Life & Culture

Mum moves in, my back gives up

In a household where ages span 90 years, John Nathan’s the only man in the house


Leave the boxes to the professionals. (Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images)

It was the Siddurs, Haggadahs and Pentateuchs that did it. On this momentous day when my 89-year-old mother was moving out of her west London house to our east London address, it was the sifrie kodesh that caused me to raise my eyes to the heavens —as only they could – with the instant and certain knowledge that my bastard back had given way again.

The chairs, tables, lamps; the boxes of vinyl records and napkins packed so tightly they might have contained granite — none of these could do to me what the siddurim did.

A team of efficient Romanians who work for a removals firm wittily called Ants effortlessly carried the goods to their van, paying no attention to the bloke on all fours arching his back like a hissing cat in an attempt to stretch his lumbar.

As they passed it occurred to me where I had gone wrong. Jews don’t go on bended knee when it comes to prayer. Perhaps because of muscle memory, I had stooped when I should have knelt as I have learned to do when picking up my 10-year-old daughter’s hair bobble or her 10-month-old sister.

This was not the first time Jewish prayer books had made me wince. On his hospice death bed my father, who was brought up Orthodox yet lived his life as an atheist, rejected a rabbi’s offer of a visit. As my brother and I walked back to the prayer room after shovelling the clay-streaked earth of London Jewish cemeteries onto his coffin we saw a rabbi drop several prayer books, which had also come to the end of their life, into the grave. “What difference?”, we silently thought, though after wincing.

About 23 years later, last week in fact, I was having lunch with a friend, a playwright. “Nothing has happened since we did this last,’ he said with dripping irony. He meant October 7, Israel and Gaza, the Red Sea and Yemen, more war in Syria and Iraq and the hate that is coming for Jews again only this time as a way of fighting racism. But for a second I thought he was talking about me.

Our second child arrived nearly 10 years after our first in the week we had moved into our new house. It was — is — in desperate need of renovation and had a teetering water tank whose contents we (I) had to suck through a siphon every morning to prevent a cascade running through the floorboards into the kitchen below.

I am not complaining. The house has been preserved through neglect and we are overlooked by one of the six Georgian Baroque churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoore, a contemporary of Wren. The painter Leon Kossoff was obsessed by Hawksmoor’s architecture which makes people go quiet when they see it for the first time, as do Kossoff’s paintings.

We might be the first Jews to live in our 250 year old street. That is, me and my eldest daughter who identifies as Jewish even though her mother isn’t. We were however married in St George’s Town Hall in Cable Street which is famous for the mural of the battle and in my book is therefore either the next best thing to a synagogue or just better.

Ninety years separates the oldest and the youngest in our new, very old house. The five lives who now live there have either just begun or been profoundly changed. I did not know quite how profoundly until I attempted to make my mother feel at home with promises of beigels bought from our nearest Jewish bakery, Rinkoffs.

“You mean Minkoff’s,”, said my mother.

“No Rinkoff’s,” I said.

“They must have copied Minkoff’s.”

“But if they copied Minkoff’s, wouldn't they be called Minkoff’s?”

“Minkoff’s were first.”

“I think Rinkoff’s have been there for generations,” I said. “And why would one Jewish baker want to copy another Jewish baker?”

“Minkoff’s were butchers.”

“I’ll get the bagels.”


“It’ll be fine,” I told myself, rubbing the twinge in my back.

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