You can try to escape your heritage, but it will catch up with you in the end. That’s the message of Andrew Sanger’s charming tale, The J-Word (Snowbooks, £7.99), set in and around Golders Green. But you don’t have to be a north-west Londoner, or Jewish, to enjoy this story of rediscovered identities. (There’s an extensive glossary to help with the abundance of Yiddish and Hebrew words.)
The unlikely hero is Jack Silver. Eighty years old, cantankerous and utterly secular, he rejects anything remotely Jewish. Called upon to look after his grandson Danny, 10, when his son suffers a breakdown abroad, Jack is thrust into Golders Green life. When he comes to the aid of an elderly Jewish man who is being attacked, Jack is savagely beaten. This sets him upon a quest for justice and ultimately leads him to a renewal of his Jewish identity, if not his faith.
From lippy, irreligious Israelis to ultra-Orthodox Chasidim and “pick and mix” Masorti Jews, Sanger paints a vivid picture of the perplexing muddle that is the capital’s Jewish population today. What makes a person Jewish — and whether or not this can be voluntarily rescinded — is the thread running through the story, with the precociously talented Danny posing the awkward questions.
The burgeoning friendship between the boy, who relishes the chance to learn about his religion, and his cranky grandfather, is at the heart of what is a delightful read.
But, alongside Sanger’s warm portrayal of Jewish life is a bleak description of contemporary antisemitism, with ignorant thugs out to get “rich bloody Jew bastards”, which is chilling because it is so believable.