Sometimes, I feel like I have a heightened sense of community – Jewish – and belonging – ditto – and I can’t help wondering why.
Except I know. I grew up in a place like no other. Of course I imagine that everyone thinks the place they grew up in the best place on earth – I’m guessing – but I know it to be true.
How? Well, between 1992 and 1993 I lived in about fifteen countries. It’s a long story – aren’t the best ones always? – but I’d just left college and got a crazy job with a media company as an internal marketing consultant (tech-enabled variant) and I went round a lot of places, renegotiated database contracts, installed database systems, trained people, wrote manuals (oh, those paper-heavy days, although I do remember researching the burgeoning online help market) and had a trail of technical support queries that followed me around the globe.
I was very self-contained. I had a – the heaviest – laptop, a suit, a pair of jeans, a swimming costume, and a colleague called Margaret who I now realise was having an affair with the IT guy, who turned up, coincidentally, or so I thought, at all the same installations.
While I often think that being Jewish is a bit like being in the diving club, or enjoying hill walking or bridge or particularly fine wines – essentially, a cult-of-sorts – that’s patently not the case. Because everywhere I went, I had an open-sesame to a group of people who – broadly – did/believed in the things I believed in.
First stop, Singapore. Brief detour to spend Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur in New York with a (then) anorexic friend who broke our collective fast on a bag of cashew nuts. Singapore was hot, steamy, other. I hadn’t, then, got the hang of Asia, and the whole place smelled to me like a steam room in a Willesden municipal swimming pool that was due for a speedy refurbishment. I had all the wrong clothes and couldn’t get the hang of how to be in hot weather (something I’ve still not entirely mastered, although I do carry a Chinese fan in my handbag, hangover from my 97% humidity days).
So I went to shul on Succot, and Simchat Torah and Shabbat, and it was like arriving in Cheadle – sefardi style. A Bagdadi community with a nusach like none I’d ever experienced, it was a small community, lots of passers-through and incomers, but with a Family that ran the show, and a Guy who ran the shul and broiguses, money, failed invitations and disappointed spinsters. Maybe all communities are the same?
People were enormously welcoming to me. Given that about forty travellers turned up in shul every Shabbat for the free lunch, the community was particularly nice to me, once they’d realised I was there for a while.
On the second Shabbat, an old woman who looked like the old women at sefardi weddings who wear black and ululate all through the chuppah (apparently, to remind us of the destruction of the temple, like breaking the glass), invited me home to marry her nephew. I mean, to have lunch.
People don’t change. Wherever they are.I had a great time there – made great friends, felt totally part of the community, even “ate outside” on a Friday night (which did not mean on the terrace, as I had supposed it would), and then suddenly I was shipped off to Amsterdam.
There was a rabbi – Frank someone? – passing through Singapore my last Shabbat, and he said to me, my old friend XXX lives in Amsterdam, you must look him up. He gave me a phone number. Frank was himself in his early forties at the time, I estimated.
I arrived in Amsterdam mid-winter with only my summer clothes to my name (a short stretchy skirt from the Gap that I wore with a t-shirt, and put a jacket on if I had to go to a meeting). The first morning, I went to a great shop called Pauw (means peacock) opposite my new apartment in Amsterdam Zuid (behind an excellent bar called Wildschut, if any of you remember it). This shop was great – not cheap, but not that expensive, and I bought two or three outfits (I still have one skirt).
In the office, all the women were staring at me. It was only after some weeks I discovered that Pauw was – then – the most expensive shop in Amsterdam and they were all jealous/thought I earned a fortune. Not true. Although I did have an urgent need for winter clothes.
And I called Frank’s friend, who told me to meet him outside shul on Friday night. I was kinda shocked that they ask you for your passport on the door at shul, as I hadn’t even thought to bring it. And then I hung around for ages, looking for a young(ish) guy. Eventually, a properly old man came up to me , “sasha?”. He was like seventy. But he was Frank’s friend.
I spent a wonderful few shabbatot with their incredibly warm family; their grandchildren were my age. They were unbelievably hospitable, but that is also true of my Dutch workmates, many of whom invited me round to their house for a meal. The difference between watching a place and guessing and truly experiencing it like you live there, is if people are warm.
And it’s one of the reasons, if I ever meet anyone passing through London, I invite them round to my house. I know the incredible difference it made to me in so many places – Singapore, Hong Kong, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Bangkok – and I feel like it’s some kind of global karma. I don’t expect to be able to reciprocate to the people who were so generous to me – sadly, I don’t even remember lots of peoples names – but I think I hand that on to whoever I meet next.
And also, I grew up like that. My parents’ Friday night dinner tables were always replete with interesting people, people who’d turned up in shul, people who’d called up out of the blue, students. Years later, I was involved in a London shul, and we were trying to organise how to be more hospitable (not a conversation I believe a provincial shul would have) and I suggested that we all invite someone for lunch every week. And this woman, I’ll never forget, said “but what if you haven’t made enough lunch?” And I thought my lunch, and my mother’s lunches, and most of my friends’, would stretch. Shabbat lunch is not a portion-controlled plated experience: it stretches as far as it needs to. It’s not about the food. Also, everyone over-caters.
The thing about Amsterdam, the Jewish community, is that everyone (my age)’s grandparents spent the war in a cupboard. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here. So there’s a lot of guilt. And a lot of people leave (because of the guilt, I’m guessing). Frank’s friend had an amazing story about how he’d genuinely put a message in a bottle, trying to find his lost family, and years later bizarrely received a message in a bottle via a circuitous route, from some Russian (Jewish) musicians and he brought their whole family out of Russia and acted as their guarantor. He didn’t even know them. He just had the karma.
So, in that couple of years, I went to a lot of shuls. Communities. Hong Kong, Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Bangkok, Frankfurt, Jakarta… (Margaret took Oz/NZ and all the northern European countries). I think the list is longer, but it’s on my CV and I can’t remember and I’m in a field in the middle of nowhere. Imperfect data.
But what I remember, from then, and even sometimes now, is that searching feeling. Don’t get me wrong: I went to some wonderful places and was welcomed into some immensely warm communities and families. But everywhere I went, the little voice in my head was… searching for Cheadle. Yeshurun. Trying to find that special feeling that characterised how I grew up.
It was the seventies. My parents house looked exactly like the CD cover of some exciting (contemporary-now) retro seventies band. All purple swirls, big flowers. They are very stylish. I remember Julie S’s parents had black shagpile carpet and a red piano. Or maybe it was the other way around. Some houses were not unlike the interiors of the Ice Storm.
I didn’t appreciate then, what an amazing community it was. From the strong female role models, taking an active – nay vociferous – part in the running of the community. The huge cheder. Local Jewish school. Walking down the street, just running into people you knew. It wasn’t like the shtetl. It was rose-tinted. My two best friends lived the other side of Kingsway (the great divide) and we spent a lot of time sitting around on a shabbes afternoon playing the catalogue game (they read you a description and price, you have to guess what it is). We found this a lot of fun, don’t ask me why. It was before the internet.
And the people I grew up with? I still see quite a lot of them. A couple of weeks ago, I went for a long walk with someone I was at cheder with, batmitzvah with. The people I grew up with, strangely, are writers, actors, directors, film makers, musicians. I mean, not exclusively; there are obviously lots of doctors and lawyers. Obviously.
But it felt like this vibrant, magical time. Maybe it’s just the rose-tinted past. But I learned what it’s like being in a real community (when there’s a Ladies’ Guild catered do, and that woman can’t bake, don’t let her go home with an unappealingly unopened cake. Take a slice out of it, and throw it away. She won’t feel so bad). Also I learned how to make tomatoes in the shape of flowers. There was a lot of catering.
But catering was about community – whether for shivas, or model seders, or regular kiddushim. We knew – I knew – that we weren’t all the same. People had bigger/smaller houses/cars/jobs, but it felt like we were all pulling together, going in the same direction. The doorbell was always ringing. People were always dropping in. Between 1971 and 1977 – in my mind – was one very long cup of tea with three of my mum and dad’s next door neighbours (all of whom I called auntie something till I was about seventeen).
As a kid, the rhythm of my life was dictated by the Jewish year. Much as it is now, some things don’t change. So I remember model seders (practice runs in cheder, the week before), building the succah. Making cheesecake or hamantashen with my mum. Shlepping the pots down for pesach (I recently learned a great lifehack from an Australian friend: have separate Pesach cupboards in your normal kitchen, then just seal the regular ones and open the pesach ones. A lot less work).
I remember funerals and shivas. I remember when my grandpa died (I was four. In news at school I apparently wrote “my grandpa died, we have parties every night”). I remember my grandparents in and out of our house, and we theirs, and our lives totally intermingled.
It felt like life was one huge celebration of everything that’s Jewish. Although a lot of it was also about interior décor, house prices and who was wearing what for Yom Tov. But that’s part of those kinds of communities, and I think of it very warmly.
And every community I’ve ever visited since? They’re benchmarked. Almost Cheadle. Not Cheadle. Not quite Cheadle. Not ever Cheadle.
Right now, I’m involved with two communities.
One, Masorti (conservative), is fabulous. Large, but fabulous. It really is a community that lives its values. People are not so showy (although some still spend a lot of money on clothes, just less showy clothes). It’s a community of 1,600 people where the rabbi will still call you up if something happens in your life. And about four people invited me for seder. The other, Federation (frum), equally wonderful in its way, and with which I have a … troubled relationship. I love all the people there, but it’s… complicated. But it’s the place, strangely, that feels most like home. It’s smaller, more intimate, the politics are more obvious. Maybe the warmth is that a lot of people there are also from smaller, provincial communities, originally. Strangely, the Rov still calls you up if something happens in your life.
If I had to choose between a Rov and a Rabbi, I think I’d choose a Rov.
So I’ve rambled for quite a long time (the joy of being on holiday), but what I’m really saying is that I grew up with an incredible model of a vibrant community, that’s etched on my brain, my mind’s eye. When I go back – things change, I know – it’s just not the same. It’s not bad. It’s just different. I often discuss this with R, who lives across the road and equally fondly remembers the Cheadle heyday. The people I know are older. The people I don’t know moved there for the vibrant community, but don’t necessarily know that it’s a two way deal. They seem… disappointed that the community hasn’t delivered for them.
What they don’t seem to know – yet – that living in a community is a relationship. Actually, it’s a carefully constructed spiders’ web of relationships – who collects the etrogim after succos to make etrog jam; who repairs the siddurim, who can blow the shofar if someone’s sick, who does tahara when someone dies, who’ll collect your kids from school if you’re stuck – that is balanced on years and years of give and take. It might not even be you who gives and takes equally, or at the same time. And not all the relationships are about bad things: it’s also about who celebrates your children’s exam successes with you, who sends you flowers when you have grandchildren. It’s about sharing life’s experiences, good or bad.
I talked recently with a friend about the whole stupid celebrity thing that goes on now, and he used the phrase “living your life in front of a live studio audience.” I think this may have been in relation to my desire to blog, to put (some of) my personal experiences online. But what I think, is that life is deeper, has more meaning when you share it. I read something recently about positive psychology/happiness, and apparently people with strong family and community ties are happier. So while Cheadle might not have been a live studio audience – there were, as far as I know, no cameras in the bedrooms – living that interconnected, entwined existence, with friends and neighbours, gave our lives an added depth, dimension. Which is something I still have now.
The joy of a community is, when you can give, give. When you need to take, take.
And lots of places I lived, all that time ago, I wasn’t there long enough, in deep enough to see that. But I still benchmarked. I still checked. But what I know – now – is that that Cheadle, the one of my childhood, only exists in my memory. Now.
But that feeling – warmth, collective experience, even davening, sharing, cooking – is something I couldn’t imagine not having in my life.