View from a London Park Bench
On one of my London visits I had an unusual experience on my way to shul. During the days before Shabbat I had read a number of important books, including a collection of essays by the brilliant English Jewish scholar, Sir Isaiah Berlin, who teaches at Oxford University. This book includes chapters on Disraeli and Karl Marx. Both of these men had descended from generations of Jews but had practiced the 19th century custom of assimilation by baptism.
I had been reading this book late into Friday night, and was quite tired, when I got up to take the long hike to the Marble Arch Synagogue. I walked up Park Lane, along Hyde Park.. About half way, I came to a block with very old buildings -- mansions at least 200 years old -- set back a few feet from park Lane, their white paint weather-beaten. Usually cars are parked, perched right up on the curb, facing the mansions. But this morning, as I approached this ancient block, tired from the long walk, I saw none of the usual cars. Instead a park bench was placed against the tall, black fence in front of one of the mansions.
It was a welcome sight, as it offered me some rest after the mile-long walk up to this spot. As I sat down, a bit wearily, I noticed that outside the side entrance of one of the mansions there was a magnificent coach of such elaborate design that it took me moments to recollect anything similar I had ever seen. Yes, it bore remarkable resemblance to Sir Moses Montefiore’s coach, which used to be enshrined near the famous Wind Mill in Jerusalem. This coach, however, was a bit smaller, being drawn by two, not four horses. It was absolutely shining and spotless down to its gilded moldings and doorknobs. The two black horses acted a bit nervous and were stamping their hoofs against the pavement. Maybe the coachman had transferred his nervousness to these poor animals, for he kept fuming and uttering one profanity after the other.
Several times the large wooden door leading to the mansion opened, and an elaborately attired maid would stick out her head and call over to the coachman something to the effect that her master wanted to know if Gregory -- evidently the coachman’s name -- had found out the address to where he was to take his master. He evidently had no such knowledge, for his only answer was a shrug of his shoulders.
The scene intrigued me, and I got up from the bench, as tired as I was, to inspect the coach and to watch for further developments. Suddenly the door sprang open and an elderly, tall gentleman, wearing austere black clothes and a coat with a black, fur collar, a walking stick under his arm, barked out and literally swung his stick at the head of his coachman, "How often must I tell you to find the exact address of where you have to take me!"
I felt sorry both for Gregory and his master and quickly thought of some way how I could be helpful in this situation. I don’t know exactly what came over me, but I actually collected myself, and perhaps awed by the gentleman’s impressive appearance, quickly buttoned my jacket and coat and walked toward him: "Sir, maybe I can help you. Although I am a stronger in London, perhaps I could help you with the address you are looking for!"
A very warm and friendly smile suddenly came over the gentleman’s face. He stroked back the black lock of his hair that was covering part of his forehead, stroked his graying goatee and exclaimed, with a gleam in his eyes: "Splendid! You may be just the right man for me. You see, I have to deliver a lecture today on Darwin and Huxley, and I am too old to remember where the meeting is taking place!"
Well, what did I know of science meetings in London? But I boldly took a chance: "Sir, would such a meeting not take place in Oxford?"
"Well, of course! You are quite right! How absent-minded of me to have forgotten! And now I remember that the meeting does not take place until this afternoon. I have considerable time on my hands until then." He hesitated a moment and then added, "Would you perhaps care to join me for a while on this bench so that we both can enjoy the fresh London air on this Saturday morning?"
We had hardly sat down, when he explained his plans for his Oxford talk.
"You know all this talk of man descending from apes? It is not for me and my kind, I am on the side of the angels, not on the side of the apes!"
My face paled. I was absolutely certain that I had heard or seen those very same words just hours ago. "Sir, this is an extraordinary coincidence. I have just read those very words in a book during this past night, and it was written in Oxford, by the famous Jewish philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin."
"A Jewish professor at Oxford? Now you must be joking; you cannot be serious. Berlin you say is his name? Like the Congress of Berlin?"
"Yes," I said, "it is a collection of essays called ‘Against the Current.’"
"Well, he answered, the title at least is fitting. I, too, all my life have had to fight my way against the current. You may remember my maiden speech in Parliament, but you may not have heard those other pronouncements of mine -- always suppressed by this cursed English press -- which were much more forthright.
"For example, during an election campaign I said publicly that my pedigree is certainly superior to that of the Cavenedishes. At another occasion I retorted in scorn when I was accused of being an adventurer: ‘Remember that my ancestors were on intimate terms with the Queen of Sheba. Well, you know, these Saxons and Normans you see around yourself here, a mixture now called Englishmen, were still going around half-naked eating acorns in the woods, when my ancestors were kings of Judah and Israel!"
"Sir, I see that you are Jewish. So am I. In fact, I am on my way to synagogue this Sabbath morning."
"I must again warn you to be serious. There can be no synagogue anywhere near here. There is one down in the city, at Bevis Marks Street, where the rites of my ancestors are followed. I have certainly heard of a few synagogues in the East End, but surely there are non near Hyde Park!"
At this point I became understandably quite concerned with the stability of the gentleman’s mind, and I decided not to dispute him, and instead test him carefully:
"Sir, may I ask you for your opinion on world affairs today?"
"Well, Her Majesty is the best answer to that question. India is the key to the entire world situation. That is why I made sure that Her Majesty would be crowned Empress of India. It was my proudest moment. To think that a Jew of Italian and Spanish ancestry -- countries where Jews were viziers to Kings and Queens -- would agree to occupy that position? And in the face of all those empty-headed, unemotional Englishmen. But let me go on.
"India is not the end of the road. With the Suez Canal in our hands, the Near East will sooner or later also fall into our hands. We must secure all approaches to India. Only the Turk lies in our way. And the Turk rules over the barren rocks and desolate groves of my ancestral home, where kings and prophets of the noblest and most exalted kind lived and produced the thoughts and morals by which the entire Christian -- and even the Moorish -- world now tries to live.
"Mind you, I seldom meet a Jewish visitor, so permit me to say something that I must keep in my innermost thoughts when I visit Whitehall or Buckingham Palace. One day it will be said that I opened the doors to a reborn Jewish state, where Jews again can live and give the world the full fruits of their G-d given genius."
I was just about to utter something, anything, in reply to his astounding speech, but in my utter confusion I could not formalize my thoughts, much less my words, before the gentleman continued:
"You know, come to think of it, a few years ago I sat on this bench with another young man. He was short in height and wore an unkempt, large beard. It was a most memorable conversation. Before many moments had passed, we both realized that we only had one thing in common. Both of our fathers had made sure that, in order to start us off in this world, we were duly baptized into the Christian Church. Also, both of us had rabbis among our ancestors -- he many more than I. Even his mother descended from many illustrious rabbis. But would you credit me with full belief if I were to tell you that his and my conclusions on life were of totally opposing natures.
"He had decided to hide his Jewish background and in fact had turned his indifference into hatred, because it seems that even his most ‘liberal’ friends harassed him constantly for his Jewish ancestry. And the poor chap -- a German, who believed strictly in the truth of official registries and statistics -- believing that the baptismal water had made him into a changed species, could not explain to himself why he was still considered a Jew! I, on the other hand, decided very early on that I was completely a product of my Jewish ancestors and was profoundly proud of them. And furthermore, I concluded, that only by bringing all these extraordinary Jewish qualities to bear, could I make my unique contribution to the welfare of Great Britain and, thereby, to the world. Of course, the young man in question degenerated totally and the last I heard of him -- his name was Karl Marx -- he was the head of some totally discredited movement that stood no chance of political success.
"As you can see, the baptismal waters did absolutely nothing to me. Maybe you heard the charming story that a friend of mine related about that great contemporary of ours, Heinrich Heine, who, too, had undergone baptism in order to enter the university. My friend, after meeting Heine again after many years, inquired whether he truly believed in Jesus. Heine chortled and answered, ‘Have you ever met one Jew who believe in another Jew?’"
My friend, at this point laughed uncontrollably. I had of course heard the story many times and was much less amused by it. But the gentleman had more to say:
"In sum, I am not a hypocrite. Even Gladstone called me a ‘crypto-Jew,’ not realizing that he flattered me to no end, thereby, and of course not knowing that what he was really calling me was a Marrano, the most noble designation I can think of."
By now I was ready with my reply.
"But sir, I have truly important news for you, and I do hope that you will believe me. Your dreams have all come true. After almost 100 years, Britain gave India independence. That happened in 1947, because a foreign secretary, Sir Stafford Cripps, had made them that promise during World War II -- a war fought against the greatest anti-Semite of all time, Hitler, who made all Jews responsible for what Karl Marx, the young man you mentioned, had started. But with Indian independence, England lost its desire to hang on to the Near East. And although they had wrested Palestine from the Turk -- just as you had planned it -- and had offered it as a Jewish state, England abandoned it in 1948, just one year after India’s independence, and ever since there has been an independent Jewish State of Israel, a place where Jewish dreams and values have come to full fruition."
I noticed that the gentleman -- and there could be no more doubt anymore in my mind that I was sitting next to the Earl of Beaconsfield -- the likeness with his statue in Westminster Abbey was unmistakable -- was filled with incredulity, although the pages of his many novels, especially his favorite Tancred, had romanticized about the Jewish genius and its ultimate revival. He was just about to say something, probably a total disclaimer of the probability of anything I had just said, when a large newspaper truck passed us, which on its side sported an enormous poster reading "Israel’s 46th Anniversary of Independence -- Full Story and Photographs -- Read the Times."
He became totally silent. Moments passed. Then he turned to me slowly, and with tears welling in his wise eyes he said something totally unexpected: "Then why did I have to be baptized?"
I took him by his hands, and in order to overcome any conflict that he may have felt in his heart and to avoid any further intellectual discussion, I said, "My Lord, why do you not accompany me to the synagogue, just yonder, near Marble Arch. You will feel so much at home there."
He did not hesitate for a moment.
"Yes, my friend! I shall follow you!" With that he got up, asked me to wait just for a little while and strode back into the house.
Many moments passed. He never returned.
While waiting I must have dozed off a little, but when I came to again, I noticed that cars were again parked on the sidewalk of the mansion. There was no coach in sight. A sign, which I had not seen, said, "Benjamin Disraeli, the Earl of Beaconsfield lived in this house from 1835 to 1874."
In shul I kept an empty seat next to me throughout the service. Just in case my friend would decide to come ... after all ... In fact, I shall do so every time in the future when I am in London.
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