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Mach tsoo de tir, is a druff'

by Harold Pollins

Originally published in Oxford Menorah issue no. 146 Winter 1997

It was my mother's story, when she was describing the women's gallery at the West Ham District Synagogue in London. This year is its centenary, although the main building, with of course the gallery, was badly damaged by an accidental fire in 1984 and then demolished.

Readers of the Jewish Chronicle this year may recall brief references to the West Ham Centenary as well as to the anguished consequences of the fire. After it, items of ritual silver were sent to the United Synagogue for safe-keeping.  When the organisers of the centenary exhibition asked for their return, they were told that the US no longer had them; they had assumed the items were no longer needed by West Ham and had distributed them to other synagogues.  The West Ham people managed to retrieve some.

The centenary celebrations - a service, an exhibition, and a published centenary history1 - occurred in September.  I was unable to attend but I was very glad to get a copy of the history, written by Howard Bloch, who had been local studies librarian for the London Borough of Newham and had previously written on the area.  It is not only a well-researched and well-written piece of work, a worthy local history, it naturally brought back all sorts of memories for me.

My brother and sisters and I had attended the Hebrew Classes there.  I had sung in the choir and my brother and I were barmitzvah in the synagogue and three of us, one of my sisters, my brother and I, had been married in it.  My father was a long-serving member of the Board of Management and of the Hebrew Classes committee.  In the 1950s the minister, Rev. Gerald Schneider, and I jointly edited the two issues that were produced of the synagogue magazine.  No more were published.  They cost too much - I think the first one was over 100 (perhaps 1,000 in today's money) and one Board member was very caustic about our including a piece I had written on Anglo-Jewish fiction.  The magazine, he said, was supposed to consist of reports of communal activities.

All sorts of memories accompanied my reading the history (as well as the centenary brochure full of good wishes and other messages).  So many names of people I hadn't thought about for a long time although some I knew better than others.  One was a man I had been to Classes with, and we had both gone up to the London School of Economics.  It was during the war and we were, as students, exempt from the call-up for a year.  I went into the Army and he was directed to the coal-mines as a Bevin Boy.  He went into the Nottinghamshire coalfield where he worked underground.  He was proud of the fact that not only was he elected a branch official of the union but was the only miners' union chairman who was a member of the Liberal party.  Admittedly, Nottinghamshire was notoriously an area of moderate trade unionism.

Then I remembered the kind of Hebrew we were taught.  It was a sort of Cockney-Hebrew.  Perhaps it is best illustrated by 'Ain Kaylohahynu', sung towards the end of Musaph.  We pronounced it something like 'Ine Kylow'hynoo'.  Oddly having sung it that way at say 11.15 on Saturday morning in the synagogue, we children would then troop into the classes for half an hour or so to try to learn some Modern Hebrew.

My mother's story was also about speech.  The women, as I said, occupied a gallery in the synagogue.  When it was crowded on Festivals and High Holy Days it was very noisy and downstairs, in the men's section, the Shamas, and others, would shout "Sha" frequently, sometimes temporarily effectively.  They were addressing everyone but often seemed to direct their glances towards the women.  There was the equivalent of a Shamas in the gallery, a man who was stationed there to help the women to find their place in the prayer-book and, indeed, when he prayed and sang loudly, virtually led as a supernumerary Chazan.  Thus he could be heard singing out all manner of things - page numbers, "Sha", and individual Hebrew words and phrases to indicate the point the service had reached.  When he sang out the words, the women would usually repeat them.  Or say "Sha" after him.

It only happened once but for my mother it was memorable.  In the midst of his singing and his various attempts to be of assistance and to maintain order, he sang "Mach tsoo de tir, is a druff".

The women dutifully followed.  "Mach tsoo de tir, is a druff", they sang.  There followed an embarrassed silence.  They quickly realised that they had all implored God: "Shut the door, there is a draught".

1 Howard Bloch, Earlham Grove Shul: One Hundred Years of West Ham Synagogue and Community, 1997, West Ham and Upton Park Synagogue, 93-5 Earlham Grove, London E7 9AN. 

Reformatted for JCR-UK by David Shulman

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