Monday, January 09, 2006

Judgement in stone

No sooner had I heard about Dave Chapple's book on veteran garment union and Communist Party activist Henry Suss than the story below reached me - from the Ham and High (that's Hampstead and Highgate Express as us old uns remember), spotted online by a guy called Arieh Leibowitz in New York, and passed on via Brent TUC president Ben Rickman. The wonder of modern news communication!

Ben thought the Jewish Socialists' Group might want to campaign on it, but happy to say, he has since been in touch with better news, so I've called off the mass demonstration and cancelled the coaches. ;-)

But now read on:

'Socialist headstone banned by cemetery
A Hampstead man has been banned from putting up a headstone on his grandfather's grave because it labels him a socialist. Mark Burman, 41, a radio producer of Greencroft Gardens, decided on the perfect three-word epitaph to his Jewish grandfather Philip Yason: "Gentleman, Thinker, Socialist".

But the Western Charitable Foundation, which oversees the Western Cemetery in Cheshunt, where Mr Yason is buried, disallowed the slogan as too political.Mr Burman said: "They said it was to do with the secular world interfering with the religious world but we want to remember him for what he was.

"He was a member of the Communist Party until the 1960s but he stayed a socialist and was always ranting about Tony Blair. The last argument I had with him was about politics. It is not a political statement - it is a description."

Mr Burman is now taking the case to the Jewish Court, the London Beth Din, in an attempt to get the decision overturned. He continued: "I just wrote to the Beth Din on Tuesday. There isn't long to get a decision because the stone setting ceremony is meant to be on February 5. The stone cutters are hassling us because they have literally been left chisel in hand and they had already given an extension".

"It was hard enough when he died. We thought everything was behind us." Mr Yason, a tailor from Bethnal Green, died in February last year aged 94. He served in World War Two and was wounded in the D-day landings, which left him with sleeping problems for the rest of his life.He saved for his burial plot in Hertfordshire by paying £20 every year through a cooperative group.

Mr Burman said: "He dressed like a prince and always looked incredible. He was very much a gentleman. He had a council flat stuffed with books and was always haggling over this or that idea. He was a member of a burial society called the Workers' Circle. It was a cheap cooperative for the poorer people in the Jewish community to save for their burial.

"Like so many of that generation he worked all his life. He was interesting, but in one way he was like everyone else: there were 120,000 Jewish people in the East End and many were active in the left. They are a part of history and we shouldn't lose that."A spokesman for the foundation said: "We are waiting for a decision from the religious authorities. Quotations should be drawn from biblical sources."

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the main representative body for British Jewry, said: "Burial authorities make sure there are some rules and the idea is that headstones aren't used for advertising or self aggrandisement. As with all rules, the way they are applied in some cases can seem a little harsh."

And the denouement, relayed again via Leibowitz, who had suggested some letters "without driving the burial people crazy", and my union pal Ben Rickman:

Dear Arieh,

No problem I already drove the cemetery people meshugge! They retracted the same day the 2nd article appeared in our local paper, the Ham & High on Friday. The stone setting goes ahead on Feb 5th with the wording as originally intended.
Ironically that same article, almost verbatim, was picked up by the Times today which spread the word somewhat!. It also transformed my Grandad from someone mildly wounded after D Day into a severely wounded and traumatized vet hit on the beaches- such is the way the press works.
The whole scenario over the wording was nuts and started shortly before the holidays. It basically came down to one petifogging bureaucrat who couldn't stand the idea of 'socialist' appearing on a headstone. It revealed the 200 hundred schism running through Anglo Jewry- the older, established Sephardi world at odds with the Ashkenazi riff raff from the Pale who brought all their dreams of revolution with them. Not many left now!
Cheers and thanks for the offer of support. Now if I could only persuade them to let us use Robeson singing the ghetto partisans song then that would be nice.

Mark Burman

So it pays to be firm when dealing with petifogging bureaucrats!

I've written to congratulate Mark Burman and wish him strength.

I hope he is successful with the Robeson number as well. It has a double resonance. The song itself, by Hirsh Glick, remains a rousing partisan anthem. But also, in 1949 when Robeson went to Moscow, he was told to play down the Jewish stuff, and he also heard something about Stalin's grisly purge of Yiddish writers. At his concert, asking for quiet, he spoke about his friends Itzik Feffer and Shlomo Mikhoels (who had already been killed), then burst into the Partisan song - "Tsog nit keinmol ....Never say that for you this is the end".



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