I have always considered myself Jewish with an emphasis on the ish. As recently as ten years ago, the idea of my putting this book together would have been unthinkable. I go to synagogue a couple of times a year, avoid pork largely on superstitious grounds and am not sufficiently convinced of God’s existence to opt for a dash in place of the O. Kate, my lapsed Catholic wife, is adamant that we have a Christmas tree in the house every December for our son and this makes me uncomfortable but I insisted we have his foreskin removed so that probably makes us even.
The comedy was my way in and my childhood and adolescence were dominated by the Marx brothers, Mel Brooks, Seinfeld et al. I have often wondered why Jews seem to be disproportionately well represented in the world of humour and it strikes me that, in Britain and America especially, the majority of Jews are neither insiders nor outsiders but observers and chroniclers hiding in plain sight.
Then there’s the Holocaust. I am a “third generation survivor”, a term I dislike because, inherited trauma or not, my grandfather endured Auschwitz at an age I was in Edgware. I can’t remember an age when I didn’t know about the camps, something I only realised was unusual at a school dominated by gentiles. When I reached the sixth form, my friend and I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and spent the day quoting Alan Partridge in a bid to distract ourselves from the enormity of it all. Comedy was a useful shield that day. The humour had a point, just as it does in the old joke about a survivor going to heaven and telling God a Holocaust joke. God is unamused and the survivor replies, “Oh well, I guess you had to be there.” Underneath the gag is a clear message – He wasn’t.
It seems apt that my main takeaway from that trip was “never again” because that was exactly how I felt. And yet, in late 2014, almost exactly 70 years after liberation, I accompanied my grandfather and several other members of the family on a devastating return trip to Poland. My grandfather, the most optimistic and good-humoured of men, was uncharacteristically quiet and withdrawn. None of us had ever seen him like this, but he wasn’t the only one struggling to cope. It reminded me of my favourite Groucho story, in which the comedy icon visited the village in Germany where his mother had been born. This was in 1964 and Groucho discovered that all the Jewish graves had been destroyed by Nazis. His response was to hire a car and have a chauffeur drive the group to the bunker where Hitler was said to have committed suicide. On reaching the site, the comedian launched into a manic Charleston dance routine in his trademark beret on the supposed grave without so much as a smile. This lasted a couple of minutes and one member of the group later commented, “Nobody applauded. Nobody laughed.” Je suis Marxiste, tendance Groucho. On the day we toured the camp in the company of Grandpa Zigi, we were all Marxists.
Around Jews, I feel painfully unJewish (I don’t even like smoked salmon, an unpardonable crime for many) but around gentiles, at school and university especially, I discovered I was somehow a representative for my people and, like Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.” Defining yourself in opposition seems to me a fundamentally Jewish trait and it’s not as though the Nazis or their modern equivalents would be likely to check shul attendance.
“Jew?” “Ish.” For the first time in a long time, that doesn’t feel like a legitimate answer. Watching Curb Your Enthusiasm and claiming to be culturally Jewish suddenly feels shameful in the face of a (red) sea change across the globe. At one point in Mike Leigh’s 2005 play Two Thousand Years, a grandson asks his grandfather, “What does being a Jew mean to you?” The response gets to the point: “It means wanting to spend a couple of hours with your family on a Saturday afternoon and walking into a fucking war zone.”
I have thought about that play and that line a lot in recent months. The inciting incident is the aforementioned grandson starting to wear a yarmulke, a fact that worries his secular family. More intriguing still, the writer was a member of Habonim, the Jewish Labour Zionist Youth Group, during his formative years and is now one of Israel’s staunchest critics. Jewishness for Leigh is clearly not static but, as seems apposite, an ongoing conversation. “Two Jews, three opinions” goes the quip and yet, in 2019, it feels as though Jewish people are being treated as a monolith with a shared opinion on everything. Anyone who has ever attended a Shabbat dinner will know how absurd such a notion truly is.
The essays in this book represent the diversity of modern Jewry at a time when it feels vital to acknowledge we are not dealing with a homogenous group but a collection of individuals. There are recurring themes, of course; God, the Holocaust, family, food, Israel and comedy. But there is little chance of crossover since we as a people cannot even agree on the pronunciation of “bagel”. With antisemitism on the rise globally and Holocaust denial gaining traction in a way that’s been unthinkable for decades, I decided to ask a different kind of Jewish Question.
When I first had the idea for this book a couple of years ago, I naively assumed it would become dated before it got off the ground. With hindsight, it was optimistic to assume antisemitism, which has had a decent run stretching back a few thousand years, would magically come to an end faced with the prospect of an essay collection. One thing I did know was that no two Jews on earth could, or would, answer the question the same way: “What does being Jewish mean to you?”
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