Like most rabbis serving in this country, I have experienced at first hand in my career what used to be called minhag angliyah, a characteristic English way of approaching things Jewish, subtly different from that of, say, an Israeli or a Russian Jew or even an American Jew, common language notwithstanding. You do not have to be born in England to follow minhag angliyah. My Rebbe, who hailed from Russia, was observed, during the semi-jubilee celebrations of the reign of King George V and Queen Mary, precariously balanced on the roof of the yeshiva in order proudly to place there a Union Jack. When his pupils expressed their surprise at this seemingly unbecoming display of patriotism, he said: ‘Kinderlekh! If you had experienced, as I have, life under the Tsar or the Communist regime, you would understand my love for this free and tolerant country.’
The minhag angliyah element was present in varying degrees of emphasis in the four congregations I have had the privilege of serving and of which I here try briefly to give my impressions in turn. The ‘English’ experience, so far as my own ancestry is concerned, began more than 130 years ago, when my zeide emigrated from Telz in Lithuania to settle for a short while in Canterbury (of all places), where there was a small Jewish community and a synagogue at that time. My father used to regale me with stories he had heard of dignitaries from the cathedral paying visits to my zeide’s sukkah to learn from an observant Jew something about Jewish rites and ceremonies. Some months ago, when I was invited, as the Lord Mayor of Westminster’s Chaplain, to preach at the civic service in Westminster Abbey, I could not help thinking it was not too far a cry from the rudimentary Jewish-Christian dialogue of my zeide and his cathedral friends.
Rabbi Munk had obtained a PhD in Germany on Wordsworth, thus providing a link with Englishness, which, for obvious reasons, he was glad to foster after the Holocaust. In many ways Dr Munk would have qualified as a Modern Orthodox rabbi, in the sense of one who accepts that European literature, art and music are good in themselves, although in function and to some extent in outlook he belonged to haredism, otherwise known as ultra-Orthodoxy.The services at Munk’s were conducted with Western decorum. Heaven help anyone who dared to engage in conversation during the services. Only one mourner at a time was allowed to recite Kaddish (in front of the Ark) in obedience to the talmudic dictum: ‘two different voices cannot be heard at the same time’. A favourite word for the congregation was discipline. Everything had to be carried out in the precise manner required by the sources. On the festivals not a single piyut was omitted. The men wore hats, never a yarmulke in sight. Only the Rav was allowed to wear his talit over his head. For a congregant to do so would have been considered an ostentatious show of piety.
This meticulousness, however, was redeemed from Teutonic thoroughness by the ability of the members to laugh at themselves. They loved to tell of a visit to Frankfurt by Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin in Poland who was shown round the various institutions of that very frum city, eventually coming to an ice cream factory which had the legend: All our products are frozen under the supervision of the Rabbinate.’ ‘That is true’, wryly remarked Rabbi Shapiro, ‘of the whole of their Yiddishkeit.’
If at Munk’s there was a winning blend of European culture and Anglo-Jewish attitudes, in my next congregation there existed a different but happy combination of Lithuanian and English Jewish temperament.
THE CENTRAL SHUL, MANCHESTER
He died before the Second World War so that I was obliged, after a long gap, to step into his shoes with a determined effort on the part of the congregation to follow his rabbinic outlook while, at the same time, catering to the needs of the younger members. My task was to preach in English, except for the Yiddish derashah delivered on the Sabbaths before Pesach and Yom Kippur, and to conduct a nightly Talmud shiur in Yiddish to oldsters who had been attending Rabbi Yoffe’s class many years before. This class was conducted in the bet hamidrash equipped with long tables and surrounded by weighty tomes, exactly as in pre-war Lithuania. A London Jew on a visit, seeing a Rabbi with a beard teaching Talmud in Yiddish, remarked that he could only believe that he was not in Manchester at all but in a heimisher shtetl.Unlike my predecessor, however, I was expected to wear canonicals as did the chazan and the chazan sheni. Even the choirboys wore short gowns and black, felt caps. Chazanut was highly prized at the Central. On the second night of Pesach hundreds of Manchester Jews descended on the synagogue to listen to Chazan Moshe Price’s melodious rendering of the Ribbono shel Olam for the counting of the omer. Although in my pastoral functions I was an English Minister, no one in the congregation ever dreamed of describing me, young though I was, as anything but the Rov. From time to time I would even pasken sha’alos, pious women bringing me chickens wrapped in newspaper which, after examining the innards, I had to pronounce either kosher or treif.
The members of the Central, with few exceptions, belonged to the lower middle or working class. Like my father, uncles and cousins, they earned their living through various occupations in the waterproof and raincoat factories owned by Jews who released their Jewish employees from having to work on the Sabbath. It is not generally realized that there existed in Manchester a religious working class, the members of which, while admiring the wealthier Jews who managed to get on, were proud to be working men and women and who usually, like their counterparts in Lancashire non-conformism, saw no contradiction to religion in their stance. They may have blessed the squire and his relations, if they had known of such, but would only have accepted reluctantly their ‘proper’ station and would never have requested God to keep them in it.
In my time a splendid building was erected by the members of the Central and this was adequately maintained. How could a largely working-class congregation afford such luxury? The answer is that, in addition to the standard membership, there were hundreds of families in the city who, for sixpence a week, belonged to the Synagogue’s Burial Society which entitled them to burial in the shul’s cemetery but not to actual membership. The revenues from the burial scheme made the Central rich as a congregation, though poor as individuals.
To what extent was the Central an Anglo-Jewish synagogue? The wearing of canonicals and sermons in English have already been mentioned. In addition, the affairs of the congregation were not conducted, as they were in Lithuania, solely by a few autocrats but by a democratically elected council operating not very differently from the Manchester City Council, with motions proposed and seconded, and regular cries of ‘On a point of order’. At one of the meetings someone used the term ipso facto, and this became a catchword of the ‘boys’, as the younger members were called. The members of the Central, like Manchester Jewry in general, kept kosher homes and were regular in their attendance at services, certainly on the Sabbath and, for many, at the twice-daily minyan during the week as well. They were all proud to speak English with a Manchester accent, and with a regular admixture of Yiddish words such as chutzpah, mazaldik and kenenhora.
THE NEW WEST END SYNAGOGUE
The New West End was ‘Orthodox’ in a peculiar, non-dogmatic use of that term. There was separate seating for men and women, the latter proudly occupying the ladies’ gallery, apparently without any need to see this as being politically incorrect. Rightly or wrongly, egalitarianism in Judaism would have been seen as a somewhat bizarre notion. And yet, with typical Anglo-Jewish compromise, not to say inconsistency, the synagogue had a mixed choir and the prayers for the restoration of the sacrificial system were either omitted or recited silently.The cultural shock involved in my transformation from Rov to Minister was not too severe, especially when I witnessed on my first Rosh Hashanah service the whole congregation carrying out with complete devotion the traditional kneeling during the Alenu prayer. In my induction address I declared how honoured I was to have been appointed to a congregation so successful in merging Orthodoxy with modernity, which led Ephraim Levine to observe, at the Kiddush, that it was a good job that this buttering up of the congregation did not take place after a meat meal.
It is hardly appropriate to rehearse here the ‘Jacobs Affair’, except to say that the willingness of the New West End to reappoint me as Minister, after I had left for a position at Jews’ College, was frustrated by a veto exercised by the Chief Rabbi because of my allegedly untraditional view. The members of the New West End become torn between two characteristic Anglo-Jewish loyalties, to the Chief Rabbi and to religious tolerance and the freedom of the pulpit. My supporters founded the New London Synagogue in 1964, purchasing the building, a fine example of late Victorian architecture, from the St John’s Wood Synagogue, belonging to the United Synagogue. We changed the name to the New London Synagogue, bayit chadash (New House) in Hebrew.
THE NEW LONDON SYNAGOGUE
ST JOHN’S WOOD
We know that Abraham ibn Ezra stayed for a short while in London. He refers in his writings to a ‘wood’ near London. I am no historian of Anglo-Jewry but don’t tell me that it was not in our neck of the Wood in which the mediaeval sage sojourned for a while.There are signs that minhag angliyah is fast disappearing. Good riddance, some now say. More of us will hope that reports of its passing are grossly exaggerated.