Rory Stewart

Rory Stewart: Mitzvah Day felt like a homecoming

It was also a wonderful reminder of family, of fun, of craft, and - in a strange way - of home, writes the former Tory MP now running as an independent candidate for Mayor of London

November 19, 2019 10:51

On Sunday, I found myself under a gentle dusting of silver glitter. It began on the shoulders of my blue suit and continued to the tips of my black shoes. I was sitting between my five-year-old and my two-year-old – with my wife Shoshana on the other side – preparing cards for Mitzvah Day. 

Sasha’s writing is getting better but he still needs some practice with a glitter bottle. He was good enough to make a beautiful menorah for the elderly resident who was getting it for Chanukah, but not quite good enough to keep the contents on the card or even the table.

Shoshana seemed to be doing better with our two-year-old. On the back of the wall behind me was a portrait of the rabbi – who I am sure my great-grandfather knew. One block away was my great-grandfather’s house, where my grandfather also lived, in Maida Vale – where their long journey from Romania eventually ended.

I still have the most beautiful letters from my grandfather to his father, written in a stylish blend of English, Yiddish and French, with a deep warmth and affection for his father - which must have been unusual in stiff upper lip 1930s Britain. He talks of how much his father achieved, and how much more he could have done. The full details of all my great-grandfather’s businesses are now lost.

He started in Hoboken, New Jersey, as a 16-year-old - fresh off a boat from Romania. He appears later in scattered documents as a manufacturer of musical instruments (particularly ukulele), as a publisher, as a dental instrument manufacturer, and (in family legend) the ‘lime king of New York’ - whatever that means. 

It is not easy tracking his journey from Focsani in Romania, through Hoboken to Jewish Harlem, and thence to Maida Vale – where he supported his beloved son to become an English cricketer and then an English doctor. But what his son records in the letters is the sense of his father’s deeds, his acts of generosity, his – as it were – Mitzvah.

Shoshana has a Jewish mother and grandfather and I a Jewish grandfather. As an American in upstate New York, she celebrated Hanukkah. My superficially traditional Scottish family house has a portrait of my Rabbi great-great-grandfather above the fireplace, and Hebrew texts on the shelves. In family photographs, I can see my ancestors sometimes emphasising their Jewishness, sometimes not.

But the visit for Mitzvah Day to the Lauderdale Road synagogue still felt like a homecoming, as did the day I spent in Golders Green earlier in the year. And, in both, what struck me most strongly was the energy and the imagination of the community projects.

The care and tact and energy that went into the mental health café in Golders Green, for example, where there was no sense at all between ‘service users’ and staff (in fact, many service users have become staff).

It was an example of a highly intelligent, contemporary approach to councilling and rehabilitation - involving an enormous amount of common sense and good humour - operating with a flare and a sense of risk which would be almost impossible to achieve in government.

Mitzvah Day for me was therefore an incredibly powerful illustration of the central values of the Jewish community. A reminder of just how much the Jewish community has given and continues to give to London - and how it does so with great distinctiveness, pride, and a deeply constructive engagement with the non-Jewish community.

But it was also a wonderful reminder of family, of fun, of craft, and - in a strange way - of home.

November 19, 2019 10:51

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