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David Baddiel: What it's like to be the world's sixth sexiest Jew

Jewishness is in my bones, but I don’t want to make that much of a fuss about my ethnicity.

In 2006, I won a very exciting award: I was voted “the world’s sixth sexiest Jew”. Obviously, I found this extremely flattering, until I discovered that the number five slot had gone to Alan Sugar. I should perhaps not have been surprised. It was an award voted for in this country; so I may, for all I know, have come last, as I’d be amazed if the British public can name more than six Jews. If it did stretch backwards, I suspect number ten may have been Hitler, just by association.

It’s an odd thing, being famous-ish and Jew-ish in the UK. I’m still, I think, one of about three – I’m going to use the C-word, apologies – celebrities who people could locate the ethnicity of as such, the others being . . . I dunno . . . Vanessa Feltz? Sacha Baron Cohen? This is not because there aren’t a fair few Jewish celebrities around. In comedy, as ever, there are loads – Ben Elton, Alexei Sayle, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas and Simon Amstell all have at least some Jew in them, and I read on Wikipedia that even Michael McIntyre, despite being called McIntyre, has “eastern European Jewish roots” (that’s us Jews all over though – infiltrating culture at the highest level but so hard to spot ).

But in the minds of the public, none of these comedians would be thought of first and foremost as Jewish, with the possible exception of Amstell: and even he, I’d contend, despite creating a whole sitcom set around his very Jewish family, is more likely to be thought of as gay (sexuality, of course, always trumps ethnicity in the construction of self, but especially a fragile ethnicity such as Jewishness).

The reason is that Jewishness, at least in Britain – Anglo-Jewishness: you see, it even sounds woolly – is not really a clear identity. As immigrants, you have two possible destinies: either you come to dominate your culture, as Jews to some extent have in the US, or you become an important and significant underground voice. But Jews in the UK occupy neither one position nor the other. Most of them arrived here at a time before it was considered fashionable or important to proclaim your ethnicity; thus there is no radical cachet in doing so, as there is for virtually every other minority group. Moreover, the hanging around of the myth that Jews are moneyed, believed in as much by the left as the right, means that although marginal, they are not thought of as marginalised. We are not, in other words, considered oppressed (despite being historically right at the top of Persecution’s Premiership) and oppression is the wellspring of cool.

Also, the way of existing for the Anglo-Jewish community has been, for many years, to keep its head down and hope nobody notices us. Jews in England – markedly different from their brethren in the US – are terrified about being seen as making a fuss about being Jewish. This is partly because of their own Englishness – English people don’t like to make a fuss about anything, except class – and partly because of England’s opinion about Jews, which is that they’re fine, as long as they don’t go on about it.

I’ve noticed this in the way that my identity has been configured in the culture. While I’ve undeniably always been very out about it, I haven’t, in my career, done that much about Jewishness – not more so than football and certainly not more so than sex – but nonetheless, when Channel 4’s Bo’ Selecta decided to take the piss, it pictured me as an enormous grotesque Hasid; and, still, every couple of weeks I get a hate tweet saying something along the lines of, “@Baddiel Hey why don’t you tell us all about you being Jewish again”. This change-the-record thing is not something that happens, as far as I’m aware, to black (no one – certainly no Jews – says to Chris Rock: enough with all the stuff about niggas, already) or gay comedians. I’ve seen Omid Djalili live a number of times, and never heard the heckle, “Yes, all right, we know you’re Iranian.”

So now there’s a quandary. On the one hand, I don’t want to give in to this basically anti- Semitic pressure to leave it about my ethnicity. On the other hand – yes, I know I’m sounding like Topol – because I’m one of very few well-known Jews in this country, I get asked to do a lot of Jewish stuff. Every Limmud and Jewish student body in the UK seem to have my email. If a production company has won a commission for a documentary on a multicultural theme, needing, perhaps, a representative from each of the ethnic biggies – well, under Judaism, who you gonna call?

And so, now, I turn them all down (for the same reason, I nearly turned down writing this piece, but the editor is persuasive). While I hate the idea of being thought of as in any way in the Jewish closet (a cramped place as it is, what with all the schmatter samples and left-over herring), and would never, ever deny that Jewishness is in my bones (despite being intellectually a fundamentalist atheist; God, it’s all so complex, isn’t it?) – I too don’t want to make that much of a fuss about it. I don’t wish to be seen as Britain’s Mr Jew. I’m happy to leave that to Lord Sugar.

David Baddiel’s novel, “The Death of Eli Gold” (4th Estate), is out in paperback now

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?