Life & Culture

250 years of Brighton's flock


The pews were filled to the gunnels and the galleries full of women in fine, wide brimmed hats. The temporary benches in front of the exquisitely carved wooden Aron Kodesh were crowded with youngsters, the awkwardly attired, once-a-year shul-goers, and the bookies and hucksters in loud, checked suits - characters straight out of Graham Greene.

On the bimah, like three ancient sages, stood three men splendid in their white canonicals clutching the Sifrei Torah to their chests. In the centre stood Chazan Kalman Fausner, he with the sweetest of voices clutching his iconic tuning fork. To his right, with the straggling, dark-grey beard, moving silently in prayer was the thundering orator Rav Berel Wilner and, to his left, with a brilliant, white beard and holy countenance, Shoah survivor the Rev S Josephs.

As the sounds of Kol Nidrei rang out for a few, brief moments, the congregation at Hove Hebrew Congregation joined the heavenly hosts and were directly connecting to the Almighty.

As someone born, bred and raised in Brighton, with deep-rooted connections to both the grand old dames of the city's Jewry, the Middle Street Synagogue and the Hove Hebrew Congregation on Holland Road, my personal and family memories run deep. In its pomp in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, the Brighton and Hove communities were at their vibrant best. My parents, Hilda and Michael Brummer, met on the steps of Middle Street in 1941 where my uncle, Chazan Hillel Brummer, one of the most celebrated cantors of his generation, would attract admiring crowds from far and wide before decanting to the United States after the war.

It was during the Battle of Britain, as German aircraft dumped their surplus munitions over Brighton before heading back over the Channel, that Chazan Brummer, then living with his young family in the Middle Street Mews (now Hillel House), saw a shell land close to the synagogue. Without regard to personal safety, he picked it up and hurled it a safe distance, preserving the treasure of Brighton Jewry - the 19th-century, Byzantine-style structure - from all but certain ruin.

Brighton's celebratory markers

● Sunday May 8
Guided bus tour and visit to Middle Street Synagogue
● Monday May 9
Open Day at Middle Street
● Tuesday May 10
250th Anniversary Lecture on Judaism in Brighton delivered by Dr Sharman Kadish, director of Jewish Heritage, at the Ralli Hall in Hove
● July 14
Unveiling of Blue Plaque commemorating 250 years of Brighton Jewry
● November 6
AJEX service at Middle Street will conclude the 250th commemorations

As one looked at a distance at Rabbi Isaac Fabricant, prone to wearing the dog collar then de rigueur among the Anglicised elders of Jewry, the booming voice of the Rav Berel Braunstein would shake the rafters.

A kindly man, who would never refuse a small Scotch, he was often to be seen on Sunday - especially before the High Holydays - appearing from behind the memorial stones at Bear Road beit almin, black gown flapping in the wind sweeping across the Downs, offering a solemn prayer for the departed.

This spring, the Jews of Brighton celebrate their illustrious, 250-year heritage. In the heart of the town, behind the clock tower, there is an array of streets - Mount Zion Place, Mount Zion Gardens, Kew Street (once Jew Street) - which bear testimony to historic Jewish settlement. In Hove, there are monuments to some of the great heroes of Anglo-Jewry such as Davigdor Road, named in honour of the d'Avigdor-Goldsmid dynasty, and Somerhill Road, after the family seat of Somerhill House at Tonbridge in Kent.

Montefiore Road was named in honour of the Italian-Jewish financier and philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, who was president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews for a record breaking 39-years from 1835-1894. A century later, in 1964, another president of the Board, Solomon Teff was a member of the Hove Hebrew Congregation (HHC) and could be heard reading, rather than chanting, Maftir Jonah, in perfect Ivrit, every year on Yom Kippur. Other regular summer visitors included the Glasgow-born retailer, philanthropist Sir Isaac Wolfson and his family.

Brighton in the middle part of the 20th century had a pulsating Jewish heart and it was not just in the synagogues. My maternal grandparents were publicans at the Rock Inn in Kemp Town (still there as The Rock) where famously they protected the children of a nearby convent from almost certain death when they were sheltered in the deep cellars from the bombing raid that destroyed the Kemp Town Odeon next door in 1940.

Regency Square was the home of some of the many kosher boarding houses, including that run by the bulbous figure of Benny Myers. On his death, his wife was heard to remark: ''What do you think of my Benny. Dying in the middle of the season.''

The Kings Hotel catered to the slightly better heeled kosher guests. And visiting cricket teams would stay courtesy of Captain Benn at the Imperial Hotel in Hove where schoolboys would gather, on barmy summer evenings, to collect the autographs of visiting stars Brian Statham, Colin Cowdrey and, my favourite, the Aussie Richie Benaud.

Waterloo Street, where my father Michael had his kosher butcher shop and delicatessen, was another lively centre of Jewish eating culture. It was Hove's own Golders Green. Here, cheek by jowl, stood the kosher delicatessen and bakery Chait, the fishmonger Marks' and the greengrocer run by my cousin Jack Caplin. The times to be there were Friday mornings, as the community prepared for Shabbat, and Sunday as Brighton Jews queued for their hot salt-beef sandwiches and new green pickled cucumber. Sections of the community could be seen taking coffee on the terrace of the Norfolk Hotel (now the Mecure) distinguished by its sweeping Regency staircase and operated by the Feld family.

My own youthful memories include several years as a ''minyan man'' at HHC following my barmitzvah. It was there that I was taught by elderly pillars of the community and Rev Fausner to lay tefillin and then how to recite the morning prayers, something which has stayed with me ever since.

Kalman was always there - at my barmitzvah, at my sons' barmitzvot, at my mother Hilda's funeral, and at my daughter Jessica's wedding in the sculpture gallery at Woburn Abbey.

My days as a minyan man came to an end when I dared approach one of the wardens to ask for a pay rise, after learning than an elderly, partially sighted gentleman also on the payroll, was earning more. It was refused and I resigned to concentrate on my GCEs.

Away from the shul, the centres of youth activity were the boy scouts. The 15th Hove Jewish troop would meet at New Church Road, learning to tie knots and dreaming of summer camps.

As we grew older, our attentions turned to Maccabi House on Rochester Gardens for never-ending games of table tennis and the first place of contact to meet teenage Jewish girls.

In the summer, Brunswick Beach was the fashionable place to congregate in the sun, with our deep frying bottles of Johnson & Johnson baby oil. Cloudy afternoons were spent sipping milk shakes in the Cordoba (on Western Road) or the cellar next door of the more sinister but fashionable Scandinavia coffee bar.

There was the annual Yom Kippur social trek from Holland Road to Middle Street and then back via the Progressive shul on Lansdowne Road and the Reform close to that field of dreams, the County Ground.

When I return to Brighton, memories inevitably flood back. The walking journey, as a boy, from our poultry farm in Ovingdean to Middle Street over the glorious green downs, round the back of Roedean School to the centre of Brighton. The visits to Kays sweet shop on Duke Street during breaks from cheder. Waiting patiently for my barmitzvah lessons behind my schoolboy friend Stuart Landaw who was a few months ahead me. I can still recite his haftarah as easily as I can my own!

The Ivrit lessons from Rabbi Wilner in his study at the Talmud Torah hall and the voice of Kalman Fausner, urging me to get the Ivrit right and not to confuse my ''Shins'' with my ''Sins'' – something I still have trouble with.

Brighton and Hove's streets and places, even now, are full of memory, nostalgia and longing for the simple days of the past.

It was an upbringing which provided me with a love of Judaism, an admiration of chazanut and belief in the importance of leadership and philanthropy.

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