SAMS Roots Interview – Beryl Caplan

Beryl Caplan

Beryl has been a SAMS member since 2009.

Here she talks about what brought her to SAMS, her South African father and growing up during wartime:

My younger daughter Jo and her family moved to St Albans from Israel in 2002 and their elder daughter subsequently had her bat mitzvah at SAMS. My husband came from an orthodox background so at first we found the service to be strange because women participated, and also we were not used to sitting together. When we started going to SAMS services at the Quaker Meeting House more regularly we found SAMS to be a lovely, warm, welcoming and exceptional community.

There’s a degree of informality and at the same time SAMS is doing everything in the traditional way while being accessible and tolerant. Women can lead the service as equals to men, and are included in the quorum of ten adults required for praying. I like the fact that non-Jewish partners are welcome. You don’t have to be a fully-fledged Jew in order to participate.

My father was born in South Africa and brought up in a very Jewish home. He could speak Yiddish quite fluently, whereas my mother didn’t speak a word. My parents made sure my siblings and I had a good Jewish education. Dad was a doctor. In 1930 he went to Scotland to continue his studies and met my mother when staying in Leeds with his cousin, who was engaged to my mother’s sister. He decided not to go back to South Africa, mainly because my mother wouldn’t leave my grandmother. They married and moved to Clapton in London, before the NHS, at a time when patients paid the doctor directly. But my father wasn’t a good businessman and they had a very difficult time, so they decided to move north to Tyldesley, a small coal mining town where I was born. In those days doctors had a certain kudos, and as a doctor’s family we were considered very important people.


Beryl’s father in the British Army, Rawalpindi, 1942

When war broke out my father wanted to contribute and volunteered to join the British Army as a doctor. My mother was not well, so my siblings and I went to boarding school in north Wales and when Dad was posted abroad my mother decided to move back to Leeds to be close to Grandma. We were very attached to my grandma. One of her daughters was training to be a teacher, one son was in the Merchant Navy and one was in the RAF. I had a remarkably happy time there with my family. We lived near beautiful parks, lovely open spaces. The winters were very cold and we’d take our sledges to a place called Hill 60 and slide down, all wrapped up. On November 5th we’d have a bonfire and we always had parkin, which is like gingerbread, common in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and hot soup. When I had my own children we always had hot soup after they’d been to a firework display.

When I look back I wonder why the war didn’t impinge more on my life. Dad was away for years, but I didn’t miss him. I think it’s a credit to my mother that we weren’t pining for him. I can remember so clearly when he came home. It must have been night time as we were all in bed and he kissed me. I can still sort of feel the tickle of his moustache. In the morning he gave me a banana to take to school, which I tucked into my tunic pocket. At break time I brought out this brown, squashed banana, which I had to throw away. Bananas were a rarity during rationing. If word went around that there were oranges at the Co-op, we’d all make a beeline and queue. One day I lost my sweet coupon so I had to go without because nobody would give me theirs, and I wouldn’t have given them mine either.

When Dad left the army it was very difficult to get a practice. The NHS had started so it was decided we’d go back to London, to live in Brixton. This was during the Windrush time, a very interesting period when there was a large influx of Jamaican immigrants. The surgery was in our house, quite common in those days. In the basement was a dental practice, the ground floor was the doctor’s surgery, and we lived on the first and second floors. In those days patients used to come to the surgery and just wait until they could see the doctor. Dad also did evening surgery, Saturday surgery and visits, so as a family we only sat down for evening meals together on Friday nights, when we’d wait for my dad, however late it was.

Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 16 March 2016