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Howard Jacobson talking

by: Cara Wides - Last updated: 2006-01-27

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson

Author Howard Jacobson describes his new novel Kalooki Nights as "the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere."

He goes on to add, "I might as well have just called the characters "Jew 1", "Jew 2" etc" However, he is concerned, angry almost, that his contemporaries in the  Anglo-Jewish arts scene don't refer to their Judaism enough.

"It is time we told the story of our adapting to English culture. We should be less embarrassed about what it means to be English Jews," he pleads.

This shortcoming of his fellow writers was the main theme of his lecture 'Anglo-Jewish Art - A Contradiction in Terms', at the London Jewish Cultural Centre.

He told the crowd that as a boy his mother advised him "Don't mix in - stay out the way". So why, he wonders, have Anglo-Jewish artists gone the other  way, and assimilated into English culture, rarely mentioning they are  Jewish?

He sited playwright Harold Pinter and painter Frederic Auerbach, - stating that when they don't mention Judaism in their work, it is like an elephant's in the room.

In his view, the American Jewish author Philip Roth was right when he said Anglo-Jewish writers are "a generally tame and unremarkable society of Jews".

Roth is a perfect example of how a Jewish artist should not merge in to a wider culture. He wasn't at all afraid of examining his Jewishness - he did it in such an original way in his book Portnoy's Complaint that it outraged rabbis.

Jacobson contrasts this with how "Jews in England have gently faded into the cultural landscape - so we are Jews who do things the same way as the English."

Jacobson has tremendous respect for Roth and was delighted when, as a fledgling novelist, critics called him 'The English Roth'.  He told the audience he always wanted to be a writer but never intended to be an overtly Jewish one (he planned to emulate British authors such as Charles Dickens and Henry James).

Yet he only really began to write well when he "accepted the story (I) had to tell was that (I) was a Jew uncomfortable within English society."

He has plenty of anecdotes about being a Jew in Britain and not quite fitting in. He attended a Christian school in Manchester, where the school blazer had a cross on it, The Jewish boys picked at the stitching until the cross resembled an innocuous geometric shape, which outraged the teachers.

During morning assembly, Jewish pupils were shepherded out of the school hall while Christian hymns were sung, and then trooped back in when they were finished.

Although British Jews have occasionally found themselves on the margins of society in the last 350 years, they don't seem to want to talk about it in their art.

The LJCC is holding a series of lectures tied in with the 350th anniversary of the re-admittance of Jews to Britain, with a stellar cast of writers, journalists, film-makers, artists and academics.  Let's hope that during the LJCC's '350 festival', contributors will talk about tensions caused by being English and Jewish. If they don't, Howard Jacobson is sure to corner them at the Groucho Club for a stern talking to.

For details of the London Jewish Cultural Centre '350 Festival' visit: