Hugo Rifkind

If Ed Miliband can’t be our first Jewish prime minister, he can still be our first atheist Jewish prime minister from Primrose Hill

The immigrant experience changes you, as well as where you move to

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

Last weekend, in a small New Jersey suburb, I found myself in a liquor store. Never been anywhere like it. The walls were lined with single malts of rare and impressive varieties, and the clientele both knew their whisky and spoke of little else. Yet they were all, also, to a man (and they were all men) ultra-orthodox Jews.

Properly ultra, as well. There’s a website you might have come across called ‘Amish or Hipster’ and it shows pictures of young folks in beards and hats and braces, and asks you to vote on which particular cult you reckon you are looking at. This lot were like that. The beards were full and bushy, the shirts were all white and tieless and the top buttons were all done up. I remember once seeing a documentary about a very trendy counter-cultural magazine you also might know called Vice. As this lot stood around a barrel taking shots, it could have been one of their editorial meetings.

I bought myself a couple of bottles, anyway, and wandered away feeling quite charmed. At first, I amused myself by thinking that it was impossible to imagine the opposite; a bunch of men in kilts in an inexplicably Judaic store in Inverness, perhaps, nudging each other, and saying ‘Och, aye, it’s a fuhkin’ barry Kiddush wine, this, Jim.’ But then suddenly it struck me that they and I were not actually so very different.

I, too, am Jewish, as you probably know. Go back to the 1880s, and their ancestors and mine could have lived in neighbouring shtetls. We weren’t Hassidim and I think they were, but that’s by the by. Same sort of ethnic stock. So the sole thing that makes it more incongruous for them to be drinking Talisker than me is that for the past 12 decades I’ve been keeping my Yiddisher DNA somewhere else.


It is strangely lopsided, how we talk of immigration. We focus always on the effect that the immigrant has on the place, but rarely on that which the place has on the immigrant. Give him half a generation, or maybe even less, and he can’t possibly ‘go home’, because he is no longer from where home used to be. He is instead a whole new thing, which could only be from where he now is.

So to Ed Miliband, and the question of whether he slipped up, somehow, when he last week spoke of his desire to be Britain’s first Jewish prime minister. ‘The clot!’ said many. ‘The ninny! He says the phrase “one nation” eight times an hour, and he’s forgotten about Disraeli!’ And indeed, maybe he had. Or maybe he was operating under the presumption that a Jew who identifies as a Christian loses the bulk of his ‘Jew’ tag, in a way that one who merely stops having anything to do with a synagogue does not, which seems pretty reasonable to me, although possibly not to you. It’s a particularly Christian perspective, either way, to feel that the question of whether Miliband has faith or not is of the slightest importance. Judaism doesn’t give a toss about faith. It’s all about observance.

Of course, he doesn’t observe either, but never mind that. My point is not only that Ed Miliband is entitled to consider himself an atheist Jew if he so wishes, but that he could only ever be an English atheist Jew. As an American atheist Jew, he might look much the same, but the clothes would be different (checked shirt, pens in breast pocket) and he’d almost certainly work in a maths department.

I’ve an inkling, indeed, that English atheist Jew is far too broad, and Ed could actually only ever be a north London atheist Jew, or possibly even a Primrose Hill atheist Jew, which is similar to but nonetheless quite distinct from the atheist Jews you get in Hampstead. Whereas if he were an east London atheist Jew he’d be more working-class, and if he were a St John’s Wood atheist Jew he’d wear a golden tie pin. To the best of my knowledge, Golders Green and points north aren’t worth worrying about, because all the atheists tend to move out pretty sharpish.

I say English rather than British, please note, because I’m a Scottish Jew, and thus really not very like Ed Miliband at all. Scottish Jews can drink, which in my limited experience is a trait they share, out of all Jews, only with Russian Jews. In temperament, English Jews are far more Anglican than my sort of Scottish Jews who, despite the booze, tend to be fairly Presbyterian. Unless they come from Glasgow, obviously, in which case they can be a bit Catholic. I hope you’re getting this down.

Air pain

I don’t approve of journalists who use their platforms to further their own customer complaints, so I shan’t tell you which airline this item is about. Except to say that it’s a British one, and not budget, and not owned by Sir Richard Branson, either. Yeah. Them. Anyway, the other week I had to cancel an outward flight, but I wanted to keep the return. You’re with me?

‘Tricky,’ said the airline. ‘But I just want to not take a flight,’ I said. ‘There’s a fine,’ said the airline. ‘You want me to pay you more money in order to not get on an aero-plane?’ I said. ‘Yes,’ they said. ‘Are you blushing right now?’ I said. ‘No,’ they said. ‘How do you sleep at night?’ I said. ‘On a bed of cash, laughing at you,’ they said.

Oh, OK, so I made up the last bit. But seriously. These people.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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