Prejudice in Pennsylvania: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride, reviewed

If chicken soup is balm for the soul, then James McBride’s eighth book, set in 1930s Chicken Hill, a neighbourhood in a small town in Pennsylvania that is home to Jewish, black and other immigrant people, is its literary equivalent. There is something nourishing about The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a warm story about the power of community in the face of prejudice that both salutes the American dream while exposing it as a sham. Like much of McBride’s previous work, which includes four other novels, a biography of James Brown and his 1996 memoir, A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, about his Jewish mother, Ruth, The

Why are so many young people anti-Semitic?

The surest way to work up a crusade in favour of some good cause is to promise people they will have a chance of maltreating someone. To be able to destroy with good conscience, to be able to behave badly and call your bad behaviour ‘righteous indignation’ – this is the height of psychological luxury, the most delicious of moral treats. Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow Anti-Semitism ­– the socialism of fools – is a shapeshifter supreme. The oldest hatred has taken many forms, and is enjoyed by Christians and Muslims, communists and fascists alike. Now it can add another string to its bow. Anti-Semitism has become deeply fashionable. You might

The faked passports which saved countless lives in the second world war

In the summer of 1942, the Polish poet Władysław Szlengel made a detour into light verse with ‘The Passports’: ‘I would like to have a Uruguayan passport/ Oh, what a beautiful land it is/ How nice it must feel to be the subject/ Of the land called Uruguay…’ Successive quatrains hymned the joys of Paraguayan, Costa Rican, Bolivian and Honduran citizenship before the final stanza declared that it was only with one of these citizenships that ‘one can live peacefully in Warsaw’.  The joke was serious. Szlengel was a Jewish man living in the Warsaw ghetto; and as Roger Moorhouse’s absorbing new book describes, Latin American passports were, or could

The Anne Frank story continues

The first time a friend told me that Hitler had the right idea about the Jews I was six. Most of my classmates agreed, and quoted their parents in evidence – from which I conclude that anyone who suggests that they don’t understand how the Holocaust happened is either a fool or a liar. It was a team effort by popular demand. If the Germans had won the war, no one would have felt bad about it. But the Germans lost. How awkward. Anne was freezing, starving and dressed in rags. ‘They took my hair,’ she said. Then she disappeared It became necessary to convince non-Jewish Europeans that mass-murdering Jewish

The Osnabrück witch trials echo down the centuries

Absent mothers resonate in the latest offerings from two heavyweights of French literature. Getting Lost is the diary kept by the prize-winning novelist Annie Ernaux while she was having an affair with a married man in 1989. Ernaux has already written a novel about this relationship. Now we have a more immediate and intimate account. Meanwhile, the octogenarian feminist and literary theorist Hélène Cixous continues her own brand of écriture féminine in Well-Kept Ruins. For the uninitiated, Cixous’s stream of consciousness is like reading Molly Bloom with a PhD from the Sorbonne, a raft of awards and a keen eye for cognitive dissonance. Cixous’s new book hinges on her arrival

Is T.S. Eliot’s great aura fading?

For much of his life T.S. Eliot was surrounded by an aura of greatness: people accepted it, and behaved accordingly. That kind of consensus is not helpful for a writer or his works, as Eliot himself clearly saw, observing that nobody had ever written anything significant after winning the Nobel Prize for Literature – true at the time and mostly true since. His work is now in the position of Hamlet when he wrote a famous essay on the play: that the universal agreement of its greatness had hidden an understanding of its failures, its strangeness and what it couldn’t do. We take the greatness of Eliot’s poetry pretty much

Why Jews don’t count to the ‘anti-racists’

Suppose you explain to someone spouting racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory ideas that they are prejudiced. You may begin by giving them the benefit of the doubt. You tell them you are sure they do not realise how badly they are behaving. You assume they are decent people at heart who have merely made a mistake they will be more than happy to rectify once you set it out. Then you attempt to enlighten them. You tell them why they are prejudiced and why their prejudices lead to hatred and death. You tell them repeatedly, again and again, until your arguments become so familiar you can mouth them in your

The journalists who scripted the golden age of Hollywood

When talkies appeared in 1927, Hollywood went searching for talkers to write them. It turned to men like Herman J. Mankiewicz: to journalists. The greatest screenwriters of the golden age were journalists first; unlike novelists, they thrived in Hollywood — at least professionally. Good films and good journalism need brevity; novels don’t. Reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald struggling at MGM, 12 years after The Great Gatsby, is brutal, like trying to watch a man learn to walk. The film Mank, by David Fincher, tells the story of how Mankiewicz and Orson Welles created Citizen Kane — for which they shared an Oscar for the screenplay in 1942 — and how

Enjoyable but hardly classic Alan Bennett: The Outside Dog & The Hand of God reviewed

The season of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads continues at the Bridge. In The Hand of God we meet Celia, a posh antiques dealer, who befriends old maids in the hope of acquiring their valuables cheaply. Like everyone in her trade she uses play-acting and mind games to give her the advantage while haggling. If her enemy falters, she pounces. A man visits her shop and becomes visibly excited by a framed drawing which Celia hoped to flog for £30. Spotting his eagerness, she trebles the price. He pays up and hurries out. Later she learns that the drawing was by an old master whose style she failed to recognise. Millions

Heavy-handed satire and schmaltz: American Pickle reviewed

American Pickle is a comedy based on a short story by Simon Rich, originally published in the New Yorker, and I was sold on the synopsis alone: ‘An eastern European Jew falls into a vat of pickles and is brined for 100 years before emerging in modern-day Brooklyn.’ It’ll be a fish-out-of-water film like Crocodile Dundee, I thought. But more Jewish. And it felt like I’d been waiting all my life for a film like Crocodile Dundee, but more Jewish. In fact, where have the more Jewish versions of Crocodile Dundee been until now? You think: an entire factory left un-redeveloped for 100 years? It’s prime real estate, isn’t it?

For Jews in Occupied France, survival was a matter of luck

Late in his life, I asked my uncle René about his exploits in wartime France. What I knew was that my family left Paris in 1940, around the time a great-uncle was shot dead in the street by a German army officer. They headed south to the Mediterranean, where my two uncles organised a network of safe homes for fugitives to lie low in until they could be smuggled out. When I asked for details, René clammed up. ‘Those were terrible times,’ he muttered, ‘not worth remembering.’ The Guardian writer Hadley Freeman was more successful in tracing her uncles’ activities in France, set off on her trail by a shoebox

The shame of Labour’s liberal supporters

There are many reasons why I am suspicious of the Conservatives’ current lead in the polls. The Tories may have peaked too soon. Labour voters flirting with the Liberal Democrats could return the more they see of Jo Swinson. Many Conservative target seats, while Brexity, have voted Labour since there was a Labour Party to vote for. Landlines still dominate over mobile phones in the sampling methodologies of some pollsters, under-reflecting younger and poorer voters. Labour supporters and Remainers are more likely to turn out than Tories and Brexiteers and a million more voters have joined the roll than did prior to the last election, which just reeks of young

‘Utterly betrayed’: Britain’s Jews are now politically homeless

We Jews have evolved to be neurotic; so neurotic that, in certain circumstances, the Syrian border feels slightly safer than Muswell Hill. I’ll take Muswell Hill. Polls say that only 7 per cent of British Jews will consider voting for Labour on 12 December, while 47 per cent of British Jews will consider leaving the country if Labour win. I’d rather fight Dave (generic name) from the Labour Representation Committee than Dave from Hezbollah (likewise generic). But I shouldn’t joke; and nothing feels funny any more. Things are always OK until they aren’t. Jews have fled Labour since Ed Miliband’s time. In 2010 we were split quite evenly between Labour

Do Jews think differently?

Sixteen years into a stop-go production saga, I got a call from the director of The Song of Names with a suggested script change. What, said François Girard, if one of the two protagonists was perhaps, er, not Jewish? My reply cannot be repeated. I was, for a minute or so, completely speechless. My novel, winner of a 2002 Whitbread Award, is the story of two boys bonding in wartime London. One is a refugee violinist from Poland, the other a middle-class kid of average abilities. ‘I am genius,’ says Dovidl to Martin. ‘You are — a bit everything.’ Beyond bomb sites, their friendship is rooted in a common heritage.

Why did the Soviets not want us to know about the pianist Maria Grinberg?

Only four women pianists have recorded complete cycles of the Beethoven piano sonatas: Maria Grinberg, Annie Fischer, H. J. Lim and Mari Kodama. I’ve written before about the chain-smoking ‘Ashtray Annie’ Fischer: she was a true poet of the piano and her Beethoven sonatas are remarkably penetrating — as, alas, is the sound of her beaten-up Bösendorfer. Lim produced her cycle in a hurry when she was just 24; it’s engaging but breathless. Kodama’s set, just completed, is a bit polite. Which leaves Maria Grinberg (1908–78), whose recordings remain just where the Soviet authorities wanted them. In obscurity. That is shameful — and not because she was the first woman

The probe into Labour’s anti-Semitism gives hope to Britain’s Jews

The Equality and Human Rights Commission’s announcement last week that it is to formally investigate Labour over anti-Jewish racism is an hour of great shame for the party. It is also, finally, a moment of hope for British Jews. The public body set up, with chilling irony by the party it is now to probe, has seen evidence of the institutional anti-Semitism that Jews have been making complaints about for four long years and decided that it is credible enough to investigate. Its decision makes Labour only the second political party in British history to face a formal racism inquiry. The first? The British National Party.  Finally Britain’s Jews are feeling as though

Disappointed of north London

Disobedience is an adaptation of Naomi Alderman’s novel about forbidden, lesbian love in orthodox Jewish north London, starring Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams and I so wanted to root for the film and its characters. Go for it, women! Smash the patriarchy that says you must always be the object of sexual desire and never the subject! I’ll put you up, if needs be. I have a spare bedroom and it’s all yours! But while this should be a searing, Brokeback Mountain-style drama about love, longing and repression it just plods along, often clumsily. I didn’t root or not root as in the end it was impossible to much care.

Cries and whispers | 15 June 2017

There’s a moment in A Boy in Winter where a young Ukrainian policeman has to escort his town’s Jewish population to a churned-up field under the watchful eyes of his new Nazi masters. It’s November 1941 and Mykola has been told that all he has to do is relieve the Jews of their luggage and move them along. He assumes that they know what’s coming to them. In his mind, the Germans are ‘bastards’ but no worse than his former Soviet occupiers, who burned his family’s fields and grain stores as they fled eastwards. So Mykola has deserted the Red Army and joined the auxiliary police under the Germans, the

About a boy | 17 November 2016

Indignation is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel and amazingly, for an adaptation of a Philip Roth novel — see the recent dog’s dinner that was American Pastoral, for example — it may even be worth two hours of your time. (Depending on what you would otherwise be doing with that time; I wouldn’t wish for you to cancel that hip operation or similar.) It stars Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner, a 19-year-old Jewish boy from Newark who, in 1951, escapes the Korean war and the over-anxious clutches of his parents by winning a scholarship to a college in Ohio. Marcus, at the outset, is a good Jewish boy

The troubling truth is that anti-Semitism in Britain is alive and well

Growing up as a Jew in England, I’ve always felt proud of my heritage. The ugly spectre of anti-Semitism seemed a thing of the past – and it felt safe to share my faith and ancestry with the world. But not any longer. It’s not difficult to see why. In the first half of 2016, there was an 11 per cent spike in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. Britain might still be one of the safest places in the world to be a Jew, but Jews here are increasingly becoming a target. Last year saw the third-highest annual total of anti-Semitic hate incidents in the UK ever recorded. The same