Why I take a pick 'n' mix approach to my new Jewish identity

Nicholas Lezard on why he's telling Jewish jokes, but still noshing chorizo

February 16, 2023 12:00

It has now been a couple of months since I discovered that I was, or could call myself if I wanted to, Jewish, a revelation I shared in this very publication. “So, how’s that going?” you might want to ask.

Well, to be honest, no one’s going to notice anything externally. I have not grown peyot, as Woody Allen does in the famous jump-cut to him in full Orthodox regalia in Annie Hall, I have not changed my wardrobe, although I did think of getting a hat because it is cold, and I have not changed any of my habits, especially the dietary ones.

In that scene in Annie Hall, Allen is eating ham; a few seconds later, he makes a joke about lobster. Looking at the clip has jogged a memory of once being taken to lunch by someone from a branch of the family that was still observant. At the beginning of the meal I did not know this. Even though it was about 20 years ago, I can still vividly remember the prawn and chorizo dish I ordered, and how she said, with no trace of a smile: “That’s not very kosher.” We never met again.

Internally, though, is another matter. Again, on the face of it, no rearrangement of the mental furniture has taken place. I am working quarter-heartedly on a joke about a Jewish remake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail which involves The Knights Who Say “Nu?” but that is as far as it is going to get, really. In this at least I follow Howard Jacobson’s observation in this paper last week: “The best Jews have always been the most ambivalent.” I am taking that quote slightly out of context but in principle I find it comforting.

And yet… while I do find myself unwilling to claim a mantle I do not feel I have earned, and have never been one for joining any kind of gang (largely on the grounds that none would have me, but one makes a virtue of these things), I have found myself getting more and more interested in Jewish matters, following them from room to room, in the way a cat that goes around thinking it’s independent will follow you around. “Oh, are you going into the living room? I think I’ll come with you and … be independent there.”

The other day, Polly Samson, the novelist and journalist, married to David Gilmour, the Pink Floyd guitarist, put out a tweet which accused his ex-bandmate, Roger Waters, of being “antisemitic to the core”, among other things, and even though there is I gather some debate among Jews as to whether he is just horribly anti-Israel or horrible to all Jews, I tend to think along Polly Samson’s lines, and, as we’re friends, I dropped her a line and also retweeted her tweet with a flippant line of irony-coated support: “that’s funny, he doesn’t seem the type.” That’s me on the barricades, then.

Even more recently, a friend announced on Facebook that she was a Zionist, and if you didn’t like it you could push off; one of her friends did, saying “goodbye”. If a Zionist is someone who thinks the state of Israel has a right to exist, then I am a Zionist, as I have been ever since I first heard of the place. So I said so.

What else? Well, it’s early days, but the other day I found myself not only making a Jewish joke — you know, a proper Jewish joke, the kind that only those on the team can make — to my editor; I also went off on something of a tangent and told her that one of the reasons the original Star Trek was so cool was because the actors playing its two most important characters were also Jewish. (I mentioned this to another Jewish friend and she said, “oh no, not Shatner.”)

I wonder how this will play out. I live in Brighton, which, if its Saturday pro-Palestine demonstrations by the Clock Tower are anything to go by, harbours in abundance the kind of antisemite you tend to get on the left; but I don’t see myself getting up in their grill about this.

But I am enjoying, if that is the word, the gradual process of … what? How to put it? De-assimilation?

Nicholas Lezard is a writer and literary critic for a wide range of publications, and writes the ‘Down and Out’ column for the New Statesman. His books include ‘Bitter Experience Has Taught Me’ and ‘It Gets Worse’

February 16, 2023 12:00

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