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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Why are we surprised to see Jenny Slate at the movies with Jon Hamm?

 It’s like your best friend just turned around and told you she’s dating Jon Hamm.

An announcement: two human people have been pictured at the movies together. Those two people are known attractive persons Jenny Slate and Jon Hamm. There’s no word yet on what they actually went to see, whether popcorn was or was not consumed, or if either went for a mixed fountain drink.

But the internet was very interested regardless. The news comes after Slate’s high-profile break-up with another Hollywood actor generally considered to be A Hunk™: Chris Evans (aka Captain America). Speculation about whether the two are now dating was rife. New York Magazine’s The Cut sold their coverage of the pictures with the line, “Jon Hamm and Jenny Slate, who are both attractive and currently single, went to the movies together”, noting that “In February, eternally delightful person Jenny Slate broke up with your crush, Chris Evans. And now, she’s been pictured at the movies with your other crush, Jon Hamm.”

Elle went for the headline, “Jenny Slate Is Unequivocally Winning The Hollywood Dating Game Right Now”, while Buzzfeed opted for “Jenny Slate Might Be Dating Jon Hamm And Her Life Really Is A Dream Come True”. Twitter posts called Slate “an icon”, or posited, “if Jenny Slate is dating Jon Hamm right after breaking up with Chris Evans she is truly the most powerful heterosexual in the world”.

Always the tone of surprise. The implication of all these pieces is that Slate is, if not exactly batting above her average, something of a non-traditional choice for Hamm and Evans. Slate is not a 6 foot blonde supermodel, but she is an extremely successful and beautiful Hollywood actress who has also proved herself to be funny, charming, intelligent, emotionally self-aware and generally seems like really good fun. So what’s the issue?

Many of Slate’s fans noticed the backhanded elements to these compliments. “Jenny Slate is way hotter than Jon Hamm,” one Twitter user wrote. “Stop acting like she won the lottery.” Another wrote, “First Chris Evans, now Jon Hamm: neither of those men deserve Jenny Slate and her perfection.” One added, “Full disclosure, I would also like to throw my hat in the ring and try to date Jenny Slate if that is a possibility?”

In a widely-read interview with Vulture, Slate addressed the surprise that greeted her relationship with Chris Evans – including her own.

To be quite honest, I didn’t think I was his type,” she says. (Evans has dated Jessica Biel and Minka Kelly). “Eventually, when it was like, Oh, you have these feelings for me?, I was looking around like, Is this a prank? I mean, I understand why I think I’m beautiful, but if you’ve had a certain lifestyle and I’m a very, very different type of person — I don’t want to be an experiment.” Evans never made her feel that way, but it was hard to get past how so many people seemed to feel some ownership of him and view her as an interloper. “If you are a woman who really cares about her freedom, her rights, her sense of being an individual, it is confusing to go out with one of the most objectified people in the entire world,” she says. Especially when she’s aware that in Hollywood, she says, “I’m considered some sort of alternative option, even though I know I’m a majorly vibrant sexual being.”

Although she is a conventionally attractive, very successful actress, Slate knows she is “considered some sort of alternative option” when put next to stars like Jessica Biel.

But is there something else going on? 35-year-old Slate has enormous popularity amongst 20 and 30-something women, both thanks to her warm and funny performances in Obvious Child, Girls, and Parks and Recreation, and her generally warm and funny persona. Just look at this selection of tweets, which, with their blend of feminism, humour, self-deprecation and encouragement, are obviously written by the funnier, wiser older sister you never had:

And that Vulture piece is a rare thing in celebrity profiles – a genuinely candid and exposed interview. She talks openly about her feelings for Evan, the difficulties of meeting him at the same time as her divorce was going through, her lack of “prudence” in dating again so quickly. She even compares herself to ornamental mice:

Slate introduces me to the mascots of her new home, two cute mice figurines in jaunty outfits who look like they’re off to travel the world. “The way I feel now is I’ve stepped out of the woods and I’m a forest animal and I’m standing on the lawn,” she says. “And if anybody tried to approach me right now, they’re seeing a creature that’s just trying to figure out what the lawn is like. All I’m thinking about is the lawn. I’m not thinking about whether or not they are going to be a fun person to be on the lawn with, because I am just trying to be on the lawn.” And what or where is this lawn? “It’s just where I am,” she says. “I like the lawn. It’s filled with air, freedom, sunlight, and I’m alone.”

Part of the reason people feel so surprised by, and so invested in, Slate’s love life, and her closeness to society’s paragons of male attractiveness, is because they see themselves in her. Slate is generous enough to be open and vulnerable in a very public way, and that makes her simultaneously relatable and aspirational. It’s like your best friend just turned around and told you she’s dating Jon Hamm. You love your best friend. You think anyone would be lucky to date her. You’ve always thought she is radiant and beautiful and special. But you’re still shocked and excited to learn she’s dating Jon fucking Hamm.

The delight onlookers feel in glimpsing Slate’s love life in tabloids might be creepy, or misplaced, or even vaguely patronising. But, to me, it doesn’t seem malicious or insulting. Because who wouldn’t want to be Jenny Slate?

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

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