September the something, nineteen seventy-something. Early evening. The Main Shul, Hendon United Synagogue, Raleigh Close.
Males are streaming in through all six double oak doors. Warm handshakes and “Happy New Years” (none of that pretentious “Gmar, etc” business in them days) are liberally exchanged as they make their way down the carpeted aisles. The din is uniquely Jewish.
The shul is so full that my father has to take his proper seat (not, as every Shabbos morning, next to my grandfather on the other side of the synagogue). I squeeze between him and the portly, almost Dickensian, Mr. Baker, who is again (like last year) not best pleased. I smile up at him angelically. For some odd reason, this side of the shul feels distinctly less religious than the other.
Moshe Steinhart, Raleigh Close’s legendary shammes, is even more excitable than usual. Chazan Korn on the bimah – cool as an Israeli (if German born) cucumber, Gower to Steinhart’s Randall – is making final adjustments to his tallis and page markings with the minimum of fuss with which England’s number three takes his guard.
The atmosphere is electric. The air of expectation palpable. Twice-a-Year (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) Brigade members get that at QPR or Tottenham every other Saturday, but I half expect the roof to open, the sound of heavenly trumpets, and a booming “Welcome My Hendon Children!”
Chazan Korn looks up at Reverend Hardman, waiting for our umpire’s nod.
“Kol Ni-der-ei-ei . . .”
Even if you didn’t spot them park up (round the corner of course), members of the Twice-a-Year Brigade are easily distinguishable from shul regulars as a result of one or more of the following:
- They are markedly more dapper in appearance, sporting smarter suits, pocket square handkerchiefs, louder ties, leather shoes, and more poncey-looking sons.
- Their kappels are larger and shinier, with year-long folds across their radii, while their talleisim are made from cheap cotton rather than wool. They are clearly comfortable in neither, and they pat the former non-stop with a nervous up-and-down movement.
- With one hand on said kappel, and without even a hint of self-consciousness, they continually gaze up at the Ladies Gallery and make demonstrative gestures to their other halves.
- A sizeable minority (those with neighbours who believe they are being kinder by not saying anything) hold their machzorim upside down throughout the entire three hours.
But, like Stan Bowles at Loftus Road (though no one at White Hart Lane in the seventies), Twice-a-Year Brigade members bring a certain glamour to proceedings. We are, indeed, glad to have them back in our bosom.
Talking of bosom . . . the Ladies Gallery is a lot more appealing from this side than the other: Am I just bored with the usual Shabbos morning fare? Or is the Twice-a-Year Brigade’s Female Regiment really more exotic than the more religious and modestly attired regulars? I am not even ten years old.
Some 45 minutes in, Reverend Hardman makes his Kol Nidrei Appeal, during which we kids excitedly insert the plastic tags of cards of congregants who haven’t turned up into the £1,000 hole.
Miming (again unabashed) of “Meet you by the car” increases exponentially as the service draws closer to Adon Olam, at which point seemingly every Hebrew in Hendon – including poor cousins from the adjacent (and scandalously named) “Overflow” service – is gathered in the synagogue’s front courtyard, which witnesses more hugging, kissing and gossip than your average Saturday night at Busby’s (discotheque).
The Twice-a-Year Brigade has long since ridden out of Raleigh Close (“the Overflow” is now a luxury rather than a necessity, catering – ironically, as it was once heavily Twice-a-Year – to the more particular requirements of more fundamentalist regulars). Whether its members have gone Reform, or just gone, I don’t know. But, having crept to the right over the past three decades (like all United Synagogues?), it would, most likely, no longer be to their taste. And that is sad, because, once, Raleigh Close was Hendon Jewry.
The United Synagogue, however, was always a rather schizophrenic institution: on the one hand, by definition, Orthodox; on the other, having to cater to the peculiar, changing habits and demands of England’s Jews, as they became rather too used to the good life and everything that it has to offer (including at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon).
The paradoxes that the United Synagogue has always been forced to accommodate expressed themselves most clearly to me, some years ago, following the appointment of a new Rabbi – and a wonderful one at that – at Raleigh Close . . .
“What do you think of him?” I enquired of my neighbour, an old style, stick-in-the-mud United Synagogue member if ever there was one. I should have known better. It was like asking W.G. Grace what he makes of Twenty20.
“Too frum,” he kvetched, with a disapproving grimace and shake of the head.
“Too frum?!” I mimicked, unable to stifle my mirth. “That’s like saying a lawyer is too law-abiding! He’s a Rabbi!”
Far more Israelis ride their bicycles on Yom Kippur than attend synagogue. The custom has taken hold, ironically, because not even the most secular of them would dream of taking out his car. Even parked round the corner, however, Twice-a-Year Brigade Anglo-Jews had a far better idea about, and feel for, Yom Kippur.
On Friday evening, I will attend the Kol Nidrei service at Allenby Street’s Great Synagogue (in the 1930s choir of which a teenage refugee from Germany became lead soloist: that teenager was the aforementioned Moshe Korn, Raleigh Close’s future Chazan). I will sit alongside another former United Synagoguer (Cockfosters & North Southgate), and – clutching our tan, crocodile skin Routledge machzorim – we will reminisce about when Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei . . .
Wishing all readers of melchett mike a very happy and healthy New Year, and “well over the fast.”