Tag Archives: Isaacson Family

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 . . .]

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In the name of the father, and of his son, and of this belated post: melchy’s Ireland trip

“I am always going to fly on Saturdays from now on,” spits my sixty-something neighbour from Maccabim – taking a breather from “my son with the start-up” – on our EasyJet flight from Luton. “It is just so much nicer without the ‘penguins’.”

He uses the word, as so many secular Ashkenazi Israelis do, to describe the charedim (ultra-Orthodox) who so get under their skin. And following a delightfully good-willed twelve days in Ireland – where the only Hebrew I heard was “Nishma metzuyan, nishma Orange” (sounds excellent, sounds like Orange) – I know that I am back in the bosom (and not the ones I like) of our very own sectarians.

I had flown in and out of Kerry Airport (so tiny that, on arrival, I walked straight through baggage reclaim [i.e., without my bag] without realizing what it was) on the Emerald Isle’s west coast, and driven over 1300 (hooting-free) miles in a whistle-stop, largely coastal, tour (clockwise) of the land of my father.

“Will you have a pint?” the landlord enquires of the guy sitting next to me, on my very first evening, in the pub in Dingle. “Oh I think I’ll chance one,” comes the Normlike reply. And Ireland and I don’t look back.

Thumbs up from Fergal (Lynch's Bar, Miltown Malbay)

The Irish are simple (not a pejorative in my book), guileless, cheerful, uncomplaining, content. And we Israelis – Jews even – could learn a lot from them. They are also extremely personable and welcoming (in a way that the English most definitely are not: a similar tour, by an openly Semitic stranger, of towns and pubs across Blighty would likely end in a local infirmary). And my father often recalled how spectators would shout “Take the ball from the Jew boy,” when his brother was playing top flight football in Ireland, without it ever coming across as even remotely threatening.

There is also a wonderful, unique naivety about the Irish, which – while I can understand my father’s weariness of the Irish joke, portraying its subjects as something less than bright – I would always take over cynicism (except, of course, my own). The following are a selection of Oirishisms encountered during my 12-day stay . . .

  • First up, the old dear in Listowel (County Clare), who, upon hearing my accent, draws closer to whisper (in spite of there being no one within 50 yards) “We had to leave Birmingham. Too many blacks.” Though she doesn’t appear to see any irony in gushing, not thirty seconds later, “Oooh, it was lovely having Obama here!”
  • Then there is the driver, in Sligo, who, responding to my request for directions to Donegal, says “Follow me till I go through the last set of lights.” (“Oh yes” is all he can reply, with a sheepish grin, when I enquire how I am to know which are to be his last.)
  • There is the HSBC staff member in Derry/Londonderry (depending on your denomination), who – in the process of trying to get me to open a new type of account (though not, it would seem, wanting me to hang around for long enough to hear of its benefits) – informs me, in response to my query about the Troubles, and without a hint of mischief, that “The Real IRA are mainly targeting banks these days.”
  • And the estate agent in Dingle (I spend my last day there, too) who tells me “There are two tiers of stamp duty in Ireland: up to one million Euros, one percent; and, over one million Euros, one percent.” (“You’d better see a solicitor,” he replies, flustered, when I point out that this is really only one tier.)

The most interesting and memorable (and, on its coastline, scenic) leg of my trip is in the north. There is no need for a border between Counties Donegal and Derry, or even a sign welcoming you to Northern Ireland (there is neither), because one immediately knows, from one street to the next – because of the traffic lights, the road signs, and the architecture – that one is back in the UK. And I can’t wait to get my teeth into the conflict that permeated my childhood and youth . . .

I am not the slightest bit concerned about getting into difficulties: to Loyalists/Unionists, I will be an Israeli (if not a Jew), and to Republicans, the cousin of a high-profile IRA lawyer. And, reminding myself of the intrepid reporter that I once was (cf. tepid solicitor I now am), I throw myself in headlong: walking up Sandy Row on my first morning in Belfast, and playing Louis Theroux dumb, I ask a vendor of Marching Season accessories and regalia whether Catholics visit the street: “You know what they say,” came the gleeful reply, “Sandy Row, where the Fenians don’t go!”

Next is the Catholic Falls Road, where I am immediately ‘greeted’ by the sight of a Palestinian flag (right) flying proudly from its mast; and, a mere few hundred yards further, the Protestant Shankill Road, which flies Israeli flags in counter provocation (though, judging from the folk I speak to on both sides, neither has a clue about the conflict here). I hear shocking tales on both streets, which – as a result of the Good Friday Agreement – are walked daily by cold-blooded killers.

Indeed, never have I been as comforted by the sight of a rabbi as I am, that evening, at Shabbos dinner. And Rabbi Brackman’s ‘extremism’ – ‘making’ me repeat my (I thought convincingly drawn out) Shemoneh Esrei after I confess, under questioning, to having forgotten it was Rosh Chodesh – appears rather less so following the madness of earlier in the day. Nonetheless, I resist the inevitable invitation to shul the following morning, having already booked a Republican walking tour of the Falls Road and its environs. It is not a close call.

“I spent 16 years in jail for the attempted murder of an RUC officer,” commences Peadar Whelan, our guide. And, when I enquire (Theroux-style again) whether he had, indeed, tried to kill the man, it becomes clear that Peadar’s convictions have not mellowed with time: “He was an RUC man” is all he replies, with a hint of a glare (which, in my first encounter with a man who has attempted murder, I choose to interpret as a contact lens issue rather than a sign of menace). I don’t push it.

Over a Guinness (right) at the end of the tour, in the Felons Club – established “to foster and maintain among Irish Republicans friendships formed during imprisonment or internment as a result of their service to the Irish Republican cause” (see the memorial to the 1981 hunger strikers in the background, with Bobby Sands at its head) – I attempt to enlighten Peadar as to the Israeli side of our own troubles . . . though, with a man who professes to seeing “no difference” between Bin Laden and Bush-and-Blair (not to mention Bibi), that is always going to be a toughie.

I move on to Dublin, its Dolphins Barn cemetery (the Isaacson Bushey), Jewish Museum, and – most anticipated of all – to 97 South Circular Road, the childhood home of my father. And, having had the chutzpah to cold call (and on a Sunday morning), Ollie and Tim could not be more welcoming: they allow me to photograph the entire house, and even show an interest in my inherited stories of Dublin’s “little Jerusalem”.

Unfortunately, however, I have the wrong house: on visiting my father’s brother in London, later in the week, he informs me that the family home had, rather, been on the other side of the road (the houses having been renumbered over the years). Sincerest apologies, Ollie and Tim . . . though my offer of B&C (bed and canine) in Tel Aviv still holds good (and see June’s Mensch[es] of the Month!)

I spend my last days in Ireland enjoying the green land and its folk (and earmark Kinsale, County Cork, as the place that I may, one day, choose as my retreat in Civilisation). And, on my last evening, I peruse the young audience at the Dingle Tuesday Evening Cinema Club, and marvel how – rather than noisily sighing and tzutzing (as a Tel Aviv audience undoubtedly would) – they, without so much as a snigger or a smirk, respect the nonagenarian chairman’s ridiculous verbatim reading of a lengthy newspaper review of the upcoming “fil-em”.

“Whatever happened to our simplicity?” I wonder. We must have had some. Once.

Sophistication is not, in itself, a necessary good. And my short stay in Ireland makes me think about all the ‘sophisticates’ with whom I have surrounded myself in Tel Aviv . . . and wish I hadn’t.

Shyness is nice,” once wrote the greatest living Manc.

So, too, is simple.

Atop the Healy Pass, on the County Cork/Kerry border

http://www.justgiving.com/mike-isaacson/

A queer kaddish at the Melchett minyan

“Club Tropicana, drinks are free,
Fun and sunshine, there’s enough for everyone.
All that’s missing is the sea,
But don’t worry, you can suntan!”

With maximum respect to the co-writers of these fine lyrics, when I attended shul on Friday evening to recite kaddish in memory of my late brother Jonathan, I was not expecting to have to compete with George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley blaring from an adjacent apartment.

The Melchett minyan, however, situated in the grounds of a kindergarten, is surrounded by residential buildings, the typical inhabitant of which is an Ashkenazi young professional who is quite likely to “bat for the other side” . . . hence my having to recite my initial “Yisgadal veyiskadash” to the accompaniment of two eighties gay icons who never appeared to dress in anything but beachwear. Try to maintain kavanah (the mindset for prayer) – not my strong point to start with – having to do that.

Anyway, while he might have preferred Jimi or the Dead (I would have gone for a Lenny dirge myself), Jonny – whose music blared through my entire childhood – would not have disapproved of the concept.

I had thought, earlier in the day, of attending a minyan where I would be anonymous because, whenever I visit the Melchett one, the gabbeh (the bloke who runs the show) always makes me feel guilty that they only ever see me twice a year. And, sure enough, as I walked in, the puritanical Shmuel – an accountant, appropriately enough, during the week – gave me that look, before walking over and shaking my hand with a distinctly patronising “Welcome,” which I always interpret (correctly) as “What? Yahrzeit again?!”

I have disappointed Shmuel. He had high hopes for me once – at the turn of the millennium – when, during my year of mourning for my father, I was a minyan regular. But, while I had the best of intentions during those twelve months – of continuing my shul-going even after they were up – they all came to nothing with the abruptness of my final “ve’imru amen.”

The Melchett minyan – a whimsical collection of locals whipped into line by Shmuel and a learned, prominent Tel Aviv court judge – has always struggled for numbers. With promises of the World to Come and/or, on occasion, herring, it regularly has to drag in reluctant locals to make up a quorum (of ten men), no enviable or straightforward task in Tel Aviv . . . never mind off Sheinkin, Israel’s secular heartland. But the minyan has also been guilty of the kind of crass stupidity in which synagogues so often seem to specialise, most ludicrously by allowing the formation of a breakaway service – also struggling to obtain a quorum – which competes against it from the adjacent classroom.

Kaddish, anyway, just doesn’t do it for me. Neither does yizkor for that matter, or even visiting graves. Not being able to cast off my religious upbringing, I of course do them all, though they just – if you will excuse the expression – leave me cold . . .

And, while I was reciting my second and final kaddish of the evening – accompanied, this time, by Radio Ga Ga (all I heard was “radio ga ga, radio goo goo”) by Queen (further evidence of the Shabbos desecrator’s sexual bent) – it occurred to me that the very best way of remembering Jonny would be to ask you lot to read (or reread) my e-memorial to him, and the many touching comments that follow it.

God bless, Jonny.

Stanley Reiss z”l, 1934-1996

This evening, remarkably, marks the fourteenth yahrzeit (anniversary of death) of my late uncle, Stanley Reiss.

Remarkably, I say, because so unfailingly is Stanley’s memory kept alive by all those who knew and loved him – with recollections, especially, of his generosity of spirit and unique sense of humour – that we can never quite believe that he has not been with us for so long. That his legacy and spirit still are, however, is, in Stanley’s case, no mere cliché.

Stanley, my mother’s younger brother, was that rarity amongst older relatives in that, far from unavoidable obligation, time spent in his company was hugely and genuinely enjoyed. I would love to join him on his evening walks, with family dog Cookie, around Hendon Park – to discuss his, often radical, views on British politics and current affairs (about which he was extremely well-read) and sport (much of which, with his uncanny ability to see the true nature of things, he was persuaded was “fixed”) – and recall jumping at the opportunity to accompany him on the trek to a family bar mitzvah in some distant community (which no one else particularly fancied) because it meant a valuable hour and a half in his presence.

Entertaining guests at the bar mitzvah of my brother Jonathan (pictured with my father), 1971.

Stanley’s repartee and one-liners, delivered with wonderful comic timing, were invariably followed by his trademark boyish guffaw and – for good measure, as if to guarantee a winner – a hearty slap on the back of the nearest listener.

And Stanley had his regular comic routines. Some of these, such as mock chases and fights with his four sons, involved traditional slapstick, while others bordered on pure pantomime: While one of said sons would be on the upstairs phone, in the middle of a sensitive teenage talk, Stanley would carefully – but always with an eye on his eager morning room audience – pick up the downstairs receiver. Covering the mouthpiece with his hand, he would await the perfect moment in the conversation (i.e., the most delicate) before interjecting: “Oh, come on . . . this is boring!”

In the family tradition (of which I am most proud), Stanley had no time for humbug or status. On one occasion, as the two of us attempted to beat the crowds to the buffet at a wedding (on my, Isaacson, side of the family) in the Royal Albert Hall, Stanley barged past Sir Keith Joseph – the brains behind Thatcherism – as if he wasn’t there. Sir Keith’s face, unsmiling at the best of times, was an absolute picture, and – even if he might not have – I enjoyed the moment immensely.

Such irreverence may have stemmed, to some extent, from Stanley’s knowledge (shared by all) that, without his admirable, unstinting observance of the Fifth Commandment, he would have achieved far more, both creatively and professionally. His father (my grandfather) Sam, however, wanted his only son in “the shop” and, so, Stanley’s most original artistic talent (he produced the work below aged just fifteen) was left to hobby . . . with guests returning from weddings and bar mitzvahs with his hilarious caricatures – often of them – sketched on the rear of their Grace After Meals booklets.

One decision, fortunately, that Stanley did not leave to his parents was his choice of life partner. And in his Egyptian wife, Gigi, Stanley found a soul mate with shared values of empathy, kindness, openness and frankness.

Stanley was a genuinely religious (in the real sense of the word) man, perhaps even – while not bearing all of the meaningless trimmings – in the true, chassidic Galicianer tradition: He loved nothing more than hearing his sons sing zemiros; while his and Gigi’s home operated a strict open door policy (a rarity in England), with the Reiss Shabbos table usually seating an assortment of characters who considered 5 Queens Road their second – and, in some cases, even primary – home.

The centrepiece of our family Seder was usually a Galicianer-Litvak dialogue between Stanley and my father regarding the role of God during the Holocaust. Where Stanley saw Him, especially in the subsequent creation of the State of Israel, my sceptic father did not. And when I eventually started to question, too, Stanley was quick to give me – and to make sure that I read – a copy of This Is My God, Herman Wouk’s classic introduction to Orthodox Judaism.

Stanley was a staunch supporter of Israel, which he backed up by encouraging – and, for once, standing up to his father’s objections to – the decisions of his sons to make aliyah. This love of Israel extended to Israelis, too, who, on chancing upon “the shop” on Sunday mornings (usually following a visit to nearby Petticoat Lane), walked out with clothing at near cost price and often a Shabbos invitation to 5 Queens Road!

The mischievous Hasmo boy, paintbrush in pocket, circa 1947.

As a consequence, in all probability, of a difficult (even somewhat neglected) wartime childhood – spent in a Welsh boarding school, far from his parents’ Letchworth sojourn – Stanley was, by all accounts, a rather mischievous boy. On one occasion, a municipal meeting was interrupted by the announcement, “Mr. Reiss, please go home: Your chickens have escaped.” Stanley had thought that he would let them stretch their wings!

Such humanity earned Stanley the sobriquet, “Shirt”: he would give the shirt off his back to someone in need. And it was a quality that he never lost: in later years, Stanley would leave cash for a down-and-out old school friend – they were the first pupils at Hasmonean Grammar – with doormen of Tel Aviv beachfront hotels, requesting that they hand him a little each time he pass by.

A wonderful son, husband and father, Stanley was also so many people’s best friend. And his sudden passing, at the tragically premature age of 62, was a deep and terrible shock to all of them. My father, not always the most sentimental of men, was quite broken about it for the rest of his days.

Stanley always saw the light side of life, and – while little comfort to those he left behind – there was something in his unfussy departure from this world (though he would dearly have loved a lot longer in it) about which he would have approved. Indeed, there was much about Stanley’s simplicity and lack of ego to which we can all aspire.

Heading straight to Bushey Cemetery from my hastily arranged flight from Tel Aviv, on that dark morning in October 1996, the first words that Gigi said to me were “You had such a lovely uncle.”

That said it all. Here was a man who had made a real difference. And life since, for lots of us, has never been quite the same.

http://www.justgiving.com/melchettmike/

England, Your England

“Sorry,” he proffered, as he inadvertently passed between me and the bookshelf.

“Bloody hell” I thought, after doing a brief double take, “that would never happen in Steimatzky!”

I had been browsing the Travel Writing section of my favourite bookshop – Waterstone’s (formerly Dillons) on Gower Street – as the impeccably mannered Englishman momentarily obstructed my view. This seemingly insignificant episode, however, resonated with me, demonstrating as it did the huge contrast in attitudes and behaviour between my birthplace and my homeland.

There is something lovely and serene about many aspects of life in Blighty, including the manner in which (most) folk treat each other with common courtesy and respect (if not warmth).

After a week in London (following a year and a half without a visit), however, I was ready to come home (which I did a few days later, last Thursday). Whilst enjoying the ‘civilisation’ booster, I now experience considerable difficulty in readjusting to the English, and – oddly perhaps – to English Jews especially.

This has become very apparent to me on Anglo-Jewish charity bike rides overseas, when I find it extremely testing having to spend a week and a half with a hundred, primarily North-West London coreligionists. For my last ride, in the Far East, I made my own way from Tel Aviv to the group’s hotel in Saigon. On arrival, the first person I came across, from Stanmore, on hearing that I had come from Israel, felt compelled to assure me of his Zionist credentials:

“I would never sell my flat in Herzliya Pituach.”

Oh, Theodor would have been so proud!

At last Monday’s seder (Passover meal), which I enjoyed in Muswell Hill, the Manc sitting opposite me, finding an Anglo-Israeli at the table, laid into American Jewish settlers, who – even if I don’t always agree with them – have priorities considerably more weighty than the “French château that sleeps 19” which Manc informed us he is about to lose to his ex-wife. I liked her already.

Then, clearly trying to impress the new fiancée by his side – and more closely resembling the Haggadah’s (seder service’s) Wicked Son (who tries to distance himself from the Jewish people) with every ignorant word – he became a tad bolder:

“It might have been better if Israel had never existed.”

“Your life would be a lot more precarious if it didn’t,” I fired back as if he had just dissed my mum. In fact, if the Wicked Son hadn’t been my friend’s brother-in-law, the Isaac Son might have jeopardised any future invitation by following the Haggadah’s instruction to “smash his teeth”.

The purpose of my trip was to attend an Isaacson simcha (festivity). And whilst – following the bar mitzvah of my cousin’s twins – there are two fine new Isaacson men, the speeches (including that of the Rabbi), essentially on cricket and Arsenal FC, prompted even this once sports mad teenager to think that his Isaacsons (should he, one day, surprise everyone) will grow up here.

When in England, these days, I find myself acting like a member of the Israel Tourist Board. Wicked Son excepted, I offered Melchett hospitality to everyone I met. The obvious reluctance of some to accept it, however, saddened me.

“I am not visiting until there is peace,” declared a cousin on the other, Reiss side of the family, who spends his vacations in Dubai. “I wouldn’t feel safe there” (a curious statement, I thought, considering he has never been). And another (who has a box at Arsenal) hasn’t returned since receiving poor service at his hotel’s pool during his only visit, in the Seventies.

I also dropped in on an old friend from law school, whose seemingly delightful Hampstead Garden Suburb existence – replete with BMW jeep and designer Labrador – showed me what I could have had if I didn’t love this f*cked-up country so bloody much.

The only thing that I truly do miss about Blighty is the sound of leather on willow – one even more seductive than that, from the building opposite, of “Melchett Shabbes afternoon girl” (if you get my drift) – but the politeness, the châteaus, the Premier League boxes, the Suburb, the jeeps, even the ‘proper’ dogs (only joking, Stuey and Dexx!) . . .  none of them held any real allure.

If you feel that you truly belong here, none of that “stuff” is any substitute.

[See also Why I Am Not (Really) an Englishman and the last four paragraphs of my Rosh Hashanah Message.]

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.

Curbing My (Irish) Enthusiasm

I have recently started to feel a real kinship with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Larry David. I keep finding myself in awkward situations (and not only with T.A. Woman), and am regularly asking myself “Is it them, or me?!”

Now, funerals are generally a pretty safe bet. You turn up (on time), affect suitable solemnity (modulated to the age of the deceased and circumstances of death), wish the mourners “Long life” (even though you have never really understood what it means), and spend the rest of the time looking for the appropriate moment to piss off.

Safe for other people perhaps. Not for me. Not on recent form, at any rate.

Last week, I attended the funeral of my cousin’s late husband. As co-founder of Israel’s largest law firm, many of Israel’s (supposed) great and good were present.

As I approached the entrance to the grounds, in Herzliya, I recognized Isaac Herzog, a Labor MK (member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament) and a minister in Bibi’s new coalition government. By his side was a woman who I correctly presumed to be his mother, Aura, widow of the late, former President Chaim Herzog, another co-founder of the firm.
With the big boys: Herzog (far left) with Barak, Obama

With the big boys: Isaac Herzog (far left) with Barak, Obama

Now, Chaim and my late father were pals, in the twenties and thirties, in Dublin’s small and extremely tight-knit Jewish community. On one occasion, when he learned that my folks were in Israel, Chaim had his driver bring them over to his residence for dinner. And, in 1996, the two Irishmen, then in their eighties, had an emotional reunion at a book-signing for Chaim’s new autobiography. He passed away a year later.

Even though I was born in London, the Isaacson Dublin connection has always brought me into warm contact with other Irish Jews. It is very much a club.

Quite apart from my father’s distinguished academic achievements at Wesley and Trinity Colleges (he tutored Chaim in maths), my grandfather Joe was shammes (beadle) at Adelaide Road Synagogue and a well-known communal character, while my uncle Percy was considered amongst the finest Jewish sportsmen to come out of the “Emerald Isle”. Moreover, their cousin, solicitor Michael Noyk famously defended many Sinn Féin Nationalists, and was a close friend and legal adviser to Republican leader Michael Collins (whose widow used to visit my grandparents’ home, following his murder in 1922).

So, being the friendly and enthusiastic soul that I sometimes am, I decided to introduce myself to Mrs. Herzog. And, on mentioning “Harold Isaacson”, I received an immediate and warm response until, in mid-sentence, she was dragged away by Isaac – perhaps slighted that I should be more interested in his mother – who proceeded to parade her (though really, and self-importantly, himself) around those he considered more shaveh (worth it).

Isaac Herzog has the bearing of what is known in Yiddish as a shnip (the closest English equivalent is probably my favoured “mook”). He is short and weasel-like in appearance – perhaps, as I discovered last week, in character too (he was also investigated, in 1999, in relation to allegations of party-funding violations, but chose to maintain his silence) – and his nickname, “Buji”, for me says everything.

Perhaps this post smacks of the snubbed. Indeed, the experience was not pleasant. Herzog’s rudeness, however, spoke volumes for the nature of Israel’s new generation of ‘leaders’ – arrogant, unremarkable, self-interested, unconnected to the past, and owing their positions to protexia (patronage/connections). The nature of Israel’s electoral system does not help, either, as MKs have no constituents to answer to.

If we wouldn’t have been at a funeral, and my rather more phlegmatic cousin, Danny, hadn’t been there to stop me, then – never a respecter of title or position – I would have said something to the Shnip.

As it was, I just drove home understanding why so many Israelis despair at what they consider Israel’s biggest problem (even more than the Palestinians and our lovely Arab neighbours): the dearth of principled young politicians, who have got where they have on the back of their own talent, charisma and achievements . . . not of who their father was.