A SAMS member for several years, Darren created – with the help of his family and others in the community – the wooden inscription above the shul’s Ark, which translates as ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’. Darren talks about his connections to Bevis Marks Synagogue, an 18th-century boxing champion and a Russian conscript:
I grew up in the United Synagogue in Pinner, but after moving to Hertfordshire we joined Elstree Liberal, then Radlett Reform, before discovering SAMS. My wife Lone isn’t Jewish so the United Synagogue wasn’t really a place for us to be. SAMS made our family feel welcomed and accepted just the way we were, without judgement, in a way we hadn’t quite experienced before. I liked SAMS because it had all the Liberal and Reform ethos combined with the traditional service I grew up with. SAMS’ atmosphere puts people at ease, and I felt much more comfortable there. It’s also egalitarian so I could sit with my wife, my sisters, my grandmother. One of the most moving moments of my time at SAMS so far was seeing my 93-year-old grandmother being called up to the Torah for the first time at my elder son’s bar mitzvah. Working on the Ark lettering became a family and community project. As Rabbi Rafi said, we were living its words.
My grandparents lived in the West End and, in 1942, when she was only seventeen or eighteen years old, my grandmother was evacuated to St Albans to give birth to my mother at Diocesan House, a nunnery run by the Catholic Church. Being wartime, it was a very frightening experience for her. She wrote a book about how her parents came to England in the early 1900s and her experiences of growing up. They were originally from Poland and moved to England before the First World War, and my father’s family can be traced back as living here since the 17th century. One ancestor, Abraham Vaz Martinez who was of Spanish –Portuguese origin, was among the first wardens of Bevis Marks Synagogue, founded in 1701. I restored some of the furniture there, including the benches from the original synagogue in Creechurch Lane, established in 1656. I was also an expert in circumcision chair restoration. My father is in the furniture business and, at the age of eighty-five, still goes to work in his shop. His father’s shop was closed during the war. All the windows were blown out by one of the first bombs. When the shop reopened after the war they made three-piece suites using timber recycled from bunk beds in air-raid shelters which were no longer needed.
Going back several generations to the 18th century, I am related to Daniel Mendoza, the only middle-weight boxer ever to become the world heavyweight champion, and the first Jew to meet King George III. Daniel was very popular in his time. He developed a new style of boxing, which meant blocking and ducking punches and knowing exactly where to hit people, so he would beat people much bigger than him. He wrote a book, The Art of Boxing, which became like the Bible for boxers for many many years. One of his bouts became a headline in The Times ahead of the storming of the Bastille – it was that big a deal. Sadly, Daniel ended up dying in poverty because he rose so high that the only way he could keep up with his peers was by spending all his money, so he blew everything. Some of his children ended up living a life of crime and were sent to Australia as criminals. There’s a picture of Daniel that my children like to say looks like me, but with muscles.
My mum’s grandfather came to England in 1913, having been conscripted into the Russian army. In those days the second-eldest boy was conscripted, not the eldest. He didn’t want to stay there so his elder brother – who was the editor of a Jewish newspaper in Lodz called Lodzer Tageblatt – arranged to smuggle his brother out of Ukraine. One night when Mum’s grandfather was on guard duty, he put his bayonet into the ground and hung his coat around so it looked like he was still on duty, and slipped away into the night. He was the only one who ended up in England. Some went to Israel, Brazil, Canada – but most of that family were killed in the Holocaust.
Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 9 February 2016