Haim Algranati

Interviewed by Gabrielle Levy and Polly Rogers

19 August 2019

I was born in 1954 in Israel. Now I live in Finchley, North London. My parents were born in Izmir, Turkey, and my grandparents were born in Turkey as well. They were direct descendants of the Jews that fled the Spanish Inquisition. I even traced my family to Granada, 1306…

Turkish Sephardi heritage
My father’s father was a widower, and his mother was a widow. She came from the French side. Her father, Saba, died in the trenches. My dad grew up in Turkey speaking fluent French as well as Ladino, as well as Turkish, as well as other languages. He had, possibly, about eight languages on him. My grandfather was a carpenter. He had a carpentry shop in Izmir. They were well-off, but they lost everything.

The Jews in Turkey, in the 1940s, ’30s, ’20s, it was like they were living in the 1800s. The Age of Enlightenment in Europe didn’t catch up with them till later, so their values, attitudes and outlooks on life were very different from anything we would know. When it came to religion, my dad and that generation, they learned everything by heart. My dad knew the whole prayer book by heart, he didn’t need the book. Second thing is, they were very mystically orientated. One of my forebears was a famous Kabbalist and an advisor to the Pasha.

My parents meet in Israel
At the age of about 24, my dad was involved in getting Jews to Israel from Turkey, and the Turks didn’t like it. He had to flee with the last group that he took, and he came to Israel with the group that my mum was part of, in 1947. They went to Kibbutz Ma’ale HaHamisha outside of Jerusalem and that’s where he proposed to my mum. She was 17. They moved around a bit, and settled outside of Tel Aviv in a place called Yehud…

I was born in Petah Tikva. I was born in Rosh Hashanah, and had a brit [ceremonial circumcision] on Yom Kippur, so that must have left a mark… The village we grew up was made up primarily of Jewish people that came from Turkey, so in my class you would have, let’s say, Malka Valencia, Mosheh Cordova – you know, people named after places in Spain – and there were some Yemenites, too.

We all spoke Ladino – I got to kindergarten not knowing Hebrew. Ladino encompasses a lot of mystical terminology. A lot of sentences were related to the soul, to way deeper than just the everyday communications of ‘Pass me the water,’ and so on. When I was a child, my dad used all sorts of spells to ward off evil, let’s say, if I had a nightmare. It was quite magical: he would draw a circle of water around the bed, and repeat a certain sentence three times, and every time he’d put a grain of sugar on my tongue, and say, ‘Go to sleep now.’ I did the same for my girls.

I learned all my cooking from my mum. Our cuisine was mainly vegetarian. We had fish, and some meat occasionally, but my childhood, Israel in the ’50s, was extremely poor… We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have running water, so everything was by hand. And that obviously affected your food supply as well. In those days you would have to queue up with a ration book, to get your oil supply and flour supply, cos they weren’t self-sufficient yet.

From soldier to violin maker
One of my brothers got killed while he was in the army and then I moved to a kibbutz in the south. The death of my brother, that dissolved the family. It took me about 30 years to come to terms with it. He was only a year older than me…

During my army service, I was in the Yom Kippur War, and my group in the army built a kibbutz on the way to Eilat. It is now a moshav. When I got back to Tel Aviv, I got involved in the arts and philosophy, and then I realised that violin making would be a good profession. That’s when I came to England.

Before that, in Israel I was trying to make a living as an artist, but I couldn’t. I made a deal with myself, way beforehand, that every day at five to five (4.55pm), I would stop everything for five minutes and ask the universe, ‘What is a really good profession for me?’ And finally I got the answer, and it was violin making. One day I found a little booklet in the bottom of a drawer in the flat I was living in, and there it was – a prospectus for the London College of Furniture. I’ve opened the page, and it was violin making, and I knew instantly: that’s my answer. A month later, I was in London, where I knew no one, but everything fell into place.

I used to go back to Israel a lot, but my mum passed away, and it has changed a lot. Israel is a melting pot: a lot of good things and bad things. The majority are Ashkenazi, so not many Prime Ministers have been Sephardim…

Meeting my business partner
I got to London and I had the list of all the violin makers in London, so I went to them all and offered my services as a brushman. I could carve, I could mix paint, so it wasn’t so unfamiliar working with wood, but nobody wanted me. At the bottom of the list was David Lipkin’s name. He was marked as an amateur maker, self-taught, but I gave him a call anyway, and he said he was making professionally and he was willing to teach me.

Really, I wanted to make guitars, because the classical music world was very stifling, I started taking private lessons, and I was very quick – within two months, I made two guitars, lightning quick! Then I started having problems with a neighbour, because I was banging and scraping, so I found a studio in the Old Bull High Arts Centre in Barnet. At about the same time, David was having problems with his neighbours, so I said, ‘Why don’t you come to the studio and share the space, split the cost, and I’ll be able to learn from you?’ Better still for me, he agreed, and that’s how we became LA Guitars, or LA strings, which is Lipkin and Algranati, nothing to do with Los Angeles…

I feel privileged… thank God I can do what I can do. And continue doing it. I’m not a professional musician, I’m a luthier. I play the instruments I make, but obviously not as successfully as my customers. I wish I could. But I know how they should work, inside and out, and my life is very full of musicians and music. Lots of my friends are performing musicians, and that includes my wife. She’s a professional pianist. So, through the music, I get a lot of Jewish/Middle Eastern fusions…

Other creative work: different instruments and jewellery
I used to have another studio, in Barnet. It was next to a theatre, and every time they had a show, they chucked things into the skip. One day, I saw them chucking all these pieces of nice wood, so I thought I’d take a few. Then a guy from Eritrea came to us, and asked us to make him an electric version of his small, six-stringed instrument. He plucked it, and I thought, ‘That sounds nice. Why don’t I make from this wood a big one, and have a bigger sound?’ So that’s how the instrument was born…. We called it a Nagnani, which kind of means ‘play me’ in Hebrew. Anybody can play it – you can tune it to anything, within the tension of the string. It’s inspired a little bit between the African instrument and David’s harp, which is actually more of an oud-type instrument. David’s harp would have been percussed and it would have had seven gut-strings with a very haunting sound, similar to this.

I also make jewellery from copper pipes, mostly bangles. Rings are too fine for me, you need to be a proper silversmith… I try to keep it as primitive as possible, in other words, whatever the person in Africa or in the Middle East has, a hammer and something to punch with, I’m happy with. And a bit of fire.

I’ve been doing this stuff for about 10 years. When a friend comes and I go make a bangle, if they like it, I give it to them as a present. I sell them sometimes, but actually selling art is impossible. I’m not possessive: once I’ve done it, it can go. What’s fun is doing it. Afterwards, people like it, don’t like it… it’s gone, it’s done.

My family and my community
I’ve been here 40 years now. I have a wife and two girls: not girls – young women. One is 26, and the other one is 21, and they went to universities. Sadly, they don’t speak Ladino, and I don’t think any of my cousins’ kids do either. Some people of my age, and maybe some younger, are trying to maintain the language, but it’s not as developed as the Yiddish culture. The only Ladino I’ve spoken here is with Spanish people. In the music world there’s more, because it’s a lovely music. It’s mediaeval – it has some nice melodies, good lyrics, you know, and with the oud, with this, with that, you know, you have some nice combinations. 

A lot of Sephardi Jews from Israel don’t quite connect to the Sephardi Jews in England. They’re different. The Sephardi Jews that remained in England, eventually became extremely wealthy, and we were, you know, like Third World. It’s like India, a farmer in India, and Indians living here, who are very wealthy, succeeding in their business.

I used to belong to the Masorti synagogue, but I find religious activity very tedious and very imprecise spiritually. It doesn’t satisfy me to be in a community that doesn’t even have an understanding of what they’re reading. I find the services a waste of time.

Discovering my family history
My wife kept niggling me to go to Spain, so we took a weekend in Granada, and as were walking around I saw a sign to the Jewish Museum. So, we went down this alley in Albaicin, right beneath the Alhambra, which is all ancient, and got to this house and that was the Jewish Museum. A rabbi opened the door, and I spoke to him in Ladino and his eyes just like went yip, and he says, ‘You need to be one part of the exhibition.’

There’s a whole Algranati family tree, that is going on from America, but there was a whole branch of the Algranatis that, basically, nobody knew where they were, and my daughter found out. She found them in Auschwitz, more than 50 of them… I didn’t know, you know. My daughter, she was on a trip, and she says, ‘Abba, you won’t believe it, I’m standing here, there’s a book, and about three or four pages are full of our family name,’ and she started reading the names

The Algranatis that perished there… some of them were from Greece, some from Hungary and Bulgaria and a few of them from Italy. I know there are some remnants in Italy, in Rome, in Milan, I’ve got some lost family in Argentina – Alladef, a half-sister of my brother… I’ve got a cousin. I’ve never seen him.