An enlightened man

Jewish carpet enthusiast Anton Felton recounts his 1967 trip to Israel that helped inspire him to make aliya.

AntonFelton_521 (photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
Brought up as an extreme left-wing secular Jew by his fervently communist parents, the last place one would expect Anton Felton to immigrate is Israel. With no knowledge of Jewish tradition (“I didn’t have a bar mitzva,” he says) he nevertheless became a passionate lover of the Jewish state, enough to make aliya twice, the second time a year ago.
Two separate events set off his Jewish spark. The first was discovering and being intrigued by his first Jewish carpet, an experience that was to evolve into a lifelong passion for a category of objects that, until he came along, no one knew existed. He was told there was no such thing as a Jewish carpet – but now, as the world’s leading expert on the subject and author of several books, he has proved the naysayers wrong.
The second catalyst – a more common one – was the aftermath of the Six Day War, when he happened to be visiting Israel.
“I popped over the border from Lebanon, which I was visiting,” says Felton in his impeccably royal British accent, “and I had an epiphany – the atmosphere was incredible, and I discovered what a fascinating, rich country it is.”
Probably equally important in his return to Judaism was his marriage to South African-born June, who was brought up in an Orthodox home and introduced some observance into her home, too. At least Felton was to see some acknowledgment of Shabbat and festivals, which until then had been a closed book to him.
“I don’t resent my parents, but I’m sorry that all the sights and sounds of synagogue life passed me by,” he says. “They sent me instead to a good English public school.”
He bought his first Jewish carpet in 1953 when he was working his way through college and doing the books of a carpet dealer.
“I was intrigued by the Jewish theme – it was of Solomon and Sheba – and I worked without pay for two years to be able to buy it,” he says.
Felton studied law, history and accountancy and set up as accountant to some of the literary figures of ’50s and ’60s England.
Len Deighton, Kingsley and Martin Amis, and Germaine Greer were among his clients. Historians such as A.J.P. Taylor and Trevor Roper, as well as musicians, came to the large house in Hadleigh Green where he had his office.
His connection with Bertrand Russell led to his being asked to organize the philosopher’s archives after his death.
Once their four children were settled, Felton and his wife made aliya for the first time, in 1999. They had a small apartment in the Old City of Jerusalem overlooking the Western Wall.
“It was the nearest place to heaven I’ll ever be,” he says now.
They became citizens, then went back to England. It made life complicated when they made aliya for good in July 2010.
They began to look for a house and decided on Herzliya Pituah. They eventually found what they were looking for and did some renovations. The floors of the large house are covered in the many items from Anton’s collection, and the walls are covered in June’s flower still-lifes and family portraits.
“I can manage a ‘ken’ and a ‘lo,’” says Felton. Neither he nor his wife feels any urge to go and learn Hebrew, and they find people around very pleasant and helpful – in English.
“It’s dangerous to ask an Israeli for help,” he says, “as you suddenly find yourself surrounded by 20 people arguing with each other.”
Things have not gone entirely smoothly. Getting a driver’s license is remembered with some acerbity, having necessitated five visits to the licensing office in Holon. Likewise the Interior Ministry, which required three. The health funds wouldn’t accept them for six months, and they had to pay for medical treatment. Their status as returning citizens complicated matters.
They are both busy and have made plenty of friends – and this time they are not going back, having sold their home in London. He has just finished writing another book, The Viscaya Carpet, about a 15th-century Spanish carpet made by crypto-Jews and now in a Florida museum. They find the rich cultural offerings of Israel much to their liking and also spend some time traveling around and exploring the country.
Felton has found another area of activity that is keeping him increasingly busy.
“We have a lot of our old friends from London visiting – stalwart old lefties – and I try and show them Israel as it really is, not the one they read about in the Guardian and hear about on the BBC,” he says.
“I pick them up at the airport, take them around, and eventually we end up at Yad Vashem. It’s a critical point for them. Of course they knew it intellectually, but this is an emotional experience for them. Yes, I’ve had some of them break down in Yad Vashem,” he adds, with some satisfaction.