Posted by: jbwuk | June 18, 2012

The Third Writers’ Festival, Jerusalem

Spring flowers and blossom bloomed all over Jerusalem, flourishing in earthenware pots on the speakers’ podium at the third bi-ennial International Writers’ Festival. This was held near the landmark King David Hotel and equally famous YMCA in the cultural centre, Miskenot Sha’ananim. Events stretched over five days, involving a line up of Israeli and international writers. Main events were held in a huge white tent where the canvas was rolled back to reveal a stunning vista of the Old City; sessions were punctuated by church bells. In the evenings the wind whistled and howled through the tent – if the adjacent Montefiore Windmill had been up and running it would have resembled a Whirling Dervish.

Despite murmurs of boycotts, cancellations and censored talks – Haaretz ran an article saying that the content of sessions had to be known in advance – the atmosphere was remarkably uninhibited, lively and convivial. Talks were on all manner of subjects: ‘literature, food and everything in between’, to employ one session’s title.  Hebrew speakers could take literary walks through Jerusalem, following the trail of Batya Gur’s thrillers; view the city old and new through the alternative vision of Sayed Kashua; or sample culinary delights amongst Nachlaot’s alleyways.

Back in the tent, Amos Oz mused about love, death and loneliness. Many sat with tears running down their faces listening to recitations of David Grossman’s poems in response to the death of his son, Uri. Interspersing both sessions, famous Israeli musicians, Hemi Rudner and Yehuda Ravitz sang about passion and yearning to enraptured audiences. It was like a Shiva – sadness and occasional laughter intermingled.

Dutch writer Arnon Grunberg spoke of his anger at being labelled the child of Holocaust survivors, abhorring the Second Generation concept. Sayed Kashua reflected wryly on his conflicted identity as an Arab-Israeli writer – to please one ethnicity is, almost invariably, to offend another. Through a series of word-pictures meted out over several sessions, Etgar Keret painted a portrait of his remarkable father, who had died just six weeks previously.

Novelist Zeruya Shalev was paired with Icelandic novelist, Solveig Eggerz, the granddaughter of the Prime Minster who liberated Iceland from the Danes. Shalev had feared the overt eroticism of her novels might shock her scholarly father, but not a bit of it. ‘Are you as nasty as your characters?’ Eshkol Nevo asked Dutch writer, Herman Koch. ‘Why are your characters so disgusting?’ Amir Gutfreund demanded of Arnon Grunberg. Is there something about those canals…

What could Mishkenot Sha’ananim teach JBW? Well, if our festival hadn’t moved to Kings Place, quite frankly, it would have made a depressing comparison. The setting was so incomparably beautiful. A high number of sessions and a restricted number of players meant you had the privilege of getting to know writers really well. To have well-known Israeli authors interview foreign writers was inspired, each having an insider’s understanding of the other’s dilemmas and dedication, art transcending national borders.

An experience to be recommended? Most definitely. To be repeated? I hope so.

Lucy Silver

Posted by: jbwuk | June 12, 2012

Guest Blogger David Krikler on Jeffrey Goldberg

Jeffery Goldberg spoke to Robin Lustig on Israel After the Arab Spring at JBW on Sunday 26th February. You can view a video of the conversation here.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s writing on the Middle East in the Atlantic and elsewhere, is invariably incisive, principled and memorable. And he carries serious clout. Five days after his Sunday morning session at Jewish Book Week, it was Goldberg who secured Barack Obama’s longest interview to date on the subject of Israel, the US and the Iranian nuclear programme.

And if he’s enjoyable in print, the same is true in conversation, this time with the presenter of Radio 4’s the World Today, Robin Lustig. Introductions done, Lustig read a quote. “I salute all the nations of the Arab Spring and I salute the heroic people of Syria who are striving for freedom, democracy and reform.” The quote was from a speech by Gaza’s Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, delivered during the previous Friday’s prayers at Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque.  What do you think this means for Israel? Asked Lustig. “Is it good for the Jews?” quipped Goldberg. More than what it means for Israel, he went on, is what it means for Assad. And for Assad, he said, “Ismail Haniyeh is the fat lady, and the fat lady has sung.” (I enjoyed Goldberg’s characterisation of Haniyeh as a singing fat lady. Partly as I doubt the burly terror chief welcome either the reference to his weight, or his feminisation, and also because, according to Palestinian news reports, Haniyeh’s junta banned fat ladies, thin ones, or men of all weights, from singing in Palestinian TV’s version of the X-Factor.)

And what about the potential if horrifically bloody fall of Assad? Good for Israel? Asked Lustig. “Good for humanity” replied Goldberg. And strategically, given that Assad’s Syria is Iran’s only Arab friend.  And while in Egypt, Mubarak “kept a lid on things”, for decades the Assad family had used Lebanon as a proxy for its war on Israel. “No one’s sitting shiva for Bashar,” he concluded.

Lustig then posed a question that we should get used to hearing more. An Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader had told him Israel was “no longer the only democracy in the Middle East.” Goldberg was dismissive. “I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood’s intentions are democratic… And they’re getting ahead of themselves” he said, pointing out the ongoing control of Egypt’s military. The test for the Muslim Brotherhood would not be the first but the second election. “One man, one vote, one time”, interjected Lustig. We need to wait and see what happens once they and the Salafi Al-Nour party who also won an alarming percentage of votes in Egypt, are responsible for garbage collection as well as grandiose ideological plans.

Israel’s status as the Middle East’s only democracy was one of its unique selling points in the West, he added, before raising concerns with “moves afoot by Israel’s rightwing parties,” that he felt undermined those principles.

Moving back to the Arab uprisings, Goldberg stated, “This is not an Arab Spring but a Sunni Islamist awakening” and the Muslim Brotherhood were hiding their real agenda. But they’re pragmatists, cautioned Lustig, who look to Turkey as a role model and recognise the need for economic growth and tourism. Goldberg agreed that economic necessity was the greatest check on Brotherhood ideology, before adding pointedly that when it came to relations with Israel, Turkey was scarcely a model to emulate.

Looking at the bigger picture, he reflected that since the Iranian Revolution the Gulf region has seen near constant turmoil, while investment in the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel has been incredibly cost effective. Which brought him onto Iran. Yitzchak Rabin, he argued, embarked upon the Oslo process because he foresaw the Iranian issue. Rabin wanted to make peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world because he recognised a strategic imperative to form a united front against Iran. Given the number 1 spot Iran continues to occupy in Israel’s strategic priorities, Goldberg was flummoxed by what he saw as “lack of effort” on the part of the current Israeli government to do more to pursue the peace process, and in turn, build a more effective regional coalition against Iran. And, he said, the Obama administration had been a bit flummoxed too.

But even in his criticisms of Israel, Goldberg was mindful of its challenges and dilemmas, mentioning the bitter experience of previous attempts to make progress – the withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, and the missiles and painful military campaigns that followed both.

One thing the Arab Spring had done, both Goldberg and Lustig agreed, was undermine the notion that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute could be a panacea for all the ills of the region. That said, “I read the Guardian and it seems like Israel’s still the big problem,” joked Goldberg to appreciative guffaws from the audience, He recalled a Kurdish leader who had once told him, “I wish our enemies were the Jews. Then people might pay attention.” But the most volatile split in the region, he added, is not between Jews and Muslims but between Sunnis and Shias.

Are dictatorships better for Israel than fluid, unstable, Islamist states? Asked Lustig. Short-term yes, long-term, and ethically, no, came the reply. People want to be free, but the path to real democracy will be a “long and unpleasant ride” that “takes a detour through Khomeinism.” Ultimately, he predicted that “when the people realise that Islam might be a spiritual solution but not a political solution, that’s when we’ll see the real transition to democracy.” But dictatorships can’t keep a lid on it forever.

Questions followed. On the Palestinians, Goldberg imagined an equivalent of Gandhi’s Salt March on a big Jewish settlement, and wondered how Israel could possibly cope with that, while acknowledging that “sometimes the Palestinian version of non-violence includes rock-throwing.” But there’s the thing – “where’s the Palestinian Mandela? If Arafat had been Mandela there’d have been a Palestinian state years ago.”

On the Iranian question, Goldberg stated with certainty that “one week from today, Obama is going to say “you don’t have to hit Iran because I will not let it go nuclear,” a pretty accurate prediction. Looking longer term, he pointed to the internal politics of Iran, and allowed himself the non-time specific optimism that “some time in the next 10 to 50 years, everything will be fine.” But, he cautioned, as long as there’s a critical mass of government militias prepared to slaughter their fellow citizens, then it’s very hard to overthrow a regime.

 Of course, no session on Israel with a Jewish audience would be complete without the mandatory question on Israel’s PR. There’s no doubt, Goldberg suggested, that Israel receives disproportionate levels of attention with a large dose of double standards. He recalled being in Bethlehem during the second intifada, seeing an Israeli tank moving through the souq before coming to a halt in Manger Square and thinking – that’s not going to look good on the world’s TV. The fact is, he added, “Israel hasn’t gotten good PR since Jesus. We’re the parent religion of two daughter religions that have set themselves in opposition to the parent.” Having said all that, and having given an entertaining, thorough and historical appraisal of the inherent challenges in Israel’s PR, Goldberg added, “you still don’t have to act like a schmegegge

Posted by: jbwuk | June 11, 2012

Guest Blogger: Shiri Shalmy on Shalom Auslander

Shalom Auslander spoke to Bidisha about his new book Hope; A Tragedy at JBW on Sunday 26th February. You can view a video of the conversation here.

Here is a list of words reviewers used to describe Shalom Auslander’s new book Hope: A Tragedy – dark, disaster and retribution, twisted, irreverent, caustic, transgressive, heartbreaking, staggeringly nervy, poisonously funny, scabrously funny, wilfully outrageous, uncomfortably hilarious as it is shockingly offensive, hilariously bitter and gloriously insensitive.
Auslander himself was described as – paranoid, guilt-ridden, self-loathing Diaspora kvetch and – my favourite – Not Good for the Jews.

Auslander’s website – featuring a bleak image of a padded cell (with the door open, mind you) – gives the following information about the plot set-up:

‘The rural town of Stockton, New York, is famous for nothing: no one was born there, no one died there, nothing of any historical import at all has ever happened there, which is why Solomon Kugel, like other urbanites fleeing their pasts and histories, decided to move his wife and young son there.’

Kugel is my kind of guy – a man determined to escape a forced narrative which somehow connects him to generations upon generations of mysterious people who had nothing to do with his life (starting from Moses and his biblical crowd, through Eastern European magical Rabbis and all the way back to contemporary war-ridden Middle East). This is the tribe, the clan, the Jewish chain-gang to which, apparently, you belong. Want it or not.
A people who, according to a Publishers Weekly review of the book, are characterised by “self-deprecation, mordant compliance, hypochondria, and a total lack of surprise when disaster occurs”.

I feel for Kugel. Growing up in Tel Aviv, I was also hoping to be able to escape history, to become neutral, to de-Jew myself. I moved to Berlin (‘How could you?? After what the Germans did to us??”) and from there to London (“Be careful, everyone knows that the British are especially antisemitic”). I did not live in Hendon, never been to a synagogue, avoided all religious holidays and definitely did not circumcise my son. I decorate a Christmas tree every year, for Christ’s sake!

I was doing quite well until, three years ago, broke and desperate, I took up a job at a London Jewish cultural institute. Like Kugel, I found a rattling – but still breathing! – skeleton in that dark, forgotten attic of London cultural life.
Through work I came across what was, for me, a new breed of Jews. These people were nothing like the ones I grew up with in Tel Aviv and who, plainly, couldn’t give a monkey’s about anything Jewish. These were people who defined themselves by the difference between their team and everyone else’s, who felt grateful to be here, compelled to demonstrate how well they adjusted to British life and driven by a very distinct mix of sentiments: fear and self congratulation. And a strange enthusiasm for antisemitism, real or imaginary.

Auslander’s gift for dark, disturbing, politically incorrect observation is beautifully appropriate for the stories he tells. He hates Philip Roth and his masculine school of self obsession. He likes Kafka’s existential dilemmas, Becket’s existential misery. He swears and tells holocaust jokes. Shalom Auslander is totally my kind of guy and I wish he moved to London for a bit to write about the Becks of Golders Green, the over enthusiastic youth of Habonim and the paranoid self appointed officers of the CST.
Or maybe I wish him a release from all this, a chance to re-invent himself as a truly free man and some relief from history.

Shiri Shalmy curated Judah Passow’s photographic exhibition, No Place Like Home, still on at the Jewish Museum.

Alejandra Okret was our Artist-Blogger-in Residence at JBW 2012.

I am a plastic artist used to expressing myself with images rather than with words.  So why am I blogging Jewish Book Week?  Whether you write or you draw, at the heart of what you are doing is creation, through different media.  I have always been deeply connected to by my Jewish roots and culture.  I have just finished an Artist’s book, interweaving my Father’s memories and my art into a tapestry of the flight and survival of European Jewry. “Frutilla, Fragole, Strawberries“, is now being shown the Ikona Gallery, Campo di Ghetto, Venice, Italy.  So what could be more natural than participating in Jewish Book Week? Blogging such an event is part of the joy of doing – seeing the unknown form into an idea, an object and into a work.  With a myriad of fascinating lectures to choose from, my motivation behind each piece was to capture the fleeting moment and feeling of the lecture I was seeing………

Author Jonathan Safran Foer and journalist Jeffrey Goldberg shared with educator Maureen Kendler the story of the making of the pre-eminent Jewish storybook, a new Passover Haggadah. Samantha Ellis reviews “Retelling the Story” at Jewish Book Week on 25 February 2012.

There was some confusion at the beginning of Retelling the Story. Maureen Kendler said a critic had called the new Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer “a feelgood Haggadah” but this turned out to be a joke made by Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the contributors. In fact, Safran Foer thought “feelbad” might be more appropriate — the Haggadah challenges us to see ourselves as though we have personally left slavery in ancient Egypt. Safran Foer began with the question, “How can this book encourage that empathic leap?”

His Haggadah is not a book of answers; Foer wanted “to provide a space, an opening, for people to put their own feelings”. So surrounding a translation by fellow fictioneer Nathan Englander are four commentaries: Goldberg focuses on the Jews as a nation, Nathaniel Deutsch takes a scholarly approach, Rebecca Goldstein does lit crit and Lemony Snicket’s strand is titled “Playground”. There’s also a timeline—Safran Foer calls it “The story of the story”—about the Haggadah through the ages. Kendler quoted The Times  earnestly explaining, in 1840, that Jews don’t drink blood at Passover. And instead of pictures the book mainly carries text, its design by Oded Ezer complete with inkblots and apparent wine stains.

It was fascinating to hear Safran Foer speak with rigour and passion about how he decided he wanted to make a Haggadah that would be “Unified and useful, not beautiful and interesting,” and that he had to exclude some of the original contributions. He sighed—and the audience sighed with him—when he revealed that a painting by RB Kitaj hadn’t made the cut.

And there were laughs of recognition when he described his father as “A model of a militantly atheist Seder leader” who organised his Passover family gatherings around dissent. As Goldberg sees it, “Judaism demands that you can’t be satisfied with the way things are. The Haggadah is more than a story. It starts in slavery and ends in freedom. It is obviously a metaphor for the way things are supposed to be. You’re supposed to come out of the Seder thinking: I’m going to do something.” He even feels that if you throw away the leftovers of your festive meal while people in the community are hungry, you have missed the point.

Of course, no discussion can ignore the festival’s food. Safran Foer, famous for writing fervently about his decision to give up meat in Eating Animals, feels that “The Seder table is a very appropriate place to talk about where food comes from”. Goldberg was troubled by the “ornateness” of some Seder hospitality while Safran Foer defended tables that are groaning with food, because “We are supposed to set the table as befits free people”. Yet another Pesach paradox.

There are already 4000 Haggadot out there and when Kendler opened the discussion up to questions it seemed as if everyone in the packed hall could have written their own. For Goldberg this engagement with the text is what Pesach is all about; he described it as a festival that “Demands that you write on to the Haggadah your concerns”.

My favourite answers came to the thorny question of whether one should avoid translating the book’s appeal to God to “Pour out Your wrath upon the nations that do not know You”. Goldberg, in line with the Haggadah’s aim to inspire “a radical act of empathy” suggested that “wrath” might be interpreted as “constructive anger” that would provoke us to go out and change things.

And Safran Foer, too, was typically unsqueamish. “I don’t think there’s anything that shouldn’t be addressed,” he said. “If there’s anything my shrink has taught me, it’s that addressing things brings you more happiness than not addressing them.”

Samantha Ellis is a playwright and writer. Her most recent play is Cling To Me Like Ivy (Nick Hern Books), and she is writing a book with the working title What Would Lizzy Bennet Do? for Chatto & Windus.



Posted by: jbwuk | February 29, 2012

Teenagers may be sullen but they have Big Questions

Bernard Kops and Meg Rosoff discussed their respective new books “The Odyssey of Samuel Glass” and “There is No Dog” at Jewish Book Week on 26 February 2012. Review by Cameron Henderson-Begg.

They say people are inherently selfish. As an optimist, I try not to believe that. But then I go to a talk about teenagers and think there couldn’t be anything more enthralling than people who, like me, are struck in the middle of their second decade. The best laid plans…

In my defence, some pretty high-level folk appear to agree with me. Meg Rosoff, author of ‘How I Live Now’ and other masterpieces, and Bernard Kops, whose tenth novel is on the cusp of release, spent an hour at Jewish Book Week talking about precisely my kind. Both their new works have brilliant teenage protagonists – in Kops’s case, a fatherless, time-travelling boy called Samuel Glass, and, for Rosoff, the indolent 19-year-old version of God, Bob. If those sound like recipes for fun, believe me, they are.

What, though, is so enticing to these authors about the sullen, the morose and the monosyllabic? Kops calls the teenage  years ‘an age of change’, and, with its alluring oblique rhyme, the title hits home. He also seems enthused by the contrasting characteristics found among his own family’s second-decaders: he lights up when describing his virtually wordless undergraduate grandson, but sets him off against his granddaughter, 13, who is obsessed with Justin Bieber.

Rosoff, meanwhile, puts my mind at ease on the selfishness. She’s not writing about current teens, she confesses, but herself, along with an adolescence which apparently lasted from the age of 15 ‘until two or three weeks ago’. (A note on that: over the summer I interviewed Rosoff for Penguin’s Spinebreakers website, and her adolescence had come to a similarly recent end then. I can only assume something set it off again…) Whatever the exact dates, it’s at this age that we start to fret over three great questions – Who we are, What we will do and Who we will love. For that reason, Rosoff says, adolescence is a fascinating time.

With what’s to love about teenagers out of the way, the talk turned specifically to Jewish juveniles. Kops spoke of the weight of history in Jewish households, where children grow up with the Holocaust to be explained to them as a matter of cultural necessity as well as historical significance. Rosoff, meanwhile, talked about her own childhood. Remembered discussions of who bore fault for which family embarrassment – family embarrassments with which, as good Jews, everyone was intimately and encyclopaedically acquainted – apparently formed part of the inspiration for Bob’s titanic fights with his divine mother. The audience seemed to know what she meant when she described how, after an unsuccessful party, she was shocked and delighted to find that her future husband made no comment. There existed, as she put it, a race of people who didn’t need to talk about things.

Which brings us neatly back to teenagers. Both speakers held forth beautifully on what makes us such an interesting bunch. I left King’s Place happy in the knowledge that, even if we don’t always want to express ourselves, there are some impressive people willing to do it for us. Although, as Meg Rosoff pointed out, I have a few fairly weighty life questions to ponder.

It’s no surprise we’re an unresponsive lot.

Cameron Henderson-Begg is 18 and studying for his A Levels. He reviews books for, Penguin’s online community for teenagers.

Posted by: jbwuk | February 28, 2012

Wunderkind or Enfant Terrible? Ron Arad at JBW

A review of Ron Arad’s talk about his career as designer and architect at Jewish Book Week on 22 February 2012

“What’s the difference between a Wunderkind and an Enfant Terrible?”

Answer: “A wunderkind works the telephone. An enfant terrible throws it. A little farther along the career path, one may become a prima donna who doesn’t answer the phone at all.”

 I had to ‘wiki’ how old Ron Arad was – born in 1951 it says I hope reliably – that makes him just over 60 I think. The freshness of his ideas and ingenuity, and his continuing curiosity of the world defy his age – can one still be an enfant terrible at 60?

He is a sort of punk designer / conceptual artist supplying must have pieces for those in the know about what is ‘now’. Over the last forty or so years, since living and working in London, he has created more than his fair share of iconic pieces. From armchairs and recliners to the absolutely brilliant new bicycle wheel – (if you haven’t seen it  look here)

He referred to his ‘Well Tempered’ chair as a caricature of a chair made from sheet steel – perhaps he is a caricature of what we expect of our designers – eccentric and full of chutzpah. (What’s his trademark hat about? – a felt thing that’s a cross between a Cavalier’s helmet and a Golden Girl’s visor.)

Throughout his presentation the hall was filled mildly sycophantic but adoring chortles from the audience – ‘What’s our Ron gone and done this time?’ – the wayward, brilliant child (of Israel) who has been allowed to play and imagine like a kindergarden pupil all his life, and become a multi-millionaire at it. Brilliant.

He has such a broad output: buildings in Israel, huge sculptures in Korea, whilst still devising new ways to work tempered steel to an inch of its life, and being lauded at retrospective shows around the world marking him as one of the most significant designers of his age.

 A really enjoyable presentation – no signs of the prima donna in him yet.

Daniel Leon is an architect in private practice in London.

Posted by: jbwuk | February 28, 2012

Sit back and have Joyce read to you – Ulysses Revisited

A review of Ulysses Revisited, Sunday 26 February 2012 at Jewish Book Week, with novelist Howard Jacobson and actors Henry Goodman and Derbhla Crotty.

All is clear, yes, beautifully clear, what once lay hidden in an impenetrable maze of printed words is now illuminated…yes… you are not meant to read James Joyce at all, you are meant to sit back and have him read to you, yes, preferably by top rate actors in whose hands the meaning and brilliance and, yes, clarity, yes, the clarity of Joyce’s prose will be fully revealed and made entirely manifest – yes!  

Those of us lucky enough to be in the audience for Ulysses Revisited on the last day of this year’s JBW experienced this revelation at first hand.  Howard Jacobson treated us to the full fire and brimstone of his passion for Joyce (he’d make a fine Presbyterian Minister, if he weren’t a Jew), bludgeoning us with virtuoso rhetoric into submitting to his notion that Ulysses is the greatest Jewish novel of the 20th century.

 The blistering polemic was intercut with passages from the book itself, read by actors Henry Goodman and Derbhle Crotty, who wooed the meaning from Joyce’s prose as if it were no more troublesome than a walk in the park, teasing out the multi-layered wordplays and elliptical thought processes with consummate skill.  Was this really the same Joyce I’d struggled with for years? It was as if he’d suddenly been translated into English. Perfectly comprehensible English at that.

Leopold Bloom, argued Jacobson, is not just a Jewish character, but the Jewish character par excellence by virtue of his inherent, inconquerable masochism.

Joyce draws us into the inner sanctum of Bloom’s mind, where we encounter the depth charge of this masochism: the insatiable appetite for life and suffering and everything in between. The lust for the forbidden, for the sexual and sensual and actual treif.  The longing for the lost.  The yearning for home and all its unattainable comforts. 

Ulysses shows us, Jacobson convincingly argued, ‘the healing power of creative exile into oneself…the dignity of the average damaged person.’  Leopold Bloom’s relationship with Molly is the relationship between the Jews and God:  it goes on mostly in Bloom’s head while Molly herself is mostly upstairs and unavailable; it is built on the expectation of discomfort, and it is revolves on the deeply held belief that ‘it requires great potency to deserve great punishment’. 

 This was a performance, rather than a talk, a triple delight that cleverly enacted Jacobson’s masochist’s manifesto.  While Jacobson brilliantly bludgeoned, Goodman and Crotty sweetly seduced.  And we, the largely Jewish audience, couldn’t get enough.  Hit us with more of your wonderful words, Howard.   Soothe us with more of your lyrical reading, Henry.  More, more and still not satisfied.  

 But it was Derbhle Crotty’s rendition of Molly Bloom’s famous interior monologue that had us – well, me at least – melting in my seat, as her lovely Irish voice evoked Molly, lying in bed at night with her husband, the wandering Jew’s wandering hands invisibly accompanying her wandering thoughts, punctuated by the mounting tide of those orgiastic ‘yes’s.  Eat your heart out, Meg Ryan – James Joyce definitely got there first.

Rebecca Abrams’s novel Touching Distance (Macmillan) is a Jewish novel with no Jews in it. 

She is also the author of four works of non-fiction, an award-winning journalist and a tutor in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.  She is currently writing a novel set in British Mandate Palestine.

Posted by: jbwuk | February 27, 2012

Hidden Jewish flavours revealed in food of Spain

Friday was a real treat. I was asked to introduce Claudia Roden at her Jewish Book Week session on her new work “The Food of Spain”. The book, sadly, has not quite arrived in England – it’s somewhere on a boat on the way from China but should arrive very shortly.

Claudia Roden is a truly remarkable woman – anyone who has met her or heard her speak before will testify to that.  She was born in Egypt and, although she is now in her 70s, she is a good deal more active than many of my peers in their 30s. She travels the world researching her books and accepting fresh accolades for all her remarkable work. 

The last seven years have been devoted to travels for her new book . It is, predictably, beautiful and brilliant. I had a short time to look over a copy. The content is remarkable and the design is excellent.  Claudia Roden is, of course, a cultural historian as much as a food writer. No one better explores the nexus between food and culture and identity better than her. Recipes tell a history. 

In her book, for example, she chats about the perversity that the Conversos of Spain heralded a pork dish as one of their great traditions. Using cumin and other spices the pork was cooked in the same way that they had cooked lamb before. 

Discussing such dishes Claudia explained that so many recipes from Spain involve ham because cooking with “treif” (forbidden food according to the Jewish dietary laws of Kashrut) was one way that anyone in the country would hope to prove their religious roots and would be protected from the horrors of the Inquisition.  Over history, many Spanish nuns were of Jewish origin but converted to escape persecution. Seville, in fact, had more churches than any city in Spain – and many were funded by Jews eager to hide their true identity.

Roden divides Spanish cuisine into three zones – the plains, the mountains and the seas – rather than by region.  Regional cuisine was damaged by the Spanish dictatorship which demanded mass production of food and left no room for smaller scale regional production. 

I would urge anyone with an interest in food and identity to buy the sumptuous new book. If you missed her at Jewish Book Week, hear her talk at the Gefiltefest festival on May 20th.

Michael Leventhal is the founder and director of the Gefiltefest London Jewish Food Festival

Posted by: jbwuk | February 27, 2012

Umberto Eco, student of human error and stupidity

Jewish Book Week was closed out with a fascinating hour’s conversation between journalist David Aaronovitch and the remarkable Italian thinker and novelist, Umberto Eco. 

The conversation centred on Eco’s latest bestselling novel, The Prague Cemetery, which sets out on a remarkable ‘true-story’ journey through the high geopolitics and low-life backstreets of 19th-century European history, from Garibaldi’s Thousand to the Paris Comune to the Dreyfus Affair (there’s even a walk-on part for a young Dr Freud). 

            As Eco explained, every act and statement, document and image, character and turn-of-events in The Prague Cemetery draws on his five years of  research and his immense collection of books and period paraphernalia and is demonstrably true.  But ‘true story’ isn’t quite the right label and ’19th-century historical novel’ doesn’t quite capture it either. Because Eco’s main character, Simonini, who dominates every page of the book, is an outrageous grotesque, a pure invention, the distillation of evil trickery in its most modern manifestation: the genius-forger. Aaronovitch suggested he has never met a character in fiction who was quite such a ‘bastard’, and Eco was happy to agree.

            As for the historical novel, well Eco and Simonini’s aim was to show how the facts of history are a game of mirrors, that history is forged, as much as by wars and high principles, by fakes, tricks and the rank prejudices that lie within us. Eco explained to his Jewish Book Week audience that, if love was a noble ideal, it works by cutting out the rest of the world – I love you and you alone, and no one else must love you. Hatred, though, is the most ‘generous’ and contagious of passions – I happily share my hatred with all who will listen and hope they will join me in it. Simonini – the spirit of his age – is driven by an all-consuming misanthropy and, above all else and always, by a hatred of the Jews.  

            Simonini’s life work, his masterpiece, as Eco imagines it, is his authorship of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the founding document of conspiracy theories about a Jewish plot to take over the world, which circulated and still circulates all over the world, much loved by everyone from Hitler to Ahmeninajad. And this despite being definitively shown up as a fake by the London Times in 1921. Aaronovitch, himself the author of a study of conspiracy theories up to 9/11, pushed Eco on this, taking him to his second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum. Asked about the strange coincidence of plot and conspiracies between that book and the later Da Vinci Code, Eco gently suggested that Dan Brown must have been one of the characters he had invented for Foucault’s Pendulum, since Brown seemed to have fallen hook, line and sinker for all the fascination with fakes and mysterious hokum that get the protagonists of Foucault’s Pendulum  into such trouble.

            Eco , who is now 80 years old, is a remarkably astute and inventive student of human error and stupidity, of how the most ridiculous prejudices take hold of us as gossip and hearsay, and find the stories to fit them anywhere they look. The conversation ended on a call for a new form of education in the face of the internet: a sort of instruction manual on how to sort out the real conspiracies from the hokum. We could do worse than start with Eco’s own novels.

Robert Gordon teaches Italian literature and cultural history at Cambridge University.  His book on the Holocaust in Italian Culture is out later this year

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