No joke —Brits ad­mire us for be­ing out and proud about our roots

COM­MENT

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY MICHAEL GOLD­FARB

THE OLD ones are still the best ones.

“When the boat from Ham­burg docked in Lon­don (or Liver­pool or Glas­gow), my grand­fa­ther (great-grand­fa­ther nowa­days) asked, is this New York? Some­one told him, yes, so he got off and that’s why we live in Bri­tain.”

The first time I heard that joke was shortly af­ter I moved here from my na­tive New York nearly 30 years ago. Ev­ery time I make a new Jewish ac­quain­tance in Bri­tain, I hear it again, when we get to the “where did your fam­ily come from?” mo­ment.

I in­cor­po­rate the line into talks on my book about Jewish eman­ci­pa­tion. It al­ways gets a laugh.

As with all Jewish jokes it of­fers a clue to some anx­ious cor­ner of the psy­che. There is an un­ful­filled wish ex­pressed here; the de­sire to live some­where you can be more yourself. For many Bri­tish Jews that place is Amer­ica. The US is seen as a place where you can be out and proud about your Jewish­ness — and you don’t have to do army ser­vice or live with Ha­mas fir­ing rock­ets at you to bask in your her­itage.

But it is a metaphor­i­cal in­flu­ence. In the day to day way we carry on our lives we are quite dif­fer­ent, as dif­fer­ent as Amer­i­can so­ci­ety is from Bri­tish so­ci­ety.

Amer­i­can Jews can feel the dif­fer­ence with their Bri­tish brethren al­most im­me­di­ately. The com­mu­nity is quiet, small “c” con­ser­va­tive, and lacks the brash­ness of US Jewry.

Bri­tish Jews envy that brash­ness with­out doubt. A friend who grew up in Stoke New­ing­ton re­mem­bers watch­ing Bette Mi­dler in­ter­viewed by Michael Parkin­son some­time in the ’70s. She told Parky it was her im­pres­sion that Jews were in­vis­i­ble in the UK, that they an­gli­cised their names and dis­ap­peared. Parkin­son’s skill was his way of get­ting an in­ter­vie­wee to re­veal stuff they other­wise wouldn’t and then im­per­cep­ti­bly get them to re­veal more but, it seems, he sim­ply didn’t know what to say to Mi­dler about this. My friend says the en­ter­tainer’s words were mu­sic to her fam­ily’s ears. A Jew on TV be­ing a Jew was a rare de­light.

We are not so rare on Amer­i­can TV — in front of or be­hind the cam­era, or writ­ing the di­a­logue. It is some­thing to envy.

Be­yond pro­vid­ing com­mu­nity pride I’m not sure what in­flu­ence US Jews have had on their Bri­tish co-re­li­gion­ists. Did Philip Roth in­flu­ence Howard Ja­cob­son? Ja­cob­son says not and I be­lieve him. Steven

Amer­ica is the place where you can be more yourself

Spiel­berg and Mike Leigh don’t re­ally walk the same artis­tic path.

Jews are im­mi­grants wher­ever we are. Im­mi­grants al­ways try to fit in with their new so­ci­eties. That has been the big chal­lenge to Jewish iden­tity for a while now.

Dif­fi­dence is (or was) a mid­dle­class English char­ac­ter­is­tic and I think many mid­dle-class Bri­tish Jews have worked to em­u­late that self-dep­re­cat­ing mod­esty in the hope of fit­ting in. Per­haps keep­ing one’s Jewish­ness to one­self is an ex­pres­sion of that dif­fi­dence, rather than some lack of Jewish pride.

The joke about get­ting off the boat too soon is Jewish irony but it is also an ex­am­ple of English dif­fi­dence. Telling a joke against one­self is the hall­mark of a gen­tle­man who doesn’t take him­self too se­ri­ously.

An­other hall­mark of the im­mi­grant mind­set is the sense that the grass is greener some­where else. We al­ways have half an eye out for the next stop where things will be bet­ter. That may be an­other rea­son Bri­tish Jews ad­mire Amer­i­can Jews — the grass is greener there. But as for the in­flu­ence? Haven’t you heard? The Amer­i­can Century is over.

Now, Chi­nese Jews’ in­flu­ence in the years ahead… that’s a sub­ject for an­other es­say. Michael Gold­farb’s most re­cent book is ‘Eman­ci­pa­tion: How Lib­er­at­ing Europe’s Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revo­lu­tion and Re­nais­sance’

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