The area that we made our own

Social History: Golders Green


When I moved to Golders Green four years ago I was amazed to find that virtually nothing had been written about the Golders Green Jewish community.

I carried out some preliminary research and quickly discovered that there was a rich history waiting to be told.

I set about filling this major gap in Anglo-Jewish history and, being a social historian, I concentrated on recreating the lives of the Jews in the area, gathering material by carrying out oral history interviews.

Over an 18-month period I spoke to more than 100 people from across the community, including some whose memories stretched back to the earliest days.

Barbara Michaels, one of the two daughters of Reverend Livingstone, who for 40 years led Golders Green Synagogue in Dunstan Road, the first congregation to be established in the area in 1916, recalled: "Dunstan Road was very Anglicised. Its lay leaders wore long coats and top hats.

"My father wore full canonicals and it was often said that he looked just like an Anglican vicar. My sister Nancie and I went to some of the first services. On one occasion, our parents forgot to prepare us and when Nancie saw our father in his gown she shouted at the top of her voice: 'You look funny in those clothes Daddy.'

"We were taken home and didn't return for several months because our mother was so embarrassed."

Amongst my interviewees were great storytellers like Jeff Alexander, who reminisced: "My grandfather often took me to the Dunstan Road Synagogue. He went to the main service, and I was supposed to go to the children's service.

"But sometimes instead I got a bus up Brent Street to the Classic Cinema in Hendon to see Laurel and Hardy, Flash Gordon and the like. There was just enough time to get back to Dunstan Road before the service came out. One day I got caught out. My grandfather asked me how the children's service had gone. I said: 'The same as usual.' My grandfather said: 'That's funny, I heard that there wasn't one today!'"

I wove numerous anecdotes and reminiscences together to produce a decade-by-decade account of the evolution of the Jewish community and used oral history to write chapters on different aspects of Jewish life such as education, leisure and occupations.

A chapter on the larger shuls - Dunstan Road, Golders Green Beth Hamedrash (known as Munk's Shul after its first rabbi) and North Western Reform Synagogue (known as Alyth Gardens due to its location), describes how these very different communities evolved and also the relationships between them.

For many years some members of the very Germanic and "glatt kosher" Munk's shul frowned on the perceived religious laxities of the United Synagogue, as Ian Torrance, a young member of Dunstan Road in the 1950s recalled: "Munk's shul used to be referred to as the 'holier than thou' synagogue. One day I was walking down the road and met our neighbour, Mr Schwab, who was a member of Munk's. He asked where I was going and I told him I was going to Hebrew classes at the synagogue. He was incredulous. In his strong German accent he asked: 'Dunstan Road has Hebrew classes?'"

The topic covered by most interviewees was the shops of Golders Green. In the early days there were few Jewish enterprises in the area, as the new residents initially travelled back to their businesses in the East End and other parts of London. However, the shopping parades quickly became dominated by Jewish-owned businesses, some of which traded for many years.

Perhaps the most renowned of these shops was Franks. Established in 1928 by Beatrice Franks, it developed into a "double-fronted lingerie and hosiery emporium".

In the 1950s there used to be a delivery of stockings to Golders Green on a Thursday. They came down by taxi from Shaftesbury Avenue where the Franks had a warehouse. They were sub-standard nylon stockings. There were no tights in those days and a limited supply of perfect ones.

People knew that they were sold on Saturday mornings, and used to queue from 6am. One enterprising man walked up and down the road selling tea and coffee to the people queuing!

At one point Golders Green was famed for its largely Jewish-owned shoe shops and high-end boutiques. However, these were gradually replaced by restaurants and eateries. The shift was heralded by the arrival of Bloom's in the 1960s, which was patronised by Jews from across London, including celebrities like Vanessa Feltz who remembered "dodging the waiters carrying soup, catching a boiled gefilte fish in your hand with carrots flying everywhere.

"It made you feel like you were getting some exercise, when, in reality, you were probably consuming more cholesterol than a sensible person should eat in a year. The food was an affront to man and beast really, but it was always my fall back restaurant."

Until the coming of Bloom's, those seeking Jewish fare were reliant on Jewish delicatessens like Flax's and Cohen's, "that temple of smoked salmon and pickled cucumbers".

There was also an abundance of coffee shops. Often recollected from this era is the sensory experience provided by Importers Retail Salesrooms.It was stocked with dozens of hessian sacks containing different types of coffee. The beans were roasted and ground on the premises by a machine located in the front window. Passers-by were able to watch the machine at work and its flume sent out rich aromas that wafted along Golders Green Road as far as the crossroads.

Some stories in the book are very poignant, perhaps none more so than that of Martin Sulzbacher, who ran a bookshop in Sneath Avenue. Mr Sulzbacher, a refugee from Dusseldorf, survived the infamous sinking of the Arandora Star, which was carrying many interned Jews to Canada. Having come through this ordeal, Mr Sulzbacher was sent to Australia on the SS Dunera, enduring terrible physical conditions and ill treatment. When he eventually returned, he found that his parents and his extended family had been killed in the Blitz.

In addition to the oral history material, I used information from a variety of other sources - autobiographies, biographies, documents from private collections, the census, street directories. The JC archives proved a particularly fruitful source of material, including the notice placed in November 1962 by Leslie Davis, who had opened Design Jewellery:

It read: "If the gentlemen who smashed our "unbreakable" window with a 28lb sledge-hammer one foggy night last week and relieved us of 38 Omega watches worth £2,200 will call in to see us we will give them the free all-risks insurance we always give with our watches. PS: Other customers wishing to acquire Omega watches in a more conventional manner will be more than welcome in normal business hours."

A regular topic of JC articles over the years has been the idiosyncratic driving and parking habits of Jews in Golders Green and adjoining Temple Fortune. One article claimed that buses routed through the area sometimes stopped for 30 minutes to treat passengers to the spectacle of the "outrageous parking manoeuvres laid on by the residents for the benefit of passers by". These included "the enduringly popular sight of the BMW reversing into a space vacated by a moped" and "the famous Temple Fortune ten-point turn - seen only during the rush hour".

There emerged from my research some clear conclusions about the Golders Green Jewish community: what makes it unique, why it has continued to thrive while other Jewish enclaves have waxed and waned, and whether it is a single community or a series of communities.

The community has always been phenomenally important in Anglo-Jewish life but over the years it has progressed from being a community of national significance to having a high profile internationally.

The conclusion on the likely future of the community is an optimistic one - with its many assets and its propensity for reinventing itself, it looks set to continue for many years to come.

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