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Now we are 350

Howard Jacobson wonders if it isn’t time we grew up

Howard Jacobson  |  Spring 2006  -  Number 201

  
  
 

A dozen years ago or more, in Jerusalem, I was accosted by a religious Jew from Manchester - an accountant he said he was - who thought he recognized me as the writer. ‘So why are you potchkehing around writing books?’ he asked me.

At first I thought he meant - as an accountant might mean - why aren’t you doing something that will bring you in more money? But I was mistaken. What he meant was why was I writing books when, in his words, ‘We already have a book.’

Since the next question he asked me, before I’d had a chance to consider the first, was ‘I suppose you go with shiksas too?’ I understood him to mean that my writing books was an activity injurious to Judaism. In the past I had always taken the phrase ‘the People of the Book’ to mean that we were a literary, word-driven lot who couldn’t have too many books. But here was a different interpretation. In the eyes of my Orthodox Manchester accountant we were the people of this book, the Torah, and no other.

There is a part of me, I have to say, that thrills to this idea. And if the one book and one book only that we read was one of my books, I’d thrill to the idea even more. But even when that one book isn’t mine, but comes, unmediated, from the mouth of God, there is, yes, something wonderful about its appearance from the Ark every shabbes - held aloft with exultation, paraded, kissed, read from, before being locked away again with great ceremony in its sacred compartment. How extraordinary that words should be the object of such reverence still. And what a grand conceit it is that, no matter how many other scrolls are being paraded and kissed in the same way in other synagogues at the same time, because this scroll participates in the original holiness it becomes, as it were, not just a manifestation of that original holiness, but the thing itself. The One Book from the One God, there, before one’s eyes.

Start from One God and One Book is a logical conclusion. My Manchester accountant’s refusal to countenance any other is no more than literal obedience to the Second Commandment:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth . . .

Whether those words can legitimately be taken as an injunction against the making of art generally - the making of any representation of any living thing in any form, and not just idols - that, anyway, is how for centuries Jews have taken it. And not only Jews. Kant called it ‘perhaps the most sublime passage in the Jewish law’, for the reason that it was an encouragement to understand God morally, as an idea rather than a representational object. Hegel opted for the contrary view. ‘Everything genuine in spirit and nature alike,’ he wrote,

is inherently concrete and, despite its universality, has nevertheless subjectivity and particularity in itself. Therefore the Jews and the Turks have not been able by art to represent their God . . .

Either way, whether you agree with Kant or Hegel, the implication is that God did indeed command the Jews to be an aniconic people - people of the One God, who was invisible and never to be named, let alone represented: from which it followed that they were also people of the one book, any other book or representation being a breaking of God’s law.

By the time you get to Wagner the lack of a Jewish aesthetic has become a given, and further proof of innate Jewish deficiency. According to Wagner,

The sensory capacity for sight belonging to the Jew was never such as to allow them to produce visual artists; their eyes are preoccupied with matters much more material than beauty and the spiritual content of things in the phenomenal world.

Thus, little by little, was God’s injunction against the graven image turned against the Jews, and the sublime concept of immaterial divinity mythologized into its very opposite - proof of the Jew’s gross materiality.

It would be reasonable to wonder why these various uncomplimentary interpretations of the Second Commandment were never more forcibly refuted by Jews themselves. Yes, many became artists, and that perhaps is the most eloquent refutation of all. But I’m not sure that the argument was ever joined as robustly as it might have been. And the reason for that, I believe, is that Jews do sense that there is an impiety implicit in the act of creation - not just in the creation of images, but any creation. The writer, like the painter or the sculptor, remakes the world, and that of necessity implies a degree of dissatisfaction with the way it is, and therefore with its Creator. If it is logical for the literal believer to see no reason for another book, it is no less logical for the Jewish artist, who does see a reason for another book or picture, to acknowledge the rashness, not to say the solemnity, of his enterprise. Because we believe we have been forbidden art, we make it, not with a heavy heart exactly, but reverentially, with a profound sense of the obligations and responsibilities inherent in transgression.

Chaim Potok’s painter hero Asher Lev paints, in trepidation, the ambiguities of existence - ‘the dark side to the light, the light side to darkness’. ‘God is not ambiguous,’ his Orthodox father tells him.

Our faith in Him is not ambiguous. From ambiguity I would not derive the strength to do all the things I must do. Ambiguity is darkness, Certainty is light. Darkness is the world of the Other Side.

In the father’s view, in other words, art is the devil’s work, rivalling God by offering a contrary view of His creation and questioning its meaning. And because he feels the power of this argument even as he rejects it, Asher Lev does not make art lightly.

But then no Jew - believer or not - ever has made art lightly.

The career of Philip Roth is instructive in this regard. With his very first words, published when he was still in his early twenties, Roth outraged the rabbis. The more he wrote, the more conservative American Jewish opinion he offended. And with Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), of course, he offended everybody. The self-hating nestbeschmutzing Jewish writer had become not just a shame, a shande, to his people, but an anathema - a cursed thing. For many novels this was - as an act of defiance, as a badge of writerly pride even, but also as a source of constant agitation, rage and, yes, pain - the way Roth chose to see himself. In novel after novel, until we wondered whether he had run out of all other subjects, Portnoy’s Complaint was reimagined as Carnovsky, the filthy best-seller which gave its creator no peace - the story of its writing and its aftermath the story which Roth, like some Jewish Ancient Mariner, had to go on telling. Call it solipsism, but that hardly gets the measure of the obsession. It was as if Roth had woken up one morning and discovered himself to be - no, not a giant insect, and not a breast either, which was Roth’s own play on Kafka, but the anti-Jew himself . . . ‘And a thousand thousand slimy things lived on, and so did I.’

If we think of Roth as having entered a wholly new phase of invention in the last decade or so, it was Sabbath’s Theatre (1995) which kicked it off. Not a novel of expiation, more a novel of thundering sacrilege, Sabbath’s Theatre finally, and with insane glee, shoulders the charge of blasphemy. You think you’ve seen anathema? I’ll show you anathema! Sabbath is a finger puppeteer. Another God. An obscene God. His theatre humanity itself, conceived and fingered with the utmost indecency. Whatever we normally think of as sacred - even the buried remains of the woman he loved - Sabbath goes out of his way to defile. In the act of defiling, we are to understand - Dostoievskianly - does the sacred become more sacred still. Sabbath not only animates as a puppeteer, he reanimates. And it is no accident that he is - blasphemously - given the name of the Jewish holy day. Sabbath. Finally, it isn’t Jewish opinion Roth is battling, it is God himself. In this sense, Sabbath’s Theatre becomes an assertion of the creative impiety of the novel - the answer to ‘What are you doing potchkehing about writing books for? We already have a book.’ Sabbath takes on the Jewish God at his own game, inverting what we mean by holy, reinstituting the primacy - but yes, the religious primacy - of art.

I dropped the names Dostoievsky and Kafka advertently. The great metaphysicians and blasphemers of the European novel, the great conjurers of ‘the dark side to the light’, going all the way back to Rabelais, make their way - via immigrant Jews, I fancy (though I’d need another essay to argue that) - to America. They didn’t stop off in this country. We always have been, we English, resistant to continental influences in art. Not ignorant of them, not deaf or blind to them, and not impervious to them - but independent. We do things differently. The difference, you could say, is the difference between Kant’s and Hegel’s understanding of the Second Commandment. We like particularity in this country. We have empirical imaginations. Abstraction does not come naturally or easily to us. The English genius, as Shelley said of Wordsworth, is to ‘waken a sort of thought in sense’, and not the other way around. Dickens is no less a fantasist than Kafka, but his fantasies are more societal than metaphysical. George Eliot wants us to imagine morally - a didactic purpose wrapped in an aesthetic one. Henry James, coming from another place, would talk of the novel’s irresponsible plasticity; but for George Eliot art can never be irresponsible. Remove or shroud its moral function and you are left in emotional chaos. Think of Dorothea in Middlemarch, on honeymoon in Rome, where there is no distinguishing the effects of an unhappy marriage on a virginal girl of narrow education, brought up in English puritanism, from the shock of beholding the profligacies of Catholic art for the first time:

Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy of a superstition divorced from reverence . . . all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock . . . Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina . . .

I think you have to be an English novelist to render sexual distress as retinal malfunction. Though it isn’t only sexual distress, of course, that is being rendered. Nothing in Dorothea’s near-Calvinistical upbringing prepares her for the carnalities of Italian art. The ‘deep degeneracy’ and ‘degradation’ she finds in it is a very English response to art altogether. But there is none of the answering Jewish thrill that accompanies transgression. It takes a Semite - Herr Klesmer, the ‘Wandering Jew’ musician in Daniel Deronda - to give voice to a bolder understanding of aesthetics, just as, in the person of Daniel Deronda himself, it takes a Semite to set an example of a deeper pitch of imaginative exultancy. For George Eliot, it would seem, the Jew is the one way out of the English narrowness that blinds Dorothea.

One way out for the English, at least. Among the questions I want to ask is: Why have English Jews refused that function? Why, at least when it comes to the making of art, have we gone the English route? Never mind that we might thereby have let the English down, and been less other than they sometimes wanted us to be; is it not proper to wonder whether we haven’t let ourselves down as well?

This, the 350th anniversary of our Readmission to this country, is a good time to remember what we owe to English puritanism. ‘Great is my sympathy with this poor people, whom God chose and to whom He gave His law,’ said Cromwell, in the course of re-opening the door to England to the Jews. Just how wide that door was opened, and what exactly motivated Cromwell’s sympathies, historians continue to debate. Myself, I’m happy to be here for whatever reasons. If some of the more fantastical puritans imagined we would help them, in our Old Testament capacity, to expedite the coming of God’s Kingdom here on earth, I am only sorry we were unable to oblige. But I am also sorry if our entwinement in what Matthew Arnold saw as the unculturedness of puritan mercantilism and faith - not for nothing did Arnold call it ‘Hebraism’ - has determined the limits of Jewish civilization and culture in this country. If English puritanism found us religiously congenial, the question we have to ask ourselves - gratitude aside - is: How congenial have we found English puritanism? A question which contains another: Have we found it - at least as far as the making of art goes - altogether too congenial for our own good?

In 1904, having been away from his native America for nearly a quarter of a century, Henry James, then aged 61, returned to look around him. He wanted to call the book he wrote about that visit The Return of the Native, but acknowledged that Thomas Hardy had beaten him to it. So he called it The American Scene instead. What struck him most particularly in New York was what he called ‘the ubiquity of the alien’ - ‘there being occasions’, and I quote,

when the electric cars offer you nothing else to think of. The carful, again and again, is a foreign carful; a row of faces, up and down, testifying, without exception, to alienism unmistakable, alienism undisguised and unashamed.

Among the alienisms James put his mind to was, as he called it, ‘the Yiddish world’, or ‘the New Jerusalem on earth’. It does not make for entirely easy reading. Sentences such as

There is no swarming like that of Israel when once Israel has got a start, and the scene here bristled, at every step, with the signs and sounds, immitigable, unmistakable, of a Jewry that had burst all bounds

such sentences strike one, at best, as proceeding from nerves which are too easily tried. And ‘swarming’ is, of all verbs to describe the sociability of ethnicities not your own, the least acceptable. But then things have happened since Henry James returned to America in 1904 which he could not have anticipated. And the question to which he goes on to put his mind - what will happen to what he calls ‘the consecrated English tradition’, what will happen to language, once the Jews of the Lower East Side have finished with it? - was worth the asking. I quote from The American Scene:

Just so the East side cafés - and increasingly as their place in the scale was higher - showed to my inner sense, beneath their bedizenment, as torture-rooms of the living idiom; the piteous gasp of which at the portent of lacerations to come could reach me in any drop of the surrounding Accent of the Future. The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful on the globe and the very music of humanity (here the ‘ethnic’ synthesis shrouds itself thicker than ever); but whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English - in any sense for which there is an existing literary measure.

There are those who hold that when it comes to torture-rooms of the living idiom, Henry James out-Torquemada’d Torquemada. Myself, I have a soft spot for the unnatural thing James made of English in his later years. A soft spot in the sense that I like its finely spun particularity, but also in the sense that I feel for the circumstances of neglect and disappointment - estrangement from a sympathetic or comprehending audience - out of which it was shaped.

However it was intended, such a prognosis as James’s could only be taken by succeeding generations of ‘lettered’ American Jews as a provocation and a challenge. When I say the question, as James posed it, was worth putting, this is what I have in mind - the spur it gave to American Jewish writers to throw it back in gentile America’s teeth.

It took a while. Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman smuggles a Jewish story onto the American stage without the characters being avowedly Jewish. You can hear Jewish preoccupations, Jewish sensibility and even Jewish cadences, but thereafter you are free to believe you are following the story of ordinary Americans of presumably Irish descent struggling to make the grade. Death of A Salesman was first performed in 1949. In 1953 Saul Bellow publishes The Adventures of Augie March. Some commentators see this as the first Jewish American novel intended to make Henry James choke on his own words, even if James was long dead by then. Myself, I don’t think Bellow quite got his Jewish voice right in Augie March; he seems conscious of having too much to prove. But with the very opening words of Herzog, published a decade later in 1964, a truly new voice, very Jewish, and very American - anxious and forward-looking all at once, and supremely confident of its rights - has found itself: ‘If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.’

In Herzog and then in Humbold’s Gift (1975), Saul Bellow is able to show James how little the ‘consecrated English tradition’ had to fear from the ghetto, indeed how much it had to gain from it. By which time Philip Roth has joined in as well. Even more aggressively and overtly than Bellow, Roth demonstrates a mastery of English, not in despite of Jewish idiom but almost as though Jewish idiom - trailing the cadences of European shtetl Yiddish with its pieties and impieties, pushed often to the edge of reason, and permeated with the blasphemous paradoxes of European literature - is now indispensable to it. Try writing un-Jewishly after Roth and Bellow! Try writing un-Jewishly in America, I mean.

Things have panned out differently here. No doubt James could have gone to Whitechapel in 1904 and heard ‘portents of the lacerations to come’, but even had he ventured that far east, the effect, and therefore the threat, would never have shrouded itself quite so thickly for him. We didn’t swarm. There weren’t enough of us. And those there were knew not to congregate with any show of effrontery or ostentation. Whatever else there is to say of Jewish alienness in this country, we could not say of it that it shows itself as ‘undisguised’ and ‘unashamed’.

England is a welcoming country, but until the recent fad for multiculturalism it has never welcomed aliens with a view to allowing them to reshape what we mean by Englishness. The puritans encouraged Jews to return because they wanted to see, in the words of the historian Heinrich Graetz, ‘this living wonder, the Jewish people, with their own eyes’, but the theocratic wonder we were expected to perform had less to do with who we actually were and more with whom, biblically speaking, we had once been. Of course we tried to put them right as to the present and the past. With considerable vigour over the couple of centuries after our Readmission Jewish theologians and philosophers retranslated the Bible and other Hebrew texts with a view to reclaiming their original Hebrew meaning and spirit. But in the act of presenting ourselves to the English in their own language - a presentation that did not have to be antagonistic, not least as we had no hostile Lutheran Bible to combat - historians have shown that we began a process of understanding ourselves Englishly. At last the face we showed the English became the face we showed ourselves. Because we did not, in the manner of German Jews for example, have to assert the vitality of our culture as an expression of political dissatisfaction, in the face of exclusions and inequalities; because we enjoyed a relative freedom from any sort of persecution or hardship in this country; because of English liberalism and essential ethnic incuriosity and indifference; because we were spared over here much of the turbulence that went on shaking continental Europe; because we lived, politically and theologically, by and large tension-free - Jews in England gently faded, and were grateful to fade, into the cultural landscape.

A success story, according to Cecil Roth, English Jews having ‘attained a measure of freedom [in this land] which has been the case in scarcely any other’, but something of a failure if we look at what we have produced philosophically and artistically, not simply as incidental Jews who have learnt to ape the way the English speak and do things (such Jews we have coming out of our ears), but as English Jews who might have been expected to address directly the challenge of being Jewish, who might have found in their Jewishness the themes if not the raison d’être for their art.

‘I have always thought,’ wrote Michael Kustow recently (Jewish Chronicle, 21 October 2005), ‘that the core voice of Harold Pinter is Jewish.’ I agree with him. I have always thought that too. I have also wondered why we have to ‘core’ Harold Pinter to find that voice, why Jewishness operates in him more to fend off than to embrace, more to conceal than to engage, but that ultimately is his business. There can be no telling a writer what he must write about. Something Michael Kustow goes on to say about Pinter, however, does re-open the question of what an English Jew might be avoiding when he avoids, overtly at least, his English Jewishness. According to Kustow, Ireland (in the form of Samuel Beckett), acting and ‘extreme Englishness’ were three of the ways that Pinter, and I quote, chose ‘to free himself from the introversion of an exclusively Jewish world’.

The introversion of an exclusively Jewish world . . .

Why would it have been introverted of Pinter to have written openly about being Jewish? Was it introverted of Evelyn Waugh to write about being English? Introverted of Dylan Thomas to write about being Welsh? And why exclusively . . .? To wonder why Jewishness as something other than a bullying, inquisitorial, Talmudic-dialectic tone of voice has not figured more in Pinter is not to wish him to have written exclusively about Jews. Do we say of Roth or Bellow that they are imprisoned - for Kustow talks about Pinter freeing himself - in the introversion of an exclusively Jewish world?

The truth is, the idea of introversion and exclusion from which one needs, for the sake of one’s artistic integrity, to escape, unconsciously expresses all the anxieties of a cultured English Jew. We must at all costs avoid ourselves because we are parochial. Jewishified, we are back as in a ghetto. To a degree, we mirror in this the English among whom, for the last 350 years, we have lived almost incident-free. When the English are not revelling in their artistic insularity, they are apologizing for it. ‘Not another novel about infidelity in Kentish Town,’ some reviewer of English fiction is always saying, as though there could be any subject on the face of the earth more interesting than infidelity in Kentish Town. But in Anglo-Jewish fears of appearing parochial we express a self-deprecation which is more than simply borrowed.

The other side of our acculturation to English society, English art and English discourse is, I think, a disappointment in ourselves. I am not saying we believe at some deep level than we could have done better, simply that we could have done other. For all the ease of our life in this country, or maybe because of it, we do not believe that the Jews we have become here are the Jews it best suits us to have become.

On the face of it we hanker after the American Jewish experience because it seems more adequately to express our ambitions and our natures. I am no less guilty of this than many other English Jews. The hero of my forthcoming novel, Kalooki Nights - a failed cartoonist - describes his excitement, having been brought up on the Dandy and the Beano, on first clapping eyes on an American comic:

There was something about the Dandy and the Beano, the mishaps of Dennis the Menace or Roger the Dodger, that depressed me. It was the look of them, partly: the skanky paper, the low-mirth smudginess of their production; but also the dismalness of the schoolyard world they portrayed: discipline versus cheekiness, small victories, practical jokes, jeering, every teacher undernourished, every kid drawn as though he had rickets. And then one day, Dodgy Ike, who was always dropping in on us with gifts of doubtful propriety and provenance – genaivisheh was my father’s word for them: knocked-off, but somehow innocently, knavishly, geknavishly knocked-off - turned up with a cigar in his mouth and a stash of contraband American comics under his arm. Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Dick Tracy: a brave new technicolour world of momentous, universe-changing action and teeming metropolises, even the ejaculations, SHAZAM! and BLAMM! and ZOKK! a thousand times more heroic than the small-time COOS! and CROAKS! of the meagrely illustrated, miserly-minded Beano. I fell in love with them at first sight, not just because they were from somewhere else, and shouldn’t have been in my possession at all, but also because of the architecture of their design - the sculpted bodies, the masses of colour, the dynamic sense of movement, boldly futuristic and yet as classical in their density as any of the Renaissance paintings of annunciations and miraculous births whose reproductions hung in our art room at school. How did their artists achieve that? How were they able to appropriate everything, apparently so effortlessly? What was the secret of their pictorial plunder? Although I wouldn’t have put it to myself in quite this way, I recognized (correctly, as it turned out) something Jewish in them - Dodgy Ike Jewish, a bit genaivisheh in the knavish sense, full of spirited immigrant Johnny-come-lately razzamatazz, and thus the antithesis to what the English expected of an illustrator of comics.

Did that explain the anti-American sentiment of the careful gentile world in which I grew up? Was that why our teachers were always warning us off American movies and music and bubble-gum, and would have confiscated my Superman comics had I brought them to school - because what they really didn’t like about America was its Jewishness?

Without doubt, some of this anti-Americanism rubbed off on me. Even though I was so smitten by Lois Lane I would draw her in the arms of someone bearing a striking resemblance to me just before I went to sleep, and so envied Superman his X-ray vision that for a while all my heroes had two yellow cones of light pouring from their eyes, I little by little rebelled from the extravagantly optimistic fantasy of it all. English culture called. If not the English comic book, then the English cartoon. Moralistic. Suspicious. Dour. Savage. Reductively ribald. Everything that I was not.

Everything that he was not . . . But what then was, what then is, he?

For all our admiration and even envy for the American Jewish experience - its exuberance and volubility, its never having to apologize for itself as we seem to do every day - I wonder if it really is the confidence we admire and miss, or if it’s something else . . . What if what we actually miss is turmoil?

Aesthetically and intellectually disgusted by the tranquility of Anglo-Jewish life, we yearn for stories which tell of such turbulence as continental Jews enjoyed, and whose aftermath explains America. Rather than hear about ourselves, we will read, again and again and again, about a 14-year-old Dutch girl in hiding from the Nazis. For us truly to be convinced we are reading Jewish literature, we must read about the Holocaust. To be interesting to ourselves as Jews, in short, we have to be in crisis. And because our English lives have not been marked with crisis, they embarrass us. To be absorbed in the way we live, here, now, is, we fear, to be guilty of introversion . . .

But what if that means we are missing a trick? More than a trick, an entire strategy for being Jewish not according to ancient pattern or expectation, not in the anguished spirit of the Eastern European shtetl, but on, let us say, the English model? That dour, satiric savagery my hero complains of, that sardonic particularity, mistrustful of whatever is overblown and fanciful, that Dickensian delight in here and now - after 350 years, can we not find a way of engaging creatively with it? Not by disappearing into it and becoming pretend Englishmen with made-up names who never heard the word Jew, but not, either, by wishing we were someone and somewhere else, forever admiring our reflection in another nation’s mirror, and ashamed of what we see when we look upon our reflections here. Must we either go as quietly as mice, or blaspheme and dichotomize on the grandest scale? Must we, every time we make a work of art, either remove all trace of Jew, or anathematize ourselves as demon Hebrews like Asher Lev or Sabbath?

I am not sure whether I am saying it is time English Jews stood up for themselves against the cultural imperialism of the American Jew, but I might be. What I know I am saying is that if we could wean ourselves a little off America, we might succeed, paradoxically, in weaning ourselves off the shtetl too. I would not go so far as to argue that the demoralized Jew of the Middle Ages, as described by Heinrich Graetz, is now to be found, unchanged, in America, ‘sunk in ignorance, filled with conceit, beset with phantoms . . . imposed upon by jugglers and visionaries’, subject to ‘any absurdity, however transparent, provided it was apparently vindicated with religious earnestness . . . or garnished with scraps of the Kabbalah’ - no, I would not argue that in that account we recognize the American Jew of today, but still less, I would argue, do we recognize the English one. Because we are Anglicized we are freer of fancy, less susceptible to conceit in all meanings of the word, more sceptical in our intelligence, perhaps than Jews anywhere. We have been in this country a while now. The story of our finely tuned accommodations to English culture is a fascinating one, sometimes tragic, often heroic, always funny, and never less than urgent beneath a quiescent surface. It is time we told it. We should be more interested in ourselves as English Jews. ENGLISH . . . JEWS. In the normal daily way of things, of course, we have no choice but to be interested in ourselves as English Jews - it’s as English Jews we live our lives - but it embarrasses us to say so, out loud, or in art, or in whatever other way we might choose to express our self-image.

It becomes the young to be shy and tongue-tied. They don’t, anyway, have anything to say. But we are 350 years old. Isn’t it time we apologized for ourselves a little less; liked ourselves a little more? Isn’t it time we grew up?

Howard Jacobson is the author of eight novels – including The Mighty Walzer (1999), winner of the Jewish Quarterly-Wingate Prize for Fiction and the Everyman Wodehouse Award for comic writing, Who’s Sorry Now? (2002) and The Making of Henry (2004) – and four works of non-fiction. He is a regular columnist for the Independent and writes frequently for numerous newspapers, including the Sunday Times, Guardian and Evening Standard. His novel Kalooki Nights will be published by Jonathan Cape in July.

This is an abridged version of a lecture delivered at the London Jewish Cultural Centre on 24 January 2006 – under the title ‘The Anglo-Jewish Novel: A Contradiction in Terms?’ – as part of a series of events to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the ‘Readmission’ of Jews to Britain at the time of Oliver Cromwell.

  
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