A mystery of life and death

Today I'm going to tell you a story. It's a story you may well have heard before, at least in part, for it featured in the Jewish Chronicle some years ago as an anonymised "Ask the Rabbi" item.

I'm not going to identify the protagonists by name, because my purpose in retelling this story is certainly not to add further to the considerable mental anguish that has already been caused. My purpose is to tease out a disturbing aspect of the tale that no-one has so far revealed, but which I believe needs to be exposed in the public interest.

Some years ago the death occurred of a woman who we shall refer to as Mrs B. Her late husband had been buried in that section of a provincial municipal cemetery reserved for members of the local Orthodox synagogue.

Mrs B was naturally buried next to her husband. Their unmarried and childless daughter, whom I shall call Stella (not her real name), wished, when the time came, to rest alongside her parents. So Stella applied to join this local Orthodox synagogue.

One explanation is that the ketubah is a forgery

The application appeared to have been accepted, because for several years she paid her subscription without fuss. But she has now been told that the Office of the Chief Rabbi does not regard her as Jewish because, in its view, her mother was neither Jewish by birth nor a convert to the religion. Stella's membership of the synagogue has been terminated. There's even been talk of having her mother exhumed and reburied elsewhere.

In cemeteries there lie covered not merely the mortal remains of the deceased but a multitude of family secrets. What right does any of us have to prize these open to public view?

You may feel that this is an exceedingly strange question for an historian to ask. Yet knowing something of the circumstances of this particular case I do feel bound to ask it. However I also have to agree that the truth is the truth. But if we are to have the truth let's have the whole truth and nothing but the whole truth.

Mr and Mrs B were married in a civil ceremony in London in 1949. The marriage was then solemnised at the St John's Wood synagogue the following year. Mrs B, who identified herself at the civil ceremony as Miss "Cohen", was almost certainly born to Christian parents and does not appear ever to have converted to Judaism.

So how was it that the couple were permitted to take part in an Orthodox ceremony at what was then, and continues to be now, one of the most prestigious constituents of the United Synagogue, whose senior dayan was then the legendary talmudic genius, Yechezkel Abramsky?

How was it that this couple's daughter Stella was permitted to attend the religion classes of the Ohel Shem Federation synagogue? And to enter the Jewish Free School? And that both her parents were accepted into the burial arrangements of an Orthodox synagogue acknowledging the chief rabbi as its ecclesiastical authority?

When I examined a scan of the ketubah issued by the St John's Wood synagogue to Mr and Mrs B two features struck me. The first was the Hebrew name by which Miss "Cohen" was identified; for if she had been a convert, she would never have received upon conversion a Hebrew name describing her as the daughter of a cohen.

The second was that the document bears the signature of only one witness, not the two that are mandatory. The signature that it bears is that of the late Mark Hertzberg, who was the chazan of the synagogue from 1935 until his retirement forty years later.

Hertzberg conducted scores if not hundreds of marriages. He of all people would have known that one signature on a ketubah would not suffice. So how are we to explain the existence of this strange document? And of the fact that the ketubah was officially registered in the ketubah records of the synagogue?

One explanation is that the ketubah is a forgery. If so – even as a "cold" case – this matter should surely be placed in the hands of the police. But suppose that it is not a forgery. In that case several very unsavoury possibilities present themselves as to how the ketubah came to be written and how Mark Hertzberg came to affix his signature to it.

Inquiries suggest that the marriage of Mr & Mrs B may not have been the only one to have been solemnised at the St John's Wood synagogue that year in respect of which only one signature appears on the ketubah.

The Office of the Chief Rabbi owes us all - but particularly all those couples married under Hertzberg's auspices - a full and frank explanation.

    Last updated: 11:12am, November 7 2011