Childhood memories of Simhat Torah in North London

Fifty years later, Stamford Hill is home to a growing haredi population, but the rest of the Jewish community has long since left.

Egerton Road Synagogue 370 (photo credit: David Newman)
Egerton Road Synagogue 370
(photo credit: David Newman)
Simhat Torah in the Stamford Hill area of North London in the 1960s was an experience that I carry with me to this day, almost 50 years later in Israel. As a child, it was one of those annual events where, in a city and a community where it was not yet common for Jews to be too outward in their appearance or behavior, we let our hair down once a year.
Simhat Torah was probably the largest annual gathering of members of the London Bnei Akiva movement. In the afternoon of Shmini Atzeret (yes, the long forgotten two-day festival punishment for those who reside in the Diaspora) we would meet outside the large Odeon Cinema in Stamford Hill. From there we would walk en masse to the Home for Jewish Incurables (a hospice) in the neighborhood of South Tottenham. There, we would take over the evening services, drawing the elderly residents and patients of the home into the lively dancing with the Torah scrolls, following which we would provide simple entertainment, in an attempt to brighten their lives, if only for a few hours.
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We would then walk back to Stamford Hill – Stoke Newington, visiting the various synagogues and small shtiebels (hassidic prayer houses) of the area, participating in a dance here, and a l’haim there, on what is best described as a religious Jewish equivalent to a pub crawl. At midnight we would end up at the UK headquarters of the Chabad movement. Their own dancing, mixed with obligatory shots of vodka, was just about to begin and would continue into the early hours of the morning.
As a young child brought up in a strict and well-behaved middle-class Jewish home, it was the nearest we experienced to an annual freaking out – but one which our parents believed, albeit grudgingly, to be reasonably safe and permissible once a year.
It was a sharp contrast from the morning Succot services we had attended earlier in the day in any one of the local, ornate cathedral-style synagogues of the area, such as Egerton Road with its beautiful and famous David Hillman stained-glass windows, Shacklewell Lane in Dalston, Lea Bridge Road in Clapton, or Poets Road in Canonbury. These were synagogues where we had to behave, where rabbis and cantors still dressed up in “canonicals” (clerical garb) and where we, the children, were expected to follow the service in silence and decorum.
The following morning would see the bleary-eyed teenagers participate in their own services at the Bnei Akiva headquarters in Cazenove Road in Stoke Newington. The hakafot would continue well into the late afternoon, before a communal kiddush and meal. The wooden floorboards of the old house shook with the pounding of hundreds of pairs of feet, and to this day whenever I meet up with old acquaintances of that time, we marvel how the floor never caved in and caused serious damage or injury.
In today’s world, no local authority would allow such a large gathering to take place in such an unsafe building. To the best of my knowledge, no one was ever injured. The day came to an end too quickly, leaving hundreds of tired teenagers and young adults seeking an excuse for how to avoid going to school or work the next morning, due to some serious Simhat Torah hangovers.
Fifty years on and Stamford Hill has become the center of Europe’s largest and most dynamically growing haredi community, but the rest of the Jewish population has long since moved on to greener pastures elsewhere. The younger, more upwardly mobile generations, have moved with their communities to the more affluent suburbs, such as Hendon, Edgware and Borehamwood, where new, more functional and less ornate synagogues have been constructed. Large sections of the Anglo-Jewish community have also relocated to Israel, the highest percentage of any Western Jewish community of the free world.
This population movement is also reflected in urban transformation. The cinema where we met is now a Sainsbury’s supermarket. The Home for the Incurables is now part of a local college, while the Bnei Akiva headquarters in Cazenove Road has been transformed into the local Islamic educational center – reflecting the other major ethnic community which has now moved into this area but which was non-existent back in the 1960s.
Only the Satmar yeshiva, a few houses along the same road, retains its original character. But where it was once the only yeshiva of this type in the area, just 20 years after the Holocaust, it is now just one of many such buildings scattered throughout the burgeoning haredi neighborhoods of Stoke Newington, Stamford Hill and South Tottenham – the European equivalent to Williamsburg in New York or Mea She’arim and Geula in Jerusalem.
Those synagogues which have not been pulled down to make way for supermarkets or apartment blocks have been transformed into places of worship for other religions, notably mosques or revivalist chapels – a story which is repeated in large cities throughout the world.
Only the beautiful Egerton Road synagogue has remained in Jewish ownership, purchased and renovated by the Bobover hassidic movement. All of these synagogues, past and present, are commemorated in an excellent book, The Lost Synagogues of London, by Peter Renton published over a decade ago and, more recently, by a magnum opus on The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland by Jewish art historian Sharman Kadish.
Simhat Torah is no longer a favorite festival of mine. It has become too noisy and bedlam – as I am sure our own parents viewed our activities back then. But it has become a time for nostalgia and memories of a youthful era, and a neighborhood, which is no longer.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.