Can We Talk? Jewish Book Week 2012

Jewish Book Week 2012

Saturday, Feb 18. It’s the opening event of Jewish Book Week 2012, and Simon Schama, Linda Grant and Eva Hoffman are sitting onstage, but I’m not looking at them: I’m gazing in mild disbelief at outgoing JBW director Geraldine D’Amico, who has just introduced chair Emily Maitlis as ‘the glamorous face of TV news’. The title of the evening is ‘60 Years On’. I don’t think it’s meant to be ironic.

The years in question span the trajectory of JBW since its inception in 1952. These nine days of events are a celebration of ongoing survival — although how that makes these nights different from all other Jewish festival nights is a question worth asking. There is more here — much more — than the Holocaust and the fate of Israel. Cookery writer and food anthropologist Claudia Roden will talk eloquently about the Sephardi conversos, eating pork to deflect the Spanish Inquisition. The indefatigable 87-year- old filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah, will discuss his time in the French Resistance (and make mincemeat, pork or kosher, of interviewer Alan Yentob. Why does this please me so? Because any man who talks about Lanzmann and Jean-Paul Sartre ‘sharing’ the author of The Second Sex deserves to become dinner). Lawyer Anthony Julius and Deborah Lipstadt will discuss both her new book on the Eichmann trial and their joint overcoming, in court, of David Irving’s Holocaust denial. We have a rich history, we Jews. We have survived a LOT. But the question that bubbles to the surface again and again, as I shuttle between talks on books, discussions of books, readings and signings and Willow Winston’s book-covered art installation in the King’s Place lobby, is this: do we have to talk about survival all the time?

Gradually, through the week, this question gets larger and larger, like a mushroom cloud. By the time Fabrice Humbert, author of the novel The Origins of Violence, stands up and proclaims that he, as two generations removed from the Holocaust (his grandfather was a survivor), is “free, and I can speak”, it has bloomed into something huge: an investigation of what we can and can’t talk about, as Jews.

Actually, this started early, with Maitlis. For some reason, JBW chairs like to collect a bunch of questions, thus straining all the intellectual powers of authors already on the spot, who must then remember back to the first question as well as think up answers. Maitlis, that first night, used this method to ignore any question that was anti-Israel. The silence was deafening, especially since Linda Grant had just been discussing the topics, including local anti-Semitic riots in 1947, four years before she was born, that were taboo in her childhood home in Liverpool (‘this shtetl on the Mersey’), and Eva Hoffman had talked of her girlhood in Krakow, just after the war, in which Auschwitz — 45 minutes’ drive away — was never mentioned (‘experiences so traumatic it was difficult to narrativise them’). It was intensely odd to watch these guests obediently respond only to the questions they were bidden by Maitlis to answer. I like to think of Jews, particularly secular Jews, as turbulent and argumentative, willing to air any subject that smells like a good debate. And JBW is not, by any means, a narrowly pro-Israel festival — in fact last year, commentators had conniptions over a talk starring Johann Hari and Gideon Levy, both notoriously down on Israel, and sponsored by the even more hostile London Review of Books. Yet, as the 2012 festival progressed, it became clear that a people who start with the taboo of pronouncing God’s name have a fair few other words they prefer not to mention. And this in a liberal society where a man like Irving can be legally lambasted for saying the unspeakable. Grant talks of meaningful silences (“I’m British but also an outsider. I couldn’t write about the English experience…”), but Maitlis continues to ignore questions about the predicament of Palestinians and it seems significant that none of this talkative panel says a thing about it.

That is left to the Israeli anthropologist David Wesley, next day, in a talk on ‘Jews and Palestinians in Israel’. Wesley believes that geostrategic planning motivated by “the fear or threat of Arab takeover” has engendered many of Israel’s current problems. In other words, he is voicing one of the most contentious opinions available: it is all our own fault. Treat people as the enemy, he says, and that is what they will become: a view that chimes eerily with the trajectory of Umberto Eco’s latest historical novel, The Prague Cemetery, in which Simonini, a virulent anti-Semite, devotes his entire existence to discrediting the Jews, thus ensuring that world Jewry eats his life. Wesley, too, talks about the unsayable (it is, apparently, forbidden to discuss the Arab version of 1948 in Israeli schools) as well as saying the unthinkable: that Israel, if it carries on as it is, will close in on itself entirely: “we Jews in Israel are imprisoned in a ghetto of our own making,” he protests. As he talks of suspicion, isolation and paranoia, the ghost of Simonini (a fiction, but not much of one, and the grandson of a real18th-century anti-Semite) gives a hollow cackle in my imagination.


What should the sexagenarian JBW talk about, and are there subjects on which its speakers should stay silent? Lipstadt discusses the reasons for returning, 50 years on, to the Eichmann trial: in part because a trial is, precisely, a chance to bring horror into the discourse, and by doing so, dissipate it, and in part because, as she points out in one of the best talks I went to, this was the first war-crime trial where witnesses’ testimony was given airspace. So there is an argument for bearing witness, and for continuing to unpick how that should be done and what the resulting benefits might be. What about negative talk, though? What about the potentially damaging gossip of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, as recounted by their friend Lanzmann, who is arguably gossiping about the gossipers? What about the forgeries of a Simonini, which are malign fiction claiming to be fact? We all have our theories on when those we disagree with should shut up: what about our disputatious selves?

One of the reasons this is such an issue at JBW is because of the heavy bias towards non- fiction. As Grant points out, Jews are a people who have been continually on the move, who locate themselves in time rather than space, and for whom, therefore, stories about movement have an uncommon significance.

Immigrants tell natives what they want to hear. People without a country live by the book. They also, as D’Amico — a first-generation Frenchwoman — points out, say ‘they’ not ‘we’ of the incumbents, and surely this is part of the foundation of Israel’s problems: a wish to say ‘we’. Grant talks of the silences and myths in her childhood: there are two versions of how Ginsburg became anglicised to Grant, and she is not sure she believes either of them. I can match this, as I discovered accidentally, over a decade after his death, that my beloved Grandpa Jack wasn’t Jack at all, but Isaac (or presumably, Yitzhak). Grant says these uncertainties give her a sense of ‘standing on sand’: ironic, surely, for those who lay claim to a desert-fringed corner of the Middle East. Her answer, often, is to write fiction. The truth is out there, but sometimes it is easier to catch it unawares. Howard Jacobson, in a raucously entertaining defense of Ulysses as the 20th century’s great Jewish novel (aided and abetted by actors Henry Goodman and Derbhle Crotty), remarks that “if history is written by the winners, literature is written by the losers”. That is funny but, unlike good fiction, it’s not necessarily true. (Or there would be no great 19th-century British novels.) Is it the lies that have been told against the Jews, the terrible truths we have had to face or the defeat of language by horror that make the organisers of an event like this lean so towards the factual? Even authors sometimes seem constrained by the invocation to remember, which is also, of course, an invocation to tell the truth. Perhaps that is why a successful novelist like Jonathan Safran Foer decided to head straight for the knottiest tangle of Jewish narrative and repurpose the Hagaddah. The Torah — the cause of all the trouble, really, when you think about it — is a complicated mixture of historical fact and zany extrapolation; according to Umberto Eco’s definition (“people need an explanation for random events”), it probably counts as an extended conspiracy theory. Now, there’s a talk I’d like to see on the agenda for JBW 2013: the Bible as plot. Eco could argue that it’s all an anti-Semitic forgery, designed to fry the Jews in various hotnesses of hell for millennia; a frummer of your choice could maintain that every word is true. A couple of political types, one left-leaning, one right, could weigh in with the ways in which the survival of the state of Israel is/is not* dependent on preserving our Biblical heritage (*delete according to preference) and Daniel Barenboim plus orchestra could be dragooned to start playing just in time to prevent the speakers beginning to thump each other with their respective books. Doesn’t that sound fun? While we’re at it, I’d like a talk, please, by Jewish women (glamorous faces optional) about feminism and misogyny on both sides of the religious divide, which would end not with questions but with a public darts game in which a photo of Alan Yentob will stand in as the bullseye.

I am joking, or rather inventing: creativity, as any reader knows, is not the prerogative of deities, although I’m prepared to admit that She may be better at it than I. But I would like to see this elderly festival limber up. Discussions of the Holocaust and debates about Israel are important, but they, too, can move with the times: just ask Deborah Lipstadt or David Wesley. And surely one of the ways in which they should do so is to show a bit more chutzpah. Lipstadt was effectively arguing against the notion that we should all shut up about the Holocaust; Lanzmann methodically blew to pieces the romantic ideals of wartime bravery (“I was always frightened”) and noble suffering: he had no tradition of Judaism to defend, he said, because his post-pogrom parents didn’t tell him anything about his heritage. If Yentob had left time for more than one question, I would have liked to ask Lanzmann if he feels any satisfaction that Hitler’s attempt to wipe out the Jews led both to his own reconnection with his Jewish roots and, in a not dissimilar backflip, to the creation of the state of Israel. But here I am talking about the Holocaust and Israel again. I blame JBW. Is that allowed?


The invocation to remember is important; as William Faulkner said, the past is never dead; it’s not even past. But as Schama pointed out at the very beginning of JBW, it doesn’t just apply to the Holocaust. David Abulafia and Philip Mansel talking about Mediterranean coexistence was fascinating because it wandered far back into history, where the Portugese Jews faced the cruelties of the Spanish Inquisition on one side and specially benign treatment from the economically savvy Grand Duke of Tuscany on the other, and much farther around the Mediterranean than Israel. Similarly, Claudia Roden, who has just written a huge tome The Food of Spain, gave us ‘the past in a saucepan’, and utterly delicious it was, too. These, and the Ulysses event, were serious yet playful, rigorous but also broad-minded. They permitted ideas to circulate and in so doing, followed that invocation to remember into the farthest reaches of the Jewish past, where the Mishnah was created by a bunch of clever Jews arguing about the Torah, and the Gemara by a clutch of their descendants arguing about the Mishnah. If we do not talk we are nothing. If we fence in talk, limit it to permitted subjects, we are ghosts in a ghetto of our own making. If we are really clever, really creative, if we wring everything we can out of both fact and fiction, perhaps we can quiet our ghosts and resolve our problems. I see no better solution, but if you do, I’d be happy to discuss the matter.

Nina Caplan is drinks critic of The New Statesman and editor of Metropolitan, the Eurostar magazine. She also writes about everything that interests her — principally food and drink, the arts and travel — for publications including Time Out (where she used to be Features Editor), the Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Independent on Sunday and Condé Nast Traveller.

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