Deborah Ross

Restaurants | 16 April 2005

The trouble with Bevis Marks is the absence of any Jewish shtick

Text settings

I am taking my mother’s cousin Norma and her husband Harry out to lunch and I want them to have a good time, not just because I love Norma to bits but also because... nope, that’s it actually. She used to babysit us when we were little and would make us eat our supper backwards, saying if we didn’t finish our ice-cream there would be no main course, absolutely not, no way, and even though our bedtime was meant to be 8 p.m. we’d all still be up at midnight when she would shout: ‘All of you... time for... CAKE! And I mean IT!’ So I loved Norma then and I love her now. As for Harry, he seems very pleasant (only joking, Hazza!).

Anyway, it’s not that easy taking Norma out for lunch. First off, she is an observant Jew, so kosher, and secondly she has a horror of answering the telephone, as I do. We don’t properly understand where this horror comes from, why we have to leave the answer machine to pick up every call, but think it has something to do with the possibility of the call containing a nasty surprise that we might have to react to on the spot, which would be tiresome. I have a similar horror of answering the door when I’m not expecting anybody, but this is because I fear it might be the bailiffs, the VAT people or some born-again nut who wants to talk about how God sent his son, in which case I always want to say, well, if that’s the case, you’d think he’d offer to babysit for mine every now and then. I might add that I haven’t been a great fan of Jesus ever since secondary school where I was known as the Christ Killer, particularly by the RE teacher who would round on me in class and ask, ‘Why did you kill him, then?’ Dunno. Bored? One of those parties that just got out of hand? Sorry.

Still, after weeks of leaving messages on each other’s machines, we eventually settle for the Bevis Marks Restaurant one Friday lunchtime. This restaurant, which is in the City, is not only kosher but also shares a wall with Bevis Marks synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in Britain, built by Sephardic Jews in 1701, for £2,500, when builders were reasonably priced and probably turned up too, plagues and smallpox notwithstanding. Our booking is for 1 p.m. but my son and I are rather late, I’m afraid, for the very small reason that when we come out of the Tube at Aldgate I navigate holding the A-Z upside down. You may even say I’m navigating via the Z-A. Still, he is forgiving, and only refuses to talk to me while we retrace the mile or so we’ve walked out of our way. ‘I’m sorry,’ I keep saying, ‘I really am. I haven’t been as sorry since I personally killed Jesus.’ Which I haven’t.

The synagogue is actually quite tricky to find. It’s in a little courtyard off the main drag, as it had to be, because when the synagogue was built Jews were still forbidden from building on high streets. There is a security guard at the courtyard gate. I really can’t work out just how much anti-Semitism there is around today. Although, that said, I recently read Andrew Wilson’s biography of Patricia Highsmith who so hated Jews it’s almost thrilling. ‘If Jews are the chosen people,’ she once wrote to a friend, ‘then that is all I need to know about God.’ ‘If Jews aren’t the chosen people,’ I would have written back, ‘how come we’ve always avoided anything that involves shorts or jumping around in a sporty way? That absolutely has to be the mark of a superior race, surely. Now, put that in your pipe and smoke it, you raving old lesbo.’

When we finally make it, past the beautiful old brick fa