Welcome to Spiel, the JC’s blog.

  • Jews in fiction – worth the read?

    Noa Gendler
    Sep 6, 2016

    In Alan Bennett's play The History Boys, Hector says: "The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours." I get that sort of buzz when I come across a Jewish character in a book, especially if the writer isn't Jewish. It's like an acknowledgement of my existence from outside the circle, and it makes me feel included.

    I'm currently reading The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, and as I was stumbling through this labyrinth of back and forth, past and present, I came across a character whose parents were Holocaust survivors, whose father anglicised his surname 'Cohen', and whose whole family reverberated with memories of the camps. The explanation of the family was handled with such delicacy and care that one might wonder whether Rushdie had interviewed survivors, or the children of survivors, in order to maintain authenticity. The best thing about this character is that her Judaism is largely incidental. Her role in the narrative does not depend on her religion, but her personality, manifesting itself (as all of our personalities do) in choices and behaviours, is greatly informed by her parents' history and her upbringing. She's a real Jew, not a caricature.

    I've been racking my brains to think of another character in a book who fills this framework – Jewish, but genuine. I have to say, I haven't been able to find one. Daniel Deronda hardly counts, and neither can Mirah Lapidoth or Mordecai Cohen. As sensitively portrayed as these characters are (although I know many would disagree with me – but that's an argument for another time), their Judaism is an inherent part of their engagement with the narrative. The novel is about them as Jews. Similarly, Riah in Our Mutual Friend (a much more disingenuous, suspicious depiction of a Jew, if you ask me) is definitively Jewish, and there's not much more to him. His struggle against antisemitism is certainly poignant, but Dickens was still completely unable to draw his humanity as distinct from his religion. And then there's JK Rowling's Anthony Goldstein, but he's really just a name who pops up to fulfil a quota.

  • Is a bat mitzvah too much study for a girl - or not enough?

    Noa Gendler
    Aug 23, 2016

    Two weeks ago I wrote about how the gifts my brother and I received for our bat and bar mitzvahs made an impact on me, and it got me thinking about another crucial gender-based difference in our experiences. I celebrated my bat mitzvah at twelve, and he celebrated his bar mitzvah at thirteen.

    I was proud of what I’d achieved, at the time. I leyned Rishon, Maftir and Haftorah – certainly more than most girls do, but an average amount for a girl at my shul, which has a strong egalitarian minyan alongside a non-egalitarian one. I also did a d’var Torah, sang Anim Zemirot, and lead the Kiddush. But two years later, my brother did the same things and more, learning to leyn almost his entire parashah and doing an extended project on the history of Jews in Thessaloniki with his teacher. For his bar mitzvah he went to Greece with our dad. I wondered why I hadn’t done the same thing two years earlier.

    I raised this recently with my mum. “Why did Gabriel do so much more than me?” I asked. “Where did that whole plan for him come from?”

  • When it comes to the future of our multi-cultural, multi-faith societies we are at a crossroads

    Le Blog Français
    Aug 22, 2016

    The views of a group of French Jews who are now living in London

    As you know, French people love a good controversy. Sometimes, it is funny, sometimes tiring, but it is also sometimes worrying. The latest in France is about the burkini, a contraction of “burka” and “bikini”. The mayor of the southern city of Cannes has decided to ban burkinis from the beach, followed by other mayors. He triggered a heated debate, which is unfortunately almost always the same. On one side, some argue that “laïcité” or secularity is in danger. On the other, some argue that religious freedom is in danger in France.

    Let us go back to the roots of this debate. In 1905, the French Assembly passed a law called “Séparation des Églises et de l’État” (Separation of Churches and State - note the plural form). This law recognises and protects religion, but the State does not finance ministers or places of worship. This law came after a long conflict between the Catholic Church and the French Republic about who has the moral leadership over the country.

  • Israel Tour: a journey of self-discovery

    Ella Garai-Ebner
    Aug 17, 2016

    For many people growing up in the Jewish community, Israel Tour at the end of Year 11 is a rite of passage - and something motivational to think about when GCSE revision becomes increasingly laborious. I was told that it would be an experience that would stay with me forever, and it did not disappoint.

    This summer, I was lucky enough to go on Tour with Noam, the Masorti youth movement. Having never been involved with Noam before, I didn't know exactly what to expect, but I quickly became familiar with the madrichim (leaders) chanichim (participants) and Noam's egalitarian ideologies.

    I've been asked multiple times what the highlight of my trip was. Each time, I surprise myself with my reply. As someone who has always hidden in the corner of PE class, I was not expecting to love the more physical activities - but I really did! Snorkeling in the Red Sea was an amazing (although very short) experience, and kayaking in the Jordan river was the ideal balance of being extremely fun and enjoyable, but also strenuous and challenging. I think the fact that I enjoyed the activities I was so sure I wouldn't sums up Israel Tour; it is a journey of self-discovery, and, on the flight home, nobody is exactly who they were on the flight there.

  • Sliding doors: does Judaism pigeon-hole girls?

    Noa Gendler
    Aug 10, 2016

    For my bat mitzvah, I was given jewellery, and a lot of it. My little brother, two years later, was given two shofarim. I remember, in envy, seeing these shiny, curved horns beside him on the dining room table where he was writing thank you cards, and wondering why no one had given one to me. It seemed, in my fourteen-year-old head, that I’d missed out on something, had forgotten to collect £200 when I passed ‘go’, had missed my chance to furnish my life with that particular piece of Jewishness. Jewish homes, it seemed to me, needed to have one – why did I not, when my brother had two?

    For my eighteenth birthday, I asked for a record player. It was all I wanted – vinyl was cool, I loved music and it was the obvious choice. But a year later, my brother asked for a complete Talmud, forty leather volumes which arrived in enormously heavy parcels from Israel and squashed my confidence in my own sense of taste and value. I’d only asked for a record player, and my little brother had asked for something so much more precious, important and enriching that I almost felt ashamed. My future home, I thought, would be less complete than his would be. I wasn’t angry or jealous, but I felt excluded. Once again, I’d missed out on acquiring a precious Jewish thing, but this time it was my own fault.

    In between these two realisations, I got into trouble at school while my brother went to regular Talmud classes with our movement’s rabbi. I memorised all of the Smiths and Pink Floyd, while he learnt to sing each of the Shabbat services, and once he could do all of those, he moved on to Rosh Hashanah. He was asked to lead services and give drashas on camp, both as a chanich and a madrich, whilst I fell out of the Noam circle and became part of a group which spent Friday nights in basements and on Parliament Hill. I was okay with that, but every now and then I’d look at what he had, and how proud everyone was of him, and how impressive his knowledge and dedication to Judaism was, and I’d wonder how I hadn’t turned out like that. I was just as clever as him, had been just as engaged with my religion, just as ingrained with the idea that to have faith and community and tradition was good. But somewhere along the line I’d veered away from that derech, and I hadn’t become the person I thought, at the time of my bat mitzvah, I would be.

  • A not-so-quiet August for education

    The JC Blog
    Aug 5, 2016

    Simon Rocker writes:

    It may be the school holidays but this remains a busy month for some people in the Jewish educational world.

    The next applications to open a free school have to be submitted to the government before the end of September. So for those who have been campaigning for a new secondary Jewish free school, only a few weeks remain to finesse their application forms to meet the deadline.

  • What reconciliation do Muslim leaders have in mind?

    In my last blog I recommended Jean Birnbaum’s book “A Religious Silence” analysing the difficulty of the French Left to recognise religion’s power to inspire the actions of individuals and groups. Few facts were available at the time to explain the latest horrific attack that had killed 84 people and injured 300 in Nice, so the usual talking heads continued to say it was "stupid" to think this was anything but the act of a desperately unhappy and disturbed individual determined to commit suicide with a splash. We now know the French/Tunisian perpetrator had clear, if recent, links to radical Islam. Last week, an 85-year-old priest was brutally murdered in his church by two men who proceeded to preach their religion in his place.

    There are now signs of change. The Catholic Church was stirred into action, calling for peace and harmony and urgently inviting Muslims to join them in prayers for the murdered priest. The Prime Minister published a long press article analysing the insidious role of Islamic fundamentalism that was poisoning French society. He called for a massive engagement of Muslims to reform “Islam of France” and help show the world that Islam is compatible with democracy. A group of 41 lay leaders of the Muslim community responded with a public commitment recognising that action was needed to counter the influence on young Muslims of “Jihadist Islam” and “political Islam”, to reorganise Muslim institutions and to ensure it will be possible tomorrow to be both French and Muslim in a secular republic.

    On television, reform-minded imams and intellectuals used clear language and a sense of urgency to spell out what needs to be done: a new system for training and funding of imams to free them from foreign influence; theological reform to allow interpretation of historical texts to nullify incitement to violence and to encourage respect of other faiths, including tolerance of dress and cultural traditions of the host country. Obviously only Muslims can lead such a courageous and ambitious project.

  • A week in the life of a food editor

    The JC Blog
    Jul 29, 2016

    People imagine my job consists of wall-to-wall outings to glamorous restaurants and parties.

    Mostly, it’s not, but this week has been spectacular with three consecutive days of fantastic food.

    I kicked off on Tuesday evening breaking (a delicious selection of amazing) bread at the very new Chris Kitch in Hoxton. This is a second outing for Christian Honor, an Australian chef with amazing talent for surprising flavour combinations. His first café — in Muswell Hill — is a favourite with North West London foodies and he’s a popular demonstrator on the synagogue charity event circuit.

  • How England got Sam Allardyce as manager

    The Arsenal Blog
    Jul 27, 2016

    Sam Allardyce should not be the manager of England. But he is. The best team he has managed is West Ham United, and he has been lauded only as a specialist in saving teams from relegation. Yes, England is a team which has been sorely lacking in the past few years, however the players he is managing for his country are not as dire as their record suggests. They play for top clubs in which they are coached by top professionals.

    Big Sam lacks experience in leading top players. He will be going from managing West Brown to Gary Cahill, from Dame N’Doye to Harry Kane. Experience isn’t enough. What counts is experience at the very top of the game.

    A reporter suggested to Allardyce that accepting the job was effectively a poisoned chalice, and he was right. The last successful England coach was Terry Venables in 1996, when England reached the semi-finals of the Euros. But football has changed substantially over the past 20 years, and his methods would not prove so effective now. Football has become more scientific and more intricate. Allardyce’s philosophy belongs to the past (or as Jose Mourinho put it: “Victorian football”); hoof the ball up the field and get as many bodies on the line as possible. Rarely has a team coached by Big Sam ever outclassed an opponent. He wins games by out-muscling the opposition, and England’s current line-up doesn’t stand a chance if this is the game plan that he is going to propose.

  • A crisis of faith and a coronary condition

    Noa Gendler
    Jul 26, 2016

    A question I’ve been asked a lot recently is whether or not I believe in God. Over the years my answer to this question has changed – I used to believe in a very literal, Old Testament God, and I found that comforting; then I became a staunch atheist and felt I had a clearer, more correct view of the world. I wouldn’t say I’ve found a balance between these two extremes. Rather, I have no strong opinion at all. I think the defining aspect of my opinion on God is not so much that I don’t know, but rather that I don’t care.

    This position has come to me quite naturally, but when I think about it, it seems like quite a sensible place to stand. When I see someone caring a lot about whether or not God exists, their lives seem to be overcomplicated and stressful. On the one hand, there are the religious fundamentalists at my old university, who spend inordinate amounts of time desperately trying to convince people to believe in God, are offended by any suggestion that they might be wrong, and get hugely frustrated by someone’s lack of interest; on the other hand, one of my closest friends is aggressively atheistic and can be reduced to tears by someone else’s faith. She’ll argue for hours trying to prove that God doesn’t exist, and will only succeed in exhausting and upsetting herself.

    This observation – that people get disproportionately distressed over the God question - is hardly ground-breaking. But it’s become so prominent in my interactions recently that I’ve been reflecting on the fact that everyone just needs to chill out. Who cares what the next person thinks about the divine and almighty? Is it really worth having a shouting match over, raising your blood pressure, and reducing yourself to tears?