Tag Archives: Jewish East End

Sam Reiss z”l, 1903-1995

Few are the folk who do good deeds without fanfare, and who seek absolutely nothing in return . . . not thanks, not praise, not even recognition.

Grandpa, outside "the shop"

Grandpa, outside "the shop"

“Did he wear a bow tie and smoke a cigar?” is the usual response, whenever I ask an East Ender if he or she came across my maternal grandfather, Sam Reiss. That, however, was the only ‘loud’ thing about him.

“What a character!” they exclaim, when they realise that we’ve got the same man. And grandpa, whose Yahrzeit (Jewish anniversary of death) was on Sunday, was indeed an original. He even sported his trademark bow tie in recognition of his bar mitzvah parsha (Torah portion) being Bo.

Grandpa was born in 1903, in Galicia (south-east Poland today), close to the Hassidic centre of Ropczyce, home to the famous tzadik (righteous man) Zvi Naftali Horowitz. The Reiss family resided either in the village of Radomyśl Wielki or the town of Sędziszów Małopolski – grandpa used to mention both of them, and I am not sure that even he knew exactly which (Jewish suffering in the “Old Country” making it a rather taboo subject for his parents’ generation). He arrived in Britain as a baby, together with his parents and older sister Sadie. 

Family Reiss (circa 1938) Back row: Brothers Morry, Solly, Charlie, Alf, Joe & my grandfather Sam (separated by Alf's wife Bella & bar mitzvah Lionel Becker). Middle row: My mother Norma & grandmother Leah. Front row: My great-grandmother & grandfather Chana & Naftali, flanking Reiss sister Sadie, her husband Jack & son Alan Becker.

Family Reiss (circa 1938) Back row: Brothers Morry, Solly, Charlie, Alf, Joe & my grandfather Sam (separated by Alf's wife Bella & bar mitzvah boy Lionel Becker). Middle row: My mother Norma & grandmother Leah. Front row: My great-grandmother & grandfather Chana & Naftali, flanking Reiss sister Sadie, her husband Jack & son Alan Becker.

My great-grandparents, who had five more boys in England, were Dzikówer Hassidim (of the Ropczyce Hassidic dynasty) – followers of the tzadik Eliezer of Dzików, the son of Zvi Naftali of Ropczyce – and grandpa davened (prayed) at the East End’s Dzikówer Shtiebl, a small synagogue attended by immigrants from that part of the world.

A furrier by trade, grandpa took over the Brick Lane hosiery store of the brother of his new wife, Leah – who, for some curious reason, he always referred to as “Mrs. Reiss” – above which they brought up my mother, Norma, and her three younger siblings, Mavis, Stanley and Gerald. Grandpa then moved the business, now S. Reiss, to Whitechapel High Street, where the artistic flair of my dear late uncle Stanley developed it into a successful, niche, safari suit wholesaler.

This was the precursor of today’s Reiss global fashion chain (my grandfather gifted a store in Bishopsgate to his brother, Joe, which was in turn inherited by Joe’s son, David Reiss). After my visit to the shtetls (small, Eastern European, Jewish towns or villages) of Ropczyce, Radomyśl and Sędziszów, in 2000, it has been both wonderful and somewhat strange to stumble across Reiss stores on New York’s trendy Bleecker Street, as I did last month, and next to that bastion of ‘Englishness’, Trinity College, Cambridge, last summer. From such humble beginnings . . .

During breaks from the hardship of university life, I worked in “the shop” – it was always referred to as that, even though there were more than one – which grandpa believed would teach me a lot more about life. It certainly taught me a lot more Yiddish – whenever someone dodgy-looking walked in, grandpa would alert shop assistants with a cry of “ganef” (thief). As a result, his staff – which included Pakistanis, Sikhs and Greek-Cypriots – developed a command of Yiddish that would have put most British-born Jews to shame.

Grandpa, in his habitat

Grandpa, in his habitat

Until his late eighties – and with his ever-devoted Stanley always by his side – grandpa went into work six days a week, taking liberties and Sundays off in his nineties. Indeed, “the shop” was grandpa’s habitat, and – living for work, rather than working to live – it became an end in itself.

Grandpa had no interest whatsoever in the trappings of the good life that he could so easily have enjoyed. Only peer pressure ‘forced’ him to visit the new State of Israel (see the photo in my e-memorial to my grandmother), and, following another rare trip – to New York on the QEII (with my late brother Jonny) – he commented that “Broadway is just a poor man’s Tottenham Court Road”. In a similar vein, when my parents informed him that they would be visiting Hong Kong, he responded “What do you think you are going to find there? It’ll be like Petticoat Lane with Chinamen.” (And, on arrival, my parents gave each other a knowing look, as if to say “He’s right again.”)

Grandpa had a deep interest in, and understanding of, the stock market. When not in the synagogue, he would spend most of Shabbos (Saturday) devouring the Financial Times and Investors Chronicle. In fact, fellow-congregants of Raleigh Close (Hendon United Synagogue) had more questions for Grandpa on Shabbos mornings than they ever did for the Rabbi.

I would often while away Shabbos afternoons with grandpa in the periodicals section of Hendon Public Library, where he would further study the financial pages. It is to my eternal regret that I never showed the interest in “the markets” that he so wanted his grandchildren to – I would have gleaned more practical and invaluable information from him than I ever did from school or university.

Grandpa was a deeply modest man, uninterested in publicity, self-aggrandisement, or communal high office. In his own unassuming way, he was most definitely another Galician tzadik. In addition to being extremely charitable – letters requesting donations were still flooding in over ten years after his death – grandpa would never turn away anyone he knew, if they needed money during difficult times. When they could return it, well and good. When they couldn’t (or just didn’t), he would simply write it off . . . and suffer the inevitable verbal lashing from my grandmother!

Moreover, grandpa agreed to act as a financial guarantor for numerous refugees to Britain from Eastern Europe – at a time when many were scared to – thereby saving them from the tentacles of Nazism. When publicly thanked by such people, years later, at their family Simchas (joyous occasions, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs) – which he didn’t particularly want to attend! – grandpa would be rather embarrassed, and make nothing of it.

A man of simple pleasures, grandpa truly understood the words of Shalom Aleichem, “A kind word is no substitute for a piece of herring.” Post-synagogue gatherings at my grandparents’ home would generally commence with an in-depth critique of the herring served up at the synagogue kiddush (post-service ‘refuelling’). And I vividly recall grandpa scooping out the brains, or the kop(head) as he referred to it, of fish – a delicacy he claimed – which his neighbours, in Prothero Gardens, would save for him.

His grandchildren, even as young boys, were the beneficiaries of grandpa’s frugality, receiving crisp twenty and fifty pound notes in crafty handshakes, always accompanied by a wink and sideways jerk of the head to indicate that we mustn’t tell our parents. If Iceland’s banks had had the cash reserves that I had under my mattress, they would never have collapsed!

Though without formal education, grandpa possessed an innate literary streak, which produced a distinctive “people’s poetry”. He would make up verses especially for his grandchildren, whilst coining various other expressions that I have never heard elsewhere. For instance, out of superstition, he would never refer to death . . . only to the “dickybirds”. And grandpa was politically incorrect in the delicious way that so many Jewish East Enders were, carrying on the rich tradition of Yiddish irreverence (there are numerous great examples, which are too un-PC . . . even for melchett mike!)

Grandpa also possessed a healthy cynicism. Whenever there was a bar mitzvah in a non-religious family – who only attended synagogue in the run-up to (and, sometimes, only on) the “big day” – the Rabbi would always (as was incumbent on him), in his sermon, encourage the boy to continue attending. Unfailingly, grandpa would wryly whisper to his neighbours that the Rabbi was “flogging a dead horse” (and, again, he was right . . . of course).

Grandpa, I would like to think that you are looking down on us, your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, from “dickybird” country . . . and are proud that we have all, without exception, carried on your Reiss legacy of good humour, honesty, and straightforwardness.

“Moyshe”

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Leah Reiss z”l, 1899-1989

Today is the twentieth Yahrzeit (Jewish anniversary of death) of my maternal grandmother, Leah Reiss (née Levy), and another e-memorial (I posted the first on the Yahrzeit of Jonny, my late brother) presents an excellent opportunity to remember a real character and, in her own unique way, Eishet Chayil (woman of valour) . . .

If there is a Platonic ‘universal form’ of Polish Grandmother, my guess is it will not be too dissimilar from “Grandma”. Neighbours would often hear her call out to her then fifty-something year old son – when he picked my grandfather up for work – to check that he hadn’t forgotten his chocolate!

Missing the business on Tel Aviv beach (Grandma is sporting a pearl necklace in the Israeli summer!)

Missing the Business: On Tel Aviv beach in summer . . . Grandma sporting a pearl necklace!

Grandma was born, at the close of the nineteenth century, to new immigrants –  from Rozwadów, Galicia – to the East End of London. She married my grandfather, Sam Reiss, a furrier by trade, who took over her family’s hosiery business on Brick Lane – the precursor of today’s Reiss global fashion chain – before moving it to Whitechapel High Street (where one store is still trading today). Grandma lived for her family and “the business”, and my mother grew up on a counter rather than in a pram.

A firm believer that “blood is thicker than water”, “Auntie Leah” would do anything for her own, especially nephews and nieces, for whom she would often stand up against tyrannical parents. Sadly, this benevolence did not extend to my grandfather’s family, who (for no good reason in particular) could do no right in her eyes, and the relationships between the numerous Reiss sisters-in-law made those of the Dallas Ewings seem harmonious!

And Grandma didn’t give her children’s spouses an easy ride either. When my uncle dared to date a French-Egyptian girl, from a non-Orthodox family – and, perhaps more significantly to Grandma, one of modest economic means – Grandma flew to Paris, unannounced and uninvited, to inform the girl’s mother that this was a wedding that would not be happening (it did). Grandma would also often chide my father – like any good Irishman, fond of a glass or three of the “hard stuff”, when popping in on his way home from synagogue – for drinking too much (my grandfather would wink at him, as if to say “ignore her” . . . which my father always did!)

Jonny, Me, Mum & Grandma (circa 1968)

All Smiles: Jonny, Me, Mum & Grandma (circa 1968)

There was a flip side, however, to all of this. Grandma was a woman of rare substance and steel, and, when my brother Jonny’s problems began, she came into her own – Jonny would go round to Grandma, already in her seventies, for TLC, at a time when no one else could cope with him.

Grandma was a worrier as well as a warrior –  her motto should have been “Work won’t kill you, not worrying will” – and, whenever we told her to stop, she would reply “If I don’t worry, who will worry for me?” To her way of thinking, worrying – far from being harmful– was essential.

The most memorable story involving Grandma, however, and the one which perhaps best illustrates her unique character, relates to the occasion on which she was a passenger in my mother’s car, stopped for speeding on Hendon Way. My mother wound down her window, but Grandma was not taking a back seat: “Thank you, Officer,” she interjected, “I am so pleased you stopped us . . . I always tell her that she drives too fast.” And there was no way my mother was getting a ticket after that!

Grandma only had peripheral vision for the last ten or so years of her life, though her immense pride would never allow her to admit it – in an attempt to get to the East End, to ‘help’ in “the business”, we would sometimes catch her trying to feel her way down to Hendon Central Tube station.

A cliché maybe, but Grandma . . . they don’t make ’em like you anymore. Hope you’re not giving the Angels too hard a time!

“Little Michaeleh”

Steven Berkoff: Showing Up the Berks

I’ve devoted quite a few melchett mike inches over the past month, since the start of the war in Gaza, to the self-hating Jews: Harold Pinter, Gideon Levy, Alexei Sayle, and, most despicable of all, Gerald Kaufman. But I have just come across an interview, in last week’s Jewish Chronicle, with the British Jewish actor, writer and director, Steven Berkoff, who made the following observations . . .

stevenberkoff1“England is not a great lover of its Jews. Never has been. The English way of life is culturally rather refined if not effete. There is a slight distaste of the foreigner. There is an inbuilt dislike of Jews. Overt antisemitism goes against the British sense of fair play. It has to be covert and civilised. So certain playwrights and actors on the left wing make themselves out to be stricken with conscience. They say: ‘We hate Israel, we hate Zionism, we don’t hate Jews.’ But Zionism is the very essence of what a Jew is. Zionism is the act of seeking sanctuary after years and years of unspeakable outrages against Jews. As soon as Israel does anything over the top it’s always the same old faces who come out to demonstrate. I don’t see hordes of people marching down the street against Mugabe when tens of thousands are dying every month in Zimbabwe. They quite like diversity and will tolerate you as long as you act a bit gentile and don’t throw your chicken soup around too much. You are perfectly entitled occasionally even to touch the great prophet of British culture, Shakespeare, as long as you keep your Jewishness well zipped up. As long as you speak like us and get rid of your accent you are perfectly acceptable. In Spain, they used to call these people marranos — secret Jews. Well, I’ve never been secret.”

Mr. Berkoff, as they say in these parts, kol hakavod (respect) . . . ata totach (literal translation “you are a cannon”, but really meaning that you are a top bloke!)

(Full interview)

Death of Harold Pinter: One Less Uncomfortable Jew

I, for one, won’t be spending a second mourning the death of Harold Pinter, the English Nobel Laureate playwright, who died of cancer on Wednesday, aged 78.

Pinter, a Hackney-born Jew, was an outspoken critic of Israel, quoted as saying that “Israel’s injustice to the Palestinians is an outrage” and “the central factor in world unrest”. He championed Israeli traitor Mordechai Vanunu, and signed a boycott of Israeli products and tourism.

harold-pinter6Pinter liked to portray himself as an original thinker and critic of accepted ideas, but, to my mind, he was anything but. A Jew by birth and no more, Pinter was a puppet of the trendy, Israel-loathing, intellectual left, who was happy to use his birthright and fame – and to be used – to inflict maximum PR damage on Israel and, as a consequence, on Jews the world over.

If Pinter, or any of his fellow signatories to Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Independent Jewish Voices, would have spoken out against Palestinian terror outrages, called for an end to the perpetual bombardment of Israeli towns, and for the release of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, with the same vigour and intensity that they have criticised conditions in Gaza (which the Palestinians have, to a large extent, brought upon themselves), one might have taken him and them more seriously.

To label Pinter and his ilk self-hating Jews is not to say that they are Jew-haters. There is a difference. They are Jews, clearly so uncomfortable in their own skins, that they continually go out of the way to be accepted by the non-Jewish “Establishment”. To prove to anybody who will listen that they are “not like all the others” (and not represented by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Chief Rabbi). That they are different. Better even.

And, as a Jew who could not be prouder of his heritage, of which the State of Israel is an intrinsic part, they have always sickened me to the very core (I belong to a third, hybrid category, if you like: self-hating Jew haters). These Jews do more damage to their own than the Ken Livingstones and George Galloways of this world ever could.

Moreover, Pinter’s rabble-rousing diatribes against the US (“a bloodthirsty wild animal”), its administration (“a bunch of criminal lunatics”), and George W. Bush (“a mass murderer”) – and even against his own Britain (“pathetic and supine”) and Tony Blair (“a deluded idiot” and “hired Christian thug”) – were far from what one would expect from a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and rather more akin to the crude rantings of an East End barrow-boy.

Pinter’s widow, Lady Antonia Fraser, has said “He will never be forgotten.”

He will be by me.