Sunday, 12 February 2012

Enjoying memories of a certain kind of Jewishness

My childhood gave me a particular view of British Jews.

They tended to be open towards other cultures, which made many of them fine linguists. They were open to the arts, which made some of them great performers: one of my great uncles took particular pride in the setting he published of traditional Yiddish songs. They admired intellectualism or at least education, so they tended to have at least a passing if ironic acquaintance with Marx, and were happy to discuss Sartre or Camus at length even if they knew little about them. Just like me. 

They were almost by definition of the Left. I associate them with corduroy trousers, again a tradition I keep up, though I don’t go for the tweed jackets or thin-rimmed glasses. They thought the Attlee government was the best thing to have happened to Britain. They were Keynesians to a man, a tradition that it would be well to revive today, when we see the destruction the other lot are wreaking around Europe if not the world. 

And they loathed Franco: I remember a colleague who greeted the news of Franco’s death by declaring, ‘I blame his doctors.’ Faced with our astonishment, he went on, ‘had they been worth their pay, they would have kept him alive for another six months of increasing agony.’

Out of this simmering cauldron of ideas built on liberalism and tolerance came an important current of inspiration for the British Left. These days could hardly be more different. Today mainstream British Jews are little more than the UK branch of international Likud. Dull, conservative, conformist, sometimes latently or even blatantly racist. Firmly aligned with the David Camerons of this world.

So it’s particularly gratifying to have the chance to enjoy an evening of nostalgia for those glory days. Yesterday we went for dinner with an old Jewish friend — old only in the sense of the friendship, of course, since she’s as young at heart as ever. 

It was a good evening of the kind of wide-ranging, lively conversation that I associate with the best evenings I remember. And the food was great too — Jewish, of course, so we ended with a wonderful cheese cake of which, inevitably, I ate far too much. The quality of the cooking was all the more remarkable as hour hostess had damaged her foot badly — good luck, Brenda, with the X-ray: I hope it reveals nothing broken — and though I’m not suggesting that Jewish cooks use their feet they do, like anyone else, have to stand on them at the stove. 

But above all it was great reminder of a time I valued in my youth. And of a tradition which did much to enliven and stimulate the British Left. Could do with that coming back again.

Then, come to think of it, just what tradition does Ed Milliband represent?

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