The definition and meaning of Jewishness is an ongoing and indeed eternal preoccupation of the Jewish people. The British writer Howard Jacobson is no exception to the army of explainers. In his latest novel, he looks at the 70 faces of Jewish identity through fictional characters – and leads the reader into a House of Mirrors.
Many non-Jewish reviewers in the British press have fallen over themselves to praise this book. How they comprehended this helter-skelter journey into Jewishness is a mystery. How non-British English-speaking Jews will understand the vagaries of this world of dysfunctional and eccentric inhabitants will be a bigger mystery. Yet this is an addictive read – and has already been short-listed for the Mann Booker prize.
Jacobson stirs the brew, mixing in Woody Allenesque humor, Yiddishisms by the gallon load and hang-ups about Israel, and then pours the distillate into a very British mold. Jacobson is an original, scathingly witty writer. This is a seriously funny book that makes you laugh out loud with its literary craftwork. His ability to bend the English language to his will is simply dazzling.
The story revolves around three characters, Libor Sevcik, a 90-year-old Czech Jew, long domiciled in London; Sam Finkler, a celebrity academic who substitutes “Palestine” for “Israel” in any conversation; and Treslove, the non-Jew who seeks redemption, salvation and normalcy through his striving for Jewishness. The dialogue, or rather the lack of it, between the three is pure Marxism – more Groucho than Karl. Yet underneath this rhetorical anarchy is loneliness. Libor and Sam have recently lost their wives – and are privately subdued and aimless.
Libor remembers Malkie – “We talked vulgar. It was our defense against pathos.” Sam similarly cannot forget his wife, the non-Jewish Tyler, who channeled into Jewishness as he burrowed out of it. “‘Recite the Amida. Tell me one of the 18 blessings.’ Finkler looked away.” When she wishes to taunt him, she calls him “Shmuelly.”
Treslove, on the other hand, has never been able to sustain a relationship with a woman. “He only realized that he loved her when she sacked him [from the BBC].” Yet he discovers the love of his life, Hephzibah, when he accidentally wanders into Libor’s Seder – held in September in case one of the aged participants pops her clogs before the actual arrival of Pessah.
Finkler, as the title implies, is the most intriguing character, particularly to those who have lived in Britain through the cascade of anti-Israel sentiment during the last decade. The egocentric Finkler has long craved to be on the BBC’s flagship program Desert Island Discs, whereby a well-known public figure chooses the music to accompany him or her during a sojourn in isolation from the outside world. Finkler uses the opportunity to announce to his audience of millions that “in the matter of Palestine, I am profoundly ashamed.”
His non-Jewish wife is ashamed of his public display of shame. “I know,” she says, “your conscience made you. A convenient entity, your conscience. There when you need it, not when you don’t.”
Finkler attempts to defend his stand by proclaiming that it’s not peculiar to Jews to dislike what some Jews do. “No,” the aged and antagonized Libor responds, “but it’s peculiar to Jews to be ashamed of it. It’s our shtick. Nobody does it better. We know the weak spots. We’ve been doing it so long we know exactly where to stick the sword.”
Finkler joins and emerges as a leading light in ASHamed Jews – not to be confused with ASH, the British campaign against smoking or AISH, which wishes to educate the nonreligious in its interpretation of Judaism. Led by the wonderfully named Merton Kugle, the dramatis personae of the ASHamees and their anarchic multidirectional discussion of Jewishness and Zionism is all too familiar.
Treslove’s uncertainty principle – to which he has adhered all his life – is fortified by all this as he attempts to breach the wall of Jewishness. Finkler occupies himself by publicly preaching the virtue of his stand on Israel – until his unknowing unJewish son knocks off the hat of a Jew who is defending Israel. Finkler is appalled by this symbolic act which conjures up the legacy of anti-Semitism. He withdraws from public utterances.
Jacobson captures such scenarios with great insight and remarkable subtlety. While academics write volumes and delve into every sociological nook and cranny, Jacobson captures the essence through a swift witty riposte.
Unlike many Jewish intellectuals, Jacobson did not join the chorus line to condemn Israel per se. A man of the Left, he certainly would not have voted for Binyamin Netanyahu. Jacobson’s weekly column in the British press has attacked the boycott, anti-Semitism and the profound ignorance of the British intelligentsia. He has utilized his shrewd observations of alienated Jews and their organizations to fashion the ubiquitous “Ashamed Jews.” He also assaults those politically frustrated Israeli Jews, ensconced in London, who believe that there is no real difference between the Israeli Left and the far Left in Britain, between those who wish to weaken the Israeli government and those who wish to abolish the state.
And to talk crassly of hasbara, of explaining Israel, Jews and Zionism to the world – Jacobson has done a far better job than those who compile the platitudes in Jerusalem. This book will certainly be recognized for its literary merit and exquisite wordplay, but will it truly change the skewed thinking about the Israel-Palestine conflict in some circles in Britain? Will instead a separation be made between literature and politics? Nevertheless Howard Jacobson has struck a tremendous blow against the closing of the progressive mind.