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Defying the 11th commandment

On the epic Anglo-Jewish journey from ghetto outsiders to football insiders.

In the film Airplane! a passenger asks a stewardess if she has anything light to read. She returns with a leaflet entitled Famous Jewish Sports Legends. That scene always transports me back to a tiny, tobacco-scented office at the Selig Brodetsky Jewish Day School in the late 1960s. My school friends and I had defied the headmaster’s ban on football by playing with a tennis ball, which he then also banned. So we switched to an apple core, then a banana skin and finally took to kicking an orange peel around the playground.

“What chutzpah,” he roared, before lecturing us on why Jews were people of the book, not people of the penalty kick. Sucking on his pipe for a few seconds, he then issued what he called the 11th commandment: “Football is not for a Yiddisher boy!”

I was reminded of his rant as I watched the FA chairman, David Bernstein, anoint Roy Hodgson as England manager a few weeks ago. Everyone had expected The People’s Harry to take over from Fabio Capello. But once again Bernstein confounded expectations. Many a big macha (very important person) has made the mistake of underestimating the Manchester City fan. From his shocked rabbi watching him bunk off his own bar mitzvah – to enjoy City’s 1956 FA Cup triumph – to Capello walking off into the Italian sunset after their high-noon confrontation over John Terry’s captaincy, Bernstein has, like another David, made a habit of unsettling Goliaths.

Alien invasion

Bernstein’s progress from soccer-mad bar mitzvah boy to the upper echelons of English football is emblematic of an epic Anglo-Jewish journey from ghetto outsiders to football insiders. It is an untold story, partly because of the myth of absence perpetuated by my old headmaster and films such as Airplane! – and yet, as David Baddiel has observed: “It is virtually impossible to be Jewish and male and not interested in football.” These two contradictory narratives lie at the heart of a hidden history of Jewish participation in the game.

In the past century, from the “alien” invasion of eastern European immigrants to the “Roman” (Abramovich) invasion of foreign owners, Yiddisher boys have been involved in football’s metamorphosis from a working-class pursuit to a global entertainment industry.

Jews have been kicking balls around on muddy pitches, and pieces of rotting fruit around on school playgrounds, ever since Norwood Jewish Orphanage thrashed Endearment 11-1 in January 1901. And they have been following football with a rare fervour ever since second-generation immigrants caught the train from Whitechapel to White Hart Lane – to be greeted with the refrain: “Does your rabbi know you’re here?”

They have, on the whole, tended to keep shtum about it. Bernstein and Abramovich, arguably the most powerful men in English football, might not downplay their ethnicity but the trailblazers who emerged between the wars felt obliged to change their surnames. Louis Buchalter, who starred for West Brom and Luton in the 1910s and 1920s, became Bookman, and Leslie Goldberg, a Leeds player of the 1930s, became Gaunt. Anti-Semitism persisted into the 1960s and 1970s. The Jewish Chronicle reported that Mark Lazarus, who scored QPR’s winning goal in the 1967 League Cup Final, had been abused as a “Yid” at many grounds. At others, he’d been told that “Hitler should have finished the job”. Those who made a visit in 1971 to the Den, home to Millwall, will never forget the vile abuse he received.

Once, at Shrewsbury, Lazarus responded to racist heckling by flicking the ball up and juggling it from one knee to the other – then turning to his abusers and waving at them. The referee booked him for inciting the crowd. Perhaps it should have been for chutzpah.

Anthony Clavane’s “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe” will be published by Quercus in October

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?