US Jews are loud and proud, so why are Brits so reticent?

By Josh Glancy, December 16, 2012
Follow The JC on Twitter

It's official, then. We're all kosher now. This was the bold announcement of the Sunday Times Style magazine, that arbiter of British cultural mores, earlier this year. "British Jewishness has suddenly become a hip cultural talking point," it said, suggesting that celebrities are becoming less shy about their Jewish roots as Anglo-Jewry finally comes out of its shell and is embraced by the wider British nation.

The response in the rest of the media was far from positive. Much of it focused on the unfortunate suggestion that "the monetary rewards attached to being Jewish" might be one reason for our sudden popularity. Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman also pointed out that Jewish celebrities such as Mel Brooks and Philip Roth have been trading off their funny and insightful explorations of Jewish identity for decades.

Unfortunately, she slightly missed the point. If one looked past the clumsy use of stereotype, the article made an important observation - Judaism in this country has undoubtedly become more mainstream in the past couple of years. Woody Allen and Roth might have been writing successfully about Jews for years, but they have done so in America, where their religion has been woven deep into the nation's cultural consciousness for almost a century.

In Britain, things have been a little different. In the wake of the screening of Channel 4's Jewish Mum of the Year, I asked my father to try and think of some famous Jewish figures from British television of years gone by. He struggled, and for some time his best effort was the forgettable Dr Legg from EastEnders. An hour later, he strode in to proudly to announce: "Dorien from Birds of a Feather". Well, yes, but Lesley Joseph character is hardly Barbara Streisand in The Way We Were.

‘Jewishness has become a hip cultural talking point’

In cultural terms, Jews in the UK have had a smaller national role relative to our co-religionists across the pond, even accounting for the difference in the size of the communities. Perhaps it is that we have a far more European sense of Jewish identity - a desire to keep our heads down and get on with finding a successful place in society with minimum fuss. Across the Atlantic, Jews emerged from the early 20th-century immigrant melting pot with a proud and loud sense of identity. Here, Jews took their place somewhere in the middle of the UK's constrictive class system and got on with things quietly.

So while the Anglo-Jewish contribution to Britain in fields such as art, academia, business and law has been immense, our impact on the nation's cultural conversation has been more limited (though by no means non-existent). Even now, the continued spectre of antisemitism, and its sometime bedfellow anti-Zionism, encourages some of us to keep shtum, as though there is a nagging fear that, if we are too loud, someone might start a fight about Israel. A friend said to me recently that the extremely conspicuous sign outside the new Jewish Cultural Centre for London on the Finchley Road made him cringe, the implication being he would prefer the wider population to not to know it was there.

But things are indeed changing. Jewish Mum of the Year was crass to the point of embarrassment but it was undoubtedly part of a wider trend. Jews at Ten features Jewish personalities telling stories and jokes about their culture. Two sitcoms about Jews, Friday Night Dinner and Grandma's House, have both appeared on prime-time television. And, after a career of writing brilliant novels about Jewish identity, Howard Jacobson finally won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. And while he doesn't engage with Jewish issues in quite the same way, in Sacha Baron Cohen we may have found our Woody Allen - a genuine A-list Anglo-Jewish Hollywood star.

The upside of this trend was pointed out by David Baddiel. "Some Jews are beginning to grasp a fact that Britain's Asian and black communities have known for years: we're a minority, maybe that can actually be quite cool," he said.

This process of coming out further into the public eye will undoubtedly involve Anglo-Jewry becoming a little less understated, which some older members of the community might find uncomfortable. But if British Jews are becoming cool, then it will undoubtedly be in our own proud and individual way; bookish, humorous and self-deprecating. We have a fascinating and historic culture. Recent trends have shown that the nation at large is keen to find out more, and as a confident and well-established community, we should not be shy in sharing it with them.

Josh Glancy is a Sunday Times journalist

Last updated: 10:45am, December 16 2012