The Jerusalem Post

Stories from Green Lane: The Gabba of the Hashkoma Minyan - short story

 Illustrative photo: A view of Green Lane, Hendon, London (photo credit: Michael Steinbock)
Illustrative photo: A view of Green Lane, Hendon, London
(photo credit: Michael Steinbock)

Inspired by true events, this is a work of fiction; therefore, the story and characters are fictitious. It will be part of the author's upcoming book.

Disclaimer: Inspired by true events, this is a work of fiction; therefore, the story and characters are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is purely coincidental. Any public agencies, institutions, or historical figures mentioned in the story serve as a backdrop to the characters and their actions, which are wholly imaginary. 

Mr. Grusber, very tall, heavy and imperious, and with Victorian sideburns, spoke with a musical lilt, words and sentences rounded into a gentle curve. His body language as he leaned forward was always threatening. Gabba1 of the Hashkoma2 Minyan3 in the Hendon Clal4, he reigned there absolute, undisputed, but only there. Anyone who talked or whispered found Grusber towering over them. “Be quiet.” Anyone who was late bluntly informed, “You’re late.” No mercy given. 

Every week before the main Shabbos5 minyan, the first risers would arrive at 07:15, the early morning crisp air cutting them as they walked6 to shul7. White frost had crept in the night, maliciously covering cars and pavement, hiding defects, inviting them to slip and fall. Over the roofs, the North Circular Road whispered its filthy threatening roar. Winter nights turning to morning dusk cried abandoned. 


From my window I would look out over Green Lane as they rushed to shul, not to be late and meet Grusber’s frowning disapproval. Mathematics Professor Rosenshein, lonely and childless, a genius, always plunged forward on the opposite side of the street. Walk and then run four steps stop, pause, searching in all directions, never finding, start his run again. Austere, true-blue yekke8 from Kings Close, terraced house, Kukne, almost marching, a true Frankfurt walk. The street filled and emptied with hurrying figures and I knew the time, no need to check my watch.

I first met the gabba’s son, Jeremy Grusber, I don’t know when. He lived in the Woodlands on the other side of the North Circular Road, and I found myself climbing the stairs in his house. At the top of the stairs he had a fish tank with two terrapins swimming in it. He looked at me. “They only eat raw meat. Don’t put your finger in.” He dropped in some red meat. When one died, he had a funeral for it and got another. “Remember, don’t put your finger in,” as he threw the latest Grusber family member into the tank. Downstairs, his mother in the kitchen was pretending not to listen. Tall, thin, soft and rounded, he had decided it was best not to cross his father, who was always prowling around the tiny house in a dressing gown and soft slippers. I was Jeremy’s best friend, in fact his only friend, something I realized when at his bar mitzva in their back garden, there were no other friends there. 

 Illustrative photo: A London synagogue. (credit: Michael Steinbock)
Illustrative photo: A London synagogue. (credit: Michael Steinbock)

The rabbi of the Clal, Isherofski, and Mr. Grusber loved each other. Thin, pugnacious, small, sharp-mouthed, Isherofski surrounded by impenetrable miserable, cold darkness, yearned for the dark narrow dirty streets, misery and ghettos of Europe, the fear and impenetrable distance of yiddishkeit9 frozen far from daily reality. Strangely this Polish shul, this warm community, had chosen a frozen yekke. Any interpretation was only lechumra10. No socializing between boys and girls, hair must be short, no modern music, any question about kashrus11 always was decided “not kosher”12, and Israel and Zionism, an unmentionable taboo, was a devilish plan devised to deviate from the true path of righteousness. 

The chicken soup had spilled onto the cheese cake in the fridge. “Don’t ask him,” Jeremy said. “Of course, not kosher” was the answer. It was a really happy day for me when he dropped dead. In the lower 6th, he threw me out of his Gemara13 lessons. “You will never amount to anything,” he said. “When you decide to cut your hair, you can talk to me about coming back.” I had no intention of doing so. “Look and take an example from Sikeirtsz.” His grandfather Zelfpaz lived on the next corner, one of the Green Lane shumblers14, running to shul, generations of ghetto oppression on his shoulders. Sikeirtsz, a clever swindler whom we called Slickeirtsz, swayed over his Gemara whenever Isherofski looked in his direction. Later he divorced, leaving his ex with four abandoned kids and ended up living with a shiksa15 in Tel Aviv, till he became paralyzed waist down in a diving accident.

Shabbos mincha16 the boys streamed into the Clal and milling around sat lounging leaning over each other, and shmoozed17 on the folded seats of the back benches. It throbbed and hummed. In the regular seats, David Sfarad and the others were talking about gold and the stock market; on the left back, the Zionists were praying; and in the front left, the criminals and repeat bankrupts in their seats near mizrach18, meant for the righteous and wealthy, shook like leaves in the wind shockeling19 in their prayers. 


Unnoticed, Charlie Goldbaum stood in the aisle, and unhinged after years in jail, screamed odd verses in prayer. Talk of small business problems, heating engineers, plumbers, their kids in Cambridge and Oxford, struggling in diamonds, semi-precious stones, finance, property. 

Noise rose, living music, hundreds of seats, every seat taken, its own rhythmic chord, and life unstoppable, waves in the sea, carrying on disappearing only to reappear. All this was too much for Mr. Grusber. Sliding out of the rows in front of the bima20, like a dark cloud he came upon us kids in the back. Protected by past, present, and future deep oceans of love, nobody paid him any attention. Football scores, school gossip, news from Israel. Their families torn, parents, brothers, and sisters had been murdered, disappeared off the face of the Earth, shot, beaten to death before their eyes, killed in ways only whispered, never spoken, and we were the untouchables, the replacements. We even had the names of the dead. Jeremy knew better than to come, an adopted orphan, vulnerable, without the dead to include and protect him, and a crazy universally disliked father, ignored laughed and sneered at. But determined unrelenting Grusber pushed and shoved, whispering screams of silence. Defeat shadowed his face, evening rays slanting the colored glass windows. 

Ziggie Weiss was seriously arguing football, quietly laughing, swaggering, he always tried hard for style, bending over me above the bench soft leather red covers. Hope lit in Grusber’s eyes, he moved towards me and elbowed Ziggie out of the way. “Be quiet,” he said. We looked at him and heartbeats passed, Ziggie shamelessly contorted back into his old position. The blood flooded red between Grusber’s sideburns, he raised his head and looked directly at me triumphant for an instant, “Your father is not a member,” he said. Ziggie’s and my eyes mirrored pitiful incredulity. His shot fired, Grusber fled.

Cornered choiceless, I sat in their kitchen waylaid, hopelessly trapped. The Grusbers looked through me, predator terrapin black empty eyes. “We really like your father.” My stomach rumbled boiling protest. I knew the punchline was coming. They were flexing bending pretenders apologizing for shul7, announcing their reason for my being his friend. Jeremy stumbled, broke the defining prison wall, the water glass shattered on the floor. We were in the tamed manicured back garden, strange patches of flowerbeds and grass. The back gardens in Green Lane were European Jewish gardens, a combination of tar, thorns and accumulated rubbish, the front gardens generally mostly just passable enough to avoid comment. 

Jeremy ground fought a low-level campaign, his father sent him to a variety of strange schools out of the neighborhood for religiously extreme where there was no secular instruction for school graduation or further education. Months of gentle wheedling joyously birthed painful agreement and his obdurate parents let him go to Hasmonean21 for 6th form bliss. I was gone, my Hasmonean21 days over but exams. I volunteered, disappeared from Green Lane, accepted for the future to be one reborn reincarnated with my people, not just with the name from the past, the 6th form spent in the Yom Kippur War down south, the guns viscously barking, shaking every night resounding. 

Sent by his father embalmed for two years, absorbed, anointed and tied with heavy chains dragging him down by a ship’s anchor unable to move in any ferocious storm or calm, Jeremy bent over his shtende22 in Tifrach, a destitute place in the Negev Desert filled with poor forgotten Teimani23 Jews and strange chozrei bitshuva24, unsuccessfully straining to burn in the eternal fire of Torah25 before returning to the everlasting servitude of his father’s tyranny. He slept on a scarred metal bed with uneven unequal coiled springs and a thin striped mattress stained lumpy from its past owners. Cold floors with square broken tiles and bochrim26, sleeping huddled on the kitchen floor in filthy unswept corners.

Wooden hard cracked broken chairs wobbled on unequal legs, while crying for ecstatic kabbalistic27 rabbis. Sand ran with the furnace winds in the street, and at night the lonely stars burnt white holes dancing perilously in his dreams. On Shabbos he ate burned challa28, oil and chicken; in the week, rotten vegetables no one else would eat, with stale white bread and yesterday’s boiled eggs, his terrapins abandoned and forgotten. 

“Have courage,” I said. “Abandon these archaic ways, turn, be Zionist, be free. At least be both.” 

“Only in my secret heart,” he said. “I am always free, but I am always chained.” 

Years later we met unwanted and as always, demandingly predictably repeatable, he schlepped29 me back to his house. He had married a forgettable girl from Stamford Hill, Sandra, a short, stubby, blonde dental nurse, with dead terrapin conversation, and was desperately in love. They were living abandoned distant in a Station Road stark terraced house, cold floors and four kids crawling over his feet, with matching weather. Sandra was in noticeable unlove, stumblingly miserable, her mouse straight hair hiding her ears. Mr. Grusber, their relationship had deteriorated to that of the Arab-Israeli conflict, guns and blood, with a hundred apartments, shops, grey meaningless buildings, gave them nothing unconditionally except debasement and shame, with joyless religious coercion accompanying emotional denigration. She had expected to be coddled and spoiled in squalid middle-class splendor, not neglected in cold distance. Jeremy for years had programmed a survival pattern being less than average in character in studies, and in personality, was unable to even imagine standing up to him. How could she respect him? Taking me aside he waxed love for Sandra, then from behind the bookcase rigidly caressing the plastered wall, he pulled out a pile of endless letters, my silence pledged. 

These poetic declamations of ascendant intertwined love were from Pessi, with five young kids, the rabbi’s daughter of the shtiebl30. Ugly wouldn’t do justice to the way Pessi looked, a face and body trapped asymmetrical in a Picasso painting of one person who was two, but her mind was in the realms of a total genius and her letters peaked forbidden passion and everlasting hope, poetry begging for a word, a meeting, a look, forlorn for contact and forbidden sex. Everything was there but out of place. Her husband Harry, a shidduch31 – no one else would have her – was on the side of retarded. I always found it difficult in Hasmonean with nebich32 Harry, his parents, stingy grasping ungenerous Hungarian meat eaters, sheitl33 clad, hard card-playing haredim34. Living in false splendor, denying their children, a few doors from James Bond, aka Roger Moore, they made their living by manufacturing pork sausage skins. Is this what you survived the camps for; is this your purpose in life? 

I see the harsh stolen white hillside rising above the forest valley and intercity roads covered in the stone graves of Givat Shaul35. Teetering climbing precariously, the mist divides and the Arab village tears shame in shadow. Saul of the tribe of Benjamin, where he tended his donkeys, procreated, and drove away his depression with songs from red-haired Judean David, later pursued relentlessly to kill, lifeless, and only in twisted fate to pay the price himself. No green is visible between the Jerusalem graves, no flowers, only piles of dead lifeless stones. Cancer gnawed, imperceptibly destroying his facade and left him glazed eyes. 

Mr. Grusber shipped him cold to Israel, frozen in the plane’s belly, together with a whole bevy pack of gabbaim36 and bent rabbis, but did not even tell his one and only friend. I was walking up Brent Street alone on Shabbos morning, the cars smoking, before the turn to Shirehall and the Grusbers saw me, the pavement wide and grey in broken stones. “Maurice,” he perched lilted, my tallis37 bag in my hand. “The eyruv38 is not kosher, treyf39, an aveyra40 you mustn’t carry.” Twenty bitter and sweet years and not a hello, twenty years piercingly wiser, forty long years growing taller. “Where is Jeremy and who are you?” He stiffened as his wife folded her eyes, clouding hopeless regret. “I am sorry,” she said as he pulled her along.  ■

This story is set to be a chapter in the author’s new book.

©2023 Maurice Moshe Ernst – All rights reserved.


  1. A sought-after honorary Jewish community position of authority, in this case in charge of honorariums dispensed and running of the early morning Shabbos prayer services. (Gabbai in Hebrew)
  2. Prayer services held in the early morning for congregants who want quicker, less protracted services and to avoid the social inter-reaction of the regular services.
  3. A minimum of 10 men required to have prayer services – literal. The [Shabbos morning] prayer service itself – common use.
  4. The name of the local community and shul.
  5. Sabbath or Saturday, a day of rest with stringent strict rules of behavior.
  6. It is forbidden to use cars and other means of transport on Shabbos, so everyone walks.
  7. Synagogue (prayer house).
  8. A Jew of German origin, characteristically organized efficient unemotional and punctual.
  9. Judaism, custom and superstitions, as practiced in Europe (Eastern).
  10. An unnecessary stricter interpretation of custom and law.
  11. Laws concerning treatment and eating of kosher food.
  12. Food that is permitted to eat, also used to describe anything permitted. 
  13. Babylonian Talmud, a vast collection of written records of religious legal & ethical discussions from approx. 1,700 to 2,200 years ago, in Aramaic. Required study for male religious education.
  14. Shuffling humbly – a word made up by the author.
  15. A non-Jewish woman.
  16. Afternoon prayer (services).
  17. Easy small talk.
  18. The eastern wall – facing Jerusalem – where the honored members of the community sit.
  19. Rhythmic swaying, individually performed, often bending from the waist, mostly when praying or studying Torah.
  20. A raised stage towards the front of the men’s section in shul.
  21. Name of the local gender-segregated religious grammar school.
  22. A four-footed, two-legged chest-high stand topped with a small angled downwards shelf for books. The whole stende is often angled by students towards them when studying texts.
  23. Jews whose origins are from Yemen (Aden), where they lived in distinct inaccessible poor communities. Considered religious, thrifty, honest, hard-working and very clever.
  24. Newly religious, often from non-religious backgrounds.
  25. Collective term for central core of Jewish divine learning and law.
  26. Unmarried young men.
  27. Lore based on ancient understanding of the spiritual dimension of the relationship of man, Israel, and G-d within the world’s function and purpose.
  28. Braided bread, eaten on Shabbat and festivals.
  29. Dragged.
  30. A small shul, often in a room or private house, normally hassidic; the prayer services and atmosphere are much less formal.
  31. An arranged marriage. 
  32. An adjective or person that is to be pitied.
  33. A wig worn by married women who are required to cover their hair so as to be unattractive to men. However, modern sheitels are often very glamorous.
  34. Ultra-Orthodox, often dressed in distinctive black clothing.
  35. The name of a neighborhood at the entrance to Jerusalem adjoining the city’s main cemetery.
  36. More than one gabba.
  37. A prayer shawl worn by men, often striped and shaped like a toga with strings (fringes) attached to each of its four corners.
  38. A defined fenced city area. This fence enables carrying items on Shabbos. It is otherwise forbidden to carry in public areas, even in one’s own pockets; a very serious Shabbos infringement. 
  39. Not kosher; also used as an adjective for dirty, unclean, or worse than wrong.
  40. A sin or transgression of the law.