Anthony Julius, Leon Wieseltier and Jonathan Freedman – Jewish Book Week

Two things in this event struck me particularly. One was Leon’s homily on American Jews today. He said they’re pampered, with a public Jewishness that is inverse proportion to their ignorance of Jewish matters. He says they squander the two renewable (I think he meant non-renewable – or maybe it was just a bad metaphor) resources which Jews have: language and religion.

I try to position myself in relation to this. An irreligious Jewish Englishwoman with a non-Jewish partner and no plans to have a child (by this I mean that I have just myself to worry about in this respect).

As far as religion’s concerned, it was always going to be a long shot. I grew up in Bedford, where there were and are next to no Jews, thinking of myself as of the same mould as all of my friends, none of whom were Jewish. I went to morning assembly at my Church of England schools because I like to sing, but never prayed. School was fine – I could have done with more approval and acceptance, but I can’t put that down to anything but my character at the time. Our home wasn’t kosher but we kept holy days and a sort of Shabbat, and avoided pigs, lobster, Christmas and so on. We didn’t go to shul because there wasn’t one within striking distance. In the Sixth Form I was given the role of Joseph K but I didn’t note any particular affinity. My Theatre Studies teacher was Mr G whom I didn’t realise was Jewish, and vaguely wondered how my parents came to particularly invite him to Shabbat (no that’s not being “clannish” – that’s sharing Shabbat). My mother was furious when I came home from school one day with a Gideon bible and inconsolable when I tried to go to midnight mass with my first boyfriend, who was Irish Catholic – I didn’t go to mass and we ostentatiously returned the bible. Nobody minded when I sloped off to find a festive lunch on Christmas Day – which is an indictment of the spirituality of Christmas rather than a sign of my parents’ lassitude. My formal Jewish education, which took place with about 15 other children in a rented building in Milton Keynes every other Sunday, really didn’t “take” and ended with my Bat Mitzvah. Barkingside was the first Jewish area I’ve lived in and I have still hardly ever been inside a shul. The rabbi lived in Bedford and she was a particular friend to me and my family, hosted the high days and holy days, bought me books and maintained an awareness – but I don’t remember talking shop.

Language – I had some Hebrew when I was small, but it fell away. I learnt my Bat Mitzvah piece entirely by rote and, despite the rabbi’s one-to-one tuition, without any proper reflection. At kibbutz, I was one of two or three people who attended a bespoke ulpan but I was working in the fishponds which involved very early mornings and hard physical work – little time to study. I’ve always been able to read a little, but not script and only with vowels.

So where does Leon’s view leave me? On the outside with the pampered Americans. He says that to keep Jewish life alive, religion does not necessarily have to mean faith, but requires us to cultivatte our knowledge of Jewish spirituality as the only thing which can authorise us to reject religion rather than merely neglecting it. An opt-out, rather than opt-in, state of affairs. But since I won’t go to shul that would necessitate a lot of solitary reading. My experience of Jewish cultural events (admittedly not extensive) is that they either have matchmaking hidden agenda which makes me uncomfortable, or that I’m the most junior participant by 30 years and may as well be invisible. Peace Now is the exception, but it’s more political than cultural. The Jewish book group I travelled half way across London to attend petered out because there “weren’t enough men”. I wasn’t looking for men – I have enough men – I wanted to read Jewish books and talk about them. Leon says that Jewish life will not be revived by means of doctoral theses, and that has a grain of truth – so according to him we’re to become fully au fait with Jewish spirituality and preferrably move on to become a full participant in the community. If I listen to him, I’m backing out of the door with apologies because it would be impossible for me to do this, starting from scratch and on my own – I had none of this to start off with, and so there can be nothing to regain. I’m not uncomfortable with this, but there’s something a bit galling about Leon Wieseltier assuming that certain Jews are lazy when they may just be isolated, Godless, self-conscious about being a contrived or affected Jew. This chiding does not attract me.

So I’ve had two strikes – language and religion. The other thing that primes Jews to identify as Jews is of course antisemitism – either in experience or awareness. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what Hitler did. For the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the ’30s and ’40s with Koestler, and also in the here and now with Engage; I can recognise antisemitism. But Anthony Julius was right when he said that even if we’re pessimistic about antisemitism, we must behave as if we aren’t and assume – as Jews – our place in public life, just as the Israeli state appropriates its statehood with the dignity that statehood affords. He means by that we must not allow Jewishness to be circumscribed by antisemitism. Nobody wants to define themselves through antisemitism, which is a paranoia-inducing wedge. But it can loom large, particularly when there’s a paucity of other ways to express Jewishness. I think this may be why my mother told me about holocaust at a very young age – raised orthodox but obliged to bring up two children without a Jewish community maybe it was the best means of identity-shaping at her disposal. Or maybe this isn’t the case – maybe it just made a deep impression on me. At any rate I reject anti-semitism as reason enough to adopt a Jewishness which is not there to start with.

Is there anything else? Matt asks why we should conserve the Jews (or any other ethnicity). We both get angry. I ultimately decide that, not being very Jewish by Leon’s yardstick, any particular concern on my part is probably sentiment and stubborness. But having no beef with multiculturalism, I respect the concern of parents and grandparents – for whom it is more than sentiment – about their children’s values. I have empathy for an ethnicity which was the target of a systematic attempt at obliteration, and which has historically existed and in some places still does exist on sufferance. Like many Jewish families, part of mine was lost to the Nazis and I feel obscurely defiant about that. And on a cool demographic level, I notice that Jews have made a disproportionately large contribution at the higher tiers of this meritocracy of ours, which signals something about British Jewry which at very least could be called ‘successful’ and, if you believe that this is a good country, we could even call it a word which denotes something better than successful. On the other hand, a large chunk of my moral fibre came from my secondary school, and it’s clearly not my Jewishness that writes the letters, gives the money, works hard or feels guilt, restricts the consumption and makes me study, because I know plenty of Jews who don’t do these things and plenty of non-Jews who do. Nurture doesn’t come in tidy packages.

I’m no further forward on this. I bought Leon’s book, Kaddish, and if I only do one thing about my purported ignorance (which to be fair is a longstanding awareness and not just down to him and which – also to be fair – maybe shouldn’t be a priority for me at the moment), I’ll read his pil-pul about whom I imagine to be a bunch of long-dead, cobwebby old misogynist rabbis.

So that is the first thing that made an impression on me at this event – the second thing (and I wish I hadn’t over-expended myself on the first thing) was Anthony Julius’ pronouncement that this year has seen the UK swing away from anti-semitism. He has just finished a book on the subject and can be considered an authority. Coming from him, this is immensely encouraging.

3 thoughts on “Anthony Julius, Leon Wieseltier and Jonathan Freedman – Jewish Book Week

  1. Hi there I read with interest your blog and just thought I would comment on two things.

    Firstly in the world of Web2.0 surely there is a way to encourage people to learn and read about Judiaism for themselves independetly & interact with others online.

    Secondly I am supposedly orthodox having been raised in NW London and now living in Tel Aviv I genuinely feel that if jews as a people have nothing to offer the world in the years to come we might as well all marry out. I mean that we need to offer culture, ethics, religious values and more. If we can not do that we do not deserve to continue as a religion etc.

    Furthermore I wholeheartedly agree with you that framing ones Judiaism with antisemitism or Holocaust is a very negative way to lead your life as a Jew. There are many many more positive ways to frame your Jewishness whether that be Tikun Olam, Jewish Culture, Israel etc.

    Any thanks for your blog was interesting and good luck


  2. Hello Joe,

    You have to be right about the opportunities on Web 2.0.

    Your second point about deserving to continue as a religion – I find your choice of language revealing because it implies common effort, direction and consensus. I think that like Leon Wieseltier you fear for the endurance of Jewishness without Judaism as its bedrock. That makes me wonder about the ways, as a Jew without Judaism, different from you in my values, and the ways in which I might influence those around me.

    Regarding your last point, you’re right of course. Except that it’s more difficult than you might think to take these steps – even in the spirit of inquiry – both for me and for those closest to me. It occurs to me that for this reason I exploit the Jewishness / Judaism split because it allows me to avoid participation in Judaism without disowning my origins.

    I live and work in very secular settings and unlike Wieseltier (and I’m not sure if he in fact did have a religious experience during his year of kaddish, because I’m barely a third of the way through the book – he’s lamenting the lack of it at around p107) I have no excuse to become involved in Judaism, it would feel weird considering my conviction that God doesn’t exist. Plus I have in effect ‘married out’ and my other half is solid gold so no regrets there. But these things conspire to give me the impression that I can’t keep Jewish channels open in the way you suggest.

    But, almost as an outsider, I do have an involvement in several areas which have a very Jewish feel though, and I’m drawn to Jewish authors. Tikun Olam is a new idea for me – thank you, I’ll explore it.

  3. Pingback: Refreshing new ideas for UCU? « Flesh is Grass

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s