It is a sunny morning in Soho. On the hotel terrace where Howard Jacobson is eloquently considering what it means to be a Jew, the clinking of coffee cups and the odd Yiddish imprecation mingle with the sights and sounds of London’s most cosmopolitan strip of earth.
Thematically and literally, this is familiar territory. Many have been the discussions with this most articulate of writers trying to identify the elusive essentials of being Jewish. And, however much this feels like putting up a tent in a hurricane, it is always stimulating, always fruitful.
The actual, physical territory is Dean Street. We are opposite a building that, until the 1990s, housed the West End Great Synagogue, and down the road from a restaurant where, during a previous interview, Jacobson and I were asked by fellow diners to tone down both the volume and content of our language.
“If you had to say in one sentence what being Jewish means,” posits Jacobson, “it is being able to make fun of yourself Jewishly.” And it has to be done affectionately. “When it’s without the affection, I worry,” he says, and adds that, “one of the first things you notice about the anti-Israel stuff is that it is not funny. There’s none of the ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ business that we do.”
By “anti-Israel stuff” he means that which emanates from various Jewish voices, individual and collective, anxious to ensure that not all of the opprobrium that gets poured on Israel’s head is treif. Voices that are given a glorious going-over in his new book, The Finkler Question.
It is a fascinating curiosity that, while Jacobson has long been regarded as a Jewish literary treasure, his status as a national treasure has been cemented by this latest and most intensely Jewish novel, building on two slightly less Jewish but still haimishe predecessors, the strongly autobiographical The Mighty Waltzer and the rather less autobiographical Kalooki Nights.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that one of The Finkler Question’s three main characters, Julian Treslove, is a non-Jew. This particular gentile wants to be Jewish, and the literary environment that Jacobson has created for him could hardly be more so. It includes those notorious peddlers of “anti-Israel stuff”, thus providing, says the author, “the terrible irony of this non-Jew wanting to be Jewish and these Jews who can’t wait to get the hell out”.
And yet the non-Jewish cultural world is lapping it up. Feted on radio, long-listed for the Man Booker Prize before it had even hit the bookshops, Jacobson’s book moved The Scotsman’s reviewer to declare: “The opening chapters of this novel boast some of the wittiest, most poignant and sharply intelligent comic prose in the English language.” All this, too, has a degree of irony for Jacobson. “I’ve always felt as much outside the Jewish experience as in it,” he says. It astonished my family that I wrote about things Jewish. So hitting on Treslove may have been a way of making it accessible not just to non-Jews but making it accessible to myself.”
The initial trigger for The Finkler Question was meeting a man who had just lost his wife of 60 years. “He told me his story,” says Jacobson, “and I said to him: ‘This is upsetting me so much, can I write about it?’
“I thought there was something particularly Jewish about the way this widower was grieving and I thought it would be interesting to have somebody not Jewish looking at that. And amid all the worrying about antisemitism, I thought about how, nevertheless, there is so much goodwill towards us; how much I love being in England. How English I feel.”
Not one but two Jewish widowers form, with Treslove, the novel’s trio of protagonists. And such is Treslove’s need to identify with the other two, he even envies their bereavement.
Jacobson was writing this against the background of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, the reaction to which among British politicians and the media and, more significantly, among the most vocal Jewish critics, enabled him to add an extra dimension to the story.
“When I first went to Israel,” Jacobson recalls (for the 1993 book and TV series, Roots Schmoots), “I saw soldiers pushing Palestinians around and thought, ‘I can’t stand this’. Then I’d meet somebody in a bar saying what wonderful people the Palestinians are and what mamzers the Jews are, and I’d think, ‘hang on’. It should be hard to make up your mind on any serious subject. The made-upness of the minds of the anti-Zionist Jews makes me mistrust their protestations of empathy for the Palestinians.”
This mistrust, he says, stems from Jewish anti-Zionist language, which he characterises as “pathological — I don’t need to know anything about Israel to know that there is something wrong with the way they are talking, something false about it. No place could be as vile as they describe it. No people so lost to humanity. Not even the Nazis were as bad as the Jews are accused of being. Which Zionism are they anti? If they want to attack what’s happened to Zionism, I’m with them. When I see ultra-Orthodox Jews stamping all over Jaffa, or when I see them deciding who is a Jew, I think: ‘What’s happened to the grand dream of Zionism?’ I don’t like to see ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. What’s wrong with Manchester?”
“But when I hear a Jew saying Zionism was always colonialism, I say, no it wasn’t. I feel much less defined by Israel than most anti-Zionist Jews are defined by Israel. They are defined by their anti-Zionism. I mean, what are some of them for? I am very sympathetic to somebody worrying about the Palestinians. But not spouting the Chomsky drivel.”
A principal location at which Jacobson sets the meetings of his fictional spouters of Chomsky-type “drivel” in The Finkler Question is the Groucho Club, less than 100 yards from where we are sitting, drinking coffee. And just round the corner is the converted loft he shares with his wife Jenny, where he is working on his next, almost finished novel (“Non-Jewish. Exceedingly funny”) and preparing for a Channel 4 programme on English Victorian art that he is presenting in October.
At almost 68, bathed as he is in the metropolitan sunlight, the quintessential Jewish Manchester Man, Howard Jacobson’s transformation into Soho Man appears complete. He concurs: “If a finger would come out of the sky with a voice telling me I can live forever in any particular year of my life, I’d choose this one.”
BORN: August 25, 1942
FAMILY: Married to third wife,
Jenny de Yong. He has one son from a previous marriage
CAREER: His novels include Kalooki Nights, The Mighty Waltzer and Coming from Behind. His latest book, The Finkler Question, has been warmly praised by critics and is on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. His work as a broadcaster include a South Bank Show on Why Novels Matter, and an investigation into Jewishness, Roots Schmoots
WHAT HE SAYS ABOUT ISRAEL: “When I see ultra-Orthodox Jews stamping all over Jaffa, or when I see them deciding who is a Jew, I think: ‘What’s happened to the grand dream of Zionism?’ I don’t like to see ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. What’s wrong with Manchester?”