Oral History Interview - Jose Martin

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Oral History Interview - Jose Martin

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Jose Martin was born to secular Jewish Parents in the Bearsted Hospital for Jewish Mothers on Lordship Road, on the site which now stands Schonfeld square in Hackney.

Her family moved from Stoke Newington (N16) to Walthamstow in 1952, when she was 2 years old. Jose felt she had a confused religious identity and became a Christian until her teens, when she became quite rebellious. She had a breakdown in her early twenties and then moved to Israel where she met her Muslim husband. He converted to Judaism. They then moved to Tehran, where Jose had two children. The revolution started and Jose had to escape back to the UK. Doing so meant she had to convert to Islam.

She remembers Cazenove Road, in the 1950’s and then the 1970’s. Jose also talks about Stamford Hill today and describes how it has changed in many was.

Jose describes working with the Hasidic community in her organisation ‘Talking Matters’ which provides a creative outlet to the community. Jose feels she is seen a quite a ‘rebel’ in the community as she has a very different approach to life to much of the Hasidic Community in Stamford Hill. Jose describes Jewish naming customs, as well as some memories about festivities and food from the 1950s-1990s.


LB: When were you born?

JM: Jose was born in 1950 in the Bearsted Hospital for Jewish mothers on Lordship Road, on the site which now stands Schonfeld square in Hackney. Her family moved from N16 to Walthamstow in 1952, when she was 2 years old.

“I felt that the place was a desert. Morally, spiritually, religious, you name it. Now what dies a nice Jewish girl do, when she is in a desert? You Celebrate Christmas, you celebrate Easter and you grow up with much confusion.”

Jose remembers being in a religious junior school play about the coming of the Messiah, when she was cast as ‘the biblical little child’ which she thought was ironic. Before that; in infant school she was cast as the Angel Gabriel. She slipped on stage, knocking over ‘Heaven’ (A medical screen), falling form heaven, and; ‘The baby Jesus is the basinet went flying off somewhere and somebody caught it and said ‘Goal’ At which point the whole audience laughed, but I’ll never forget it as I was in their bad books fora long time’.

By 13/14 she was top of the class in all her subjects and then in her mid teens, she met an evangelist and; ‘I came home and wanted to be a nun; and my parents said- You are not being a nun!!”

She attended, ballet, keep-fit, and choir as well as knitting and quizzes in various churches and was: ‘Completely consumed though infants and juniors until I was about 14 with Christianity...because my parents were good socialists it was ok. Because I was trying it out, I was experimenting, and like my father didn’t believe in anything said it was a load of old hocus pocus, its knitting its not actually Christianity, but it was, and I was head of the choir, had a good voice and sang all my hymns in Latin, and I don’t know if I’m ashamed to say it but they are now more deeply ingrained than Jewish prayers”.

Jose’s first memories of Cazenove Road: ‘All part of that when my parents moved from Stoke Newington was that we came back in the 50s, and I remember walking down Cazenove Road on a Sunday, I must have been about 7 and I remember were the huge trees and black people had started moving there in the early 50’s and! remember this little black girl in her Sunday best. And although we didn’t keep Judaism or Christianity, I remember my eyes nearly falling out of their sockets at this wonderful child in her white lace dress, she had shoes and a hat and socks to match and I was so envious! We didn’t have Saturday best, we didn’t keep anything, and there was this wonderful child in all her white lace and I was like “Mummy’!”

Those were my first memories of Cazenove Road, a lot of the properties were run down form the bombing and many were in rack and ruin. Many of the landlords would rent to the poor black people, like in Notting HilL In those days after the war Jews and Blacks had a lot in common, because a lot of people would take a lodger to supplement the rent and they would put signs up saying “No Blacks, No Jews, No Irish, No Dogs” in that order. And so my parents were mild revolutionaries’ god bless them so in order to supplement their income to a lodger from Sierra Leone, called Sigis. Now you can imagine in Walthamstow people no longer looked behind their net curtains at the Jews, they opened their front doors to look at the blacks living with the Jews on the road, we were persona non grata of the whole road. My Mother , God rest her soul, mad a point of when, the road sweeper came (he was a little black man with no teeth) she would get her best china, her best cup and saucer, on a dolly on a silver tray with a chocolate biscuit and make sure he was looked after every morning. She purposefully wouldn’t give him a mug, one, because she wanted to make sure he was properly looked after but two, because she wanted to make sure that the neighbours could see!

Jose describes her parents as revolutionaries, part socialist, part Communist. She marched at Aldermaston at 9, joined the CND at 10 and was protesting against the Vietnam War and demonstrating in front of the American Embassy. Her parents ‘Thought that was OK, because that was being political’.

Jose hints at other activities too; ‘It being the 60’s various things came long with it, and lets just say I was a child of the 60’s. I'm not going to shrink away from things’. Jose didn’t have many Hackney contacts in her teens, she remembers all her friends, being black or mixed race of Chinese, she always felt the odd one out.

Jose felt that being Jewish stopped her from getting pregnant or taking LSD, like many of her friends did.

‘It wasn’t so much, what will everyone think it was what would my mother say, and I guess that is what kept me from really going to the bottom of the pile, but others they really went there”. When Jose was 20 she suffered her first breakdown and spent time on medication in an institution. Jose then changed her life and went to study carpet design, but her parents would not support her. When friends were partying Jose had to work. Which was quite useful, because; people were already ‘legless’ by the time she got there; ‘So you just don’t feel part of it”

Many sad things happened around Jose. Her friend’s children were given up for adoption, one died in a bike crash, another when jumping out of a window under the influence of drugs. Her best friend was brutally raped and murdered at the age of 16, so when she reached 19 she was not “in a very good state emotionally or physically”.

“At the age of 21 Ithen decided to go and live in Israel. A lot of people said “oh you’re so’ brave but looking back on it, I would say stupid, more than brave! But when I arrived, having grown up as a Socialist it had a basis in society that was good. Everyone in England would ask you what your father did. When I used to say my father was an upholsterer and carpenter, the boys just didn’t want to know. When you are in Walthamstow or Hackney, and you haven’t any money you are completely out of the running’s, so when I got to Israel and I found that the bus drivers were Jews the road sweepers were Jews... which was amazing because all that learning of equality didn’t exist for me here whereas it did over there”.

It was in Israel that Jose met her husband, however he was Shiite Muslim. ‘My mother said in her best Yiddish accent “you went to Israel, 3 million nice Jewish boys, and you had tome back with an Arab!” It didn’t get much better from there, his parents didn’t think much of me, and I didn’t think much of them either.

Nevertheless, we think he maybe the only Shilte Muslim in the worlds that has ever converted to Orthodox Judaism! Jose converted to Orthodox Judaism too because the Rabbi said that she did not know enough to be a proper Jew.

Her Husband and her made and sold handicrafts on the streets and later in a shop. His father convinced them to go back to Iran, because he was concerned for them and disapproved.

‘They had to pick me up off the tarmac and put me in the place because I did not want to go, and then arriving in Tehran from Tel Aviv two hours later was like going from heaven to hell...”

In Tel Aviv there was life and vitality.., whereas in Tehran there were men everywhere in grey suits and women walking ten paces behind.. .it was dead, you could hear a pin drop. The reason we were going there was to renew my husbands passports but then they wouldn’t let us out, It took us 13 months, 3 weeks and 4 days and in that time the revolution happened. I had one baby and I was having another.

Jose’s family and in-laws had servants which made Jose uncomfortable, she wasn’t allowed to socialise with servants or wear comfortable clothes, and she would walk around Tehran.

She remembers it being very beautiful with architecture, jewellery and art, though it was a huge place. Jose loves the language, (Farsi) which she took to quite easily. Jose’s Father in law would not give her money to put her children in nursery.

‘I then needed to leave Tehran because of the revolution, and my father in law said “leave the children here, you can go but leave them...’ My response was “over my dead body” So I had to find a way to leave without my husband signature... you have to have your husband's signature to leave the country and he wouldn’t give it.. I went to the British Embassy and they laughed at me and said “blow in the wind- your British passport? You’re an Iranian now!’ I remember going outside on the railings and crying and then suddenly this little hand tapped me on the shoulder...”

Jose was befriended by an Iranian Dentist, who taught her how to lie, to plot a story that her father was ill, God forbid, dying, and then she was to tell her parents, and she tried via phone but her phone was being bugged and her letters were being intercepted.

Jose was told that she could go, but she could leave but had to leave everything to behind. There was no way of getting out, and a no-fly zone.

“We went to buy a ticket, but you couldn’t buy a ticket without an Iranian signature on your passport, and you couldn’t use your British passport or Israeli Marriage certificate, so we had to convert to Islam, we went to the ceremony and gave the Mullah 200 dollars, then returned to find that he had fled with the money.. .that really taught me a lesson... then I got an wedding certificate to get an Iranian passport then medical checks.”

“So we got to the airport with two babies, and there were no planes, so there were about 30 other ex-pats so we did a sit-in and up the revolution! We got an army transporter plane with army colours on it. .. Because it was an army transporter there were no seats so everyone was strapped in at the sides, with my baby in the basinet in the middle.. .we had to fly under the radar and through the mountains.. and when we got to Turkey everybody was opening the champagne and celebrating like you do in the adverts!.. . So the captain took me and my eldest into the cockpit to see the milky way you know star wars? It’s a million times better than that... incredible. There are no words for the Milky Way up in the cockpit.

When we got back into England, whereas when I had to be lifted off the tarmac in Israel, I kissed the tarmac and said “I’m back in the UK I’m back in dear blighty, and nothing is as bad as that!’

Jose came back to Walthamstow and then Stoke Newington.

“Again my Mother in her best Yiddish accent said “we worked all our lives and saved all our money to get out of the ghetto and then what do you go and do? Move back in! And I said “Yes Mummy, It’s called Roots!’.. And God does have a sense of humour, so when my kids came back where did they go to school but Simon Marks the Jewish primary school on Cazenove Road which is the very first place I remember. I have a big circle with Cazenove...and then I realised there were Muslims living opposite and It was like the west bank, everything was so cohesive so community oriented, I have lots of happy memories of my kids time at school there.... So I have been in Hackney for 30 years, in the community, never quite accepted by some...”

LB: How do you think it changed over the years?

JM: Well in the 1950’s it wasn’t Hasidic as it is now. The Hungarians didn’t start coming over till after the war in 1956 so there was a few years before the major influx of Hasidim, there were traditional Jews but they weren’t over the top religious, they were traditional Jews with and East-end accent with accents like ‘What do you want already my love!?”.. . So it was kind of archetypal and they had their little shops like dress makers, tailors and bakers, but it was changing because many of them got bombed out came to Stamford Hill Estate and Guinness, a lot of East End Jews came to the area... entirely different. Most of the Girls who went to Skinners were Jewish, and those who went to Clapton girls were non-Jewish but integrated”

But a lot of the older (Jewish people) who grew up here went to a non- Jewish school, so they have a world view, but those who came after the war those who don’t have TV’S don’t have a world view they have a Stamford Hill View”

Jose feels that people in Stamford Hill could embrace each others religion more and feels that some of the communities are insular.

LB: What are the places when you came back to Cazenove Road you most remember?

Jose remembers the Salt beef bagel shop, which is now a betting shop on Stamford Hill, She remembers the old cinema, which was also a bowling alley then a bingo hall and is now a supermarket, the youth clubs, were Jewish and there were working men’s clubs. It was a social and Jewish scene, and now there are no non religious Jews. Jose remembers that there were no Hasidic clothes, people did not look different but now they do. Jose says that the biggest landmarks now on Google Maps are “Satmar Girls School” and it is very Hasidic Jewish.

‘lt was Jewish then very, In Stamford Hill but Hasidic? No”

LB: Are there any festivals that you remember growing up?

Jose brought some of the Jewish festivals with her.

“If Hanukkah fell near Christmas then I got a Hanukah bush and Hanukah presents but I didn’t know what that means. My kids Got the same and then said” Mum it has to be one or the other!! Then my parents wanted to have Christmas dinner. Then we started inviting my parents over to Passover which I didn’t celebrate as a child, so since my children went to Simon Marks on Cazenove Road, our life went from this non-descript, mixed-up kind of living to Jewish and it took about ten years”

LB: how do you feel about living in the area now?

JM: “I love it and hate it... when I go away I love the countryside, but when I am on the bus home and I see a Hasidim I go “yay” I’m Home!’... I love the mix here there are Africans, Vietnamese, Muslims, I have a Hindu Friend and they speak to me in Hebrew and he gets out drinks at Christmas and snack at Eid, I do love it here”

LB: Have you seen a change in the last 30 years in the way people celebrate religiously?

Jose thinks that the world has become more accepting on one hand, but on the other some religions have become ‘stifled’ and inward looking.

Jose often feels that clients in her centre (who are Orthodox Jewish) do not know about other cultures, and she tries to tackle this.

LB: How do you see yourself as part of the community? In relation to others?
JM: One of the most famous Rabbi’s once called me “The Rebel in the community” I don’t mid being called that, but another called me, “Die Frau mit Der Hut unt der Hunt’

This is three swear words in one: I am not a lady, I don’t wear a wig and God forbid I have a dog”

Jose feels that work she does is controversial, she dresses differently in the Jewish Community.

LB: It would be good to know about the Context of Talking Matters and the
Organisation. Jose describes the history of her organisation that deals with Orthodox Jewish People who have Mental Health needs and provides pre-intervention, which promotes self- expression in a safe environment.

LB: Can you tell me a bit about your name? Has it got a story?

Jose talks about the shortening of Jewish family names to Anglicised names after the war. Her family name was Needleman which was changed to Martin,

LB: Are there any naming ceremonies?

Jose talks about how she was named via Ashkenazi tradition, but her children were named in the Sephardic Tradition. Even if you are not observant, you keep to naming traditions which belong to either tradition.

LB: When were you born?

JM: 1950

LB: Are there any food traditions you remember?

“Not really because our family didn’t keep traditions we had Sunday Roasts! But I did cook, ‘Kugel” which is like a sweet or savoury pasta which is very Jewish, and is very heavy and filling, it’s a poor mans food and he burst into tears”

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