Only the Shammes: Moshe Steinhart z”l, 1925-2013

Hendon lost another (the other?) of its truly great characters on Thursday. And like Alan Hyam (bka “Cyril”) Bloomberg – who went to meet the Creator of all creatures, wretched and otherwise, in May 2012 – Moshe Steinhart, the shammes (beadle) of Hendon United Synagogue for almost 40 years, carried a name known well beyond the confines of NW4.

Any self-respecting Raleigh Closer asked to come up with his memorable Seventies quartets would – alongside Daltrey, Townshend, Entwistle and Moon, Jairzinho, Rivelino, Pelé and Tostão, Roberts, Holding, Garner and Croft – also find room for Hardman, Korn, Steinhart and Balducci, who constituted the backbone of his vibrant shul and community during that decade (see When Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei and From Raleigh C to Petach T: Musings on Shul).

Here was a foursome, like the aforementioned others, the members of which complemented each other to perfection – gravitas and humanity, showmanship and flair, industry with a hint of madcap, and authority and brawn – to the extent that, on hearing reference to minister, chazen, shammes or caretaker, I still find myself thinking of that particular one of them.

Moshe Steinhart zMoshe Steinhart was born in Frankfurt, Weimar Germany, on 20 February 1925, but was raised in the Diskin Orphanage in Jerusalem. And letters of recommendation from the institution’s rabbis – discovered and read out at Moshe’s funeral, in Bushey, on Friday – confirm what many of us knew: that, beneath a simple, modest exterior, lay a man of considerable scholarship and yiras shomayim (fear of Heaven).

I don’t profess to have any clue as to how Moshe ended up in Hendon in 1967 – I have difficulty enough comprehending how I did (see Hendon: Just Nostalgic Illusion?) – though I believe that it was via various beadling apprenticeships in the East End and environs. What is clear, however, is that he found himself right at home in its shul, revelling in the role of shammes, the synagogue officer responsible for making the place tick. Indeed, one could argue that – like Keith Joseph in the Thatcher revolution, Peter Taylor at Nottingham Forest, and George in Seinfeld – Moshe, rather than his more esteemed, feted colleagues, was really the “main man”.

Standing – or, more accurately, swaying (even when not davening, Moshe was in almost permanent shockel, a deferential, bordering apologetic, slow, smiling, closed-eye bowing movement) – no more than five and a half feet in his socks (S. Reiss & Son, of course), a black Terylene kippah covering the mass of his snow-white hair, and a beigeish v-neck or cardigan protecting him from the vagaries of Angelo’s boiler, Moshe cut an unremarkable figure, and one that a limp, eczematic handshake (dreaded by children) did nothing to enhance.

Here, however, was a communal legend, and one whose wonderfully naive, malapropism-littered, pre-Adon Olam Shabbos morning announcements, in heavily accented English, were awaited considerably more eagerly – and were always a far bigger talking point – than the rabbi’s sermon. Indeed, any attempt to take the job away from him – by stick-in-the-muds hanging on to the ludicrous notion that synagogues (even United) are meant to be places of worship only – were met with popular, and often noisy, disapproval.

Announcing an upcoming Ladies Guild function one such Shabbos, Moshe informed congregants that tickets could be purchased from any member of the committee: “All you have to do is approach one of our lovely ladies, and she will give you a good time.”

It has been suggested that not all of Moshe’s announcements were as blundering or as innocent as they may have seemed, but, rather, the mischievous playing to an expectant, equally mischievous, kehilla. One such is even reputed to have been made in fulfillment of a dare: “The Honorary Officers take great pleasure in informing the congregation that Rabbi Silberg will be away on holiday for the next two weeks.”

On allocating “call-ups” on another Shabbos morning, Moshe approached the Raleigh Close Bench, i.e., Judge Aron Owen, as follows: “Your Honour, the Honorary Officers have given me the honour of honouring your Honour with an honour . . . your Honour.”

Never short, either, of an apt aphorism, after Immanuel Jakobovitz had been upgraded from “Sir” to “Lord”, but knowing that his wife’s title would remain unchanged, Moshe announced in their presence: “We wish a hearty mazal tov to Rav Jakobovitz for being made a Lord, and to Lady Jakobovitz . . . well, once a Lady, always a Lady!”

My favourite Moshe memory, on the other hand, cannot have been scripted. On the first evening of Succos, one year, he got up at the end of Ma’ariv to invite congregants to kiddush in the synagogue Succah. In spite of this being situated right next to the main shul, Moshe got himself so fermisht about the latter’s five exits that he somehow managed to embroil himself in a ten-minute explanation – by the conclusion of which there was hardly a congregant left seated – as to how to get there from each and every one of them!

Then there was Moshe’s unmistakable delivery: “Mincha this uffternoon will be at a qvorrrter pust six . . .” This would drive my father’s, otherwise supremely tolerant, shul neighbour to distraction: “Why does he have to talk like that?” he would whisper agitatedly. “I am also from Germany, but I don’t talk like that!”

As for his leining style, well, that was something altogether else: an unpredictable assortment of shrieks and squeaks, with spluttered coughs thrown in for good measure, that brought to life even the most dreary list of sacrifices. And Moshe’s rousing Yom-Kippur-mincha-concluding kaddish can never be forgotten by anyone back in his seat early enough – from his United Synagogue sanctioned (or, at least, tolerated) Unesaneh Tokef to Ne’ila shloof – to have heard it.

On the subject of shloofs, there was also Rabbi Silberg’s between-Mincha-and-Ma’ariv Shabbos shiur. Always positioning himself in the front row (middle block, extreme right-hand seat), Moshe would at once doze off . . . until, that is, the Rabbi misquoted a source, with which he would – as if his lower nostril had been disturbed with a feather – stir from his snooze, make the appropriate correction, and immediately return to la-la land.

Moshe was often excitable – “Mr. [Henry] Burns, the bush at the back of the shul is on fire! What should I do?!” (“Take off your shoes and talk to it,” is said to have come the sage reply) – and even irascible, usually, I tend to recall, when his idea of order had been disturbed (for example, by a Torah scroll having been returned to the ‘wrong’ ark).

It was clear, too, that Moshe had no time for humbug, or for the egos and nonsense of shul ‘politics’. But he was never confrontational in this regard, merely giving a hapless shrug to the nearest person who he thought might understand (I would like to think that I was in that number), and perhaps muttering his favoured refrain: “What do I know? I am only the shammes.”

But – from mundane office tasks, to yahrzeit-reminding, to getting bar mitzvah boys ready for their big day, to preparation of arba minim (even those ordered at the very last minute), to going to ridiculous lengths to attempt to ‘upgrade’ members disgruntled that their High Holiday seats were insufficiently close to God – no one can have been as devoted to a community. And Moshe was hugely loved and appreciated by that community.

I am not sure if there has ever been a shammes who wasn’t a character. It is almost part of the job description. I am always regaled, by ex-Dubliners, with tales of my late grandfather, Joe Isaacson, who fulfilled the role in the Adelaide Road synagogue of their childhood and youth (Chaim Herzog even recalled him by name in his autobiography, alongside the ostensibly more interesting, and definitely more worldly, individuals encountered in his career as Major-General, UN Ambassador, Member of Knesset, and, ultimately, President).

But, even by shammes standards, Moshe was special. And he was the life and soul of Raleigh Close.

Baruch Dayan Emes.

Moshe is survived by his daughter, Bina, three grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter.

[Thanks to Joe Bloomberg, Daniel Epstein, Richard Herman, Andy Hillel, Matthew Kalman, Alan Portnoi, Daniel Raye, Graham Summers and Anthony Wagerman, for their recollections/promptings. And your memories of Moshe will be gratefully received, as comments below.]

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33 responses to “Only the Shammes: Moshe Steinhart z”l, 1925-2013

  1. Macshovah Levatolah

    Woe unto us whose parents and grand parents, who migrated further east from the east end to the land of the Taxi driver, rather than to the North West and to a land of true character

  2. Thanks so much for this tribute. I spent a year learning my bar mitzvah parsha from this wonderful man, and spent many a Wednesday afternoon enjoying his presence and biscuit tin. I looked forward to his announcements at the end of shul, more than anything else! May he rest in peace BDE.

  3. Philip Witriol

    Great stuff – will try to dig out anything my dad wrote about Woodside Park’s seventies legend, Julian Ross.

  4. Ivan Taylor

    Thanks Mike that wonderful article…the memories came flooding back and a sadness that another part of our childhood has now left us. He was a lovely man.

  5. Thanks for your wonderful and moving tribute. He was the heart of the shul, approachable, warm, welcoming, and sensitive.

  6. A splendid tribute to a splendid and unique man. No doubt he will find work organizing the Next World too! May he rest in eternal peace.

  7. Mark Wagner

    A lovely tribute Michael to a special man. At his lavayah Lord Levy said a few words. Lord Levy’s father and Moishe worked together in the same East End shul for many years before he came to Hendon and knew him well. So another Raleigh Close legend leaves us. BDE

  8. Jonathan Gad

    BDE
    Fond memories of a great man.
    Great Tribute … Happy to have found your blog … Thanks

  9. Alan Steuer

    Mike
    A fitting tribute to the great man. None of us believed his protestation ‘What do I know I’m only the shammes’.
    The end of an era.
    BDE.

  10. Alan, I was searching for a good, pithy title . . . and there it is! Brilliant! Hope you’ll forgive me! 😉

  11. David Fadlun

    BDE A truelly wonderful person with a heart of gold and compassion for all. His Layining and Megilla readings were Legendary and I will miss him dearly.

    HAMAKOM INACHEM ETCHEM BETOCH SHAAR AVLEY ZION VE YERUSHALAYIM AMEN.

  12. ditto on the megilla readings, in my mind I hear his voice every Purim

  13. Leiah Elbaum

    BD”E Never was there a man who could make so many laugh and smile just by announcing minha and ma’ariv times! A true mensch as well. Thank you for this most fitting tribute.

  14. Yoni Portnoy

    Beautifully written Mike. Although I never met the Yid, I can visualise the scenes and enjoyed the read. Sounds like a true stalwart of your congregation.

  15. Jonathon Martin

    Mike, you’ve excelled yourself with this one. A very fitting tribute to my former neighbor and Barmitzvah teacher.

  16. REV MICHAEL PLASKOW

    He was an exceptional person who was universally loved. He did a lot of mitzvot in a very quiet way. I have worked with very many shammashim and some of their utterances are legendary. (Chazan) Michael Plaskow (Netanya) – Emeritus Chazan Woodside Park, London

  17. Simon Berest

    Mike, I believe it was my late Great Uncle Tommy Kreiger was on the exec at the time who bought Moshe to the shul

  18. The man was a legend and a real Tzadik .A heart of gold .
    More than once i heard him introduce himself as —
    ‘ I am Moishe the humble Shammos. ‘ He will be missed , BDE

  19. Although I never had any official relationship with Raleigh Close, I do have intermittent memories of Mr Steinhart from around the time he must have got there until the 1990s. I remember him as a modest and pleasant man.

    What gets my goat is all that outdated United Synagogue pomposity with the Shammes thing (to go with those stupid Top Hats that they had not managed to get rid of when I left England’s green and pleasant land 25 years ago).

    By the late 1960s the concept of a communal servant was embarrassingly way out of date. At North Hendon, the youth took it in turns to fulfill the role, while in my later years at Norrice Lea the late lamented Marcus King, friend and mentor of one Margaret Thatcher, took on the job voluntarily and continued brilliantly until his death. I believe that since then members have taken turns each week.

    I do not know whether other communities persist with this nonsense but, if so, I trust the individual concerned is now termed “Executive Coordinator” or “Religious Event Organizer” much like the “Transparent Wall Technician” replaced the old windowcleaner. And a six figure salary to go with the job?

  20. Neil Greenbaum

    As a Kinloss boy I did not know Moshe Steinhart personally, although I did hear him lein on a number of occasions (the first time being an unforgettable Shabbat Mincha). However, my father told me that he knew of families in the Hendon community who could not afford even the basics in life and Moshe would collect money for them to make sure that they could get by. He was incredibly discreet and went to great lengths to make make absolutely certain that both the family receiving and the family giving never knew the identity of the other. תנצב”ה

  21. I thank John Fisher for his entertaining (as ever) contribution.

    Having been a regular at Adass Yisroel – which, in the hope that no one will notice, he refers to only as “North Hendon” – he will know all too well about “outdated”: As far as I could ever make out, the very raison d’être of the Adass was to bring the “old country” to the new country.

    And re the “communal servant” as volunteer suggestion, the Hendon United community would have had everyone else off the payroll long before our dear, late shammes.

  22. David Weitz

    I was a regular at shammessless Dunstan Road but I used to visit Raleigh Close quite frequently on Shabbat mornings. I remember Moshe Steinhart’s announcements one Shabbat Chazon (the Shabbat before Tisha BÁv). After announcing the times for the Tefilot on Tisha BÁv he added “unless ze Meshiach comes first. In zat case it vill be differrrent”. Despite the solemnity of the Nine Days, the entire Kehilla was rolling on the floor laughing!

    He was a real character and will be missed by many visitors to Raleigh Close as well as the shul’s members.

  23. Alice Krieger

    Simon Berest is 100% right. It was my wonderful late father Tommy Krieger who “brought” Moshe to Hendon. Others on the board said he spoke with a terrible accent – well my father didn’t like that at all and said that Moshe had all the right qualifications and he started work. Moshe came for Shabbat tea very often and for some time after my parents passed away I still visited him while he was at the Shul. He was an amazing, kind, very special person who we all loved ..I would always ask about him when I came to London and am very very sad to read that “our Moishe” is no more. To his family I extend deepest condolences…be comforted in knowing that “Moishe” will be in the hearts of all of us who knew him, and spent a lot of time with him. Yehi Zichro Baruch!

  24. Nicole Monk

    wow, so sad to hear of his passing. I was Hendon Shul secretary, working closely with Moshe, from 1991-1993 – we got on famously and we stayed in touch for ages when i left. He really was everything that you described, a very special and humble man. One incident i remember in particular – the phone rang and an irate congregant was berating Moshe for something, or other, and he couldn’t get a word in edgways. For 10 minutes, all you could hear was Moshe saying absent mindedly, “yes, yes” whilst getting on with the rest of his correspondence – but as soon as he put the phone down, he yelled out “idiot!” and felt much better. For years after, i used to bring in my children to meet “Uncle Moshe” until we made aliyah, and then we would visit him on our holidays to London. Really sad to hear that he is no longer with us, Hendon Shul has truly lost a diamond. Baruch Dayan Emet.

  25. Reading this instead of listening to Kinot (in a shul with so little feeling, in comparison) has given me the sense of loss i needed on tisha b’av. Tears streaming down my face remembering the great man. My bar mitzvah teacher and so much more. A true legend, already so missed and always have fond memories. A great tribute Mike

  26. Adrian Kelaty

    Moishe the legend is truly gone but not forgotten. Indeed, although we did verily dread that limp dry handshake, it was always accompanied by a warmth from the heart. Moishe was a rare breed. He had an uncanny memory for all congregants at Raleigh, past and present. Who could forget his legendary ‘teacakes will be served’ announcement at the end of davening on Shabbat morning.

    I suppose we will never find out what teacakes are, now.

    Baruch Dayan HaEmet.

  27. Malcolm Brummer

    Congratulations on a wonderful tribute to a lovely man whom I knew for many years, and apologies for my late contribution. My family was especially close with Moshe as I always understood it had been my late mother’s cousin who had been instrumental in bringing Moshe to England. I am pleased you made particular mention of his Yom Kippur Minchah – full of coughs and kavonoh ! It was always a cause of concern to Moshe if Musaph was taking too long -the effect being to force him to be quicker over Minchah. However, the funniest moment I can remember came at the very beginning of Musaph one Yom Kippur. Unseen by anyone Moshe had secreted himself in the Aron Kodesh to tidy up the Sifrei Torah. When they opened the curtains to begin the repetition of Musaph, a startled Moshe looked up to face the entire community. Dear Moshe Korn, never one to miss a good laugh alongside the sweet voice, was in fits of laughter, thus preventing the start of the holiest service of the year for a while. I feel sure even Ribono Shel Olom will have taken delight in that wonderful Moshe moment.

    Malcolm Brummer

  28. Bina Benezra

    Just to let anyone know – that there is a ceremony in Jerusalem on 21 September 2015 for a Hachnasat Torah in honour of my father Moshe Steinhart. It will be a very special event.

    Please email me on binabenezra@hotmail.com and I will send you an invitation with further details.
    Thank you

    Bina Benezra

  29. To the discourteous arse at Raleigh Close who saw fit to edit my above blog post, and to publish it in its Rosh Hashanah magazine without permission or appropriate attribution/credit . . . you are a discourteous arse.

  30. I remember visiting Raleigh Close on a weekday (Mon or Thurs) – when reading the Mi SheBerach for the sick and having been approached with many names to add, R Moshe concluded “and me as I’m not feeling great!

  31. Brilliant blog! Really brings back the Steinhart I remember. In 1969 at the age of 11, I announced to my parents in the middle of a Norwegian holiday, that I intended to be the first barmitzvah boy in Raleigh Close to do my entire parasha and haftara (Vaetchanan and Nachamu) in Sephardi Hebrew. My Dad said, it’s too much, but my Mum said – let’s ask Moishe Steinhart. Steinhart spoke Israeli Hebrew and said – sure, if he starts early enough. So I spent two unforgettable years with Moishe Steinhart. Steinhart always said, years after I made aliya and became an epikoros, “you verr my starrr pupil”! He even forced me to do the entire thing again, a year later, a few days before we left for Israel. 27 years later he repeated the line at my father’s shiva in Radlett. He looked and sounded. completely unchanged! He was a wonderful man. And yes, his handshake was creepy and sent shivers down my spine. But what he did with me from 1969 to 1971 did wonders for my self confidence! Blessed memory

  32. I was very sorry to learn of the passing of another Raleigh Close legend, former caretaker Angelo Balducci, who passed away last month.

    Angelo’s warmth, smile, and bone-crushing handshake that so entertained us as kids – not to mention that bunch of keys! – will never be forgotten.

    Riposi in pace, Angelo.

    (Should anyone wish to write to the Balducci family, the address is 159 Stoke Poges Lane, Slough, SL1 3LU.)

  33. Simon & Nicole Monk

    Oh wow really sorry to hear.

    I remember Angelo fondly when I used to be shul secretary in 1991-1993.

    Thanks for letting me know

    Nicole

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