The date of Samuel Lyons’ bar mitzvah passed by uncelebrated. But then, almost nothing was regular for the hardy souls living in London’s East End during the German bombings.
“We spent the nights in the shelters, listening to the booming of the bombs,” recalls the feisty 85-year old in a cockney accent peppered with Yiddish. “They shuffled us from school to school. Every few days, the school would close down and we’d begin again in another. We kept busy picking through the rubble searching for shrapnel.”
Although he had begun preparing for his bar mitzvah before the war began, taking “cheder” classes at the Jews’ Free School (JFS), the school closed down when its students were evacuated to the country side. (The building was destroyed in the bombings and ultimately reopened in a different location.)
Young Samuel had been evacuated as well, but his parents soon brought him back to London, when they determined that he was not being looked after in the country.
For a while he some other boys were tutored in Judaic subjects by an Eastern-European Jew known to them only as “Rabbi Scratchy” but that ended after a few weeks as well. Like many of the buildings in his old neighborhood, it seemed as if it would be forever written off as a wartime loss.
By the time the war ended and Samuel joined the RAF, his bar mitzvah had been all but forgotten.
When he married his late wife, Malka, in 1957, he returned to the Sandy’s Row Synagogue, the ornate synagogue of his youth, where his sister (and his parents, he believes) had married before him.
In the meantime, Jewish East End sunk into decline. From the lively Jewish center of Samuel’s youth, the neighbor became home to a new wave of immigrants, this time Pakistani. Most of the Jews moved west to roomier and more “respectable” suburbs such as Hampstead and Golders Green.
Sandy’s Row, the oldest Ashkenazi place of worship in London, founded in 1856, remained behind, held tightly by the dwindling population of pensioners and suburban families that maintained their multigenerational connection to the congregation.
In the spring of 2016, the congregation invited Rabbi Mendy Korer, who codirects Chabad of Islington with his wife, Hadasa, since 2011, to become its rabbi. He had already been assisting them some time, and the congregation felt that it was time to make the connection official.
Korer promptly invited Lyons, who had maintained his connection to the synagogue for the distance, to attend services on Shabbat morning. “The rabbi bushwhacked me,” chuckles Lyons. “He told me something big was going to happen, Mendy’s a nice chap so I figured I would go support him.”
Upon his arrival, this past Shabbat, the octogenarian was surprised that the “something big” was his own bar mitzvah celebration. Emotionally, he recited the blessings of the Torah for the first time in his life.
“A lot of chaps of my crowd never had their bar mitzvahs,” reflects Samuels, who put on tefillin for the first time in his life this week. “But I could do it, anyone can. It’s never too late.”