One day in the 1970s, soon after we had moved house in London my mother was walking home when she noticed a man skillfully applying his secateurs to prune roses in a nearby front garden. She duly explained that we were new to the neighbourhood and in urgent need of a gardener. Would he be able spare her a few hours?
Doffing his black beret, he said, ‘Allow me to introduce myself. Phillip Rossdale, QC.’ “Actually, I’m a barrister at law by profession, but if you’d like to knock on the front door, my wife Doreen will be more than happy to recommend a man who sometimes helps us out.’
A keen gardener, Mr. Rossdale grew grapes and made his own wine, and we sometimes received loganberries and other fruit in summer months. That first year that we moved in, the Rossdales invited us for a Shabbat meal in their sukkah. He recited Kiddush with such a strong Oxford accent that, aged eleven I didn’t realise that he was being serious, and I couldn’t hold back the giggles.
Philip and Doreen were English to the core. They had met at Cambridge in the 1940s, where he read Law and she studied English Literature. While courting, they wrote each other love letters in Latin.
After they married, they became more religiously observant and eventually left the Anglo United Synagogue for more pious pastures. They joined Munks’ Shul – Golders Greens’ local Yekkishe establishment.
With his keen legal mind Mr. Rossdale was often consulted by the London Beth Din on issues where Jewish and English Law overlapped. Yet however punctilious with their religious observance, the Rossdales did not abandon their English traditions. They continued to enjoy opera and much sought-after tickets for Glyndebourne. They delighted in the English language; Doreen once excitedly showed me a long poem published in Punch magazine that had been composed solely of lines from other poems. (A decade later she expressed disapproval of the Estuary English of Harry Potter.)
All the above went hand in hand with a love of hunting, shooting and fishing. Thus, it was not unusual to spot Mr. Rossdale in his riding jodhpurs on a Sunday morning. His car was certainly the only Volvo in the street – possibly in all Golders Green – that proudly sported a sticker in favour of fox hunting.
One summer’s day in the 1980s I was walking along Hampstead High Street when a familiar turquoise Volvo went by. Mr. Rossdale slowed down and offered me a lift home. It was a week before Tisha B’Av and we got into a conversation about fasting. He explained that if someone wasn’t well enough to fast, they should still refrain from eating bread. Ever mindful of the giggling Kiddush episode, I was careful with attempts at humour but ventured that maybe Marie Antoinette had been on to something after all!
He laughed and then said excitedly “You know, last week I was in quite a quandary.”
“I was at Ascot,’ he explained, “it started to rain, Queen Elizabeth walked in front of me, and then the sun came out.”
“And I simply didn’t know which blessing to say first…” he continued.
“The blessing for the Queen or the blessing for the rainbow?!”
He explained that to clear the matter up, he later took his dilemma to the Rabbi. ‘Mr. Rossdale,’ responded the Rabbi, ‘for such a problem, you need a special blessing! “
Wherever we are on Shabbat Noach we tell Mr. Rossdale’s story. Four years ago, it was faithfully translated word for word into Russian at a Friday night meal in Moscow. (Although the Chabad emissary translating it did stop me in the middle just to make sure that the Rabbi in the story wasn’t actually present at ‘the races’!) Two years ago, I happened to be in Brussels for Shabbat Noach and related the tale there at Shabbat lunch.
Actually, there’s a little-known commentary from the Ramban on the biblical text suggesting that in ancient times when a battle was over, warriors would reverse their bow as a sign of peace. Philip’s quandary at Ascot certainly seems to strike a chord with people in many different contexts who never met him. Of how he wished to bless the rainbow, G-d’s very special installation heralding a peaceful promise never again to flood the planet. Yet he also wanted to celebrate Her Majesty.
On a visit to London a while ago I noticed that the house where the Rossdales lived is no longer there. After they passed away it was bought by a developer who knocked it down and replaced it with an immaculate newbuild. Where the front garden once stood there now lies an expansive driveway.
It made me sad to think that nothing remains of Philip and Doreen’s home. There again, come the summer, when it begins to rain – if, and when, the sun comes out – perhaps there will be a rainbow.
And surely, that is a blessing.