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 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.]