It was when my friend Sid took a razor to the smoked salmon sandwich that I realised being a 14-year-old Jew in London was more complicated than I’d assumed. He did a good job on it, too, slashing it to greasy ribbons in an adolescent frenzy of red-faced fury, impressive when the weapon was just a pencil sharpener blade. Once I’d got over the shock of the assault on Cohen’s finest Scottish hand-sliced, I tried to grab it back. The blade skidded across the palm of my right hand, opening a 3in wound below the fingers. I howled while dripping blood on to the rye with caraway but, many stitches later, I swaggered back, cocky with cred, to bestow magnanimous forgiveness on the glumly penitent Sid.
Frankly, I blamed my mum. Smoked salmon sandwiches for lunch every day: how was that going to square me with the gentiles? There were days when I envied the goyim their mince, and their frogspawn tapioca; and hungered for the dark and dirty freedom from kosher. But the awful truth is that until the sandwich pogrom, it had never occurred to me that a daily smoked salmon lunch, worse, complaining about having to eat it all the time, might get up the nose of boys doomed to Shippams shrimp paste, or the steak’n’gristle glop served by Doris in the hairnet, and that they might think, as Sid did, just for that one moment, and never again so far as I knew, Christ, bloody Jews.
It wasn’t that we were the kind to throw around our money or our weight because we didn’t have much of either. We were in Golders Green in the early 1950s because my father, Arthur, had come down in the world a bit; taken one of his periodic falls from grace in the schmatte trade, steep enough for us to have to sell off, in a hurry, the Tudor-ish villa by the sea.
So we said so long to the half-timbered Jews of the Essex littoral in their gold-buttoned blazers and weekend convertibles, to the cliff walk with the gorse bushes where cheeky Jewish dachshunds sniffed gentile retrievers, to the sunken rusticated garden with its winsome stone cupid and heavily composted gardener Bill, who, pipe clenched between his shag-stained teeth, gruntingly tended the antirrhinums; farewell to the matronly house help to whose apron clung a faint but unmistakable whiff of transgressive bacon; toodle-oo to the walnut-fascia Rover, to the loud parties where in front of innumerable uncles and aunts come down from London, Dad would shamelessly do his Jack Buchanan soft-shoe shuffle and tell the odd off-colour Max Miller joke; shalom to all that and hello to a hill of pebble-dash semis in NW11.
My mother Trudie, in shock, railed at my pa for his commercial failings, invoking Wilkins Micawber a good deal. When he couldn’t take any more, Arthur would march off down the hill, coming home slightly tiddly, playing worryingly with the soup noodles at supper.
But Golders Green was just fine with me. Sixty years ago it was an island of cosmopolitanism between high-minded Hampstead and gritty Cricklewood. In Golders Hill Park and on the Heath you could catch the cultured end of the Jewish immigration of the 1930s – from Berlin and Vienna – reading poetry on the benches. The Jewish flavour of the place was no more than just that: the bakeries where you could get gleaming challah bread and poppy-seed filled munn at Purim; killer strudel, and properly boiled, chewy flat bagels, not the monstrous puffy things that have taken over the world; kosher butchers where the customers haggled about the brisket, and Cohen’s, that temple of smoked salmon and pickled cucumbers. Golders Green Road also had survivors from the traditional, bosky suburban village it had long been: flower shops, tailors; the kind of groceries where the assistants stuck money into whizzing overhead pneumatic tubes. Other tweed-free communities, Asian and Italian, had settled in. I saw my first urban turban and inhaled my first hit of roasting coffee beans on the Road. This was where I wanted to be.
So when a bus conductor shouted, “Gol-ders Green: get yer passports out!” I chuckled along with everyone else. I loved being one of Them: the loudmouths, the violinists, the wide boys with the sharp suits, the showmen. I didn’t want to blend in with the tea-cosy people of Macmillan’s Britain, shuffling patiently forward in the bus queue, muttering about the weather. I was happy to be a Brylcreem boy, a jiving Jew of the Green, from my gleaming winkle-pickers to the white knitted ties and the snap-brim trilby, worn with an attitude on the way to shul. Mind you, I didn’t want to be in the company of the frum, either, the ultra-orthodox with their deep swaying and knee-bobbing, the corkscrew sidelocks and fringed tzitzit worn on the outside; the pallor peeping from beneath the homburgs.
But, in the 1950s, they weren’t often to be seen in Golders Green. On the Monopoly board urban geography of Jewish London, the frum were mostly still stuck in the purple squares of Stamford Hill. Brown was Whitechapel and Stepney where both my father and mother had started life; their parents coming from the Turkish Balkans, Romania and Lithuania. The oldest of my father’s 12 siblings were still stuck in the East End and when we went to see them it was like a trip to some sort of mournful immigrant antiquity: their dreaded sponge cake, and the tall glasses of lemon tea, sipped with spoons of plum jam.
At the other end of the Jewish Monopoly board was Park Lane, where, miraculously, one of my mother’s cousins, the ones who had gone from running Soho pubs to importing pink champagne, had settled in unimaginably high bourgeois splendour. The sofas alone would swallow one’s small behind in their downy cushions. Somewhere in between, on the red and yellow Monopoly squares, were “comfortable” Hendon and Finchley, where yet more uncles and aunts shovelled the strudel in living rooms still misty with last night’s Partagás cigar fumes.
The home I always made a beeline towards belonged to the handsome tie manufacturer with a Chekhovian line-up of daughters: the chatty oldest one, the creamily beautiful but scornful youngest, and, in the middle, the merry, tan-skinned teaser with just enough of a hint of wicked glinting from the golden chain about her neck to put a boy right off his bar mitzvah rehearsals.
So there we all were in various degrees of comfort or modesty but, at least, unlike some of my mother’s mother’s Vienna family, we were alive. By the time we moved back to London, the war had been over barely 10 years. The “Holocaust” wasn’t even a word used about the slaughter. We seldom talked about it, except for fleeting analogies on Passover and Purim, both commemorating the destruction of early editions of Hitler: Pharaoh, Haman, the perennial mamzers, the bastards. There wasn’t even much to read until Lord Russell of Liverpool, a lawyer at the Nuremberg trials, published his Scourge of the Swastika (1954), which we devoured in the upstairs synagogue library, aghast and fascinated by the hecatombs of bones; the naked women running before the grinning guards. My mother spat ripe and terrifying Yiddish curses at the whole idea of Germany (exempting only a small town on the Austrian border, where in 1921, aged nine, she had been taken in by a kindly Burgomeister when she missed her train connection en route to her uncle in Vienna).
My father took the high road and concentrated on the good fortune of having been born British, especially gifted with the priceless, indestructible power of the English language. It was as though Shakespeare not Monty and the troops had beaten the Nazis. “A Jew’s best weapon is his mouth,” he would say to me, though his own had been on the receiving end of many a knuckle sandwich courtesy of the Blackshirts. But out of devotion to the biggest mouth-makher of all – Winston Spencer Churchill – he made sure I was schooled in oratory before I was even in my teens. To Arthur’s energetic, hand-wagging stage direction, I did Crispin Crispian from Henry V, or “All The World’s a Stage” in the living room while my mother fried the gefilte fish. The quality of mercy was not strained, certainly not by me anyway, even as the borscht was.
So the fit between being British and being Jewish seemed to my parents, and to their two children to whom they had given the very British names of Simon and Tessa, utterly natural, beshert even – historically fated. As well as Dickens and Shakespeare on the bookshelf at home, there was Fielding, George Eliot, Austen, the Brontës, Hardy, Wells and (a special passion of Arthur’s who spoke as if he had known him personally) anything written by GB Shaw.
Parliament was still something to revere; an indomitable institution that for all the appeasers, had stood fast when European democracies across the Channel had crumpled into murderous fascism. They took delight in the number of Jewish MPs: (most of them Labour): Barnett Janner, and Manny Shinwell, even the alte-Bolshevik Sydney Silverman, and, as far as my Dad was concerned, Benny D’Israeli, too. Even some of the notoriously nose-holding British peerage who thought Jews frightfully entertaining but preferably not in their clubs were co-opted as sympathisers.
During the war Arthur and Trudie had decamped to Knebworth in Hertfordshire, partly to get out of the way of the bombs and partly so my mother could be closer to her job at de Havilland aircraft where she was secretary to racy test pilots who flirted with her over a whisky and splash in the local pubs. In the village, Trudie, a storyteller who could charm the birds off the trees, was on tea-shop and shopping basket terms with Lady Lytton of Knebworth House, whose name she would ever after intone with glowing admiration, in the plummy accent she would switch on when chatting with the upper crust. Every so often this included the Queen Mother, who would visit the Stepney Jewish Day Centre where my mother made a second career, and, less probably, her pal John Profumo in his long atonement phase volunteering at Toynbee Hall in the East End.
Vocalised English in all its various glory was music (literally) to their ears. My mother’s idea of a lullaby reflected exactly her twin passions for the cockney and the kosher: Marie Lloyd music hall one night, Sophie Tucker (“The Last of the Red Hot Mamas”) belters the next. The result was that I was the only six-year-old in Essex who could give you a powerful rendering of “My Old Man” and “Some of These Days” in kindergarten, whether you wanted me to or not.
On sunny Sundays my Dad would don his raffishly striped blazer and go into Jerome K. Jerome mode on the Thames, somewhere between Old Windsor and Datchet. Sitting me at the tiller of a small craft, he would tilt his boater at a jaunty angle and tune up his Noël Coward medley.
In Golders Green, our oak panelled and stained-glassed synagogue had an air of late Victorian ecclesiastical grandeur about it: “wardens” in ceremonious top hats, installed in a special boxed-in pew at the front of the congregation. The reading desk, instead of being in the middle of the synagogue, was removed to the far end in front of the ark, more like an altar table at the end of a church nave. High up above the ark behind a metal screen, a massed choir, featuring my cousin Brian as the star tenor poured the operatic melodies out on to the congregation below, a flock that, on Yom Kippur, would include singer Frankie Vaughan, who we kids secretly willed to burst into a chorus of “Green Door” right in the middle of the service.
And yet there were moments when the force of ancestral memory cut right through the solemnities. I’d learnt to read Hebrew when I was quite small, had even gone on to teach it at the local synagogue Sunday school. So when, on the Sabbath, I grasped the silver yad, the pointer made in the form of a finger to remind us that the only aspect of the disembodied God revealed was the finger that, according to Leviticus, had written directly on to the stone tablets at Sinai, I became, through the mere act of chanted reading from the Torah, connected to the great chain of endurance embodied in Hebrew writing.
I would stray, far and wide. Bar mitzvah done with, I’d spend more time hanging round the Golders Green telephone booths (remember them?) angling for long-lashed girls than in pondering the Talmud. For much of my teen years, being Jewish meant Zionist socialism on the Finchley Road – where the girls wore no make-up, and danced with abandon – while being expert in dialectical materialism, the polemics of nuclear disarmament, the halutz pioneers’ songbook, avant-garde films and prolonged making out. Both that impassioned secular Zionism and the easy-going Judaism of the oak-panelled synagogue, unconflicted about its co-existence with the gentile world around it, now seem relics of the lost innocence of half a century ago. Both now are fighting rearguard actions against more adamantly separatist constructions of Them and Us.
I am not especially happy about this. But there are moments when, sometimes, abandoning a film crew or a conference, I find myself wandering towards a synagogue wherever I happen to be: to the grand doors beyond the tough Israeli security detail in Rome; to the shuttered slats of Cochin; the wrought-iron balconies in Shanghai; the bulbously beautiful brass candelabra in Amsterdam; the pale tiles of Marrakech. If there is a congregation, I will find a seat, open a prayer book and know my place right away. If it is empty, as is so often the case, I will fill it with remembered melodies, first learnt in Southend and London, summoned as easily and instinctively as breathing. Eitz chayim hee la’machazikim ba, my remembrance sings, “A tree of life for those who hold on to it … ” Somehow I still do.
Simon Schama is a contributing editor to the FT and will be speaking at the launch of Jewish Book Week (www.jewishbookweek.com) at Kings Place, London
“The Passover seder is the annual retelling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is one of the best-known stories in the world, with some of the most iconic moments and images: baby Moses and the bulrushes, the Ten Plagues the parting of the Red Sea. It’s a story that’s been used by social justice movements throughout history, it’s in music, film, literature … It’s everywhere you look.
People gather and retell this story by moving through the Haggadah, which serves as a kind of user’s manual for the holiday. I can’t think of another book that is read out loud at a table during a meal by family and friends, a book that isn’t just there to lead us through prayers and songs and stories, but also to ask questions and inspire conversations.
There is nothing new about making a new Haggadah. They have been made just about everywhere just about always. Less formally, there is a tradition in America of people who cobble together their own Haggadahs from the various versions that exist. ‘Why is this night different from other nights?’ Because on this night copyrights don’t apply.
I’ve been going to seders every year of my life, and every year I enjoy them, but I also have a feeling of unrealised potential. It could have been more. So I began to think, ‘Is there another way to make this book? Could the translation and commentary be good, not only relative to other Haggadahs but to literature? Could the design and artwork belong in a museum?’
My motivation was to create a Haggadah my family could use. Perhaps others will also find it useful. Perhaps someone will say, ‘Hey, this is what my family was waiting for.’ ”
‘Haggadah’ (Hamish Hamilton, £25), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, will be published on March 16 . He will be talking about the work at Kings Place, London on February 25, as part of Jewish Book Week
Jonathan Safran Foer was talking to Leke Sanusi