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Rabbi Abraham Levy: reflections on my life

In this extract from his memoir A Rocky Road, Rabbi Abraham Levy looks back at some colourful characters from the Sephardi community

    Rabbi Abraham Levy
    Rabbi Abraham Levy

    WHEN THE SIX Day War broke out in June 1967, British Jewry held its breath as the young Jewish state fought for its life.

    While there may have been a few within the Spanish and Portuguese Community who still harboured the anti-Zionist sentiments of the communal elite in the earlier part of the century, the overriding feeling was of concern for the fate of our co-religionists in Israel. A solidarity meeting was hastily convened one lunchtime at Bevis Marks Synagogue and it was packed. There were two speakers. Sir Alan Mocatta, in his customary measured tones, said something like this: “Ladies and gentlemen, while we may not have always agreed with everything which Israel has done over the past few years, today is a time when we feel that it is right to come together to support and protect our fellow-Jews.” The second figure was far less restrained. When the businessman and philanthropist Leon Tamman rose to his feet, he launched into a tirade against the Egyptian leader. He might have been talking of Haman: “Nasser, may he be cursed. Amen v’Amen. May there be nothing left of him.” And he continued in that vein for several minutes.

    I first met Leon Tamman three or four years before. I had come to Lauderdale Road one morning to practise my Torah reading and I saw a man alone in the synagogue. He was reciting Psalms and crying. I had no idea who he was. I went up to him and asked him what was the matter. His wife, he told me, was having an operation in a nearby hospital. So I invited him and his children to come to our house. His family, of Iraqi origin, had established a successful business in Sudan and moved to Egypt. But as the Egyptian government turned on the country’s Jews in the wake of the Suez War of 1956, the Tammans were forced to leave.

    His commercial enterprise knew no borders, however; he set up a pharmaceutical company and became a major investor in Israel, with a wider portfolio which included luxury hotels. His central London home was a portrait of opulence but he was generous with his wealth. Early on, Dr Gaon spotted him as a man of the future, who was to prove instrumental in the revival of the World Sephardi Federation. His appearance alongside Sir Alan at the Bevis Marks meeting announced his arrival as a person of influence. But I felt there was a larger significance. It marked a moment of transition, when the leadership of the Sephardi community in Britain passed from the old Spanish and Portuguese families to a newer generation of immigrants from the Edot Hamizrach, the Oriental Jews.

    The majority of Jews who settled in Britain after the Second World War came from the Middle East or North Africa, from Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Aden, Iran. Some were driven from their homes; others fled, fearful of their future under a more aggressive Arab nationalism. At a meeting a few years ago I suggested that they were being too self-effacing by calling themselves “Sephardi”, which historically applies to Jews of Spanish origin. The Iraqi community was much older than the Spanish. “I hate the term Mizrachi Jew,” one of the audience objected. “I prefer a Babylonian Jew.” “But a Moroccan Jew is not a Babylonian Jew,” I pointed out. “No, no, he’s a Sephardi,” someone else piped up. “So let’s stick with Oriental,” I said.

    While most Jews from the Middle East came here in the backlash after the creation of the state of Israel, they had been preceded by a few earlier migrants. Joseph Smouha, who was born in Baghdad, was already established in textiles in Manchester by the outbreak of the First World War. But he prospered even more after he went to Egypt in 1917 at the invitation of the British government. His masterstroke was to buy an area of marshland which had been created by the diversion of a river ahead of the clash between Napoleon’s and Nelson’s fleets at the Battle of the Nile. Smouha had done his homework. Once he acquired the land, he re-diverted the river and ended up with a prime development site. He called it Smouha City.

    Joseph Smouha was typical of the immigrant who believed that the best way to make good in England was to leave the past behind him and to become as English as possible. His sons went to Harrow and they and his daughter served with the RAF during the Second World War. One son, Edward, ran for Britain in the Olympics. The early exiles from Iraq, such as Nathan Saatchi or Elie Kedourie, showed a similar willingness to adapt to their new home. The Iraqis, in particular, had a single-minded determination which enabled them to excel in their chosen fields, whether business as with Saatchi or academia in the case of Kedourie, a distinguished historian of the Middle East who was a leading professor at the LSE and received a CBE. Kedourie was a wise and prescient man. I will never forget when I had dinner with him shortly after Israel’s spectacular victory in 1967 and its capture of the West Bank and the Sinai, how he said to me, “Abraham, we may have taken all these lands — but what are we going to do with them?” His wife, Sylvia Haim, also from Iraq, was an accomplished scholar in her own right who edited the journal Middle Eastern Studies. Sylvia, who died last year in 2016, was a regular at our Pesach Sedarim.

    Another of those émigrés who contributed to the cultural and intellectual life of Britain was Nessim Joseph Dawood. He arrived in 1945 as a student to take a degree in English literature at the University of London. He established himself as a translator from Arabic and translated an edition of One Thousand and One Nights for Penguin. But his most famous English translation was of the Koran which first appeared in Penguin in 1956 and was so highly regarded that the latest revised edition came out in spring 2014, a few months before his death. I could spend hours talking to Nessim. He had a sharp intellect and he taught me a lot about the Koran. Apart from his command of Arabic, his English was masterly. He was a great lover of Shakespeare and had a cottage near Stratford-on-Avon so he could go and see the plays.

    As the number of Oriental Jews who settled in Britain grew over time, conditions for those who remained in the Middle East became more difficult in the wake of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The net tightened around them and made escape near impossible unless they could arrange to be smuggled illegally out of the country. Occasionally, they were allowed to leave temporarily to receive medical treatment here. A little girl from Syria came to London with her father to have an operation on her leg which could not be carried out in her home country. The father had brought with him a letter to me from the Chief Rabbi of Syria, Ibrahim Hamra, who wrote, “We warmly beg you to render all possible help.” When Estelle and I went to the poky little hotel in Bayswater where they were staying, I asked how they managed to get permission to travel. The father explained that his wife and other children were still behind in Syria; they were, in effect, hostages. Our synagogue responded generously when I appealed from the pulpit for assistance for the child.

    One of our members, Ellis Douek, a distinguished ENT surgeon whose family had come from Egypt, was once invited to Iraq to demonstrate some surgical procedures. After completing an operation in Baghdad, as part of the normal post-operative care, he called on the patient to make sure he was all right. It was only then that he realised that there, before him, was none other than Saddam Hussein. It might have been better for the Middle East if Saddam had never got up from the operating table but Mr Douek — who happens to be the brother of the food writer Claudia Roden — was too good a surgeon.

     

    A Rocky Road by Abraham Levy with Simon Rocker was published last week (Halban Publishing £20). On Monday September 25 there is a launch event at Lauderdale Road Synagogue where Rabbi Levy will be in conversation with Ned Temko

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