Little and Lion by Brandy Colbert


  (Facebook group reading challenge.)  OK, we’ve got a black, Jewish, bisexual heroine (Little/Suzette), her white, Jewish, straight, bipolar stepbrother (Lion, short for Lionel), her half-black, half-Korean, hearing-impaired male admirer (Emil), her lesbian best friend (DeeDee), the pansexual Latina girl whom both Little and Lion fancy and who’s been disowned by her religious mother for having an abortion (Rafaela), and the girl with whom Suzette had a secret relationship at a posh (lacrosse-playing) boarding school in Massachusetts (Iris).  And throw in a bit of Beverly Hills 90210: we’re in an upmarket part of Los Angeles, where schoolkids have swimming pools at their homes and drive around in their own cars.

Incidentally, it’d been years since I’d read a modern American teenage book: I read all the Judy Blumes and Paula Danzigers many moons ago, but it *was* many moons ago!

My initial reaction was that the author’s main aim was, in a very well-intentioned way, to make the cast as diverse as possible, and that the plot was going to be secondary to that; but, to be fair, it wasn’t, and the main characters were well-drawn.  However, it kept rather confusingly jumping about between the past and the present, and I could have done without it using so many swear words in the narrative (which stops seeming cool when you’re about 12).  The Suzette storyline generally, although far from entirely, worked quite well, though.  A lot of it was about the anxieties that teenagers experience about how others will react to them being “different” to the majority – whether that’s ethnicity, religion, sexuality, disability, having a mental health condition, or anything else, and especially when it’s more than one of those things.  And just *being* a teenager is complicated.

The Lionel storyline was more problematic.  It was great to see an author tackling the issue of mental health conditions in young people, and also saying straight out that the side effects of the tablets can end up making you feel worse than you did to start with.  However, I don’t think it was handled too well.  First of all, Suzette was sent away to boarding school so she wouldn’t have to cope with Lionel’s illness, and then he came off his tablets and told her but not their parents, so she was stressed out and feeling guilty and didn’t know what to do.  So the way it came across was that Lionel’s medical condition was causing huge problems for Suzette.  This book’s aimed at secondary school kids.  It’s not giving a very helpful message to young readers who may have mental health condition themselves.

I very much appreciated the fact that the author didn’t take the Everyone’s A Racist/Homophobe culture war approach that you come across so often these days, and which is neither true nor helpful, and also the way that she steered well away from tropes.  A lot of books show stepfamilies as having problems, but everyone in this family got on brilliantly.  And a lot of books show teenagers clashing with their parents, but these parents were lovely.  And there was never any concern that they’d react badly to Suzette being bisexual: she knew they’d be fine with it.  A posh Massachusetts boarding school might well have been shown as being full of girls whose families all belonged to country clubs which only admitted WASPs.  It wasn’t.  And it didn’t have a culture of homophobia either.  And some authors would have said that Suzette’s mother had been denied opportunities in life because she was black.  Not at all: she was a successful woman with a degree from Wellesley.

What we did get, and which was very well-written, was the uncertainties and anxieties of being part of a minority group.  In Suzette’s case, three minority groups.  Not everyone’s prejudiced against any minority group, but, sadly and indisputably, some people are, and it’s not always obvious who they are.  If a security guard was watching her in a shop, was that because it was his job to watch everyone, or is it because she was black?  If someone looked at the Star of David on her necklace, was it because they were anti-Semitic, because they thought it was weird that a black girl was wearing a Jewish symbol, or just because they thought it was a pretty necklace and they were admiring it?   And what about Lionel – how were people going to react to finding out that he was bipolar, having just been told that he was off school because he was “sick”?  Would they treat him differently?

What was she supposed to do when someone said something like “Black people aren’t supposed to be good at swimming”.  Pull them up on it or ignore it?  That was an interesting scene.  What do you do when someone says something like that about a minority group?  If you do pull them up on it, are they going to accept that it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say, or are they going to tell you that you’re over-reacting and they didn’t mean anything by it, or that it was a joke and you’ve got no sense of humour, or that you don’t understand English (or American, in this case) irony?

But the main issues were with Suzette herself.  There was a lot of talk about how in Los Angeles it was OK to be yourself, whoever you were, but Suzette hadn’t told people that she was bisexual … although that was because she wasn’t 100% sure herself.  At school, she hadn’t told anyone that she was Jewish, even though she was sure about that. (Lionel and his father were always Jewish: Suzette and her mother converted.)

And we learned that she and Iris had kept their relationship secret, but that a group of other girls had found them together, a homophobic minority of people had had a go at them and that Iris (for unknown reasons) gave them the impression that she’d taken advantage whilst Suzette was drunk, and that Suzette let everyone believe this, leaving all the other girls to think that Iris was some sort of sex predator.  That was problematic.  Suzette was the heroine, and presented sympathetically.  But the way she’d treated Iris was appalling, and neither the character nor the authorial voice seemed to think that she should be apologising for it, instead of thinking that it was all about her and spending her summer holidays trying to work out whether she preferred Emil, whom she’d been dating, or Rafaela.  Even her mum just said that she was sure Iris’d forgive her, rather than pointing out it wasn’t really very nice to let someone get a reputation for being a sex pest just because you didn’t want to tell people that you were bisexual.

The other thing about Suzette that didn’t work was her religion. That was the one “identity” that felt as if it was put in to tick a box – and that was a shame.  The specific issues faced by “Jews of colour” were covered in the local press here during the Black Lives Matter protests last year: several people spoke about problems they’d faced because people tend to have an image of a Jewish person as being white, and I don’t know why the author chose to create a black Jewish character but then write so unconvincingly about the religious side of her character.  We were told early on that she was very religious and that Judaism was very important to her, whereas Lionel wasn’t really bothered about it, but not once did we not once see her attending a service or marking a religious festival, or having any sort of issue with the fact that none of her three potential partners shared her religion.  I could have handled that, but we also saw her turning up at a picnic with prosciutto and cheese – on challah bread! – and then eating grilled shrimp!   What on earth?

As for Lionel, he said he’d start talking his tablets again, and the book concluded by saying that that meant that everything’d be OK.  And Suzette, even though she was really keen on Emil, decided to go back to the boarding school.  Well, I hope that she told everyone that they’d got it wrong about Iris!

I quite enjoyed reading an American teenage novel for the first time in 30-odd years.  I loved those Judy Blume books!



Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman


  Full title “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots”.  This is the memoir on which the much-discussed Netflix series is based.  I haven’t got Netflix, so I haven’t seen it, but the book was available as a 99p Kindle download, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I can’t honestly see quite what all the fuss is about – although the TV series may well be much better.  The book’s interesting; but it’s written in rather a rambling way, and there’s way too much detail about things which really aren’t that interesting, like what they had for their tea, and how people were pushing and shoving to get to the front to see people dancing at a religious festival.  Some of the small details really are interesting, though, like just how much the furry hats cost, and how girls are supposed to wear particular types of tights/stockings.  I also liked the fact that the author said she’d been inspired by the fictional heroines of books she’d managed to obtain secretly.  Elizabeth Bennet.  Jo March.  Anne Shirley.  People often talk about how these fictional heroines can form a bond between women, or at least Anglophone women, from completely different backgrounds.  How very true that’s shown to be here.

Having said all that, it does raise some important issues about the lack of choices for people raised in closed religious communities.  It’s not even just closed religious communities: there’s a growing movement, in the US if not so much elsewhere, for religious parents, especially those from evangelical churches, to home school their children, which means that the children only learn what the parents want them to learn, rather than the mainstream curriculum.  The lifestyle of strict religious communities does work for many people, and obviously that’s great for them, but it’s very difficult for those who are brought up in those communities but want something different from life.

What I’d like to have heard more about – in addition than the story of the author’s mother, who was born in Manchester, and left the New York Hasidic community she married into because she was gay – was the history of it all.  I’ve spent quite a while reading up on this, since reading the book.  I – spot the Eastern European history specialist 🙂 – knew the basics, about the Khmelnytsky Massacres, and Sabbatai Zvi, and the Haskalah, and the split between the Hasidim and the “Lithuanians” – but I didn’t really understand that they were so many different groups, and that they all centred on individual dynasties.  It’s more interesting that what people had for their tea. OK, it is to me, anyway!

Honestly, it is fascinating.   Most of the groups originated in South Central/Eastern Europe, where the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it became), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire and the Danubian Principalities met and collided and took and swapped territory.  The Satmar group, the one which this book is about, originated in Transylvania, in a city called Satmar in Yiddish, Satu Mare in Romania and Szatmarnemeti in Hungarian.  Without going into the rights and wrongs of the Treaty of Trianon, it’s now part of Romania, but was under Hungarian administration during the war.  A lot of Hungarian Jews were deported to a ghetto there, and many of those who survived the Holocaust later moved to Williamsburg, New York, where the leader of the Satmar dynasty had established a new community.  The book doesn’t go into this in much detail.  It’s a shame.  As I’ve said, it’s a lot more interesting that what people had for their tea.

And these communities are closed.   A lot of people in Manchester will be familiar with the name “Chabad-Lubavitch”: that’s the more open Hasidic group, and they do engage with the wider community, with things like putting menorahs up in different parts of town during Chanukah.  They’re mentioned in passing here, as living in the Crown Heights area of New York, and having little to do with the Satmars, who live in the Williamsburg area.  But, until I looked on Google, I didn’t even know that there was a big Satmar synagogue in Salford.  I know the street it’s on, and I know that there’s a big synagogue there, and I see men wearing furry hats when I drive through that area, but I’d never heard the word “Satmar” mentioned in connection with it before.  This is not in New York.  This is a few miles down the road.

And there are loads and loads of other groups, as well as the Satmars and the Chabad-Lubavitch, especially in New York.  There are even splits within the Satmar group: Deborah is shocked when she thinks that her husband-to-be is a member of one faction, when her family are members of another. I honestly didn’t realise it was all such a complex situation.

The book does explain briefly that children are taught that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation.  This does partially explain why the community shuts itself off.  I don’t know how much that’s specific to the Satmars, because of the particular history of Hungarian Jews.  There’s not much historical background, though.  To be fair, it’s not intended as a textbook.  It’s the story of one woman’s experiences.

I wasn’t very comfortable with the fact that she included so much personal, very intimate detail about her marriage.  Her ex-husband doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest guy, but he wasn’t personally to blame for the ways of their community, and it must have been very embarrassing for him to have had all this private stuff made so public.  I also wondered what her son, who must now be a teenager, thinks about it.  Having said which, I gather that the ex-husband has now also left the community, and is happily remarried and leading a secular lifestyle which suits him much better, so hopefully things have worked out for him too.

This book is now eight years old and, since it was written, it’s become a little more common for people to move away from closed religious communities.  Obviously, those lifestyles do work for some people, as I’ve said, but it’s clearly extremely hard for those who do want to get away, especially women who are usually married off in their teens, expected to start having children immediately, and are then in a position where it’s even harder to leave.  Having said which, there was a lot of talk in the UK a few years ago about non-registered schools, and several points were made about how difficult it is for boys who’ve attended Hasidic schools, because they’ve been taught little other than religious studies.

The theme of the book is the author’s own struggles with the restrictions of the closed community in which she’s been brought up.  Her own position’s unusual, the child of a mother who left the community and a father who seems to’ve had severe learning disabilities.  She’s brought up by her grandparents. We hear about her school, and all the emphasis that’s put on “modesty” in dress and behaviour, and then about her arranged marriage at the age of 17.

They have a lot of problems in the bedroom, and there’s really way too much detail about that, but they do eventually have a child.  She’s always been a bit of a rebel, but, after her son is born, she rebels much more, enrols on a college course, starts dressing differently, not wearing a wig, eating out at non-kosher restaurants with her new friends … and, eventually, she takes her son and leaves.

Perhaps inevitably, the book is very critical of the community, even of some her own relatives.  It also goes into detail about the customs of this community which keeps itself to itself – it’s as much an expose as a memoir.  Some of that’s fairly uncontroversial, such as how rabbis are seen as celebs to the extent that children have “rabbi cards” in the way that other children have football cards, and details about keeping a kosher kitchen.  A lot of it will be interesting to people who are not familiar with Hasidic Judaism, such as married women not being allowed to show their own hair, and how marriages are arranged.

Some of it is much more controversial.  I think everyone’s aware that cases of child abuse within a lot of religious communities have been covered up, and that’s something that’s mentioned here.  The book also alleges that a father murdered his own child when he caught him masturbating, and that the community covered it up.  The author’s said that she would not have made something like that up.

It ends with her leaving the community, and we get the impression, although it’s not made clear, that she’s now cut off from it completely.  It’s all shown very positively.  If she feels any regrets about being cut off from her grandparents, her father, her aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends, and about cutting her son off from them too, she doesn’t express them.  Having said which, she had nothing positive to say about any of them, other than her grandparents.  If she’s got no regrets, that’s great for her.  It’s probably a lot more difficult for most people to make that break.

She also had friends from college who were able to help her, notably by introducing her to publishing contacts so that she was able to get a contract to publish her book and make some money.  A lot of people, especially women, in her position, wouldn’t have had that help.  It is very, very difficult for people to escape that lifestyle, if they want to.  And I suppose the reason for the popularity of the book is that people admire someone who was able to do that.

This isn’t a literary masterpiece.  It rambles.  People who are unfamiliar with Judaism and with Yiddish words will probably find some of it hard to follow.  Two different forms of transliteration from Hebrew are used, rather randomly.  It’s also all me-me-me -OK, it’s the author’s memoir, but she never seems to stop to consider how her husband might feel about things, or how her grandparents might feel about things, or how anyone else at all might feel about things.  But there’s clearly something about it, because the book was a best seller, and the TV series was a big ratings winner.  I think the 99p Kindle offer’s finished now, but, if it comes up again, this is worth a go.



I’m catching up on my film backlog, anyway.  My front room is multi-tasking as an office and a cinema, as well as being a living room and a dining room 🙂 .  This film, starring Rachel Weisz, was about a woman who returned to the London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up, and resumed her previous relationship with her female lover and best friend, who was married to a man.  Coronation Street and EastEnders have had storylines covering some of the issues faced by LGBT people within Christianity, Islam and, most recently, Sikhism, but there aren’t a lot of ultra-Orthodox Jewish characters on screen.  I’m not sure that it really got across the second woman’s reasons for her choices, but it was generally very well-written and very well-acted.  The introduction of diversity teaching into schools has highlighted some of the difficulties that LGBT people within strict religious communities experience, and it was interesting to see a full-length film addressing those, and also looking at how, in general, living in a fairly self-contained community works really well for some people but not for others.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) was living a secular lifestyle in New York, but had returned to the community where she’d grown up following the sudden death of her father, a well-known rabbi.  They’d fallen out several years earlier, but it wasn’t initially clear whether that was just because she’d chosen to leave or for another reason.   Two of her childhood friends, Dovid, a young rabbi expected to take over her father’s job, and Esti, were now married, and she seemed surprised by how Orthodox Esti had become.

It eventually transpired that Ronit and Esti had become romantically involved, and that Ronit’s dad had walked in on them, and that was why she’d left.  Esti had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, and then married Dovid.  What didn’t really come across was the reason for Esti’s choices.  There was no suggestion that she’d been pushed into marriage with a man by her family or friends, nor that she felt unable to break away because she didn’t want to leave her family and friends.  Her family were barely mentioned, and she didn’t seem to have any friends!   She said that it was all for religious reasons, but we only saw her praying once, and we never saw her reading a religious book, or heard her talking about religion, or just generally seeming very concerned with religion at all.

So I think that that could have been done better.  Ronit had chosen to leave.  Dovid was completely happy with the lifestyle in which he’d been brought up.  Esti was the one who’d chosen a path that didn’t work for her … but I think her reasons could have been explained better.  I just didn’t get any sense of her fighting a difficult battle between her sexuality and the religious teachings which had been instilled into her, and maybe that was a missed opportunity because it’s something that affects a lot of people.

A nosy parker saw Ronit and Esti kissing, and made a complaint to the headmistress of the school where Esti taught, and things got difficult.   Esti eventually ran off, and Dovid and Ronit tracked her down.  She revealed that she was pregnant – after several years of trying for a baby – but said that she wanted Dovid to set her free, because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, and she wanted her baby to have the choices that she felt she hadn’t been given. Not particularly realistically, he agreed to end their marriage, and gave both her and Ronit a big hug.  It’d be nice to think that Esti and Ronit ended up living happily ever after, but I felt rather sorry for Dovid, who ended up losing his wife and the chance to be a full-time dad to the baby he’d been wanting for ages.

I think what this lacked was something like the scenes in Coronation Street in which Rana met with hostility from her mother, and tried to explain her feelings to an imam.  That would have got Esti’s situation across a lot better.  And there was a lot of talk about choices, rather than emphasising the fact Esti had not made a choice to be a lesbian: she just was one.  A bit of explanation of some of the religious practices might have been helpful, as well – some viewers wouldn’t be familiar with Orthodox Jewish practices and would probably have found bits of this quite confusing.  But, generally, it was a pretty good film, with really excellent performances in all three of the main parts.

Summer of Rockets – BBC 2


This was fascinating.  I was expecting John le Carre, but it was more Antonia Forest.  I’m sure there’s plenty of spy stuff to come, but I’m far more interested in how sweet little Sasha copes with life at his snooty, sadistic boarding school (Stephen Poliakoff apparently hated it) and how his sister Hannah finds the London Season when she thinks that being a debutante’s a load of rubbish.  And there was a lot of suspense over a broken shoe outside Buckingham Palace.

It’s called “Summer of Rockets” because it’s set in 1958.  Hydrogen bombs, Cold War, etc.  But not much has really happened about that yet.  Not much has actually happened at all.  Apart from some sinister-looking men getting out of a car, the only real drama was Hannah’s mishap with her high heel.  But the characters are all so interesting that that doesn’t really matter.  Every scene’s telling.

Samuel Petrukhin, based on a combination of Poliakoff’s father and Poliakoff’s grandfather, invents and sells hearing aids – to customers including Winston Churchill.  He’s also in the process of inventing hospital pagers.  Clearly a very clever and successful man … but what he really wants is to climb the social ladder.  As a Russian-born Jewish man, who speaks with a pronounced accent even though he kids himself that he speaks pure RP, this isn’t going to be easy.  His right hand man, Courtney Johnson, is black.  You can imagine how the posh types in gentleman’s clubs react when “the darky and the Jew”, as one of them put it, turn up.  And Samuel wasn’t allowed to deal with Churchill during the war years, in case he was bugging the hearing aids.

Samuel’s wife, Miriam, is from the “Jewish aristocracy” – just like Poliakoff’s mother, the granddaughter of a baron.  She’s done all the debutante stuff, but she’s far more lacking in confidence than he is: she’s not kidding herself that it’s easy to gain acceptance when you haven’t got WASP credentials.  However, they’re both determined that their daughter Hannah has to be presented, and poor Hannah is packed off to etiquette school to learn how to walk the walk and talk the talk.  She thinks it’s all stupid.

Meanwhile, little Sasha, brilliantly played by young Toby Woolf from The Last Post, is sent to a posh boarding prep school, when he just wants to go to the local school.  The headmaster makes pointed remarks about how he’s the only Jewish boy there.  The other teachers (sorry, masters) make pointed remarks about him being the son of an inventor.  The poor kid’s clearly going to have a nightmare there.

At the start of the programme, at Glorious Goodwood, once their party’s finally been admitted, Sasha wanders off and is found by posh Kathleen Shaw (Keeley Hawes, who seems to be everywhere these days!), wife of an MP and war hero who seems to be suffering from shell shock.  There’s clearly something very dodgy about the Shaws, which is presumably where the spy stuff’s going to come in.  Samuel is desperate to be best buds with them, because they’re part of the social elite.  It’s obviously going to end in tears … but what I really want to know is how Sasha and Hannah are going to get on.  It was billed as a Cold War drama, but it’s also – I’ll say “also” rather than “actually”, because the spy stuff’s obviously coming – a period drama about class and elitism and outsiders.  And that’s more interesting than spy stuff!

What makes it particularly interesting is that it’s not stereotypical.  I think this can be very challenging for scriptwriters: if they create characters who fulfill stereotypes, they’re accused of perpetuating stereotypes, but, if they create characters who don’t, they’re accused of not accurately reflecting the experiences of particular demographic groups.  There was an argument over this twenty years ago, when Coronation Street brought in its first Asian family, the Desais, as the new owners of the corner shop.  The same arguments still go on now.  I want to say that we should just be looking at characters, not their ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, etc, but that doesn’t work either because then the issues relating to particular groups aren’t being reflected.

It’s a difficult one.  But I do like the fact that Samuel, Miriam and Courtney are all removed from stereotypes.  Courtney is not the stereotypical 1950s West Indian working-class man: he’s in a managerial role and “talks posh”.  We haven’t been told Samuel’s back story, but we can tell from his age that “Russian-born” doesn’t mean “fled the pogroms” (most of which weren’t even in Russia itself, whatever people may think!!) but rather means “post-Revolution emigre”.  Poliakoff’s Russian ancestors (thank you, Wikipedia!) owned a flat in a nice part of Moscow and a dacha in the countryside.

And Miriam’s from the “Jewish aristocracy”.  No-one talks much about the “Jewish aristocracy”.  There are books like The Matriarch and The Hare With Amber Eyes, about international banking dynasties, but not about people like Rufus Isaacs (Marquess of Reading), Ernest Cassel (before he converted to Catholicism), Poliakoff’s great-grandfather Samuel Montagu (Baron Swaythling), or Montagu’s nephew Sir Herbert Samuel.

Samuel’s not a very good social climber, TBH.  Why give your kids first names that scream “non-WASP”?   And he’s kidding himself that he sounds like an aristocrat: everyone can see that apart from him.  He’s a brilliant man, a genius inventor with so much going for him – but he wants to be accepted into upper-class society, and it’s obviously going to lead him into trouble.  That’s going to be interesting.  But what happens to Sasha and Hannah is going to be even more interesting.

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer


 Based on the author’s family’s own experiences in wartime Hungary, this book reaches areas that other Holocaust novels usually don’t, including the treatment of men who were both gay and Jewish, the sinking of refugee ships, the Hungarian forced labour battalions, the “unseen Holocaust” of mass shootings and the attempts to identify victims and let survivors know what had become of their loved ones once the war was over.   It’s had mixed reviews – have people not got the patience to read long novels any more? – but I thought it was excellent.

The main character, Andras, whom I think is based on the author’s grandad (or maybe her great-uncle) is one of three brothers from a lower middle class family in a small Hungarian town. Restrictions on the numbers of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities in the 1930s mean that he’s unable to pursue his dream of studying architecture at home, but he’s able to get a place to do so in Paris instead. His brother, meanwhile, goes to study medicine in Modena. Once in Paris, Andras becomes part of a circle of friends, all Jewish students from various different countries. One will eventually emigrate to what was then Palestine. Another will suffer particularly horribly because he’s gay, but will survive and become a hero of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Looking for a job because funding for Hungarian Jewish students is withdrawn, Andras becomes involved in the world of the arts, and begins a relationship with Klara, a ballet mistress who’s a connection of someone who met in Budapest, and who has a complex and troubled history.

It’s a very long book, and there are a lot of characters, a lot of politics and a lot of romance. If anyone’s reading this, I highly recommend reading it for yourselves and finding out all about the characters and what happens to them!   Andras is unable to continue his studies when the Hungarian authorities refuse to renew his visa. He has to return to Hungary, and he and Klara marry and settle in Budapest – but he’s conscripted into one of the forced labour battalions in which so many Hungarian Jewish men died, and sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

There are a huge number of characters in this, and a lot of small sub-plots, some little more than a few lines, drawing attention to various aspects of the history of the times. We learn that Mendel, Andras’s childhood best friend, qualified for the 1936 Olympics – “muscular Judaism” being a big thing in parts of Central Europe – but the Hungarian authorities refused to let him compete because he was Jewish. As Oswald Mosley did in Britain, far-right groups try to whip up trouble in pre-war France. There are social class issues: Klara is from quite a well-to-do family, whereas Andras is not. At one point, both families, plan to flee to Palestine, but the man they hope will arrange it for them has doubts following the sinking of the Sturma, a refugee ship refused entry by the British authorities and then hit by a Soviet torpedo. Andras’s labour battalion is billeted in a former orphanage: the children have all been murdered.

The basic plot isn’t actually that complicated, though, so I don’t seem to be writing very much – I know I go on at great length sometimes!! – but there’s a lot of detail, and there’s a huge cast of supporting characters. As you do with Holocaust novels, you hope that they’re all going to survive, whilst knowing that many of them probably won’t – and, inevitably, that’s what happens.

We live through the agonising wait of the survivors in Budapest, as they wait for the lists of names of identified victims. I was going to say that it’s a bit like the famous scene in Gone With The Wind where the women wait for the casualty lists to come in from Gettysburg, but it’s even worse, because identification is being made by exhuming bodies from mass graves and looking for papers or dog tags or any other form of identification.   The work to identify all the victims is still going now, as are similar projects to try to identify the victims of other genocides. The place where the characters in this book go in search of news is somewhere I’m due to visit next month.

But the book does end on a hopeful note, with miraculous survivals, and then the leap forward to 1956, and the emigration to America … seen as the land of the free.

Considering how long this book is, I’ve really not written very much. I can’t fault the history, so I’ve got no moaning to do!   And, as I’ve said, it’s more about the detail and the back stories and the sub-plots than it is about the main plot and what happens to the main character, and I think that’s why some people have criticised it, saying that it’s too long for what it is. But I don’t agree with that: I don’t think there was really anything in this that didn’t add something, and I think the author’s tried very hard to write a different sort of Holocaust novel, and succeeded. It takes some reading, because it is long, and there are a lot of characters, but it’s worth the effort.

Against the Inquisition by Marcos Aguinis


You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death.  It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri.  The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.

Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area.  The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru.  The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years.  The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.

It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to.  Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War).  “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.

There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions  – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks.  We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism.  Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals.  But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”

It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well.  As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium.  That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.

One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor.  We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition.  Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well.  Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father.  Women barely feature.  Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage.  His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him.  Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night.  Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends.  Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.

There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together.  All part of the Black Legend.  I love Spain, OK.  I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event!   I am not getting Black Legend-ish.  All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present.  But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”.  And this is a true story.

It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic.  The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives.  It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism.  That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.

He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him.  They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them.  At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested.  Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.

There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one.  And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith.  It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be.  Human rights.  So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way.  It’s still going on, in so many places.

Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence!   Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it.  Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor.  And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.

It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way.  This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society.  It’s a book about persecution.  But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals.  Frederick Douglass springs to mind.  Nelson Mandela, maybe.  People like that can change the world.  This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think.  And admire.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading.  It’s relevant to everyone.













The Matriarch by G B Stern


Gladys B Stern, born in London in 1890, changed her middle name from Bertha to Bronwyn because it sounded more romantic, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, studied in Switzerland, was introduced to her future husband by Noel Coward, frightened off umpteen different secretaries, and liked to be addressed as Peter. I’m not entirely sure how you get “Peter” from “Gladys”, but, hey, in the inter-war years, Anything Went.  As for the actual book, it’s supposed to be a feminist novel written before its time (although that’s actually mainly because the men are all presented as being useless), and it’s also a Jewish novel in a way that I really don’t think you could write now.  So … yes, something a bit different.

It’s essentially a family saga, set mainly in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and mainly in London.  The main theme is fairly universal – an older generation who want to control things, and younger generations who are either desperate for their elders’ approval, want to rebel and go their own way, or feel bound by guilt and duty to do as their elders want.  The matriarch of the title is Anastasia Rakonitz, who’s born in the Austrian Empire (the Hungarian part, but pre Ausgleich!) but spends most of her life in London, and the other main character is her granddaughter Toni.  There are absolute hordes of other characters, though.  It’s rather confusing trying to remember who’s who, and it’s quite frustrating that there are a lot of bit part characters whose stories are never fully developed, but the author explains that she created a huge array of characters because she wanted to give the sense of an extensive family network, stretching across many countries.

There isn’t actually that much history in it. It starts off in Anastasia’s grandmother’s girlhood, during the Napoleonic Wars, when we’re reminded of the crucial role, often overlooked, that Napoleon played in the granting of civil rights to religious minorities and the reduction of the power of the religious authorities.  The man might have done a lot of damage in other ways, but he deserves a lot of credit for that.  It soon leaps forward in time, but the events of 1848 don’t really get a look-in, the Ausgleich isn’t mentioned, and the Franco-Prussian War, although it’s the reason that Anastasia (having previously moved to Paris) ends up in London, is only mentioned in passing.  The Great War does play more of a part, but only in terms of who is and isn’t involved in the fighting: it seems to have strangely little impact on the Home Front.  So it doesn’t actually say that much about the period during which it’s set, but it says a lot about the 1920s, when it was written.

It’s been described as a feminist novel written before its time. Now, having grown up in the age of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jackie Collins et al (don’t you just love an ’80s blockbuster?!), a family saga in which the female characters dominate seems quite normal to me 🙂 , but this book was published in 1924, when a lot of women in Britain still didn’t even have the vote.  Anastasia is the one pulling the strings.  Then, when the family loses its money following a bad investment in a fraudulent ruby mine, it’s her granddaughters who pick up the pieces.  However, the women only really dominate because the men are so utterly useless in times of trouble.  And, whilst Anastasia might be a strong female lead, it’s made clear that she’s only really interested in her sons and grandsons, not in the young women of the family.

Is that feminism?   It’s not equality.  I suppose it depends on what you class as feminism. Anastasia really isn’t very appealing: she’s controlling, demanding, self-obsessed and doesn’t treat other people well.  Is the idea that women have to be bossy and controlling in order to impose their authority?  She walks all over her daughters and daughters-in-law.  I don’t know that I’d call this a feminist novel, but then we are talking about nearly a century ago … ugh, how on earth can the 1920s be nearly a century ago?!

“Rags to riches” is another common theme in novels – riches to rags rather less so. Jewish novels set in Britain (or America) usually start with rags.  This one starts with riches.  By the time Anastasia and her family arrive in London, the family has a well-established diamond business stretching across Europe – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Italy … and I feel as if I should be saying Belgium or the Netherlands, seeing as diamonds are involved, but they don’t really come into it!   They live a life of luxury in London.  Then the money goes, and Anastasia cannot adopt: it’s her granddaughters who take charge.  This was published five years before the Wall Street Crash, so it’s quite prescient in a way, but the author’s own family had lost their money thanks to an investment in jewels going wrong.

Nobody actually struggles that much. It’s hardly Helen Forrester: no-one’s living hand to mouth.  But there’s this idea of lost luxury, of faded grandeur.  We don’t sympathise with that, do we?  We sympathise with the middle income people reduced to poverty, but we don’t sympathise with the wealthy family reduced to circumstances that for most people class as normal.  Or even with middle income people who are struggling, but not that much.  That’s quite an interesting thought.  It’s very mean-spirited, really, especially as people can be quite sneery about it.   It can be quite problematic, as well – look at all the huffing and puffing over well-dressed Syrian refugees carrying fancy mobile phones, as if you can’t be a proper refugee unless you’ve got nothing but the clothes you stand up in.  But we clearly are meant to sympathise with the Rakonitzes, just as we’re meant to sympathise with all those characters in children’s books in the period who lose their private incomes because of dodgy solicitors or guardians.  And we should do, really.  I just don’t think we do.  Is that some sort of really nasty Schadenfreude?!

There are also struggles over health. Anastasia suffers from some sort of mental health problem – it’s not clear what, but it comes and goes – in later life.  And Toni is “delicate” – and it’s made clear that this is because her grandparents, Anastasia and her husband Paul, were first cousins.  Now there’s a subject you don’t hear mentioned much.  I’m feeling quite uncomfortable just writing about it – even though it’s something that comes up over and over again in history books, because of royal marriages, and because marriage between first cousins is/has been banned by civil or religious law in many places.  Is this a post-Nazi thing?  Does it come too close to sounding like eugenics, and is that why I’m feeling uncomfortable mentioning it? Would someone include a storyline like that in a book written now?   And how much of a divider is the Second World War, or, more specifically, how much of a divider are the Nazi atrocities, in terms of what authors might or might not include in books?

That’s particularly relevant because this is the saga of a Jewish family. I said “a Jewish novel”, but maybe it isn’t a Jewish novel.  Like Csardas, which I read a few months ago, religious practice doesn’t really come into it – there’s very little about religious festivals, or religious services, and no-one seems very bothered about things like eating kosher food – and many of the Jewish characters marry people who aren’t Jewish.  The idea of the multinational clan … the best-known example is the Rothschild family, but there are others too.  The Rakonitzes certainly aren’t in their league, but apparently they are based on the author’s own family, i.e. a real family.  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, featuring a similar clan, is also based on his own family.   The Sassoons also spring to mind (I went to China last year and did a lot of reading up on Shanghai beforehand).  The Oppenheims.  The Goldsmiths.

I’m just feeling incredibly uncomfortable writing this, especially in the current climate, I got this book because it was going free on Kindle, and because I actually had the impression that it was set in Austria-Hungary and I always struggle to find books set there: I wasn’t expecting to be writing all this multinational financial dynasty stuff.  As I said, the Rakonitzes are hardly the Rothschilds, but still.

There shouldn’t be anything to feel uncomfortable about. Religious minorities do tend to dominate finance and business, having traditionally been excluded from the professions.  Look at some of the big name British banks.  Lloyds, founded by Quakers.  Barclays, founded by Quakers.  Look at the big High Street names: Methodist and Jewish founders abound.   But you get all these vicious conspiracy theories.  There are some very odd and clearly preposterous stories about the Rothschilds, and have been for a good 200 years.

Obviously it happens with other groups as well. It doesn’t happen so much now, but it certainly used to happen with Catholics, at least in Britain and America.  Freemasons.  Muslims, at the moment.  And the Rakonitzes, as I’ve said, don’t have that much financial influence: the multinational aspect of their family is more of a cultural thing than anything else, with children who don’t toe the line being packed off to stay with relatives abroad, and a lot of talk about everyone eating Central European food.  But still … it’s not the easiest of topics to write about.

Maybe it’s the idea of “The Other”. That expression’s come up a lot recently, following some of the ill-judged comments made by certain prominent politicians. And yet it’s all meant to be so positive in this book.  London is described as “Cosmopolis”.  OK, it was the name of a crap film with Robert Pattinson, but, other than that, I’ve never heard the term used before.  The author clearly means it as a compliment.  And she wants us to see the Rakonitzes as being glamorous and colourful and exciting, and she clearly means that in a very positive way … but it all kind of comes across as being “The Other”.

Two of the grandsons, Richard and Daniel, and especially Richard, can’t handle that. They don’t want to be colourful or different.  In 2018, I don’t think most people do.  There are always going to be some people who do, but I think most people are way past wanting to be seen as exotic or flamboyant or whatever because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or anything else: people just want to be seen as themselves.

But the 1920s were all about flamboyance. This book doesn’t tell us that much about the 1880s, 1890s or 1910s, when most of it’s set, but it tells us a hell of a lot about the 1920s!   It probably couldn’t have been written at any other time.  I really don’t think anyone would write anything like this now.  Not a criticism, just an observation 🙂 .




























We are British Jews – BBC 2


Oh, BBC 2! If you want to show a programme about Middle Eastern politics, don’t go calling it “We are British Jews”.  Are there not enough problems over people conflating Anglo-Jewish life and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, without TV documentaries adding to them?  Having said which, have a gold star for, rather than just coming out with a load of clichés about chicken soup and bar mitzvah parties, putting together a group of people with a wide range of attitudes and lifestyles.  There are too many stereotypes and generalisations in this world, and it’s always good to see a TV programme try to dispel some of those.  And have another gold star for filming in Manchester rather than London 🙂 .

There were so many subjects that these two episodes could have covered instead, or at least as well as, the Middle Eastern situation – and didn’t. Had I not read the preview, I’d have been expecting, given the timing of this, less than week before the Jewish New Year, festivals, rituals and food.  Seeing as the previews talked about “challenges”, I was expecting, from the more secular members of the group, some discussion about issues like making partners in mixed-faith relationships feel welcome, and the pros and cons of faith schools.  And, from a historian’s point of view, and seeing as the first episode was filmed here, it might have been nice to’ve had some mention of the important contributions made to Manchester’s history, culture and economy by a very long list of local Jewish people.

OK, this wasn’t a festivals, rituals and food kind of programme. It was about “issues”. And there are a lot of issues facing all religions at the moment, in the UK and elsewhere.  The days when pretty much everyone identified as belonging to one religion or another, and regularly attended religious services, are long gone.  The days when pretty much everyone followed the diktats of the religious authorities are, as the Irish abortion referendum highlighted, thankfully also long gone.  Times have changed, and all religions need to try to adapt to that.

The series on Santiago de Compostela, shown on BBC 2 earlier this year, identified attitudes towards women and attitudes towards LGBT people as two of the main factors putting people off various Christian denominations, and that applies to Judaism too. Hopefully one day we’ll get to a point where all religions recognise everyone as equal, but sadly that seems to be a way off yet.  As with Christianity, there are differences in

attitudes between different denominations. Reform and Liberal Judaism ordain female ministers and allow women to take a full part in services, whereas Orthodox Judaism does not.  Liberal Judaism recognises same sex marriages, whereas Orthodox and Reform Judaism do not.  There’ve also been questions raised about faith schools, especially in the light of some of the stories in the press about unregistered faith schools.  And there’s even been some controversial debate over kosher and halal meat, although more in various Continental countries than in the UK.

But none of that got mentioned. The focus was almost entirely on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Which would have been fine, had the title of the programme reflected that.  But it didn’t.

There was a certain sense of Big Brother about it, in that they’d got a group of people with different views, and were obviously hoping that they’d clash.  And there was a fair bit of yelling and shouting, from a group made up of very different people.  They were missing representation from the really ultra-Orthodox end of the spectrum, which is growing very rapidly at the moment, but ultra-Orthodox Jews do tend to keep themselves to themselves, and often don’t even have televisions, so it wouldn’t have been easy to have someone from that grouping willing to take part in something like this.  And the most religious member of the group sadly had to drop out part-way through, after the sudden death of her sister.  But it was a pretty diverse group.  And things did start off quite promisingly, with people explaining all their different takes on Jewish religion and culture; but then it just went back to talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There was a different angle on things the second day, with a meeting about anti-Semitism, including a discussion with Mancunian Labour MP Dame Louise Ellman (who went to the same school as me, incidentally).

I do appreciate that this wasn’t a specifically local programme, but I know where I am when I’m talking about Manchester … so, a bit of talk about our city. Every December, in Albert Square, in front of the Town Hall, there is a menorah alongside the Christmas markets.  It usually ends up by the Porky Pig stall but, to be fair, I think that’s just unfortunate positioning due to where the pork stall goes, rather than someone’s idea of a bad joke!   Look on Facebook next week and you will see “Happy Rosh Hashanah” messages from both United and City.  I could write a very long list of important local politicians, business people, campaigners, philanthropists, authors, TV and film producers (including Mike Leigh, who’s producing the Peterloo film), TV personalities, musicians and music managers who were/are Jewish.  If also you look at people who didn’t/don’t identify as Jewish, but had/have Jewish connections, “Mr Manchester” himself, the late, great, Tony Wilson, had a Jewish grandfather.  So, for that matter, did David Beckham! We’re not talking about ghettoes, mellahs or shtetls here: we’re talking about a diverse city which generally enjoys very good relations between people of all faiths and none.

However, there has in recent times been a rise in all types of hate crime. Some of this is due to increased levels of reporting of hate crime, but there has undoubtedly been a rise.  It feels as if some people will be nasty about anything and everything, especially on social media where they’ve got a degree of anonymity.  Rival sports teams.  Celebrities’ weight.  More seriously, we’re talking religion-based hate crime, racism, hate crime based on nationality, disability-based hate crime, homophobia, transphobia, and even hate crime based on the way people dress.  Where does all this hatred come from?  It seems to be a worldwide phenomenon: racial tension in Chemnitz – one of Manchester’s twin cities, incidentally – has been making the news this week, and hate crime’s on the rise across the Atlantic as well.  In the UK, it’s been the frightening rise in anti-Semitism making the headlines, largely because of the controversies within the Labour Party.  We’re hardly in Dreyfus territory here, i.e. the entire national political debate being taken over by the issue of anti-Semitism, but I cannot think of another time when the issue has been so much at the forefront of national politics here.

It’s extremely unpleasant, and, much as I wish a way could be found of bringing a quick and decisive end to it, I’m not sure how that’s going to happen – although it would help if everyone would moderate their language, stop hurling insults about and stop talking about Nazis. It was very distressing to hear Louise Ellman talk about the abuse she’s received on-line, and to see pictures of Holocaust-related abusive pictures sent to her.  One woman spoke about having an egg thrown at her.  Another spoke about some very vile verbal abuse she’d received.  They also spoke to the owners of a local kosher restaurant which has been attacked by arsonists – and it’s not the only one.  And the trailer for this series received some very nasty comments on You Tube.

Part of it’s this international conspiracy theory idea. That’s been around for a long time.  It’s been said about Catholics as well, but, in the 19th and 20th centuries, it was mostly about Jews – most famously, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  You wouldn’t believe that it’d all still be going on in the 21st century, but we’ve now got people claiming that there’s some sort of Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the Labour Party leadership, and that there’s also some sort of international conspiracy involving Donald Trump.  A councillor from Salford came out with some of these comments the other day.  That’s not some anonymous Twitter troll: it’s a person holding public office.  And, as everyone’s well aware, there have been several similar incidents.

The one thing everyone in the group agreed on was that, whilst there has been a rise in hate crime generally, the rise in anti-Semitism is largely about the situation in the Middle East. I suppose that was the justification for making the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the focus of the programme.   I can see that, but I just don’t think it was helpful.

On the one hand, concerns over the situation in the West Bank, the appalling situation in the Gaza Strip, and, more recently, the new Israeli constitution, and the whole issues of lack of self-determination for Palestinians, and the number of Palestinians living as refugees in other countries, many in refugee camps, have spilled over into general anti-Jewish sentiment. On the other hand, criticism of those situations has been interpreted as anti-Jewish sentiment.  So the conflation of issues is coming from both sides, and several members of the group did point that out.

It’s hard to get a handle on all this from a historian’s viewpoint. Just to go back to the Dreyfus Affair, it was that which really kicked off modern Zionism.  I think there’s a common perception that it was the pogroms in the Russian Empire, but it wasn’t.  And, just because I always like to get some local history in J, Manchester, as I’ve said before, has very significant historical ties with Zionism and Israel. The Balfour Declaration was all about Manchester.  The first president of Israel spent around thirty years living in Manchester.   The first president of the Women’s International Zionist Organisation came from Manchester.  Etc etc etc.

But this overlap/overspill of issues is difficult to make sense of, because it doesn’t seem to happen over anything else. As one of the group pointed out, no-one’s going to attack British Muslims because of what IS are doing in the Middle East.   No-one’s going to accuse someone who criticises the Polish government of being anti-Catholic, or even anti-Polish.  There are no comparisons.  And there isn’t a historical take on it: the State of Israel has only existed since 1948, and, in the early days, was viewed far more favourably in the West than it is under its present right-wing nationalist government.  The politics of the Middle East are as may be, and a peaceful solution unfortunately seems to be a very long way away; but there is this huge problem with Israeli issues and Jewish issues getting tangled up together, and that’s why I really don’t think it was ideal for BBC 2 to make a programme called “We are British Jews” and then spend most of it talking about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

The group then went to visit the University of Manchester, and it was sad, in our city, to hear people saying that they felt uncomfortable there, and on many other university campuses in the country, and again this was all over the Israeli-Palestinian situation. A point, which I’ve made on a historians’ forum before and which no-one seems to have the answer to, was made about it being the “touchstone” issue of the day, and a “thing”.  Why does something become a “thing”?  Obviously it is an issue, but why does it attract so much more attention than the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Burma/Myanmar, the barbaric treatment of the Yazidis by IS, the abduction of girls by Boko Haram in Nigeria, the use of child soldiers in the DR Congo, etc etc?  Back in the day, it used to be all about apartheid in South Africa.  Again, that was a huge issue, but why did we focus so much more on that than on any of the other things going on in the ’70s and ’80s?   The Chinese occupation of Tibet used to be a “thing” as well, and now no-one ever even mentions it.  Why does something become the “in” topic of the day?  Is there any logic to it?

We actually did get some focus back on Jewish, rather than Israeli, issues, with a celebration of the festival of Purim. This bit was filmed fairly close to chez moi.  The hotel where they stayed isn’t far away, but is in an area I tend to go through rather than to, whereas this bit was somewhere I go past pretty much every day.  So that was all very local.  But then it was off to Israel, for the second episode.  The first part showed a kibbutz, and explained the history of Zionist settlement, and something about the history of the Israeli state, right up to the immediate present with the introduction of the controversial new constitution.  But then it was right back to the conflict.

Jerusalem, with its unique historical and religious significance, should be one of the most visited cities in the world. It’s tragic that, because of the political situation, it isn’t.  Many other places within Israel and the Occupied Territories should also be high up on the tourist agenda, for historical and religious/cultural reasons or even just as beach resorts. It’s sad that they can’t be.  Fascinating part of the world.  But don’t look for the history of British Jews there, because you won’t find it.  They’d’ve found it in Manchester, or London, Leeds, Liverpool, Glasgow or many other parts of the UK, but BBC 2 weren’t interested in that.  They didn’t even seem very interested in the history and culture of the area: when the group visited Akko, no-one even mentioned that it was the historic Crusader capital of Acre.

Incidentally, I hate to sound like a grumpy old woman, but it’s no wonder that millennials are known as “the snowflake generation”! Going on about whether or not Israel should have an army.  All countries have armies – that’s life.  And fussing about whether or not a plate of hummus was “cultural appropriation”.  Still, at least the hummus debate showed that there is actually more to both Israeli culture and Palestinian culture than the conflict, because nothing else did.  No mention of sport, music, dancing … or even language, which is currently a hot topic after the new constitution removed the status of Arabic as an official language of Israel.   Not only was it a long way from Anglo-Jewish life, which was what the title of the programme said that it was going to be about, but it didn’t really represent either the Israeli people or the Palestinian people that well.

The vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians just want to live in peace and go about their business, just as people everywhere do; but there’s been a certain amount of demonisation of both cultures, in different areas of the press, because of the conflict. It might have been nice had BBC 2 talked about … I was going to say the Eurovision Song Contest, but maybe not!   Football, then.  Football talk’s always good!  Actually, forget that, because there’s currently a row going on over Argentina pulling out of a friendly against Israel.   Oh dear.  But that’s exactly what I mean.  Why does everything have to be about the conflict?  Both the Israelis and the Palestinians have so much more to offer the world.  But their leaders don’t help.  The match was only cancelled after the Israeli government encouraged their FA to move it from Haifa to Jerusalem.  The match was a sell-out and a lot of people would have been eagerly looking forward to seeing Messi & co, and now they won’t get the chance.  Own goal.  But then none of that excuses the threats made to Messi by Palestinian groups: that was awful.  Oh, what a mess.  Sorry, I’ve got way off the point now!

That’s not to say that it wasn’t interesting. The makers of the programme clearly wanted debate, and indeed argument, and they got that all right.  The group met Israelis, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.  It’s a shame that other groups weren’t included too – members of the Israeli Druze community have been speaking out about their distress over the new constitution, and there’s a row going on at the moment over plans to destroy a Bedouin village – but I suppose they could only fit so much into an hour.

BBC 2 had tried very hard to present a balanced view of the situation. The group spent most of their time in the West Bank, and met a number of Israelis and Palestinians, some of whom held quite militant views and some of whom held more conciliatory views.  The one thing that came across at all times was what a human tragedy this is.  People (Israelis and Palestinians) are living in fear of being attacked.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having to go through checkpoints – there’s that great big wall there, in particular – to get from home to work and back again.  People (mostly Palestinians) are having their businesses boarded up or their farmland confiscated.  The extremely controversial term “apartheid” was used, when talking about different communities being subject to different courts.  It was unfortunate that, at that point, several members of the group walked out – although others did point out the necessity of listening to all viewpoints.

The visit to Jerusalem did bring up one of the more general issues, the debate over whether or not women should be able to wear skull caps and prayer shawls when praying at the Western Wall – one member of the group, a female Progressive Jew, did so, and was criticised by some other people there. Can we all get over criticising other people’s choice of clothing, please?!  But that was more the sort of thing I’d originally been expecting.  But then the visit to Jerusalem finished on a very sad note, with the group speaking to an Israeli man whose 14-year-old daughter had been killed by Palestinians, and an Israeli man whose 10-year-old daughter had been killed by Israelis.

This was the last bit, apart from a visit to Masada. Both men spoke of their hopes for peace.  Neither called for revenge.  Just peace.  Everyone was clearly very impressed and moved by their courage.  If only people like them come could and speak at political party conferences, or university demonstrations, instead of having all these ridiculous slanging matches.  If only their own political leaders would listen to them.  If only someone would do something to end this horrendous cycle of violence.  They both said that they believed that peace would come.  Well, let’s hope so.

All in all, a very well-meaning attempt at showing a range of different views on a subject about which feelings tend to run very high – and which, I’ve said, really is a human tragedy. But I don’t think the choice of title was particularly helpful or appropriate.  A lot of what is going on at the moment is because people cannot or will not distinguish between “Jewish” and … well, and what?  People say “between anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist” (leaving aside the fact that “anti-Semitic” isn’t an accurate term and “anti-Jewish” is better), but that isn’t right. Saying or doing anything anti-Semitic is clearly wrong at every possibly level, and should not be permitted in any political party or anywhere else.  What about “anti-Zionist”?  That presumably means questioning the right of the Israeli state to exist – and is inappropriate, given that its existence is recognised by, and indeed was voted on by, the United Nations.  Or “anti-Israeli” – that presumably means taking against over 5 million people, and isn’t acceptable either.  “Critical of the policies of the present Israeli government in relation to the Palestinians” is horribly long-winded, but that’s the one that should be OK.  Criticise any government!

But all these things are getting confused.  And calling a programme “We are British Jews” and then spending 90% of the time talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict just kind of plays right along with that confusion.  All the same, there was a lot of very interesting stuff in it, and it’s good to see such a controversial subject being tackled rather than shied away from.



Knightfall – History Channel


A Downton Abbey reunion, the quest for the Holy Grail, and some genuinely thought-provoking points about life in medieval Paris.  Quite an interesting combination, and it was much better than I was expecting.  The pun in the title is awful, but it refers to the fall of the Knights Templar – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, to give them their title, although poor they most certainly were not!

There are very few organisations about which there are as many myths, legends and conspiracy theories as there are about the Knights Templar. Did they have the Holy Grail, and bury it under Rosslyn Chapel?  Or maybe in Valencia Cathedral?  Or the Basilica of San Isidoro in Leon?  Did they have the Turin Shroud?  Or another shroud, the Sovran Cloth, which supposedly ended up in Glastonbury?  Were they somehow involved with the Ark of the Covenant, and is it buried in Ethiopia (and does that all sound a bit Indiana Jones?)?  Is the fact that Philip IV of France arrested their leaders in France on Friday, 13th October 1307 the reason that Friday 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day?  Was it a Curse of the Templars which caused the male line of the Capetian dynasty to die out – leading, incidentally, to the Hundred Years’ War?  Hey, did some of them even escape from France and sail to North America?  They feature in books as diverse as Ivanhoe and The Da Vinci Code.  People think there are a lot of conspiracy theories around now?  They’ve got nothing on the stories that have been told about the Templars over the years!

So what are the actual known facts? The Templars, founded in 1119, in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and so named because their original HQ was on Temple Mount, were originally supposed to protect pilgrims.  Helped by the backing of St Bernard of Clairvaux, they became the “in” charity of the 12th century, and developed into both a powerful fighting order and an incredibly wealthy and successful business organisation – the world’s first multinational corporation, really.  The Temple Bar area of London, and the Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Chancery, for example, get their name from the Knights Templar, who used to own the land there.  So do Temple Newsam, the stately home in Leeds, Temple Sowerby near Penrith, and numerous other places.  They even owned the entire island of Cyprus, at one point: they moved their HQ there after the last Christian possessions in the Holy Land fell.  But then Cyprus was taken by the Egyptian Mamluks, in 1302-3.  So where did the Templars go from there?

Well, in 1307, as already mentioned, Philip IV of France arrested the leaders of the French Templars. And a load of others too.  They were forced to confess to all sorts of heresy and corruption, and their leaders Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charnay were burned at the stake – on a scaffold in the middle of the Seine, in front of Notre Dame, just for extra drama.  The order was formally disbanded by Pope Clement V, under pressure from Philip IV, in 1312, and its assets transferred to the Order of the Knights Hospitallers.  To this day, nobody really knows what went on.  Did the Templars just disappear into history, just like that?

The series opened with the Siege of Acre in 1291. Fascinating place, Acre (Akko) – lots of remains of Crusader buildings to be seen there. The Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem in 1187, but took Acre a few years later, and it became their capital city.  Once it fell to the Mamluks in 1291 –Robyn Young’s book Crusade covers this brilliantly – the Crusaders were pretty much finished in the Holy Land, although they did hold some minor possessions there until 1303.

It didn’t actually look very promising at first. The scenes of the fighting and the Templars fleeing, filmed in Croatia, were just a bit too gloriously technicoloured, somehow – it made me think of a computer game rather than a TV series.  And no-one seemed interested in their property, in Jerusalem or even in their comrades, only in protecting the Holy Grail – which, according to this, the Templars did indeed hold.  It’s fiction, OK!  Even the Mamluks seemed more interested in the Holy Grail than anything else!   It looked as if it was going to be a cross between a 1980s action movie (not that I didn’t love the Indiana Jones films and the Romancing the Stone films, but I was looking for medieval history with this!) and some kind of semi-fantasy thing.  Anyway, the Grail was on a ship which was hit by flaming arrows and promptly sank.  We saw the Grail (and wouldn’t you have thought they’d at least have put it in a box!) sinking deep into Davy Jones’ Locker.  Oh dear.

Fast forward to … well, it wasn’t 100% clear when. Certainly before 1307, as the Templars were still going.  It seemed to be the time of the Great Expulsion of the Jews, which was 1306 (whereas England only had the one Edict of Expulsion, in 1290, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in France, but the one during Philip IV’s reign was definitely in 1306), but the reigning Pope was Boniface VIII, who died in 1303.  Hmm.

Boniface, the Jews of France and the Templars all fell foul of Philip’s quest for money and power. There are all sorts of theories about the Templars being dissolved because they’d uncovered some mysterious secret, or were engaged in nefarious practices, but, with apologies for being boring, it was probably simply because Philip didn’t like the idea of any organisation other than the Crown holding so much wealth and power, and also because he owed the Templars a fortune.  He’d come into conflict with the Church for the same reason.  That would ultimately lead to the Schism, and had already led, in 1303, to poor old Boniface being tortured by Philip’s agents and dying shortly afterwards.   And Philip owed a fortune to France’s Jewish community, as well as to the Templars: we saw him praising the Jews of France, especially for their work as doctors, but he wanted to get out of paying his debts.   He chucked out the Lombard bankers as well.  Yes, he owed them a fortune too!

The Templars were still going, but they didn’t seem to be doing very much other than chasing women and acting as loan sharks. Our hero, Brother Landry, played by Tom Cullen from Downton Abbey (the one with whom Lady Mary spent the night in a hotel, before deciding not to marry him), was not happy about this.  It was a bit of a Downton Abbey reunion, really!   Julian Ovenden (who played another of Lady Mary’s spurned suitors) is in it as well, playing Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip’s nasty Chancellor; and Pope Boniface VIII (who will turn up in the next episode) is played by Jim “Carson” Carter.   Anyway, Brother Landry pointed out that the Templars should really have been doing something useful – such as protecting the Jews, who were being given a lot of grief (the Templars are indeed known to have protected French Jews, although more because they had a lot of Jewish tenants than anything else), helping the poor in general, or, you know, trying to retake Jerusalem.  Landry is going to make himself “useful” by having an affair with the Queen, incidentally, but we haven’t got to that bit yet.  This is not true, by the way – not least because Landry didn’t actually exist!

Anyway, the Templars did heroically intervene to save the Jews of Paris, who, having been thrown out of their homes, were then ambushed whilst on the road. However, they couldn’t save their own leader, Godfrey.  Having seen a piece of fruit lurking on a building, which was apparently a sign connected with the Holy Grail (don’t ask me), he’d gone chasing off, only to be ambushed and killed, by a group of nasties who also murdered some poor young village girl whose fiancé had tried to help Godfrey.  Landry became the new Master and Commander of the Paris Temple, and found out that, previously unbeknownst to him but known to Godfrey, the Holy Grail was actually in France.  So now, of course, our Templar pals are going to try to find it.

It’s an interesting mix of fact and fiction – and not just fiction as in having fictional characters, but as in myth/legend, with the quest for the Holy Grail tied in with the very real events of the Great Expulsion of the Jews and the suppression of the Templars. The title does sound more like a computer game or a kids’ fantasy series than historical fiction, and the opening scenes weren’t that promising, but, once it got going, I genuinely enjoyed it.  It was much better than I’d expected!




Shared Sorrows: A Gypsy Family Remembers the Holocaust by Toby Sonneman


Earlier this month, the Italian government announced plans to carry out a census of Roma people.   Last week, an attack on a Roma camp in Lviv left one person dead and several others injured; and it wasn’t the first attack on a Roma camp in Ukraine recently.  The president of the Czech Republic has described Roma people as “asocial”.  There’s also been “ethnic cleansing” of Roma people in Kosovo – an area much in the news this week, for rather bizarre reasons relating to Swiss footballers – due to allegations that they sided with Serbia during the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s.  Stalin used false allegations of siding with the enemy to deport thousands of Chechens and Crimean Tatars from their homes.

A lot of Nazi-related terminology is being used lately, in relation to everything from American immigration policies to the World Cup.  Some of it isn’t being used appropriately, but the Italian government’s plans, in particular, do have worrying connotations of what happened during the 1930s and the Second World War.

It’s not known how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, but estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials, and, despite the designation of August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day, the Romani genocide is not widely discussed and maybe not even widely known..

There doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as might be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  The only two books I’ve found on it in English are And The Violins Stopped Playing, which I read earlier this year, and this one.  And The Violins Stopped Playing was a memoir, written in the form of a novel, given to a non-Romani third party to publish on the author’s behalf.  This one is written by an American Jewish woman whose German Jewish father escaped from Nazi Germany, and who says that she had always felt an affinity with gypsies (she used the term “gypsies” in the book, published when that term was still widely used) because of the Holocaust, in which many members of her family were killed.

So neither of them are “direct” memoirs as such, but, in writing this, Toby Sonneman worked closely with Reili Mettbach Herchmer, a Sinti woman who’d moved from Germany to America, and some of her relatives, most of them living in Germany, who told of the horrors they’d experienced under the Nazi regime.   It’s not a very well-written book, it has to be said.  The grammar and syntax leave rather a lot to be desired, and it jumps about a lot.  However, what is has to say is important.

For a start, it explains clearly the difference between Roma and Sinti culture, which very few books do.  There have been Sinti communities in central and northern Europe for many centuries.  Roma communities lived mainly in southern and eastern Europe – many in the Danubian Principalities (that’s me using the term I’m used to from reading a lot of Russian history!  The areas that are now, roughly speaking, Romania and Moldova), where it was legal to hold Roma people as slaves until 1856 – until the 19th century, when some groups moved into other areas.  When I was a kid, gypsy (the term we used then) ladies would sometimes knock on the door, selling pretty lace or clothes pegs: I didn’t know until this week that that is a Sinti “thing” only, and it would be very unusual for a Roma lady to do that.  So that’s all quite interesting to read.  It’s so easy to lump cultures and traditions together – the author uses the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jewish cultures and traditions as a comparison.

However, the book is about the Romani genocide – I’m not going to say “Porajamos” because that term isn’t generally used by Sinti and Roma people – and not about culture and tradition.  A textbook would start with something scholarly.  This starts with strudel.  Reili, who like Toby’s father was from Bavaria, welcomed Toby to her home with platefuls of strudel.  A relative of mine always used to make strudel when we went to visit her.  Did the recipe come from her grandma, who was born in Austria?  I don’t know, and, seeing as she’s been gone for nearly twenty years, I can’t really ask her now, but Toby Sonneman made such a good point about how it’s recipes that get passed down through the generations.

Some people emigrate because they’ve been offered good jobs in another country.  However, historically as now, most people have emigrated to escape poverty and or persecution, and have taken very little with them but the clothes on their backs – but they’ve been able to take recipes, in their heads.  A couple of generations down the line, the descendants of those immigrants don’t speak their language, and, in many cases, don’t dress like them, or follow their cultural or religious practices, but the food tends to live on.  And spread.  Manchester’s Curry Mile, the Birmingham baltis, the Scouse (originally lobscouse) brought to Liverpool from the ports of the Baltic, the New York bagel, the ice cream vans that bear Italian surnames, the Swiss origins of the lovely cakes you get in Bettys … and, if you believe the story, the original recipes for fish and chips were brought to Britain by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.  There are a million and one other examples: being a very greedy person, I could write about food all day.

I know it seems a strange thing to pick up on, when writing about a book about genocide, but it is very true that food tends to survive everything.  Toby Sonneman said that recipes were the nearest thing that her family had to heirlooms.  The same could probably have been said about Reili Mettbach Herchmer’s family.  It’s an interesting thought.

Another point she made was that the Romani genocide doesn’t have a “face” in the way that the Jewish Holocaust has Anne Frank.  It’s horrible to think of someone as being the “face” of a genocide, or of any other form of horror and persecution.  There was a lot of talk in April, on the 25th anniversary of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, of Stephen being the face and the personification of the horrors of racism in the UK.  The famous picture, in September 2015, of the dead body of little Alan Kurdi focused attention on the Syrian migrant crisis.  I’ll never forget the faces of Tim Parry and Johnathan Ball, the two young lads killed by the IRA bombing in Warrington in 1993.  No-one’s legacy should be that, to personify and symbolise such horror – but it is so very true that it’s the personal accounts, and the faces, that really bring it home to people just what has been done.  All those shoes, and false teeth, that you see in the museum at Auschwitz, all of which once belonged to someone.  And that’s why personal accounts are so important.  They do a lot of things that all the scholarly works in the world can’t.

A lot of Holocaust memoirs have been published, even if not by Roma and Sinti survivors, and that means that a lot of what’s in this book is tragically familiar – the introduction of laws persecuting particular groups of people, the taking of people to concentration camps, the experiments carried out by Josef Mengele and others, the question of whether or not those living close to the concentration camps – Dachau is very close to residential areas outside Munich, where many of the Mettbach family lived – knew what was going on, the horrific conditions in the concentration camps, and, of course, the gas chambers.  But every personal story is that little bit different, every experience is that little bit different.  And it is personal – and personal accounts are what really brings it home to the reader.

There’s also a lot in this book about forced sterilisation.  That isn’t really addressed in And The Violins Stopped Playing, and it’s not generally addressed in the memoirs of Jewish survivors because it was Roma and Sinti people who were the target.  The idea of the Final Solution would have meant that forced sterilisation of Jewish people was pointless, because they wouldn’t live to have children, but there seems to have been some idea of … a postponed genocide, for lack of a better way of putting it, by preventing Roma and Sinti people from being able to have children.  Former soldiers were even given a choice of going to the gas chambers or being sterilised and then released.  There are some graphic and very distressing descriptions of what was done to Reili’s relatives, both male and female, some as children, some as adults.

This has never been spoken about much until recently, because of cultural taboos, but it should be noted that forced sterilisation of Romani people was carried out in the 20th century in a number of countries, including Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, the last places you’d associate with that sort of policy.  It was particularly common in Czechoslovakia, and then in the Czech Republic and Slovakia after the country split into two, and was going on as late as 2003 or 2004 – yes, 2004.  An online petition was launched earlier this year to demand compensation for those affected: this is not something that’s just part of the past, this is something that’s affecting people to this very day.

This isn’t the world’s greatest book, but it’s an important reminder of something horrific, that happened within living memory, that is still not spoken about very much.  And can you imagine the headlines, and the international outrage if the Italian interior minister announced plans to carry out a census of any other community?   But next to nothing’s been said about this.  It’s horrible.  It’s frightening.  A lot of unpleasant stuff is going on in Europe and in the United States at the moment, but this is arguably the worst of it.  This isn’t a great book, but it would be great for people to read it.