefer Torah from the Ark, and even open it on the Bimah (prayer desk). Needless to say, his noble efforts were in vain, and he was always left asking (rhetorically), “Is dare nothing sacred?”
As far as we were concerned, the rowed Synagogue seating was ideal, as it enabled us to stay out of reach of “de pinch”. Chases up and down rows and aisles would often ensue, with only one winner.
In spite of his essential goodness, Rabbi Cooper was prone to the same small-minded intolerance – or, at least, lack of respect for private/family life – as his Jewish Studies colleagues. On overhearing Danny Reiss discuss with Henri Berest where they would be watching the following Saturday’s FA Cup Final – as so many, even relatively observant, households once did, “on the Shabbos clock” – he denounced Danny, in front of both headmaster Rabbi Roberg and his classmates, as “de roshoh [evil] Reiss” (it does alliterate nicely). Henri, on the other hand, avoided censure, no doubt because his family were members of the Adass rather than the United Synagogue.
My favourite Rabbi Cooper (and perhaps even Hasmo) story goes back to our first year at the school, and involves his – or, rather, the cheeks of his – legendary sparring partner, Max Gittelmon. We had just embarked on a new mesechta (tractate) of Mishna (the oral Talmud), in the form of those thin, crisp new paperbacks. Rabbi Cooper was extremely keen for us to preserve their spines, and instructed us, in no uncertain terms, not to fold back the covers. Gittelmon, however, having entered the classroom late, missed the instruction. Perfect! (Hasmonean was all about cruelty to classmates.)
After Gittelmon had taken his seat, Laurence Maslin and I – “Shekoyach [well done], Isaacson and Maslin, for ruining another shiur [lesson]!” – pretending to fold back the covers of our Mishnayes, informed him that Rabbi Cooper “wants us to fold them back”. And, gullible to a fault, Gittelmon duly complied. When Rabbi Cooper spotted this, a few minutes later, Gittelmon’s cheeks received such a fearsome pummelling that he cried out a Golders Green version of “No más, no más” (no more, no more – the infamous words used by Roberto Duran, in 1980, to bring an end to his punishment at the hands of Sugar Ray Leonard).
Perhaps playing along with the Sex Pistols (right) origins of his nickname (not!), Rabbi Cooper would regularly call us “rrrotters”, “a rrrotten lot”, and “rrrotten to the core”. He would continue the metaphor with his view that “there is always one rrrotten apple” (often yours truly). Another favoured reproach was “You are low.” He would simply despair at our chutzpah, commiserating with “de poor parents” (an expression that my father absolutely loved . . . and, no doubt, understood).
In spite of being extremely well-respected by his congregants – as a kind, learned, and God-fearing leader – Rabbi Cooper was simply not cut out to teach teenage delinquents. That he was allowed to do so is further proof (should any be required) of the complete lack of thought, not to say incompetence, so characteristic of Hasmonean (in those days, at least).
Rabbi Cooper was charged with invigilating our mathematics O-level examination and expected, quite ludicrously, to collect the papers of around a hundred examinees on his own. When he gave the order for “pens down”, seeing that he was unassisted, we took it as a ‘green light’ to steal extra time. When the head of maths, Jack Ordman, stormed into the examination hall some twenty minutes later, fuming, and claiming that he would be notifying the University of London Examination Board, we all knew that he was talking a lot of bollocks, as it would have reflected awfully both on the school and on him personally.
If Hasmonean’s decision makers had as much respect for a talmid chacham (learned man) as they expected us Hasmo boys to have, they would never have exposed Rabbi Cooper to such “rrrotters”. That said, our school days and memories would have been much the poorer for it.
De roshoh Isaacson . . . aka melchett mike
[To listen to a recording of the Hasmo School Choir from Speech Day 1983 – singing Baruch Habah, Ma Tovu, Ner Le’Ragli (featuring a just audible sidkecha), God Save the Queen, and HaTikvah (preceded by Mitch Taylor’s idiotic, and fluffed, request for a substitution of words) – click here. Thanks to Steve Graniewitz for supplying the recording, Eli Perl for uploading it . . . and Shimon Soester-Soreq for trying to! ;-)]
Next on Hasmo Legends, Part VII: “Woody” Woodthorpe Harrison