Name of Synagogue: Lauderdale Road
Address: 2 Ashworth Road, London W9 1JY
Denomination: Spanish & Portuguese Sephardi Community
Rabbi: Rabbi Israel Elia
Size of community: 600 member families
If the early bird catches the worm, then Lauderdale Road should open an aviary. When I looked up service times on the synagogue website and saw that Shabbat morning prayers begin at 8:30, I actually thought it was a typo. 8:30? On a Shabbat morning? Until I was blessed with children, I didn’t even know there was an 8:30 on a Saturday morning. And I certainly didn’t expect to spend it praying. But, when duty calls, the shul-goer attends. And so, slightly bleary eyed and worse for wear, I made my way, early one Saturday morning, to Lauderdale Road, in the leafy suburb of Maida Vale.
Lauderdale Road is part of The Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community. It opened in 1896, to accommodate the drift of S&P members from Bevis Marks to West London. The website that the synagogue shares with its sister congregations is slick and polished. The “S&Phardi” logo is used throughout, and it’s clear that the synagogues have taken part in a very concerted marketing and branding initiative. The website promised “A welcoming, enriching and educational Experience”. In spite of the early wake up call, I was looking forward to it.
When I arrived at the synagogue site, I was directed to the correct entrance by a bullet-proof vested security guard at the main gate. In the entrance hall of the shul itself were two men. One, in his early 20s, was holding a top hat in his hand, while another more elderly gentleman, was showing him how to put it on.
I asked them for directions to the Ladies Gallery, and they pointed me towards the stairs, and said “Welcome”. I mention this brief encounter for two reasons. Firstly, because it was only at that point that I remembered that at Lauderdale Road, the wardens still wear top hats, of which more later. The other reason I mention this one-word conversation is that this “Welcome” was the only word anyone said to me for the entire time I was there. From the moment I sat down, throughout the service, on the short walk to the Kiddush, and during the Kiddush itself, nobody spoke to me at all. Not one word. This, together with the fact that I wasn’t familiar with any of the tunes to the prayers, meant that I didn’t use my vocal chords for the whole morning. (I think my husband was rather sorry to have missed it.)
Despite that, it was a fascinating and enjoyable experience. First of all, the synagogue building itself is really very beautiful; built in a Byzantine style, it has a large domed ceiling, huge stained glass windows set in arched recesses, tapestry carpets across the polished wooden floors, as well as a huge and impressive ark, which is a work of art in itself. I spent a good twenty minutes just taking in my surroundings.
The Rabbi, Rabbi Israel Elia, led the service, supported by a small choir who accompanied him with traditional Sephardi tunes. They were all new to me, but they were sung beautifully, and were a joy to listen to. I felt that I was hearing a musical tradition that had been lovingly protected for centuries.
Music is clearly an important part of the service at Lauderdale Road. Indeed, of the 350 pages of the S&P Prayer Book, over 100 are devoted to full musical notation for the major prayers. There was something very respectful and, dare I say it, authentic, about these melodies. Don’t get me wrong. I love an occasional Adon Olam to the tune of Match of the Day. I’ve even been known to sing along to a “Carlebach-style” Friday night. But when the entire service is a hodge podge of new melodies shoehorned into the service based on whichever song just won the International Chassidic Song Contest, it starts to feel a little ad hoc to me. By contrast, this service felt solidly rooted in tradition.
Part of that tradition, of course, is the wearing of top hats. To give you a sense of the scene, it wasn’t just the Rabbi and the current wardens who were wearing them. Every previous warden was wearing one too. I counted at least 25 of them. It was like that scene from Moulin Rouge. I half expected Satine to come swinging down onto the bimah from the tall chandelier overhead. The only other place you’ll see this many top hats is backstage at a west-end musical, or Royal Ascot.
That said, in this beautiful building, and with these tunes, the top hats were perfectly placed. Indeed, throughout the service there was a sense that everything was in its correct place, and there was a correct place for everything.
For example, when the Cohanim stepped forward to perform the priestly blessing, a huge silver jug was wheeled out, together with a neat stack of paper towels, all meticulously prepared for the pre-blessing hand-washing. And when the Torah scroll was undressed, there was a specific fixture built into the bimah to hold every single ornament, and a team of congregants immediately on hand to carefully place every item in its correct position. Like the synagogue's website, it was all very slick and polished.
As a newcomer to the service it was a little tricky to follow; the prayer book was hard to navigate and lacked the clear instructions that I am used to. But to be honest, I didn't mind. It gave me time to listen to the melodies, take in the atmosphere, and read some of the English translations. My personal feeling throughout was that I was witnessing a beloved tradition and that I should just sit back and enjoy. I was a spectator, rather than a participant.
After a brief sermon given by the Rabbi, who also led the morning service and read the double parasha, there were a final few prayers sung by the entire congregation, the sound reverberating around the glorious building. Then, we all made our way to another building for Kiddush.
Now, we need to talk about Kiddush. Whatever I have previously written about kiddush, I take back. Whatever praise I heaped on previous offerings was premature. The kiddush at Lauderdale Road is something else. Fried fish goujons with tartar dipping sauce. Mini pitas with aubergine, mozzarella and hummus. Fresh fruit platters. Stuffed vine leaves. Delicate puff pastries. The list goes on. There was more food at this kiddush than at most wedding receptions. It was extraordinary. Okay, so nobody spoke to me. But at least I could enjoy the best meal I had all weekend uninterrupted.
The early start meant that the service finished early, and it was just after 11:30 when I made my way back onto the street. The website had promised something welcoming, enriching and educational. And to be honest, two out of three ain't bad.
Warmth of Welcome 1*
Kiddush 5* (but only because 7 isn’t an option)
Read the Secret Shul-Goer's first seven reviews, of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, West London Reform, Radlett United, Kol Nefesh Masorti, Wimbledon Reform, St John's Wood Liberal and Dunstan Road.