My Grandfather Benjamin
Early one Saturday morning when I was about nine, we set off in the car for Blackpool where my maternal grandparents lived. My mother had a cousin in a neighbouring coastal town and the cousin's son, whom I'd never met, had just turned thirteen and was about to recite his Barmitzvah at the synagogue there.
We took the usual route through Bolton, past the array of TV aerials on Winter Hill, and down the busy Preston Road, arriving in Blackpool about an hour and a half later. My grandparents lived near Stanley Park, a huge park we used to visit a lot.
My grandfather had come to England from Vilna in Lithuania at the turn of the century and spoke with a thick accent, the memory of which still has the power to startle me. He'd left his homeland to escape the poverty of the shtetl, along with the rising anti-Semitism sweeping across Lithuania and Russia. As a young man, he joined the RAF and fought against the Turks for Palestine during the First World War, obtaining a medal for bravery. Shortly after the outbreak of World War Two, he left London where he'd settled, took his wife and two small children, and moved to the Lancashire town of Blackburn.
There, he'd observed many of the Jewish laws, even keeping chickens in the attic. My grandmother, in turn, would cart the live hens on a bus in a sack and take them to the Shochet in Burnley, the kosher ritual slaughterer.
Usually, when we arrived at my grandparents' home, my grandfather would be waiting for us by his bedroom window, breaking into a peal of laughter when our car came to a halt. When my brother and I were younger, he'd always insisted on grinning at us by the front door. 'Let me grin at you', he used to say in his strong accent, placing his head on a side and showing his teeth. This had always scared us a bit.
On the day of the Barmitzvah, he was dressed in a suit and looking subdued as he prepared himself for the occasion.
'Hellow,' my grandmother called in that unique loud voice of hers, chuckling to herself as we filed into the hallway.
Grandma was from the East End, but had spent most of her adult life in the north of the country. A true eccentric with a razor sharp tongue. She and my grandfather argued a lot, especially on the Jewish Festivals. In private, we'd joke about Grandma and Granddad's War of Rosh HaShanna (New Year) or War of Pesach (Passover), and talk about them throwing chairs at each other. My grandmother used to enjoy provoking my grandfather, winding him up and chuckling to herself, getting him furious until he exploded. The scenarios could not have been pleasant, though.
'Why do you put up with it?' my grandmother was once asked. 'Why don't you just leave him?'
'Because they're my table and chairs,' my grandmother retorted. 'And he's not having them!'
Granddad had played the violin, apparently, and had wanted to be a scientist something the Russian or Lithuanian governments wouldn't have allowed. As a young man, he'd been tall and good looking a hero of sorts but he'd diminished in size over the years and he was now a small and terrifying man, although he was always kind to me.
On the morning of the Barmitzvah, the grown ups made small talk in the dining room, trying to ignore the tension in the air, Grandma continuing to chuckle away at intermittent intervals.
Most of the relatives would join us at the synagogue in the neighbouring town. There was a long history of family strife and unhappiness across the extended family that Grandma loved to observe
The seven of us piled in the car, Grandma sitting in the passenger seat while my mother drove, Granddad squeezed in with my father and the rest of us on the back seat. It was a hot, summer day with tourists hurrying towards the promenade and the gift shops on the front.
We took the coastal route to the town in Fylde, pulling up a street or two away from the small synagogue to avoid being seen in a car on the Sabbath, even though everyone knew that everyone else had driven there for the boy's Barmitzvah.
Most of the guests had already arrived when we went in. They were seated in the hall, the male congregants dressed in white robes and hats while a man with a black hat on recited prayers from the Bima in the centre. My grandmother and mother went to sit in the women's section. My grandfather, my father, my brothers and I joined my uncle and his young son.
Fuming, face darkening under his hat, my grandfather kept looking around the synagogue. One of the relatives hadn't arrived yet. Granddad got up and shuffled out of the main hall in wait of the latecomers.
'You're late,' he chimed in his thick accent when they appeared at the synagogue entrance. They took a step back when they saw him. 'It is not good,' he went on, tapping his watch. 'No, it is not good.'
His anger exploded. A tirade based on years of brewing conflict and family secrets. Granddad's temper that I supposedly inherited as well.