Vidal Sassoon: a cut above the rest

Hairdressers, anti-fascist fighters, Israel supporters and women everywhere are mourning the passing at the age of 84 of Vidal Sassoon, fashion icon and inventor of the bob. But Sassoon was also a son of the Sephardi community in London, as Ben Cohen explains in The Tablet: (with thanks: Michelle)

Rabbi Israel Elia, head (with Rabbi Abraham Levy – ed) of the venerable Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London’s Maida Vale district, remembers the day when he met Vidal Sassoon, one of the congregation’s most celebrated sons. Elia had been quietly working in his office on a spring morning two years ago when an anxious colleague relayed the news that a film crew had gathered outside the building. The rabbi went to investigate.

“At the head of the crew, there was a smartly dressed man with delicate, graceful features,” Rabbi Elia recalled yesterday. “He walked over to me and introduced himself as Vidal Sassoon. He was making a film about his life and career.” Pointing to an annex at the side of the synagogue, Sassoon explained that the building had housed the orphanage where he spent his childhood.

“So I took him inside,” Elia said. “He told me, ‘I want to show you where my dormitory was.’ We entered a room and he looked around. He was excited: ‘Yes, this was it, this was the dormitory.’ I looked at him and said ‘Vidal, your dormitory is now my office.’ He threw his arms around me and hugged me, telling me about the kindness of our community, how his accomplishments would not have been possible without that generosity.”

Such were the inauspicious beginnings of a man who, through an international chain of hair salons and a bewildering array of grooming products, revolutionized women’s style in the decades that followed World War II. The son of a Turkish Jewish father and a Ukrainian Jewish mother, Sassoon was born in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, in 1928. Known to its residents as “The Bush,” it was a neighborhood with a tough reputation, home to large immigrant communities from Ireland, Poland, and other points east and west.

Sassoon was still in diapers when his father walked out on his mother, Betty. Destitute and unable to cope, Sassoon’s mother learned that there was an orphanage at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, approximately two miles away. One day in 1933, she turned up with the young Vidal in tow and placed him in the care of the oldest Jewish community in England.

Having been implanted in the orphanage, Sassoon joined the synagogue choir. During his visit with Rabbi Elia, Vidal went up to the elevated box where the choir still sits. “He started to recall one of his favorite tunes,” said Elia. “I figured out that it was Yimloch Adonai, one of the songs we sing on Shabbat. We sang it together.” (As a child growing up in the same synagogue, I remember being drafted into the same choir and grumbling about it. One of the adults admonished me, “Vidal Sassoon used to sing in this choir, so if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for you!”)

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