60th Anniversary Double Issue
JQ at 60
“Religion doesn’t play any part in my life in terms of how live my life. But I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a day in my life without hearing someone say the word ‘Jew’ or saying it myself.” [Larry David]
Religion probably plays a more significant role in my life than it does in Larry David’s, but I know what he means. The word ‘Jew’ has an uncanny power to possess those it purports to identify—perhaps especially those for whom it lacks a precise meaning. It’s a word that, even now, seems to pose questions. Even now because we know, of course, that the ‘Jewish question’ first emerged as a flashpoint in modern history at a time when Jews had gained unprecedented freedoms, but whose newly unanchored identity still kept them, as per the title of David Bomberg’s modernist painting to which Adam Foulds responds in this issue, “in its hold”. We know too that many of the most famous responses to this question— assimilation, genocide, communism, Zionism—have had profound legacies that continue to shape the world we live in. Its answers, writes Foulds, “are multiple and dynamically unresolved.” And: “It is to this debate, both the single individual’s inward arguments and the shared conversations, that the Jewish Quarterly contributes so much.”
Considering the magazine’s role in providing a safe space wherein to argue, share and converse, Bryan Cheyette describes the JQ as a “diaspora of the mind”. Warning that such spaces of purely imaginative belonging risk turning real Jews into metaphors, he nonetheless welcomes the ethical potential of metaphors for bridging divides. One such metaphorical appropriation, as Anna Bernard explores with subtlety and sympathy, is Palestinian thinker Edward Said’s controversial claim to have been “the last Jewish intellectual”. Or consider two messages stuck to the wall by visitors to “The Whole Truth” exhibition co-curated by Michal Friedlander at the Berlin Jewish Museum: “We are all Jews.”/“But we weren’t all deported and killed.”
Founded by Joseph Sonntag in 1953, the Jewish Quarterly was a “diaspora of the mind” less by choice than necessity, intended, in David Herman’s words, “to reclaim a lost cultural world.” From the very beginning, then, this was a magazine intent on laying the foundations of any possible future on remembering the past. And indeed there is, as Josh Baum reminds us in his spellbinding tale of the Hebrew letter for 60, a potent Jewish tradition that “all endings are embedded in their beginning”. (Which may explain why David Baddiel and Tim Samuels, reflecting on how men have changed over 60 years, still come back to Abraham and Moses.)
Certainly this 60th anniversary issue, which I have had the privilege of guest editing, honours the legacy of looking backwards in order to look forwards. Such an approach, as Lynne Segal movingly argues, may well be the secret to affirmative ageing. And a similar idea animates how Catherine Yass conceives of her permanent artworks for the new JW3 Jewish Community Centre. Composer Thomas Adès likewise counsels that these “deeply encoded things will come out one way or another”, so one should “deal with them head on.” Yet remembering is not without risks. As Lisa Appignanesi and Eva Hoffman discuss, using the classifications of the present to understand the past can be problematic. Or as Josh Appignanesi admonishes: beware history as entertainment. As such, reprints from the rich treasure trove of the JQ’s own archives have been placed alongside contemporary articles dealing with related themes. You can compare, for instance, Naomi Shepherd’s reflections on the last 60 years of Israeli history to David Grossman’s prior contribution to the magazine on the occasion of Israel’s 50th. Then you can go on to experience a further reconfiguration of the hidden changes and accretions of life in the Holy Land via Cornelia Parker’s oblique yet utterly revealing artworks. Such comparisons highlight that history is never a closed book—it is always being made and remade, as Simon Schama expresses in relation to his book and TV series telling the Jewish story anew. Or as James Jordan analyses regarding the secret Jewish identity of TV’s other famous Time Lord—Dr Who.
Whilst putting this issue together a media storm broke out following a public spat between the Daily Mail and Labour Party leader Ed Miliband. Miliband responded irately to a series of articles in the Mail accusing his late father, Ralph, of bequeathing his son an “evil legacy”—that legacy being Marxism, although certain commentators in the JC suspected it also alluded to his Jewishness. Refugee Joseph Sonntag’s professed aim to bequeath British Jews “a synthesis between our Jewishness and our Europeanism, between our nationalism and our socialism”, might well, then, risk the wrath of the Mail. Yet the future of any legacy is bound to be unpredictable. The current issue of the JQ, for example, has within its pages a version of the Mail/Miliband contretemps in reverse. A former leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard, has written us a letter complaining about a review in the last issue which, he believes, tarnishes the reputation of his father, who, like Miliband senior, came to Britain seeking a new home. In a fascinating and polemical response to how both party leaders have responded to their parents’ immigrant legacies, Tony Kushner argues that British Jews today have lost their way by reneging on their historical sense of social responsibility.
Indeed, if one thing does remain constant in Jewish history it’s the old joke about the number of Jews being always much smaller than the opinions ranging between them. As Yehoshua Engelman, former rabbi of Yakar synagogue Tel Aviv, points out in a paradoxical essay, absolute authority is so anathema to Jews that “being a rabbi is a contradiction in terms”. It’s a troubling thought when editing a magazine such as this one and deciding who or what belongs inside it. Sonntag clearly had his views: in looking primarily towards Central and Eastern European and later British literary traditions, he overlooked Jewish- American writers. It was left up to none other than Kingsley Amis to warn British Jewish writers in a JQ article of 1953 of the risks of parochialism. Look towards the States, he suggested, something interesting is happening there. In the current issue Martin Amis responds to his father’s words, provocatively wondering whether the American Jewish novel, after a brief and glorious history, may already have reached its demise. Time will tell if he’s right. The present issue, however, contains both original poetry and nonfictional, fictional and graphic short stories by North American, British and Israeli writers: Benjamin Markovits, Alissa Quart, Sarah Kobrinsky, Adam Thirlwell, Etgar Keret and Sarah Lightman.
While healthy debate is undoubtedly a sign of communal strength, it is the quarrels within the family that tend to be the most distressing, or even fatal, as Schama details in his new book when describing the initial fallout between Jews and Christians—an issue that Ed Kessler takes up in relation to recent scholarship in this area. Naomi Alderman’s breathtakingly brave and honest articulation of what it feels like to suffer the slings and arrows that Jewish institutions often level at the publicly critical is a case in point. Even this highbrow magazine, says Alderman, is not so far removed from the censoring practices of the mainstream communal press as it likes to imagine. Her practical proposals for how to rectify this Anglo-Jewish tendency towards quiescence and self-loathing are ones that the JQ may want to consider. After all, even certain of our own ex-editors have sometimes fallen foul of such internecine matters.
According to Antony Lerman, the magazine’s second editor, his tenure was short-lived because he gave space to views critical of Israel which readers were not yet—are they now?—ready for. While Colin Shindler, despite viewing the magazine as “a location where all definitions of Jewishness could feel at home,” later heard tell that “I was regarded as ‘too Jewish’ to be editor of the Jewish Quarterly.” You can’t please everyone, it seems. For Matthew Reisz, most instructively, the role of editor should principally be one of letting “people say new, complex and often uncomfortable things.” This too chimes with Rachel Lasserson’s sense of Sonntag’s mission in bringing yiddishkayt into English as something “politicised rather than polite”. The role of the JQ editor, she suggests, is “to map a credible contemporary Jewishness”.
My thanks to the 60 contributors to this 60th anniversary edition. Together they betoken the rude health of the Quarterly and its vital role in continuing to inspire discourse and argument. Sadly, they do so in bidding farewell to Rachel Lasserson’s editorship. While safeguarding the traditional values of the Quarterly, Rachel has rendered the magazine vibrant, rich and relevant by interrogating and expanding our understanding of what belongs between its pages to create an ever-more inclusive “diaspora of the mind”. Consider, for instance, the answer she gives to her own version of the ‘Jewish question’: “if something is a question of intellectual concern then it most emphatically should be a question of Jewish concern.” It’s hard to think of a better way of ensuring the future of Sonntag’s legacy than that. — JQ
DOI: 10.1080/0449010X.2013.855399 © Devorah Baum 2013