Zion lady: attending Israel Expo, London 2010, an event that encourages emigration to the state.
No Place Like Home: Britain’s Jewish Community in the 21st Century
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