You could say I come from landed gentry. My grandfather hailed from old stock, from a place where the family had lived for generations. But in more recent years, they became true colonials. They found new homes as settlers in another world, where the streets were paved with...shmatters.
After at least 200 years of traceable residence in Dunilovich, in what is now Belarus , they came to the promised land and found solace in Stoke Newington.
There is reason to believe that the family lived for 80 years in Stoke Newington. You could also say that the then younger members of the clan spent 80 years trying to get out of it. On the other hand, there’s an argument that when my daughter moved there l5 years ago, followed by my son a few years later, they were staking a claim to the old homestead and, to my amazement and even more to that of my late wife Sara, enjoying every minute of it.
I couldn’t understand it. Nor could she. But now, here comes an admission from a man who is learning how to cook. I am also learning how to eat – my words. I myself have joined the trek back, finding a pied-a-terre not more than a couple of miles from where my grandfather Barnet Mindel had his menswear shop, the one where my father worked and met and married the boss’s daughter, who became my mother.
This was the scene of what was acclaimed as one of the most beautiful synagogues in London, one of the jewels in the crown of what my grandpa always called “the United”. It was dignified, respected, very much a step up from those rather different people who went to “the Federation” round the corner. It wasn’t for nothing that Sara and I married there – under the same chuppa that my parents had used.
Oh, the Stoke Newington of those days wasn’t the one I knew in my childhood or a generation before that. I chose Shacklewell Lane, as it was known, for sentimental reasons. It was the family shul,despite the noises from nearby Ridley Road Market,where my grandma did her shopping. It was where trolley buses were in constant war with lorries, where the prevailing colour in the streets was dirt grey.
Before I came along it used to be fashionable, big houses owned by people who kept horses and carriages, smaller artisans’ homes with rooms for the maids. My grandparents’ home was warm, loving and beautifully furnished, but outside, Stoke Newington wasn’t the sort of place you’d like to boast about. Mum called it Smoke Newington. Today, they call it Stokie.
It’s a totally different place, the one I have chosen as my part-time refuge from Bournemouth. The road where two of my children live is populated by a combination of Charedim, lawyers, journalists (of course) and very senior politicians, who are becoming almost as recognisable to the neighbours as they are to TV viewers. They are people who not so long ago would no more have chosen Stokie for their homes than I would – the Charedim apart.
Of course, the Charedim have been there for years. My grandparents would have considered themselves modern Orthodox, even though they were born in der heim in the late 19th century. Shacklewell Lane and the local cathedral synagogue, the “New” in Egerton Road, were the examples of north London religiosity that people still think had long gone. The family shul closed in the 1970s, the New became a home for a Chasidic sect which wouldn’t be seen dead in a US place. But here, too, things are changing. My son has joined a group which has set up the New Stoke Newington Shul (note, not “synagogue”; if you’re going to go back in time, do it properly). It’s Judaism Masorti style, a compromise between the neighbourhood’s Charedim and the Liberal synagogue not too far away.
My new pad is across an invisible frontier of Charediland. I don’t mind crossing it. Providing, that is, I don’t have to put on a streimel.