The 'manor' as muse

  • Naomi Alderman

    So much of Jewish Hendon is hidden, intentionally half-submerged so as to be almost invisible to outsiders. The synagogues are concealed behind high fences, walls or screens of trees. The bakeries and restaurants only identify themselves as kosher by the tiny certificate of rabbinical approval pinned to the wall. The estate agents are brasher, with signs in the window saying ‘We speak Hebrew here’. But the signs themselves are in Hebrew. Jewish life here is obvious, as long as you know exactly what you’re looking for. As Maimonides said: ‘Only the one who understands will understand.’ This sense of negotiating two spaces at once is, for me, part of the delicious pleasure of Hendon. I step into NatWest or Tesco and I’m in secular space, with all the comforting anonymity of modern British life. A few yards along the road, in Torah Treasures or Nissim Butchers, I’m in Jewish space. Here, the people behind the till know my parents, and even if they didn’t, they could tell if I belonged here or not by a single wrongly placed inflection in the word ‘Gemarah’ or ‘chulent’. The duality of Hendon has always fascinated me. I grew up here, went to an Orthodox Jewish primary school and a secular secondary school, learned how to move from one world to another smoothly, changing vocabulary and opinions as I went. In one context I say ‘gevalt’ and keep my support for gay marriage to myself; whereas in the other I say ‘oh dear’ and don’t mention my views on Israel. Most Hendon residents seem to find this constant flickering between states untroubling, even uninteresting. Not me. The liminality led me slowly to consider the big questions: how much am I a function of where I come from, or of where I happen to be? And if I am only a result of a set of influences, what am I? It’s through writing my novel, ‘Disobedience’, that I’ve come to understand what Hendon represents for me. It’s an unprepossessing place. The streets are leafy, but not a patch on Highgate. The houses are fairly well-maintained, but Hampstead’s a lot prettier. No, what Hendon has going for it is confusion, the sense that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be Bow or Bnei Brak, Tottenham or Tel Aviv, with the London School of Jewish Studies rubbing shoulders with Middlesex University and the Hendon Bagel Bakery opposite the Halal chicken takeout. A place that exists between two worlds seems constantly in danger of collapsing into one of them. Hendon could lose its Jewish community, become just another London suburb. Or it could go the way of Stamford Hill, fold in on itself and start denying the existence of the outside world. But it doesn’t. Somehow, Hendon remains poised between the two. It’s inspiring. At least, it is to me, because this is the way I live my life too. George Eliot writes about place in ‘The Mill on the Floss’ – the importance of having a place that habit and custom have made beloved. ‘That sweet monotony,’ she calls it, ‘where everything is known, and loved because it is known.’ Although, of course, Eliot had English country scenes in mind rather than the grey streets of Hendon, I think she was on to something. Hendon has become part of me whether I like it or not, and its themes – silence and speech, outsiders and insiders, visibility and invisibility – have become the themes I return to in my writing again and again. In Hendon I learned to be always something of an outsider. And so, although the people of Hendon might not like the way my novel throws open this hidden world, I suppose it’s Hendon that taught me to become a writer.
    ‘Disobedience’ is published by Viking in March.

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