We are among the minnows of the Jewish world, a tiny community by comparison with those in Israel or the United States. And yet we do sometimes manage, as the Foreign Office diplomats might put it,
to punch above our weight. I’m thinking of cultural landmarks like Limmud or Jewish Book Week, innovations which have won international admiration — and imitators.
Lest the doom-merchants, forever forecasting the decline or disappearance of Anglo-Jewry, tell you that those are the exceptions, a third phenomenon now deserves to be added to that list. All hail the Jewish Community Centre for London.
I admit that when the JCC started I wondered if there was really a need to set up yet another organisation for a community that often seems blessed with more institutions than people. But two recent experiences convinced me I was wrong.
The first was at the Barbican cinema. I was there on a Sunday afternoon for a screening of East and West, a 1923 movie that remains one of the gems of the Yiddish silent-film industry. (That’s no oxymoron: silent movies used to have speech captions.) The star was a young Molly Picon — Yenta from Fiddler on the Roof — playing an assimilated party girl from New York, suddenly dispatched back to a Polish shtetl for the wedding of a still-Orthodox cousin.
But here’s the twist. The JCC didn’t just screen the film: they commissioned a brand-new score, written and performed live by three young Jewish musicians. A blend of familiar klezmer and up-to-the-minute electronica, it transformed the movie, pointing up the pathos, the comedy and the bittersweet places in between. My son, then six, sat rapt, fascinated by the insight into the Jewish past the film served up — and so did I.
Then, just last month, I stood along with several hundred others in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank for an evening that was nothing short of joyous. The Idan Raichel Project brought to London a sound that blends contemporary Israel with the ancient melodies of Jewish Persia and Ethiopia. The three singers — all dressed in white, all beautiful — glowed with exuberance and crackled with energy; the songs were hypnotic and enchanting.
Two thoughts struck. What better advertisement for Israel could there be than a group of gorgeous, talented musicians — Ashkenazim alongside an Iranian, an Ethiopian and a woman who hailed, in Raichel’s words, “from the camps of Sudan”? Together they were living proof of the dazzling ethnic diversity of today’s Israel.
This, surely, was a more fitting way to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary than to listen to the tired, bigoted gags of that epitome of the old diaspora, Jackie Mason. One could go further and ask, as one leading branding consultant does in the latest edition of the American Moment magazine: “What’s more effective on campus? Another politician from the Knesset? Or a performance by Idan Raichel?”
Just as the JCC found a way to attract the interest of even a six-year-old child in the lost culture of Yiddish, so it had found a new, vibrant way to forge a connection between British Jews — and non-Jews — and Israel.
But then came my second thought, one that will be less welcome to the JCC’s high command. (Full disclosure: I’ve chaired several events for the JCC since its inception.) Given the enormous success of events like those two I witnessed, and dozens of others, does the JCC really need to spend millions housing itself in its own, purpose-built headquarters?
The current approach is working: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sure, you could screen East and West or host Idan Raichel in the JCC’s proposed new site on Finchley Road, but something would be lost. For the delight of those events rested, in part, on their presence inside institutions of mainstream British culture. The subliminal message was that Jews are part of the mosaic of life here; that it’s only natural that a festival of silent films at the Barbican should include a movie in Yiddish or that the South Bank should celebrate Israeli music.
But those events were functions of the current, nomadic state of the JCC. Once it has its own, permanent home, these bright bursts of Jewish culture will be put to one side and confined in a separate box marked “Jewish”. Or perhaps the JCC will continue to stage events elsewhere; in which case why go to all the trouble and expense of having a dedicated HQ?
It’s probably too late to change anything now. But the JCC are victims of their own success: they have proved they don’t need a building to become one of the liveliest, if roving, spots on the Jewish landscape. They should pause, think of those tens of millions they’d be lavishing on bricks and mortar — and spend the money instead on simply doing what they’re doing now. After all, they’re doing it very well.