As I’ve mentioned elsewhere we’ve been watching Unorthodox on Netflix. I won’t rehearse the story here, but watching reminded me of something that I used to find fascinating.
I used to live in York in England, and in the mid eighties and early nineties I used to travel back and forth to London to see friends or to go to business meetings.
I almost always used to go by train, and that meant going through King’s Cross station in London.
It got better in time, but in the mid eighties King’s cross railway station was distinctly seedy, dirty and decrepit, with prostitutes and drug addicts hanging around, propositioning you, asking for money, as well as other lost souls, who were simply the economic collateral in Margaret Thatcher’s social revolution.
Now I don’t know how it is now, I havn’t been through King’s Cross in twenty years, but then there used to be a row of big brick pillars at the end of the concourse before you went through to the train platforms.
For some reason, even if you had a reservation, they would never let you onto the train until about five minutes before it was due to leave, which meant that you had to queue if you were early.
It was quite organised, there was a separate queue for each train, and the queues were announced by them putting up big signboards on the pillars that from memory would read something like ‘Queue A 1800 York and Newcastle Platform 7’ .
Sometimes of course, if everything had gone to hell, and the trains were all hopelessly late, you would have to stand about in the concourse until they announced your queue, usually twenty minutes or so before departure.
Making you stand in a line of course made you a target for beggars and other miscreants such as pickpockets, but there was usually just enough in the way of security to keep things under control.
What used to fascinate me was that you would invariably see groups of young orthodox Jewish men – some really only teenagers – lining up with me for the York and Newcastle train – not the Leeds train – that was a different queue – and certainly not going to the orthodox communities in Manchester – that would of course mean a train from Euston.
I never knew where they went, except that it must have been somewhere north of York as I never saw any of them get off. I recognised them as members of one of the stricter orthodox sects as my friends lived between Upper Holloway and Tufnell Park stations in London and we would often see groups of orthodox men, identifiable with their furry hats, going to and from the synagogue on a Saturday – in fact we used to refer to them as the ‘furry hat sect’ to distinguish them from the older less strict Jewish men you saw who usually wore and old fashioned suit and a homburg hat on a Saturday for the synagogue.
Nowadays, when we stay overnight in Melbourne, we usually stay in a small hotel in the Jewish area around Balaclava Road – it’s cheap, it has free parking and it’s close to the train and tram, giving you the advantages of a central hotel without the cost. Sure in might take another ten minutes to get somewhere, but what’s the problem.
And despite being a Jewish area with Yeshivas and Synagogues, one never sees any of the furry hat sect – yes you see plenty of the less strict orthodox in their homburgs and black suits, but none of the ultra orthodox.
So, I had kind of forgotten about the ultra orthodox Jewish boys in King’s Cross station, puzzledly trying to respond to the prostitutes and beggars while waiting for the train.
That is, until we watched ‘Unorthodox’, and I was reminded of them.
Wikipedia is of course your friend, and it only took a few clicks to discover that as well as London and Greater Manchester, not to mention a shrinking orthodox community in Leeds, there is a large orthodox community in Gateshead, outside of Newcastle, which hosts an important orthodox yeshiva.
And immediately the mystery was solved – these young men were doubtless on their way to or from the yeshiva – and of course the reason I saw them was because my meetings in London were invariably on Thursdays – and of course as Sabbath begins at sunset on a Friday, in winter in England that would have meant them travelling on Thursday evening or Friday morning to reach their destination before sunset, the journey to Gateshead from London probably taking around four hours end to end …