Simcha on the square

By Leon Symons and Bernard Josephs, September 19, 2008

Thousands bathed in warm afternoon sunshine on Sunday for the third Simcha on the Square in Trafalgar Square, Central London.

Although the square was not as packed as it had been for the Salute to Israel event in June, nevertheless Jews and non-Jews alike seemed agreed: you don't have to be Jewish to enjoy klezmer, chazanut, Sephardi music or Israeli dancing.

Tourists from all over the world and non-Jewish Londoners at first appeared puzzled as they entered the square to be confronted not only by the world-famous pigeons, but also by enthusiastic hora-dancers and Chasidic-style musicians on stilts (who, according to the organisers, called themselves The Rumple Stiltsteins).

For most it was their first experience of Jewish soul music, ranging from traditional klezmer to pop versions of Jewish songs. But within minutes they were in the groove along with thousands of Jewish revellers taking advantage of the late summer sun.

Prince Adele and Lucky Richard from Nigeria were particularly impressed. "This is really nice," said Mr Richard. "I've never heard this kind of thing before but it's great. It makes people happy and it makes us happy too."

As the American klezmer supergroup, The Klezmatics, strutted their stuff on the stage overlooking the Square, John Axu, from China, confessed that he had "never heard anything like it ". His feet tapped in time to the rhythm as he declared his appreciation.

While there was considerable support for The Klezmatics, it was the Shekoyokh Klezmer Ensemble, together with Ilana Kravitz and Guy Schalom's Hopkele Productions, that got the crowd going. As the band played music from Romania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Mr Schalom came down from the stage and led dozens of people, many of them non-Jewish, in ever-widening circles as they danced the hora.
Mr Schalom said: "This is the first time we've played Simcha and we're very pleased with the response. We started our group because there was no wide knowledge of this type of Eastern European dancing. We have also researched the music to go with it."

Hackney councillor Simche Steinberger said: "I believe I have been the only elected representative here today. It's been very pleasant."

The event was organised by the Jewish Music Institute. There were a number of stalls alongside the main square representing Jewish organisations, including the Union of Jewish Students, B'nai Brith, the Jewish East End Celebration Society, Chabad and the Jewish Museum, together with a handful of craft and book stalls. There was only one food stall, run by bakers Grodzinski.

Dawn Calder, from Kilburn, was surprised as she entered the Square. "I wasn't expecting this," she said. "I must admit I don't understand the words, but it is great music and good to see people so enthusiastic about it. It certainly has an infectious beat.

"For some the event was an opportunity to display their skills. Juggler Sylvia Cohen, from Golders Green, entertained an admiring audience.

Austrian-born - she declined to divulge her age - she said she had been juggling since age eight. "This is the only chance I have had to show what I can do in public. Juggling is my hobby and it keeps me fit," she smiled.

Many of those gathered in the Square noted that it was refreshing to come together for enjoyment rather than to take part in a protest. Labour peer Lord Janner, resplendent in a maroon baseball cap and white trainers, said: "It's great to see that the community can gather together just for fun."

Others agreed. "It's good to be in the middle of London celebrating Jewish life and culture," said Michael Israel of Hendon. Rabbi Malcolm Cohen of the West London Synagogue described Simcha on the Square as an unmissable event. "It is just lovely," he said.

Among the wide range of acts was a group of shofar-blowers of all ages, including a four-year-old, Benji Miller.

Judith Field, 51, a member of Finchley Reform Synagogue, said: "I've been blowing the shofar for 14 years. It's not easy but the secret is just to go for it."

Rabbi Mark Goldsmith, of Alyth Gardens Synagogue, who led the "puffers", summed up the atmosphere of the event: "The shofar is meant to have been sounded to bring down the walls of Jericho. I will tell the audience that our aim is to bring down the walls that exist between different communities in London."


Last updated: 3:37pm, September 23 2009