This locked-down Pesach, I will think of the shul that was always open to all

Norman Lebrecht remembers Reb Shmelke Pinter

April 08, 2020 16:22

Every year around this time there would be a ring at the door and I’d find Reb Shmelke Pinter on the front path, a flatpack in his hand. “I baked them myself,” he’d say, “for you, for a kusheren paysach.”

I guessed he was in my area soliciting contributions for his schools, but I did not rank at the time among Anglo-Jewry’s top 100 and I had no idea why he’d dropped in on me.

“When I was growing up in Vienna,” he confided, “we used to go to the concerts.” That rang a bell; I had seen pre-1938 shots of the Konzerthaus (not the haughty Musikverein) with bearded men and bewigged wives in the stalls. “Here in London,” Reb Shmelke sighed, “we don’t go to the concerts any more, but I still like to read what you write about them.”

I found this heartening on many levels. I hardly knew Reb Shmelke, except as the head of two strictly-segregated Yesoday Hatorah schools and of an eponymous shul on Heathland Road, N16, an establishment famous for its 24/7 hot-and-cold running minyan.

If a person needed to say Kaddish any hour of day or night, they could go to Pinter’s and find a quorum. Come Blitz or bankruptcy, there would always be someone to daven with. Pinter’s was famous from Southall to Stanmore. (Well, Edgware at least).

One Sabbath afternoon in my teens I dropped in for a mincha fix and found to my astonishment barely half a dozen men in the prayer-room. “Give it a few minutes,” someone said. The door burst open. A ninth man. “We won,” he said quietly.

“What took so long?”

“Extra time.”

It was July 30, 1966 and England had beaten Germany in the World Cup final at Wembley, five miles up the road. “Happy are those who sit in your houses!” cried a tenth man, starting the first mincha. All over England the result prompted a run on the pubs.

At Pinter’s, packed with Holocaust survivors, they did not think it was all over. People had waited all day for a sign from heaven, for a German defeat. Knowing little about football and caring less, the yidden of Pinters were attuned to the national mood. Some even knew from the papers that a man called Cohen was playing at right-back.

Pinter’s people in those days read the Daily Telegraph not just for the news and share prices, but for other elements of life in England, be it the weather forecast, the women’s fashions or — with Reb Shmelke’s special interest in mind — the arts pages for news and reviews of concert life. Heathland Road was joined to the real world. But not for much longer.

By the time Reb Shmelke was summoned to a higher shtiebl in 1994, Pinter’s fame was on the wane. Prayerhouses sprang up on every other street, their denizens slamming down Yiddish-only shutters on the world.

Stamford Hill turned inward, its back to the world. The disconnect did no obvious harm, or so I thought until the past few days when Heathland Road found itself on the front line.

One morning in lockdown, I was poleaxed to see on @Ifyoutickleus that a Heathland Road shtiebl had posted new prayer times on its front door. For those of you who shun social media for good old printed columns, I should explain that @Ifyoutickleus is a key worker in present times.

A Chasidic Jew and a lawyer by vocation, he’s an N16 deep throat who calls out all manner of misdeeds in the Charedi community, some of them far too exotic to be described in the family-reading JC.

In corona days he has named and shamed rabbis who flouted the law by keeping minyans going.

The one he named on Heathland Road was not Pinter’s, but my relief over that was short-lived. 
Hours later I heard that police had turned up at various addresses including Pinter’s, ordering them to shut down or face fines. Reb Shmelke would have been mortified.

We know that covid-19 infections in the Charedi community are disproportionately high. There have been tragic deaths, none more widely mourned than that of Reb Uri Ashkenazi, the Stanislaver rebbe, one of the most trusted circumcisers in London, a man full of good deeds.

Police in Stamford Hill now say they are getting full cooperation from the community. Rabbis who a fortnight earlier were summoning their faithful thrice-daily to prayer like muezzins on auto-answer are now issuing edicts against all who venture outdoors. A new reality has dawned.

This Seder night many families will miss loved ones. When I break my middle matzah I will miss Reb Shmelke Pinter and all we once shared.

April 08, 2020 16:22

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