Even pilgrims are staying away from Jerusalem

Israel has a new train line: 25 minutes from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem. The Christian pilgrims would love it but they’re not here. Instead, there are soldiers and visiting American Jews. My taxi driver says American Jews come with thousands of dollars of cigarettes and drive around looking for soldiers to give them to. He says American Jews love Israel more than Israelis. Then he moves his machine gun – it’s on the front seat – and says: ‘Welcome to Israel.’ The American Jews go south to the massacre sites of 7 October to stare at the bullet holes. I don’t. You can’t forget the war here. At the

The invisible boundaries of everyday life

Norman Shrapnel, the wise and kindly parliamentary correspondent of the Guardian back in the day when it was a readable newspaper, tried never to give a book a bad review. He liked to say that anyone who had taken the time and trouble to write about anything at length deserved to be given the benefit of the doubt, and so he generally dipped his reviewer’s pen in honey rather than vinegar. I must say that on picking up Maxim Samson’s Invisible Lines, I felt quite otherwise. I wanted at first (an important caveat) to paint my laptop’s entire screen with vitriol. Within two pages I’d begun to loathe the author’s

The ‘historic’ national dishes which turn out to be artful PR exercises

In 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the owner of a pizzeria on the edge of Naples’s Spanish Quarter, delivered three pizzas to Queen Margherita, including one of his own invention with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, their colours taken together resembling the Tricolore. The Italian queen loved the pizza, and Esposito duly named it after her. In that restaurant today hangs a document from the royal household, dated 1889, declaring the pizzas made by Esposito to be found excellent by the queen. And so was born the Pizza Margherita, a dish now synonymous with Naples. The queen’s seal of approval in the wake of Italian unification, which had proved difficult for Naples, came

Poland, 1968: the last pogrom

‘Are you Jewish?’ the officious-looking Dutch diplomat asked my dad. ‘Yes’, he said, realising at that very moment, everything had changed. He was no longer Polish; the culture he had been born in, the citizenship he held, the language he spoke, the country he loved – it all meant nothing. He was just Jewish. He couldn’t be both. The diplomat stamped my father’s papers and he left for a new life in western Europe. Up to 20,000 Jews, including my mother, were hounded from Poland at the end of the 1960s. They were accused of supporting Israel in a virulent anti-Semitic campaign led by the communist government. This anti-Jewish campaign

The legacy of Chaim Topol

In 1969, for my seventh birthday, I was taken – dragged, probably – ‘up west’ to the theatre to see a musical. As I recall, it didn’t fill me with joy to be going, but it turned out to be fantastic. The songs, the acting, the dancing: it was great fun. Then we went for pasta in Soho, which was also a special event in those days. More importantly, though, I think it was the first time I became truly aware of a vital part of my identity: that I was here because decades earlier my great-grandfather had arrived on these shores, driven out of his native Russia by a

I can feel my heart hardening as the war goes on

Palm Sunday in Perugia. Umbrians were scuttling around with twigs and leaves, but I was in town to celebrate another faith. It was the annual International Journalism Festival, which hasn’t been ‘annual’ for the past two years due to Covid. Happy reunions were applauded with the sound of countless clinking glasses, but the mood was often mournful. In the first panel I was on, the moderator, Natalia Antelava, asked for a moment of silence for the 18 journalists already killed in Ukraine. Among them was Oksana Baulina, a former colleague of Natalia’s at Coda Story news platform, where I am also a contributing editor. Oksana was Russian. She had previously

Howard Jacobson superbly captures the terrible cost of becoming a writer

Howard Jacobson, who turns 80 this year, published his first novel aged 40. Since then he has produced roughly a book every two years, including The Finkler Question, which won the Man Booker in 2010. Given that he was put on Earth to write, why the wait? This is the subject of Mother’s Boy, a tale of self-persecution in the form of a monologue which includes interjections from the ghosts of his parents and one chapter, recording a period in his twenties that he drifted through in a dream state, printed in a font resembling handwriting. ‘How’s the novel coming along?’ his father would routinely ask after Jacobson graduated from

Our new era of Jewish-Muslim relations

Reactions to the recent passing of F.W. de Klerk transported me back to my childhood in South Africa. The horror of apartheid was a frequent topic of conversation in our family. My uncle’s law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, pioneered the employment of black people and gave Nelson Mandela his first job as a clerk, in defiance of the accepted practice at the time. My mother was the principal of the only training college for black pre-school teachers and my father, a rabbi, made pastoral visits to Robben Island. We were all-too-aware of the urgent need to dismantle the structural racism that plagued the country. When de Klerk and Mandela

Islam must adopt the Moroccan model

After becoming the latest Arab state to formalise ties with Israel, the fourth in as many months, Morocco has gone a step further; it will start teaching Jewish history as part of the school curriculum. Morocco is now the first modern Arabic state to embrace its tradition of religious pluralism — a pluralism that has over the decades faded into mono-cultural Sunni Islam. Over the last 70 years, the number of Jews living in Morocco has fallen from half a million to just 2,000. In January, Moroccan King Mohammed VI visited a Jewish museum and synagogue in Essaouira to celebrate the country’s pluralistic past as well as the Moroccan monarch’s

From family home to mausoleum: the Musée Nissim Camondo

The potter and author Edmund de Waal revisits familiar terrain at an angle in his third book, Letters to Camondo. Ten years after the publication of his debut memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, he is once again in Paris, lurking about the rue de Monceau, ruminating on dust, trying to make the dead speak. He’s particularly keen to elicit a word from Count Moïse de Camondo (1860-1935), the last patriarch of a clan of absurdly rich French Jewish bankers with roots in Constantinople. The count was a friend and neighbour of de Waal’s cousin, the art historian Charles Ephrussi, whose collection of Japanese netsuke played such a large role

Riots in Jerusalem

In 2015, I was nearly beaten by a far-right mob in Jerusalem. Thursday night’s riot in the holy city reminded me a lot of that evening. Thankfully, this time, nobody died, but that same feeling of tension, anger and violence was in the air. My run in with the mob began at a small vigil to protest against the murder of a family at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. For some reason they decided we were ‘left-wing protesters’ — the police were able to encircle us but could do nothing to stop the bottles being thrown, the spit, the curses. Our crowd of attacks moved on, beating any Arabs they

The uncomfortable truth about ‘shonky’

A reader sent in a television preview from the Daily Star for Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in which ‘Brad Pitt leads a squad of Jewish-American soldiers on a Nazi killing spree’. The film, it added, is ‘not as funny as ’Allo ’Allo! but Pitt raises laughs out of his shonky language skills’. The reader was shocked by what she thought a crude piece of anti-Semitic vocabulary. I am old enough to be aware of shonky as an offensive term referring to Jews, but I don’t think that was meant here. Indeed it is frequently used in the papers to mean ‘wobbly’ (as if it were wonky) or ‘ropy’. It has diverged

The CofE’s Seder masochism

Christians are celebrating their second locked down Easter this weekend. If Mr S wasn’t a model of Christian charity, he’d quite like to remind certain people of this fact, especially those irritating folk who last year insisted that locking down just before the Muslim festival of Eid was somehow an attack British Islam. Perhaps not everything is motivated by conflict between different identity groups? Oh wait, yes it is. With parishioners cooped up at home, someone in the Church of England thought it might be nice to encourage a bit of domestic ritual (yes, that antiquated idea of physical, structured worship). Church House officials launched an online campaign encouraging Christians to celebrate Maundy

Spring lamb and the bread of affliction: our Zoom seder

This week my son came home from school and asked me if it was true that the Jews killed Jesus. Um, I said. Read the Gospels. Read Hyam Maccoby. Ask your father. My husband is a religious maniac, though Christian. Any patriarchy will do. He insists I pretend to be an ultra-Orthodox Jew for festivals, and finds recipes for weird ceremonial breads. ‘Can’t we make Judaism fun?’ he asks. I reply, aghast: ‘It isn’t supposed to be fun.’ My Judaism is rather Holocaust–centric. I told a family therapist after my parents’ divorce: ‘I lost a father and gained a Shoah.’ Then we buried my husband’s uncle David Watts — not

The battle for the soul of the Jewish community

There are two groups in the Jewish community – mainstream Jews who, while still religious, do their best to assimilate into the wider community and the Chareidi, ultra-orthodox Jews who tend to shun British society. Those two groups are now locked in a struggle for the future of the Jewish community. For over 100 years, the Chareidi – with their distinctive costume, based on the fashions of 18th century Poland – have had a sort of symbiotic relationship with the mainstream. If mainstream Jews needed kosher slaughterers, rabbinical judgements, circumcisions and even rabbis for the smaller pulpits, they relied on the Chareidi. They were the ones with an encyclopaedic knowledge

God’s messengers

A good question for your upcoming Lent quiz: where are angels mentioned in the Nicene Creed? I asked this at a vicarage supper party after finishing Peter Stanford’s highly informative book about angels, which had left me angel-obsessed and an angel bore. No one came up with the answer. ‘Of all things visible and invisible, of course!’, I declared triumphantly. Once you see it, it’s obvious that the ‘invisible’ are the angels, but it had never occurred to me before. The Early Fathers, drawing up their unifying statement at the Council of Nicaea in 325, needed to make it clear that the angels were a part of God’s creation, fighting

The cannibal feast: Mother for Dinner, by Shalom Auslander, reviewed

Seventh Seltzer is a nice family man, working as a publisher’s reader in New York, who happens to come from a family of cannibals. Specifically, Cannibal-Americans. The Can-Ams are the most marginalised of America’s minorities, largely because of their funerary rites: when one of them dies, the relatives drain the corpse of blood and then eat it. How much of the corpse is eaten becomes a very moot point towards the end of the novel. Seventh is so called because he’s the seventh of 13 children begotten by his mother, known to them all as Mudd.A monstrous figure, 6ft 2in tall and grotesquely obese, she has been fattening herself up

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks: 1948-2020

The former chief rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, died yesterday at the age of 72. In an article for The Spectator, republished here, he wrote about the need for less ‘I’ and more ‘we’: Last Monday night and Tuesday were our Jewish festival of Purim, when we recall the events described in the Book of Esther. It is the oddest of all festivals. There is rejoicing, which starts a fortnight before at the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar. There’s a celebratory meal on the day itself. We send charitable gifts to the poor and presents to friends. There’s riotous noise during the reading of Esther whenever the name of the arch-villain Haman is

Jonathan Sacks: Joy is the Jewish way of defeating hate

Last Monday night and Tuesday were our Jewish festival of Purim, when we recall the events described in the Book of Esther. It is the oddest of all festivals. There is rejoicing, which starts a fortnight before at the beginning of the Jewish month of Adar. There’s a celebratory meal on the day itself. We send charitable gifts to the poor and presents to friends. There’s riotous noise during the reading of Esther whenever the name of the arch-villain Haman is mentioned. And it’s the one day in the year when it’s considered a religious duty to drink slightly too much alcohol. This might fit within the conventional parameters of

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.