Vay Iz Mir – Who’d Be A Jewish Writer?

I wouldn’t be the Jewish writer I am – wouldn’t be a Jewish writer at all – if I didn’t wake each morning with a mouth full of arguments. To be Jewish is to demur. In one sense the Talmud is the longest and most creative demurral in all literature. The word I use more than any other word – except perhaps the word ‘Jewish’ itself – is ‘but’. Reading gentile writers, I am always astonished at how long they can go without using the word ‘but’.

The day breaks, the sun shines, the hero has his breakfast (unless he’s in an Irish novel, in which case he can’t afford breakfast), the heroine arrives, they fight, they make up, the sun goes down. Not a ‘but’ in sight. But me – but me – I am constantly demurring. From whom?

Well, from the day breaking, for a start, because it never fully breaks the way you want it to, and from the sun shining for similar reasons of dissatisfaction. But of course what my ‘buts’ are really taking exception to is whatever has gone before them in my sentence. I demur, grammatically, and as a matter of cultural necessity; from myself.

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The literary critic F. R. Leavis, with whom I studied in the 1960s, used always to describe the critical procedure as one party saying, ‘This is the case, is it not?’ and his respondent answering, ‘Yes, but . . .’ Leavis had a Jewish wife and was himself sometimes taken to be Jewish. ‘Leavis’ – it had an austerely Hebraic ring. In fact he wasn’t Jewish, he was of Huguenot extraction, but the something Jewish about his critical practice – rigorous textual analysis, belief that the text itself held all the meanings there were, a marked fondness for disputation, and a certain obduracy which always kept him beyond the pale as far as high-table politics went – explains, I think, why a Prestwich grammar school boy such as I was, an inveterate chooser who felt controversialism to be a sacred calling, found him so congenial. I didn’t realize that at the time. I thought I was escaping the parochialism of Manchester Jewish life; but in fact, without knowing it, I was digging deeper in.

‘Yes, but .. .’ Not just a refusal but an ingrained incapacity to go very far down the line of agreeing with anyone. I don’t doubt I overdo this. It is now constitutional with me, if I encounter upwards of two people of the same mind about anything, to take it for granted they are wrong. Concurrence of any sort makes me physically ill. Jews don’t think about hell much; but if I were to put my mind to hell, it would be a place with no wine in it (or only Pesach wine), and where everybody agrees with everybody else.

‘I don’t care what you have to say,’ sang Groucho Marx in the 1932 movie Horse Feathers:

‘It makes no difference anyway, Whatever it is, I’m against it! And no matter how you changed it or condensed it I’m against it.’

Whatever it is, I’m against it, as though some property of profound unintellectualism, some infection of wrong-headedness, inheres in being for it.

Very specifically, I get this ‘being against it’ from the half of my family who came from Lithuania. To be from Lithuania is to be numbered among the Mitnaggedim, or opponents, a name that was given to us by the Hasidic Jews of central Russia, Hasidism being the thing we were opposed to most. Uncouth costumes, dancing, drinking, turning cartwheels in the snow, calling ecstatically on the Messiah – none of this was our idea of being Jewish. ‘Moshiach is coming!’ was and still is the rapturous cry of Hasidic Jews. ‘Yes, but . . .’ was and still is the reply of we Mitnaggedim, we enemies of whatever is not severely rational, not of the intellect, not strictly within the law of God.

The other side of my family, though not Hasidic, come from Hasid country, and still behave at family functions in the Dionysian manner abhorred by Mitnaggedim. They dance, they sing, and if it weren’t for not wanting to split their dinner jackets, would turn cartwheels on the snowy wastes of that great steppe of Tartary we call Didsbury. So I enjoy in my own person this momentous argument between two branches of Eastern European Judaism. I am at once Apollonian Jew and Dionysian. Add the fact of my choosing to be a Leavisite to the accident of my being born a Mitnagged and a secular Hasid – a congenital opponent to myself – and you get an extreme case.

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This article featured in the Spring 2001 edition of Jewish Quarterly.

Howard Jacobson is an award-winning British journalist and novelist. His books include The Mighty Walzer (1999), winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize; Kalooki Nights (2006), longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; and The Finkler Question(2010), winner of the Man Booker Prize. His most recent, J, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2014.

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