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The Toast of Birmingham

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The sort of mid-Autumn day which makes poets warble saw us wend our way to Birmingham for the saddest, most tender of family reunions.

The diminished ranks of the Wood and Hawkins families were gathering to pay tribute to two family matriarchs who had been loved nearly as much by assembled cousins and friends as by their own children. Both Audrey and Cynthia, though some years my parents’ senior, had survived them by more than a decade and as the veils were removed from their respective double headstones it was like watching two marvellously burnished pieces of toast pop from the manicured earth.

The stones bore so many names, so many lives of which I’m barely aware…yet Birmingham’s Jewish community is tiny compared to those of Manchester and London and the one Jewish cemetery is an elaborately gated property spanning two sides of a road.

The ‘new’ section, which I’ve visited twice in recent years, displays carefully mown lawns and well-preserved graves which survived a hate-attack in 2004 when 60 headstones were either destroyed or defaced with swastikas.

I wondered briefly if this senseless rampage had been perpetrated by the sort of louts we saw performing Community Service at nearby Brookvale Park earlier in the afternoon. What I noticed also made me muse on the use of such sentences: One of the lads was sitting unnoticed and smoking under the arch of the bridge he was supposed to be painting!

It might do such kids – and community relations – more good if they were sentenced to help maintain the cemetery, which also boasts a graceful Grade 11 listed ohel (prayer chapel) of Moorish design.

The chapel’s wooden memorial boards and their gilt and black lettering belie the wicked canards often retold about the Jewish contribution to past British war efforts.

Fifty-two local Jewish soldiers served and returned after The Great War while 28 came home after serving in World War II. One of those serving was a grenadier, and another man died later in ‘The Malayan Emergency’ – a guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army from 1948 to 1960.

The chapel windows, unusually for a place of Jewish worship, include images of Biblical characters. This idiosyncrasy is typical of undemanding ‘Jewish Birmingham’ where I recall that the ‘cathedral’ synagogue – Birmingham Hebrew Congregation, Singer’s Hill – has stained glass windows with similar figures.

Moreover on the afternoon I’m describing, Rabbi Yossi Jacobs, the current minister at ‘Singer’s Hill’, allowed my cousin to make a hesped (tribute) to her mother, Cynthia. I know from personal experience that any woman’s input would be forbidden in Manchester and London so I am glad that he did not stop her speaking despite his own strictly Orthodox background.

I wonder again if this agreeable young fellow is aware that my cousins and I were kids in the heyday of his predecessors, Rev (later Rabbi) Dr Chaim Pearl and Rev Reuben Brookes who wrote the much-loved and used A Guide To Jewish Knowledge?

Does he know that we attended children’s services in the Bet Hamedrash (study-cum-prayer room) adjacent to the main sanctuary, just like those he organises, and that we, too, were awarded ‘attendance prizes’ to encourage us to go there regularly?

I thought of this, first after the dedication of a bench in memory of a teenage cousin who had died in a road accident in Israel, but more when I recognised longstanding family friends whom I’d known ‘forever’ and had probably not seen since my own childhood. When I (re)-introduced myself, first they were startled into silence.

Then ‘Aunty F’, as I once knew her, cupped my face like a child’s in her hands and remarked that her kitchen wall still bore an embroidered picture made by my Grandma Dora. Only later did I remember that I still had a child’s ‘pop-up’ haggada (Passover seder service prayer book) which she had given me, aged seven. All this, more than 13 years since my mother’s death and heaven knows how many more since they had ever seen one another or spoken.

Our unbearably poignant day ended on a lighter note with the Wood Family enjoying a traditional English afternoon tea at a smart city-centre hotel in the manner much enjoyed by my ineffably elegant Aunt Cynthia, and thus we toasted her sweet memory.

I am penning this on Remembrance Day afternoon but it could have been written after visiting any number of cemeteries or memorial gardens, or even Beth Shalom, the Holocaust Centre in Newark, Nottinghamshire. Whenever I go to such places, I am at once covered in an almost palpable peace that resounds like plangent bells.

No wonder that London Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg remarked in an achingly sad Jewish Chronicle essay just before this year’s Jewish Day of Atonement:

…love touched me (in that cemetery) in the simultaneous awareness of the beauty, and fragility, of life. The thought of the tenderness and daily affection, of the arguments and making up, and of the grief of parting, says to us, ‘While you can, over the fleeting, limited time that you have life, live it with love!’

I must conclude this post with reference to the passing of one of the great men of Anglo-Jewry in my own lifetime. I met His Honour Judge Israel Finestein twice as a reporter. He was almost ridiculously kind and generous with his time and help, even loaning me his speech notes to aid my report of a complex history lecture.

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About Natalie Wood

Born in Birmingham, England, U.K., I began working in journalism a month before the 1973 Yom Kippur War began. I emigrated from Manchester to Israel in March 2010 and live in Karmiel, Galilee where I concentrate on creative writing, running several blogs and composing micro-fiction. I feature in Smith Magazine’s Six Word Memoirs On Jewish Life and contribute to Technorati, Blogcritics and Live Encounters magazine.