The Death of a Father and a
Generation of Working Class Jews
Thursday, 1 December 2011
the past few weeks I’ve posted fewer articles than normal. That is because my
father died in the Royal Liverpool Hospital at approximately 1.00 a.m. on
Saturday 21st November.
I was rung up at about 12.30 a.m. by the hospital to tell me that he was dying
and I immediately rang my mother, who got into a taxi. I drove up to Liverpool
soon after to go straight to the hospital to be with my mother.
Dad was a travelling rabbi and most of the synagogues he ministered to in
the provinces have now closed as their Jewish communities have dwindled to
virtually nothing. Southport, Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry (which may still be
going), Merthyr Tydfil and then Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool
and Fairfield which was his last synagogue.
I had been up to Liverpool about 3 weeks previously when it was feared he
might not last but my younger brother Jonathan managed to get him transferred
from a care home to hospital where a drip could be put in. I won’t bother
describing the attitude of these people to the elderly except that people go
there essentially to die and the homes see their job as palliative – making
people ‘comfortable’ rather than seeing whether they may be able to have a few
extra years. I don’t want to be maudlin. Dad was 99 which is a good age by any
measure and was in pretty good health until the mid-90’s.
With all this discussion about Jewish identity these days I thought maybe I
should also chip in! I am fairly unusual among anti-Zionist Jews in that
I come from an Orthodox Religious Zionist background. I had broken effectively
with Zionism by the age 16, but maybe the formative break with my father was
when I was 14 I declared I was an atheist, not something that goes down too
well with the Orthodox, of whatever faith.
It would be pointless to say we were close, having seen each other relatively
little over the past few years. We had argued ferociously when I was younger
and I left home at 18. Nonetheless I shed some tears seeing what had been a
strong, aggressive man lying so weak and helpless on his bed. I also couldn’t
help but wonder why it was always impossible to pierce beneath the exterior.
I guess that I learnt something of how to be a good parent from my father, even
if it was the opposite of how he would have behaved. But he was also in
the tradition of the old bible belt preachers, with a gun in one hand and the
bible in the other. I can remember in the Stoke shul my dad threatening to take
one of the congregants outside, and not for a breath of fresh air either! I
must confess I didn’t know about his boxing until I read the obituary below but
it doesn’t surprise me. There were a few other, similar incidents, about which
I shall not write about.
Needless to say dad fell out with most of the synagogues and move on after a
while. Dad grew up in the East End and he described to me on a number of
occasions what it was like living with the violence and thuggery of Moseley’s
British Union of Fascists. He described one kid to me who had been put through
a plate glass window by the fascists and he was proud of having been present at
the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when the fascists were prevented from
marching through the East End. He hated anti-Semitism but he didn’t see that
racism was wrong whoever was the target. Nonetheless he always voted Labour
since he remembered Tory support for anti-Semitism in the East End, though he
forgot that the small English Zionist Federation backed those Tories in the
1900 General Election.
I can remember visiting with him two of his sisters – Jessie and Lottie – in
the East End. They both lived in poverty and squalor, the former in particular.
It is often forgot now by Jews who live in Edgware or Golders Green that not so
long ago most Jews lived in great poverty. Instead of being sub-Thatcherites they
solidly voted for the Left and in Mile End in 1945 it was the Jewish voters
primarily who put Phil Piratin, 1 of only 2 communist MP’s elected as such in
Britain, into parliament.We had many arguments as can be imagined. And also
some good times on holiday. One or two things are too personal but I can
remember dad always had a sticky wrapped sweet in his pocket! I can also
remember dad bailing me out of Walton gaol in Liverpool back in 1972. I’d been
done, hitching back from the Windsor pop festival, for possession of dope and
received a fine of £30 or 28 days in prison from an austere London magistrate.
When I said I didn’t have the money to pay he looked up from his glasses and
said ‘Well get a job then’. Presumably members of his class didn’t understand that
Liverpool then and now had high unemployment.
I was picked up in a raid on a squat and dad was quite content to let me serve
out the sentence. Unfortunately the local rabbi was doing his rounds and on
coming across me immediately informed my parents. It was one thing having me
languish in a Victorian prison, but quite another letting anyone in the Jewish
community find out! Dad was no intellectual nor did he have any pretensions to
the contrary, unlike many of today’s rabbis. He did however have a good memory.
He knew the whole of the Torah (Pentateuch) by heart. Dad had a good innings
and fought to live to the end. And for all living creatures death is the end.
The funeral was held on Tuesday 24th November in the Jewish cemetry. Tony Greenstein
REV Solomon Greenstein, who was minister of the old Fairfield synagogue at the
time of its closure, died on Shabbat, aged 99.
He also taught at King David High School and worked as a shochet.
Born in Whitechapel in London’s East End in 1912, he was the son of Polish
immigrants Rabbi Alter Natan Greenstein and Fayge Rivka.
He studied at the prestigious Etz Chaim yeshiva for seven years and followed
his father into the ministry, although in his schooldays he was a keen
sportsman, being a champion swimmer and boxer.
He also loved chazanut and studied for a time with the acclaimed chazan Herman
Bornstein, of Princes Road Synagogue.
In 1952 he married Esther (nee Mechulam), a primary school teacher from
Wallasey who had been active in the local Bnei Akiva.
The couple settled in London, but moved to Merseyside in 1965 when Rev
Greenstein was appointed minister to the now defunct Birkenhead Synagogue in
He served as a hospital chaplain and was introduced to the Queen at the opening
of Arrowe Park hospital.
After retiring, Rev Greenstein was able to indulge in his passion for painting
by attending night classes and he also enjoyed listening to music.
His son Jonny, who lives in Jerusalem, said: “Dad was scrupulously
observant, putting on tallit and tephillin every morning even into his 90s when
he needed help. “A week before he died I asked him what he wanted and he replied
‘kiddush’ which shows how much Judaism meant to him.”
Rabbi Malcolm Malits, Allerton Synagogue’s emeritus minister, said: “Rev
Greenstein was very knowledgeable and we were colleagues at King David.
“He must have been a good shochet because he once worked at Cardiff
under the watchful eye of the renowned Rabbi Ber Rogosnitzky – if he was good
enough for him, that was quite a compliment.”
Dr Eric Toke, former chairman of Fairfield Hebrew Congregation, said: “Rev
Greenstein was a charming man who did everything he could to help the
congregation and I remember his interesting and illustrative sermons.”
Rev Greenstein is survived by Esther, sons Anthony, who lives in Brighton,
Jonny, David, who lives in Prestwich, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
One of his grandchildren, 17-year-old Tamar Greenstein, recently performed in
London with the Jerusalem Conservatory Orchestra.
While in the UK her piano trio was invited to perform at the Yehudi Menuhin
school and at the home of renowned virtuoso Murray Perahia.