The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Lawrence Co­hen

FOR SOME it’s Re­hov Ben Ye­huda, for oth­ers the Nevsky Prospekt or the Un­ter den Lin­den. But for me, born 1947, the is­sue of a late-re­turn­ing sol­dier and a nev­er­say-die spin­ster, de­liv­ered in the Royal North­ern Hos­pi­tal, suc­coured in rented rooms above an iron­mon­ger’s shop in Green Lanes, wheeled in my pram through Fins­bury Park to bear wit­ness to the first cro­cuses of spring, ini­ti­ated some few years later into the cult of foot­ball at High­bury, the stretch of the Seven Sisters Road between Hol­loway Road and Manor House is the high­way that links all the mean­ing­ful lo­ca­tions in my early life.

Grow­ing up as an only child in early 1950s Har­ringay, on the same lat­i­tude as Stam­ford Hill, but to all in­tents and pur­poses, a galaxy away, I in­habit a world of horse-drawn milk carts, bomb sites and pea-souper fogs, where stout aunts pull on my cheeks as a sign of af­fec­tion leav­ing my eyes wa­ter­ing with pain. I am able to work out for my­self that Ka­nine a Hor­ror are words of en­dear­ment rather than a curse on a ra­bid dog, but of­ten adults say things which leave me con­fused and speech­less.

“Lawrence, tell us about your feasts and fasts.” Forty-one pairs of English and Cypriot eyes turn on the only Jewish child in the class at South Har­ringay Ju­nior School. At the age of seven I am having dif­fi­culty work­ing out what I am sup­posed to say. Miss Diprose, sen­si­tive to my be­wil­der­ment, at­tempts to tease an an­swer out of me: “I mean, do you have a fast and then a feast,” she smiles en­cour­ag­ingly, “or is it the other way round?”

I know for a fact that the grown-ups in my fam­ily fast on one day a year (not my dad: reli­gion has some­how passed him by), but, as far as I am con­cerned, feasts ex­ist only in the pages of Billy Bunter sto­ries where Billy and his public school chums hold mid­night feasts in the dor­mi­to­ries of Greyfri­ars School. I am mute with in­com­pre­hen­sion. Miss Diprose moves tact­fully on. But I have the feel­ing that I have let her down.

As the bus fer­ries me along Seven Sisters Road to the cheder in Fins­bury Park where I go twice a week af­ter school and on Sun­day morn­ing, I de­cide that some­one owes me an ex­pla­na­tion; where does Miss Diprose get the idea that Jews have feasts?

But I have for­got­ten to bring a cap­pel, a head cov­er­ing. Be­fore I can ask about feasts I am waved in the di­rec­tion of the head teacher’s of­fice where a group of se­nior stu­dents are be­ing taught. I knock and en­ter and con­fess.

The head teacher looks round at his group, smiles and turns to me. “No cap­pel? What shall we put on his head — a boot?” The se­niors all now turn to smile at me. What an ig­no­ra­mus, their looks seem to say, don’t you know to bring a cap­pel to cheder? Don’t you know that the Christians call our Pe­sach, Shavuot and Suc­cot, feasts, that Pe­sach fol­lows the Fast of the First-Born, and the Fast of Es­ther pre­cedes Purim, but oth­er­wise there is no cor­re­la­tion?

I shuf­fle about on the spot for a minute, un­sure of what to do next, as they have gone on with their les­son. No one is pay­ing me any at­ten­tion any­way, so un­no­ticed, I slip out of the room. I can’t re­turn to my class bare-headed, so I walk back up Blackstock Road to the Seven Sisters Road and get the bus home.

Night is fall­ing. On an oth­er­wise de­serted up­per deck of a Num­ber 29 a man asks me if I like foot­ball. Ner­vous about re­main­ing tight-lipped with any more adults that day, I say yes, which is the truth­ful an­swer, and he in­vites me to his house where, he tells me, he has a foot­ball, which I can have if I am in­ter­ested.

Some­how we es­tab­lish that the ball in ques­tion is a rugby ball and, see­ing a way to de­cline his of­fer with­out of­fend­ing him, I ex­plain that soc­cer is my in­ter­est. He doesn’t seem that both­ered, but I stare pur­pose­fully out of the win­dow for the rest of the jour­ney, just in case.

My Aun­tie Celie — not my real aunt: we share rooms with her and her fam­ily — on the other hand, is in­can­des­cent: “Why did you come back early?” I don’t have the words to ex­plain.

“Just wait till your mother gets back from work,” she mut­ters darkly.

I wait ap­pre­hen­sively but there is no telling-off from my mum, and, as no­body men­tions it at cheder the next time I go, I feel that I have got off lightly.

AT THE other end of the Seven Sisters Road, a short walk from the Nag’s Head where the 653 trol­ley bus de­posits us, is my aunt’s Ladies’ Foun­da­tion shop at 518 Hol­loway Road, our des­ti­na­tion on Satur­day af­ter­noons, when my mum, Rachel, vis­its her older sis­ter, Yetta Good­hart. few doors away stands the Royal North­ern Hos­pi­tal where I en­tered the world. My aunt is on good terms with the nurses who pa­tro­n­ise her busi­ness for their reg­u­la­tion un­der­wear and she has adopted some of the speech pat­terns of the 32 Ir­ish coun­ties and four prov­inces as her own, par­tic­u­larly the in­sis­tence on never men­tion­ing a de­ceased with­out ap­pend­ing God Rest His Soul to the name.

Sat in the shop par­lour draft­ing de­signs for war­ships on an end­less sup­ply of flat­tened ny­lon stock­ing boxes (each pair comes in its own slim, stiff, card­board con­tainer), I lis­ten with one ear as Yetta and my mum gos­sip on the other side of the cur­tain that sep­a­rates shop from home: “Manny, God Dressed His Soul, would have been dis­gusted!”

Lay­ing aside my blue­print for a bat­tle­ship that prom­ises to be the pride of the Royal Navy in the next war, I try to work out what having your Soul Dressed con­sists of. Maybe it’s all tied up with the win­dow­dresser? Ev­ery so of­ten he ma­te­ri­alises at my aun­tie’s and, strip­ping the dis­plays bare, be­gins the elab­o­rate process (in his socks) of cre­at­ing a fresh and even more en­tic­ing mon­tage of brassieres, gir­dles, corsets, slips and ny­lon stock­ings, re­plete with price tags and prod­uct la­bels.

The act of cor­rect­ing a mi­nor fault af­ter the main work has been ac­com­plished is a trial of nerve and bal­ance, wor­thy of cross­ing Ni­a­gara Falls on a tightrope.

Could it be that souls are kit­ted out in some ce­les­tial Sav­ile Row by the Divine Win­dow-Dresser in prepa­ra­tion for their pas­sage into the shop of heaven? I’m not en­tirely con­vinced.

In Aun­tie’s Ir­ish/Yid­dish lex­i­con for re­fer­ring def­er­en­tially to the dead, Manny, God Dressed His Soul has to com­pete with Manny, Over Show Lem ( Alav HaShalom: Peace Be Upon Him).

THIS IS less im­pen­e­tra­ble. For Manny, the Show is in­deed Over. But who or what is Lem, apart from a char­ac­ter in the chil­dren’s ra­dio se­rial, Jour­ney into Space? “Lem­mie, come in Lem­mie, Lem­mie are you there?” The hairs bris­tle on my neck as an in­creas­ingly des­per­ate Dan Dare whis­pers into the walkie-talkie through the in­fi­nite stel­lar si­lence, and I shiver in an­tic­i­pa­tion of next week’s episode. Any­way, Aun­tie Yetta is a great one for pep­per­ing her speech with ref­er­ences to the Divine as she su­per­vises her ladies’ hosiery uni­verse: “Thank God, Please God, God For­bid!” (ei­ther lit­er­ally: “God for­bid it will rain this af­ter­noon”, or sar­cas­ti­cally: “God for­bid he should re­mem­ber to phone his mother oc­ca­sion­ally”) and the one that I par­tic­u­larly ad­mire: “If the Almighty spares me...”

Aun­tie always ut­ters this in a tone that sug­gests that, al­though she is pre­pared to sub­mit to the Divine Will, if the worst comes to the worst, the An­gel of Death will know that he has been in a fight. If the Almighty spares me I’ll be at my grand­daugh­ter’s chup­pah. No con­test. What De­ity worth His salt would fail to give the nod to Yetta Good­hart, if only on points? Not only is she at the chup­pah but the An­gel pru­dently stays his hand long enough for her to re­joice in the birth of her great-grand­chil­dren, Ka­nine a Hor­ror.

Now, that world has been swept away. The Seven Sisters Road still runs ma­jes­ti­cally through North Lon­don but Good­hart’s Ladies’ Foun­da­tion Store is no more and the Almighty has dressed the souls of my aunt and my mother and the Ir­ish nurses, Zichronem Livracha — may their mem­o­ries be for a bless­ing.

Like­wise, the souls of Miss Diprose, who was doubt­less mor­ti­fied that she had em­bar­rassed me, and the head teacher of the Fins­bury Park cheder, who was in truth a kindly man. He has dressed the soul of the man on the bus who drew back from en­tic­ing a small child to his home. Ale­ichem HaShalom — peace be upon them all.

And one day, though I pray He will tarry, He will dress mine.


On track: trams and trol­ley-buses on Lon­don’s Seven Sisters Road in 1952

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