Michael Rosen: growing up in the 'non-Zionist bubble'

Children's writer Michael Rosen has written a book about his very Jewish - but very irreligious - childhood. Lee Harpin met him.


The front door of a packed café in Muswell Hill slowly opens and Michael Rosen’s head pops through. As the author of the children’s classic We’re Going On A Bear Hunt and more than 140 other tales, his face is immediately recognisable to just about every parent and child inside. Heads turn towards their local hero as we greet one another with a firm handshake.

We have met to discuss Rosen’s just published memoir of the first 20-odd years of his life: So They Call You Pisher! (“Pisher” being a term for a nothing sort of person). It is punctuated with frequent description of his family’s unorthodox Jewish lives.

The book, he says, is his recollection of “life within the non-Zionist bubble.”

“Non-Zionist” isn’t quite the way that I’d describe Rosen, 71. He’s outspoken in his anti-Zionism, in a way that seems to lack the nuance of, say, his critique of education policy. When I say that I’d like to ask him about this, he suggests that the JC will censor the interview.

Pisher is in part a tribute to his parents and also an attempt to investigate family secrets. It begins with Rosen, then aged 10, and his slightly older brother Brian learning that they had another brother, Alan, who died in infancy a year before Rosen was born.

“For a moment, I felt ashamed that I had made this discovery,” writes Rosen, whose final chapter deals with another discovery of family photographs showing French and Polish relatives, some of whom perished under the Nazis.

He holds no grudges against his parents for keeping these secrets. He’s proud of their achievements as educationalists.

His mother, Connie, died in 1976, aged just 56. “By the time she died she was lecturing at Goldsmiths and Trent Park and people were discovering she had a lot to say about primary education. She went all over the country researching for what was then the Schools Council, which was the official government body.”

She blossomed away from home, he says, suggesting that the family had cramped her potential. “It is tough for me to say that.”

His father Harold, who died in 2008, a year after his son became Children’s Laureate, was a respected lecturer in English who became an academic at the Institute of Education. His books included the extraordinarily titled Are You Still Circumcised?

“It’s a wonderful set of stories, that are still in print about East End life. The title is based on an old Jewish joke about the guy who returns to Russia from America.

“His mum says ‘No tallit?” No kippah? Don’t tell me, you work on Shabbos…

“He says, ‘Yeah I’m afraid so, I’m in a new country.’

His mum then says: ‘But tell me this? Are you still circumcised?’”

The book also details Harold and Connie’s devotion, dating back to the 1930s, to the British Communist Party. “There was a lot of antisemitism and my parents believed the Party would not only defend them as a persecuted people but also provide a better life for all.”

Family life revolved around Party events, meetings and trips to the then East Germany until 1957 when the Rosens left, disillusioned by the lack of critical discussion over the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Rosen has followed in his parents’ path as an outspoken critic of a school system that still lets many children down. (He scraped through his 11-plus, but ended up studying English at Oxford).

His parents were cultural Jews, but not religious at all.

“As far as I can figure out, my mum’s parents were not religious,” he says. “Not anti-religion, just not religious. So they didn’t go to shul, while, in my dad’s case, his father was in America but his mother politically moved away from shul.

“Even my dad’s grandfather didn’t go — but then he was very political as well. From the 1880s-90s, you have got to remember there’s a lot of turmoil. Some people suggest all Jews were religious, then stopped being religious. It’s not like that all. If you look at history, life in Poland, read Bashevis Singer, you have Chasidim alongside secularists all arguing.

“Then you go further back to Heinrich Heine and the secularists — some Jews thought that the way you emancipate is to stop being Judaic. You mustn’t over simplify it, but in my dad’s case he was never barmitvah’d.”

It’s clear from the book that he cherishes his Jewish roots, and this revolves around Yiddish culture. His father was a “great spieler,” mixing French, Latin and a lot of Yiddish.

“If Judaism and the social life around a synagogue was not for them, what was the alternative?

“You became as English as you could and hoped that people would accept you; and yet, even in the midst of that hope, there was part of my dad that disliked the way he’d had to ingratiate himself.

“He consciously felt he wanted to hold on to the vigour of that East End life. The Yiddishkeit, and also the bilingualism — he felt he wanted to preserve that and hang on to it. And this was passed on to me and my brother Brian to a certain extent.”

But, I suggest, it seems surprising that a memoir beginning in 1946 and spanning the years of Israel’s creation manages to avoid any discussion at all of Zionism and its impact on the Rosen family.

“You have got to get the period,” reasons Rosen. “In 1948, I was only two. At primary school, I was never aware of Israel — no one talked about it there, or at home. It was never mentioned.

“The first time I ever got a sense there was a place called Israel was when some of the Jewish kids at school went there for holidays.

“They go and say it’s very nice there. And I say, I love France. I was so passionate about France and if I was going to do foreign I’d go there.

“CND was the big thing for me politically, and then the disputes within the Labour Party.”

Israel, as a political issue, did come up at university, he says. “But it was so insignificant because we were talking about Vietnam. So the whole Israel bag in my life at that time is insignificant. And if my parents were arguing about it in the CP when I was a kiddie, it certainly wasn’t one they were sharing with me.”

I ask why he has made such controversial statements on Israel and Zionism in later life, especially in the light of the final chapter of Pisher, written after he discovered a shoebox containing 17 photographs of relatives on a visit to an American relative, some of whom had died in the Shoah.

He says he will deal fully with his statements on Israel in a second volume of his memoirs, if he is asked to write one. But, for now, he refuses to budge from a recent Facebook post in which he argued it was wrong to say the State of Israel had “a right” to exist, on the basis that no state has that right. He is keen to point out that his opinions are indeed shared by a “sliver” of other Jews.

“We always have to resist using that phrase ‘the Jews’ — don’t we? Because that is what the enemy use. But sometimes ‘the Jews’ say it as well. One sliver of that identity is those people that came from that Bundist, CP, Communist Party background who fetched up in London, maybe in the suburbs.

“I can look back on what was largely a non-Zionist bubble that I lived in.

“People who lived the life of the Habonim and other Zionist organisations of that time, and maybe going to Israel, maybe can’t understand this, and will maybe say: ‘how odd!’

“But then, you know, there’s oddness everywhere.”


‘So They Call You Pisher!’ is published by Verso (£16.99)

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