British Jewish Culture Surging Into The Mainstream


‘Things are beginning to be vibrant — there is a new, unapologetic and unashamed generation, less worried about what will happen if the British notice there are Jews living here,” said British Jewish novelist Howard Jacobson, the 2010 winner of Britain’s most important literary prize, the Man Booker Prize, for his novel “The Finkler Question.”

Indeed, with new Jewish-themed television programs, critically acclaimed Jewish fiction, experimental electro-klezmer bands and Jewish-Muslim theater groups, British Jews are producing obviously Jewish-inflected artworks in increasingly vibrant and creative ways, which often become part of the mainstream culture.

Yet this account of contemporary British — and European — Jewry, this new “unapologetic” generation, is rarely the narrative American Jews hear about. Europe, for many Jews on this side of the pond, is still associated with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.

Time to redress the balance then? Indeed, Jumpstart, a Los Angeles-based think-tank recently came out with a remarkably buoyant piece of news about European Jewish life (reported on in these pages): “Europe is witnessing an unprecedented revival of contemporary Jewish life. There are more Jewish start-ups [nonprofits] per capita in Europe than in North America.”

Most interesting was the authors’ refusal to associate European Jewish identity with anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism: “These are only part of the story. The European Jewry we know is confident, vibrant, and growing.”

Paradoxically, the new wave of British Jewish culture is developing alongside an awareness among British Jews of the so-called “new anti-Semitism.” Bound up with an increasingly virulent anti-Israel rhetoric — emanating from left-wing academics calling for boycotts, or a vocal segment of Britain’s large Muslim community and Muslim student groups on British university campuses — anti-Semitic incidents peaked in 2009 during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

Jacobson’s “Finkler Question” epitomizes this paradox. As the Booker-winning novel, it represents how mainstream Jewish-themed arts have become in Britain. On the other hand, Jacobson’s concerns in this novel center on the dark forces of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism lurking in modern-day Britain.

“It [the Booker Prize] appears to have meant a lot to British Jews — almost as though it’s their win, too,” Jacobson told The Jewish Week in a recent interview. “Several Jewish commentators have said they see it as an acknowledgement of the Jewish experience — at last — as part of English culture, and by its gatekeepers.

“Whether this means there has been a sea change I don’t know. We are a long way from the USA still. There aren’t enough of us…to have the cultural influence Jews have in America.”

In Finkler, Jacobson juxtaposes two darkly comic protagonists: Julian Treslove, a wannabe-Jew, whose Jewish-obsession borders on compulsion, and his nemesis, the eponymous Sam Finkler, a “self-hating” Jew who founds a group called “ASHamed Jews” to condemn perceived Israeli brutality (and an apparent dig by Jacobson at Independent Jewish Voices, an organization set up by a group of prominent British Jews in 2007 for this very reason).

Jacobson explicitly links rising anti-Semitism to the Israeli-Arab conflict in the novel: “There had been spillage from regional conflict to religious hatred. … Jews were again the problem.”

“The question of anti-Semitism in this country is vexed. That’s why I wrote ‘The Finkler Question,’” said Jacobson, who wrote the novel at the time of Operation Cast Lead, the name the Israeli army gave to its incursion into Gaza. “Do we Jews imagine it, do we half want it to define ourselves by, do we contribute to it by harping on about it (a particularly sinister suggestion)? Such are the questions the characters in Finkler discuss — a reflection of what British Jews in general are asking one another.”

Yet the novel’s protagonists seem to devote all their mental energies to Jew-haters. Could Jacobson be exaggerating the fear factor?

“The Finkler Question,” said Keith Kahn-Harris, co-author of “Turbulent Times: The British Jewish Community Today,” “reflects this strange duality of the British Jewish community: The new confidence to do Jewish culture vigorously in public is the same confidence to publicly express concern at the increased anti-Semitism. They both show the Jewish community adapting to a multicultural society.”

This “new confidence” is increasingly pushing British Jewish arts out into the mainstream, reaching even wider audiences than those of established events such as Jewish Book Week and London’s Jewish Film Festival.

A low-budget comic movie, “The Infidel,” about a British Muslim taxi driver who discovers he was born to Jewish parents and named “Solly Shimshillewitz,” was a surprise hit in 2010, selling to 60 countries worldwide. And two new Jewish-themed sitcoms are airing on national television: “My Grandmother’s House” and “Friday Night Dinner,” which follows 20-something brothers Adam and Jonny, who go to their parents’ house for traditional Shabbat dinners.

JCC London has been a key player in this breakthrough to the mainstream. Founded in 2005, and drawing on the JCC in Manhattan as its original inspiration, it has completely revamped London’s Jewish cultural map. It is known for a dynamic mix of outward-looking cultural and social-action programming — a “Big Bra Auction,” a Purim Cabaret, a conversation with philosopher Alain de Botton — the likes of which simply didn’t exist for the Jewish community before.

“I think Jewish culture should extend out into mainstream culture,” Juliet Simmons, JCC’s creative director, told The Jewish Week. “It’s a goal; we’re on the way but not there yet. I think people expect the same things from their Jewishness as they do from other parts of their life —quality, creativity and to pick and choose from various providers.”

The increasing post-denominationalism of the new wave of British Jews is reflected in the hugely popular Limmud UK, which celebrated its 30th birthday in December 2010.

Limmud’s winter conference, attended by 2,500 people, is a sprawling, diverse celebration of Jewish learning and culture, while Limmudfest, a summer arts festival, gathers 600 participants who camp out in a field.

“We started Limmud in 1980 precisely because [we] felt British Jewry was formal, dull and conservative. It was divided and unimaginative,” wrote Clive Lawton, one of Limmud’s founders, in a newsletter.

It is also perhaps the most successful British-Jewish export ever, with Limmud events iterated worldwide — in New York, San Francisco and other North American cities, as well as across Europe and beyond.

“Limmud has been a driving force in disseminating new practices in the Jewish community,” said David Russell, a 33-year-old community activist.

British Jewish culture is also increasingly created by, and embracing Jews who don’t fit in the box, says Russell. “Definitions used by the younger generation of Jews are far more flexible than those of times past,” he said.

And beyond the behemoths Limmud and the JCC, there has been a mushrooming of alternative, fringe Jewish groups.

Jewdas, a “radical” Jewish collective, is challenging the Jewish establishment, staging underground events and warehouse parties in London, with provocative names like “Night of Ritual Slaughter” and “Treifspotting.”

Young Jews are also experiencing a spiritual reawakening, challenging the traditional fustiness and denominational divisions of Anglo-Jewish synagogues, and creating alternative prayer gatherings.

In London, where two-thirds of Britain’s 295,000 Jews live, two prayer groups — “Wandering Jews” and “Grassroots Jews” — have formed. The former, a “self-organizing collective,” peregrinates to a new person’s home for prayer and pot-luck Shabbat dinners at every meet-up, while the latter, a self-coined “potentially risky social experiment,” put on alternative High Holy Day services — in a Bedouin tent, among other quirky venues.

Lisa Capelouto, director of JHub, an NGO that facilitates Jewish social-action start-ups, said young British Jews are “increasingly seeing their Jewish identity as a key part to their British identity.” She cites the increase in Jewish day-school attendance as a key factor.

“This is a great time to be Jewish in England.”

Rebecca Schischa is a British Jewish freelance writer, currently living in New York City. Howard Jacobson will appear in conversation with Paul Holdengraber, director of "Live at the NYPL," at 7 pm on April 1 at The New York Public Library. For ticket information: