Knishes and Kilts, and Other Highlights of London’s Jewish Book Week

UK J. Book WeekBy Liam Hoare

The British Jewish cultural calendar has its three highpoints: Jewish Book Week in February; the UK Jewish Film Festival in November; and Limmud in December. Cyclical and as settled in diaries as the religious holidays, these events have given rise to the concept of a new kind of three-times-a-year Jew, as the British expression goes. In this case, it is someone who expresses their identity through attendance at cultural festivals, and not only through the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover.

This year’s Jewish Book Week opened on the evening on Saturday, February 21, with a specially commissioned two-act Gershwin Review, celebrating the work of George and Ira Gershwin. Performs including Henry Goodman, who previously starred as Tevye in the last London revival of Fiddler on the Roof. Simultaneously, a panel discussion on sex and psychoanalysis, and ‘Jewish sex’ in the works of Freud and Jung, occurred in the other hall at London’s King’s Place, showing something of the diversity of ideas, works, and sessions on offer.

On Sunday, the festival played host to the awarding of the Chaim Bermant Award for Journalism, named for the British journalist and author once dubbed ‘Anglo-Jewry’s voice of conscience’ and, at the same time, ‘a licensed heretic’ for his life-long rebellion against the supposed authority of the Orthodox rabbinical establishment. The prize is awarded to a writer for a single article or body of articles that “furthers the understanding of contemporary life and Jewishness.”

This year’s prize, worth £5,000, was awarded to Marc Weitzmann, whose five-part series for Tablet called “France’s Toxic Hate” on anti-Semitism in the Fifth Republic was deemed “unbelievably prescient” by the panel of judges which included the journalists Gerald Jacobs and Miriam Gross. For the series, Weitzmann – a regular contributor to Le Monde and the former editor in chief of Les InRockuptibles – interviewed Marine Le Pen and examined the massacre at the Ohr Torah school in Toulouse.

Among the panel discussions on offer on Sunday, Judah Passow – photographer and curator of the project, Scots Jews: Identity, Belonging and the Future – and Kenneth Collins – author of Jewish Glasgow: an Illustrated History – took part in “The Jews of Scotland.” Chaired by the Times columnist Hugo Rifkind, the event focused on the Jewish contribution to Scotland and the nature of the community there and their Scottish-Jewish identity.

While Edinburgh is the capital of the Scottish state, Glasgow has become the capital of Jewish Scotland, drawing people in from across the country over the course of the last century, witnessing a concentration of Jewish institutions, Collins explained. Glasgow, during the era of emigration from the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the twentieth century, was a stop on the routes to the United States. An established community grew out of those who never made it that far. Initially settling in the working class areas of the city, the Jewish community developed good relations with the Presbyterian population of Glasgow.

“The difference was quite stark,” Passow said, when asked about the difference between Scottish Jews and other Jewish communities he had visited. “Scottish Jews are almost Mediterranean in their approach to life, which mirrors the Spanish, Greek, or Italian way. There is a vibrancy and in-your-faceness about life in Scotland, which is the polar opposite of the English approach to life. It is a synthesis of Scottish and Jewish attributes.” What Passow sees is that, “far away from the Jewish mission control in London,” Scottish Jews have an almost “anarchic attitude to their Jewishness.”

Passow and Collins touched on the recent Scottish referendum on independence, which was a matter of great concern to the Scottish Jewish community who in large numbers supported the idea of the United Kingdom remaining together. This had nothing to do with either their own Scottishness or Jewishness in a certain sense; rather, the concern was what the referendum had unleashed amongst those who supported independence, namely, romanticism and nationalism, either of which are good things for minority communities.

The future of Scottish Jewry is flux. Their number is diminishing – migrating south to Manchester and London, and emigrating to Israel – but Passow asserts that the quality of life is improving. “Scottish Jews understand the need to reinvent themselves,” he said. Historically, Scottish Jews were either Orthodox or irreligious Orthodox; in other words, the synagogue they didn’t go to was Orthodox. Today, Liberal and Reform Judaism are more dominant, streams of Judaism viewed as more suited to a contemporary Scottish lifestyle.

“The Scottish Jewish community is not coming to an end. It is not disappearing. It is reinvesting itself to life in the twenty-first century,” Passow concluded.

In the evening, Sharman Kadish – whose work Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland is soon to be reissued in an updated and expanded form, presented a lecture entitled “Why British Jews Need Jewish Heritage” on Britain’s historic synagogues. Beginning with the Spanish and Portuguese Bevis Marks synagogue in the east end of London, Kadish travelled outside of the capital, to Birmingham and Liverpool, and well as synagogues whose survival is under threat in Blackpool and Leicester.

Architecture, Kadish contended, is a means of strengthening Jewish identity, particularly in Britain where the Jewish population has never topped 450,000 and today Jews consist of less than 1 percent of the population. And yet, Kadish argued that congregations have been reckless and uncaring about their synagogue architecture, too ready to tear it down, and unwilling to spend money and make accommodations that might save it. In particular, there is a reluctance among different denominations to share a common space, something that in smaller communities might save British Jewry’s historic synagogues from demolition.

Jewish Book Week will run through March 1. Noteworthy events on the final day include New York Times columnist Roger Cohen discussing his new family memoir, The Girl from Human Street, with New Yorker writer David Denby, and a lunchtime lecture given by the Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua, considering how Jewish culture is now reflected through the prism of contemporary Israeli society. Another highlight will surely be a conversation about how Britain fell in love with Middle Eastern food, at a time when Israeli and Jewish chefs are taking the London restaurant scene by storm. That’s what I’ll be going to, anyway.