Among the most arresting stories about British Jews this summer was the arrival of a pioneering group of Charedi leaving the teeming streets of Stamford Hill to set up a satellite community in the Thames estuary at Canvey Island. As leaders of this exodus, Joel and Mindy Friedman, having bought a modern five-bedroom detached house for £380,000, noted: ‘You can hear the birds sing. We are more connected to our neighbours here.’
There is nothing new about the Charedi love of the seaside. As a boy growing up in Brighton, I recall our synagogue, the Hove Hebrew Congregation on Holland Road, would be transformed by their presence after the most solemn days of the summer, those leading up to Tisha b’Av.
Our shul would fill with black-hats of all shapes, sizes and ages shuckling away with great devotion. These days, the chosen summer retreat tends to be Bournemouth and the east cliff. Where once it was the Green Park and the Cumberland offering upmarket kosher food to North London, now it is the Normandie and others .
What the sheltered communities of Canvey Island, not necessarily the most hospitable to strangers, will make of the new arrivals is yet to be seen. But in the same way as Stamford Hill Jews largely are respected by their neighbours, the same must be hoped for Canvey Island.
The revival, expansion and globalisation of the Charedi community is one of the great phenomena of post-Shoah Jewry. I remember visiting my father’s first cousin in Jerusalem, a survivor of the camps, who had married a teacher at a Jerusalem yeshiva. We were received with the traditional Hungarian-Jewish hospitality. The proudest possession in the room was a modern family tree. At the top with photos was cousin Shindy and her husband, then their eight or nine children and their husbands and the chart cascaded down through three generations. The descendants of one survivor of the Holocaust, over just five decades, had become more than 100. It was one of Joseph’s dreams come true. Shindy’s experience was replicated by her sister in B’nei Barak.
I was reminded of this when I marked the yartzheit of my elder brother Martin at Western Marble Arch shul. After services and the bagel-and-smoked-salmon breakfast (what else?), the guest speaker was Rabbi Shalom Morris, a young American, serving as minister at Britain’s oldest functioning synagogue, Bevis Marks in the City. Educated at Yeshiva University in New York, and having served at the famous Lincoln Square synagogue, Morris is an ashkenazi serving a Spanish and Portuguese congregation.
An historian, Morris immersed himself in the history of Sephardi Jewry, in particular the Spanish Inquisition and the dispersal of the community across Europe and to Palestine. There is little precision about the numbers who escaped or those who chose to remain under deep cover, the Conversos. Those who left numbered at least in the tens of thousands and tended to be more worldly than the shtetl and ghetto Jews of Middle Europe.
They gravitated to the great centres of commerce across Europe including Amsterdam and eventually London. Following in the traditions of Sephardi scholars Ramban and Rashi, families of learning headed to the Middle East. In many ways, the Inquisition, the Halachic problems it posed (such as that of Agunah) and the dispersal of Spanish and Portuguese Jews would have a parallel in the mid-20th century with the Shoah.
Since the war, Jewish life has become concentrated, with 90 per cent of Jews living in the US and Israel. The longer-term consequences of this and the fading of Jewish life in nations such as France, where anti-Semitic attacks have driven populations to Israel and the UK, is still unknown. Morris thinks it may be two centuries after the Shoah before the full impact is known.
One conclusion he draws, however, is that the ultra-orthodox Charedi community, whether in Stamford Hill, Antwerp, Jerusalem or Brooklyn Heights has delivered its own response to the Shoah. Instead of assimilation and secularism, they have dedicated themselves to pro-creation and preservation of ancient Jewish teachings.
Over the long stretch of history, this determination not just to survive but to become like the stars in the sky and sand by the sea could be the lasting legacy of the Jewish people from the Shoah. It is an intriguing thought.