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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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war