Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

A Yahrzeit: Remembering

Posted on: February 26, 2019

It was my father’s yahrzeit recently and his name was read out in the synagogue, before recitation of the kaddish, with the names of others who died at this time in years past.

I sat there in shul, thinking about him, his religion and his politics and the time he encouraged me – possibly irresponsibly – to punch a school bully on the nose. I’ll get that out of the way first. It was primary school and there was a boy who used his fists against us girls. When I mentioned it to my Dad, he said I should strike back, going straight for the nose.

I was doubtful and said ‘Suppose he ends up having to have his adenoids taken out?’

‘Maybe you’ll knock them out,’ said my Dad.

Occasionally he had a gung-ho way of talking but he was a kind man, well-liked at the secondary modern school where he taught English and bookkeeping.

My sister and I seemed to be the only ones whose parents were atheists. They didn’t observe Passover or fast on Yom Kippur. My father’s mother, who lived with us, would put on a black lace shawl on Friday nights when she said the blessing over the shabbat candles, but she died when I was thirteen and the berachos stopped. Nevertheless, my father sat up all night beside her coffin in our lounge, keeping the mitzvah of shemira.

My mother said that, when he was a rebellious young man, he used scandalize the worshipers standing outside the local synagogue on shabbat by lighting up a cigarette as he passed.

They married early in World War II, while he was in the army, then after the war, he went back to teaching.

I remember my parents being political in the early 1960s and my father was  arrested once for sitting in the road with Bertrand Russell’s anti-war Committee of 100. He was fined a pound. I went with my parents to hear Mr Gaitskell addressing a huge anti-apartheid rally in Trafalgar Square. I learned the word boycott. Dad told me that it came from Captain Boycott, a County Mayo land agent, ostracized for malpractice. At the greengrocers, I heard my mother ask if the fruit came from South Africa. If it did, she wouldn’t buy it.

She also approached General Moshe Dayan on seeing him in London and insisted on shaking his hand. Those who boycott Israel might consider that an anomaly. My parents loved Israel. Everyone did,  back then, even the left.

Eichmann was captured and taken to Jerusalem for trial. Details of the Shoah became known all over the world. My parents took me to see the film Judgment at Nuremberg and to an exhibition at Hackney Town Hall about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I saw photos of the Treblinka camp. They took me to see Otto Preminger’s film of Leon Uris’s best-selling novel Exodus and remarked that it wasn’t as good as the book, so I read the book.

Then, early 1960s, Oswald Mosley tried to hold a fascist rally in Ridley Road and protesters vastly outnumbered the fascists. We were there as a family, the Fighting Pressmans. Mosley beat a retreat from the crowds, getting into a car driven away by his son Max.  His arms were crossed over his face in a defensive gesture and as their car passed us, my father aimed a kick at the bonnet.

‘Did you see that?’ he asked no one in particular. ‘He was cowering.’

At about the same time, Colin Jordan came to prominence with his National Socialist Movement, later the British Movement. They were undisguised nazis. We protested against them too, my twelve year old self coming to blows with one of Jordan’s female supporters in Trafalgar Square.

Everyone in the wider family hated the blackshirts. I’ve written about how the fizzy drink Tizer was embargoed for us children, as Mosley was believed to be a shareholder. My uncle’s brother was a communist councillor in Tower Hamlets. Members of the family who left Russia before the revolution now identified with both Khruschev’s Soviet Union and Ben Gurion’s Israel.

My parents explained that they were socialists not communists. I wasn’t sure of the difference, but it meant supporting Hugh Gaitskell rather than Harry Pollitt. Nevertheless, I heard the Ballad of Harry Pollitt sung sometimes by my sisters’ friends in CND.

Harry was a bolshie and one of Lenin’s lads
Till he was foully murdered by reactionary cads
They dressed him in a nightie, put a harp into his hand
And he played the Internationale in the hallelujah band

They put him in the choir, the hymns he did not like
So he organized the angels and brought them out on strike
One day as God was walking around the heavenly estate
He came across old Harry chalking slogans on the gate

They put him up for trial before the Holy Ghost
For spreading disaffection among the heavenly host
The verdict it was guilty. Said Harry, ‘Very well,’
He wrapped his nightie round his legs and floated down to hell

A few more years have ended and Harry’s doing swell
And all the little devils have joined the YCL.

We were not religious but my Booba on my mother’s side kept separate cutlery for milk and meat. One year she and my grandfather made a big Passover seder. It was great fun, the only seder I attended as a child. People would speak of a ‘cider night’ and I had no idea what that was. As bagel was pronounced beigel, it followed that seder would be pronounced seider.

After my sister got married, I started attending Passover seders at the house of my brother-in-law’s parents. His father led the seder charismatically. There was the reading of the haggadah, the dinner and lots of songs and jokes.

I went to university to study philosophy. My Dad had said that most philosophers were atheists, being men of reason (Women of reason? Who thought of it back then?) but this was not the case. In a formless, irregular way, I tried prayer and the answer to my prayers, quite distinctly, was that I might try liturgy, specifically, the Hebrew liturgy of my forebears.

When I was about to get married, my parents and I became members of a synagogue so that my marriage could take place under a chuppah. I went seldom to services and my parents didn’t go at all.

It was Passover when my second baby was born and my parents came round to the flat to help out. They wanted to cook and were startled to find my cupboards prepared for Passover as I had removed the prohibited chametz – foods made of or mixed with leaven.

For many years, my parents were faintly disapproving of my kosher habits, as if waiting for the fad to pass, but eventually, some years, another husband and two more children later, they accepted it as a matter of course.

My brother-in-law’s father had died and my sister and brother-in-law kept up his family tradition of holding a Passover seder every year. It was a wonderful event. They invited parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins, about twenty-five of us round a long hired table. My children would play there with my cousin’s children and our parents and aunts sat at the end of the table, reminiscing and singing songs. Most attentive to the reading of the Haggadah  were the thirty-somethings, our middle generation, but the older people seemed more interested in chatting among themselves and were occasionally called to order.

There is a traditional prayer during the seder which people nowadays often choose to omit. When the door has been opened for Elijah, the leader of the seder recites this prayer.

Pour out Thy wrath upon the nations that know thee not and upon the kingdoms that call not upon thy name, for they have consumed Jacob and laid waste his habitation. Pour out thy rage upon them and let Thy fury overtake them.

Dad used to shout ‘Amen!’ at that point. Year after year, his cultured voice rang out at the moment when we call for retribution on our enemies: ‘Amen!’ The name Jacob is synecdoche here for the Jewish people and also, it was my father’s name.

I should explain that Dad feared that nazis would regroup and come after us again. As he got older, this became a bit of a preoccupation; not neurotically so but, as my brother-in-law pointed out, all Dad’s library books had covers displaying either a Star of David or a swastika. They were history books, swastikas when the subject was the rise of the Third Reich and Stars of David for everything else.

Terrorist attacks on diaspora Jews and Israeli citizens were ongoing during that time. The years when even the Soviet Union approved of Israel were long past and the Left was beginning to assume its current position.

After my husband died of cancer, my father’s relationship with religion seemed to change. Both my parents joined me in shul at Yom Kippur and my father wept during the memorial prayer.

A person who turns eighty-three may, if they wish, have something called a ‘second bar/bat mitzvah’ based on the premise that our allotted span is three-score years and ten, so if you survive another thirteen, it’s something to celebrate. In point of fact, it is usually bar (son), not bat (daughter), as bnei mitzvah were usually boys in times gone by. My father’s eighty-third birthday occurred at the turn of the millennium and he was called to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, to mark the significant date. Kirk Douglas did the same, being exactly my Dad’s age, but his synagogue was in Los Angeles, ours in North London.

About three years later, an atrophy of bones in the spinal column resulted in my father being paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. The house was sold and he and my mother went to live in one of the Jewish Care residential homes. My mother, who survived him, lived there for fourteen years, but for eight years, they were both there. In 2010, they celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary.

Jewish Care homes are kosher, so my parents were now, perforce, religiously observant in what they had to eat. My father used to attend a minyan on Saturday mornings, when a rabbi visited the home and held prayer services in the little synagogue on the first floor. On Friday nights, my mother lit the shabbat candles in the dining room, saying the appropriate prayer on behalf of the residents, the same prayer that Booba Malka used to say when she donned her black lace shawl.

One year, my father was honoured on the festival of Simchat Torah with the mitzvah of being Chatan Torah, ‘bridegroom of the law.’ I won’t go into details, but it involves saying some blessings and reading Hebrew verses to the congregation, either from Genesis or Deuteronomy.

In the days before he died, my father’s blood sugar dropped so low that he became unconscious. He was taken to hospital, where he was resuscitated and then an ambulance brought him home on the Friday night. He was given some chicken soup which he enjoyed and in the morning, he was wheeled up to the synagogue so that he could take part in the shabbat service.

On the Tuesday, he had a heart attack and was taken back to hospital where he died.

Sometimes it seems to me very hard that I won’t see him again. I don’t totally discount the possibility of a meet-up in Gan Eden, the realm of souls in the life to come, because impossible things can happen (who ever thought he would be Chatan Torah for example?) and are even more frequently believed as Lewis Carroll showed. I’m no scientist but quantum physics appears to be one impossible thing after another. You will know more than I do about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; that, at least, is certain.. As for the cat which can be in a box and not in a box at the same time, if we give that credence, it seems a small matter to believe that we shall see our loved ones again in Paradise.

4 Responses to "A Yahrzeit: Remembering"

Really really interesting and an informative
Well written piece
And lovely too,
Well done, Gill,

Lovely article. Enjoyed reading it! Best, dave

Thank you Dave. Very nice of you to say so.

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