The destination for history

‘Wherever we go we take our stories with us’: Jewish folk tales of Britain and Ireland


My family were gathered in my home in Cornwall and I was telling a story, which I love doing and they are tolerant of, when one of my sons stopped me and said “I know this story, Rabbi Tann told it to us in cheder in Birmingham. Only he said it was a bowl of soup!” I was flabbergasted. The story which I had been telling had been sent to me from a lady in Bournemouth who remembered being evacuated from London as a child to Dawlish.

I didn’t know there had been a community in Dawlish, there certainly wasn’t now. Shirley Selsdon not only remembered the Jewish hostel she lived in for four years, but also the names of the people who cared for her and the fact that every Shabbat afternoon they would gather for storytelling among other activities.

This story had a poignancy for her and stuck in her mind as news about the plight of the Jews had filtered through. Here was my son, seventy years after Shirley first heard it, telling me he had heard it twenty years previously in another place. How stories live on when they strike our hearts.

The Three Who Ate On Yom Kippur

In a little shtetl not far from Cracow the Jewish community had suffered a huge blow. Cholera had run rife through the houses bringing death in its wake. Most of the people had lost someone and they were now all in a weak state.

As Rosh Hashonnah came and went the devout people struggled. They cried as Yom Kippur arrived nine days later and the fast began. Some found it difficult to sit on the wooden benches in the synagogue. Some, when they fell to their knees on this holiest day, were too weak to stand again and had to be helped up by fellow congregants. And yet they continued to fast, to afflict their bodies as well as their souls.

The rabbi looked around his congregation. He named so many former members during Yiskor, the prayer for the souls of the dead, in the late morning. He shook his head and wept. What could he do? He dreaded his congregants dying whilst in prayer on this most holy day but it seemed so likely.

He thought hard and prayed for guidance. Then he called his Shammes and Warden and sent them off with instructions. He continued the service, tears running down his cheeks, his prayers more fervent as the responses from the others grew less each time.

Eventually the Shammes and Warden returned, carrying three plates of steaming food. The rabbi sat down and invited the Shammes and Warden to sit with him. Then he started to eat and encouraged the other two to eat too. His congregation looked on in horror. A rabbi eating on Yom Kippur! Unheard of!

The rabbi ate steadily. It is a Jew’s duty to choose life, he said. Eat and live! His congregants each accepted a morsel of food and then the rabbi sent them home to eat with their families and get well. The three continued to eat and wept as they did so. L’chayim- to life!

Sometimes a story finds its way into the local papers as the events are so extraordinary as this one, about a Scarborough jeweller, did in a Hull newspaper of the time.

Clocking off

Two o’clock on a Friday morning, Abraham Samuel breathed his last. His friends who had gathered round him discussed what they should do. “He’s Jewish, he should be buried as a Jew,” insisted one.

“But where do Jews get buried? Here in Scarborough?” asked another.

“I don’t think so,” said the first. “Wasn’t Abraham the only Jew hereabouts?”

“Then we’ll have to get him to Hull. I know there’s a Jewish cemetery there,” said a third.

“How are we going to do that then? I mean, we can’t just put him on the coach as he is and send him there, can we?”

They looked at each other and formed a plan.

By 6:30 am they had arrived at the coach station in Scarborough with a long wooden box. They booked a ticket for the box all the way to Hull. The label was filled out carefully. One long case clock to be delivered to the Jewish community cemetery house in Hessle Street, Hull. Fragile, handle with care.

The clock was accepted and placed on the 7am coach to Hull.

Forty miles and hours later the horses drew into the Hull coach station and the clock was unloaded. It was reloaded onto a delivery cart and sent on its way to the Jewish cemetery.

There was a bit of consternation when the clock arrived at the ohel. The members of the Chevra Kadisha, the Holy Brotherhood that take care of the dead weren’t expecting a timepiece and opened the box gingerly to find the corpse of Abraham Samuel.  His friends had enclosed a letter explaining all.

The Chevra Kadisha went into overdrive. They called the gravediggers in and had the grave dug as fast as possible. Whilst that was going on, they hurried around gathering a minyan, a quorum of ten men, to say the prayers over the body when it would be buried. They washed the body and dressed it in its white shroud. Then they replaced the body in the long case clock box and lowered him into the newly dug grave.

Ten men said kaddish, the prayer for the dead over his grave as the July afternoon deepened. Abraham Samuel was sent to his rest just before the Sabbath started at sunset. Clocked off, just in time.

Wherever we go we take our stories with us and more often than not our jokes too.

A Jewish mother had a visitor. She put out sandwiches, cake, dainties. Her visitor ate and ate until at last he stopped and said “It’s all delicious but I can’t eat any more.” She looked at him. “You don’t like my food?”

By Liz Berg

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