by Paul Eisen
Sunday, January 29th, 2012
The Wembley and District United Synagogue. Always at the centre of our lives, this place, but you can forget the spiritual, we were strictly twice a year Jews. Nor was it cultural, at least not with any big C. No, for us second and third generation, upwardly mobile, North London Jews shul was strictly a social affair.
Our lives turned on this place and all it stood for. Sure, we ventured out, me, Tony and Helen to the local schools, where we mixed freely, if a little uneasily, with the local kids. Our parents less so: she, with the middle management personnel officers of the firms springing up all over Wembley to whom she and Auntie Leila delivered a never-ending supply of temps. He, even less so in those days when the rag trade round Commercial Roadwas still pretty much exclusively Jewish. There were no Bangladeshis then with whom, years later, he would form such mutually appreciative business relationships. “Your father!” one would say to me years later. “Your father Sir! His word is his bond Sir!” A fine tribute and one I’m still proud to remember.
That array of aunties and uncles – the men with their loud laughter and funny names: Maxie, Monty and Manny, all reaching into their pockets for the cash in that ritual altercation of who was going to pick up the bill…And the women, those aunties: Pearl, Blanche, Gerry and Faye with their big hair and high heels. Where now to find such women? So quick, so clever, so insightful..
But these proximities were extraneous to the real stuff of our lives which was this building and the families clustered round its foundations. That array of aunties and uncles – the men with their loud laughter and funny names: Maxie, Monty and Manny, all reaching into their pockets for the cash in that ritual altercation of who was going to pick up the bill. Oh, what greater proof of manhood could there have been for a six-year-old than to reach deep into the side pocket of your generously cut trousers and pull out a fat wad? Where amongst the creditworthy of Highbury and Islington would you find such men? And the women, those aunties: Pearl, Blanche, Gerry and Faye with their big hair and high heels. Where now to find such women? So quick, so clever, so insightful.
Festivals, weddings, barmitzvahs, funerals, shivas, stone-settings, parties, card-evenings, tombolas – these were the stuff of our lives. Each one just one more reason to get together, talk together, eat together, pray together, laugh together, sin together, fundraise together. Because, for the first seven years of my life my parents and their friends had, collectively at least, one aim and one aim only, and that was to raise the money to build a new synagogue for the Wembley community. Nothing mattered, only that they should raise the money to build the new shul. Why they bothered, I’m really not sure. Few were religious so it was certainly not to glorify God. No, for them it was for the glorification of something quite different. It was to celebrate their coming here, their place here, their progress here, together. For if the building of the new Wembley Synagogue can be said to glorify anything then it was to glorify Community. Community. How often, in my childhood, did I hear that word? Save for mensch and worldly, more than any other. Community was everything. My parents, their friends, the children of their friends. The shul, the cheyder, the cub and scout troop, the synagogue services – all was community.
So my mother and father, along with all those other young couples with their young families and mounting prosperity, laboured night and day, week after week, for all the years of my childhood to raise the money to build their new synagogue. And where did the money come from? Where did the funds to build this edifice come from? Why, from them of course. Where else? And how did they raise this money? How did they accumulate this pile? Why, from the parties, card-evenings and Tombolas. Thus, all this collective activity, this getting together, this socialising, all this was merely an excuse to give. Or, more likely, all this giving was merely an excuse for getting together. A less visceral group of philanthropists might have just sat down and worked out how much each should give and then banked the cheques. Not so the Wembley Community. Where would have been the joy in that, and where the wondrous environment for a small boy?
And when the synagogue was built, when, after all the activity and the excitement, the parties, the fundraisers, after all the disruption; synagogue services held in the Town Hall, Hebrew classes in the local school, cub meetings in a church hall. After all this, as we actually sat in it, our brand new synagogue with its blond wood panels, its memorial windows, none with anything even resembling a human form for, like Muslims, such things were forbidden to us, when we looked up at Rabbi Lipman sitting by the Holy Ark, and at my mother sitting up in the Gallery with her Ladies Guild cronies. When we sat there on that first Saturday, the congregation swollen with the massed ranks of the cubs, scouts, brownies and guides of the 19th Wembley Jewish Scout and Guide Troops, what did we see? We saw community.
Can there ever have been a prouder moment? Sitting there in my cub uniform, the blue and white scarf freshly ironed and folded exactly as Anthony had shown me the night before, the girls from my cheyder class in their brownie uniforms, the Girl Guides in their uniforms, as Rabbi Lipman welcomes us “members of the 19th Wembley Jewish Cub, Scout, Brownie and Guide Troops to our brand new shul”. Or, a more evocative moment when, after the two prayers, one for Her Majesty the Queen, public proof of our loyalty and gratitude…. May He who gives salvation to kings and dominion unto princes….; bless our sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth….that they uphold the peace of the Realm, advance the welfare of the nation and deal kindly and justly with the house of Israel. The other (this one strictly for us) for the President and The State of Israel, ….. Bless the State of Israel… The land which is sworn to our fathers to give us…Grant peace in Your Holy Land …unto all its inhabitants…. When he would then turn to us, his congregation, that group of people: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters gathered all round this place and everything this place came to represent, and he would remind us that for all our transgressions, a bit of cash here, driving on shabbesthere, maybe a lustful thought or two, that we were still his congregation, still His congregation, still Community. And he would then pronounce for us the priestly benediction. …May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face to shine upon you and give you peace.
And when they looked further afield, where they had wrought miracles on land bought fair and square (we were told), and had defended that land from those who had by their own ignorance and savagery (we were told), forfeited all rights to that land, (we were told) maybe their pride turned to arrogance. Because, by that summer of 1968 it seemed that there was nothing we couldn’t do.
Of course it’s gone now. The synagogue has steel security railings round it, a sign of the times perhaps. Maybe I’ve been so busy with my own losses that I haven’t had time to see the loss around me. Because they’ve all gone – Hackney, Whitechapel, Stamford Hill. Ilford, Cricklewood, Willesden, and Dollis Hill. Hendon, Finchley,Southgate, Golders Green. All gone. The parents to the grave or to retirement homes in Bournemouth orMarbellaand the children to Bushey, Hampstead and Primrose Hill. Maybe it was the prosperity that did for them, maybe just a bit too much success.
They’d come with nothing, cap in hand, asking for a place and, through talent and hard work they’d found that place. And when they looked around and saw the peace and prosperity they’d created: the husbands, the wives, the sons, the daughters, the houses, the cars, the education, the doctors, the dentists, the accountants, maybe satisfaction turned to pride and pride to conceit. And when they looked further afield, where they had wrought miracles on land bought fair and square (we were told), and had defended that land from those who had by their own ignorance and savagery (we were told), forfeited all rights to that land, (we were told) maybe their pride turned to arrogance. Because, by that summer of 1968 it seemed that there was nothing we couldn’t do.