From Raleigh C to Petach T: Musings on Shul

The theory of Primary Return-to-Womb Craving describes the infant’s resentment at his extrusion from the womb, and his longing to return to it. And while this infant has, thankfully, got over the loss of that particular sanctuary, he has experienced greater difficulty in overcoming that of another: his former home town shul. I just haven’t found anywhere to replace Raleigh Close (see When Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei).

I can no longer, since making Aliyah, describe myself as a shul-goer. Indeed, the synagogue attendance line of my JDate profile reads “Sometimes” only because “For Kaddish” is not an option in the drop-down list (see A queer kaddish at the Melchett minyan). I suppose it might be different if I had kids, though definitely if the strength of my belief in “The Big G” (and I am not talking Gooch, Gatting or Gascoigne) – or, at least, in the Orthodox Jewish conception of Him (see Orthodox to Reform: Losing my neshama?) – could not fairly be compared (though by someone less reverent than me) to a middle-aged erection.

As a result, prayer, for me, has only ever really been about superstition, bet-hedging, and football: I admit, with no little shame, to having recited a particularly kavanadik Shemoneh Esrei in the car park of a South Yorkshire service station on the way to a Leeds v Glasgow Rangers Champions League tie. Needless to say, it didn’t help. And, a few months later, towards the conclusion of an FA Cup marathon against Arsenal – and having learned nothing from my earlier heresy – I vowed to the friend standing next to me, as Gary McAllister was lining up his free-kick, that I would attend shul more regularly if he scored. He did. But so, too, subsequently, did Ian Wright. Twice. And I felt justified to renege.

Otherwise, I recite the first paragraph of the Shema on take-off, during turbulence – at the point it starts inducing mutually empathetic looks between passengers (who, previously, hadn’t even noticed one another) – and when awaiting the results of medical tests. Indeed, when observing folk deep in prayer these days, they appear to me to be faintly ridiculous, and even, on extreme occasion, mentally ill. Anyway, repeating that He is the main man/real deal/bee’s knees in scores of different ways just doesn’t do it for me (and, more to the point, neither, I suspect, does it do it for Him).

But none of that seemed to matter in Hendon (see Hendon: Just Nostalgic Illusion?) And Raleigh Close still is, for me, Shul, both in terms of community and its many, quite indelible characters . . .

  • legendary shammes Moshe Steinhart and his blundering, malapropism-littered announcements, awaited considerably more eagerly than the rabbi’s sermon [convey my apologies, please, Dan Gins];
  • the gangling, mustachioed choirmaster – imagine the love child of Freddie Mercury and Russ Abbot – with equally deliberate, exaggerated (and ridiculous) conducting and leining styles;
  • the young shockler who would sway so violently during prayer that one almost expected his head to fly off his shoulders, and who was once catalyst for a communal debate on Derech Eretz when the minister, wanting to commence his sermon, was ‘forced’ to wait for him to finish Shemoneh Esrei;
  • the little man who would storm out in mid-sermon (“He’s off!” would be the excited whisper) if – or, more accurately, when – he disapproved of any of its contents;
  • the large one who perceived it as a personal slight – and so many shul-goers (Jews?) love nothing more than to imagine these – whenever a hat or tallis bag was innocently placed on a sill of the stained glass windows endowed in memory of his parents: “Do you mind,” would come the familiar bellow, “that window belongs to my parents!”;
  • the even larger one still who, for some reason known only to him, took it upon himself to be sole guardian of the Simchas Torah whisky supply;
  • the pensioner who would openly fill her coat pockets from the Community Centre kiddush tables, as well as the various others who you just knew wouldn’t budge an inch to let you get at a piece of that herring;
  • Angelo the caretaker, whose physique and bone-breaking handshakes made Goldfinger’s Oddjob look like a pansy in a bowler; and
  • the seemingly permanently irate member whose tirades, raising awkward (and important) issues that no one else dared to, would get more bums on seats at AGMs than the right to vote for another tit in a topper.

With Yahrzeit for my late father falling on a recent Shabbos – not the quick, painless, weekday tefillah for me, this year – I ‘enjoyed’ two contrasting experiences that proved to me that there is nowhere quite like shul to study the excesses, idiosyncrasies and neuroses of my fellow Yeed . . .

On the Friday evening, before dinner at a friend’s in the area, I attend Mekor Chaim, a ‘Germanic’ establishment on Petach Tikva’s Rechov Frankfurter. Now, Yekkes are renowned for their near-obsessive timekeeping and attention to detail. And it is no myth: I arrive, five minutes early, to an empty synagogue; but, by the opening words of Ashrei, it is virtually full.

Standing at the back (always my favourite spot in shul), minding my own business, awaiting the arrival of my friend Henry, it becomes increasingly apparent that I am unsettling the shul’s gabbeh. He asks me to take a seat on at least three occasions, with increasing levels of assertiveness. I do so, but am then told to vacate the one I have chosen because it doesn’t have a little green sticker. These, I discover, have been painstakingly positioned on (the identical spot of carpentry of) every seat in the shul not belonging to someone. When I inform the gabbeh that I am waiting for Henry, he leads me to his seat and tells me to sit in it.

The problem when Henry arrives, however, is that the free seat next to his also doesn’t have a little green sticker. Henry directs a glance at the octogenarian on the other side of it as if to say “He is my guest, do you think it would be okay . . . ?”, but, met with a look of “Rules are rules”, thinks better of it and plants himself in the row in front.

In view of Mekor Chaim’s obvious puritanism, I am rather uncomfortable at being introduced to complete strangers, even ex-Hasmos, after the service as “melchett mike”. The last time I had been in a shul this strict – the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, better known as Munk’s (Mekor Chaim, I later discover, is known to its expat members as “Munk’s Lite”) – was 32 years ago, for Johny Finn’s bar mitzvah. On that occasion, I received an unceremonious whack to the back of the head from a complete stranger – for talking during leining – so savage that my cousin still delights at the mere recollection.

Anyway, it is not Raleigh Close.

The unbending strictures of more Orthodox shuls can, when combined with the rather more flexible business ethics of certain of their members, result in seemingly glaring moral contradictions. At Brent Street’s Hendon Adass (consisting largely of refugees from central and eastern Europe), for example, a husband and wife partial to a post-service peck on the cheek were said to have received a letter from shul management warning them to refrain from such lewd acts. Several other congregants, on the other hand, returning from prison terms for offences of fraud and deception, were in receipt of no more than a “Boruch haboh!”

Such shuls can also be a vehicle for wonderful comedy. My favourite Hendon Adass story is of the brothers who, one Yom Kippur, informed their younger sibling, who wished to go home and eat, that the rabbi held the keys to congregants’ homes. They then watched the five-year old walk up the hushed aisle and repeatedly tug on the tallis covering the head of Rabbi Pinchos Roberts – severe at the best of times, never mind on the Day of Atonement – who, when he eventually peered down, was met with the now legendary words: “Goldberg. 1 Shirehall Lane.”

Shabbos morning at the Central Synagogue in Jaffa (yes, a long walk from Petach Tikva) is a different proposition altogether. Founded by Romanian olim, but now attended by a hotchpotch of 17 (I counted) males of predominantly Sephardic origin, its kaddish – unlike that in Petach Tikva, recited in mutually considerate unison from around the bimah – is an exercise in who can bawl the loudest.

Later in the day, attempting to slip off sharpish after Havdalah (to beautify myself for a date), I am accosted by the shul nutter – there is always one – who, refusing to accept my pleas that I am not an American, insists on getting my telephone number.

“I don’t know it by heart,” I reply, congratulating myself on my ingenuity, until Nutter insists, after locating a pen, on giving me every one of his four numbers, each of which he inscribes with the numeric dexterity of a 3-year old.

Most definitely not Raleigh Close. And I am relieved to get back to Stuey and Dexxy.

A week and a half ago, however, imbibing the spirit of Jerusalem and (with no kaddish commitment) just looking for a nice Friday evening shul experience, I receive a tip-off about HaNassi, an Anglo minyan on Rechov Ussishkin, a mere seven minutes’ walk from my new home. And, while hardly identifying with the overtly political nature of the rabbi’s Purim handout – not to mention his contention that one’s choice of fancy dress is “an expression of the real person . . . illustrat[ing] the innermost desire to really be what the costume represents” (I had dressed up, the previous evening, as a camp sailor) – it is lovely to be surrounded by familiar, ex-Raleigh Close faces.

“This is not for you,” opines another Henry, who, while seemingly pleased to see me, is certain that I am looking for a younger crowd.

But he is quite mistaken. This is exactly for me. See you on Friday!

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25 responses to “From Raleigh C to Petach T: Musings on Shul

  1. I went to my very first “Shul” a few Saturdays ago as my daughter was attending her best friend’s bat mitzvah. I discussed with an orthodox friend beforehand whether I needed to wear a hat and decided it probably was a relaxed place and not necessary. Turning up at the door, there was a polite notice “married women must have their heads covered before entering…. help yourself to a scarf” with an arrow pointing to an assorted tray of scarves my mother would have worn in the 60’s. I wrestled with my conscience. Could I wear something a Romanian Grandmother would wear, alongside my beautiful suit – I decided to take a chance and enter without a head covering, after all, I am not Jewish, and technically, for the day, decided to be unmarried. Well, I can honestly say that I felt a weight on my head throughout the service. It was the most surreal experience. I hope my daughter doesn’t ask me to take her to more of her friends Bat Mitzvahs, or if she does, I will ensure that I wear the right head-gear.

  2. Daniella Finn

    Johny Finn was my neighbor in London our kids went to the same nursery…. It’s a small world after all…

  3. And he obviously made quite an impression, Daniella, adopting his surname n’all . . .

  4. One should select a shul based solely on totty quotient. It’s that simple.

  5. Danny Landau

    Great article. Being familiar with all 3 shuls, you are spot on. It is also worth adding that Henry wears a suit and tie to shul every Shabbat regardless of the high temperatures (presumably Arsenal weren’t playing till later!)

    Back in the 70’s, there was a tall guy who used to attend Raleigh Close, and I remember he had a pointed head rather like an egg, with a big capel perched on top. Any idea who he was?

    I’d quite like to know where Marc Landau davens.

  6. Norman Cohen

    I’d love to know if you ever ventured further up Brent Street on a Shabbos morning to North Hendon Adass and what you found there, since there are some ex-members at HaNassi too.

  7. Jonathan Landau

    I remember the choir master from Raleigh Close cheder in the late 1960’s.

  8. “Several other congregants, on the other hand, returning from prison terms for offences of fraud and deception, were in receipt of no more than a “Boruch haboh!”

    Sadly so true in many UK shuls, or even better for many communities (e.g. Manchester, particularly the scum who absconded to Brazil with funds defrauded from Holocaust survivors) if the congregants avoided jail for criminal activities and had cheated other members of the “kehilla”. If need be, the criminals could always rely on the Beth Din.

  9. You may laugh at the fact that you could hear a pin drop in Munks during davening (unless you were there of course Mike), but having davened there as a kid proved to me that kids can learn to sit quietly throughout shul – something I wish would be taught in other places! I spent many years at home on Shabbat while my kids were too young to “behave appropriately” in shul and now that they’re old enough for me to be there regularly on Shabbat, nothing makes me angrier than someone else’s kid ruining the davening for me!!

    Was good seeing you the other night Michael – was gonna ask why you hadn’t posted for a while – was happy to see this in my in-box this morning! (PS. did you know that Johny Finn is a GRANDFATHER)?!!!

  10. David Prager

    I remember a time in Hendon Adass in the 70’s where a certain elderly gentleman hadn’t had an aliya for quite some time whereupon his wife complained to the gabaim. So they gave him maftir the next week. The following week there were other gabaim on duty who hadn’t been in shul the week before and they gave him maftir again. The 3rd week was his yahrzeit, so someone offered him maftir for his hat trick. As he descended from the bima one of his neighbours called out in a stage whisper “What’s up X, are you in trouble with the police or something?”, which brought the house down. Wonderful!

    Also, you could often sense the tension rise when an ambulance or fire engine raced past along Brent Street with its siren blaring, certain members worrying whether it was the cops coming for them.

    An amazing community!

    On a serious note, Mandy is right – Munk’s (aka GGBH) is renowned for the quiet during services, as is its sister-shul Mekor Chaim in Petach Tikva. This is one of the reasons why MH is so popular with former GG-ers. The down side is that you don’t get real-time football scores or stock market prices. I wonder if one can get an electronic notice board for that to be placed alongside the Mashiv Ha’Ruach sign 🙂

  11. Yes, Danny, I believe I do know your “tall guy” with “a pointed head rather like an egg, with a big capel perched on top” . . . Mr. Gad! And I believe he is still at the shul . . . probably in the middle of last Shabbos’s Shacharis Shemoneh Esrei!! 😉

    Funnily enough, Iron, I actually believe you to be closely related to one of the Hendon Adass ex-cons (no names/guesses, please!)

    Good to see you, too, Mandy. And, yes, I did know about Grandpa Finn, and also that he successfully completed the Jerusalem Half Marathon on Friday. I was looking out for him from my Aza balcony, all ready with my brilliant Mr. Chichios impersonation: “Moov, Finn, you spasteeec . . . it is almost Shabbos!!”

    Hardly surprising, David, that “Munk’s is renowned for the quiet during services” when grievous bodily harm is the alternative! And apologies that my post failed to mention your exquisite chazanut at Mekor Chayim, that evening . . . I was clearly too preoccupied with little green stickers!!

  12. Uriel Goldberg

    Love the Goldberg hendon adass story!! Great blog, keep it up 🙂

  13. Thank you, Uriel. No relation, are you?

    And I wonder, do most people feel the same way about their childhood/home town shul?

  14. At my nephew’s Bar Mitzva some few weeks back, I was gutted to discover that the tiny kitchen that had served many a wonderful Kiddush at the now defunct Sol Cohen hall had been more than gutted, together with that lovely pink toilet with the faux black travertine sink top. Oh heady days those of secrets and tears in those two tiny cubicles. Alexa, you would be mortified.

    On a more sedate note, I can still recite the prayer for the Queen (having grown up in the Children’s Service and asked to recite it ad nauseum), so in her days and in ours may our Heavenly Father spread the tabernacle of peace over all of us and especially those past, peasant and future congregants of Raleigh Close.

  15. Being an ex-Hasmo(’75-’81) , ex-Raleigh Close (member of Lionel Leighs choir until bar-mitzva) and ex-Hendoner I’ve been following your posts and enjoying the nostalgia.
    Memories of Raleigh Close wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the shabat afternoon real-time updates of the football scores from Angelo .
    BTW if you want a real anglo-shul experience you should try the
    (not so) Young (not many) Israel(is) in Netanya. Announcement et al in English .

  16. Good to hear from you, Johnny. My mother goes to ‘Young’ Israel. I might think about it in 30 years’ time, all being well. 😉

    Very amusing, Marilyn. I learnt more Middle English from that Singer’s Prayer Book than studying Chaucer for English Lit A-level! And may the Redeemer come unto Zion . . .

  17. ….and let us say, Amen!

    This is one of your best.. I laughed out loud quite a few times, even though I am not a Londoner… but do know some of the individuals involved.

    If you think that Kaddish at Mekor Haim was an experience, I dont advise you to go for Yizkor, which was the last time I went there, over 20 years ago….. We were staying (my Dad and I) with his friends, who daven there, for one Yomtov or another, and my sister and I wanted to go to shul for Yikzkor. Try davening with rude Israeli women pushing past you in order to get out of shul before Yizkor begins, not a pleasant experience, in fact one of my last shulgoing experiences in Israel…

  18. Kudos to you Mike. A wonderful post and spot on! Angry from Hendon is now ensconsed in the Suburb….wish him luck taking on those boys at their AGM….They take no prisoners and perversely I think I will miss him at ours in May! Still our gain is their loss.

    The newest thing to happen at RC is a new 0-2 year old Toddlers service….what is that all about? As if the existing 8 minyanim are not enough. Apparently a regular leining rota and cholent kiddush with nappy changing facilities is not enough for a few of them to voice their unhappiness at the “quality” of service and are threatening a breakaway minyan at Mothercare, Brent X.

    Anyway, the recent highlight has been going in to the Brides Room with 3 of my chaverim for our regular “Maftir” kiddush to find a young woman breastfeeding. “Do you mind?” she asked. “No, not at all.” we replied and carried on with a swift Veshomru and some delightful 25 year old Mannochmore!

    What happened on Tuesday? Leeds Utd 3 Forest 7!

    Shabbat shalom and sorry I missed the simcha last weekend.

  19. Thanks, Liz and Andy. Don’t think it is a patch on When Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei, but we artists are very self-critical, y’know! 😉

    Andy, you have the wrong man for “Mr. Angry” – who (if his son is reading, as I know he sometimes does) I actually like and respect enormously – but, if you are referring to a certain high-profile solicitor, you are extremely warm. Think about it . . .

    I hear you are doing a great job and certainly don’t envy you, having to put up with all the inevitable nonsense. Re the breastfeeder, at least it must have been Cholov Yisroel . . . and please reassure Richard Herman that the fact that top hats are no longer in vogue doesn’t exclude him from my description!

    As for “Colin (Wanker)” [anagram], and we all thought he was tightening up the defence!

    Shabbat shalom,

    Mike

  20. Great fun reading this latest blog and indeed some of the responses – Marilyn, please confirm whether this (the 2nd word) was a typo or that it was intended: “past, peasant and future congregants of Raleigh Close.”!!! Brilliant, whichever.

    Andy, I guess the question is, was the breastfeeding woman older or younger than the whisky?!

    So the irate AGM attendee to whom you refer Mike must then be RK – the points he made were often spot on but probably not worth getting quite so worked up about.

    Meanwhile over at Hendon Adass, I have for many years, from time to time but especially in good weather, attended the hashkomo minyan and this used to be run by possibly the father of all yekkas! The weekly challenge at that minyan is to ensure that it is finished before 9.10am, when the main minyan there starts, and I often sensed that there were those who would try deliberately to derail the timings and simultaneously wind up the yekka gabbai. On one occasion that I was present, the ba’al korei overshot a parsha and the question was, should he resume from where he wrongly left off or go back further to where he should have left off? I’m not sure of what the halocho is, but the decision was the latter and one wag, on hearing the same laining for a second time, shouted out “So how many times must we hear the laining?!” The combination of all the additional time taken over this, the shouting out and the ensuing laughter absolutely enraged yekka gabbai (all who went there know who I mean) more than I ever saw him enraged at any other time! He certainly was one who well qualifies as an indelible character. Regards, Joe

  21. Raleigh Close is a model of absolute propriety, it would seem, compared to both Adasses, Hendon and North Hendon: At this weekend’s dinner table, it was related how, last Erev Rosh Hashanah, a congregant got up on the bimah at North Hendon and, pointing at another, exclaimed “He slept with my wife!”

    If he can take a breather from tossing over pancakes, I would be interested to know whether melchet mike’s resident ex-North Hendon Adassnik can – following suitable enquiry – confirm or deny the veracity of the story, clarify whether the accusation came from a place of anger or one of incredulity/pity (i.e., that someone had seen fit to see to his missus), and shed some light over whether offending spouse was said to have been any good.

  22. I am afraid the News of the World has gone out of business and the story wasn’t reported in The Economist – so I have no comment.

  23. Yes I too saw all the renovations – not the same at all!! Mara, the pink toilets will only live on in our memories….by the way Mike I must congratulate you on your memory for the minutiae of Raleigh Close life – I grew up there as well, was a regular shul goer but remember very few of the above anecdotes!! Probably cos the aforementioned M Gothold and I were too busy fraternising with the boys in the Youth Service….although later in our teens we became much frumer – we fraternised with the boys at Hendon Adas instead!!!

  24. Jeremy Wallach

    What an amazing talent Mike! What many of us have read here is what we would have wanted to say but you saved us the trouble and have done it with aplomb.
    Best wishes – great work – and tribute to Moishe was fantastic.
    Jeremy (1960-1982 in Trendy Hendy, and whose firstborn was born on what would have been Moshe Korn’s 60th – and he bears Moshe’s name as a result and with Chana’s permission!)

  25. Thank you, Jeremy.

    Are you Basil’s son? If so, I was very fond of him – before I was old enough to do so on my own (and way before I stopped going!), he, Mark Moss and Len Sherman used to walk me home from shul on Friday evenings. Lovely man.

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