I got off the plane at midnight, London time, and breathed in the crisp, cold, damp air so typical of British ‘summertime’.
So, I’d come back to my old hood after all, to face all my demons down and to firmly address the question once and for all about whether moving Israel had been some sort of ‘mistake’, God forbid.
My brother picked me up from Luton, and asked me if I thought I was capable of hurdling two metal railings (next to the busy main road…) as he was a bit worried about getting a ticket where he parked, as they’d changed all the parking rules again.
I’m a game girl, but long jeans skirts aren’t so useful when it comes to hurdling high bits of metal, so I told him we’d probably have to go round the long way. It was so good to see my brother.
As we were talking in the car, I noticed he was gripping the steering wheel in a pretty anxious way.
“Bruvs, are you OK?”
“Yeh, I’m just worrying about the speed cameras. They basically video you the whole time to get your average speed, and if then you get slapped with an £80 speeding ticket.”
Hmm. I started to cheer up as even as that early hour, I could see that London life is far more stressful than is apparent to tourists.
The next day, I decided to go and walk around all my old Jewish haunts in NW London:
Hendon, (where I used to live), Golders Green (where I used to shop), Temple Fortune, and Hampstead Heath (where I used to jealously eye up all the big mansions looking out onto the heath and wish that I lived there…).
While half of Hendon is still pretty Jewish, the other half is now almost entirely ‘ethnic’. Not only that, a huge, shiny ‘Jews for J’ shop has opened right next door to Hendon Tube. I used to live in the more Jewish bit, so I walked down the street to my old house, and I saw that apart from the trees I’d planted in the front garden now being toweringly tall, nothing else about the house – or street – had really changed at all.
It was stuck in a time warp, like I’d been. Looking at my house, I realized it had actually been pretty big, and pretty nice. But I’d never, ever been satisfied with it. I always had a jealous eye on the fancier, bigger houses up the road, or the nicer locations elsewhere.
I started to realize why God has put me through all my trials with houses in Israel, because jealousy is a form of sinat chinam, or baseless hatred, and I could see how jealousy is probably the single biggest pervasive bad midda coursing through London’s veins.
I heard so many stories of friends and siblings who stopped talking to each other when one of them got more financially successful, or a much bigger, or better house than his peers. How yucky!
A large swathe of the kosher shops in Golders Green had recently burned down, giving that half of the street a bit of an eery, empty feel. At the other end of the road, by the station, a beige banner announced the exciting news that the old Hippodrome building had just been acquired by an Islamic group, who had plans to turn it into a massive Islamic education centre. I raised an eyebrow.
When I got home, I checked that bit of info out and discovered it’s all true. They want to build the largest ‘Islamic education centre’ in Europe, right on the doorstep of one of the most solidly chareidi Jewish neighborhoods in the UK.
I bought some ubiquitous, incredibly expensive kosher fish and chips on the way home, and sat in Hendon Park to eat them. With a start, I realized that this was the first time I’d ever really just sat in that park, watching the sky and the people, even though I’d lived in Hendon for the best part of 10 years.
It was a beautiful scene, but I’d always been too busy to notice it, or too worried about getting mugged or harassed by drug addicts to spend any time there.
The following day, I caught the bus into town with my brother, and discovered that you can no longer use cash to pay for a bus ticket. Everything is credit cards or automated online travel cards. My brother lent me his card for the day, but I started to ponder what would have happened if I didn’t have him to help me, or if I was a tourist, or someone down on their luck who simply didn’t have a credit card?
London is getting so expensive and so complicated to live in, that the down and outs simply have no chance these days. You can’t even catch a bus without a pin number.
I got off at Oxford Street, near Selfridges, and hit Primark (together with about 20 other frum ladies from Israel, and 20 more from Saudi Arabia). Stuff was so cheap in Primark! I started to see some ‘up’ to living in London after all.
Except, I couldn’t find any skirts to buy, or even to look at. Everything was trousers.
I wondered off down Oxford Street, popping into all my old favorites, and I had the same experience over and over again: the stores were full of clothes, but they were all so trashy, tacky, short, immodest or inappropriate that I didn’t feel like buying anything.
So then I tried my ‘expensive designer fashion street’ – just as an experiment, not to actually buy anything – and lo and behold, I found the first skirt I liked, boasting a price tag of £500… (around 2000 shekels).
Gosh, no wonder I used to buy expensive designer skirts when I lived there. There wasn’t much else available for a frum Jewish female.
It was strangely comforting to realize that my exaggerated gashmius had been pinned on a strong spiritual basis, after all.
I spent another three hours walking around central London. Through the Burlington Arcade, pass all the fancy designer shops, up past Nelson’s Column and Horse Guards’ Parade into St James Park, where I sat down to look at the gorgeous massive duck pond that used to be a 10 minute walk from my work, but that I hardly ever came to because I was always so stressed and busy.
As I was looking at the grey geese, I realized that nearly all the ‘couples’ parading around the park locked in deep conversations were men – and I suddenly got that uncomfortable feeling that was popping up a lot in London that I’d tripped into some covert bastion of pinkness.
Sure, men do occasionally hang out with each other, and talk to each other, it’s not unheard of. But something about the way that so many of these men were gazing into each other’s eyes, and dressing almost identically sent alarm bells ringing that I was witnessing part of the ‘pink revolution’ that’s currently revving away at full throttle in the UK.
All the highest paid TV presenters are gay; the trashy papers are full of ‘gay couple escapades’; or stories about small boy children being sent to school in dresses in the name of ‘gender neutrality’ and ‘equality’ (and also of schools banning skirts from their school uniform – clearly only for girls – in the name of the same misguided principles.)
Uck, uck and uck again.
I got up briskly, and headed off to Whitehall, where I used to work. Right outside Richmond House, and opposite a very heavily barricaded Downing Street, you’ll find London’s main memorial to the dead of World War II.
I stood on the pavement rooted to the spot. Each side of that monument bore the inscription:
‘The Glorious Dead’
– and it suddenly struck me that this epitaph summed up London life to a tee. The whole time I’d been living there, I’d felt so stressed and spiritually-dead – but hey, so gloriously dressed and well-paid!
God had put that message right outside my office, and I saw it at least twice a day. But I never paid attention, because I was always too stressed, preoccupied and busy.
Last stop in Central London was the British Museum.
I joined the queue to go through all the security checks that definitely weren’t there last time I lived in London, but which now reminded me of life in Israel.
I entered the great hall, turned left to the Egyptian and Assyrian galleries full of dead pharaohs and massive winged lions – and then left, bored, 20 minutes later. After reading Velikovsky, I knew that most of what was being described on the plaques next to the exhibits was pure conjecture or scholarly fancy, and without a real context the exhibits themselves became meaningless statues.
All that shefa, all that bounty, all that wealth, all that treasure – yet it all felt so empty and pointless.
Just outside the museum, I got accosted by a down-and-out guy obviously from Africa.
“Don’t run away!” he implored me. “I just want to talk to you! People are so scared of me here they run away as soon I get close to them!”
I took a good look at him, and saw that while he was poor and certainly a little grimy, he wasn’t dangerous, drug addicted or mad. So I listened to what he had to say, which was basically that he was a school teacher from Nigeria who’d applied for asylum in the UK, and been refused.
In the meantime, he was completely indigent, living from hand to mouth, and had no money for food. “In Africa, people look out for each other, they share their food,” he told me. “Here, people treat me like I’m not even human.”
So much for all the ‘political correctness’ and ‘equality’ being mouthed, pointlessly, by the chattering classes.
I felt sorry for him, and handed over a few pound coins – the money I’d brought with to use on the bus, but which no longer worked for those purposes.
“You didn’t have to give me the money,” he said. “It was enough that you just talked to me like I’m a real person.”
And maybe it was, but I felt that the cash probably also wouldn’t hurt him.
That chat with the Nigerian hobo was the highlight of my day out in Central London.
I caught the bus back, and I thought about how this glitzy, glittery city where people are still throwing so much cash at the gods of superficiality and fashion is actually dead at its core. They have the ‘latest’ this and that, Primark with its mountains of cheap stuff from China, designer knick-knacks, designer haircuts, designer beards – and no heart.
So much more happened in the three short days I was there, but let’s sum it up this way: I was so pleased to be coming back to my rented pseudo-slum flat in Jerusalem by the end. Jerusalem is so full of soul, and meaning, and real people, and joy and laughter.
(And clearly also ridiculous bureaucracy, deranged Arab terrorists, crazy house prices, lunatics of all stripes, financial problems, and missionaries).
But it’s home. My home. The only place I want to be. And if I hadn’t bitten the bullet and gone to London to feel things out, I’d never have known that that way I do now, with complete clarity, 200%.