How has the pandemic affected how we think about British Jewish culture?


On the one hand, the stress during the pandemic has been on the ‘British’ in British-Jewish culture. Locked-down, quarantined, forbidden from travelling abroad, we find ourselves re-connecting with the local, the places we actually inhabit rather than ‘diasporas of the mind’ (the title of Bryan Cheyette’s 2013 book on ‘Jewish and postcolonial writing’). Diasporic we may be, but cultural diasporas are largely imaginary constructions, ‘imaginary homelands’ in Salman Rushdie’s phrase. Deprived of freedom of movement, I find myself leaving my imaginary homeland and reconnecting with real space around me. The car stays parked, and I set out on foot to meet the real Britain, only to discover that ‘Britain’ is also an imaginary homeland, composed of multitudinous local habitations. I start reading psychogeographical writers whose project is to discover where they live by walking the area: Iain Sinclair, Robert Macfarlane and – my favourite by far – Rachel Lichtenstein. I read Lichtenstein’s On Brick Lane (2007), Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden (2012) and Estuary: Out from London to the Sea (2016) and imagine walking where Lichtenstein walks, discovering traces of past lives which somehow relate to mine ‘in this location’ (Estuary, 319).  

On the other hand, as ‘Britishness’ falls apart – with Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland increasingly following their own paths – the ‘Jewish’ consolidates itself. Although I have no idea what ‘Jewish’ means (according to Harold Pinter, ‘really, nobody ever does’), I am aware that modern Jewishness is attuned to crisis. Since we are living through critical times – politically, climatically and medically – these times feel to me familiarly ‘Jewish’. When news of Covid-19 broke, my second thought (after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920) was how conspiracy theorists would blame ‘the Jews’. It seemed impossible to imagine, since coronavirus originated in China, and President Trump was busy blaming ‘Chin-nah’ for manufacturing the virus in its Wuhan Institute of Virology. Yet Jewish conspiracy theories are never impossible to imagine. According to those on the far-right, Covid-19 is part of the Zionist World Jewish Conspiracy to control money circulation, make further fortunes by developing a vaccine, and start World War Three. If you have the stomach for this sort of junk, there is more detail on the Community Security Trust website: 

I remember the wonderful British-Jewish poet and editor of Stand magazine, Jon Silkin (1930-1997). He rejected the insular nationalism of the ‘British’, as well as the provincialism of a ghettoised Jewishness which turned away from other cultures. Like many British-Jewish poets – notably, Dannie Abse, Richard Burns, Elaine Feinstein and Daniel Weissbort –  Silkin saw himself as a European Jew. He imagined British-Jewish culture as ‘a cosmopolitanism, cautioned, as it were, by English and Jewish specifics’. In Israel for a Jewish Quarterly symposium of British-Jewish and Israeli writers in Spring 1967, Silkin was clear that British-Jewish culture did not entail being restricted to ‘bi-focal judgements’: on the one hand ‘British’, and on the other ‘Jewish’. Rather, he chose to ‘read omnivorously and form my consciousness from as many cultures, humanistically speaking, as possible. Thus my Jewish self-awareness,’ Silkin concluded, ‘has forced me into humanism.’ 

As we British Jews discover, or re-discover, the local; as we learn, or re-learn, our psychogeographical locations, we are also being ‘forced’ beyond our diasporic imaginary homelands ‘into humanism… cautioned, as it were, by English and Jewish specifics’. Note Silkin’s precise use of language: as British Jews we can retain the ‘specifics’ of our hyphenated identities, while simultaneously embracing a boundless humanism, which is always ‘cautioned’ by such ‘specifics’. I find myself agreeing with Silkin’s admirably dialectical perspective on British-Jewish culture. 

The hyphen makes it clear that British-Jewish culture is always dialectical. In his monumental monograph, The Life of Metrical and Free Verse in Twentieth-Century Poetry (1997), Silkin praises a ‘state of continuous active tension’ in the best poetry. The same applies to British-Jewish culture. Any attempt to reduce this dialectic to ‘singleness and homogeneity brings entropy’. We can be pretty clear what Silkin would make of Brexit, with its unidirectional slogans advocating closure: ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Get Brexit Done’. ‘Singleness and homogeneity brings entropy,’ he would surely have reminded us. 

The fact that many British Jews voted for Brexit serves as further proof that there is still ‘continuous active tension’ between British-Jewish insularity and British-Jewish humanism. 

Ghettoised during the lockdown, one hopes that British Jews will soon emerge into a post-pandemic world and embrace the tradition of British-Jewish humanism which Silkin identified, optimistically, before the Six Day War of June 1967. 

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Peter Lawson works at The Open University where he researches British-Jewish literature.
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