Michael Desmond
Michael Desmond

Go east, young Jewish men and women!

Michael in his robes!
Michael in his robes!

I’ve just been elected Speaker (civic Mayor) of Hackney for 2021/22, my second term of office, a great honour for me and my family. Distinguished predecessors include Herbert Morrison – Peter Mandelson’s grandfather, Sir Lou Sherman, Stanley Clinton-Davis (now Lord Clinton-Davis) and my old friend from the Board of Deputies, Arthur Super, in 1975/76.

What a great name to have at election time, however you performed, you’d always be a Super candidate! It reminds me of John Champion, Labour candidate in Hendon North in both 1974 elections, when the late Rev. Saul Amias, chairing the hustings, was accused of bias in favour of the Conservative candidate, he started chanting his name: ‘Champion, Champion!’

Hackney has the second largest Jewish community in the UK, according to the 2011 census – it will be interesting to see the figures that emanate from the recent one. It has a diverse general – and Jewish – community and hosts the largest Hasidic community in Europe – but there are Jews of all affiliations and none. As the area has gentrified, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren  of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Russia, Romania, Ukraine and many other countries have returned – not exactly to their roots, or they’d be in Poland, Russia, Romania, etc – but to their spiritual home in the East End.

Many of these young Jews are cosmopolitan, work in the arts, most are university educated, almost all have the gift of the gab, sadly, some support Arsenal, thankfully, the majority maintain tribal loyalty to my team, Tottenham Hotspur, surprisingly, you’ll find a few who follow the Hammers or Leyton Orient. Chelsea is a no no. This is East London, we’re not so pretentious as to have a stadium in SW6 and pretend it’s SW3!

Because of its original draw as a magnet to Jewish immigrants trying to better themselves in the then ‘suburbs’, Hackney has a strong Jewish infrastructure in place with a wide variety of kosher shops, synagogues and shtiebels, retirement flats and care centres. It’s not quite the same as the days of ‘der heim ’ that Chaim Bermant wrote so eloquently about, but you’ll hear more than a smattering of Yiddish amongst the Charedi in Stamford  Hill – at least more than the ‘bissel’ I know.

Hackney is very central, on the edge of the city of London, less than half an hour by car from Golders Green; who do these children of East Enders think they are, they move to Bushey, Radlett – even Gerrards Cross, but still call themselves Londoners? To be fair, to an extent, we are all defined by our origins, not where we end up.

I lived in North West London before moving to Clapton in 1986, both my parents came from here, my father from Hoxton, my mother just off Mare Street. I’ve even been able to trace an ancestor back to Dalston from 1857!

True, Hackney’s more edgy, occasionally shabby chic, than, say, Hampstead Garden Suburb; but we don’t tell our residents the exact size, length, depth and composition their hedge should be!

During my civic year I’ll be raising funds for St Josephs Hospice – which supports those in need, whatever their religious persuasion, and even has its own sukkah – and the Hackney Empire, our cultural icon, sadly darkened during the pandemic.

Michael in his robes!

A few years ago I greeted Boris Johnson’s ex-girlfriend, Petronella Wyatt, with her current Jewish boyfriend and daughter on their way to the annual pantomime at the Empire, they popped into Hackney United Synagogue when it was temporarily based in Triangle Road, London Fields, keen to look around it.

Lots of people have a historic interest and affinity with the area. Many who’ve gone on aliyah come from Clapton, Stoke Newington and Hackney. You still hear stories of the golden olden days on some of the remaining kibbutzim.

It’s a thriving area with a range of traditional Victorian houses, conversion flats and modern buildings. Instead of trekking out to Hertfordshire, finding yourself sorry in Surrey because of the relatively small community or fighting your way around the M25, when you could be a couple of stops from Liverpool Street, Go East, join the creative, sassy, often left of centre Jewish community here. You may not write like Harold Pinter, but you’ll certainly find a pint of real ale at one of the many bars and hostelries which might help you to – and do, occasionally, come to shul, if you can. Spiritual awareness should not be confined to cocktails at the bars.

Hackney is buzzing. Feel free to join us and participate (subject to Covid rules) in events during my civic year.

About the Author
Michael went to school in Colindale and Edgware, before moving to Clapton, Hackney, he is the second longest serving councillor on Hackney Council, was civic Mayor in 2013/14 and stood in the 2015 and 2017 General Elections for Labour in Faversham and Mid Kent.
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