Yom Kippur poses issues for north London’s Jewish football fans

For many Jews, their ‘other’ religion is soccer

By JERRY LEWIS
September 22, 2015 12:34
Tottenham Hotspur

Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur scores against Arsenal during their English Premier League soccer match at White Hart Lane, London, in February. (photo credit: EDDIE KEOGH / REUTERS)

 
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The Jewish community in north and northwest London is segmented along lines of religious observance, wealth, politics, generosity and family origin, but no division is as strong – or as tribal – as the one that splits schools, campuses, and even families over dinner tables.

For many Jews, their ‘other’ religion is soccer. It expresses itself forcefully at least once a week throughout the season, with a rivalry between two teams that traditionally enjoy considerable Jewish support – each claiming they ARE North London’s Jewish team.

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Tottenham Hotspur, usually known as the Spurs, claims the greatest Jewish following, but their near neighbor Arsenal maintains they have more Jews among their fans.

It was only a couple of seasons ago that Spurs supporters, who in recent times have taken to calling themselves “Yiddos” or “Yids Army,” were threatened with prosecution for using racist language. Trying to pinpoint individuals using the term among a 35,000-strong crowd, however, proved impossible, and the threat was quietly dropped as being impracticable. But the Football Authority has made it clear that supporters of any other clubs using the terms “Yid” or “Yiddos” will face arrest and possible lengthy bans from football grounds if caught attempting to abuse Spurs supporters.

According to the Manchester Guardian, during the 1930s up to a third of the home crowd at White Hart Lane was said to be Jewish, no doubt partially because of easy transport routes from the centers of London’s Jewish population. After the Second World War, as Jews moved to the suburbs of north and northwest London, support for both teams grew, and despite Arsenal now being sponsored by Air Emirates, a significant number of young Arsenal football fans choose to celebrate their bar mitzva in the stadium’s well-developed banqueting facilities.

Either way, derby games between them have – for obvious reasons – been fiercely fought since 1909, with Arsenal generally having the upper hand. In the League (now known as the Premiership), they have met 106 times, with Arsenal securing 64 wins, the Spurs 50 wins, and 42 encounters have been drawn.

England’s main cup competition, the Football Association Cup, has seen the teams meet six times, with Arsenal claiming four wins to two victories for the Spurs.



And for the record, on the eve of Wednesday’s encounter, Arsenal has won a total of 74 of the derby games, the Spurs were victorious in 55 of the matches, and 46 were drawn.

Not to be outdone, in the 1960s it was agreed to establish another cup competition – the Football League Cup, which after several different sponsorships is currently known as the Capital One Cup. And in this series of encounters between the two north London giants, Arsenal also retains the advantage, six successful matches to three victories for the Spurs, and three drawn.

All 92 clubs from England’s professional soccer leagues are entered into a knockout cup of more than seven rounds, culminating with a final at Wembley and automatic entry to the following season’s Europa League.

The third-round draw for this year’s competition in which those Premiership teams already in this season’s European competitions are thrown into the hat, was held in August. However, it provided an unexpected touch of spice to the usual fixtures, not only yet another derby game between Arsenal and the Spurs, the fourth in fewer than 10 years, but one that due to major scheduling problems, has to be held in the week beginning Monday, September 21.

And the date chosen: the night of Yom Kippur, with kick-off at the usual time for such games, 7:45 p.m., three minutes before the fast ends.

Numerous factors govern the selection of dates and timing of games: the requirements of three domestic competitions, fixture breaks to accommodate international games, European Cup commitments and the all-pervasive demands of the television companies who try to secure the juiciest of games in each competition in the fight to boost their ratings and income.

Tottenham was given little option over dates with another derby in the Midlands taking the Tuesday evening slot, and the Spurs were left with the Wednesday night, whether they liked it or not.

Consternation was expressed by hoards of loyal Jewish fans of both teams. Lord Alan Sugar, a prominent Jewish businessman and former owner of Tottenham, rushed to his Twitter account to declare “Spurs v Arsenal cup game drawn on the most important festival. Both teams have loads of Jewish fans. Conclusion: synagogues will be empty.”

That was an exaggeration; when other games clashed either with Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur, most Jews, however observant, tend not to turn up – or at least keep well out of sight of the television cameras to avoid getting spotted.

But it is clear that many football fans who take these games very seriously felt Lord Sugar had touched a raw nerve, reflecting frustration that they cannot get to the game, even if they left their synagogues the minute that the last sound of the shofar signaled the end of the fast.

The car journey from most parts of northwest London to Tottenham’s ground in White Hart Lane takes at least 40 minutes, not helped by the tail end of London’s notorious rush hour, and with all the nearest parking spaces taken by other supporters, a long walk to the ground on an empty stomach would see them lucky to arrive by half time.

Inevitably, intense rivalry spills over onto social media outlets, and one Arsenal fan had a smart response to Lord Sugar’s comments. Avi Barr told the former Spurs chairman, “Perhaps if some of the Tottenham fans went to shul and prayed, your lot might stand a chance!” In fact, Tottenham fans have something to be proud of in terms of the Capital One Cup. While the top place in the Premiership has eluded them for decades, in its relatively short history, the Spurs team has captured the trophy on four occasions to Arsenal’s two.

One Spurs fan, Simon Coggin, jokingly suggested on his Facebook page that he would bring his “tallit” – probably instead of the traditional dark blue and white Spurs supporters scarf, while Alex Angel disclosed that he was planning to pack “some extra smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels” so that he could break the fast at the White Hart Lane stadium.

YOM KIPPUR clashes have proved problematic for a number of teams in the past, especially now that a number of Israelis are regulars in various English teams.

Anthony Clavane, author of the seminal study of Jewish involvement in football entitled Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe introduced his story of Israeli defender Avi Cohen’s notorious appearance for Liverpool on Yom Kippur with an amusing anecdote. In 1979, the Jewish Chronicle rang Bob Paisley to inquire whether his new signee, Avi Cohen, who was transferred from Maccabi Tel Aviv, was Orthodox.

“Orthodox what?” the Liverpool boss replied. “Orthodox midfielder? Orthodox defender?” If Avi was an Orthodox Jew, the journalist explained, he couldn’t play on a Saturday. “That’s all right then, I’ve got 10 others like that already,” quipped Paisley.

Cohen subsequently played on Yom Kippur in a Cup game – much to the dismay of many in the Jewish community in the UK and among Israelis, but he later suffered from what some saw as divine retribution – his mistimed back pass in a game against Southampton, which enabled Liverpool’s opponents to score an easy goal.

More recently, West Ham manager Avram Grant declined to attend a key Yom Kippur game in 2010, an act that probably gained him more admiration from a somewhat bemused British public than any of his football managerial feats.

Both teams have Jewish involvement in their ownership, with Spurs benefiting from behind-the-scenes support of billionaire Joe Lewis (no relation), who has a substantial holding in the company. Daniel Levy has been chairman of the Spurs since 2001. Arsenal’s former vice chairman David Dein was a very influential and prominent member of the Board until he sold out in 2011.

There are two prominent members of the Anglo Jewish community, however, who will not be overly concerned with the football game, although one suspects they will dip into the coverage soon after they break their fasts: Former chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is known to be an avid Arsenal fan who attends midweek games when his timetable permits, and his successor, the current Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, is a dedicated Spurs man.

This midweek clash however will not be on their agendas – nor those of the majority of Jewish supporters of both clubs, who will be recovering from the Yom Kippur prayers and fast as a backdrop to waiting for news of the final whistle of a game they would otherwise have loved to attend. 

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