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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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era