Arguing like a Jew

Increasing numbers of Israelis are turning to Howard Jacobson’s writing; his visit here coincided with the release of the Hebrew translation of his latest novel.

Howard Jacobson with book 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Howard Jacobson with book 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Not that you would know it at first glance at the Manchester, England-born gent, but there is more than a touch of Monty Python to Howard Jacobson. The 71-year-old award winning author was in the country recently to deliver the annual B’nai B’rith World Center Jerusalem Address at Mishkenot Shaananim. As he noted himself when presented with the list of previous speakers, he has joined some pretty heady company. The name at the top of the roster, from 1985, is none other than former Israeli minister for foreign affairs Abba Eban, with two Chief rabbis of Britain – Immanuel Jakobovits and Jonathan Sacks – feted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy and French-born American literary critic, philosopher and novelist Prof. George Steiner among Jacobson’s predecessors at the B’nai B’rith pulpit.
Jacobson is a pretty stellar figure himself. He has 16 books to his name to date, including the 2010 Man Booker Award winning tome The Finkler Question, has produced several TV documentaries and is a regular columnist for The Independent newspaper. He is also a much sought after speaker, an attribute which became apparent seconds after we sat down for the interview. I immediately got the feeling that the writer does not so much “do interviews” as expound his views on life, including on Israel and what it is to be a Jew in present day Britain.
Meantime, increasing numbers of Israelis are turning on to Jacobson’s writing, and his visit here coincided with the release of the Hebrew translation of his latest novel, Zoo Time, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize.
He had had what he termed as “a busy day,” the day before, but added there had been “a couple of interesting things” in the agenda, including a session at Tel Aviv University with some mature students to discuss his work and a gathering at the British Ambassador’s residence, where everyone chatted and ate “what are those nice interesting hand-me-rounds, what are they called?... It’ll come to me. Words vanish sometimes,” observed Jacobson somewhat painfully and surprisingly. “I’ve got all my abstract words, but little practical words for things vanish.” I know the feeling.
The soirée with the ambassador was both an enjoyable and informative time out for the author and TV personality. “It gave me a chance to discover that I’ve got readers here. I didn’t know. I’ve never been to Israel as a writer. I’ve only ever come to Israel to make a television program, to stand at the Wailing Wall [Western Wall] and do a piece to camera, but I’ve never been invited here to read or give a lecture or do anything as a writer. I’ve never had a sense of being known [in Israel] as a writer. I had a sense my columns were being read, because they are pro-Israel, but not my books. It took years for any of my books to be translated into Hebrew.”
The aforementioned Python context is not too far-fetched on at least two counts. For starters Jacobson attended Cambridge University at a time when three members of the revolutionary comedy troupe were also students there – two of the other three went to Oxford – and there is more than a touch of the absurd, with a liberal sprinkling of dark comedy, about The Finkler Question.
The book focuses on a mostly hapless non-Jewish man in his late forties who develops an obsession with all things Jewish and tries his damnedest to get a handle on what it means “to belong to the faith.” There is also an earnest examination of male friendship, and the issue of anti-Semitism pops up several times.
The latter is a topic which Jacobson finds particularly engaging and was covered in his B’nai B’rith address, which went by the intriguing title of “When will the Jews be forgiven the Holocaust?” “It was something I read in a philosopher called John Gray,” explains Jacobson. “It is a very teasing and upsetting phrase. It’s such a reversal of moral rectitude – not that we should ever forgive them the Holocaust. I thought that would be a very interesting way of talking about the persistence of anti-Semitism and the new forms it takes. I am very interested in the question of whether anti-Zionism is a cover for an old form of anti-Semitism, or it’s an opportunity for anti-Semitism to express itself in another language, or whether it leads to anti-Semitism. The question of these two interests me.”
The writer says he is particularly intrigued by Jews who look askance at their co-religionists, one of whom – the eponymous character – features front and center in The Finkler Question.
“The first thing anti-Zionists say is ‘I am not an anti-Semite, I will not be called an anti-Semite, I resent being called an anti-Semite, some of my best friends are Jewish, indeed I am Jewish myself.’ I am fascinated by Jewish anti-Zionists. They are usually the maddest and most virulent, the ones that will heckle at a meeting. I am interested in their denial of anti-Semitism. I don’t say that they are anti-Semites, I am just interested in finding out about all that.”
In a way it is remarkable that Jacobson bothers himself with the Jewish world at all. He was brought up in Prestwich, north Manchester, close to, but really nowhere near the hardcore shtetl-like environs of Broughton Park. His family was almost completely non-observant although it was the “done thing” to mark Jacobson’s bar mitzvah. Other than that, the Jacobsons’ Jewishness more or less extended solely to an abstention from eating bacon at home.
“My mother made kosher noises, but that was about it,” Jacobson recalls. “My dad was embarrassed by synagogues and couldn’t read Hebrew properly and passed that on to me. We all had our bar mitzvahs and we were all expected to marry within the faith, and that was the beginning and the end of our Jewishness.”
Jacobson says he and his contemporaries all felt Jewish but began making their way through life “Englishly.” That, for the author, meant attending that bastion of Englishness, Cambridge University.
“I didn’t think it was going to bother me, being Jewish in Cambridge, but I think it did. When I came to write about that experience later I could imagine being seen in a particular way, by very English academics,” he proffers. “I was sure that what such academics saw when they saw me was Shylock [a Jewish character in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice]. The consequence of that, of course, is that you then start to become Shylock. Where did I get that from? Because it wasn’t from my dad – he was out in the world, a market man, a taxi driver, his friends weren’t Jewish. My mother was the same and there was no sense of being barricaded behind a Jewish wall. So I have no idea where I got this sense from.”
Mind you, Jacobson’s primary source of instructional guidance hardly blended into the “sceptered isle” backdrop.
“My first and most important tutor was Maurice Shapira, a gay Sephardic Jew,” he laughs.
Jacobson says he has stuck with his Jewishness and even flaunts it.
“I can’t complain if I am sort of earmarked as Jewish because I never shut up about it,” he notes, adding that he is nothing if not pragmatic. “I don’t think I am compensating for the lack of Jewishness in my earlier years, but if that’s what’s happening in my subconscious I am not going to know about it, am I? I have very religious, Lubavitcher relatives who want to say, in a nice way, that I’m not Jewish enough. I always argue that I am exactly what the Jew is meant to be. I think about being Jewish every day and I argue Jewishly. I dispute. And a Jew can do no more than that.”