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Book Reviews

Exploring Jewish paradox

Suzanne Franks  |  Summer 2005  -  Number 198


Jonathan Freedland, Jacob’s Gift: A Journey into the Heart of Belonging (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005, £16.99)

Jacob’s Gift is a tale of three Jewish paradoxes. Jonathan Freedland addresses the book to his young son Jacob, after his Brit Mila. As he holds his eight-day-old baby, he wonders exactly what it means in 2001 to enter the ‘Covenant of Abraham’. The book sets out to answer this riddle of identity by exploring some of Freedland’s own family origins. In highlighting the contrasting stories of three of his forebears, he illuminates three key Jewish paradoxes. First is the question of dual loyalty and how Jews relate to the state and the secular world around them. Second is the balance between serving the universal cause of mankind and the particular needs of the Jewish people. And third is the eternal question: what is a Jew? If being Jewish is more than just a religion, then how necessary is it for a Jew to believe in God?

The book is full of remarkable historical material that Freedland has uncovered in researching his family tree. His story of great-great-uncle Nat is a supreme example of the balancing act of conflicting loyalty between Jewish and secular identity. This is a far richer tale than the simple cricket test. Nat was originally born Nathan, in a shtetl some time around 1890. Some 12 years later, he migrated to London and had a swift rise both educationally and socially. By 1915 he was fighting with His Majesty’s forces and within two years he was commissioned as an officer. Nat was to remain a servant of the Crown for most of his life, but he also had another lifelong passion, Zionism. After the war he was thrilled to be posted to Palestine, where he sought to fulfil his two identities as ambitious British officer and ardent Zionist. The story takes a further twist when he assumes a key role in supervising and controlling Jewish immigration to Palestine as the net started to tighten in Europe.

On one occasion, Nat went out of his way to admit some distant cousins from Vilna. He was later outraged to discover that one of them had flouted the immigration rules and brought in a fictitious ‘wife’. He was so angry at this abuse of his good will that he refused to speak to the cousin for 30 years. His view of the Zionist project was that it should only include Jews with the highest ideals. A key moment in his career was when he assisted in the immigration of the young Goldie Myerson from Wisconsin, who would one day become the Prime Minister of Israel.

Against a background of rising Arab unrest and deteriorating relations between British occupiers and Zionists, Nat found himself in an increasingly fraught position. He was neither liked not trusted by either side as he struggled to do his job correctly but also remain sympathetic to the emerging Jewish homeland. His social circle slowly shrank to the remaining Jewish members of the British Palestine forces.

As a counterpart to his family tales, the book is also a memoir of Freedland’s own Jewish journey, inasmuch as anyone under 40 can write a memoir. Nevertheless, his own particular Jewish balancing act makes an interesting comparison with Nat’s. In their own way, both of them were, in the Yiddish phrase, to ‘dance at two weddings’. Born in 1967, Freedland describes his youthful experiences of torrid Habonim summer camps and agonizing over non-Jewish girls. In one hilarious episode, studying at Oxford, he is seen by some super-cool Wadham college classmates whilst leading a jolly sing-song procession of Habonim kids. His two identities uncomfortably collide headlong! But what makes Freedland’s account interesting is his position in the contemporary journalistic scene. There are plenty of journalists who happen to be Jewish and others who are exclusively ‘Jewish journalists’, but very few like Freedland who tread the complicated middle way. His job is ‘explaining Israel and the Jews to the Guardian by day and explaining the Guardian to the Jews by night’. One can only imagine the horrors that lurk in his e-mail inbox.

Nat’s own story in Palestine is almost novel-like in the way it captures the fraught ambiguities of his dual existence. The journey from shtetl to colonial officer and eventual recipient of an OBE is itself pretty remarkable. But his daily dilemmas as an immigration official are so extreme they feel as if they could come from the pages of fiction. The trouble comes when Jonathan the wannabe novelist starts to treat it as fiction. Half-way through the retelling he starts to insert long passages of imagined dialogue. We hear Nat at home arguing with his wife or at work dealing with his colleagues. We even hear two British squaddies in Jerusalem commenting on the recent bombing of the King David Hotel. This device does not work. At times it is almost embarrassing, and it is quite unnecessary in telling what is anyway such a dramatic tale. The blending of memoir with fiction is a well-trodden contemporary genre. Writers such as W. G. Sebald, for example, use it to brilliant effect, but Freedland is not that kind of writer. He should stick to his non-fiction day job, which he is very good at.

The best writing in the book is in the third of the family stories, which is the life of Freedland’s own mother. This is another amazing tale and, as she is still alive, there was less temptation to fill in the gaps with imagined dialogue. Sara was born in a shack in Petach Tikva in 1936 to a hapless yeshiva bocher father and a tireless, stalwart mother, Feige. A year later, with one of her three children already dead from disease, Feige left her useless husband and his family and returned as a single mother to her family in London and another version of poverty. When the war came, Feige fled to the countryside with her children, where they led a bizarre dual existence, part rural English and part devout Jewish. Her family in the East End disapproved of this isolated life far away from real yiddishkeit. So eventually she returned to work in London and lived in the mainly Jewish block of Hughes Mansions just off Brick Lane. This offered the thrill of an indoor bathroom, but there were also nightly air raids. So the two children returned to the country as young evacuees with their Orthodox high school, marooned bizarrely in a Bedfordshire village. Again Sara, aged seven, led a life of extreme contrasts. She experienced a spinster, cottage existence with Miss Slater, even enjoying a clandestine Christmas stocking. Yet by day she was the youngest child in the Avigdor School, where she followed a routine of strict observance, and for all her meals she had to walk down the leafy lanes to the kosher school dining room. In school Sara was bullied for sweet rations, and out of school there were violent fights with local kids who taunted the ‘Jewboys’. On one occasion, a neighbour’s child asks Sara ‘Where are your horns? I thought all of you lot had horns?’

One Sunday a month, the two children were reunited with their beloved mother when she visited them in the country. The grim climax of the story comes in the last weeks of the war. Feige, ever cautious about her precious offspring, decided they should remain at school for one last Pesach, even though the fighting was almost over. On the night of 27 March 1945 Feige is asleep in Hughes Mansions when it is obliterated in the final V2 rocket attack of the war. She died along with 120 other Jewish residents, and Sara was left heart-broken.

This spring there was a service to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the V2 attack. It formed part of the backdrop to the unpleasant Bethnal Green and Bow General Election campaign. Elderly Jewish mourners, including Sara, were heckled and the Labour candidate Oona King, referred to on handbills as ‘the Semitic bitch’, was pelted with eggs, apparently by Muslim youths.

By 2005 the frontline of antisemitism had changed. Freedland’s third family story takes place at the height of earlier East End battles. This is the tale of his great-uncle Mick Mindel, an ardent communist and trade union organizer. He is perhaps the character that Freedland is most enthralled by, as already at the age of 17 he had sat down to tape Mick’s youthful memories. The narrative ranges from the drama of the battle of Cable Street against Mosley’s fascists to the victories against the bosses in the garment trade. The young Mick rose to lead the United Ladies Tailors Union, where he negotiated, amongst other things, the hitherto unimaginable benefit of holiday pay.

Mick’s horizons went far beyond the exploitation of his fellow East End workers. He debated Zionism with David Ben Gurion, who called him ‘the leader of the Jewish Proletariat in this country’. He was totally opposed to the particularism of a Jewish homeland. In 1932 and 1933, he confronted the emerging Nazi beast when he went on a football tour to Germany with the Stepney Jewish Association. The opening match in Cologne was cancelled when fascist thugs killed nine supporters. This reinforced his belief in an international communist movement as the only route to salvation.

The greatest crisis in Mick’s life was the betrayal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939. Yet despite his private agonizing, in public at least, unlike so many others, he never departed from the Party line. He fought bitterly with his family and many fellow Jews, but he remained convinced that the cause of the Jewish worker was indivisible from the cause of workers everywhere.

As far as mainstream contemporary Stanmore or Hendon Jewish life is concerned, Mick’s world of passionate left-wing debate and organizing might have occurred on the moon. Jonathan Freedland does both his son and young Jews everywhere a great service when he evokes this forgotten world of Jews as pioneers of the working classes. Long after the Jewish workers had migrated out of the East End, Mick remained there. He went on to serve the new exploited masses as the immigrant patchwork changed, recruiting Indian women to the union and campaigning tirelessly for better conditions.

In Jacob’s Gift Freedland too tries to balance the universal with the particular. As a child he liked to help on his father Michael’s well-known BBC radio show You Don’t Have to be Jewish. Sometimes the book feels as if he is trying to emulate the show’s strapline: ‘The world through Jewish eyes – but not necessarily for Jewish ears’. He (and his publisher) are probably hoping to attract a broader audience than simply Jews. There is a sprinkling of general references to minority causes and ethnic identity as well as musings on the wider meaning of parenthood, and even a helpful glossary of Jewish terms. But the book works best when it addresses intensely Jewish matters and as a meditation on Jewish identity. These are clearly issues which Freedland has thought long and hard about: the mutating nature of antisemitism, how Jews should relate to Israel, the interface between secular and religious identity. On all of these and many more topics, he offers powerful and illuminating insights.

Suzanne Franks is working on volume 6 of the History of the BBC.

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