Reb Osher Baddiel Zᶹl: A Memorial

Members of the Minyan on the Hill pay tribute

April 15, 2021 15:24


From his house to the Minyan on the Hill it is two and a half miles and, since there is nowhere in London closer to heaven to pray, it is uphill most of the way. He walked it nearly every Shabbosfor more or less ten years - arriving, whether it was raining or not, looking immaculate, as if he has been for a short stroll and not the route march that it surely was. And always wearing that remarkable hat, not quite a Homburg, not quite a Stove Pipe, but a mix of the two.

After Shabbos morning greetings, he would search out the bronze of a naked lady which lurked in the corner and place his hat over it, hiding large parts and, even though Hashem knows what we look like without clothes, there was no point in wondering why. He would put on his Yarmulke, in its own way as unusual as the hat, and then his tallis, and we were ready to begin.

Reb Osher Baddiel had arrived and the air crackled. What would happen this week?

How did we meet him? We were looking for someone to leyen from our, to us, new Sefer and the man through whom we bought it said, “I know just the person. He has recently moved from Stamford Hill to Golders Green and, if he will do it, he will be ideal”.

We spoke on the telephone. He was a bit wary. But how does Hashem spend his time? The answer, according to many, is making marriages and the shidduch between Reb Osher and the Minyan on the Hill was surely made in heaven, too unlikely for it to have been made anywhere else.

The Minyan on the Hill is a mixed self-selecting group which has been running for about 14 years, and those who come range in knowledge of Yiddishkeit but they would probably all say that they were rationalists and, at the most extreme, modern orthodox.

Into this mix came a fundamentalist rabbi, not exactly an active supporter of the State of Israel, certain that every word of Torah is true.

And the leyening was not quite what we were used to hearing. Until Reb Osher came, we were looking for speed: let’s get to the kiddish.

But Reb Osher was determined that we would hear every letter in absolute silence and we did. A Shabbos minyan is, after all, part religious, part social event and we negotiated over when talking was allowed. During kiddish, of course, but not - absolutely not - during leyning. And so the habit grew; we paid more and more attention to the leyning.

And then the derasha.

In b. Bava Metzia 86a we are told, “They were arguing in the Academy of Heaven” and that was Reb Osher’s idea of heaven – an argument. What would he say this week to spark disagreement and dissent?

Sometimes, an innovation of his own, we would have Questions and Answers, all unprepared, an even better opportunity for controversy.

Whatever he had to say was learned, from a deep knowledge, intended to provoke. Best of all was when he disagreed with Victor z”l and they would argue in Yiddish; it was theatre, it was learning, it was stimulating. Nobody went home bored. Everybody went home and said, “can you believe what the Rabbi said today?”

Victor would say, “Don’t let him go. Whatever you do, don’t let him go”. And if Victor was not there, Reb Osher would visit him on the way home to make sure he was well.

Nor did the controversy end with the derashah. When do you say Ashrei? Before you put the Sefer away, of course. But no. According to Mishnah Berurah, Ashrei belongs to the Kedushah so, Reb Osher insisted, we say it after the derashah not before. When some objected, he wrote a polemic: “When do you say Ashrei or the beginnings of World War III”.

And then, after the service, we would all mingle over kiddish and the marriage grew stronger. We became a family and he and his wife an intimate part of it and, week after week, the relationship grew deeper, the teaching of Yiddishkeit went on, the affection grew and the young men of our kehilla learned lessons about menschlikeit that they would not have learnt anywhere else.

Did he have a television? No. Why would anyone have an open sewer running down the middle of their living room? And he did not have a very good opinion of the BBC or, as he called it, the British Bias Corporation. But he approved of the Queen.

And then came the pandemic and this weekly dose of excitement was put into suspense and, in that period, the news came that the Rav, our Rav, was unwell. It seemed so impossible that a man of his strength, his vigour, a man who could do a Hagbahah, even with a lop sided Torah, so easily, could be ill, could be, as we heard, near death.

Some of us arranged to visit him. Be warned, we were told, he is not what he was; he is weak and wasted. We went, even so, and he was as ever, Reb Osher, our Reb Osher, his mind clear, as certain as ever, his grip still strong. “I have so much to do”, he said. “I have not got time to die”. We laughed and we cried and we said farewell, hoping to see him again. But, before we could, he passed beyond the sight of men into a better world.

Reb Osher, you were, to borrow apt words from Princess Anne “our teacher, our supporter and our critic” and we loved you, every one of us. We shall miss you.



April 15, 2021 15:24

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