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