Book Week proves our culture is booming

Anglo-Jewry philistine? Not any more

By David Herman, February 26, 2009

Something is stirring in Jewish life in Britain. For years, critics attacked Anglo-Jewry for its philistinism. Too middlebrow. Too materialistic. Where are the new Pinters and Weskers? The reason we don’t have them, the argument went, is that there aren’t the readers. British Jews don’t care about books or ideas.

In recent years, all this has started to change. Jewish cultural magazines like Jewish Renaissance and the Jewish Quarterly are thriving. There are Jewish cultural centres like the Spiro Ark, the JCC, the LJCC and Limmud, where people gather to discuss ideas, attend lectures and learn about Jewish history and culture. Joseph’s Bookstore, in Temple Fortune, not only sells books but hosts events, talks and play-readings. The Jewish Quarterly Wingate Literary Prize has taken off.

Above all, there is Jewish Book Week, the jewel in the crown of Jewish literary life. Twenty years ago, it consisted of a handful of events, featuring a few Anglo-Jewish writers and one or two Israeli authors. This year’s programme runs to 60 pages and the festival consists of almost 70 different events, with 129 speakers (not counting the touring programme).

This year’s Jewish Book Week started with Amos Oz and is finishing on Sunday with AB Yehoshua. In between, big names like Jonathan Miller, Maureen Lipman, Simon Schama, Frederic Raphael, Tom Conti and Alain de Botton have been on view.

But what is really striking is the range. You can hear talks on “Writing under Stalin” or Linda Grant on clothes; Simon Goldhill on Jerusalem or Trudy Gold on Jewish mothers in the movies; Susan Greenfield on the science of human identity or Jonathan Wittenberg on “Defining the Divine”. It’s like a Jewish Start the Week, except it continues the week — for nine days! It’s no longer just a Jewish literary event: JBW is now a national event.

But it’s not just about the speakers. Of course, big names like Amos Oz, Jonathan Miller, Frederic Raphael, Tom Conti and Simon Schama draw big crowds. What is striking about Jewish Book Week are the crowds, the buzzing atmosphere. Thousands of people have attended the events and pored over the publishers’ bookstalls in the adjoining rooms. And over 5,000 people have attended at least one Limmud event this year. Compare this with the numbers who attended in the 1980s. Something is changing. There is a growing demand for talks, debates, films, music festivals and of course books of Jewish interest.

There is a new audience out there, interested in reading but also in attending lectures and participating in discussions.

It started with the revival of interest in the Holocaust in the 1980s and 1990s. At the same time, there was an explosion of interest in Yiddishkeit — from klezmer and books about life in the shtetl to the Jewish East End and the history of the bagel.

Now audiences come to hear Michael Winner, but they also come to talks on The Mystery of the Kaddish. Joseph’s Bookstore was packed for Amos Oz, but there was also an audience for Professor Rajak on “The Jews of Alexandria and the Translators of the Greek Torah”.

There is an lively current debate about whether British culture is dumbing down or wising up. If we look at Jewish culture in Britain, there is no question. It is booming. Jewish Book Week may be a spectacular success, but it is not a one-off. It is part of a larger trend. We are still the people of the book.

David Herman is the JC’s chief fiction reviewer

Last updated: 12:16pm, February 26 2009