Revealed: the forgotten Jews of English football
According to a new book, one club owes most of all to its Jewish owners and fans - and players too. And it's not Spurs
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Barry Silkman, an Orient hero of the 1980s and one of a large number of Jews who have been involved with the club over the years
In a short item in the JC a few weeks ago, Leyton Orient fans were said to be “bemused by pictures of thousands of Orthodox Jews who used its stadium for an anti-internet rally”. This actually amused rather than bemused me. For, in researching my new book Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? I made two discoveries. Firstly, that the Os have a strong Jewish tradition — and secondly that the Charedim have a strong anti-football tradition.
Orient have always had a special place in the Jewish community’s heart. In the early 1960s, guided by their cherubic, cigar-smoking, East-End fairy godfather, Harry Zussman, London’s Cinderella club went to the ball. They won promotion to the top flight for the only time in their history and, backed by two other cigar-smoking, rags-to-riches Jewish entrepreneurs — Les Grade and Bernard Delfont — for a while even rivalled Chelsea as the showbiz club.
As Clapton Orient in the 1930s, they boasted a Jewish goalkeeper, Monty Berman, and Arnold Siegel played for them just after the war. In the ’70s and ’80s, when Jewish players like Mark Lazarus, Barry Silkman and Bobby Fisher graced Brisbane Road, and Brian Winston replaced Zussman as chairman, the West Stand became known as Kosher Corner. Former JC writer Bernard Josephs remembers the section “issuing friendly Yiddish curses to the players, unless of course they were playing a blinder”.
Bernard Sonenfield eventually graduated from the unofficial Jewish section to the vice-president’s lounge, joining three other East-Enders-made-good: Arnold Pinkus, who was nearly as wide as he was tall, Alf Nathan and Derek Weinrabe. At half-time, Jewish jokes would be told as salt beef sandwiches and chopped herring were served. “I shlapped all over the country to watch them,” says journalist James Masters. “From Carlisle to Plymouth, from Torquay to Hartlepool and how could I ever forget the exotic locations of Grimsby, Wrexham and Macclesfield. I’d wear the same pants for each game, keep ridiculous superstitions and even break up with a girlfriend if her presence coincided with a losing run.”
Zussman, Grade and Delfont used to invite West End celebrities to games. Before a big FA Cup tie with title-chasing Burnley, Arthur Askey entertained the crowd with his trademark long whip, urging them to pack together tightly to create more room on the terraces.
Delfont, born Boris Winogradsky in Russia, was known to the British public as the portly, dapper chap who always greeted the Queen as she stepped out of her car on to the steps of The London Palladium for The Royal Variety Performance. Orient players would often be treated to the best seats at top West End shows. “People would cut a vein in their arm to get tickets to the Royal Variety,” said team captain Sid Bishop. “We went to it about four or five times. In the dressing room before one game I turned to Les Grade and jokingly said, ‘Do we have to go to that bloody show again this year?’
By contrast, Orthodox Jews have not always smiled at the thought of nice Yiddishe boys playing the Beautiful Game. To Charedim, Jewish culture is a spiritual rather than physical culture. Back in the 1960s, my headmaster at the Selig Brodetsky Jewish Day School in Leeds confiscated our football and lectured us for about half-an-hour on why Jews were the people of the book, not people of the penalty kick. The next morning, at break-time, we played with a tennis ball. When he confiscated that, we switched to an apple core.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Orthodox parents of Louis Bookman, the first Jewish footballer to play in the English top flight, disapproved of their son’s profession. They scorned integration and favoured scholarship over the aggressive values of the Jews’ oppressors. But the British-Jewish leadership were committed to integration, and one of the ways of becoming more English was by excelling at sport.
The 2012 Olympic Games highlighted how British patriotism has “suddenly” become multicultural. British fans of all backgrounds uncomplicatedly cheered British athletes of all backgrounds. Commentators interested in sport and identity have talked about multicultural patriotism as though it is a new phenomenon. But there is one ethnic minority who, for more than a century, have seen sport as a vehicle for patriotism. Our community leaders have always viewed it the way Phillip Roth viewed baseball, as “a kind of secular church that reached into every class and religion of the nation… a space where the marginal can become central, where the charges of not really belonging, of not being real men, of being interlopers or cheats can be defeated”.
There have always been Jewish boxers, footballers and athletes — but they have often been hidden from history. In Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here, I argue that it is time to acknowledge the mostly unsung pioneers who played a key role in English football’s transformation from a working-class pursuit global entertainment industry. The stories of Jewish footballers, fans, writers, middle men, directors and owners illustrate crucial moments in an epic journey from ghetto outsiders to FA insiders.
“Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” is published by Quercus at £17.99. It will be launched at the Jewish Museum London on October 16 . More details at bbc.in/R75keG