Interviewed by Stéphane Goldstein
20 January 2020
My name is Andrew Abdulezer. I was born in Manchester. My parents were both originally born in Iraq and came over to this country at different times. They married in Israel, which is where my mum was living, and then they both came here and I grew up in Manchester. I came to London when I was 18 to go to university: I studied architecture at UCL. And I’ve been here ever since.
Welcomed by British Sephardim
I became part of the Spanish and Portuguese community in Holland Park, because it’s what traditionally my family has been a part of. When I got my own place, which is kind of in Maida Vale – Lauderdale Road, where the main Spanish and Portuguese synagogue is – I joined that community.
The Iraqi Jews’ integration into the UK Sephardi community is a success story. There were big differences: the Sephardi community was very strong on tradition, very strong on its own unique heritage. They still wear top-hats at Lauderdale Road. But the Iraqis found a home, because they were very forward-looking and ready to embrace whatever the country that looked after them gave. Rabbi Levy, the Emeritus Chief Rabbi, saw the influx of Iraqi Jews in the twentieth century as an opportunity for the then dwindling Sephardi communities. They opened their arms up to us Iraqi Jews, and we enriched that community space… So, we always felt much more connected with the Sephardi communities of the UK than with the Middle Eastern ones. I think the next generation almost feels slightly more Middle Eastern than the one that first came here. I think that’s quite typical amongst immigrant communities. But there’s certainly no sense of Us and Them within the community. It’s all very much together.
There’s a strong sense that the Spanish and Portuguese liturgy is one of our most precious possessions, so there is a sense of responsibility for keeping that going and respecting that. Our new Chief Rabbi, Rabbi Dwek, is of Syrian origin. He has an incredibly thorough musical knowledge of the full Middle Eastern Jewish liturgy, and he takes the service for us occasionally. I think the Middle Eastern community love it, because it’s sounds they’re familiar with and are beautiful to our ears.
Early family history
A name like Abdulezer enables me to drift in and out of social situations that I may not have been able to do with a more obviously Jewish name. We believe that the name relates to the shrine of Ezra, which is in Iraq, and my family at some point may have been involved in the upkeep of that shrine. But as far as I know, both my parents’ histories are grounded in Baghdad. They were professionals and managers and merchants. I think there might be one other Abdulezer family in Canada that is related to us. I think the other ones have either filtered away or changed their name to a more western version.
My father’s family left Iraq in the 1950s. He came over here as a teenager to a boarding school in Brighton, while his older sister and my grandparents concluded affairs in Baghdad and moved over to London later. They then had another child in London. My mother’s family were a bit later out of Iraq, I think, in the late 1950s, and they moved to Israel (at the time, the only place they could go). My parents met in Israel and she came over to live in Manchester when they got married.
My family’s movement over from Iraq must have been related to the general geo-political movements in the Middle East at the time. As a family we never really had a dogma associated with that period. My parents were very forward looking – very much about taking the opportunity of where they moved to, and not mired in the past. As they got older, it’s been very interesting hearing more stories about life in Baghdad. I think it’s become idealised, perhaps, in their eyes, because they were young and it was a heritage that they would have only heard about from their parents. My mother moved from Iraq when she was two or three, so she has no direct knowledge of the place: it was all stories given to her by her mother, my grandmother. Most of the stories relate to fabulous food, amazing parties, and great community, the houses they had, the world they came from.
My parents didn’t have a common language when they met. My father spoke English and Iraqi-Jewish Arabic, and my mother spoke Hebrew. But very quickly the common tongue became the Iraqi-Jewish Arabic and that’s what was spoken at home. So, me and my two sisters grew up very comfortable with that Arabic, until obviously English took over. I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy in Manchester, speaking Arabic, which was very interesting.
I understand Arabic when my parents speak, perfectly. I know enough to gossip about people with someone who understands, but that’s about it. It is almost completely useless as a language, because it was only spoken by the Jews in Iraq and it related to standard Iraqi, though was very much not the same. There were key words and key phrases that were quite different.
I’d say the strongest daily reminder of my Iraqi-Jewish heritage is what we produce from our kitchen. Both my sisters and I cook regularly Iraqi food, as my mum still does. For me, the crown of the Iraqi kitchen is a dish called T’beet, which is chicken stuffed with rice and steak and various herbs and spices, and then cooked in a pot with another rice, flavoured with tomato and oils and onions. The whole thing cooks for about six days, and it’s absolutely delicious. It’s the classic Shabbat meal.
Architect at the Novo Cemetery
My work at the Novo Cemetery goes back almost a decade. The Projects Manager for Queen Mary University buildings team was looking for a Sephardi architect to work on a piece of the campus at Mile End. His vision was to open up the cemetery to the university and allow it to tell its story, as one of the first Jewish cemeteries in this country, and also provide a more fluid movement along the edge of the cemetery.
I thought it was a lovely project. I spoke to the then chief rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community, which made me aware of a tricky relationship between the university and the community. There was a large gaping wound in the community’s history relating to how this piece of cemetery came to be within the campus of Queen Mary University – and, more importantly, how two thirds of the graves of the original cemetery were exhumed and moved into mass-graves in Essex.
The facts surrounding the sale of the cemetery land to the university remain shrouded in mystery. There’s certainly a great sense of betrayal that the UK Ashkenazi community allowed this to happen to the Sephardi community. So, there was a lot of emotion tied up with the idea of returning to this site – especially of opening the cemetery up to the university.
Working with respect
For the first three years of the project, we didn’t touch the site. All we did was build a relationship between the community and the university. Once we got some kind of trust growing between the two groups, the community saw the positive value of re-contextualising this last piece of the cemetery – not just for the university and visitors and historians, but for the community. And as a result I had the full support of both the leadership of the community and the dayanim, the judges and religious authorities.
So, for example, throughout this work we didn’t excavate at all, at any point, any of the original land. All the perimeter planters that you see have no foundations. Traditionally, you would design a wall like this with a foundation, so that it didn’t move or crack. But we’ve broken the wall up every 1.8 metres, introducing the cracks that would develop from having no foundations right from the beginning. Building them without any foundations meant we didn’t need to excavate at any point.
The same is true for the walkway, which cantilevers over the edge of the cemetery, enabling it to be wider than the original. We dug no new structural footings into the ground to create that. The supports for the concrete cantilever were pinned into the trunks of the old trees that were already there so that, even when we were driving something into the ground, we knew we wouldn’t disturb any remains.
How big is a hand?
The geometry of the walkway itself was completely set by the religious authorities. They found a guidance within the Talmud to say that a bridge over a cemetery is not ‘within’ a cemetery. They told us to keep the structure to three hand-widths higher than the ground of the cemetery, so it could be deemed to be a bridge. We then had a debate about which hand width we used, because an Ashkenazi hand width is larger than a Sephardi hand width! We chose the larger one to be on the safe side.
The other rule they gave us was that no structure should be closer than one hand-width to any of the original memorials. So, where the balustrade-structure covers three graves, the panels are cut out by one hand-width around those graves. We made the balustrade out of quartz-end steel, which is not particularly a friendly substance, so you’re not encouraged to touch it or lean on it. We did that specifically so we could keep a low height that people could look over happily without hanging off of it.
The circle is an unusual feature of the cemetery. In the original cemetery, there were three circular memorials of where there was bomb damage during the Blitz. In the centre are the names of all the graves that were within that space when the bombs hit. We didn’t touch the memorial, apart from establishing three openings in the walls, which we call the three cardinal points for the cemetery. They relate to the direction of Bevis Marks, the synagogue that is responsible for this cemetery; the direction of the cemetery in Brentwood, where the exhumed bodies were reburied; and the direction of Jerusalem, which is where you would stand if you were saying Kaddish [the Mourner’s Prayer].
After you visit a Jewish cemetery, you need to clean yourself of the sadness on your soul by washing your hands. So, we provided a cup and a wash basin made of Jerusalem stone. It’s the only kind of natural stone used in the whole scheme.
Safe future, mysterious past
And now the cemetery as a ground, as a landscape, has a Grade 2 listing, along with a very academic and truthful narrative, produced by Historic England, for how it came here. Which means that the cemetery will be protected going forward. I think that’s a great thing.
I couldn’t ever get a conclusive, verifiable narrative for how the two thirds of the cemetery were sold. When it was established, there was nothing here but orchards. As you look at the photos of the development of London, you see how intense the development around this area was. Queen Mary College, which became Queen Mary University, started in the Victorian period and continued to grow. As a result, the pressure on this land to be developed by the university was great. Other burial sites in London – not Jewish, but generally – were requisitioned to allow for urban development. That was a general mood of the time – that these historic, non-visited cemeteries were just taking up space.
There is a very simplistic story told from one side, that the Sephardis sold their heritage and pocketed the money. But that doesn’t really hold water for me, because there’s no evidence of any great financial transaction or any great spend that happened as a result of it. Also, I know people who knew the people who did the exhumations, and it was taken incredibly seriously and devotedly. It was people’s life’s work to make sure it was done Halachically and with respect. It’s not ideal that the burials were moved to another site and were put in mass graves, but the community has as much responsibility for how that transpired as anyone else.
The Velho Cemetery
The older Velho Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery in the country, has been listed and protected for some time. What’s interesting about that cemetery is its proximity to a building called Albert Stone House, which was a nursing home for the aged that the Sephardi community built. We think it was probably the first purpose-made old-age home in the world. That building is now owned by the university. I believe it was a hall of residence; I’m not sure what they’re using it for now.
But the cemetery itself there is lovely – very verdant, very green, very quiet and peaceful. There’s very little in terms of memorials, because most of them are low and flat and they’ve had their sides removed in order to prevent any further degradation of the stone. The stones are laid kind of flush with the grass. Hahem [Rabbi] Nieto is buried there, one of the famous Rabbis of the community as it was established. His grave is still visited every year by large numbers of people.