Orthodox Gateshead is embracing modernity

Last week, my wife and I attended a family wedding in Gateshead. The chupah was outdoors. The service could not have taken more than 20 minutes. The bride was led to the chupah by her mother and future mother-in-law, both of whom accompanied her as she circled the bridegroom seven times. The ketubah was read out in Aramaic, and the master-of-ceremonies then called on seven male dignitaries to recite one of the sheva brachot (seven blessings).

As he did so, the MC offered, in Yiddish, naturally, a delightful short description of each man, such as der zeyde von di kalloh (the grandfather of the bride). The bridegroom then smashed a glass underfoot. We all repaired to the nearby synagogue hall, to be served hot kugel, bridge rolls and dips, various cakes and a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages.

The ceremony, as befits the Gateshead kehillah, was functional and to the point, without being in any sense ostentatious.

Those of you who have driven through Gateshead will know that its Jewish community is easily missed. But, as you enter the district of Bensham, and drive along Coatsworth Road, you might catch a glimpse of black-hatted yeshiva students hurrying from one lesson to another, perhaps making time to buy a snack at Stenhouse’s kosher bakery-cum-supermarket. Or you may slow down for a Charedi mother, typically dressed, with several children in tow.

Jewish Gateshead is located in a dozen or so streets in what is frankly a run-down area of a still rather drab city. But, according to census returns, the Jewish population of Gateshead almost doubled between 2001 and 2011. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent the size of Gateshead Jewry is grounded in a transient yeshiva-based student population. Even including students (female and male), Gateshead Jewry can scarcely number 3,000 or so souls. But this community punches far above its numerical weight — as more than one British chief rabbi has found to his cost.

Jews established themselves in Gateshead at the end of the 19th century as an act of deliberate rebellion. Eastern European migrants turned their backs, literally, on the religious leniency that they observed in nearby Newcastle, and crossed the river to found their own independent community.

Chief Rabbi Hertz, fearful for his own authority, made a clumsy attempt to thwart their efforts to establish a yeshiva there — he disgracefully sought to persuade the then Home Secretary, the antisemite William Joynson-Hicks, to refuse entry from Poland to the rabbi whom they wished to appoint as its head. The attempt initially succeeded but ultimately failed. Hertz’s subsequent efforts to make his peace with the community were firmly rebuffed. The Jews of Gateshead profess allegiance only to the Almighty — and their own local rabbinical leadership.

Between 1964 and his death in 2003, this leadership was in the hands of one of the most charismatic (and, it has to be said, underrated) Anglo-Jewish religious authorities of modern times — Bezalel Rakow, a native of Frankfurt who, in 1948, married the daughter of the then communal rav of Gateshead, Naftali Shakowitzky.
Rabbi Rakow, whom I met on several occasions, was a quiet, unassuming man, known for his lenient rulings. But when called to account he did not mince his words, or deeds. It was largely owing to his efforts that Jonathan Sacks had to rewrite Dignity of Difference, which Rakow considered heretical, as it suggested that Judaism might learn from other religions. Never before had a British chief rabbi been brought so low, or the power of the communal rabbi of Gateshead been so dramatically demonstrated.

Rabbi Rakow’s successor, Shraga Faivel Zimmerman (appointed 2008), is by all accounts a consummate scholar but is regarded in some quarters as distant and aloof. If you want to ask him a she’alah, for instance, he’s only available between 5pm and 6pm Sundays to Thursdays. But he has given me his email address. And the Stenhouse store, I notice, now has a website.

In the service of Torah, it seems, Gateshead is more than ready to embrace modernity. Long may it flourish!

Last updated: 8:45am, February 14 2014