In 1931, Rabbi Abraham Freedman, a young man from Leeds, England, arrived in the
Welsh mining town of Tredegar. A graduate of Manchester Yeshiva, a cantor and a
shochet, the Hebrew term for a ritual slaughterer, my quiet and unassuming
maternal grandfather Abie, as he was known, had been hired by the town’s small
Jewish community to provide religious services.
It probably wasn’t the
easiest place for Abie to begin his career. Relations between the Jewish
community and the town’s other residents were, at times,
Although the people of Tredegar were generally good,
hard-working, honest folk, years before my grandfather arrived, anti-Jewish
riots and looting had broken out in the impoverished town, and troops had been
sent in to protect the community. To be fair, though, the Tredegar residents
were equal-opportunity rioters – several years beforehand, there had been violent
skirmishes between the townsfolk and the Salvation Army. Abie threw himself into
leading prayers, preaching, teaching, reading from the Torah, ritually
slaughtering, and advising on religious issues.
Then, one day, shortly
after his arrival in Tredegar, he wrote a letter to his parents, Lazar and
Rivke, in Leeds telling them he’d met a young woman: Celia Gaba, the eldest
daughter of Isaac, a licensed peddler who had diversified into real estate, and
Malka, immigrants from the Ukraine who lived in nearby Cardiff.
to get married,” he informed his surprised parents.
According to family
folklore, as related by Abie’s cousin to her daughter, Abie’s father was not at
all pleased, as Abie and his intended fiancée were very young, and had only just
met. He felt that matters were moving far too fast.
So, Lazar and his
brother-in-law, Benjamin Meyer Mankunsky, hopped onto a train and traveled down
to Wales to talk some sense into Celia’s father.
This first meeting with
Abie’s family must have been a déjà vu experience for Isaac: When he and Malka
had wanted to get married, her father had objected, not wanting his daughter to
leave the Kiblitch shtetl and go off to Wales. It was only after Malka went on a
hunger strike that he relented.
And now, the father and uncle of the man
that his daughter wanted to marry were confronting him in his living room
and babbling on about how his 19-year-old, a fine Jewish girl from a respectable
family, was too young to marry.
Isaac left the room, turned round, locked
Lazar and Benjamin in, and informed them that he wouldn’t let them out until
they agreed to the marriage.
The argument continued for a little while
through the locked door. But it didn’t take too long before Lazar and Benjamin
came round to Isaac’s point of view.
The two young lovers had quite a bit
in common: Like Abie, Celia’s paternal grandfather Velvel had also been a ritual
slaughter in Ladishen, near Odessa. But Celia was probably pleased that her
husband didn’t follow in the footsteps of Velvel, who considered the provision
of kosher chickens to be a holy calling, and therefore couldn’t bring himself to
charge poor people for his services, resulting in the poverty of his own
family. Also, Abie was a man of the cloth in more ways than one. His
parents were tailors; and Celia’s aunts, Velvel’s daughters, had surreptitiously
studied dressmaking so they could feed the family while their father was off
slaughtering chickens for free. It’s ironic, though, that the cantor’s
wife was the only one in the community who could never hear him sing; when Celia
was 4 years old, she’d contracted measles and lost her hearing.
time, Jews in the UK were becoming increasingly mobile; and new communities were
sprouting up around the country. Every few years, Abie and Celia and,
eventually, their children – my mother Rita and her siblings Wallace and Linda –
would uproot themselves and drift off to a new home, to wherever Abie’s services
and kosher meat were required, including Stockport, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast,
Abie and Celia were quiet people, unsuited for the
inevitable synagogue politics in the various communities they served. Abie
simply wanted to honorably support his family, without being dragged into
Some communities were kinder to Abie than others.
Although synagogues somewhat reluctantly accepted that they needed someone to
provide for their religious needs, not all were enthusiastic about paying for
One of my earliest memories of my grandparents was of visiting them
from London in the small town of Darlington before Passover. I remember
accompanying my grandfather, who was carrying a metal bucket, as we walked down
the road to a nearby farm to buy milk obtained directly from a cow. In honor of
Passover, Abie and Celia had taken the opportunity afforded by living near a
farm to make a special effort and personally supervise the production of the
milk they drank during the festival.
One year, long after Abie had
retired, a synagogue hired him as a cantor for the High Holy Days.
put his heart and soul into leading the Rosh Hashana services, and was expected
to return a few days later to perform at the grand climax of the Ten Days of
Repentance – Yom Kippur.
However, this was not to be: A couple of days
after Rosh Hashana, Abie passed away.
One can only imagine the reaction
of the community when they learned why their cantor wouldn’t be showing up on
the holiest day of the year.
By his very absence and the timing of his
passing, Abie in all likelihood profoundly affected the congregation and made
them more acutely aware of the transient, fragile nature of our brief sojourn in
this world than could possibly be achieved by the most impassioned sermon or
melodious cantorial performance.
Yonatan Silver is a writer living in
Jerusalem. He has recently become interested in family research and
tracking his ancestors across the Diaspora.