It's An Ill Wind Introduction Early Days Education Circa 1941–59 Graduate School, 1959–6 Toronto, 1963–95 Travel Some Conclusions An Addendum Notes References

Ricardo Afterword: A Memoir Continued

Early Days

My first conscious religious experience occurred sometime before age five when I was warned: ‘Get off that horse, or your father will kill you.’ It was a milk-delivery van in Letchworth, Hertfordshire, in the English Home Counties where my family had been evacuated during the London Blitz. And it was the Sabbath, on which day horse riding – and very much else – is forbidden by Jewish religious law.ii Thus at a tender age I was inducted into a complex world of social control. The dietary laws are particularly potent as will become clear.iii Those who accept the ‘yoke’ full-heartedly enjoy a profoundly meaningful and comforting existence. But many ‘orthodox’ treat the regulations somewhat selectively. My own childhood was a training in ambivalence, as I shall explain.

My father had left Austrian Galicia with his parents and siblings just before 1914 – the males to Holland and the females to Vienna. In 1918 the family joined up in Scheveningen and unsuccessfully tried the diamond business. My father emigrated in 1925 to Britain where he set up a successful clothing factory. He himself had no formal education, but was astute in business and also possessed great intellectual ability, as indicated by his Talmudic competence, attained informally and with extraordinary application at least from his arrival in Letchworth in 1940 until the end of his life in 1991. He was the sole support of his parents and several of his brothers and sisters who in the mid-1930s had emigrated to Palestine. (The one sister who remained behind was murdered in the Nazi clearing of the Jewish hospital in Apeldoorn.) He attached himself closely to religious teachers, relying on their advice in many personal matters; and after our return to London in 1951 he took an active role in the synagogue of a Chassidic Rabbi in his father’s tradition, a scholar of considerable distinction with whom I also studied and whose school my son attended many years later. It is not surprising, given his own background and experience, that my father was far from appreciative of the cultural, even the utilitarian, function of secular studies. Certainly the ‘university’ was suspect in the orthodox community at that time.

My mother in major respects stood at the other pole. She was born in London within sound of Bow bells of immigrants from Galicia, the youngest of eleven children, all except for her born in Cracow. She was educated, of all places, in a German Lutheran school located in east London. She became an accomplished pianist who in the mid-twenties was offered a position by the BBC though forbidden by her father to accept it: ‘Jewish daughters do not play piano for the BBC.’ Yet, strange to relate, her father permitted her to eat milk dishes after meat ‘as soon as she felt hungry’, rather than wait the statutory six (or three or one) hours; here is a pattern I cannot quite appreciate. She was a voracious reader in German and English secular literature with an extraordinary memory. It was in her late eighties that she recommended to me ‘The Well of Loneliness’ by Radclyffe Hall (1928), a Lesbian first, once proscribed in Britain. And she had the sharpest wit and sense of humour. I have been told that at the time of her marriage in 1931 she was more ‘orthodox’ in practice than my father; if this is so then the roles were soon to be reversed. For it was he not she who objected to Sabbath horse riding. Indeed, she was ready to bend the rules. An illustration: the British Rabbinate had issued a ruling that turbot – then thought to be a questionable fish for reasons I need not enter into here – was permitted in wartime. My mother made a simple extension. She would take my sister and myself into the local café for very doubtful cakes on the grounds that ‘there was a war on’, cautioning us to say nothing. I did not at the time appreciate how my father failed to realize that a state of hostilities existed with Germany – everyone was talking about it – but was clever enough to obey instructions.

The adult household was completed by an aunt, my mother’s sister, blind from her teenage years. Her kindly presence counteracted a certain pervasive tension. Yet I cannot afford to be too critical, for the ambivalence and clash of temperaments that I experienced in my parents’ home was later repeated in my own.

I return to the opening episode. It would be painting a misleading picture to leave an impression that the Sabbath was a grey day. It was, for one thing, a day of rest from studying – apart from the dreaded test of the week’s scholarly accomplishments; and there were no injunctions against children’s games. (There was at Letchworth a splendid quarry-like indentation known as the Roman Camp that served as our Sabbath sporting arena.) And paradoxical as it may appear, synagogue decorum is more relaxed the more orthodox the establishment, possibly reflecting a familiarity with and affection for the Deity. The restrictions thus went hand in hand with a surprising degree of freedom, perhaps too much. I also wish to avoid giving an impression that our community was in any way ‘homogeneous’. To the contrary, it was made up largely of refugees from all quarters of Europe each with his own particular traditions, generating clashes of practice and character. Nonetheless, there was sufficient common ground to allow for the maintenance of a vibrant communal life turning about the tiny synagogue.ivThere were other quorums. One was organized by the Sassoon family of Bombay. But this was to us another world.

One obvious consequence of the orthodox practices is to create obstacles to ‘fraternization’ with the locals. I do not, for example, recall ever visiting the homes of my non-Jewish schoolfriends, primary or secondary. This barrier has existed to some extent until the present day. In any event, there was scarcely time for socializing. As I explain elsewhere in this document it is common practice in the orthodox community to put a high premium on competence in Talmudic reasoning. My own training began at age seven in two-hour evening sessions held in Yiddish, though I distinctly recall realizing at the time that it was a premature exercise since I still had difficulty with the prayer book and was not yet comfortable with Yiddish.

I have at hand a family tree relating to my mother’s maternal ancestry which conveys an indication of a very extensive Rabbinical ‘gene pool’, and shows some late medieval links with Karl Marx, which (when I have alluded to them in the abstract) seem, I cannot imagine why, to upset some of my Sraffian friends. Specifically, Marx and I share common ancestors in Rabbi Jehiel Luria II (d. 1470), head of the ecclesiastical court in Brest-Litovsk, Poland; and in R. Israel Isserlein of Cracow (d. 1558) and his wife Dinah Malka (1485–1553). (Students think of Marx as a disembodied spirit, and my chart – which I would happily send to anyone interested in genealogy – should disabuse them.) I might add that my maternal grandmother’s line flows from the great legal codifier R. Moses Isserles of Cracow (circa 1520–72) – a son of R. Isserlein – and his first wife; and the nineteenth-century composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy can be traced back to R. Isserles and his second wife. I mention this connection since Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn of Dessau (1729–86), figures large in my pantheon of heroes. Notwithstanding a hostile orthodox reaction on doctrinal grounds, Moses insisted always on the importance of the ceremonial law in practice, that is, on conformity in action. He personifies the encounter between Rabbinic Judaism and the so-called ‘Enlightenment’.v Since I am still trapped in that time warp, Moses’ dilemmas constitute the real thing for me.