From Raleigh C to Petach T: Musings on Shul

By Melchett Mike
March 20, 2012

The theory of Primary Return-to-Womb Craving describes the infant’s resentment at his extrusion from the womb, and his longing to return to it. And while this infant has, thankfully, got over the loss of that particular sanctuary, he has experienced greater difficulty in overcoming that of another: his former home town shul. I just haven’t found anywhere to replace Raleigh Close.

I can no longer, since making Aliyah, describe myself as a shul-goer. Indeed, the synagogue attendance line of my JDate profile reads “Sometimes” only because “For Kaddish” is not an option in the drop-down list. I suppose it might be different if I had kids, though definitely if the strength of my belief in “The Big G” (and I am not talking Gooch, Gatting or Gascoigne) – or, at least, in the Orthodox Jewish conception of Him – could not fairly be compared (though by someone less reverent than me) to a middle-aged erection.

As a result, prayer, for me, has only ever really been about superstition, bet-hedging, and football: I admit, with no little shame, to having recited a particularly kavanadik Shemoneh Esrei in the car park of a South Yorkshire service station on the way to a Leeds v Glasgow Rangers Champions League tie. Needless to say, it didn’t help. And, a few months later, towards the conclusion of an FA Cup marathon against Arsenal – and having learned nothing from my earlier heresy – I vowed to the friend standing next to me, as Gary McAllister was lining up his free-kick, that I would attend shul more regularly if he scored. He did. But so, too, subsequently, did Ian Wright. Twice. And I felt justified to renege.

Otherwise, I recite the first paragraph of the Shema on take-off, during turbulence – at the point it starts inducing mutually empathetic looks between passengers (who, previously, hadn’t even noticed one another) – and when awaiting the results of medical tests. Indeed, when observing folk deep in prayer these days, they appear to me to be faintly ridiculous, and even, on extreme occasion, mentally ill. Anyway, repeating that He is the main man/real deal/bee’s knees in scores of different ways just doesn’t do it for me (and, more to the point, neither, I suspect, does it do it for Him).

But none of that seemed to matter in Hendon. And Raleigh Close still is, for me, Shul, both in terms of community and its many, quite indelible characters . . .

* legendary shammes Moshe Steinhart and his blundering, malapropism-littered announcements, awaited considerably more eagerly than the rabbi’s sermon;

* the gangling, mustachioed choirmaster – imagine the love child of Freddie Mercury and Russ Abbot – with equally deliberate, exaggerated (and ridiculous) conducting and leining styles;

* the young shockler who would sway so violently during prayer that one almost expected his head to fly off his shoulders, and who was once catalyst for a communal debate on Derech Eretz when the minister, wanting to commence his sermon, was ‘forced’ to wait for him to finish Shemoneh Esrei;

* the little man who would storm out in mid-sermon (“He’s off!” would be the excited whisper) if – or, more accurately, when – he disapproved of any of its contents;

* the large one who perceived it as a personal slight – and so many shul-goers (Jews?) love nothing more than to imagine these – whenever a hat or tallis bag was innocently placed on a sill of the stained glass windows endowed in memory of his parents: “Do you mind,” would come the familiar bellow, “that window belongs to my parents!”;

* the even larger one still who, for some reason known only to him, took it upon himself to be sole guardian of the Simchas Torah whisky supply;

* the pensioner who would openly fill her coat pockets from the Community Centre kiddush tables, as well as the various others who you just knew wouldn’t budge an inch to let you get at a piece of that herring;

* Angelo the caretaker, whose physique and bone-breaking handshakes made Goldfinger’s Oddjob look like a pansy in a bowler; and

* the seemingly permanently irate member whose tirades, raising awkward (and important) issues that no one else dared to, would get more bums on seats at AGMs than the right to vote for another tit in a topper.

With Yahrzeit for my late father falling on a recent Shabbos – not the quick, painless, weekday tefillah for me, this year – I ‘enjoyed’ two contrasting experiences that proved to me that there is nowhere quite like shul to study the excesses, idiosyncrasies and neuroses of my fellow Yeed . . .

On the Friday evening, before dinner at a friend’s in the area, I attend Mekor Chaim, a ‘Germanic’ establishment on Petach Tikva’s Rechov Frankfurter. Now, Yekkes are renowned for their near-obsessive timekeeping and attention to detail. And it is no myth: I arrive, five minutes early, to an empty synagogue; but, by the opening words of Ashrei, it is virtually full.

Standing at the back (always my favourite spot in shul), minding my own business, awaiting the arrival of my friend Henry, it becomes increasingly apparent that I am unsettling the shul’s gabbeh. He asks me to take a seat on at least three occasions, with increasing levels of assertiveness. I do so, but am then told to vacate the one I have chosen because it doesn’t have a little green sticker. These, I discover, have been painstakingly positioned on (the identical spot of carpentry of) every seat in the shul not belonging to someone. When I inform the gabbeh that I am waiting for Henry, he leads me to his seat and tells me to sit in it.

The problem when Henry arrives, however, is that the free seat next to his also doesn’t have a little green sticker. Henry directs a glance at the octogenarian on the other side of it as if to say “He is my guest, do you think it would be okay . . . ?”, but, met with a look of “Rules are rules”, thinks better of it and plants himself in the row in front.

In view of Mekor Chaim’s obvious puritanism, I am rather uncomfortable at being introduced to complete strangers, even ex-Hasmos, after the service as “melchett mike”. The last time I had been in a shul this strict – the Golders Green Beth Hamedrash, better known as Munk’s (Mekor Chaim, I later discover, is known to its expat members as “Munk’s Lite”) – was 32 years ago, for Johny Finn’s bar mitzvah. On that occasion, I received an unceremonious whack to the back of the head from a complete stranger – for talking during leining – so savage that my cousin still delights at the mere recollection.

Anyway, it is not Raleigh Close.

The unbending strictures of more Orthodox shuls can, when combined with the rather more flexible business ethics of certain of their members, result in seemingly glaring moral contradictions. At Brent Street’s Hendon Adass (consisting largely of refugees from central and eastern Europe), for example, a husband and wife partial to a post-service peck on the cheek were said to have received a letter from shul management warning them to refrain from such lewd acts. Several other congregants, on the other hand, returning from prison terms for offences of fraud and deception, were in receipt of no more than a “Boruch haboh!”

Such shuls can also be a vehicle for wonderful comedy. My favourite Hendon Adass story is of the brothers who, one Yom Kippur, informed their younger sibling, who wished to go home and eat, that the rabbi held the keys to congregants’ homes. They then watched the five-year old walk up the hushed aisle and repeatedly tug on the tallis covering the head of Rabbi Pinchos Roberts – severe at the best of times, never mind on the Day of Atonement – who, when he eventually peered down, was met with the now legendary words: “Goldberg. 1 Shirehall Lane.”

Shabbos morning at the Central Synagogue in Jaffa (yes, a long walk from Petach Tikva) is a different proposition altogether. Founded by Romanian olim, but now attended by a hotchpotch of 17 (I counted) males of predominantly Sephardic origin, its kaddish – unlike that in Petach Tikva, recited in mutually considerate unison from around the bimah – is an exercise in who can bawl the loudest.

Later in the day, attempting to slip off sharpish after Havdalah (to beautify myself for a date), I am accosted by the shul nutter – there is always one – who, refusing to accept my pleas that I am not an American, insists on getting my telephone number.

“I don’t know it by heart,” I reply, congratulating myself on my ingenuity, until Nutter insists, after locating a pen, on giving me every one of his four numbers, each of which he inscribes with the numeric dexterity of a 3-year old.

Most definitely not Raleigh Close. And I am relieved to get back to Stuey and Dexxy.

A week and a half ago, however, imbibing the spirit of Jerusalem and (with no kaddish commitment) just looking for a nice Friday evening shul experience, I receive a tip-off about HaNassi, an Anglo minyan on Rechov Ussishkin, a mere seven minutes’ walk from my new home. And, while hardly identifying with the overtly political nature of the rabbi’s Purim handout – not to mention his contention that one’s choice of fancy dress is “an expression of the real person . . . illustrat[ing] the innermost desire to really be what the costume represents” (I had dressed up, the previous evening, as a camp sailor) – it is lovely to be surrounded by familiar, ex-Raleigh Close faces.

“This is not for you,” opines another Henry, who, while seemingly pleased to see me, is certain that I am looking for a younger crowd.

But he is quite mistaken. This is exactly for me. See you on Friday!



Wed, 03/21/2012 - 10:23

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I'd love to know if you ever ventured further up Brent Street on a Shabbos morning to North Hendon Adass and what you found there, since there are some ex-members at HaNassi - too.

Melchett Mike

Thu, 03/22/2012 - 09:30

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I don't believe I ever attended North Hendon Adass on a Shabbos, Mitnachel. But, as an ex-Hasmo, I was a regular in the shul for "morning shiur" with Rabbi Cooper z"l.


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