In St John’s Wood Synagogue, North London
The title of a New Statesman article, “You’re Jewish? You can’t be English”, was twice rebutted in the last two weeks. Both occasions were funerals of very old friends who were English and Jewish in that order. Both had been active members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. I had known Sonia Rebeiro for 59 years, Geoffrey Goodman for 49. They met only once and that was on my 60th birthday in London.
In so far as Jewish denominations matter, Sonia was Sephardic, Geoff Ashkenazi. Sonia’s father, a baker with his own pastry shop in Prestwich, a predominantly Jewish suburb of north Manchester, was a fierce card-holding communist. He would grill me in the 1950s about the plight of India’s peasantry. Sonia was active in the ranks of the Young Communists. Geoff’s people, who were before my time, were even worse off, being Orthodox Jewish refugees from Poland and Russia and often unemployed. They also lived in the Manchester area and Geoff was born in grimy Stockport where I started my journalistic career 36 years later. He and his Czech-born wife, Margit, were my son’s local guardians when he was at boarding school in England.
Geoff rose to become a celebrity with none of a celebrity’s airs. I was complaining to him once about the Royal Horseguards Hotel taking over the National Liberal Club’s bedchambers when he said it was quite a pleasant place. How did he know? It turned out he had taken the then untried Tony Blair to the Royal Horseguards for a discreet tête-à-tête lunch as part of the vetting process for Labour Party leadership. He turned down a safe Labour seat and Harold Wilson’s offer of a peerage. He had wanted to be a journalist ever since hearing a shopkeeper say on the eve of Edward VIII’s abdication that the newspapers were refusing to print the truth “despite most of us knowing exactly what is going on”, meaning the king’s liaison with an American divorcee. He never lost his faith in Lord Northcliffe’s definition of news as “something someone wants to suppress”. Everything else was advertising. He felt he could serve the public better as a journalist than in parliament. As a member of the Royal Commission on the Press, he dissented from its eventual report.
Long divorced from her American husband, Sonia lived on a small pension in a tiny flat in Golders Green which had once been a Jewish enclave in North London. I used to tease her about the homing instinct of Jews. She had gone straight to New York from Manchester, a young woman with no experience of London. When she returned to England 20 years later, it was to a district that inspired the English joke, “Give us back Golders Green and we’ll give you Palestine!” That was before Zionists took what they believed to be theirs without waiting for anyone’s leave.
Long obituary articles in all the leading British dailies marked Geoff’s passing. I saw Alastair Campbell, Blair’s spin doctor, in the small packed chapel at the Liberal Jewish Cemetery in Willesden where he was buried. Also Neil Kinnock, the Labour prime minister that never was, who famously warned “If Margaret Thatcher wins, I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old”, and his wife Glenys. Not all the mourners shared Geoff’s politics. I heard a smart elderly man reply when asked if Labour regretted its stand on Syria, “How can they? They are never wrong!” At the splendid repast of funereal meats at the Goodman home, I found myself chatting with the aged Fred Jarvis, the first Oxford graduate to head the powerful Trades Union Congress that Ed Miliband is now trying to disentangle from the Labour Party, and an associate of Krishna Menon’s, like Geoff. As president of the National Union of Students, Jarvis had launched the inter-university debating championship that my university resolutely boycotted because the NUS was affiliated to the fellow-travelling International Union of Students in Prague. Jarvis assured me he had distanced the NUS from the IUS but that was after my time.
Another mourner agreed that given Geoff’s sturdy secularism, the religious service was a surprise. I asked the rabbi if the congregation followed Hebrew and he answered enigmatically that he did, being Israeli. Some of the others were learning. But many in the congregation recited the Kaddish, not Allen Ginsberg’s poem of that name but the Jewish mourners’ prayer, from memory as we stood by the open grave. Sonia was cremated in the Golders Green crematorium, Europe’s oldest. I saw a memorial tablet there to a Calcutta doctor, Nripendranath Datta, who died aged 30 in 1930 while studying at the Royal College of Ophthalmology. I didn’t see the monument Keshub Sen’s daughter, Suniti Devi of Cooch Behar, erected when her husband died.
Not far from the grave where we shovelled fresh earth on Geoff’s coffin was the resting place of the Baghdadi Sassoons who became modern in India, rich in China and gentry in England. My old friend and colleague in Calcutta, Ellis Abraham, was doubly descended from the Sassoons. His interment in the Narkeldanga burial ground was my first Jewish funeral. Ellis’s adopted Bengali son, Jiban Sen-Abraham helped to carry the long-handled box (aron) that is a Jewish coffin, with a handkerchief on his head. Otherwise, the congregation consisted of only a few old men. Looking around, I knew Calcutta would not need another Jewish cemetery.
Shalom Aaron Cohen of Aleppo, who founded Calcutta’s Jewish community in 1797, was buried in Narkeldanga when he died in 1836. Meeting a descendant of his, 91-year-old Sally Solomon, at Sonia’s flat some years ago reminded me of Benjamin Disraeli’s comment that race is the ultimate reality. A Jew baptized a Christian because his father knew it would improve his prospects in England would know. A part-time editor, Sonia had helped Sally write Hooghly Tales: Stories of Growing Up in Calcutta under the Raj. In her second book, Where Rivers Meet: Memories of Madras 1948-1972, also finalized under Sonia’s guidance, Sally asks, “Are we English? Are we Indian? I did not feel either of these; just thought of myself as Jewish — not so much in a religious sense as belonging to a group identified by its religion. I dressed like the English, spoke their language, embraced some of their ways of life; but neither they nor I would consider I belonged. The same applied to being Indian, but in different areas. I did not adopt their dress, speak their language even reasonably well, yet I belonged more, felt India was my native place. I still feel this today.”
Sally couldn’t relate to European Jewish refugees, probably because Indian Jews “had not gone through the horrors of the Holocaust”. Her memoirs describe the few Israelis in India as strident, officious and sanctimonious. She enjoyed holidaying in Israel but when it came to living there, she “realised that being a Jew and being Israeli were two different things”. Back to the recurring question, “Then what was I? I was just a Jew, living in India. Even as an Indian national, I never really felt Indian or anything else. India was my home, and got my total loyalty. I do not think I could have felt the same way about Israel; committing myself wholly, even to the extent of expecting my children to join the army. I would never dream of any such thing.”
I don’t think either Sonia or Geoff ever suffered from those dilemmas that also haunted Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire. Despite the scepticism of some Englishmen, as that New Statesman article indicated, both were not just British but also emphatically English.