Tanya Gold

Let’s have museums of Jewish life, not more monuments to dead Jews

Rather than dwelling on the past, we should be celebrating being the luckiest Jews in Europe

June 29, 2023 12:18

Sometimes I accuse non-Jews of being more interested in Jewish death than Jewish life.

Sometimes I am guilty of this too. A few weeks ago, I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I went to the local mall, and sat in McDonald’s, watching the coach parties from Krakow eat burgers and ice cream.

Then I went to the extermination camp. The birch trees were offensively beautiful in early June; the birdsong was loud. I have a recording of the Auschwitz birdsong on my iPhone if anyone wants to hear it.

I went to Auschwitz straight from covering the Roger Waters concert, looking for anti-Jewish conspiracism and contempt, which I found. Pink Floyd to Poland was probably a mistake.

I was also pondering the news that the Jewish Museum in Camden is to close, though the Holocaust memorial in Westminster is still to be built, and the cognitive dissonance of that disturbed me. Always the past, as my JC colleague Hadley Freeman wrote in her family memoir House of Glass. Never the future.

The Anglo-Jewish community has a complex inheritance. I once called it a pale triumph, in which I wonder exactly who I am impersonating: a real Englishwoman, or a real Jew.

If we are not exactly thriving — what is thriving anyway? — we are lucky: the luckiest of all European Jews.

I was watching The Windermere Children again last week when I heard that Ben Helfgott, one of the child refugees brought from Germany to the lakes in 1945, had died.

I am fascinated by the last scene, in which the young actors transform into the real children of Windermere, now in old age.

Their gratitude to the British state is palpable: at least that is their public face, and I believe them. Some of them stayed in the north and speak English in a singular dialect — northern English and Polish — that I find amazing.

It’s been six years since Jeremy Corbyn presided over a Labour Party that gave free rein to a ragtag army of anti-Jewish activists, and four since he departed. Corbyn’s leadership was a radicalising experience, but it is over.

Online is hell, if you know where to look, and I do, but online is not real life. The numbers of young people who believe in Jewish conspiracism is large, but it is not a majority.

The documentary Oh, Jeremy Corbyn: The Big Lie was shown at Glastonbury, but the viewers, who filmed themselves watching it, are not a revolutionary army but a puddle of pitiful bourgeois socialists who wish, as antisemites do, to push their failures — their failures — onto us.

Ben Helfgott knew he was lucky. Do we? Do we even know where we are, not in Israel, and not in Poland?

Because if we are the luckiest Jewish community in Europe, what do we do with it? Not enough.

The Jewish Museum is a good example. I love the Jewish Museum in Camden. When was I last there? Twenty years ago. I love the Weiner Library in Marylebone. When was I last there?

Thirty years ago. I love the remains of the synagogue in Penzance, a mile from my home. When did I last go in? Never.

When do I go to the Penzance Jewish graveyard, a remnant of the community that thrived here during the tin boom, which is maintained by local, non-Jewish people? Never. When did I go to Waddesdon Manor to view the Judaica and revel in the contribution of the British Rothschilds to the visual arts? Once.

I go to synagogue: I’ve gone regularly since my son was born. Before that, almost never. I grow his Judaism, but what about my own? I might think shouting at antisemites on Twitter is an authentic Jewish act but it’s about anti-Judaism, not Judaism.

It’s reactive, and it’s also boring, like shouting at a bus stop: a bus stop will never give you the answer you crave. The Jewish ritual that my child enjoys, the Jewish life, comes at the insistence of his non-Jewish father.

“What are the fun bits of Judaism?” he once asked me. I replied instantly, and from the heart: “It’s not supposed to be fun,” like a faulty stand-up comic. I am ashamed of that.

There is a museum in Warsaw called POLIN. It is a museum of Jewish life that tells the thousand-year history of Polish Jewry in such detail, and with such luminescence, I felt like I was meeting my ancestors of Warsaw, Krakow and Lodz.

We should have a similar museum in Britain. It feels bizarre to have a proposed monument to Jewish death, in the form of the Westminster Memorial, but no monument to Jewish life. It feels macabre; thwarted; self-hating, even. We are the luckiest Jewish community in Europe. Perhaps it’s time to ask ourselves: what should we do with it?

June 29, 2023 12:18

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