An Orthodox existence on the hillBy Andrew Gimson Last updated at 00:00am on 05.03.01 Appeared in the Eveining Standard: http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/news/article-938778-an-orthodox-existence-on-the-hill.do
Ita Symons arrived in England with 300 other Jewish children from Poland in 1946. She and her parents, who were able to follow her to London two years later, had survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Russia, but about 50 members of her family perished in it.
She went to live with relatives in Stamford Hill, which over the last century has developed into the greatest stronghold of Orthodox Jewry in Britain, the men immediately recognisable from their beards, black hats and long, black coats.
As Paul Lindsay has written in his book The Synagogues of London, "These Chasidic groups seem to create self-imposed ghettos and seek to maintain the kind of life which existed in the shtetl of Eastern Europe. They speak Yiddish as well as English, and religious duties and practice are at the centre of their lives." Shtetl is a Yiddish term for a small town or village.
Mrs Symons is a restlessly energetic woman who has seven children, "well over 20" grandchildren and is chief executive of the Agudas Israel Housing Association, which provides 400 dwellings for Orthodox Jews, mostly in Stamford Hill but also in Manchester. Unlike many Orthodox Jews, she is not in the slightest bit shy of talking to the Press.
When she received me in her office, she was helping a scribe to find a home for himself and his very large family: many members of the community have 10 or 12 children and she estimates that, including children, it now numbers 16,000 in Stamford Hill, with all its members living within walking distance of their small, informal synagogues, where they pray three times a day.
"The average number of children in this community is about eight," Mrs Symons said. "The youngsters just have lots of children irrespective of their financial constraints. We look on children as blessings. God will provide. What is special about this community is its commitment to the religious way of life, not letting go of a way of life that has existed for over 3,000 years. Though we have a few rich members of the community, who are all in property, most of the children come from very poor families, but they are educated in a very rich culture.
"We educate them that this is the way of life. It's not negotiable. It gives the children a sense of security. The Ten Commandments are the framework. From the Ten Commandments spring 613 do's and don'ts. It's the acceptance, not just the observance, of these 613 commandments that describes an Orthodox Jew. What it means in practical terms is the acceptance of kosher food and the observance of the Sabbath."
The children are educated at private schools, of which at least 25 are scattered across Stamford Hill. These are named after towns and rabbinical dynasties in Poland, Russia, Romania and Hungary. Boys and girls are educated separately. At the Belz school, 15 rabbis, or teachers, give instruction to 250 boys. I saw a lively class of 11-year-olds, wearing skull caps and sidelocks, learning the scriptures in Hebrew and Aramaic from their rabbi, with Yiddish as the medium of instruction. At the end of the day the boys do an hour of English and maths.
Like most of the Jewish schools in Stamford Hill, the actual building, which also houses the Belz community's synagogue, is dilapidated far beyond what would be acceptable in even the most rundown state school. The presence just inside the front door of a peddler selling the sort of small items that might be found in an ironmonger's increased the feeling of stepping back into the 19th century.
Menasche Scharf, a member of the Belz congregation, said: "We do not allow the children to have the influence of the television and the media." He added with a smile: "And we do not even allow them to read the Evening Standard.
"Two-hundred years ago, we started in Belz, in Poland, and, under four generations of rabbis, people came from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The hats we wear were fashionable 100 years ago. The Jews had to keep up with the fashion. We stay with what we came with from Poland. That's why you see different hats. The flat hat is from Hungary, the tall hat is from Poland, you have the one that is plain material from Russian Poland and the west European Jews go with one that is bent down at the front. But it doesn't have any religious significance. I wear a skull cap underneath so that when I take off the hat my head is still covered as a mark of respect towards God."
It would be unimaginable to omit the Stamford Hill Jews from a survey of ethnic London, but one should note that many other Jews would be upset if this particular community were to be taken as typical of British Jewry in general, much of which is highly assimilated.