Tag Archives: Hendon United Synagogue

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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The Edot (Part I): The Pasty UK Years

If pushed to give my primary reason for, on a good day (i.e., when I haven’t been induced into spasm by some impudent native), preferring life in Israel to that in the UK, then pipping even the food, weather and women (in ascending order of hotness) would have to be the rich tapestry of Jewish life here. In spite of our many detractors (and, indeed, problems), the short history of Israel has been one of startling achievement in almost every field, not least of which has been the absorption of so many disparate edot (ethnic groups) – each with its own distinctive culture and traditions – into such a remarkably united (even if we wish it were more so) whole.

But whenever attempting to relate my experiences of, for instance, Moroccan or Yemenite Jews, and especially of their womenfolk, to an Anglo Jew, I am met with a blank expression (one that Part II will attempt to address). The vast majority of British Jews lack any frame of reference in this regard, hailing from or having their origins in Poland, Galicia (today straddling Poland and Ukraine), Russia, the Baltics, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, Hungary. And, growing up in North-West London, the very marginal differences between such Jews could only be discerned from their particular shuls or shtiebls (large and small synagogues) if they had them (most now don’t), from their Shabbos meals, though mainly from their own peculiar – in both senses – sense of identity.

So, in the Isaacson household, for example, my father, of Lithuanian extraction, always appeared to delight in highlighting (in good humour, mind) the intellectual and cultural inferiority of the Galicianer Reiss family into which he had married. The Litvak, he was certain, constituted the very “cream” of European Jewry. Indeed, my father’s claim has always seemed to me to be somewhat justified, the Litvak misnagdim appearing, on the one hand, more enlightened (almost by definition) than the hassidic Galicianers, whilst, on the other, somehow more human than the anally-challenged German Yekkes. (In contrast to most Jewish immigrants to the UK, who arrived immediately before and after the turn of the last century, the majority of Hungarian Jews did not escape the Holocaust and were perhaps, therefore, considered beyond, even light-hearted, stereotype.)

The sickening history of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, however, made the “Old Country” a delicate subject for all immigrants. Even though they escaped Lithuania and Galicia around two and three decades, respectively, before the rise of Hitler, my parents never heard their parents or grandparents talk about the pogroms and persecutions that they had suffered in their backward, Jew-hating hellholes. Anyway, there is far more that unites Ashkenazi (European) Jews than separates them. And the differences between them would be no more recognisable to the outsider – or even to most other Jews – than those between, for instance, British Muslims of Bangladeshi extraction and those from Pakistan.

United Colors of British Jewry: Board of Deputies honorary officers, 2009

United Colors of British Jewry: Board of Deputies honorary officers, 2009

A relatively small community of Sephardic Jews – of primarily Middle Eastern and North African descent – added some much-needed colour to the rather pallid complexion of Anglo-Jewish life. My exposure was to the, largely Indian, Sephardic community of Hendon, to the Adenites of Stamford Hill (many of whom attended Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys), and to a smattering of Moroccans, Egyptians, Iraqis and Persians (most of whom had escaped the 1979 Islamic Revolution, wisely with little more than their carpets).

And these Sephardim brought a lot to the table. Quite literally. Their mealtime plenty was quite an eye-opener for the Anglo Jew, in whose kitchen meticulous Shabbos potato allocation was carried out on a Thursday morning. Blessed with an Egyptian aunt, however, I was spared a childhood of exclusively (miserably bland) Ashkenazi fare (though even that was an improvement on traditional English grub). Wary not to injure his daughter’s (my mother’s) feelings, my grandfather would play months of  ‘chess’ with the food she had deposited in his freezer, while my aunt’s wasn’t even given time to ice over.

The door policy, too, operated in Sephardic households was significantly more relaxed, with strays wandering in and out without any requirement for advance written invitation. This was a real culture shock for the Anglo Jew, who ‘greeted’ every unexpected knock at the door – which, even after positive identification, still wasn’t always opened – with a suspicious glance through translucent curtains or a built-in, magnifying peephole.

Perhaps in their attempt to blend in, however, the differences between these various Sephardic ethnicities and cultures were rarely visible to, or experienced by, their Ashkenazi ‘hosts’. And, beyond the puerile mimicking of the ‘funny’ accents of our new Persian classmates, I was never aware of any racism towards, or even light-hearted stereotyping of, our darker brothers. Indeed, many of them easily assimilated into Raleigh Close, Hendon’s very traditional United Synagogue. Moreover, the fact that the biggest “lout/wretch” (to quote the Legendary Swansean) in our school year was Morocco born and bred was neither here nor there.

In Israel, however, the richness of Jewish multi-ethnicity is celebrated, nurtured, and flourishes. And the deliciously incorrect sense of humour enjoyed here, thriving on ethnic excess and eccentricity (this kinda thing), simply could not exist without the edot. Is there anything to the inevitable, resulting stereotypes? You betcha!! And don’t believe anyone who – serving his or, of course, her ‘god’ of political correctness – tells you otherwise.

[Next on melchett mikeThe Edot (Part II): Ethnic Yentzing in Palestine. If you are offended by generalisations, and un-PC ones at that, then give it a miss. Anyway, you are probably on the wrong blog . . .]

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!

When Kol Nidrei really was Kol Nidrei

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. Though even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be . . .

Wishing all readers of melchett mike a very happy and healthy New Year, and “well over the fast.”

[For further rose-tinted reminiscence about our childhood home, see Hendon: Just Nostalgic Illusion? And, if you are enjoying melchett mike and would like the certainty of knowing that your hard-earned dosh is going to Norwood – rather than leaving it to the vagaries of some little bugger fiddling with your Kol Nidrei Appeal card! – go to http://www.justgiving.com/melchettmike.]

Orthodox to Reform: Losing my neshama?

I attended a bar mitzvah in Jerusalem on Saturday. At Kol HaNeshama, the Reform synagogue in Baka where I used to pray – or, more accurately, join in the singsong and close my eyes and pretend to meditate while other congregants were meditating (or pretending to) – after making Aliyah, 14 years ago.

And it really was very pleasant.

The “bible” Bible for Reform Jews is apparently W. Gunther Plaut’s The Torah: A Modern Commentary (right). And its preface, describing the Torah’s origins, certainly made a lot more sense to me on Saturday morning than any account I ever heard during my Orthodox upbringing, either in Britain’s United Synagogue or (even more certainly) at Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys.

Plaut asserts, I think (an attractive congregant was interfering with my concentration), that while the Torah is neither the word of God nor written by Moses – it is a continuing source of amazement to me that so many, otherwise normal, friends and acquaintances actually believes that it is – its several authors chronicle the Jewish peoples’ perceptions of and relationship with (their notion of) the Deity.

Progressive synagogues – or temples, as they often seem to be called – possess an air of serenity, goodwill and even universal love that, if not entirely absent from their Orthodox equivalents, is far less apparent. The difference in atmosphere is best summed up by the split-screen dinner scene in Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer juxtaposes the decorum at the Halls’ table with the noisy vulgarity at his family’s (though I do not employ the analogy to suggest either that Progressive Jews are more akin to WASPs . . . or that Orthodox Jews are coarse!)

On Shabbes mornings at Raleigh Close (Hendon United Synagogue) – where congregants would continually approach my grandfather, considered something of a “stag”, for tips on new share issues – I would learn more about the stock market than Torah. And the backbiting and intrigue for which Orthodox shuls are renowned was one of the primary factors in the continual refusal of my father, a constitutional anti-macher (big shot), to accept nominations for its board of management.

Progressive synagogues, on the other hand, have always felt to me fundamentally un-heimish (homely and warm) and – in spite of all the meditating and happy-clappyness – seem to suffer from a deficiency of true neshama (soul). In fact, they cause me to feel a sense of alienation similar to that experienced by Alvy at Annie’s parents.

Indeed, for those of us who are “FFB” – Frum (Orthodox), or in my case frumish, From Birth – the transition from Orthodox to Reform may be fraught with difficulty and discomfort. So, whilst I am far more ideologically aligned with Progressive forms of Judaism these days – even experiencing a sense of dissonance in Orthodox shuls – I have found the conversion process to be far from straightforward.

Whilst I haven’t yet concluded whether being able to hug one’s partner or massage his or her back as they recite kaddish (the memorial prayer) – which Progressive synagogues’ mixed seating enables – is beautiful or unnecessary (I am veering towards the former), I am now entirely used to increased female participation in services (which even some Orthodox shuls are now fostering).

But, on Saturday morning, there was the odd appearance of a mobile telephone (perhaps Hashem now accepts text messages), and – just when I had thought that that was as inappropriate as it could get – the woman in front of me pulled out a pen and paper, and started scribbling away frantically (perhaps the winning Lotto numbers had come to her during her meditations).

Whilst a Kol HaNeshama regular later assured me that such behaviour could only have come from a visitor, the same cannot be said of the female congregants who had donned a tallis (prayer shawl) and/or – what, for some strange reason, winds me up more than anything else in Progressive synagogues – a kippa (skullcap). In fact, the latter appears no less alien to me on a female head than a strap-on protuberance does – or rather would (“I have never seen one, Your Honour”) – between her legs.

But who am I, a self-declared and unabashed apikores (heretic), to judge any of my coreligionists? Especially since, at the same time on your average Saturday morning, I can usually be found on Rothschild Boulevard doing nothing more spiritual than indulgently licking the foam off my hafuch (latte).

What it boils down to, I guess, is that while you can take the dat’lash (acronym for dati le’she’avar, formerly religious person) out of Hendon, Menorah and Hasmo (and notionally Gush), it is far more difficult – perhaps impossible – to take the Hendon, Menorah and Hasmo out of the dat’lash (for a recent, interesting article on the dat’lash, see The ties that continue to bind).

And, to all readers of melchett mike – whatever you practise or believe . . . or not – a happy, healthy, and healthily irreverent 2010!

Hendon: Just Nostalgic Illusion?

Hendon Central Tube

But not for long . . .

Hendon-but-not-for-long     

This was the street sign idea I proposed, as a small design project, to a conceptual artist friend.     

Jason and I both grew up in Hendon, the suburb of North-West London which most people – or at least those whose interests and aspirations extend beyond a healthy Jewish community and an excellent selection of synagogues (including, of course, the ones that you don’t go to) – long to get away from. And during university vacations, following months of undergraduate decadence, Jason and I would invariably bump into each other and catch up in Hendon Central, always reflecting – though with humour and no little affection – on the sheer dullness of our childhood home. Indeed, whenever a woman in whom I had an interest would ask where I was from, I would always mutter the response in an extremely throwaway manner. “Hendon” had always been a conversation stopper.     

Even ignoring Hasmo and its Legends, however, Hendon features more landmarks and places of interest than your average suburban neighbourhood: the RAF Museum, Police Training College, one end of Britain’s best known motorway (the M1), the Welsh Harp, Hendon Hall Hotel (where FA Cup Final teams would stay, a safe distance from any action, on the night before the big day), Middlesex University (if you couldn’t get in anywhere else), Barnet Copthall Stadium, and that paradise of the bored North-West London Jewish housewife, Brent Cross Shopping Centre.     

Hendon has somehow contrived, however, to be far less than the sum of its parts. I have no desire to even visit (and if I do, it will only be for free board and/or Brent Street’s excellent Lahore curry house).     

But, perhaps as with all childhood homes, nostalgia tends to drown out reality. And the memories of many former Hendonites are fond. Following his return to Israel from a recent visit, my cousin Marc said something that tickled me: “You know what, Michael, I walked down Brent Street, and it meant nothing to me.” Now, anyone who knows Brent Street will be amazed that this dreary suburban high street – with seventies eyesore, Sentinel Square, at its miserable heart – could ever have meant anything to anyone. But Marc and I regularly reminisce lovingly about the “old country” during our concurrent morning drives through the Israeli traffic.     

Or was the Hendon of our childhood really a better place?     

The neighbourhood supplied no shortage of characters. There were the Carmels who owned the greengrocery on Vivian Avenue, and whose hotheaded son Danny was constantly fighting with customers over one thing or another, often the handling of his fruit. Opposite them was irascible old Mr. Kaplan the grocer, with his unfeasibly strong Mitteleuropean accent, who was just as prone as Danny to upset patrons.     

And who can forget the Irishman charged with running the tennis courts at Hendon Park (below right), but whose little green (appropriately) hut – for booking the courts – was nearly always closed (judging by the hue of his cheeks when he eventually appeared, it was never too difficult to work out where he had been)? The usual form was:     

  • turn up . . . to find the hut shut;
  • The diagonal path, Hendon Parkstart playing anyway;
  • run off when the Irishman eventually appeared (because we were near the end of the match anyway . . . and Jewish, considering the 30p an hour fee better put towards the cost of our first flat or car);
  • find refuge in the “corner shop” next to the Hendon Classic (cinema), where we would drive the Asian owners to distraction, leafing through their comics (and, later, other “mags”) with no intention whatsoever of making a purchase.

If Hendon’s most famous son was the great Test batsman Denis Compton, its celebrity resident was heavyweight boxing champion Henry Cooper, who once dumped Cassius Clay on his backside, but who would unfailingly offer a warm “hello” as he strolled his giant poodle up Brampton Grove. Carry On and East Enders actress Barbara Windsor also lived in Hendon, while eighties soul band Imagination frequented the local video shop on Sentinel Square (or was that Just an Illusion?)     

Talking of carry-ons, the forty-odd detached homes on our street, Edgeworth Crescent, seemed to house and generate more characters and drama than your average small town. And I am not just talking about the product of the lively – some would say perverse – imagination of award-winning author Clive Sinclair, who grew up next door and who, on revealing his Hendon roots, has been quoted as exclaiming “God help me!”     

Where there is now a Holmes Place and sheltered housing, however, once stood two ‘proper’, old-style cinemas: the Classic (opposite Hendon Central tube) and the Odeon (in the Quadrant). Hendon was also home to numerous traditional English pubs. The White Bear, on the Burroughs, provided shelter to a much-loved stuffed polar which disappeared with the pub’s character when it – like so many others – was converted into a vapid theme pub, the only discernible theme being its absolute dreariness.     

Another Hendon institution sorely missed is its football club, Hendon FC, which now groundshares with Wembley FC after, this year, being forced to leave its home of 80 years, Claremont Road.     

Hendon FC, Claremont Road

Another goal for the mighty Greens, as the away keeper reacts a tad late.

Perhaps it is just me (and the several dozen other saddos who watch Hendon),  but I always found it oddly gratifying being able to stand right behind the away goal and to viciously abuse the generic “fat useless c*nt” – i.e., every visiting goalie (irrelevant of ability and girth) – knowing that he would hear every word (and, often, respond). You can’t do that at Arsenal. "Got your number!"And standing among us was another favourite son of Hendon, David “Got your number!” Bedford (with caricature, right), the former 10,000 metres world record holder and – more significantly for fans of Hendon – vice-chairman and champion of our ailing club.     

The Burroughs still provides a strong sense of a more distinguished past. And, on three consecutive General Election nights, we gathered beneath the balcony of Hendon Town Hall to hear Maggie Thatcher – whose constituency was neighbouring Finchley – deliver her victory addresses.     

The study room of the adjacent Hendon Library was where we revised for our O and A level examinations. Its stereotypically plain librarians – remember the lovely “Olive Oil”, anyone? – would never fail to take the bait of pranksters who would ring up asking for “Mike Hunt”. During the heat and pressure of summer exams – as frum (primarily Hasmonean) boys had their closest exposure yet to non-religious Jewish and Gentile girls – there were more Jewish erections in that room than on your average West Bank hilltop.     

Raleigh Close (Hendon United) Synagogue still is, for me, Shul. A reader of melchett mike has opined, interestingly, how Reverend Hardman z”l, Rabbi Silberg, and the incumbent Rabbi Ginsbury “so accurately represented, and represent, the state of Anglo-Jewry at the time”. Moshe SteinhartAnd shammes (beadle) Moshe Steinhart (right) became an inadvertent communal legend, his wonderfully naive, malapropistic weekly announcements sparking more hilarity than your average stand-up comedian.     

Last month, at the lacklustre Kol Nidrei (Yom Kippur eve) service in Tel Aviv’s Great Synagogue, my mind wandered back to the atmospheric Raleigh Close Kol Nidreis of my childhood and youth, where Hendonite coreligionists whom one hadn’t seen for an entire year would spend the entire service awkwardly rearranging their garish kippot (skullcaps) – each with its own unmistakable year-long crease across its middle – on their often equally shiny bonces.     

But Hendon possessed a wider sense of community too. Every Sunday morning and summer evening, there were “pick up” games of football in Hendon Park, where Jewish kids, black kids, Greek kids, and those from local council estates, would all muck in very happily (Asian Muslim kids however never did, the first time we became aware of any “them ‘n us” tension, though it was of course to get much worse). And there were real characters there too (whatever became of “Mad” Dave?)     

But all that has gone.     

I still see Stuart – known as “Rushie” in those games because of his remarkably cool (for park football), Ian Rush-like finishing – on my increasingly infrequent visits to London. He still lives in Hendon, and bemoans the changes there, not least the increase in crime and general feeling of insecurity on its streets, which he blames on the influx into the neighbourhood of eastern Europeans.     

Whatever the accuracy of his analysis, there is a perceptible dearth of ethnically English people left in Hendon. These days, the roads not sufficiently desirable for Jews to inhabit are occupied primarily by Asians and the eastern Europeans who Stu so decries. There is virtually nothing “English” about Hendon left. And – however un-PC, and impertinent for a Jew, to say so – that strikes me as sad.     

Hendon was our shtetl, our East End: good times and great memories . . . though I, for one, would not want to be back there.