If you want to mark the festival of lights with a hernia, I have just the gift for you. Weighing in at a scales-busting 14lbs, A Book of Jews, featured in last week’s JC, is a magnificent treat of a photo album, packed with portraits of every Jew you’ve ever heard of — and plenty that will have you saying “Him? Never!” (Boris Becker anyone?) It will have you swelling with pride: all those scientists (Einstein), artists (Chagall) and swimmers (Spitz). But there is the odd cause for pause, too, thanks to the assorted gangsters, villains and no-goodniks who also make the cut.
Anyway, the book is a delight (and I would have said that even before I discovered a mug shot of myself on the journalists’ page). Many of those included will feel their names will now be remembered down the ages, simply because they are in it.
And yet, I suspect Jewish immortality comes differently. What are the Jewish names etched in my memory, never to be forgotten? Try these: R Jayson, D Goldwater and V Cannon.
If you can’t place them, it means you did not spend the Saturday mornings of your childhood as I did, in Elstree and Borehamwood Synagogue, unconsciously memorising the marble plaque that honoured the first board of management.
To me, those names acquired almost holy status. I saw them as pioneers: surely P Whiteman had been as heroic as the early Americans pushing westward, breaking into the hostile, uncharted territory that was the Hertfordshire of the 1960s. Imagine my pride that M Freedland was listed among them: my very own founding father. I pictured the first minyan, gathered against the odds in some unpromising homestead. And now look: barely four decades later and the acorn they planted is a mighty oak!
I find these grandiose thoughts coming more often now. For I am following in the footsteps of J Larholt and J Gold and dreaming of a new Jewish community. The chosen land is Hackney — Stoke Newington to be precise, with the hope of reaching into Crouch End and Muswell Hill.
Yes, you’re right: there’s hardly an absence of Jewish houses of worship in Stamford Hill and its environs. There are shtibls galore. But for the non-Charedi Jew, it’s a case of water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.
So a dozen or so couples have come together to see if we can start something of our own. We want to create a Goldilocks shul — not too Orthodox, not too Liberal, but just right.
The process already embarked on has been an education. We made a first attempt a couple of years ago, forming the Stoke Newington Independent Family Minyan — which yielded the vaguely pornographic acronym, SNIF’M. The idea was an entirely non-aligned grouping, with no denominational label. In theory, it was perfect. Everyone came to the table with their ideal synagogue in mind. For some, it would be the opposite of the one they knew as a child: no baffling stretches of Hebrew, everything in English, clear and easily understood. Others wanted everything they remembered from their childhood, the same tunes, the same language and even , if possible, the same old uncomfortable chairs. What we discovered was that it helps to have limits, or at least broad tramlines defining what is possible and what is not. So the new effort seeks to be part of the Masorti movement: there’s still plenty of scope for defining our own minhag, but the boundaries have helped.
What I’ve also discovered is that there is a strong appetite for both tradition and inclusivity. Often these two principles are pitted against each other — Orthodox versus Reform — but many Jews yearn for both. They want the authenticity of the time-honoured Jewish liturgy — ancient words and age-old melodies — but see no reason why women should be hidden behind a glorified garden fence. So when we gathered for the first time for Yom Kippur, we did the service fully and faithfully, led by a wonderful chazan — with men and women together (and segregated seating available to those who wanted it).
Given all this, it is not a surprise that so far we have drawn most of our families from Simon Marks Jewish Primary School, an institution that already embodies that same rare blend of inclusivity and authenticity. The next challenge is to reach beyond that pool. But how? Should we rent a communal hall, even one that feels chilly in its lack of Jewish fixtures and fittings? Or should we just meet in each other’s front rooms, like those Elstree pioneers of old?
These are the questions that lie ahead of the Stoke Newington and Haringey community. I don’t know if we’ll succeed. What I do know is that, if I had to choose between my photo in A Book of Jews or my name etched on a marble plaque memorised by a barmitzvah boy 20 years from now — I know what I’d prefer.