Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Jews of Cheetham Hill by Ian Walker (New Society 1 October 1981)

For your delectation, another Ian Walker article from the New Society collection of essays, The Other Britain. (Also check out Walker's 'Anarchy in the UK' and 'Skinheads: the cult of trouble' previously posted on the blog.)
'The Jews of Cheetham Hill' originally appeared in the October 1st 1981 issue of New Society.
I hope to post two other New Society articles by Walker on the blog in the next couple of days. Keep your eye out for them.
The Jews of Cheetham Hill by Ian Walker
Tombstones and synagogues are daubed quite regularly, she said, sitting in the cafe in Cheetham Parade which looks out on to the benches at the centre of this ugly, purpose-built shopping centre around which the old Jews of the neighbourhood gather to pass the time of day.

Estelle is 32, a third-generation Manchester Jew. Her grandparents came from eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Her father was a schmeerer, Yiddish slang for the work of smearing rubber solution on to fabric in the waterproof garment industry which, before the war, was a big source of employment for Manchester Jews.

A supply teacher of mathematics, Estelle lives with her parents in Cheetham Hill which, with Whitefield and Prestwich, houses a suburban Jewish middle class whose ancestors came mostly from Poland, Rumania and Russia between the late nineteenth century and the middle of this century. Sephardic Jews, who came from Spain and Portugal in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, live in the south Manchester suburbs.

There are an estimated 35,000 Jews in Manchester. Like the Jewish populations of Leeds (18,000) and Glasgow (13,500) and London (280, 000), Manchester's has changed identity - blue collar to white, terraces to semis - without solving the problem of identity. In Manchester the waterproof garment industry is more or less dead, and the Jewish Working Men's Club closed down in the 1960s. But anti-semites aren’t impressed by upward mobility.

And among the goyim - the non-Jews - anti-semitism runs deep. There are seven definitions of 'jew' in the Collins English Dictionary, that most updated collection of British meanings. They range, in the dictionary’s typology, from 'offensive and obsolete' (to jew: to drive a hard bargain) to just plain 'offensive' (jew: a miserly person). Estelle doesn't believe in any gods, but she lives with those definitions.

Her brother, she said, is different. A computer programmer, he has turned his back on his Jewishness; he decided it is irrelevant. That is his strategy. Estelle, who immerses herself in the Jewish political and cultural life of Cheetham, has another. Others, still, turn to religious orthodoxy or hardline Zionism. Some settle in Israel.

Estelle drained her coffee. Outside, the tarmac was sweating in the sun, sticking to the soles of the old men and women who stood and talked. Sitting on the bench, under a poster for cider, a woman read her romantic novel. On the next bench two men discussed Begin.

‘Well,’ one said, with a strong Mancunian delivery. ‘I think he’s a good, straightforward man.' His friend, who was wearing a blue suit and a brown trilby, wasn't too sure, but anyway he was more interested in talking about the problems of finding a second wife.

‘l want a woman who is nice to look at, with money, high principles, who is kind and clean. My friend says you aren't looking for a woman. You want five women,' he said, holding open his hands.
Estelle walked home along Upper Park Road. This tree-lined lane fronts prewar and postwar semis, 1940s mock-Tudor palaces, 1960s bungalows, new redbrick blocks of flats. Shiny V, W and X-registration saloons sat on the driveways.

Estelle’s semi was in a more downmarket zone. The living room was strewn with clothes. Her mother makes some money doing alterations for the neighbours. It supplements her father’s pension and Estelle’s irregular earnings from teaching. Jews tend to leave one family only when they are about to start one of their own. The youth do not disappear to bedsits and flats, nor do the old live alone.

Her mother went outside to make a cup of tea. Estelle said that her father was also an atheist. The menorah (seven-branched candelabra) on the piano, she explained, was there simply because it was on the piano when it was given to them by a neighbour.

That night Estelle and two of her friends, Sheila and Mike, met in a new nightclub called Quentins. Sheila, an unemployed teacher, is a divorcee with two children. Mike, a pharmacist, is also single. ‘It’s a sort of tragi-comic situation for jews in our position, who would like to marry another Jew,’ said Estelle. 'Because it's a very small number of people who are in the right age group. You go round and round in ever-diminishing circles. There's fewer people every time.'

The disc jockey played compilation 45s. There were only about a dozen people in the place, a slow Monday. Sheila said that her grandfather had walked all the way right from Russia to France, before getting the boat across to England. Mike grinned at her, disbelieving. Sheila continued with the story.
He used to walk at night, she said, to avoid detection. When he arrived at British customs, he had a sign hung round his neck and on the sign was written his name, age and place of birth. He spoke Yiddish. Sheila, like a lot of third-generation Jews, said that although she can't speak Yiddish herself, she finds she can understand it.

Mike is short and bearded. Like Estelle, he drinks Coke. Sheila has made a sweet sherry last an hour. ‘It’s because the Jews were always driven out by drunken bigots. That’s why we don’t drink much,' said Sheila.

Estelle disagreed. She said that it is because Jewish children were routinely given wine during celebrations. Alcohol is not the forbidden fruit it is for non-Jewish children. Judaism is a home and family-based religion.

‘None of us is religious,' said Sheila, and then looking hard at her two friends around the table. ‘But we know what we are, don’t we?'

After Sheila broke up with her husband, she started going out with a non-Jew, a Welshman; and he used to shrug when she wanted to talk about being a Jew. 'He wouldn't talk about it. He wouldn't understand how important it was for me. I remember once, he'd been driving me around, and I said that’s the third National Front poster l've seen tonight. He said, “Don't be ridiculous. You’re making it up, imagining it." But I had seen three, she said.

Sheila went out with the Welshman for four years. She never told her parents about it. Once her boyfriend took Sheila home to meet his parents at Christmas.

‘As soon as I walked in, his mother cried,’ said Sheila. ‘I thought she was crying for joy, for seeing her son after such a long time. But no. lt was because he’d brought a Jew home for Christmas.'

A man in a lounge suit, who looked like a nightclub manager, came up and apologised for the candle going out. The DJ was playing a song by Spandau Ballet: ‘Don't need this pressure on, don't need this pressure on. . . .' Do you ever feel schizophrenic, I said, carrying a Jewish identity through the scenery and sounds of British culture, like this trashy nightclub, for example?

l’ve sat in a Chinese restaurant with reform Jews,’ replied Estelle. 'They were eating chow mein and complaining about assimilation.'

Sheila said that she liked eating bacon, but she would only buy it at Tescos, where she could hide it under some vegetables or something. Jews had, on occasion, spotted her picking up the perma-sealed packs. She said she felt terrible.

None of these three kept the kashrut, a kosher kitchen; but Sheila said she observes some of the rituals because she thinks they are very beautiful, and also because she has fond memories of them from her childhood: the atmosphere created by the candles on the Sabbath.

'Judaism is a highly absorbent religion,' said Rabbi Silverman next morning at the reform synagogue in Jackson’s Row, in central Manchester. ‘Orthodox rabbis at one time used to wear dog collars. And there was a new title created, the Chief of Rabbis, which corresponded to the Archbishop of Canterbury, something of an English invention. In marriage we have a best man, which isn't a Jewish thing, and the father leading the daughter down the aisle.'

There is also a Jewish prayer for the Queen, said Rabbi Silverman, who is young and wears a lounge suit and a skull cap.

A Londoner, he has been in Manchester for three years. This was his first appointment after leaving rabbinical college. The synagogue has 1,300 individual members, and there are 800 households on his mailing list. The congregation is predominantly middle-class.

He described himself as 'ceremonially traditional, but radical in theology, aggressively so.' Though he denied there was any antagonism between the reform and orthodox wings of rabbinism, he acknowledged there was a problem there sometimes.

The reform movement is regularly accused by the orthodox of diluting judaism, of copping out, of encouraging assimilation - the word that spikes most Jewish discourse about themselves, though there is no evidence that young Jews are becoming less Jewish, or ‘marrying out’ more frequently, than their forbears.

‘People marrying out are weakening the Jewish fold,” said the rabbi. ‘Jewish survival has always been dependent upon people leading a full Jewish life within their home as well as the synagogue’ He added that there was also a fair amount of ‘marrying in' - people who take on the faith when they marry a Jew - which strengthened the Jewish fold.

On the way out I talked to the secretary, a woman of 26. She is still single. She would prefer to marry someone of her own kind, she said. 'But if I met a non-Jew I really hit it off with, I might. You never know. But probably because of the ghetto-like conditions in which we live, I just don't mix with non-Jewish people. And with me working here. . . .'

She also said: 'I mix in mostly Jewish circles. Because it’ s what I want.'

I went back to Cheetham Hill, and walked into the kibbutz club. On the noticeboard one poster advertised the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry, which is trying to establish family links between British and Soviet Jewry, to make it easier for the latter to emigrate. The poster had lists of names against towns, starting with Abramovich of Moscow.

Upstairs in his office was Baruch Kalmon who left Liverpool in 1961, when he was 24, to settle in Israel. He is now 44. His home is a kibbutz called Matzuva, a couple of miles from the Lebanese border. But he has been living in Cheetham Hill for the last 18 months, working in Britain for the kibbutz movement.

A short-sleeved shirt, tight, displayed his muscular frame. He folded his fists on the table, looked at me hard in the eye. There is still a trace of Scouse in his accent: 'I think Cheetham Hill is a community that has a problem of identity.'

Baruch is one of 30,000 British Jews who have resolved that problem by emigration to Israel. He is not religious himself - ‘I observe the Sabbath and that's it' - and he sounded weary of the Angst exhibited by Jews in the diaspora. But he had more respect for orthodox than reform Jews. The way he put it, the orthodox had more bottle.

‘I don't think you can be Jewish in name only,' he said, ‘and that's why l respect the orthodox. They're toeing the line. And that's why the other people, the reform, have a problem. The other alternative is the renaissance of the Jewish people in their own land. And I've done it, a living example. So I'm not soapbox, you know?'

Baruch’s wife is Dutch, a survivor of the holocaust, and he has just returned from a tour of Holland and West Germany with 76 Jewish young people from Manchester, London and Glasgow. The idea was to bring the holocaust home to them, he said. In Holland a non-Jewish survivor from Auschwitz came over to speak and, in West Germany, the young Jews were told: 'You are here today as free Jewish citizens of the UK in a Germany where, 40 years ago, you'd have been locked away on sight.'

A lot were in tears, he said, after the Auschwitz survivor had spoken.

Downstairs is a private nursery. The children were eating their lunch - shepherd's pie. I walked again up this leafy lane, Upper Park Road. lt seemed, even more than before, too conspicuously normal, as if a whole subculture had become disguised in the clothes, houses and cars of the English bourgeoisie.

Heathlands is a Jewish old people's home, opened in 1971. It stands in five acres of grounds, and at 3.30 that afternoon the residents were out in the gardens, taking tea.

Mr and Mrs Brazil had only been there a week, but it's a lovely place all right, she said, adding that her husband - staring blankly across the lawns - was a touch senile. She is 79.

Her parents came from Warsaw. She was born in Manchester. Her father, she said, was a ladies' tailor. Her husband’s father was a gents’ tailor. She thinks the current generation have turned away from religion:

‘When we were little girls we weren't allowed on the buses on a Saturday, and we had someone in to light the fire. Used to come in and put wood on the fire and light the kettle. It has changed, all that. Now everything is made easy for everyone, and still people moan. My father, he used to work through the night, every Thursday through to Friday. He died a young man, he was only 52, but he was a gentlemen.'

Away from the main tea-time clamour on the terrace, three men sat under a parasol on the lawn. They all thought that Jews in Manchester were far more religious these days.

'In my day,' said Henry, who worked as a schmeerer and has hard Mancunian vowels, 'the Jewish lads wasn’t religious as they are today.'

The reason for that was poverty, Said Abraham, who did all kinds of jobs but ended up being a taxi driver. 'Worked eight days a week to get a living. No time for religion. These days, more time, more money, smaller families. Only people these days who have big families are the ultra orthodox: they like a lot of sons,' he said.

Sam also worked as a schmeerer, from the age of 14 to 16. But he said that work was scarce; they'd only be employed in the factory for up to six months a year. The rest of the time they'd go out 'clapping': knocking on doors, trying to buy things which they'd sell on the markets. Or else, he said, they'd run a book, try to make a bob or two.

‘That’s how Gus Denning started. Biggest bookmaker in the country,’ said Sam. 'He still owes me ten bob!' Sam has lived for spells in New York and Boston. For 40 years he ran a gents' outfitters.

'There’s our Reverend, with the black hat on, said one of them, pointing to a man stepping into a saloon parked outside the terrace. There is a small synagogue at Heathlands. ‘You need no less than ten men for a service,' said Henry, pulling down his flat cap. 'Very hard to find ten men who are willing to do it. Seventy per cent are women here.' Women don’t count to a quorum.

‘You’re not forced to go,' added Abraham. 'We're not what you call fully orthodox. Very hard to be an orthodox Jew. Very hard.'

Sam stared down at the terrace, looking for a man called Simon Stone who is 100. He would have liked me to have met him. Great character, he said. ‘He likes a pint.'

There is no bar at Heathlands, just a confectioner's. The inmates get their pension taken off them, and every fortnight they are given £10.90 spending money. If you don't smoke, there's not much to spend money on here, said Henry. He sold up his house after his last family died, and wrote the cheque for £9,000, to Heathlands.

A man in an old grey suit and flat cap, Lionel, shuffled across the lawn. Lionel was a bookie's clerk for 25 years. Now, at 86, he’s almost completely blind.

'Oh, I’ve been well looked after,’ Lionel said. 'All good lads, especially at Manchester. You can't lick ’em.' He said he once took Chico Marx to the races.

A couple of the inmates had told me that at Heathlands there were some survivors from the concentration camps. I remembered getting a lift in Israel with a man who had a number tattooed on the back of his hand. The holocaust made it impossible for a non-Jew in Israel to be critical of Zionism. The same was true of Sheila: anti-Zionism, for her, is just a modern form of anti-semitism.

In a wine bar on Bury New Road I met another of Estelle's circle, Alan Ross, chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Group, one of about 150 voluntary Jewish organisations in Manchester. He sat down with Beryl Werber, secretary of the group. Loud disco played through the speakers.

A tall, shy man, Alan works as a superviser in the Unilever factory. Born and bred in nearby Crumpsall, he has been active in community work for the last ten years. He’s now 36. Beryl, who is 34, runs a shoe shop in Salford. The community relations group, said Alan, tries to build bridges between the Jews and other Manchester minorities. So far they’d held joint events with the local Ukrainians, Moslems and West Indians.

But it was an uphill struggle, Alan said. People were too suspicious, too insular. 'There's a lot of people scared of their children going to non-Jewish discos and clubs,' he said. 'Last year I met someone from the West Indian community, a community leader, and she was married to a Jewish bloke. It was ideal, to me. They’d met in Jamaica. Heart-rending in a way, wasn't it?' He turned his head towards Beryl, who nodded.

Alan once organised a dance for different minorities in Manchester. ‘People didn’t come, with it being a dance. Thought they might meet people of a different religion) he said, sighing. ‘Plus it was an awful night. Hadn't stopped raining all day.'

They both sipped their rosé. By 9.30 pm the wine bar was packed, mostly with Jews in their teens and early twenties, with money to spend midweek. ‘Did you see the film, Babylon?’ Alan asked, suddenly. 'It was fortunate that in Manchester it played in a porno cinema. So most of them there was expecting some soft porn or something. But it's a good job not many white people saw it. lt would have given them a terrible idea about blacks. The whole film was about disco equipment, and who could play music the loudest. I mean, what a terrible impression to give of the black community.'

‘It was very violent, too,’ said Beryl.

Alan said how pleased he was that the local police would be sending representatives along to the group’s festival at the Ukrainian Centre this month. Alan believes that the riots in Manchester in the summer were a disgrace, and that the fascists must have had a hand in it.

Sheila arrived at the wine bar with Estelle, who said that a friend of hers had seen National Front leaflets being distributed during the riots, which was proof positive. Brick-throwing and Nazis seem, for Estelle and her friends, to be an irresistible connection. Rabbi Silverman had told me that Jews in the suburbs were scared now, thinking that the rioters would maybe come up round their way.

Riot. It summons up Germany in the 1930s, disorder in the streets, banging on the door. It provokes a sort of sickness. Sheila said that that is one of the reasons why Jews tend not to publicise racist attacks on their people and property: they are fearful it will encourage more, imitative, violence.

She knows of one incident in north Manchester where a Jewish youth club leader was beaten up by the National Front. She said that the Jewish boys stood and watched. She wished they had fought back, like the Asians in Southall.

Later that night, towards closing time, with most people disappearing to the cars outside, Sheila got involved in an argument with an Irish friend of hers, who was born a Catholic, then was an atheist for 18 years, till recently he became converted to the Pentecostal Church. Sheila believed, first, that there was an international, terrorist, anti-semitic plot and, second, that no act of terrorism was ever justified.

The Irishman replied there was no conspiracy, and that terrorism was just a pejorative, used to describe the violence of the enemy. lt was, therefore, a complicated moral question. The disco tape clicked off. Everyone went home.

Martin Bobker, whom I spoke to next afternoon in his garden, was orphaned at 16, worked as a butcher's boy, then for a French polisher, before becoming a schmeerer. After the Second World War, he was able to re-train as a teacher. He is now, at 70, head of Cheetwood primary school.

He joined the Communist Party when he was 21, the day after Hitler came to power in 1933. ‘The definition of a Jew is the definition that is acceptable to other people. Hitler didn't give a bugger about orthodox or reform,' he said. 'l agreed with Leo Abse when he said, "What makes me a Jew is anti-semitism." Marx also said that the Jewish people had been preserved, not in spite of anti-semitism, but because of anti-semitism.’

Martin grew up in High Town, just below Cheatham Hill. He remembers the anti-Jewish gangs that used to maraud around Strangeways in the mid-1920s, and it was these people who later joined Mosley’s blackshirts. Mosley had his local headquarters in London Road, by the railway station, but his barracks were in Salford. It was a direct route through Bury New Road. Young Jews had to form their own gangs to defend the area.

'The blackshirts bullied and terrorised everyone, until these lads got together. Put a stop to it,’ he said, seated on the sloping back lawn of his semi in Whitefield.

In the 1930s, most of the young Jews in the Strangeways and Cheetham area were identified in one way or another with the Young Communist League, he said. Some of his friends went to fight in Spain. Martin was too young to go. He stayed behind and organised events for the YCL, including camps on behalf of the British Workers Sports Federation.

'I organised some good camps,' he said. 'Peace camps. Anti-fascist camps. Unity camps, which we held jointly with the Labour League of Youth.'

Martin left the Communist Party in 1953 to join the Labour Party. He is chairman of his local ward, and vice-chairman of the Middleton and Whitefield constituency. His own life, schmeerer to headmaster, is a mirror of the class movement of the Jews. He said it first really hit him, how much things had changed, when the Jewish Lads Brigade (a branch of the Boys Brigade) invited him to speak, in 1960, about a neo-Nazi movement which had risen up in West Germany.

'I was talking to them like I had done prewar - I mean, I used to stand up on chairs outside factories and address the Jewish workers. And I suddenly realised not one of them worked in a factory. They didn't know what I was talking about.'

The only Jewish workers left in Manchester, he said, are a few old men. And whereas, before the war, no Jew would vote right of Labour, now there are large numbers of Tory Jews. The other force which has shoved Jews to the right has been, he said, the growth of Zionism.

‘With the establishment of lsrael,' he said, 'the Zionist influence was complete, on the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and in the local representative councils. And with the advent of people from eastern Europe coming over to take up jobs, people who were very learned in Jewish traditional life, there was a tremendous development of ultra-orthodox elements.'

Martin feels it is possible that some of the actions of the state of Israel could lead to the development of anti-semitism. In any case, Israel could not solve the problems of Jews in the diaspora, he said. ‘Zionism has deflected people from trying to find solutions in the countries in which they are settled.'
He took me into the house, made a cup of coffee, and then pulled some old folders, pamphlets and cuttings, in plastic bags, out of a drawer. He scattered his political past all over the table, and put on his glasses.

There he was at a peace conference, a good-looking man of 25. That was the censored issue of the Daily Worker, on 5 September 1942. Those were the files he kept on the Rosenberg case. There was the magazine he edited while he was at Freckleton training college, from 1949 to 1950. And there were two letters he wrote to the papers: one about his opposition to German re-armament, in 1963, and one about the price of kosher meat.

He grabbed another cutting: the Jewish Lads Brigade tried to organise a mixed dance with Flixton youth club in july 1958, an event which was stopped by the communal council. And another: COUNCILLOR SAT SHTUM (said nothing), SAYS AJEX MAN. The Ajex (Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen) man was Martin. The event this time, the Notting Hill race riots in 1958.

Martin's eldest son is a research chemist, his youngest a doctor of mathematics. His daughter is a deputy head. 'They haven't done badly really. ln spite of all my nefarious activities,' he said, taking off his glasses.
1 October 1981

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