Friday, July 30, 2010

Habonim and growing up Jewish

Childhood, Youth and Zionism.

I must have joined Habonim when I was about 10 years old. That would have been 1941. The group was called Gedud Degania after the first kibbutz established in Palestine. All the groups had names of kibbutzim in what was at that time Palestine, and gedud means battalion, or some such thing. This was the name given to the youngest groups; the teen groups were called plugot. Interesting how these became military terms in the Israeli army, or was it the other way around? Those may have been biblical military terms.
We learned the Habonim promise “I promise as a Boneh to uphold the good name of the Jewish people … “ and built bricks out of cardboard and glue to represent the building bricks of the pioneers. This ceremony, equivalent to a scout’s ceremony was known as the “ hakdasha”, basically “ dedication”. This was a pioneer youth movement, similar to the boy scouts except with Zionism thrown in. We learned songs all about building the new “ homeland”, dances such as the Hora, mayim-mayim (water-water), a precious substance in that part of the world, some scouting, knot making, camping skills etc. We met as a group of kids, perhaps 15 of us every Sunday afternoon at Queen’s Park Synagogue. I remember this as a beautiful building, surrounded by a wooded garden. The first time I went there, by mistake I walked into the church next door, and sat down with other kids learning about Jesus. I quickly realized that something was wrong, and approached the woman teaching and asked whether this was Habonim. She quickly directed me to the synagogue. I do not remember whom our madrichim (leaders) were (Sylvia Poli ? Robert Weber ?) nor do I remember many of the other kids. I actually have kept up with both of the above, meeting Robert occasionally in New York and Sylvia in Israel. I think at that time the group was led by Eva Ross my Hebrew teacher. but no one seems to remember her. I was quiet and a little introverted compared to most of the other kids. I do remember others in the group including, Agnes Benjamin, Basil Rifkind. Victor Kurtzman (whom I believe became a Chabad Rabbi in S. California), and Judith Wolfsohn. Much later, when I was about 13-14 I hung out with Tommy Berman and Basil Rifkind . I always appreciated Tommy, thought him very clever, and admired his superb self built electric train set. I would occasionally go to his house, to the Millers, for “ tea” and spend time playing with this wonderful set. Basil was less “ cultured”, more out going, and always a little rough on the outside. He did become a famous cardiologist later on and head of the US-NIH heart section. He retired as chief of the NHLBI's lipid metabolism and atherosclerosis branch in 2000. He died of Parkinson’s in 2008. I have since found out that he did go on Aliya as a physician, but one of his children had leukemia, and the best treatment at that time was in the USA. Thus he came to the US because of the son, and stayed on at the NIH. By chance I met one of his son’s recently on a trip to Bethesda. A small world.
Thus although I went to Hutcheson’s Grammar school, my social life evolved around Habonim and also some of the same kids who attended cheder either at Queens Park or Niddrie Rd Shul. I really had no good friends from school. Only later on did I become friendly with Donald Dickson, went to his house for dinner occasionally, and met his family. I think I was a curiosity to his family, being “foreign”. Thus I was more interested in Jewish /Zionist affairs than what was going on around me in Scotland or at school. Later on I also occasionally attended Bnei Akiva. The meetings were held right across the street from our house on Dixon Avenue. Most of those attending were not native Glaswegians, but refugees from Europe. They seemed to me and particularly to my parents and other members of the community as “ strange” people, rather uppity. I have learned since then that this was a case of us the Oest Yidin and them the German Yidin, with the same suspicions and attitudes that occurred in all Jewish communities. We were suspicious of each other. Many of them must have been saved in the “ kinder transport”. Tommy, my friend referred to above was one of the kinder transport kids from Czechoslovakia. Also there was much more religion in B’nei Akiva, which at specific times appealed to me, and other times turned me off. In general we talked about the girls of Bnei Akiva being prettier than those in Habonim. I discussed this many years later with Julian Davidson, a fellow Glaswegian, whom I met as a faculty member at Stanford University. Julian was a regular at the B’nei Akiva and also Bachad. My attitude to religion was one of confusion. Sometimes I went to Shul on Friday nights and Shabbat morning, other times I stayed away. At home we were “ traditional”, and yet I hung up a stocking at Xmas and expected presents until about the age of 10. I did go to Cheder regularly from the age of 10, and had a Bar mitzvah in Queens Park Shul. The only teacher’s I remember were a Mr. Zwebner, and Rabbi Singer. I do not recall whether they were from Queens Park or Niddrie Road or who taught me for my bar mitzvah.
Tommy, Basil and I would occasionally go out together and roam the Queens Park area. My favorite haunt was Victoria Rd. equivalent then to today’s malls. This was a broad street, with shops on sides, ice cream cafĂ©’s and bakeries leading up to the main entrance of Queens Park. There was an excellent ice cream shop called the Bluebird Cafe (I think ) at the entrance to the park near Shawlands. This park played an important role in my young life. When I was much younger (5-6 perhaps) I would sail my boat in Queen’s park pond, and go fishing for minnows (Guppies). My father would take me to feed the ducks and swans of which there were many different varieties. This I remember doing with my father on Sunday mornings. There was often a concert in the park on Sunday afternoons, or sometimes in the long summer evenings. I remember going with my sisters Beatrice and Adelaide to the park and listening to some operatic arias sung by a rather large soprano, and giggling all the way through. The park had everything, swings, rose gardens, flower beds, green houses. It was a breath of the country in the midst of the city. The park was opened in 1857 and was designed by the world renowned Sir Joseph Paxton, also responsible for noted public parks in London, Liverpool, Birkenhead and the grounds of the Spa Buildings at Scarborough. The park was dedicated to the memory of Mary, Queen of Scots and not Queen Victoria, a common misconception given the proximity to Victoria Road and that the park was created during her reign. (Wikepedia). In fact the park is on or near the site of the battle of Langside which took place in 1568 between the forces loyal to Mary Queen of Scots and her Protestant half brother the Earl of Moray who was fighting on behalf of James VI, Mary’s infant son. The park is huge, covering some 148 acres. It has many entrances, flower gardens, and great walking trails.

To get back to my childhood: I went through a very nationalist stage during my early teens. This was a result of news coming out of Europe on the massacre of European Jewry and the activities of the British in trying to stop immigration into Palestine. This was the period of the Jewish underground activity against the British right after the end of WWII. I was thus a mixed up kid, tending to the violent side of the Zionist movement and also at the same time to the socialist side, reading the Daily Worker (which incidentally was also supportive at that time the Jewish struggle against the British) and the right wing revisionist (Zionist) newspaper. Both papers claimed that Britain was an imperialist power, attempting to destroy the nascent Jewish State. There is no doubt that this was the aim of Ernest Bevin the foreign minister of the time. His Anti-Semitism was quite open. To an impressionable youth, the betrayal by the Labor party was felt very keenly, and possibly led to my desire to get out of Britain and immigrate myself to Israel. Thus by 1947 I was ready to go on Hachshara, a communal farm run by Habonim, which was supposed to prepare one for Israel. I have written elsewhere about my time on Hachshara, a happy time in my life. Lots of intellectual activities, music, discussions etc. While in England I fell in love with the English countryside, as well as a few members of the opposite sex. Some of this will be described in the next chapter.
Another event that had a profound influence on me was an attack on my father’s shop. This must have been in 1947 after the hanging of two British solders by the Irgun. The shop windows were smashed. I don’t remember if anything was written on the shop windows. Since there was nothing on the outside to indicate that this shop was owned by a Jew, this must have been done by some local ruffians who knew my father. This reminded me of Nazi Germany and obviously had an effect on an impressionable teen-ager. There were riots in Glasgow, Liverpool and elsewhere at this time. (I thought for a time that this might be my imagination, but I found descriptions of the riots on the internet).
My other early interest was music, and my then aim was to be a pianist. I must have started piano lessons at the age of 6, from a Mr. Wilson. He was the organist at a local church somewhere in the Maryhill area. He appeared to me to be elderly, but as a child everyone probably did. At some point he decided he could not teach me any more, so I started studying at the Orr School of Music, my teacher being a Mrs. Sweeney. She was a very capable teacher, and the school kept to the standards set by the London Royal Academy of Music, with annual exams. I think I progressed up to grade V. The exams consisted of playing a few pieces of music before a committee and answering some questions on theory. This “ academy” was also on Dixon Avenue, so that my life revolved around this area Again as in school I began to lose interest in this about the age of 16. However I did give some recitals as part of programs arranged either through the Zionist movement, cheder or Habonim. I do remember one such concert in which I accompanied Agnes Benjamin in some Hebrew songs. She had a very nice voice. I also played some waltzes by Chopin. I cannot remember where these concerts were held. For a short period I also taught the piano to a few pupils at home. This was after dropping out of school when I had more time and needed to earn some money.
I seemed to have wandered off again. However by the age of 16, not doing well at school, not being interested in my father’s store (I did work there for a few months after leaving school, see next blog). I was uncomfortable at home, being very snobbish about the lack of education and culture in the home that I decided the best option for me was to go on Hachshara (commune). I just lazed around and did not really want to do any work or find a job after quitting school. I must have been a horrible teen- ager, causing no end of problems to my parents and sisters. As I discuss later, I was quite happy on hachshara. I seemed to have lost most of my inhibitions, was quite popular, and had quite an active sex life (by the standard of the day). I did not mind the hard work (farming), the cycling in the cold to work, or studying Hebrew in the evenings. I hope I can describe some humorous episodes in a subsequent blog.

The furniture store

The family had furniture stores (used and new) as far back as I can remember. My grandfather Mitchell had a large store on Paisley Road West. I remember going there as a child quite often. It was next to a park (Kinning Park?), and not far from a cinema, called the Lorne. Apparently this was made into a Bingo Hall in 1976, and then demolished in 1986. This area is famous for being the home of the Rangers football team, until this day a place of strong anti-Catholic feeling. My grandmother’s house was a few blocks from the store, on Paisley Road West. Since this was further west (in the direction of Paisley) it was a nicer neighborhood, and flats were spacious. However it still was what was called a tenement. My grandparents always had a maid in these days to do the house keeping and the serving of meals. My Uncle David worked in the store, as did my Aunt Betty. This was good training for their futures, since both ended up later on opening their own business. The local school in the neighborhood was the scene of many clashes between Protestant kids and Catholics kids on Orange day, a day celebrating the Protestant victory over the Catholics in Ireland at the battle of the Boyne in 1690. The organization was called the Orange Lodge, after the Prince of Orange, who became William III of a united Britain. It was a Protestant organization, and reflected the anti-Catholicism of its day. This religious feeling was tied into the rivalry between the football teams the Rangers versus the Celtics, which played at nearby Ibrox Park. Being Jewish, I was not caught up in this rivalry, and stood aside; I suppose not knowing where I belonged in this “religious” struggle. I don’t think it truly was religious, but more a matter of native Scots (Protestants) versus Irish immigrants (the Catholics)

My father’s first store was in a run-down, very slummy part of the city, in Houston St. We lived close by. Unfortunately I do not remember the address. I know it was near Shields Road, since I attended school in Scotland St Primary school, now a museum. This was because the school was built by the famous architect Rennie Mackintosh. The area was very run down, full of drunks, and grey/black tenement houses. This was as much as we could afford, since my parents lost everything including their home during the depression of the 1930’s. This shop in Houston St was in existence until some time during the war, when my father was conscripted, and instead of serving in the army, worked in the shipyards (John Brown) as a riveter. This was one of the largest ship building yards in Clydebank. I think he was exempted from the army because he had three small children. It was during this time that he came under the influence of the communist party. All I remember was the name Fraser, which cropped up in conversation and I assume that this was Hamish Fraser who was the communist organizer on the docks at this time. This introduced me to the “ Daily Worker” the communist newspaper, which reinforced my own ideas of the world.
After being released from Service, which I assume was either at the end or towards the end of the war, my father opened a store in Maryhill Rd. Again this was a poor, working class neighborhood. The shop was in a good location not far from a central crossroad, St George’s Cross, and close to the subway station on the Great Western Road. Today it is difficult to recognize the area ,since there are expressways overhead, and St George’s cross has disappeared. I used to walk from school through the city center to reach the shop. After a few years a larger shop was opened in the same area, while eventually the older store was either sold or rented to my uncle David Mitchell.
The store always smelt musty and of furniture polish. Mrs. Stuart was the “ French polisher”, the person who stripped of the old paint and varnished and polished the old furniture until it looked new. French Polishing is a technique in which many layers of shellac and other finishing compounds, including linseed oil are applied to the furniture. It is a very labor-intensive job. Mrs. Stuart was a very hearty, jovial woman, very Scottish, and very upset when her daughter married an Englishman. The furniture was a mix of “ junk” and antiques, and old solid Victoriana. I took a dislike to all the smelly old stuff, and to the downtrodden customers. However it also was a treasure trove. I would find interesting books and lots of sheet music and albums, many of which I still retain until this day. There were probably lots of valuable antiques that were never recognized as such. These goods were superior to what I find in antique shops here in Indiana.
The customers were a cross section of the neighbourhood. There were those visiting from the Highlands, who seemed more polite and better dressed than the locals. Occasionally there were customers from Norway. In particular I remember one woman who came to the store quite often, a very attractive well dressed woman. She was buying items and shipping them to Norway. There were those who came in to hang out, as you might say, lonely people looking for conversation and those who were stoned and drunk on “ red biddy” which I believe was methylated alcohol mixed with red wine. In particular I remember one old woman who always looked bedraggled and smelt terribly of a mixture of dirt, sweat and booze. She would come into the store and hang around making it difficult for other customers to come in. She really was looking for a hand out. To buy more booze. I think a lot of people would sell their furniture in order to get booze money or “ fag” money. This was the days before hard drugs or pot. I hate to think what it must be like today !
In the back of the store there was a small kitchen, or space for making tea with a small stove, and a small dirty toilet. There always seemed to be people “hanging” around this area. In fact I think they were mostly plain clothes policemen, since there was a lot of petty crime in the area. They would come in to chat and have a cup of tea. They were big hefty men, and I suppose my father (and I ) must have looked pretty small next to them. They were decent guys doing a job.
When I was about 16 and began to be uninterested in school studies I often worked in the shop. I would open the store in the morning, wash the windows with a pole attachment, dust the furniture and wait on customers. I found the process quite boring, and would saunter off down Maryhill road looking at other stores, or go in and talk to the women who worked in the R.S.McColl sweet store a few doors down. During the war years I would spend my sweet rationing coupons in this store. I probably never ate so many sweets in my entire life as I did during this period. The result was in later life, rotting teeth. The women who ran the store “ spoiled” me and were always giving me Rowntree gums or Mackintosh Quality Street. A few years later when I returned to Glasgow for a stint at college I would still go in to the store and say hello and get my fill of sweets. A combination of sweets and British dentistry meant that to this day I have constant oral problems. Next door there was a butcher store, which always smelt of blood and meat. This was the days before refrigeration and the meat would hang as carcasses at the back of the store. The specialty of the store was “ black pudding”. A sausage made out of blood. To this day I have never tried to eat it, I must have been disgusted by it, possibly because I was also trying to keep Kosher. I suppose they must have had blocks of ice delivered to keep the meat cool.
The store remained in business until my father’s death. I think he wanted to hand it over to John Duncan, my brother in law. A second store was opened next door, a betting store (Bookie). Betting on Greyhound dogs and horse racing had become legal and was a thriving business.
For many years I have avoided going into a secondhand furniture store. It brought back too many bad memories. In retrospect selling second hand furniture is no worse than any other retail business, and with the large number of garage sales in the US, people are always looking for bargains. I think that the socialist education I received in the movement (Habonim) instilled in me a sort of disgust of business. It was associated with Diaspora Jewry (as opposed to the educated peasant of the youth movement) and bourgeois life, the antithesis of what we (or I) was going to become in Israel.