Stanley has been a SAMS member since moving to St Albans eighteen years ago. Here he talks about finding SAMS and learning about his family’s roots:
My parents lived in Edgware and belonged to the orthodox Yeshurun synagogue. I used to go there with Dad on festivals. When I came to St Albans I looked for a shul to join and first came across the United synagogue, at the centre of town. They weren’t very friendly and didn’t get back to me when I phoned to ask about membership. Eventually the secretary of the shul rang me up and I said, ‘It’s a bit too late now. I’ve joined SAMS.’ And SAMS was an entirely new vision on life. It was remarkable. It was wonderful. Friendly, outgoing, welcoming, non-judgmental. I have a non-Jewish wife and when we were invited to a meeting for prospective members she was very much welcomed. What a difference in attitude. I think it’s absolutely incredible.
My interest in learning about my family’s roots was sparked when I worked as Artistic Director for the Shifrin Foundation in Music and Drama at Harold House, a Jewish youth and community centre in Liverpool. I met a very bright and personable young Israeli man, Zevi Kahanov, and we got on like a house on fire. We organised a cultural trip to Israel, the centre’s first of its kind. It was also my first trip to Israel. We visited Zevi’s family in Nes Tziona, a sleepy town in the sun, one of five ‘starter’ towns. The family started to talk, and I listened, about the beginning of Israel, and how Zevi’s grandfather walked there from Odessa. It touched me very much. On our return to England we created a musical production about modern-day Israel called The Nes Tziona Kid. I had a salary of twenty pounds a week, good pay in those years.
So the seeds were sown for my interest in my family’s history. In 2008 I travelled to Khotin in Ukraine, where my maternal grandmother was from, to try and find out more. We followed some clues and found a house which we thought might have been hers. We don’t know how she got to England. She had ten or eleven children, and came from another dozen. My grandfather was a buttonhole maker who got up at half past five in the morning and went to synagogue for morning prayers before work. He’d come home at seven o’clock, eat something, then take out his sewing machine to do some private work. He didn’t have much to do with his children. The boys went out to work at the age of fourteen.
My feeling is that the children wanted to be integrated. They didn’t want to know about foreignness and they wanted their parents to speak English, but they didn’t know much English. My mother had a lot of stories to tell that her mother had told her about their large family, but I didn’t listen to them, as children don’t.
My dad’s father walked all the way from Poland. He got off the boat somewhere thinking it was New York. It wasn’t, so he found another boat and went to New York, didn’t like it and came back to England. Dad’s family wasn’t interested in maintaining Jewish practice. I think they were just glad to be free from the Cossacks and I get the feeling that a lot of Jewishness was seen as an anchor to wear around your neck. My dad’s mother was built of stone and iron. One day she appeared at our front door, having taken three buses across London. When I said, ‘Mum’s out’, she said, ‘Well, I’ll go away and come back another time.’ This was when she was ninety-three!
My father grew up in Notting Hill, then a run-down, dangerous place. There were two bedrooms, one for the boys and one for the girls. I don’t know where their parents slept. There was an oven on the first floor for all the families in the building to use. No bath, only an outside toilet. Dad talked about saving tuppence by not taking the bus but walking from home to work in the East End an hour and a half each way. He became a master craftsman in the fur trade, making coats for Harrods. We moved to Edgware in the 1950s. It was a lot prettier then. Dad loved the blossom. In springtime it’s magical up and down those streets.
Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 19 January 2016