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About this book

British-Jewish writers are increasingly addressing challenging questions about what it means to be both British and Jewish in the twenty-first century. Writing Jewish provides a lively and accessible introduction to the key issues in contemporary British-Jewish fiction, memoirs and journalism, and explores how Jewishness exists alongside a range of other different identities in Britain today.

By interrogating myths and stereotypes and looking at themes of remembering and forgetting, belonging and alienation, location and dislocation, Ruth Gilbert examines how these writers identify the particularity of their difference – while acknowledging that this difference is neither fixed nor final, but always open to re-interpretation.

Table of Contents

1. British-Jewish Writing Today

Abstract
In May 2012 New Statesman published a special issue on British-Jewish identity.3 Its editorial opens by recalling Tony Blair’s 2006 address to the Anglo-Jewish population on the 350th anniversary of the Jewish readmission to Britain. In a speech given at Bevis Marks, the oldest synagogue in London, Blair commended British Jews for retaining a distinct faith-based identity whilst also showing their loyalty and commitment to Britain.4 Blair’s words had obvious implications for other immigrant communities in Britain at the time, especially in view of the tensions that followed the London terrorist attacks of 2005.5 So are British Jews, as Blair suggested, an exemplar of assimilation? As the New Statesman leader rightly points out, the British-Jewish experience is far from that straightforward: ‘the history of Jewish cultural, religious and intellectual life in Britain’, it argues, ‘shows just how complex are such questions of identity and belonging’.6 Writing Jewish explores some of this complexity.
Ruth Gilbert

2. ‘Two Thousand Years of Memory’: Memory and British-Jewish Identity

Abstract
In I Dreyfus (1999) Bernice Rubens explores what she calls the ‘Dreyfus syndrome’.1 Rubens does not attempt to directly rewrite the story of the nineteenth-century Dreyfus affair (a French cause célèbre centred on the fate of a Jewish army officer who was wrongly accused of treason), but instead revisits some of the issues that the episode raised about Jewishness, identity and belonging. As I suggested in Chapter 1, contemporary British-Jewish writing presents a new confidence among Jews in today’s Britain, but it also reveals the effects of a less secure past. Rubens draws from this underlying insecurity for British Jews by relocating the Dreyfus narrative to a 1990s English public school. This bastion of establishment values is presented as a kind of time capsule which contains a muted, but deep, seam of antisemitism. Sir Alfred Dreyfus, a self-confessed ‘closet Jew’ (18), has been raised in an atmosphere of lies and ignorance about his Jewish origins and he manifests a complex relationship to Jewishness throughout the story. His strategic denial of Jewishness enables him to become headmaster of the school. However, when he is framed for the murder of a child (invoking a deep cultural association with Jews and the blood libel), he begins to reconstruct a growing sense of his Jewish identity.
Ruth Gilbert

3. ‘An Impossible Task’: Remembering the Holocaust

Abstract
This chapter develops Chapter 2’s analysis of the role of memory in British-Jewish culture by looking at representations of the Holocaust in contemporary texts. As the above epigraph from Grant suggests, even within the relatively benign conditions of 1950s suburbia, the Holocaust subtended the lives of British Jews at a deep and sometimes unconscious level. This sense of history as ‘breathing down our necks’ is a key theme in accounts from the immediate post-war generation. For Alderman, who is a further generation away from the war, the Holocaust was still a pervasive presence throughout her childhood.3 Noting the difficulties of having been educated to ‘imagine myself in a camp’, she is aware of an ongoing sense of anxiety about the potential re-emergence of antisemitism: ‘the Holocaust is right here’, she says, ‘it could happen at any moment’ (30). So, like Grant, she grew up with a consciousness of the ‘mental chasm’ into which post-war Jews were always ‘fearful that we could fall’. But Alderman also recognizes the paranoia that accompanies such fear. ‘Except it’s not here’, she acknowledges; adding that, ‘right now, right here, life is about as good for us as life has ever been for anyone in the history of the world. Probably better’ (30). She thus sums up a disparity that informs much contemporary British-Jewish writing on the Holocaust. This tension, between remembering a traumatic collective past, whilst living fully in the present, is the focus of this chapter.
Ruth Gilbert

4. ‘Rootsie-tootsie’: (Re)locating Jews in Contemporary Britain

Abstract
This chapter builds on the previous discussion of memory and British-Jewish identity in order to reflect on the Jewish diasporic experience. In particular it focuses on a perceived lack of rootedness which is reflected in the above quotation from Bernard Kops’ poem ‘Diaspora’. This sense of disconnection is a recurring motif in contemporary Jewish literature. The following discussion explores the diasporic experience but focuses also on the ways in which ideas of displacement might be interrogated in relation to the lives of Jews in Britain today. So, whilst it looks at themes of place and displacement, belonging and longing, sites of origin and of destination, the chapter will also reflect on more local and contemporary relocations within Britain’s cities, suburbs and countryside.
Ruth Gilbert

5. Belonging and Division: British-Jewish Reflections on Israel

Abstract
Like Jonathan Freedland, I am a forty-something British Jew. I have never felt exactly ‘torn’ between Britain and Israel but I do remember some long evenings in the 1970s when the family gathered together to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. As we sat in my grandparents’ Gants Hill semi, we didn’t think to root for any other country but Israel. That was just how it was. A few years on, I would have serious misgivings about the politics of Israel. So, despite a family context in which support for Israel was largely unquestioned, my feelings now about Zionism are marked by doubt and discomfort. Reading the reflections of other British Jews on Israel, it is apparent that this, perhaps more than any other issue, elicits deeply equivocal responses for many Jews in Britain today. Israel is, for some, a fantasy of a homeland, a place of ultimate belonging; but for others it casts an uncomfortable shadow over Jewish identity in the contemporary world. It is this ambivalence, and the ways in which it impacts on a sense of British-Jewish identity, that provides the focus for this chapter.
Ruth Gilbert

6. Bar mitzvah and Balls: British-Jewish Masculinities

Abstract
In Unheroic Conduct (1997), Daniel Boyarin starts from the premise that Jewish men are routinely viewed in terms of effeminacy. For Boyarin this is not just an historic perception. ‘The dominant strain within European culture’, he argues, ‘continues to this day to interpret activity, domination, and aggressiveness as “manly” and gentleness and passivity as emasculate or effeminate’ (2). Rather than attempting to dispel this stereotype, Boyarin turns instead to the premodern rabbinical tradition as a way of ‘revalorizing and reeroticizing’ the Jewish male ‘sissy’ (19). This argument is suggestive, and forms part of a current interest in rethinking the ways in which Jewish masculinities have been constructed both in the past and in the present. Stereotypes of Jewish masculinity, ranging from the ‘Jew-devil’ of early modern literature, to the pathologized Jew of modernity, the ‘muscle Jew’ of Zionist ideology, and the anxious Jew of American comedy, have all been the focus of critical interrogation in recent years. This chapter draws from such work to look more specifically at some of the ways in which Jewish masculinity has been constructed within contemporary British-Jewish writing.
Ruth Gilbert

7. ‘A Vortex of Contradictory Forces’: British-Jewish Women

Abstract
As I have discussed throughout Writing Jewish, contemporary representations of British-Jewishness draw from a number of powerful, yet often contradictory, stereotypes. The previous chapter considered this in relation to Jewish masculinity and argued that some familiar ideas about gender and difference are both reiterated and reconfigured in recent writing by British Jews. The following discussion, which focuses on the representation of Jewish women, demonstrates that stereotypes relating to Jewish women are as charged and as contradictory as those relating to Jewish men, and perhaps even more so.
Ruth Gilbert

8. Jewish, Half-Jewish, Jew-ish: Contemporary Identities

Abstract
Writing Jewish has explored the ways in which British-Jewish culture has increased in confidence and visibility in recent years. However, it is also apparent that this current wave of self-assurance has emerged from an earlier backdrop of insecurity. So, in my survey of contemporary British-Jewish writing in Chapter 1, it was necessary to contextualize this insecurity in order to understand how certain anxieties have permeated even recent Anglo-Jewish writing. The following chapters on the importance of memory within Jewish culture, and the effects of postmemory in relation to the Holocaust, articulated some of the profound uncertainties that have characterized the experience and self-perception of British Jews. These chapters also considered the importance of memory and postmemory in constructing and perpetuating a sense of Jewish identity for an increasingly disconnected generation of British Jews.
Ruth Gilbert
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