One of my greatest thrills is to bring my past into my present – my dear friends from my previous life to my new family at Belsize Square Synagogue. In January we hosted Mona Golabek, the gifted pianist, actress and star of the one-woman show now running at St James Theatre. The Pianist of Willesden Lane tells the story of Mona’s mother, Lisa Jura, who came to London from Vienna on a Kindertransport in 1939.
At 14 Lisa was a budding classical pianist, and it was music that gave comfort to herself and other youngsters in the hostel, known as the “Children of Willesden Lane” through Mona’s bestselling book of that name. Most, like Lisa, never saw their parents again. We met Mona in Los Angeles when my wife, Ella, appeared on Mona’s popular radio show, Romantic Hour.
Shortly we will host another long-time friend of mine, Professor Rabbi Hanan Alexander, Dean of Students at Haifa University and a leading academic authority on Jewish education. The latest of his three books has drawn the attention of the education world through its focus on combining Jewish and secular liberal education. The bifurcation, especially in Israel, between the Jewish and secular world has created two societies, two worlds afraid of and largely ignorant of each other.
On Erev Shabbat 5 February, Professor Alexander will talk about criticism of Israel as opposed to demonisation. On Shabbat morning, after our Kiddush, he will speak about his own field: How Jewish is Jewish Education? At our Adult Discussion Group the next morning, he will discuss his latest book, Re-imagining Liberal Education.
Hanan and I met as eager young rabbinic students at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, now called the American Jewish University. At that time, students could study two years in Los Angeles, then transfer to the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. So that’s what these two guys from California did! Our memories and friendships with colleagues and mentors go back 40 years.
On the first Shabbat in April, we will welcome the eminent scholar and former Provost of JTS, Professor Jack Wertheimer, a leading historian of European and American Jewry. His 16 books and prolific articles for academic journals explore every aspect of Jewish life, such as schools and the rise and fall of movements. He will be with us, thanks to the support of our “angels” who have made this week possible, for our Shabbat morning Service and at our Sunday Morning Adult Discussion Group, as well as a special week-long programme for our patrons.
Jack and I met when I started at JTS and we have been close friends ever since. He mentored my doctoral studies, exams and dissertation, helped me edit my book and influenced virtually all my rabbinic studies. A wonderful teacher and brilliant scholar, and another incredible week ahead of us with an important person from my past!
From 1-5 May, I will be joined by a more recent friend, Thomas Harding, author, journalist and product of Belsize, son of our own Frank and Belinda Harding, as he leads a trip to Berlin. Thomas is a brilliant writer and speaker. You all know his first book, Hanns and Rudolf, about the capture of the Kommandant of Auschwitz. His second very personal book, Kadian Journal, chronicles his grief and reaction to his teenage son’s fatal cycling accident in 2012. With his third book, The House by the Lake, he returns to German history, tracing events of the last 120 years or so through their impact on the families who lived in a country house near Berlin, which once belonged to the Alexanders, his grandparents. Thomas is another friend whom I treasure.
And finally, on Sunday 25 September, the world-renowned violinist, Maxim Vengerov, will be joined by his accompanist and my wife for an unforgettable evening. Maxim and I go back some 20 years since we met in Chicago and we have become like close family. As an amateur violinist, I admire his virtuosity and warmth. He admires and loves my devotion to Jewish life and studies, and so we have this mutual admiration society.
Well, I’ve been in love with my Ella for over 22 years now and have never met anyone so brilliant and talented: composer and singer, with three CD records and film soundtracks – and now an author, with her book, The Orphan Sky, published last year. The novel, drawing on her youth in Soviet ruled Azerbaijan, received rave reviews.
The people I love from past and present will meet the people I love at Belsize Square Synagogue. Let’s rejoice and enjoy the wisdom, learning and music – together! See you in synagogue this month and beyond. May you all be blessed with a month of goodness, peace and joy.
Rabbi Stuart Altshuler