My Early Life
by Rabbi Michael Plaskow MBE
My Early Years I
It is impossible to write briefly about the life of the Rabbi Michael Plaskow MBE. He is certainly no stranger to public and communal life. If I were to include every facet of his interesting and fascinating life story, it would probably need all the pages of this magazine. Just switch on your computer, go to Google and insert his name and you'll see what I mean.
But before I write about Michael's role and contribution to the Young Israel Synagogue of North Netanya, here are just a few details of his earlier life. He was born in Tel Aviv on 8th July 1936 to British born parents Solomon and Bella who made aliya in the early thirties and were married in Tel Aviv. However, due to the political troubles in Palestine, as it was then, they returned to Britain with young Michael in 1937.
He grew up first in Wales and then in 1945 the family moved to Stamford Hill. He was educated first at the Egerton Road Primary school and then at the famous Central Foundation Grammar School, Cowper Street, in the City of London from 1947-52. He decided to study Chazanut and was accepted at Jews' College. He was twice awarded the Samuel Alman Prize for Chazanut. At the same time he studied music at the Curwen College of Music where he gained his LTSC diploma and ALCM (Associate of the London College of Music) diploma in singing and theory of music.
In 1956 the Woodside Park Synagogue suffered a terrible tragedy. Both the Chazan and financial representative were killed in a road accident whilst returning from the funeral of the father of Rabbi Sydney Leperer the Rabbi of the synagogue. Jews' College was asked to supply a Chazan at short notice, but it had to be someone who could also read the Torah. Michael was the only one who could do both. He officiated on Shabbat 17th November 1956 and remained until his retirement on 1st January 2000 and then moved to Netanya with his lovely wife Phyllis.
During his professional life in England he has been deeply involved in many other aspects of communal life.
He is a highly experienced and successful Mohel,
He was the Visiting Chaplain to many hospitals and a prison, Wormwood Scrubbs.
He was the Honorary Chaplain to the Jewish Deaf Association and was instrumental in obtaining the authority of the London Beth Din for use of the Loop System in synagogues on Shabbat.
For 15 years, he was Chaplain to Kisharon School for Special Needs Jewish Children and attended on virtually a daily basis.
He was the Chairman of the Chazanim Association of Great Britain and in that capacity represented all the Chazanim at meetings of the Council of the United Synagogue.
He was chairman of the public sector for the Metropolitan Police in the borough of Barnet .
He is a Freeman of the City of London and holds the distinguished rank of Past Junior Grand Deacon in Freemasonry.
When he held the rank of Acting Grand Chaplain, he was given the honour of being Founding Chaplain at the Consecration of two new lodges - a rare honour.
In 1996, he was awarded the Norman Spencer Essay Prize for Research into Freemasonry.
In 1996 he received the honour of an MBE, member of Her Majesty's Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
On his retirement he was appointed Emeritus Chazan of the Woodside Park Synagogue having served the community for 43 years.
Here at the Young Israel Synagogue of North Netanya, he remains a busy public figure but always with time for everyone. He successfully leads the daily Daf Yomi after every weekday Shacharit, is still an outstanding and expert Baal Keriah, a highly competent and knowledgeable Gabbai, and a talented actor in our annual Purim Spiel.
Michael has many qualities but there is one other quality that I, as a close and personal friend of many years, can say without doubt or fear of contradiction. Never in all the time that I have known him, have I ever heard Michael speak badly about any other person. He is truly worthy of every honour that has been and is being bestowed on him.
Today here in Israel, he is surrounded by his close family, his wife Phyllis, his brother Stuart, his two daughters, sons-in-law, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren. I am sure that every member of our synagogue joins with me in wishing Mazal Tov to him and to his lovely family.
My Early Years II
As I mentioned in my previous article, I attended cheder at the New Synagogue in Egerton Road, Stamford Hill. On Sundays, it was from 10 to 1pm and Monday to Thursday from 5-7. I clearly remember the headmaster coming into the classroom one weekday at about 5.15 and asked for Plaskow. I went to the door to be confronted by my Father. The headmaster said, "Plaskow, you can go now with your Father, I know all about this". This was obviously pre-arranged but where were we going? Dad said to me, "Michael, I want you to learn an important lesson. We are a frum family and Torah learning is very important. However, unusually, there is a weekday Spurs football match later on and I know you love football and I want you to see it". In other words, there is a time and place to enjoy everything in life. I have never forgotten that lesson. Many years later, I reminded my Father what he did that day. He told me that as a young lad, his own mother (my bubba) took him out of yeshiva one day and they went to the Hackney Empire for a theatre show.
During the war years, I walked from my home to school, crossing Clapton Common. There was a massive barrage balloon situated there. During an air raid the balloon, tethered by metal cables, would prevent low flying enemy aircraft. However, one day I did see it go up in flames. After an air raid, it was not uncommon to see hundreds of pieces of shrapnel on the roads and pavements. As pupils, we were always told never to pick up or touch any strange objects as they could possibly explode.
In 1944, I was eight years old and I had a flourishing business selling fish (sticklebacks). I used to go to Clapton pond with about six empty jam jars which were tied with string. I placed them fairly near each other with the string out of the water. I sat on a seat for about ten minutes and then went to have a look. Yes, some of the jars had a fish or two inside. I pulled on the strings, lifted out the jars, took out the fish and sold them in school the following day.
Also, in 1944, my Mother took ill with scarlet fever. She was admitted to St Annes Road Isolation Hospital in Tottenham. Then I followed suit and landed up in the same ward as indeed my brother Stuart, aged three. My Mother was shocked to find her two sons in the ward. Only my Father escaped the fever.
One of the saddest moments in my life was in June 1944. My Father had a brother aged 31, Chazan Abraham Plaskow, who was the part-time chazan in Springfield Synagogue, Clapton. He had a beautiful voice and on many occasions we used to go to the shul to hear him officiate. Sadly, on a Friday afternoon before shabbat, he was on a bus in Tottenham Court Road in the West End of London and was killed with about 100 others by a flying bomb.
On Friday erev shabbat, my Father and I went to Lampard Grove shul or better known as Grove Lane shul. This was a very homely shul and I was barmitzva there in 1949. I also went to cheder there and one of my teachers was Mr Barnet Lemon (Harvey's father). In fact, Harvey and I have known each other since the mid forties. This shul was world famous for their very distinguished Rabbi Rabbinov. People came from far afield to listen to him especially his Shabbat Shuva derasha which he delivered for two hours without any notes.
For some time, during the war years, we were evacuated to Tredegar in Wales (My brother Stuart was born there in 1941) and to Leicester. I don't know why we went there as we had no relations living there. There was nothing much to do on a shabbat afternoon as we did not live near Leicester shul. My Father used to take me to Rushey Fields where we would watch a football match out in the open air. It was usually the police versus the firemen and it certainly passed the time away. We also played correspondence chess. Every move was sent by post. Looking back it was so tedious waiting for the letter to arrive with the next move. Oh how I wish we had a computer or Skype in those days. My Father always enjoyed making kites for me to fly. Somewhere, there is a kite still flying with the biggest ball of string attached to it. Unfortunately, it was very windy that day and I let go. I could see that the war years were very worrying to my parents. My Father did not have a job. Also, on shabbat he always wondered what was happening in the world. Were the Russians advancing? Were there any air raids on London? So he kept a battery radio on throughout shabbat and listened intently to the news broadcasts.
Many years later, I went to Leicester to perform a brit mila. I took a chance and went to the same house where we lived. True enough, the landlady, now at an advanced age, remembered little Michael and was thrilled to see me again. I thanked her for her kindness during that terrible time.
Looking back on those years, I never want to see them again. I remember the four of us huddled together in a shelter known as a Morrison shelter which was underneath our dining room table. Many times we went to bed there so that we would not be disturbed by the air raids. Every time we had an air raid my Father told me to recite the shema. All I can say is B"H" we now live in Israel, our true homeland, and I honestly believe these years are the happiest in our lives.
My Early Years III
Firstly, my thanks to all for your very positive feedback to the previous two parts.
I got into Central Foundation Grammar School in the City of London by the skin of my teeth. It was 1947, aged 11, and it is two years after the war. I did not do well in the Entrance Exam but I was highly recommended by the Headmaster of my primary school (Egerton Road) to be given a place in Grammar School purely through my merits during the year.
There were three forms in every year 1a, 1b, 1c. In the first year I went from 1a to 1b. I did badly in the end-of-year exams so I went to 2b. I then did well during the year so I went to 2a. Then followed the same pattern as previously namely 2a to 3b; then to 3a; then to 4b; then to 4a and finally to the fifth form. I failed all my GCE's. (General Certificate of Education).
Aged 16, I went to the Faculty for the Training of Hebrew Teachers in Jews' College. I passed my School Certificate, Intermediate Exam and finally Diploma A. I was now earning the highest rate as a Hebrew Teacher. At least I proved to myself I could pass exams. After that I passed every exam in music at Jews' College; at the London College of Music and at The Curwen College; then the medical exam to be a mohel and in communicative skills - sign language, as a Chaplain to Jewish Deaf. So I will never know why I could not do well in Grammar School.
Now back to Grammar School. I was House Captain in Chess. I related previously how I played chess in Leicester with my Father during the war years. Our school used to play other schools very regularly and all the six players representing our school were Jewish. Every time our school laid on a tea, to show hospitality to the visiting team, it was always treif. I went to the Head and told him we are all Jewish and not only do I not partake of this but really all the others should not do so either - even though they are not orthodox. The result was I was allowed to bring in a kosher tea with filled sandwiches for all my team paid for by the school. I was also proud to have played 26 games representing the school and unbeaten in all my matches.
During the winter months and short Friday afternoons, I had to leave school early from the City to get back home in time for Shabbat. In the middle of the Latin lesson, I stood up and told the master (Mr Parker) I was leaving as I have permission. Why are you leaving so early? I gave him the reason. He replied, "And why are the other Jewish boys not leaving?" "Please Sir, because I am the only one who is orthodox". You can imagine the class laughing and in uproar. As I went to exit the classroom, he grabbed hold of me and said that he was taking me to the Headmaster. We entered the Head's study and he told the master to release me. "Ok Plaskow, you may go home. There is no problem".
Now here comes the nicest part of this incident. Three days later, on Monday morning my parents received a home visit from the Headmaster. They were shocked thinking I was involved in an accident. The Head came to apologise personally for the disgusting behaviour of his Latin Master who should have respected those who genuinely have religious beliefs. However, about thirty years later, I was Chairman of the Jewish Old Boys and this Master was Guest of Honour. In his address to those present, he stated that he remembered me and how the Headmaster had castigated him for his behavior. He then apologized to me in public.
At this stage, I want to relate a fascinating experience my brother Stuart had at his grammar school. He was a 5th form pupil attending the Avigdor Jewish Grammar School in Stoke Newington. The principal of the school, the late Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld decided (in his wisdom) to illegally remove the Headmaster, Mr Jack Crystal and put in his place a senior master from the Hasmonean Boys' Grammar School to be the acting headmaster. The following morning, about a dozen pupils including the Head Boy and Stuart thought that this was an outrageous act. When the morning bell sounded for pupils to go to their respective classrooms, they stayed outside the school and signed a petition demanding that the legally appointed Head be reinstated.
County Hall which was the headquarters for education in London advised Stuart and his 'striking' friends to return to school the following morning - which they did. Some months later, the Minister of Education commenced legal proceedings against Rabbi Schonfeld in which no evidence against Mr Crystal was substantiated in court. As a result, the Headmaster was able to resume his duties.
Some years later, Rabbi Schonfeld was residing in Highgate not far from the synagogue where Stuart was the Chazan. Rabbi Schonfeld approached Stuart and asked him to read the proofs of his new translation of the siddur. Stuart is rightly very proud that in Rabbi Schonfeld's siddur, he is thanked for his work by a distinguished leader in orthodox Jewry.
My Early Years IV
Looking back on school life elementary and grammar, I had many teachers. However, very few made an impact on me save one in particular. His name was Sammy Kramer who was born in 1912. I got to know him as a pupil in Central Foundation Grammar school. He used to visit the school for what was known as "Withdrawal Classes". All Jewish boys would have a Jewish religious instruction teacher twice a week. He visited my school for 27 years and the other famous grammar school, known as Grocers Hackney Downs) for 35 years. I was a pupil from 1947 to 1952. I always recollect the way he would enter a classroom. There was always a kind smile on his face. He would put his case on the table, take out his notebook and begin the lesson usually with a joke.
This was greeted by friendly groans and that would set the atmosphere in the class which was serious study conducted with reverence mixed with humour. One class even produced a certificate made out to Mr Kramer on his 100th joke and signed by all his pupils.
He was by nature a quiet man. His knowledge of Hebrew Grammar was legendary and many people sought his expertise. When he taught, it was from the heart. He imbued them with a love of Torah, taught them to conduct themselves in a humble and dignified way, adhering to the tenets of their faith. He had a reputation as a proficient and dedicated teacher. On a number of occasions, he gave demonstration lessons at in-service training courses that were of immense benefit to future teachers.
One must remember that the children he taught were the offspring of immigrants, and were exposed to a new type of society. The turbulence of the war years produced children who were confronted with challenges that left them confused and without clear direction in their belief of Hashem. It was to these children that he devoted his efforts, educated and led them in the direction of Torah-true Judaism thereby inspiring successive generations of young people.
All his travelling from one school to another was by London Transport. From 11pm to about 3am he studied for his BA degree and having graduated, many students approached him for advice as to how to apply oneself to work during the day and study by night. He warned them that one had to maintain extreme discipline to study till the small hours of the morning and then apply oneself to work during the day.
The complexities of the teaching of science and the misconception of Judaism had to be dealt with and drawing on his experience in the classroom, he wrote and published a text-book (which I have) entitled 'Glory of the Torah' which addressed in a question and answer form all these concerns. Jewish education is never lost and hopefully his lasting legacy will be the example he set both in his private life and in his teachings.
I was blessed to have had him as my teacher and to have known him in later life. He passed away 20 years ago. May his memory be for a blessing.
Grammar School Days
Generally speaking, I was well-behaved at school but I had my moments. I recall being given 100 lines for chewing a sweet in class. I had to write “The mastication of deleterious sweetmeats in class necessitates an imposition”. I was a pupil at Central Foundation Grammar School in the City of London. 98% of the pupils were Jewish. It only needed a master who could not control the class for the Jewish pupils to cause havoc. A typical example was when a bee was upsetting the Latin master. Some of the class wanted to kill it while others refused. It was killed. A Jewish boy stood up and said, “Please sir, as you can see, most of the class are Jewish and it is in our religion that a prayer for the dead should be said”. Whereupon, 24 of the 30 lads, covered their heads with their hands and recited Kaddish!! I have never laughed so much in all my life. This master once put his chair on his desk and said in desperation, “Now I know you will have to look up at me!!” To one boy who irritated him so much he said, “I will throw you outside the door and when it comes to writing your report, I’ll say you were an outstanding pupil. He wrote in a report, “David is a good student. It is a pity his tongue is not amenable to discipline. Other well-known quips of his were “Naught for the naughty boy”, “A noise annoys me”, “Aloud is not allowed”, “Look in or lookout” and “Do not gamble at Ladbroke’s because it makes lads broke”.
Yet another teacher was known for his sarcasm. A certain pupil was always bottom of the class in French but to everyone’s surprise came second in the end-of-term results. “Stand up Charles. So you came second. I have to tell you that normally the sediment sinks to the bottom but in this instance the scum has risen to the surface”. This same master asked each pupil their future career. One lad said he would like to be a brain surgeon. The master unwittingly replied, “If I had a brain, I would not give it to you”.
For religious studies, a Jewish teacher came twice a week. I do remember one of his witticisms. “What do you call a man from Michigan? = a michiganer”. He was a lovely man but, regretfully, was not a disciplinarian. When we were rowdy he would clutch his heart and say “My heart is going -- but I’m not going with it”.
In 1956, aged 16, I left school and stuck this poem on my desk.
Good luck to the boy that enters this desk
In here was a scholar, he was the best.
Use the books thoroughly, work at them well
You’ll find in the end your results will tell.
My advice to you laddie is work at them steadily
You’ll find it pays back in the end.
When you come to the test, you’ll be the best
And your results will be a godsend.
Finally, friend, I wish you good luck
Remember the advice I have given.
I’ve been through the test, I was the best
And soon I’ll be earning a living!!!
The truth is told that I was not the best. I failed my exams but four years later at the age of 20, I was appointed chazan of my shool and so I did start to earn a living. It was to provide me with my livelihood for 43 very happy years until my retirement.