No joke -Brits admire us for being out and proud about our roots

By Michael Goldfarb, July 4, 2014
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The old ones are still the best ones.

"When the boat from Hamburg docked in London (or Liverpool or Glasgow), my grandfather (great-grandfather nowadays) asked, is this New York? Someone told him, yes, so he got off and that's why we live in Britain."

The first time I heard that joke was shortly after I moved here from my native New York nearly 30 years ago. Every time I make a new Jewish acquaintance in Britain, I hear it again, when we get to the "where did your family come from?" moment.

I incorporate the line into talks on my book about Jewish emancipation. It always gets a laugh.

America is the place where you can be more yourself

As with all Jewish jokes it offers a clue to some anxious corner of the psyche. There is an unfulfilled wish expressed here; the desire to live somewhere you can be more yourself. For many British Jews that place is America. The US is seen as a place where you can be out and proud about your Jewishness - and you don't have to do army service or live with Hamas firing rockets at you to bask in your heritage.

But it is a metaphorical influence. In the day to day way we carry on our lives we are quite different, as different as American society is from British society.

American Jews can feel the difference with their British brethren almost immediately. The community is quiet, small "c" conservative, and lacks the brashness of US Jewry.

British Jews envy that brashness without doubt. A friend who grew up in Stoke Newington remembers watching Bette Midler interviewed by Michael Parkinson sometime in the '70s. She told Parky it was her impression that Jews were invisible in the UK, that they anglicised their names and disappeared. Parkinson's skill was his way of getting an interviewee to reveal stuff they otherwise wouldn't and then imperceptibly get them to reveal more but, it seems, he simply didn't know what to say to Midler about this. My friend says the entertainer's words were music to her family's ears. A Jew on TV being a Jew was a rare delight.

We are not so rare on American TV - in front of or behind the camera, or writing the dialogue. It is something to envy.

Beyond providing community pride I'm not sure what influence US Jews have had on their British co-religionists. Did Philip Roth influence Howard Jacobson? Jacobson says not and I believe him. Steven Spielberg and Mike Leigh don't really walk the same artistic path.

Jews are immigrants wherever we are. Immigrants always try to fit in with their new societies. That has been the big challenge to Jewish identity for a while now.

Diffidence is (or was) a middle-class English characteristic and I think many middle-class British Jews have worked to emulate that self-deprecating modesty in the hope of fitting in. Perhaps keeping one's Jewishness to oneself is an expression of that diffidence, rather than some lack of Jewish pride.

The joke about getting off the boat too soon is Jewish irony but it is also an example of English diffidence. Telling a joke against oneself is the hallmark of a gentleman who doesn't take himself too seriously.

Another hallmark of the immigrant mindset is the sense that the grass is greener somewhere else. We always have half an eye out for the next stop where things will be better. That may be another reason British Jews admire American Jews - the grass is greener there. But as for the influence? Haven't you heard? The American Century is over.

Now, Chinese Jews' influence in the years ahead... that's a subject for another essay.

Michael Goldfarb's most recent book is 'Emancipation: How Liberating Europe's Jews From the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance'

    Last updated: 9:45am, July 4 2014