Of feasts, fasts, and far-off Finsbury Park

By Lawrence Cohen, August 21, 2014
On track: trams and trolley-buses on London’s Seven Sisters Road in 1952

On track: trams and trolley-buses on London’s Seven Sisters Road in 1952

For some it's Rehov Ben Yehuda, for others the Nevsky Prospekt or the Unter den Linden.

But for me, born 1947, the issue of a late-returning soldier and a never-say-die spinster, delivered in the Royal Northern Hospital, succoured in rented rooms above an ironmonger's shop in Green Lanes, wheeled in my pram through Finsbury Park to bear witness to the first crocuses of spring, initiated some few years later into the cult of football at Highbury, the stretch of the Seven Sisters Road between Holloway Road and Manor House is the highway that links all the meaningful locations in my early life.

Growing up as an only child in early 1950s Harringay, on the same latitude as Stamford Hill, but to all intents and purposes, a galaxy away, I inhabit a world of horse-drawn milk carts, bomb sites and pea-souper fogs, where stout aunts pull on my cheeks as a sign of affection leaving my eyes watering with pain. I am able to work out for myself that Kanine a Horror are words of endearment rather than a curse on a rabid dog, but often adults say things which leave me confused and speechless.

"Lawrence, tell us about your feasts and fasts." Forty-one pairs of English and Cypriot eyes turn on the only Jewish child in the class at South Harringay Junior School. At the age of seven I am having difficulty working out what I am supposed to say. Miss Diprose, sensitive to my bewilderment, attempts to tease an answer out of me: "I mean, do you have a fast and then a feast," she smiles encouragingly, "or is it the other way round?"

I know for a fact that the grown-ups in my family fast on one day a year (not my dad: religion has somehow passed him by), but, as far as I am concerned, feasts exist only in the pages of Billy Bunter stories where Billy and his public school chums hold midnight feasts in the dormitories of Greyfriars School. I am mute with incomprehension. Miss Diprose moves tactfully on. But I have the feeling that I have let her down.

Is there a celestial Savile Row in which labours the Divine Window-Dresser? I’m not entirely convinced.

As the bus ferries me along Seven Sisters Road to the cheder in Finsbury Park where I go twice a week after school and on Sunday morning, I decide that someone owes me an explanation; where does Miss Diprose get the idea that Jews have feasts?

But I have forgotten to bring a cappel, a head covering. Before I can ask about feasts I am waved in the direction of the head teacher's office where a group of senior students are being taught. I knock and enter and confess.

The head teacher looks round at his group, smiles and turns to me. "No cappel? What shall we put on his head - a boot?" The seniors all now turn to smile at me. What an ignoramus, their looks seem to say, don't you know to bring a cappel to cheder? Don't you know that the Christians call our Pesach, Shavuot and Succot, feasts, that Pesach follows the Fast of the First-Born, and the Fast of Esther precedes Purim, but otherwise there is no correlation?

I shuffle about on the spot for a minute, unsure of what to do next, as they have gone on with their lesson. No one is paying me any attention anyway, so unnoticed, I slip out of the room. I can't return to my class bare-headed, so I walk back up Blackstock Road to the Seven Sisters Road and get the bus home.

Night is falling. On an otherwise deserted upper deck of a Number 29 a man asks me if I like football. Nervous about remaining tight-lipped with any more adults that day, I say yes, which is the truthful answer, and he invites me to his house where, he tells me, he has a football, which I can have if I am interested.

Somehow we establish that the ball in question is a rugby ball and, seeing a way to decline his offer without offending him, I explain that soccer is my interest. He doesn't seem that bothered, but I stare purposefully out of the window for the rest of the journey, just in case.

My Auntie Celie - not my real aunt: we share rooms with her and her family - on the other hand, is incandescent: "Why did you come back early?" I don't have the words to explain.

"Just wait till your mother gets back from work," she mutters darkly.

I wait apprehensively but there is no telling-off from my mum, and, as nobody mentions it at cheder the next time I go, I feel that I have got off lightly.

At the other end of the Seven Sisters Road, a short walk from the Nag's Head where the 653 trolley bus deposits us, is my aunt's Ladies' Foundation shop at 518 Holloway Road, our destination on Saturday afternoons, when my mum, Rachel, visits her older sister, Yetta Goodhart. A few doors away stands the Royal Northern Hospital where I entered the world. My aunt is on good terms with the nurses who patronise her business for their regulation underwear and she has adopted some of the speech patterns of the 32 Irish counties and four provinces as her own, particularly the insistence on never mentioning a deceased without appending God Rest His Soul to the name.

Sat in the shop parlour drafting designs for warships on an endless supply of flattened nylon stocking boxes (each pair comes in its own slim, stiff, cardboard container), I listen with one ear as Yetta and my mum gossip on the other side of the curtain that separates shop from home: "Manny, God Dressed His Soul, would have been disgusted!"

Laying aside my blueprint for a battleship that promises to be the pride of the Royal Navy in the next war, I try to work out what having your Soul Dressed consists of. Maybe it's all tied up with the window- dresser? Every so often he materialises at my auntie's and, stripping the displays bare, begins the elaborate process (in his socks) of creating a fresh and even more enticing montage of brassieres, girdles, corsets, slips and nylon stockings, replete with price tags and product labels.

The act of correcting a minor fault after the main work has been accomplished is a trial of nerve and balance, worthy of crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope.

Could it be that souls are kitted out in some celestial Savile Row by the Divine Window-Dresser in preparation for their passage into the shop of heaven? I'm not entirely convinced.

In Auntie's Irish/Yiddish lexicon for referring deferentially to the dead, Manny, God Dressed His Soul has to compete with Manny, Over Show Lem (Alav HaShalom: Peace Be Upon Him).

This is less impenetrable. For Manny, the Show is indeed Over. But who or what is Lem, apart from a character in the children's radio serial, Journey into Space? "Lemmie, come in Lemmie, Lemmie are you there?" The hairs bristle on my neck as an increasingly desperate Dan Dare whispers into the walkie-talkie through the infinite stellar silence, and I shiver in anticipation of next week's episode.

Anyway, Auntie Yetta is a great one for peppering her speech with references to the Divine as she supervises her ladies' hosiery universe: "Thank God, Please God, God Forbid!" (either literally: "God forbid it will rain this afternoon", or sarcastically: " God forbid he should remember to phone his mother occasionally") and the one that I particularly admire: "If the Almighty spares me..."

Auntie always utters this in a tone that suggests that, although she is prepared to submit to the Divine Will, if the worst comes to the worst, the Angel of Death will know that he has been in a fight. If the Almighty spares me I'll be at my granddaughter's chuppah. No contest. What Deity worth His salt would fail to give the nod to Yetta Goodhart, if only on points? Not only is she at the chuppah but the Angel prudently stays his hand long enough for her to rejoice in the birth of her great-grandchildren, Kanine a Horror.

Now, that world has been swept away. The Seven Sisters Road still runs majestically through North London but Goodhart's Ladies' Foundation Store is no more and the Almighty has dressed the souls of my aunt and my mother and the Irish nurses, Zichronem Livracha - may their memories be for a blessing.

Likewise, the souls of Miss Diprose, who was doubtless mortified that she had embarrassed me, and the head teacher of the Finsbury Park cheder, who was in truth a kindly man. He has dressed the soul of the man on the bus who drew back from enticing a small child to his home. Aleichem HaShalom - peace be upon them all.

And one day, though I pray He will tarry, He will dress mine.

Last updated: 6:57pm, August 22 2014