The members of the England and Israel writers football teams travelled to London for the first weekend of Jewish Book week from Israel, Berlin, Glasgow, Paris, Somerset and sunny Leicester. On the Friday night some of us met at the Wilton Music Hall in the East End, where Bookslam and Five Dials, both founded by members of the England team, had put on a literary evening headlined by Jonathan Safron Foer, in town to advance his cause up and down the left wing of vegetarianism.
On the Saturday, after some of the Israelis had gone to see Chelsea play Manchester City, and others to watch Watford , we all met at Bar Kick, a table football bar in Shoreditch, where we drank beer, reminisced over our previous meetings in Tel Aviv, swapped tales of our recent literary exploits, and tried to teach the Israelis the art of playing the game without spinning.
From there the England team took the Israelis on a walking tour of Brick Lane, pointing out some of the sights of the old shtetl of Whitechapel, and ended up at the Needoo Grill, a fine, if crowded, Punjabi restaurant, where – the Israelis decided – the England players had deliberately ordered a spicy meal to sabotage Israel’s chances in the match the following morning.
As it was, it was the English weather rather Asian spices that forced an alteration in the original plan to play at the Harry Abrahams Stadium in Finchley in front of what would no doubt have been a large and vociferous crowd and saw the match played out instead in front of half a dozen spectators and a bedraggled dog on a sodden astroturf in south London. With all but professional games washed out that the weekend we were fortunate to be able kick a ball at all and the game was played in a good spirit, with plenty of the pithy phrasing one would expect of creative writers, and ended up with England winning five-two and evening up the record to one win apiece.
In the evening several members of each team wandered across from Goodenough College, where the Israelis were staying, to take part in various different literary events, both in English and Hebrew. The highlights were a display of mathematical virtuosity by Marcus du Sautoy and a panel discussion on football and society, which covered material as diverse as nationalism, Israeli-Arab politics, the urge to belong, and the effects of curry on the intestines of a footballer.
The final event of the weekend was a Jewish Community Centre sponsored gathering on the top floor of the North London Tavern in Kilburn. Here three Israelis and three Englishmen read their work either side of a set by the honey-voiced Anglo Israeli singer-songwriter, Lail Arad. Among the highlights were Jake Wallis Simons’ description of a comic strip memoir of the England team’s trip to Israel in 2008 and a hilarious performance by comic writer Noam Slonim as a referee who is accused so many times of being blind that people start to believe he really is blind and has been so since birth. Finally his mother gets to hear about it and complains that she is the last to know that her son has been blind since birth.
All in all it was a rare and enjoyable weekend. Friendships were renewed and made on the football field and literary and cultural experiences were shared in the halls of Bloomsbury and Kilburn. Football and literature may make strange bedfellows to some, but to the members of the two teams, and perhaps to some of those who came to the Jewish Book Week and Jewish Community Centre events, these gatherings provide a unique opportunity to break down barriers and make connections that might last a lifetime.
Many thanks to Jewish Book Week, the Jewish Community Centre, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and the dozens of individuals whose extremely generous donations helped to make the Israelis visit possible.
Jeremy Gavron, team member and author of An Acre of Barren Ground.