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Friday, 13 November 2009

The Toast of Birmingham

The sort of mid-Autumn day which makes poets warble saw us wend our way to Birmingham for the saddest, most tender of family reunions.

The diminished ranks of the Wood and Hawkins families were gathering to pay tribute to two family matriarchs who had been loved nearly as much by assembled cousins and friends as by their own children. Both Audrey and Cynthia, though some years my  parents’ senior, had survived them by more than a decade and as the veils were removed from their respective double headstones  it was like watching two marvellously burnished pieces of toast pop from the manicured earth.

The stones bore so many names, so many lives of which I’m barely aware … Yet Birmingham’s  Jewish community is tiny compared to those of Manchester and London and the one Jewish cemetery is contained behind elaborate gates on two sides of the same road.

Witton.Jewish.Cemetery.Desecration The ‘new’ section, which I’ve visited twice in recent years, displays carefully mown lawns and well-preserved graves which survived a hate-attack in 2004 when 60 headstones were either destroyed or defaced with swastikas.

I wondered briefly if those on this senseless rampage had been the sort of louts we saw performing Community Service at  nearby Brookvale Park earlier in the afternoon. What I noticed also made me muse on the use of such sentences: One of the lads was sitting unnoticed and smoking under the arch of the bridge he was supposed to be painting!

It might do such kids – and community relations - more good for them to help maintain the cemetery, which also boasts a graceful Grade 11 listed ohel (prayer chapel) of Moorish design.

The chapel’s wooden memorial boards and their gilt and black lettering belie the wicked canards  often retold about the  Jewish contribution to past British war efforts.

Fifty-two local Jewish soldiers served and returnedAJEX.PARADE.2008 after The Great War while 28 came home after serving in World War II. One of those serving was a grenadier and another man died later in ‘The Malayan Emergency’ - a guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army from 1948 to 1960.

The chapel windows, unusually for a place of Jewish worship, include images of Biblical characters. This idiosyncrasy  is typical of undemanding ‘Jewish Birmingham’  where I recall that the ‘cathedral’ synagogue - Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, Singer’s Hill – has stained glass windows with similar figures.

Moreover on the afternoon I’m describing, Rabbi YossiRabbi.Yossi.Rachel.Jacobs Jacobs, the  current minister at ‘Singer’s Hill’,  allowed my cousin  to make a hesped (tribute) to her mother, Cynthia.  I know from personal experience that any woman’s input would be forbidden in Manchester and London so I am glad that  he did not stop her speaking despite his own strictly Orthodox background.

A.Guide.To.Jewish.Knowledge.02 I wonder again if this agreeable young fellow is aware that my cousins and I were kids in the hey-day of his predecessors, Rev (later Rabbi) Dr Chaim Pearl and Rev Reuben Brookes who co-wrote the much-loved and used A Guide To  Jewish  Knowledge?

Does he know that we attended children’s services in the  Bet Hamedrash (synagogue-cum-study room) adjacent to the main sanctuary, just like those he organises and that we, too, were A.Guide.To.Jewish.Knowledgeawarded ‘attendance prizes’ to encourage us to go there regularly? 

I thought of this, first after the dedication of a bench in memory of a teenage cousin who had died  in a road accident in Israel but more when I recognised long-standing family friends whom I’d known ‘forever’  and had probably not seen since my own childhood. When I (re)-introduced myself, first they were startled into silence.

Then ‘Aunty F…’, as I once knew her, made me ‘twice a child’  by cupping my face in her hands and remarking that her kitchen wall still bore an embroidered picture made by my Grandma Dora. Only later did I remember that I still had a child’s ‘pop-up’ haggada (Passover seder service prayer book) which she had given me, aged seven.

Then after posting this piece, I remembered when I first heard the genius of T. S. Eliot: It was sitting on the stairs in their house in Harborne on a Sabbath afternoon and being read Macavity: The Mystery Cat. All this, more than 13 years since my mother’s death and heaven knows how many more since they had ever seen one another or spoken.

Our unbearably poignant day ended on a lighter note with the Wood Family enjoying a traditional English afternoon tea at a smart city-centre hotel in the manner so much enjoyed by my ineffably elegant Aunt Cynthia and thus we  toasted her sweet memory.

I penned this piece initially on Remembrance Day afternoon but it could have been written after visiting any number of cemeteries, memorial gardens or even Beth Shalom, the Holocaust Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire. Beth.Shalom.Plaque Whenever I go to such places, I am at once covered in an almost palpable peace that resounds like plangent bells.

No wonder that London Rabbi  Jonathan Wittenberg remarked in an achingly sad Jewish Chronicle essay just before  this year’s Jewish Day of Atonement:

” … love touched me in that cemetery inRabbi.Jonathan.Wittenberg the simultaneous awareness of the beauty, and fragility, of life. The thought of the tenderness and daily affection, of the arguments and making up, and of the grief of parting, says to us, ‘While you can, over the fleeting, limited time that you have life, live it with love!’”

While reflecting on times and people past, I’m concluding at a slight tangent with reference to the death of one of the great men of Anglo-Jewry in my own lifetime.

I met Israel Finestein twice as a reporter. He was almost ridiculously kind and generous with his time and help, even loaning me his speech notes to aid my report of a complex history lecture. So I give you (with thanks to Frank Baigel of the Manchester branch of the Jewish Historical Society of England) the full tribute from his friend, Michael Davies:

“His Honour Judge Israel  Finestein QC passed away last week in London at the age of 88. One of the leading historians of Anglo Jewry he was twice President of the Jewish Historical Society of England, a much sought after lecturer and the author of seven books and many articles on 18th and 19th century England and the Jews.

“But this was only part of his contribution to the Jewish community.Judge.Israel.Mrs.Finestein He was President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews (and revised the constitution), a Vice President of the World Jewish Congress, the President of Norwood and sometime chairman of the Jewish Museum of London and the Jews’ College library. A founder of the Hillel Foundation, he was both an Orthodox Jew and an English gentleman.

“As a student in Cambridge he was active in the Jewish Society and the Inter-University Jewish Federation – now the Union of Jewish Students - (where we first met) and went on to attain the very rare double-first degree in History. He commenced an academic career but switched to the law and rapidly became a barrister and Queen’s Council. Soon appointed to the bench of the Crown Court he was also a deputy judge of the High Court and will be remembered by jurists for his work with the Mental Health Tribunal.

“Always called ‘Shmuel’ by family and friends, he was my close friend for more than 70 years. He married my cousin Marion and they were together for over 50 years. Three days before he died we took tea together. Anglo.Jewry.In.Changing.Times He was as bright and fascinating as ever and we recalled the years together, the family (he never recovered completely from Marion’s sudden death) the situation in Israel (he continued to envy me for making aliyah – emigrating to Israel) and the diaries of Sir Moses Montefiore, before presenting me with a copy of his book Anglo-Jewry in Changing Times. His death was sudden but not unexpected. May his memory be blessed!”

  • This piece first appeared on blogcritics.org

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