Farewell from the JC’s man of letters

What better than 30 years of devouring great Jewish books?


Gerald Jacobs is based in North London. The retiring Literary Editor of the Jewish Chronicle, he has written for a wide range of newspapers and magazines. His books include Judi Dench: A Great Deal of Laughter; A Question of Football (with John North and the late Emlyn Hughes of Liverpool and England), The Sacred Games; and Nine Love Letters. His novel Pomeranski is published on 30 April.

I like to think that the terms “Jewish” and “books” are intertwined. We are readers. We are writers. And we are critics – the great polymathic scholar George Steiner defined a Jew as someone who reads a book while holding a pencil, believing that he, or she, can write a better one.

Steiner is but one of many eminent men and women of letters I’ve been lucky enough to meet during my 30 years as JC literary editor, a post from which I am moving on today.

From childhood, when words on pages were, for me, a kind of magic, I have always regarded books as an essential component of life, a view reinforced by three years studying English at university. And I am so grateful that the JC has enabled me to spend a good deal of my time reading, and writing, many thousands of words.

I was a postgraduate student when that most distinguished of this newspaper’s literary editors, Tosco Fyvel, friend and biographer of George Orwell, first commissioned me to review a book for the JC. I have warm memories of listening, over lunches in the Garrick, to Tosco’s tales of life on literature’s front line. I continued to review for him while pursuing an alternative – and alternating – career path: law, teaching and, eventually, journalism, ultimately joining a Jewish Chronicle whose masthead declared itself, “The Organ of British Jewry”. Since that time, I have performed quite a range of roles across the JC. But “Books” has been my fulcrum and, most of the time, it has been enjoyable and stimulating.

I have often been asked how I decide which books should be reviewed in the JC and I usually reply: “instinct”, which, of course, strengthens with experience. The only criterion, be it a novel, biography, history, political argument or anything else, fiction or non-fiction, is that its subject matter must be of interest or relevance to at least part of our exceptionally wide readership. It could be something by a Jewish author with little or no overtly Jewish content, or by a non-Jewish author with plenty of it – and much else in between.

As for what are sometimes called the “really Jewish” books, from Siddurim and Haggadot to religious and biblical exegesis, these go straight to the Judaism editor. This hasn’t prevented many a rabbi appearing on my pages, whether reviewing or being reviewed. The late Rabbi David Goldberg, senior minister at the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood, who died in 2019, wrote several highly intelligent and sometimes provocative pieces for me. On one occasion, when Goldberg had delivered a negative verdict on what he considered a pretentious mountain of words, the offended author threatened to take him (and me) to the London Beth Din. “Bring it on,” was David’s response, and he was genuinely disappointed when the threat was not carried through.

Looking back over the whole of my long stint as Lit Ed, it is possible to discern patterns and trends, innovations and changes throughout the publishing industry, though much of its Jewish product in the 20th and 21st centuries has been unpredictable, especially if you go back well before even my time at the helm. Who, for example, could have foreseen that a pamphlet written by a Hungarian journalist with negligible Hebrew would kick-start the modern Zionist movement? Or that, among personal accounts of the Second World War, the one with the greatest emotional impact would be a diary written by a teenage girl? And that a major shift in Jewish literary sensibility would be initiated by a book written by a non-Jewish, Australian novelist?

But whereas the achievements of the journalist Theodor Herzl and the teenage Anne Frank derived directly from their original texts, novelist Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark, telling the true story of a Nazi who saved 1,200 Jewish lives, is one of those powerful books that trigger a process in which the dramatic and cinematic arts supersede the literary. Despite Schindler’s Ark having won the Booker Prize in 1982, it wasn’t until the release in 1993 of Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, based on Keneally’s book, that writing about the Shoah became widely acceptable. Before Schindler’s List, most British publishers scrupulously avoided Holocaust material.

The success of Schindler’s List changed the climate. Encouraged by Spielberg himself, a gentle flow of Shoah memoirs gathered strength and became a flood. Even now, seven or eight decades after the events described, the Holocaust still constitutes the subject matter foremost among the books sent to the JC’s literary editor’s desk. But, while Keneally’s book was firmly rooted in fact, the waters have since become muddied by often undisciplined, implausible and melodramatic Holocaust-themed fiction, which is now a genre in its own right.

A contrasting, uncontaminated flow on to the pages of our paper has been that of Israeli literature, led in my time by the likes of Amos Oz and David Grossman.

All this I have been privileged to encounter through British Jewry’s organ.

The JC was also instrumental in igniting my external writing career when, in the early 1980s, the then editor, Geoffrey Paul, introduced me to the publisher George Weidenfeld. And it is to that area of my life I now return, taking with me an imprint of the letters JC on my heart.

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