I sometimes wish I had kept notes during my childhood. The shul in which I grew up was brimful with colorful characters. But today, when I look at photos from those days, I am hard-pressed even to remember most of their names.
Who were they? What were their backgrounds? How did they come to live in our very genteel London suburb? And, I often wonder, were any of them survivors of the Shoah? (Back in the 1950s and 1960s, which is the era we are talking about, the Shoah was never mentioned, certainly not in front of the children. Today, I feel a sort of strange embarrassment that I was a teenager before I even knew that it had occurred.)
Perhaps if I had kept notes I could tell you more about these people who populated my youth and now my memories.
There was the man whom we called “The Voice.” If I had to classify his vocal instrument, I’d have to say he was a bass. But it wasn’t any particular talent for singing that earned him his title; it was sheer volume. Any time the shul joined together in song—and we had some fine chazzanim and loved to sing—his voice would hugely dominate, bringing smiles to some faces and, I suspect, annoyance to some less generous personalities.
Then there was Mr. A., one of the most volatile people you’d never want to meet. There are some shul-goers, usually men, whose chief delight seems to be finding fault with everything. Mr. A. would blow up at the slightest provocation. One Shabbat, the rabbi said something during his sermon which Mr. A. found highly offensive. Making a great play of it, he stormed out of the shul, yelling as he went, “I’ll come back when you stop this nonsense!”
But one of my favorites was Mendel Gamse (pronounced “Gams”), who was a genuine kanna’i, a stickler for observing the halachah the way he had been taught growing up.
He had come to our shul in its early years, but not because he was so attracted to anything it offered. Apparently, the shul in which he had previously davened had dedicated a memorial plaque with the figure of a lion embossed on it. He denounced it as a pesel (graven image) and never stepped foot in the building again.
I remember very clearly that Mr. Gamse spoke with a Polish accent, which made me think (recently, that is) that perhaps he was a survivor. But with a little research I found out that he had come to England in the early years of the twentieth century. He was born in 1875, so he was already in his seventies and eighties during the time that I remember him.
Mr. Gamse was one of our regular ba’alei keriah, expertly reading the Torah with a heavily Polish-accented Hebrew pronunciation. “Oooo-ooo-mei-yin,” he would begin each aliyah. This was very different from the proper English tones of our other lehners, and I loved it.
But he was also our ba’al tekiah, and since I was developing my own skills with the shofar, I would watch him very closely. As he grew more elderly, I began to suspect that his teruah, the nine-note staccato sound, was achieved not so much by what he did with his mouth, but rather by a fierce shaking of his hand, but otherwise he was excellent.
On the Rosh Hashanah before he was to pass away, he was quite ill and was unable to come to shul. I was asked to go and blow shofar for him at home.
Several members of his family were there when I got to his house. “Please blow the shofar quietly,” they cautioned me, as soon as I stepped in. “He hasn’t been very responsive in the last few days, and you mustn’t startle him.”
Armed with that admonition, but not quite knowing what to do with it, I entered his bedroom, trailed by the family. “Good yom tov, Mr. Gamse,” I said, in a loud whisper. “I’ve come to blow shofar for you.” His eyes were open, but I couldn’t tell how much he comprehended.
I said the berachot for him and began to blow, trying as best as I could to muffle the sound. Now his eyes were glued on me. As I continued, I noticed that he was beginning to move himself up on his pillow. I blew more loudly. He struggled to get himself erect and his children helped him into a sitting position. I gave it full blast.
When I was done, he looked directly at his wife and demanded in a weak but clear voice, “Wine, lekach, for kiddush.” And then Mr. Gamse, who had been almost comatose for several days, made Kiddush in his Polish accent, and as he sipped his wine and nibbled at his cake, I murmured to myself “Oooo-ooo-mei-yin.”
David Olivestone, a member of Jewish Action’s Editorial Committee and a frequent contributor to the magazine, retired as the OU’s director of communications in 2013.