No Place Like Home by Judah Passow: If you think you understand the Jewish community, you probably don't

A new collection of photographs by photographer Judah Passow reveals British Jewish life in all its maddening variety.

No Place Like Home: Britain’s Jewish Community in the 21st Century
Judah Passow
Bloomsbury Continuum, 224pp, £25
 
The Israeli-born photojournalist Judah Passow, who over the past 35 years has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and wars in Lebanon and Bosnia, has finally turned his attention to home: to the Jewish community of the British Isles where he has lived for most of his working life.
 
His book No Place Like Home, with an introduction by the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, takes its inspiration from an observation about home by his father, an American rabbi and scholar. “More than anything else, though,” he writes, “my father loved the fact that Judaism was at its core essentially an idea, and that everything that flowed from that big idea is just someone’s interpretation.”
 
Passow has worked, whenever the industry has allowed him, in black and white. These pictures, with their strong compositions, attest to an eye that captures the significant moments in Jewish life. The Jewish community in Britain has been shrinking as a result of intermarriage and emigration, and is now down to about 290,000. But as Passow demonstrates, it is both diverse and dynamic, with the greatest continued growth being among the ultra-Orthodox Jews who were uncommon in my childhood – now extending out from London to one of the world’s great centres of Talmudic study, Gateshead.
 
A portrait of a group of elderly men and women sitting on the seafront at Southend, watching a beach with the tide out and the sky lowering under grey cloud thick with imminent drizzle, underlines the difference between British Jews and their American counterparts, retired in Miami. Determined to enjoy themselves whatever the weather, these are the Jews born in the old East End who moved out to colonise Hendon in the Fifties and Sixties. Until the postwar period, Jews were Britain’s only significant ethnic minority, determined to keep their heads down and not attract unwanted attention.
 
Yet as you progress through the book in its organic, non-demarcated sections that include family celebrations, food, worship, issues, charity and fundraising, multiculturalism, birth, old age, death and burial, it is apparent that this is indeed 21st-century Britain. A young yeshiva student turns away from the open book to consult his two mobile phones. Two gay men in kippas dance in each other’s arms. At a religious service a woman in a tallit reads from the Torah, her hand on the head of a boy with a dummy in his mouth.
 
Over and over again, images defy conventional stereotypes. A woman at a refuge for Jewish victims of domestic violence holds her head in her hands, a Jewish prisoner in HMP Wandsworth looks around at the space of his incarceration. Passow has even found the unmarked grave in HMP Belfast in which lie the remains of the only Jew in Britain to be hanged. One of my favourite images is of the inauguration of the Lord Mayor of London, resplendent in lace, velvet, fur and glittering brooches, waving his feathered hat aloft from the window of a gold coach built in a year when his ancestors no doubt inhabited an eastern European shtetl.
 
For those wishfully thinking that British Jews and Israelis are separate entities, this book will disappoint, as the Israeli flag is present in schools, community offices, synagogues and self-confidently on the streets. As Freedland points out in his introduction, 90 per cent of British Jews have visited Israel, a far higher figure than Jews from the US. And others define themselves in opposition to it, such as the Jewish woman in a keffiyeh handing out anti-Zionist leaflets at a demo. But everywhere the sense of Jewish and Britishness mediate with each other: the Jewish Burns Night celebration with tartan and bagpipes; the ritual prayer for the preservation of the royal family embossed in gold on a wooden plaque in every synagogue.
 
When a bar mitzvah boy turns to wave at his mother in the ladies’ gallery and all you can see is row upon row of empty seats, you understand that it is in the heartland of mainstream Jewish life where the decline is most acute. The revival is at the far poles of the most Orthodox and of the most liberal. Yet, a kind of new Jewishness and new Judaism is emerging. A Canadian Mountie stands outside a London synagogue, a guest at the wedding of a London Jewish groom and his Canadian-Indian bride: kippahs and saris at the same simcha.
 
Passow’s next project focuses more closely on the Jews of Scotland, where he has found Jewish sheep farmers and Jewish whisky distillers. If you think you know or understand the Jewish community, you probably don’t. It has taken the acute eye of an outsider to Britain to penetrate the surface clichés and make a powerful and often moving portrait of the ineluctable puzzle of what it is to be Jewish in all its maddening variety.
 
Linda Grant is a novelist and journalist
Zion lady: attending Israel Expo, London 2010, an event that encourages emigration to the state.

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, every other line reeks of a self-help manual

This lame sequel suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing.

The 2014 romp Guardians of the Galaxy boasted the budget of a blockbuster and the soul of a B-movie. What that meant in practice was that audiences had to endure the same biff-pow battle scenes and retina-blistering effects as any space adventure, but they were rewarded with eccentric characters and tomfoolery for its own sake.

Despite the Marvel Studios imprimatur, the film showed the forces of intergalactic evil being fought not by superheroes, but by a ragtag band of bickering goofballs: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a self-regarding rogue in the Han Solo mould; the green-faced alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literal-minded hulk; Rocket, a racoon-like warrior (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and Groot, a piece of bark that says “I am Groot” over and over in the dulcet tones of Vin Diesel. Movies this odd don’t usually become $770m smash hits but this one did – deservedly.

Those characters return in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (the “Vol 2” reflects Peter’s love of mix-tapes) but the new film suggests the makers have largely forgotten why the original was so refreshing. Gags are rehashed; several sequences (including an interminable slow-motion section involving a laser-powered arrow) are dragged way beyond their desirable lifespan. Late in the day, Rocket tells his shipmates that they have too many issues, which rather pinpoints the problem with the screenplay by the director, James Gunn. Gunn has saddled his characters with unreasonable baggage, all of it relating to family and belonging. No matter how far into space they travel, all roads lead back to the therapist’s couch.

Peter, raised by his late mother, is delighted when Ego (Kurt Russell) materialises claiming to be the father he never knew. The old man makes grand pronouncements, only to undercut them within seconds (“’Scuse me, gotta take a whizz”) but, on the plus side, he has his own planet and pulls the whole “One day, son, all this will be yours” shtick. Gamora also has family business to contend with. Her blue-skinned sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), wants to kill her: Nebula has never quite got over Gamora being Daddy’s favourite. To be fair, though, he did force them to fight one another, replacing parts of Nebula’s body with metal whenever she lost, so it’s not like we’re talking about only one sister being allowed to watch Top of the Pops.

The more Peter gets to know Ego, the less admirable he seems as a father, and soon we are in the familiar territory of having parenting lessons administered by a Hollywood blockbuster. The reason for this became obvious decades ago: the film industry is populated by overworked executives who never get to see their children, or don’t want to, and so compensate by greenlighting movies about what it means to be a good parent. Every other line here reeks of the self-help manual. “Please give me the chance to be the father your mother wanted me to be,” Ego pleads. Even a minor character gets to pause the action to say: “I ain’t done nothing right my whole life.” It’s dispiriting to settle down for a Guardians of the Galaxy picture only to find you’re watching Field of Dreams with added asteroids.

Vol 2 gets by for an hour or so on some batty gags (Gamora misremembering the plot and star of Knight Rider is an especially juicy one) and on the energising power of Scott Chambliss’s glorious production design. The combination of the hi-tech and the trashy gives the film the appearance of a multimillion-dollar carnival taking place in a junkyard. Spectacular battles are shot through scuffed and scratched windscreens, and there are spacesuits cobbled together from tin pots and bubble-wrap. This is consistent with the kitschfests that inspired the Guardians aesthetic: 1980s science-fiction delights such as Flash Gordon, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

If only Vol 2 had mimicked their levity and brevity. Gunn ends his overlong movie with a bomb being attached to a giant brain, but this is wishful thinking on his part. He hasn’t blown our minds at all. It’s just a mild case of concussion. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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