liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
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Author: Jonathan Freedland

Details: (c) Jonathan Freedland 2005; Pub Penguin Books 2006; ISBN 0-141-01491-1

Verdict: Jacob's gift is a readable, effective account of some aspects of Anglo-Jewish history.

Reasons for reading it: [personal profile] khalinche recommended it very highly. I wasn't quite sure if I'm quite the right audience for it; it's basically trying to explain people like me to nice middle class British people who generically approve of multiculturalism but don't necessarily know much about any specific minority cultures. But still, if [personal profile] khalinche thinks it's a good book, that's a pretty strong reason to read it.

How it came into my hands: I've been looking out for a copy in a cursory fashion since [personal profile] khalinche mentioned it. Then I was in my parents' house and a bit short of reading material, so I went poking in their recent acquisitions pile, and discovered they'd "done" this at their Jewish book club, so I borrowed it.

Jacob's gift succeeds well at what it does. It takes three biographies of members of Freedland's family and uses them to illustrate aspects of the experience of English Jews like him (and to some extent like me as well) during the twentieth century. So there's the immigrant from a Ukrainian shtetl who ends up working for the British authorities in Mandate Palestine, the communist East End tailor moving between the culture of his immigrant parents and the culture of the English working class, and Freedland's mother, a religiously Orthodox woman who had a weird childhood being shunted about between Palestine/Israel and England and between her mother's immigrant relatives in the east end and random sympathetic non-Jewish foster parents in the English countryside as an evacuee. Freedland skillfully evokes these characters as people you can relate to and care about, and uses them and their stories to illustrate his points about different ways of belonging to two cultures at once, different possibilities for attitudes to religion and to the State of Israel.

A lot of his family stories are very similar to my family stories, which is sort of the point, really. He has more personal connection to pre-Independence Zionists than I do, but even the Palestine stories have echoes of the kinds of things I often hear from within the Jewish community. This wasn't a problem for me reading the book, though I was sometimes momentarily surprised by how much he explains of topics I find perfectly obvious, not just glossing religious technical terms but things like explaining the nuances and conflicts of left-wing politics within the East End clothing trades between the wars, and then I stop and think, actually, this isn't primary knowledge for most people reading this book!

The sections of the book where he talks about what all this means to him personally I found worked less well for me. He's espousing positions that I broadly agree with: it's possible and desirable to be both English and Jewish. Tolerance is good. Circumcision is morally questionable but legal bans are completely the wrong way to address this. There is a moral duty to scrutinize and criticize Israel and the Occupation, but Israel's right to exist as a sovereign nation shouldn't be brought into question, as if the country were only there on sufferance as long as it's morally impeccable. Religion should be more focused on social justice than ritual, but maintaining a connection to our roots is a high moral value, not just clinging to primitive superstition. The Holocaust should be remembered but should not become an obsession or the main focus of Jewish identity and values. But reading all this in the form of a bunch of essays that read like a distillation of about a year's worth of reasonably competent progressive sermons, made it come across as earnest but slightly clumsy apologetics. In some ways the whole book is a four-hundred-page justification for why a nice middle class lefty Guardian journalist regards himself as a Zionist. There's the beginning of some interesting stuff (I've heard similar sentiments from AB Yehoshua at Limmud, incidentally) about treating Judaism as a national group, and how this might not necessarily be synonymous with Israeli citizenship but also needs to be separated from membership of the religious community or philosophical acceptance of its tenets.

Freedland is ten years older than me, and in some ways this is an important difference between us. Firstly because he is closer to the immigrant generation than I am; I have met only a handful of extremely elderly relatives who had Yiddish as a first language, whereas that generation were somewhat more part of Freedland's childhood. And secondly because he was in his 30s in 2001, whereas I'd only just turned 20. So he'd already much more solidly formed his ideas and identity as a believer in the multicultural ideal by the time the current decade hit.

Today I had to attend a funeral of a cousin of Dad's whose wife died suddenly last week. His grandmother, for whom I'm named (in a complicated fashion), was a Yiddish-speaking immigrant from Eastern Europe, one of eleven children who reached England as a refugee family some time at the end of the last century. His father (my grandmother's older brother) was bilingual in Yiddish and English, trained and worked as a doctor, and socialized in mainly Jewish circles and in some ways always felt like a despised foreigner / outsider, though he too was involved in leftist internationalist politics. And after two generations: a funeral held in a big CofE church in the most postcard pretty English village, a eulogy that mentioned how the deceased was active in all kinds of community affairs, school governor, charitable works, every bit the country doctor's wife. While we Jewish relatives sort of huddled in a corner and made wry remarks about the quality of the catering and weren't quite sure of the etiquette for how to dress or behave for church or whether to use the traditional Jewish formulas for condolences. That's a story Freedland would almost certainly recognize, and if you want to understand some of it you could do worse than to read his book.
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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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