Is England losing its Jewishness?

November 24, 2016 23:21

For a long time, much of my writing involved cricket, and so I was a regular at Edgbaston, the cricket ground in Birmingham. During the lunch interval there, I had a ritual: slipping out of the press box and strolling across the park to indulge a private vice.

It involved chopped herring, schmaltz herring, challah, wurst, new greens and latkes. Gee's kosher butcher and deli, a few hundred yards away across the Pershore Road. I would stuff my swag into a couple of bags, dump them in the boot of my car and take them home to my very unkosher-deli part of the country to sustain me over the next few weeks.

Last time I was in Birmingham, I went again, licking my lips. The shutters were down. It took a while to establish the facts. "What's happened to Gee's?" I wailed, next time I met a well-informed local. "Gone," he said.

"Why?" Well, he explained, there were some problems with the business. "And anyway," he added, "Birmingham is a declining community." There is a still a sort-of shop, based at the central shul and managed by a Gee. Open four part-days a week and a boon to the locals, but not so convenient for passing trade, particularly not the cricket-watchers.

These things happen. But the closure of Gees's does seem to represent something that has wider implications, and not just for Judaism.

This new London makes it hard for young Jews who would like to stay within the fold

I have spent the past three years travelling round England, observing the minutiae of daily life to produce a book (called Engel's England, since you ask) which is based on the 39 historic counties plus London. Never forgetting London.

Mostly, the book is what people been have kind enough to call enjoyable and funny; an attempt to discover what is unique and distinctive about each of the counties, even the less promising ones. Hertfordshire, a place with many virtues but a fragile county identity, was a challenge - especially as my visit coincided with the coldest week of a cold winter - but one I hope I surmounted. I was very taken with the Letchworth corset factory and the Great Bed of Ware.

It is not a book about either Jewishness or cricket, though, since it is a personal book, they both crop up. Nor is it supposed to be a book about London. But what I realised as I went on is that everything in England is in some way about London; and every place in the country can be defined by its relationship to London.

No major developed nation has a capital that is so utterly dominant. It has held its position since the millennium before last, and we have long since ceased to consider how weird and damaging that is. In the past three decades, London's hegemony has become ever more extreme. The regions have declined, while the capital has become a global as well as a national magnet.

This creates particular problems for Birmingham. Since the canal age, it has been the crossroads of the nation but that's not much use when the traffic's only going one way. Too far from London for a reasonable commute, it is too close to make it easy to establish its own cultural identity. Old Brummie saying: "it's half the distance from here to London as it is from London to here". In other words, we're always the ones who have to shlep.

And this has special implications for the city's Jews. It has long been one of the country's biggest communities and still is: three shuls in the city (two Orthodox, one Liberal), another in suburban Solihull and a subsidiary congregation attached to the King David primary school. But the numbers are declining, the school is now majority non-Jewish and there hasn't been a kosher restaurant in many years.

Traditional Jewish life is everywhere dependent on a critical mass of people: 10 adult males for a service; at least one girl to marry. So once the numbers start falling the process is likely to gather momentum. As Ruth Jacobs, the chairman of the local Jewish representative council admits: "The Jewish facilities here are not comparable to London's. And it is much harder to live a Jewish life here." Mrs Jacobs would like to integrate passing university students but it's not quite clear what Jewish Birmingham can offer. Because the city is suffering what you might call a triple whammy. Some kids leave to be more Jewish; others, driven to London by ambition, leave to be less Jewish. And there is a third phenomenon, which is that, in both cases, their parents eventually follow suit. Once they retire and have no compelling reason to stay in Birmingham, they want to be nearer the grandchildren.

This is, I suspect, happening across much of the country. Jewry in middle England was built on middle Jews, the shul-and-soccer brigade. Strong identity, not too fussed about the details. Seder night, Yom Kippur, the JNF, no bacon in the house, cheder-is-good-for-you, yes; go on Shabbos, maybe; but park round the corner and enjoy a chat rather than getting worked up about the minutiae. It's fading.

The Church of England and the Catholics are going through similar processes. When the Chief Rabbi meets the archbishops they can all empathise: "You got tsores? I got tsores." Younger people tend to buy the whole religious package or nothing. The old sense of obligation and happy hypocrisy is fading. In the case of Judaism, there are two extra factors: the decline of Israel as a universal role model; plus the extra pull of London.

The one part of the Birmingham community that is believed to be holding its own is the Progressive congregation. Pete Tobias, who used to be its rabbi, is now - in keeping with the demographic trend - at Elstree. And he fears his old shul could also be endangered in the long term: "For people that stay in provincial cities there is a high likelihood they will marry out because there aren't enough Jews. So then Liberal and Reform are all that's open to them. But the next generation go to London."

The Londonisation process has become to seem inevitable. My generation was advised to buy property in the 1970s and 1980s mainly because mortgages carried tax relief, not because home ownership was the lazy man's path to millionairedom. Now I hear London friends complaining about a mansion tax because everyone will be hit.

The capital and its accoutrements have long since burst their bounds and enveloped the surrounding countryside. (If I am allowed to have a favourite passage in my own book I think it is my discovery of a pre-war description of the obscure and rustic Middlesex hamlet of Heath Row.)

Effectively, London now embraces the whole of south-east England except the few remaining pockets of Kent and Sussex beyond an hour's commuting range. It certainly includes both Oxford and Cambridge, which means the academic pinnacles are now effectively within the capital for the first time since at least the 11th century. Indeed, the only field of activity where Very Much Greater London does not necessarily mark the summit of achievement is sport; and even here Chelsea are currently outshining the Manchester clubs.

And London casts dappled shade far beyond the reach of its most obvious branches: from the holiday cottage economies of Suffolk and the Cotswolds to the sophisticated seaside resorts of North Cornwall.

Personally, I am inclined to include in this version of London the centres of both Manchester with its continental-style trams and Leeds with its fancy shopping.

The difference is that you don't have to travel that far from the northern cities to find the reality of unLondon: run-down mill towns full of simmering racial tension served by disgusting old bus-trains (known as "Pacers") whose continued existence would startle anyone who travels in from Elstree or Radlett.

There is also a price to be paid by Londoners, if not by those vulnerable to the mansion tax. Young people without a leg-up on to the Home Counties property ladder now face a distorted set of choices: enduring obscenely long commutes or forgoing legitimate ambition; a second-rate job or distorted family life; crippling debt or an inadequate house.

No sane country would organise itself in this fashion.

All this impacts disproportionately on young Jews who would like to stay within the fold but find it ever harder to do so outside a handful of major centres.

The England I found was a place of remarkable diversity and richness of character. I thought I knew this country pretty well, but I was constantly surprised, amused, amazed and delighted: from the Cornish kids discovering their own linguistic heritage to the pigeon-fanciers of Northumberland.

But England is being impoverished by London's overlordship. And among the features provincial England is in danger of losing is its Jewishness.

In ways well beyond the ready availability of chopped or schmaltz herring.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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