I first met Jacob Sonntag, the founder-editor of the Jewish Quarterly in late 1982 at his home in Mill Hill in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. I had been deeply involved in opposing this war against the PLO in the wake of the attempted assassination of the Israeli Ambassador, Shlomo Argov, by the anti-PLO Abu Nidal group. This reflected the view of a large body of opinion in Israel—in particular the academics, writers and intelligentsia. Yet the leadership of the UK Jewish community simply parroted the unthinking line of Menachem Begin’s government and provided no space for different views despite the dissident rumblings of a growing number of Jews in this country.
Sonntag and his friends were of a different generation which had witnessed the atrocities of the twentieth century and the rise of a Hebrew republic in the Land of Israel. For me, they had seen the worst as well as the best—but did not close their eyes in the hope that the storm would soon pass over. The Jewish Quarterly at that time represented a synthesis between the east European intellectual and the Anglo-Jewish literary traditions. Its circulation had been dwindling—and inspired by Jacob Sonntag, I worked hard with his daughter, Ruth, to attract new subscribers and bring in younger contributors.
Sonntag died in 1984 and I did not wish to be considered for the editorship because of my responsibilities to my young family. Less than a year later, events propelled me to step in a second time and I reluctantly became editor. My motivation was to build on Sonntag’s remarkable achievement in maintaining an independent voice and publishing thought provoking, high quality literature. While the rich tradition of Eastern Europe and London’s East End had its place, the Jewish Quarterly now also had to reflect the agenda of the present: new writers such as Clive Sinclair and Howard Jacobson and contemporary political issues such as Jews and homosexuality or Jews in apartheid South Africa.
It was also important not to subscribe to utopian thinking in believing that the views of the communal leadership could be dramatically changed through the power of the written word, but instead to provide an intellectual refuge both for those who felt alienated by communal values and those who questioned yet adhered to them. It should become a location where all definitions of Jewishness could feel at home. The periodical had been a bastion of devout secularism, now even Jonathan Sacks, in his liberal pre-Chief Rabbi days, contributed. This approach clearly did not please all of my colleagues—and it came back to me that I was regarded as “too Jewish” to be editor of the Jewish Quarterly.
My editorship lasted almost a decade and I hope that I was able to ensure the long term survival of the periodical, reflected even until today. Every editor inflicts his/her influence on the direction of the publication. My predilection was politics and Israel perhaps to the detriment of other worthy disciplines. Such a different approach was treasured by many in those difficult days before the Oslo Accords. In the end it was the communal leadership which had to rapidly change their long held views, following the Rabin-Arafat handshake. Editing the Jewish Quarterly was never an easy task, especially when holding down a full time job with four young children, but it was always deeply rewarding to hold the finished product in your hands, hot off the printing press. It also allowed me to make some wonderful enduring friendships, including Felek Sharf and Fred Worms—both of whom have passed on—the Yiddishist Barry Davis and the writer Moris Farhi. For me, it was a privilege to have worked for the Jewish Quarterly and to have participated in the creation of a unique vehicle for intellectual endeavour.
Jewish Quarterly — Autumn/Winter 2013