Interviewed by Julia Pascal
4 June 2020
I was born in Manchester. My father’s family came from Salonika. My great-grandfather was an Italian citizen, so all the children were Italian, and before that one strand of the family were from Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century.
The Romaniote tradition
The Romaniote tradition primarily comes from Greek Jews who have lived in Greece since the Christian era, so for the best part of 2,000 years. They’ve got different songs, different chants and so on. When the Jews were thrown out of Spain and Portugal, they found their way into the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans and so on. In some of the cities that the Spanish and Portuguese people were expelled from, Romaniote were absorbed into a Spanish and Portuguese culture. In other locations, Romaniote hung onto their traditions and they were absorbed.
The Spanish and Portuguese Jews persevered and had the surname J-E-U-D-A. It’s a popular name in Ioannina, in North-West Greece, where my great-grandfather was born. The synagogue in Ioannina today still worships in a traditional Romaniote way… And the synagogue in New York is still working. I’ve been to two Romaniote services in New York. The synagogue has a newsletter of 10,000 subscribers, so they keep the traditions alive.
The family moves to Manchester
My grandfather, Nissin Jeuda, was born in 1873 in Salonika, went to the States in 1896, left as a citizen in 1904 and came to Manchester. And there he stayed, got married in 1905 to my grandmother, Judith Cohen, who was born in Izmir in Turkey and went with her parents in Cairo. Her eldest sister married a shipper who ran a business in Manchester. So, the whole family moved over in about 1896 to Manchester.
My grandfather was an itinerant school master, I don’t think particularly good, so when these five or six children came, they were basically supported by this wealthy shipper, and he had a variety of jobs. He was the paid secretary to the Manchester congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, the Sephardi congregation in North Manchester at the time.
The last Ladino speakers in Manchester?
They were a Ladino-speaking family – indeed, my father was almost the last Ladino speaker in Manchester. But they also spoke French at home and my father also knew some Arabic. My father would have spoken more Ladino if there were more people he could speak with, but it was a dying language. I think it died out in the 1930s in Manchester. My parents spoke in English together, but when they didn’t want us to understand what they were saying, they spoke French.
My mother was Ashkenazi. My parents met at a cousin’s wedding in Manchester in 1929, and they got married in Brondesbury synagogue in 1930. My mother came from quite a wealthy family – she went to a Jewish girls’ boarding school in Leicester, then a Jewish girls’ finishing school in Belgium. I had no experience of Ashkenazi worship, though: we went to a Sephardi synagogue and followed Sephardi traditions. Seder nights are the main part of Sephardi culture that we have at home now.
Nearly all my friends were Sephardi and all their parents were friends with each other, so it was a close-knit community. There were some Ashkenazi in that community, some who had Sephardi spouses and so on. It was a comfortable, middle-class community. Ours was a comfortable house built in a non-Jewish area at the time, 1931, by my mother’s father. They always had a linen maid and possibly a daily as well, to help out. My father was a merchant in the textile trade… Myself and my friends all went to prep schools and some went to boarding schools. I didn’t in the end. My brother went to a Jewish boarding school, south coast. I went to Manchester Grammar School.
My working life
I went to Manchester University and did what is now called a Business Studies degree. At the same time, 1955, I became an articled clerk in Manchester… So, in 1961, when I was 23, I’d got a university degree under my belt and qualified with an accountant… I had a career in the county for a while and I worked for Rothschild’s banking in Manchester. Then I had four years as a full-time politician, working for Cheshire County Council, for Labour. Then for 12 years I was the Managing Director of a development agency based in Warrington. That took me to 1995. Between 1999 and 2007, I was Chair of two NHS health authorities. I’d had public appointments stretching back between 1974 and 2006, so quite an extensive public sector involvement: health bodies, new town development corporation work, that sort of stuff.
I got interested in my own family history in 1988, when I went to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manchester, which we helped set up. I was interested in the history of the Sephardi congregation in South Manchester, but I don’t know too much about North Manchester. I became Chairman of the Trustees of the Jewish Museum for about four years… In 1994, we put on an exhibition for the Sephardi congregation’s 80th birthday. Part of the work I did was interviews with elderly members of the Sephardi congregation: I recorded about 45-50. I also got into local industrial history, and I’ve written a fair number of books on local railway history in Cheshire and Staffordshire. And social history. All in all, I’ve written about 19 or 20 books…
My brother was seven years older than me. He worked with my father in the textile business from 1964 until our father died. The industry was going downhill, so he then had a career in a factory in Manchester… … He passed away in 1979. He had a hard struggle after his business failed. He got two children, one of them died in action and the other one is living in Australia.
Sephardim in Manchester
There were two Sephardi communities in Manchester – the English, which was based at Queens Road Synagogue, and the Middle Eastern, Shaare Sedek. They were within 200 yards of each other, [but] they had two separate Torahs, two separate rabbis and so forth. So, they were quite different. Alan Yentob was a member of the Middle Eastern synagogue. Isaac Belisha, the grandfather of the Belisha beacon man [Leslie Hore-Belisha], helped to set up the Manchester synagogue in the early 1870s. His grandson ended up in the cabinet in the 1930s, first of all [as] Minister of Transport… He was hammed out of the cabinet by the top man and lady. As far as I can see, he’s the only Sephardi Cabinet member there’s ever been in Britain.
This is the history: Bevis Marks is a Masorti synagogue in Manchester which opened in 1873, 1874, for the Manchester congregation of Spanish and Portuguese speakers. This spawned the Whittington congregation, which was much larger and opened in 1904. In 1917, the Greater Synagogue opened up… That was a breakaway from the Whittington Synagogue, only about a mile away physically, and that was for those who didn’t like the Spanish and Portuguese rituals… …
There were a few Baghdadians, other refugees from the Ottoman Empire and that is largely the ritual that is continued now. What you got in Manchester in 1915 was a very wealthy merchant middle class of Iraqi Baghdadian Jews who were very, very wealthy… The Shashas – they made their money out of textiles and they set up the Shasha foundation charity… So, there was a Sephardi merchant middle class which was pretty wealthy… … Compared to two streets down, where my family grew up, on Lansdowne Road… where you’ve got a Sephardi underclass. You’ve got a whole range of Sephardi Jews.
I always used to go to synagogue on Yom Kippur because of the beautiful singing. There was more traditional Sephardi chanting in the Queen’s Road one.
Class and religious differences
To the outside world, Sephardi means Sephardi, but if you’re living in the Sephardi community, there were cultural differences. They might live near each other, they might trade with each other, but there were strong cultural differences. Something that helped the breakdown of culture between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi was the cultural institutions that had just opened… …
When I grew up, there was the Jewish youth club, which was a real hotspot for the Sephardis and Ashkenazis. They’d play soccer or whatever. It was a real mixture… it was all breaking down. When I was 12 or 13, we had a friendly soccer match with a team from north Manchester, an almost entirely Ashkenazi team, and it was the first time I was aware that there was a significant Jewish working class in Manchester. You can tell from the prayers and everything else that they were completely different from the ones around me.
I was a member of the Habonim for a short while, but what did become important – and was certainly not a Sephardi thing, but mixed together – was the JNF (The Jewish National Fund for Israel in Great Britain). I was a member of the JNF for several years… not a Sephardi thing, but you can see how the bonds between some of the Sephardi were breaking down…
Outside of that it was even more of a cultural thing then… there was certainly a feel that the Ashkenazi were inferior… I always believed it. I think it was instilled in me that the Ashkenazi were the lower class to the Sephardi, and I say that with shame…