We’re schlep­ping on a fam­ily his­tory hunt

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - MEM­OIR LEE HARPIN

THE FRONT door of a packed café in Muswell Hill slowly opens and Michael Rosen’s head pops through. As the au­thor of the chil­dren’s clas­sic We’re Go­ing On A Bear Hunt and more than 140 other tales, his face is im­me­di­ately recog­nis­able to just about ev­ery par­ent and child in­side. Heads turn to­wards their lo­cal hero as we greet one an­other with a firm hand­shake.

We have met to dis­cuss Rosen’s just pub­lished mem­oir of the first 20-odd years of his life: So They Call You Pisher! (“Pisher” be­ing a term for a noth­ing sort of per­son). It is punc­tu­ated with fre­quent de­scrip­tion of his fam­ily’s un­ortho­dox Jewish lives.

The book, he says, is his rec­ol­lec­tion of “life within the non-Zion­ist bub­ble.”

“Non-Zion­ist” isn’t quite the way that I’d de­scribe Rosen, 71. He’s out­spo­ken in his anti-Zion­ism, in a way that seems to lack the nu­ance of, say, his cri­tique of ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy. When I say that I’d like to ask him about this, he sug­gests that the JC will cen­sor the in­ter­view.

Pisher is in part a trib­ute to his par­ents and also an at­tempt to in­ves­ti­gate fam­ily se­crets. It be­gins with Rosen, then aged 10, and his slightly older brother Brian learn­ing that they had an­other brother, Alan, who died in in­fancy a year be­fore Rosen was born.

“For a mo­ment, I felt ashamed that I had made this dis­cov­ery,” writes Rosen, whose fi­nal chap­ter deals with an­other dis­cov­ery of fam­ily pho­to­graphs show­ing French and Pol­ish rel­a­tives, some of whom per­ished un­der the Nazis.

He holds no grudges against his par­ents for keep­ing these se­crets. He’s proud of their achieve­ments as ed­u­ca­tion­al­ists.

His mother, Con­nie, died in 1976, aged just 56. “By the time she died she was lec­tur­ing at Gold­smiths and Trent Park and peo­ple were dis­cov­er­ing she had a lot to say about pri­mary ed­u­ca­tion. She went all over the coun­try re­search­ing for what was then the Schools Coun­cil, which was the of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment body.”

She blos­somed away from home, he says, sug­gest­ing that the fam­ily had cramped her po­ten­tial. “It is tough for me to say that.”

His fa­ther Harold, who died in 2008, a year af­ter his son be­came Chil­dren’s Lau­re­ate, was a re­spected lec­turer in English who be­came an aca­demic at the In­sti­tute of Ed­u­ca­tion. His books in­cluded the ex­traor­di­nar­ily ti­tled Are You Still Cir­cum­cised?

“It’s a won­der­ful set of sto­ries, that are still in print about East End life. The ti­tle is based on an old Jewish joke about the guy who re­turns to Rus­sia from Amer­ica.

“His mum says ‘No tal­lit?” No kip­pah? Don’t tell me, you work on Shab­bos…

“He says, ‘Yeah I’m afraid so, I’m in a new coun­try.’

His mum then says: ‘But tell me this? Are you still cir­cum­cised?’”

The book also de­tails Harold and Con­nie’s devo­tion, dat­ing back to the 1930s, to the Bri­tish Com­mu­nist Party. “There was a lot of an­ti­semitism and my par­ents be­lieved the Party would not only de­fend them as a per­se­cuted peo­ple but also pro­vide a bet­ter life for all.”

Fam­ily life re­volved around Party events, meet­ings and trips to the then East Ger­many un­til 1957 when the Rosens left, dis­il­lu­sioned by the lack of crit­i­cal dis­cus­sion over the Soviet in­va­sion of Hun­gary.

Rosen has fol­lowed in his par­ents’ path as an out­spo­ken critic of a school sys­tem that still lets many chil­dren down. (He scraped through his 11-plus, but ended up study­ing English at Ox­ford).

His par­ents were cul­tural Jews, but not re­li­gious at all.

“As far as I can fig­ure out, my mum’s par­ents were not re­li­gious,” he says. “Not anti-re­li­gion, just not re­li­gious. So they didn’t go to shul, while, in my dad’s case, his fa­ther was in Amer­ica but his mother po­lit­i­cally moved away from shul.

“Even my dad’s grand­fa­ther didn’t go — but then he was very po­lit­i­cal as well. From the 1880s-90s, you have got to re­mem­ber there’s a lot of tur­moil. Some peo­ple sug­gest all Jews were re­li­gious, then stopped be­ing re­li­gious. It’s not like that all. If you look at his­tory, life in Poland, read Ba­she­vis Singer, you have Cha­sidim along­side sec­u­lar­ists all ar­gu­ing.

“Then you go fur­ther back to Hein­rich Heine and the sec­u­lar­ists — some Jews thought that the way you eman­ci­pate is to stop be­ing Ju­daic. You mustn’t over sim­plify it, but in my dad’s case he was never bar­mit­vah’d.”

It’s clear from the book that he cher­ishes his Jewish roots, and this re­volves around Yid­dish cul­ture. His fa­ther was a “great spieler,” mix­ing French, Latin and a lot of Yid­dish.

“If Ju­daism and the so­cial life around a syn­a­gogue was not for them, what was the al­ter­na­tive?

“You be­came as English as you could and hoped that peo­ple would ac­cept you; and yet, even in the midst of that hope, there was part of my dad that dis­liked the way he’d had to in­gra­ti­ate him­self.

“He con­sciously felt he wanted to hold on to the vigour of that East End life. The Yid­dishkeit, and also the bilin­gual­ism — he felt he wanted to pre­serve that and hang on to it. And this was passed on to me and my brother Brian to a cer­tain ex­tent.”

But, I sug­gest, it seems sur­pris­ing that a mem­oir be­gin­ning in 1946 and span­ning the years of Is­rael’s cre­ation man­ages to avoid any dis­cus­sion at all of Zion­ism and its im­pact on the Rosen fam­ily.

“You have got to get the pe­riod,” rea­sons Rosen. “In 1948, I was only two. At pri­mary school, I was never aware of Is­rael — no one talked about it there, or at home. It was never men­tioned.

“The first time I ever got a sense there was a place called Is­rael was when some of the Jewish kids at school went there for hol­i­days.

“They go and say it’s very nice there. And I say, I love France. I was so pas­sion­ate about France and if I was go­ing to do for­eign I’d go there.

“CND was the big thing for me po­lit­i­cally, and then the dis­putes within the Labour Party.”

Is­rael, as a po­lit­i­cal is­sue, did come up at univer­sity, he says. “But it was so in­signif­i­cant be­cause we were talk­ing about Viet­nam. So the whole Is­rael bag in my life at that time is in­signif­i­cant. And if my par­ents were ar­gu­ing about it in the CP when I was a kid­die, it cer­tainly wasn’t one they were shar­ing with me.”

I ask why he has made such con­tro­ver­sial state­ments on Is­rael and Zion­ism in later life, es­pe­cially in the light of the fi­nal chap­ter of Pisher, writ­ten af­ter he dis­cov­ered a shoe­box con­tain­ing 17 pho­to­graphs of rel­a­tives on a visit to an Amer­i­can rel­a­tive, some of whom had died in the Shoah.

He says he will deal fully with his state­ments on Is­rael in a sec­ond vol­ume of his mem­oirs, if he is asked to write one. But, for now, he re­fuses to budge from a re­cent Facebook post in which he ar­gued it was wrong to say the State of Is­rael had “a right” to ex­ist, on the ba­sis that no state has that right. He is keen to point out that his opin­ions are in­deed shared by a “sliver” of other Jews.

“We al­ways have to re­sist us­ing that phrase ‘the Jews’ — don’t we? Be­cause that is what the en­emy use. But some­times ‘the Jews’ say it as well. One sliver of that iden­tity is those peo­ple that came from that Bundist, CP, Com­mu­nist Party back­ground who fetched up in Lon­don, maybe in the sub­urbs.

“I can look back on what was largely a non-Zion­ist bub­ble that I lived in.

“Peo­ple who lived the life of the Habonim and other Zion­ist or­gan­i­sa­tions of that time, and maybe go­ing to Is­rael, maybe can’t un­der­stand this, and will maybe say: ‘how odd!’

“But then, you know, there’s odd­ness everywhere.”

Dad wanted to hold onto the vigour of East End life’

‘So They Call You Pisher!’ is pub­lished by Verso (£16.99)

PHOTO: DAVE STELFOX

Michael Rosen

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