by: Helen Melnikoff - Last updated: 2003-10-26
Every shul has its eminent members, and many years ago our local Shul, Edgware, benefited from the presence of my grandfather.
He was there every day, at every service, morning and evening, all through the Second World War and afterwards, showing his contempt for air raids and bad weather, which he treated as minor inconveniences.
He spent his afternoons visiting the local shops, and obtaining promises from their owners that they would come to the evening service. He concentrated on those whose establishments were conveniently round the corner from the destination to which he invited them, and he could see no reason for their not wishing to attend. Many an apron covered heart must have sunk at the sight of his bushy beard and bowler hat appearing through the shop doorway, signifying a request for them to do their duty, as hopes for a speedy return home at closing time vanished. Grandfather would subsequently arrive at Shul in the evening, dancing ahead of his team of supporters, like a Chassidic Pied Piper.
As a member of some venerability, Grandfather sat on the platform at the front of the Shul on Shabbat and Yom Tovim. From there, he could keep an eye on everything that was happening. The fact that he had, as far as I knew, only ever had one eye, and at that stage this sported a cataract, made no difference to his ability not to miss anything.
And so it was inevitable that he would one day be honoured by being appointed as Chasan Torah. Grandfather - never one to reject acclaim - was delighted, and determined to make the most of his occasion and the fuss that everyone was going to make of him. The Shul was making a big party and, although he spoke only Yiddish, he had decided to make a speech.
This, he prepared carefully, a mixture of wisdom and wit, full of examples of his religious knowledge and some good general advice for the benefit of his listeners, with the occasional joke dropped in to lighten the proceedings. He worked long and hard on his speech. He practised it and he rehearsed it, in front of the family, when they were available to listen, and the bathroom mirror when they were not. As there usually was someone available to listen and applaud, we all knew the speech by heart long before it was due to be performed.
And eventually the day arrived. The much looked forward to party was in full swing, with Grandfather's vast crowd of supporters in excellent spirits. Grandfather mounted the platform to make his speech amid cheers.
"Ladies and gentlemen," (or the Yiddish equivalent) began Grandfather, and his first few words were drowned by renewed cheering from the assembled masses. He began again. But once more his first few words disappeared under the deluge of appreciation of those gathered. Grandfather battled six times to put over the thoughts he had worked so hard to put together, and which we had listened to so often, but was thwarted each time by the unstoppable cheering of those present. Eventually, he had to concede that the speech would never be delivered, and admit defeat. He was disappointed that his carefully chosen words were to remain unheard by everyone there, but pleased by the adulation of the crowd, showing evidence of his obvious popularity among his relatives, friends and the community as a whole.
Unfortunately, at a time before tape recorders were available, performance of the speech was lost to posterity - but the memory of it remains.