Unfriending the Cousins

I “unfriend[ed]” my Arab Facebook friends, this week.

I had met all half-dozen of them on my half-Jewish, half-Arab tour guides course (which I could not complete). But despite sitting with “the lads” – all Arab, more fun than the nerdy new immigrants – at the back of the coach on every field trip, we have not, other than on Facebook, stayed in touch. And I have become increasingly self-conscious that some of my more un-PC “status updates” might, perhaps, offend their sensibilities. Following the abduction of the three Jewish teenagers in Gush Etzion, a fortnight ago, I felt that being able to be myself, even in a medium as ‘trivial’ as Facebook, was more important than perpetuating these ostensibly futile ‘friendships’.

And the “unfriend[ing]” was also, I think, a gesture. A statement. To myself even. A result, after a decade and a half of life here, of having become totally disillusioned with our Biblical cousins.

No one should have been surprised, however, by the news from the Gush. Following the ‘success’ of the Gilad Shalit kidnapping, it was clear that Hamas would attempt others (see Why Gilad must not be freed “at any price”). Our (continuing) mistake is to judge the Arabs by our own western values (which tell us, in this case, that abducting teenagers is just plain wrong). And we should not be surprised, either, at images of ordinary Palestinians delighting in their ‘victory’. Because to them, that is what it is. And this is a war.

I don’t believe I am a racist. I take as I find. I still go out of my way to find work for Kamel and Rayed, the East Jerusalem Arabs who renovated my apartment, because I like and appreciate them (certainly a great deal more than their dodgy Persian then boss, who, I found out much later, had diddled almost all of my suppliers). And I am in favour, in principle at least, of a “two-state solution”.

But make no mistake: none but an inconsequential number of Palestinians recognise any Jewish claim to this land. They want us out of here. And they won’t rest until we are. The sooner we accept that reality, the safer we will be. And I feel sure that Bibi, oft criticised for political inertia, merely realises that the current state of affairs – total impasse, but (with the Security Wall) without the terror we once knew – is, with neighbours like ours, the best that we can hope for.

On a shiva visit last week, I struck up a conversation with Itamar Marcus, the Director of Palestinian Media Watch, a non-partisan organisation which studies Palestinian society through the monitoring of its media and schoolbooks. Having this piece already in mind, I enquired as to whether there might nonetheless be some potential “partners for peace” on the other side. Marcus’s knowing smile said it all. “Put it this way,” he said, “that is the shortest chapter in our book.”

And joking with a Jewish contractor in my Tel Aviv apartment, last week, that we should lock his Arab worker inside until the teenagers are freed, he replied “The problem is no one there would even care!” And that about summed up the difference between our peoples. The individual is paramount to Jews. The Arabs, on the other hand, use their own children as weapons and shields. We are in a seemingly permanent state of war against a cruel and primitive enemy, a fact now recognised and admitted by increasing numbers on the Israeli Left (aside, of course, from the Anshel Pfeffers of this world – see his latest sell-out here – a conceited so and so no less opportunist or extreme than those he decries on the Right, and yet another reason why I will never resubscribe to Haaretz).

Not many aspects of the Bible “talk” to me, but references to “Good” peoples and “Evil” peoples – which, as a schoolboy, always struck me as Osher Baddiel nonsense – have, in recent years, at least in the collective sense, taken on a certain resonance.

As for my former Facebook friends, I was sorry to hear (I am still on the course e-mail list) that some of them were said to have behaved inappropriately during a recent visit to Yad Vashem . . . though, again, if true, it didn’t really surprise me: even the concept of mutual respect, never mind peace, now seems a pipe dream. There is, perhaps, just too much history.

Shabbat shalom in the meantime . . . and God bless our boys.

Abducted Teenagers

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Hasmo Legends XXVII: Liselle Bailey – The Revenge of the Willy

Other than a good ogle of Page 3 girl Jo Guest as she leant over the pool table in Golders Green’s seedy hangout, The G-Spot, one mid-90s (decade and approximate temperature in my Jockeys) Saturday night, I had never even got close to anyone in the adult entertainment industry. And certainly no one who had also taught at Hasmonean High School for Boys.

So, while some may have frittered recent years Looking for Eric (for once, not Elbaz) or Searching for Sugar Man, I have spent them hot on the tail of Liselle Bailey, the supply teacher who, on days that she wasn’t teaching English on Holders Hill Road, was shooting porn films.

Or so I had been reliably tipped-off. And what could be more reliable than a couple of frum, middle-aged accountants? (Though the recollection of one of them sweating so profusely, and pathetically, into his chicken soup when I informed him that they would be named in this piece precludes (even) me from outing them.)

But all of this, I told myself, was pure fantasy. The only pawn at Holders Hill Road in our day was in the Chess Club, the only knocking-out considered (aside, naturally, from the spawn of DJ) was of frummy prefects, and the only stiff little things to be shunned were the arthritic ones in the headmaster’s handshake.

To my surprise and delight, however, my contact high up in the school, rather than erect the wall of silence I had expected, at once confirmed that this would be no wild skirt chase . . .

“Miss Bailey was actually a supply teacher for a short time at the school – she was a very good teacher. She was doing some work in movies, but it was production not performing.”

So that’s alright then . . . only porn production!

That was all he could (or, at least, would) give me. But I didn’t have long to wait for a little more meat, with another inside sauce sending me a link to a London Evening Standard piece titled “English teacher packs in job for porn films” (full article), prefaced by the momentous words “I think this is her . . .”

Who now gave a toss about the hairy terrorist in Pakistan, that Saudi Rabbi Angel? I was on Miss Bailey’s scent – I was sure it smelt a great deal sweeter – and was going to make it my job to meet and grill her. After all, how many other ex-Hasmos would have been willing to take on such an altruistic task?

I was still, however, beset by doubt. Even if I succeeded in locating Miss Bailey, wouldn’t she be too proud to confirm the shameful truth . . . that she actually taught at Hasmonean High School for Boys?!

That was back in 2011. My quest took three long years, and was close to breaking me. When I made initial contact with Miss Bailey, she simply could not fathom my interest (can any non-ex-Hasmos comprehend the place’s endless fascination to us?) Indeed, until I actually spotted Liselle – as lovely in the flesh as she had sounded throughout our prolonged e-correspondence – walking towards me outside Hertford East train station that weekend lunchtime, I was certain that she would pull out or blow me off before I had even had a chance of bashing this out.

Liselle led me to a local gastropub and, over beers, started to relate how she had ended up in teaching, porn, and, for Spring Term 2009, the hallowed halls of Holders Hill Road . . .

Born in west London, Liselle qualified as an English and drama teacher, and, for four years, was head of drama at a “scary” Christian private school in Sunderland. After moving back to London and working in children’s television, she eventually decided to pursue a career in the porn film industry. “I felt it was a job with a purpose,” Liselle told me. “Most people like porn, and I wanted to make good porn rather than the rubbish that’s out there.”

“I grew up in a very conservative home,” Liselle, 34, continued. “My mum didn’t even know what a blowjob was. ‘Why would anyone want to do that,’ she would ask. But I had always been completely fascinated by porn, and liked watching it from a very young age.”

Liselle Bailey

“When I was at Hasmonean,” Liselle confessed, “I was actually working three days a week there and the other two in the porn business, before I became full-time.” And she was somewhat taken aback by her first exposure to Orthodox Jewish teens. “I had never met a bunch of more hormonal boys! They were extremely blatant and flirtatious. I wasn’t used to it in such an in-your-face way. The GCSE boys would crowd around me, asking for my phone number and things like ‘Have you ever kissed a girl?’ It was quite intimidating. And I couldn’t get past that initial hormonal thing. Perhaps I wasn’t best at keeping boundaries. I was a bit too friendly, too much myself.”

Had Liselle ever stopped to consider, I wondered, the untold millions of sticky issurim she had caused so many nice Jewish boys to be oyver (though I didn’t phrase the question in those terms)? “I feel flattered if I did,” came the instant reply. “I see that particular thing . . . er, sinning . . . as a good and healthy thing, not a bad thing. In fact, it is quite a bloody magical thing!”

And I couldn’t argue with that. If Liselle Bailey had been teaching at Hasmo in our day, I would have suffered repetitive strain injury two whole decades before getting anywhere near my first laptop. And she certainly would have provided welcome relief from the tired Readers’ Wives (no connection, incidentally, Bridge Lane readers, with your very own Congregants’ Wives).

I did try to get Liselle to dig some dirt on DJ, but she had no recollection of the benippled one, and – pornographers clearly possessing more scruples than journalist-lawyers – I couldn’t persuade her to make any up. “The only rabbi I remember was the head, a massive guy, who was very nice. He wanted me to stay and take a permanent role. I was really touched, but also troubled about him thinking, later on, that I had tricked him.”

Liselle Bailey

The only folk at Hasmonean who knew anything about Liselle’s double life were her colleagues in the English department. “It came out in the pub after school, and they were all very cool about it. I anyway planned to leave Hasmo at Easter, because of articles I knew were going to be published about me in The Sun and Sport.”

Long after leaving Holders Hill Road, Liselle had to remove “inappropriate” comments by Hasmo boys from YouTube and Twitter. “I have ex-students I’m still very friendly with from the school in Sunderland, but the Hasmo boys were just so flirty . . . or worse!”

As for my own ex-Hasmo hormones, I controlled them until we had finished lunch. “What is it like directing porn films,” I asked. “Some days,” explained Liselle – who now works full-time for Kaizen XXX – “you can just forget what you’re doing. It’s ten in the morning, you’re thinking of very logistical things, you walk into a room and there’s a guy with his c*** in his hand [warming up, I imagined]. It takes you by surprise! But it’s like any other production job, only we film a couple of people having sex for about an hour of the seven hour day!”

On a roll, I then asked Liselle – I figured the accountants would want to know – whether she ever appears on the other side of the camera. “I’m a voyeur not an exhibitionist,” she answered, “though I have had flings with quite a few of the actors privately.”

Liselle Bailey

And with that titillating thought firmly in mind (it still is), and before my Yetzer HaTov had a chance to make a fool of me, I headed off to Heathrow. Liselle had been a delight. An English rose with a penchant for porn. Yum.

Perusing the biography of Hasmonean founder Solomon Schonfeld (by ex-Hasmo dad Derek Taylor) soon after meeting Liselle, the Rabbi Dr’s struggle with his more enlightened, worldly headmaster, W.W. (“Willy”) Stanton, to have Lady Chatterley’s Lover – already deemed fit for publication by the English courts – removed from the school library appeared even more pointless than it must have at the (early 70s) time . . .

“Stanton defended the literary merit of the book. Schonfeld told him in front of the governors that either the book had to go within twenty-four hours or the Headmaster would. The phrasing was exceptionally and quite unnecessarily rude . . . Schonfeld always got his way because the governors were mostly handpicked supporters.”

And it was delicious to imagine Mr. Stanton, as he looked down on Miss Bailey causing her charges to stand to attention in his former classrooms, allow himself a wry, even cheeky, smile . . .

What poetic justice! A triumph for Willy in every sense.

With Liselle Bailey

Thank you, Pete . . . a Libertine in every sense

Bouncing home in the early hours of Friday from a second wonderful night of Pete Doherty at Barby Tel Aviv, I am ‘greeted’ by depressingly familiar facebook discussions about Roger Waters and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) . . . aka the ‘respectable’, twenty-first century boycott of Jews.

I got into indie rock/post-punk revival band The Libertines thanks to a religious-gig-going mate. And something about its maverick co-frontman Doherty, whether his talented songwriting (my favourite example, from his subsequent group, Babyshambles) or even some of his offstage excesses, immediately struck a chord with this ‘nice’ Jewish boy from Hendon (I guess because of Jonny, I have always been drawn to the outsider/misfit/rebel). And soon thereafter, my then boss, duty soliciting, picked up Doherty as a client following one of his not infrequent drug-related indiscretions. So you can imagine my excitement when I spotted, on facebook, that Pete was actually coming to Tel Aviv . . .

Pete Doherty, Barby TA, 30.4.14

Springing out of the Central Bus Station last Wednesday evening, I at once purchased a few tins of Sudanese-strength lager for the walk through south Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighbourhood. They soon did the trick, also helping to make ma’ariv and kaddish in the local Beit Tefila somewhat less routine than usual.

Pete’s opening “Shalom” immediately warmed the heart. Sometimes it is hard living here. Not the day-to-day. Just the constant feeling that we are on our own and the regular reminders that “they” don’t like us, siding instead, quite incomprehensibly to us, with the brutally oppressive, misogynistic, homophobic, Islamofascist terror ‘state’ nextdoor.

"I like Tel Aviv!"

“I like Tel Aviv!”

So when artists like Doherty refuse to go along with the campaign of hate, speak their first few words of Ivrit (even if, like Pete, confusing their “tov me’od” and “toda”), swig from a bottle of Goldstar, draw on their first Israeli joint, and even relate their experiences from the Carmel Market that morning – see the clip (of Thursday night’s opening) at the bottom – it just means so indescribably much. Well it does, at least, to me.

Pete sussed the locals immediately. “You have to negotiate everything here,” he exclaimed, on emerging for his encore. “I just asked this bloke back there for two minutes [rest]. “No,” he goes, “you can have one”!” Tel Aviviot, too. “You’re a little optimistic,” he told one of them, on unfurling and reading out her rather forward proposal for after the show.

I have always liked to believe that I possess a good instinct about people. Even famous people. When I first saw Morrissey swing those gladioli on Top of the Pops, I knew that here was a man . . . and, sure enough, some 25 years later, he also ignored the anti-Semites to come and play Tel Aviv (see And we’re still fond of you, Moz!)

BDS represents nothing less than ‘respectable’, post-Holocaust, anti-Semitism. The obsessives who today demonise the Jewish state by calling for its economic isolation are the same types who, in centuries past, demonised Jews with caricatures, boycotts, and far, far worse; or who, in return for longed-for Gentile recognition and acceptance, were prepared to sell out their fellow Jew.

BDS’s Israel-only bashing and self-hating-Jewish proponents are not folk you’d particularly want to share a beer with . . .

Emma Thompson

“Why does he call me that?”

Let us begin, for horrible English toff example, with old horseface Emma Thompson (who, at an international theatre festival to feature productions from, inter alia, Iran, Turkey and China, saw fit only to call for the boycott of the Jewish one!) Her daughter attended the same Hampstead school as children of friends. And, while other celebrity parents – including Sean Bean, Damian Lewis and Bill Nighy – gave of themselves in a fundraising campaign for a sick pupil, Thompson just gave excuses (via her publicist, of course). She was, on the other hand, excellent at making lots of luvvie/“look at me” noise outside the school gates. A horrid woman, by all accounts.

And talk to anyone unfortunate enough to have known Gerald Kaufman growing up in Leeds. They will tell you what a singularly repellent individual he was, even then (see “Dame” Gerald: Our very own “Uncle Tom” and Kaufman: Enough to make your Rabbi anti-Semitic). And one hears similar things about most others in the List of Shame, headed by the (thankfully) late Harold Pinter, the abhorrent Miriam Margolyes (see here . . . though not on a full stomach) and, sadly, two artists whom I once very much admired, Mike Leigh and Alexei Sayle.

Roger Waters in uniform

“Suits me, ja?!”

I have little doubt that Waters is another fabrenter (as my parents used to refer to such people). He has had more than enough time to explain why he picks on Israel, and suspends Star of David-emblazoned inflatable pigs over his audiences. To my mind, there is only one explanation. (And I feel vindicated in my lifelong disdain for the clinical dirges of Pink Floyd – if Hitler had come to power forty years later, guards at Dachau would have alternated Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with The Dark Side of the Moon.)

Thompson and Waters clearly couldn’t give a Fliegenschwein about human suffering. If they did, they would be working tirelessly on Syria, Saudi Arabia, Darfur, Eritrea, North Korea, China, etc, instead of tirelessly obsessing with the only democracy in the Middle East (and one that has been embroiled in an existential, 66-year war on terror). Their issue is with Jews.

The boycotters did try to get to Pete. “They told me it was dangerous here,” he quipped, after stumbling, one (joint-injected) Goldstar too many, into the audience. And while his suggestion for resolving the Middle East conflict – “You might as well just have a drink and listen to some music” – may be a tad facile, it comes from a love of all people, not the hatred of one.

Clean-liver he may not be, but Pete Doherty is clearly just an everyday good bloke. And he is the very antithesis of the arrogant, hypocritical, self-righteous, morally dishonest Thompsons and Waters of this world, who hide beneath veneers of decency, while rabidly pursuing racist agendas of the most pernicious kind. What an upside-down planet we live on, where public persona and choice of lifestyle, rather than fundamental goodness, accord that pair of cunts – apologies, but sometimes it’s the only word that’ll do – more standing than him.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a “libertine” as “a person who freely indulges in sensual pleasures” – as a Queens Park Rangers fan (Doherty once penned a club fanzine) puts it so tastefully here, “any chap whos rearended [melchett mike: allegedly] Moss gets my applause!” – but also as “a freethinker”.

Throughout his litany of troubles, there is one Yiddish word that has almost certainly never been used in association with Pete Doherty . . . but for us, Pete, you will always be a mensch.

[For more photos/videos of last week’s gigs, search YouTube and see here.]

The Last Supper? (A Gruesome Tail)

Anyone who has experienced the joy of my presence at their Shabbos table will know that I am in the habit of gathering, deboning, and taking home food left on plates for Stuey and Dexxy. Indeed, so regular has this fowl, greasy habit become that I am convinced that my hairy housemates believe that I spend every Friday evening hunting poultry.

On occasion, I take them along, too. And having thrust the pair (uninvited) upon her for lunch at the weekend, my dear aunt’s nerves were clearly becoming increasingly frayed by the longing stares, from beside her chair, for scraps from her plate.

“That is what they do,” I said, as if believing that this would placate her. “In fact, I have heard that if someone dies alone, and a dog has no choice, it will even eat its owner.”

“You see,” snapped my aunt, suddenly Messi latching onto a mishit back pass, “that is why you need a wife!!”

Folk have had so long to come up with convincing arguments as to why I should get hitched (cast your own vote in my Marriage Poll). But all have failed miserably. And this latest one – to avoid being consumed by Stuey and Dexxy – was only marginally more bizarre than most of the others (which usually boil down to: “Why shouldn’t you be miserable, too?”)

Hello, sailor!

Hello, sailor!

I have more than one friend who just longs to come home and to wake up to a fraction of the love I receive “365”. Accepted, it is not human. But neither is the mutual malevolence and contempt so seemingly common in more ‘normal’ relationships.

“If it happens, it happens,” is what I continue to tell the noodgers (whilst assuring everyone that my Purim fancy dress – see inset [in the event you hadn’t noticed] – was just that).

In the event that it doesn’t, then, seeing as I will never muster the courage to cast off the shackles of my upbringing – cremation would be my end of choice – and it will be them or the worms, why shouldn’t Stuey and Dexxy have one last good frenzy to remember me by?!

They wouldn't . . . would they?!

They wouldn’t . . . would they?

NOarchitects, No Cry: A Berlin Tale

“Life,” said Alvy Singer, “is divided into the horrible and the miserable.” I never really got that. Until, that is, these past twelve months . . .

My lovely mum started to go downhill around this time last year, and I spent the last four months of her life caring for her, while Netanya Social Services faffed around with grading questionnaires. “Can you put your socks on by yourself, Norma,” visiting social workers, each more gormless than the next, would repeatedly ask her as she smiled back sweetly. A light had gone out. The memory still pains. And the Filipino arrived much, much too late.

I have been unsettled ever since. I feel I need a change. New surroundings. A fresh challenge. Rural Ireland was on the cards. But I just wasn’t sure. And London feels a backward step.

Everything seemed to start to be coming back together, however, on a trip to Berlin at the beginning of last month. While looking for an investment property, I was shown an unrenovated loft in a converted salt warehouse in a very cool part of Prenzlauer Berg. And I just fell in love with it. So much, in fact, that I decided, there and then, that I would move in. I know, I know, “Berlin?!” But it does have a wonderful spirit these days.

A price was agreed with the co-vendor/developer, an Ulrich Caspar, and, before leaving the city, I met, on his recommendation, two 30-something architects: American Adam Odgers and his German partner Deborah Nickles, trading as NOa.berlin (previously, when I met them, as NOarchitects). It was a very positive meeting, and instinctively – I was now on a roll (I even pinpointed in which corner I was going to start writing properly again) – I informed them that I would be delighted to work with them once the contract for the loft had been finalised.

I promised Caspar that I could, and would, act quickly – a notary appointment was actually set for 2 o’clock today, a mere three weeks after I left Berlin – and also made it crystal clear to him, at a third meeting that I requested on the afternoon before my flight, just how important the purchase was for me at this time.

And I have wasted no time since returning to Israel: I put my Tel Aviv home up for sale – I have already found a buyer – and, in preparation for signing, arranged power of attorney for my German lawyer through the Tel Aviv District Court, and converted and transferred large sums to an escrow account in Berlin.

Just eight days ago, last Wednesday, NOa.berlin supplied two potential mortgage providers with a cost estimate for the renovation. “Due to sign next Thursday!” I excitedly e-mailed Adam Odgers from my phone.

Three days ago, however, only three days before the notary appointment, I received a chilling e-mail from the real estate agent:

“I am sorry, but I have the worst news possible. The owner of the loft called me this morning and said the architect of the house is going to buy the small loft. I am angry beyond believe and don’t know what to say. I let you swallow this before we communicate further.”

I presumed that Birgit was referring to the architect of the building. But no. On calling NOa.berlin – who describe themselves, on their website, as “Client-oriented” –  just to rule them out, Deborah Nickles informed me, as cold as a German cucumber, that she and Odgers were purchasing the loft. “We have only just received an answer from the bank,” she explained, as if expecting me to understand. I told Nickles, though calmly, that what she was doing was not only morally wrong, but professionally unethical, and that she shouldn’t do it. She couldn’t confirm anything, she said, without first talking to her partner, and she promised that he would call me back.

I immediately phoned Caspar, a 59-year old film producer (when he isn’t playing with people’s lives), with whom I had really hit it off in Berlin (even discussing the screen potential of Hasmo Legends, about which, to my pleasant surprise, he seemed most enthusiastic). “These things happen,” he told me, as if it had nothing to do with him. It seems that he and his Ararat Film und Grund GmbH partner were more interested in receiving ‘free’ (or, at least, cheaper) architectural services for their next project – the adjacent building – than honouring any agreement with me, or appointments with notaries. I had just been some kind of convenient fallback plan.  Combinot, it would appear, are not an exclusively Israeli phenomenon.

I e-mailed Odgers and Nickles, warning them against this path, that it was wrong, that it would do their fledgling business and careers no favours. But they chose to hide. And Odgers didn’t pick up when I called him that evening. Instead, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, I received an e-mail from Caspar’s partner – a clearly delightful fellow called Friedhart Steinich, 58, whom I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting in Berlin, but who, from a quick Google, appears to have a namesake who has been accused of beating up his tenants – as follows:

“speak with me about your problem. Not with Adam or something. And listen me: Never we make a deal together. Why? You cry too much. Your letter is for me a joke. Sometimes get childs not all, what they want. Berlin have much flats to sell. Good luck! Try it again. Not amused”

The German way of saying sorry, I imagine. I considered lecturing Steinich on the legal principle of good faith. For a second.

I am not going to waste any further melchett mike inches on any of these characters. They – and, in the case of Odgers and Nickles, the relevant professional bodies in Germany – will be hearing from my lawyers. But, if you have stumbled across this blog in performing due diligence on NOa.berlin, Adam Odgers and/or Deborah Nickles, be warned: before instruction, make sure that any property is already safely in your name.

As for Berlin, you might think this tale bashert, the Abishter’s way of telling me what my conscience hadn’t. It will certainly make me think twice, next time, before uttering “Only in Israel . . .”

[Update, 17.12.14: It seems I am not the only one to have been burnt by these unconscionable cowboys – see Carlo’s comment here, and following.]

The Israeli Way in Death and Mourning

My cousin’s concern about my propensity for doing the right thing – the reason for him lending me The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning way back in January 2000 – was, I would like to believe, not as well-founded as it was well-meaning. Insofar as it related to my timely returning of other people’s property, however, there was certainly some justification for his doubt: the book – lent for fear that my somewhat cavalier approach to Orthodox practice might cost my just-deceased father his place in the World to Come – was still in my possession in August 2013.

The Jewish Way in Death and MourningBut, since dusting down the volume last month on the passing of my dear mother (may her memory be for a blessing), it has struck me that the otherwise fine and comprehensive work suffers from several important omissions, not least of which is a complete failure to address how one should deal with loss in modern Israel, because, while losing a loved one is always difficult, losing one here comes with all kinds of unexpected hardships. So, if Rabbi Lamm will forgive my chutzpah . . .

melchy on mourning, rule I: Do not, under any circumstances, allow your nearest and dearest to take his or her last breath late on a Friday morning – it just causes such an unnecessary, Erev Shabbos palaver . . .

Following futile efforts to extract anything more from the ward sister – imagine a Russian, utterly unendearing version of Hattie Jacques, who had clearly honed her family liaison skills in one of Brezhnev’s (far) eastern correctional facilities – than “she died,” I was summarily dispatched to the hospital on-duty rabbi to discuss burial.

“You should bury her now,” advised the kindly-looking chossid, in his late sixties, following a nervous glance at his watch. It was almost midday. “The cemetery is about to close.”

“But no one will be there,” I replied, with more than a hint of panic, “not her friends, not family . . . no one!” That was certainly not the send-off I had imagined for my very special mum (nor the one, I think, that she would have wished for herself).

“Well, it is up to you.”

“So . . . do I have to bury her now, or don’t I?”

“You should.”

“But do I have to?” I repeated, more forcefully this time, still wary – in spite of my rather less than positive experience, from Holders Hill Road, of Jews with beards – of going against religious wisdom in such a matter.

“It is up to you.”

With the conversation fast turning into a Marx Brothers routine and the rabbi clearly itching to lock up his Portakabin for Shabbos (and even relieved, perhaps, that I was leaning towards a Sunday burial), I took a filial decision: that if the rabbi hadn’t, Hasmo-style, yanked my negligible sideburns and forced me into burying my mother that very afternoon, there was clearly some discretion in the matter . . . so, Sunday noon it was!

melchy on mourning, rule II: Keep a large stick by the shiva house door . . .

When, immediately upon reaching the end of the line of well-wishers, I was approached, graveside, by the two schlemiels proffering the monumental masonry equivalent of the Argos Catalogue, I made short work of them and thought no more of it.

But when another matzeiva (headstone) salesman knocked on the shiva house door the following morning, I was simply too disbelieving to come out with anything that I would subsequently be proud of. And it was still a one-off, I reassured myself – sharp practice by a monumental mason with enough chutzpah to get ahead of the pack.

With the second and third visits that week, however, I was reminded of just where I was living: a country where, so sadly, almost anything goes.

“It’s just business,” an English-raised cousin attempted to placate me.

Living here clearly changes us, too.

melchy on mourning, rule III:  Come up with a reason better than death as to why you wish to cancel service contracts . . .

The shiva passed without incident. And I don’t think I managed to offend anyone this time around, unlike at my father’s, in 2000, when, to an unmistakably smartarse “Do you know who we are?”, I replied “Yes, you are the shiva cousins!”

Since then, however, I have had to deal with the God-awful companies that supplied my mother with TV, telephony and Internet for the last six and a half years.

I began with the Internet service provider, 012 Smile (though Frown has always seemed a more fitting epithet). And, after days of trying, I finally got through to a human being (or so I thought) . . .

“I want to cancel my mother’s Internet subscription,” I informed the customer service representative. “She passed away, unfortunately, on the second of August.”

“But why do you want to cancel?” enquired Jacqueline.

“Do I really need to explain?”

“It’s a pity,” said Jacqueline, clearly on a roll, “I can give you three months free!”

“Did you hear what I just told you? My mother died.”

“Please stay on the line,” the hapless, tactless Jacqueline replied, the shekel finally having dropped, returning some twenty seconds later with a clearly heartfelt “We, of course, share in your sorrow . . .”

Next was the ever-delightful HOT (see HOT . . . in the bedroom and under the collar, Nimas Lee: An open letter to HOT, and Some Don’t Like It HOT) . . .

Its Irena actually seemed to grasp – first time, too – why my mother would no longer be requiring telephone, Internet, or even television services, though I did receive three follow-up calls that same day, all beginning “I understand that you want to leave us . . . do you mind me asking why?”

HOT are so very thoughtful: even if there was a minuscule chance of a customer having a last-minute change of heart (or going back to them in the future), they obliterate it with a timely reminder as to exactly why you decided to get shot of the bastards in the first place!

melchy on mourning, rule IV:  Avoid kaddish wars . . .

There does not seem to be a shul in this entire country – or an Orthodox one, at least (It’s always the frum ones,” the Legendary Ivan Marks would often lament– where one can recite kaddish without being drowned out by some arrogant tosser (Ashkenazi) or nutter (Sephardi) who appears persuaded that his departed relative was so much more special than everybody else’s that his duty in mourning is to cantillate over them all.

I have as yet resisted (though only just) the temptation to compete with said tossers/nutters and, the stronger one still, to just bash them over the bonce with my new hardback Koren (see below). But, oh, how I long for the civilisation of the United Synagogue!

melchy on mourning, rule V:  Don’t be a cynic . . .

I attended shul three times a day during shloshim (the first thirty days of mourning). But how many times, and in how many ways, can one say “God is great” in a single day and still maintain a semblance of interest?! I would just sit there incredulous most of the time, staring at the intelligent-looking people around me, wondering just how they could all seemingly be so into this.

My continued fiddling under the table, however, with my new Galaxy S4 – before jumping up, like a Yok-in-the-box, to recite kaddish (I hope it still counted) – was starting to get noticed, so I purchased the Koren Siddur in an attempt to keep my brain at least partially active during proceedings. Before, that is, that I became sceptical about even that . . .

Translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,” I scoffed to myself, “who are they trying to kid?!” And I attempted to envisage Johnny Oxbridge sitting there through the long NW8 nights with his Thesaurus and a small, though perfectly presented, plate of cucumber sarnies (Grodzinski’s white, lightly buttered, sliced into quarters . . . am I right, Elaine?!)

I am a once-a-dayer these days. I say kaddish once. And I even strive for a little kavonoh. That feels right for me. After all, isn’t that what it is all about?!

.וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן . . .

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.]