Jewish Brits are cutting edge

By Anthony Clavane, August 8, 2011
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Multiculturalism has become a dirty word since David Cameron's infamous speech, five months ago, linked it with terrorism. But last week, as I read and saw the reports of Amy Winehouse's funeral, it occurred to me that the notion was far from discredited.

How else to explain the media's breathless fascination with the Hebrew prayers, the sitting shiva and the kippahs? Many of the obituaries referred to Amy's shiny Star of David necklace, quoted the "little white Jewish Salt'n' Pepa" description of her first group and showed poignant pictures of her dressed up at Purim. Amy was not defined by her religion - far from it - but both she and her public were comfortable with the image of a working-class, north London Jewish girl made good.

Eight years ago, an influential government report, "Who are we British?" found that: "We are a multicultural society… made up of a diverse range of cultures and identities, and one that emphasises the need for a continuous process of mutual engagement and learning about each other with respect, understanding and tolerance." Its author, Sir Bernard Crick, observed: "Dual identities have been common, even before large scale immigration."

To me, Amy Winehouse's emergence reflected a new respect, and a more open attitude, towards our Anglo-Jewish dual identity.

Some of the most 'English' of post-war films were produced by Jews

Time Out has just made my paperback Promised Land: A Northern Love Story its Book of the Week. The magazine's reviewer chose to single out of its various strands: "He elegantly and evocatively explores his own Jewishness," he wrote, "through his beloved football team." In the book, I argue that the 150-year journey of the Leeds Jews shows that an immigrant community can fully integrate into English society while retaining its identity.

The problem was that, for most of the last century, this identity remained hidden. It was felt that if we blended in with the host culture we would turn into good English citizens. Which we did - but at a price. In the frustrated cry of Ronit, the narrator of Naomi Alderman's superb novel, Disobedience, "British Jews cannot speak, cannot be seen, value absolute invisibility above all other virtues."

The London Jewish Museum's Entertaining The Nation exhibition tells the story of the three phases of Jewish integration. The first generation of entertainers - viewed as, at best, exotic outsiders and, at worst, dangerous aliens - were cast as Shylocks, Svengalis and Fagins. The second generation, in their desperation to escape the ghetto, became more English than the English. The nation's favourite stiff-upper-lip aristocrat, Leslie Howard, was born Leslie Steiner.

Some of the most "English" films of the post-war period, from the Ealing comedies to the Carry On and James Bond franchises, were produced by Jews. Some of their biggest stars, like Zvi Mosheh Skikne and Solomon Joel Cohen (aka Laurence Harvey and Sid James) were Jews. And yet they masked their identity behind English names and downplayed, at times denied, their origins. "If the Jews make any trouble for the English in Palestine," warned Hungarian-Jewish émigré Alexander Korda, "we will annihilate them".

We now appeared to have entered the third phase of integration. Like Winehouse, the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon Amstell, Howard Jacobson and Lord Sugar not only take a pride in their ethnic inheritance, they are considered to be edgy Jews - Jews with attitude. Theirs is a more confident integration, one based on accepting difference.

With Jacobson at last bagging The Man Booker, Sugar becoming a national treasure, Mr Speaker Bercow getting up the Prime Minister's nose, FA chairman David Bernstein getting up the Fifa president's nose, Lord Justice Leveson presiding over the hacking inquiry, the success of TV shows like Strictly Kosher, Grandma's House, Friday Night Dinner… well, one can only conclude that the death of multiculturalism has been much exaggerated.

It might even be - whisper it softly - cool to be Jewish. Even high-profile politicians draw inspiration from their Yiddish roots. Bercow, like Amy the child of a Jewish taxi driver, enjoys needling the Prime Minister with his chutzpah. Maurice Glasman, the favoured guru of Ed Miliband - the son of a Jewish refugee - quoted Jeremiah xxix in answer to a question about his think tank's policy on safe neighbourhoods.

Opposing Cameron's attack on multiculturalism, Glasman says that the Labour Party should take as its influences the traditions of the synagogue and the mosque. "A great deal of good," he says, "can come from the intense pluralisation in this country now."

One of those good things is that Jewish identity is no longer hidden. So –- with apologies to The Commitments - "say it once and say it loud: I'm Jewish and I'm proud."

Anthony Clavane's 'Promised Land: A Northern Love Story' is now out in paperback

    Last updated: 10:17am, August 8 2011