Author Archive

In Babylon

April 6, 2009

Exile in Babylon
Irving Finkel

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Naomi Alderman

What would one do without Jewish Book Week? Its programme is always full of such treasure, I feel I have only to dip my hand in to come out clutching gems. And the joy is: one can simply dip in, pick a subject about which one knew next-to-nothing and come out feeling well-educated.

So my highlight of the 2009 Book Week wasn’t one of the many well-known writers or raconteurs but a talk I’d picked on a whim: Irving Finkel’s talk on Babylon. I say a whim. I’d been to see the exhibition at the British Museum – and why is it that every exhibition at the British Museum these days seems to be superb, unmissable? – and thought Finkel’s talk might throw new light on it. I didn’t really have higher hopes than that, but I should have.

I think it’s fair to say that Irving Finkel is one of the most electrifying, passionate, exciting speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. For an hour, he led the audience through the true meaning and import of various cuneiform tablets. Which, yes, sounds pretty dry. But it really wasn’t.

Did you know, for example, that the British Museum holds a clay tablet used to signify a deposit at a Babylonian ‘bank’ by a person whom the Torah tells us met the prophet Daniel? We have an actual object that was in the actual hand of someone who met the actual Biblical figure Daniel. He of the lion’s den.

Did you know that Rembrandt was friends with a Rabbi who helped him compose the inscription in the painting Belshazzar’s Feast? Did you know that Mene, Mene, Tekel uFarsin is a list of weights of increasingly small size as used in Babylon? Did you know that various scholars have tried to prove that Rembrandt could never have been friends with a Jew but that  – Professor Finkel was fantastically entertaining on the subject of his academic rivalries and disputes – it can certainly be proved that this was not the case?

I know all these things now, and more. I can impress my friends with them, I can discuss them at cocktail parties. I fully intend to get myself invited to the kind of cocktail parties where people will be impressed with this knowledge.

Honestly, there’s not much more wonderful in this world than listening to a great teacher with a passion for his subject telling you things you’d never have known any other way. After he’d been speaking for a few minutes, I turned to my friend and whispered: “Wow, isn’t he a great speaker?” and she replied in a low mutter: “I know. I think I want to marry him.”

Jewish Book Week. It’s not just a series of talks, it’s a forum for passion of all descriptions.

Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman

Posted by Naomi Alderman

Mamma Mia

March 11, 2009

Mamma Mia or The Joys of Family
Cosmo Landesman, Olivia Lichtenstein, William Sutcliffe, Chair: Michele Hanson

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Michele Hanson

What a scary session. My first time as a chairperson, and although people have been very polite, I don’t think I did that well. I know I didn’t, because a very cross woman from the audience roared up to me afterwards with a complaint. ‘I couldn’t hear a word you said,’ she roared. ‘You have no right to be a chair if you don’t know how to use a microphone. I’m going to complain, and so are lots of other people.’ Horrors. My friend in the audience had been trying to warn me, pointing repeatedly at her ear and shaking her head, but did I take any notice? No, because I know my friend is more or less deaf, so I just went on, leaning backwards, swaying about, miles from the microphone. But the others seemed to have got the hang of it. Cosmo Landesman spoke loudly and clearly, William Sutcliffe and Olivia Lichtenstien spoke fluently in a fascinating way, and who knows whether I spoke at all? Perhaps I did, perhaps I didn’t. ‘You were very good,’ said the more supportive persons, but they would, wouldn’t they? They’re not going to say ‘You’re a complete drek and spoke in a whisper.’ Then we did the podcast with Jason Solomons, who spoke fabulously and so did everyone else, but did I? I shall never know, because I daren’t listen to the podcast.

Michele Hanson

Michele Hanson

Posted by Michele Hanson. Michele Hanson is the author of Age of Dissent , about growing old, Treasure and What Treasure Did Next, all originally published as columns in The Guardian.

Tales of Everyday Craziness

March 11, 2009

Tales of Everyday Craziness
With Jon Ronson

This event took place on 22nd February 2009

Posted by Claire Berliner

Saturdays just haven’t been the same since Jon Ronson stopped writing his weekly column in the Guardian, funny observations of the craziness of everyday life. So it was a pleasure and a treat to see his session at Jewish Book Week and to hear some of those columns out loud, including my personal favourite in which he sees a girl mimicking the way he eats in a restaurant, decides the best response is to mimic her mimicking him and then, as a look of shock begins to spread across her face, he realises that his action looks uncannily like he’s mimicking a blow job – he is a forty year old man mimicking a blow job to a fourteen year old girl. I laughed even though I knew the punch line, the rest of the audience laughed, Jon demonstrated the action and we all laughed some more.

Jon Ronson has made a career out of observing the absurd, not just in his own life but in the world in general. He showed clips of ‘Tottenham Ayatollah’, a film he’d made about the fundamentalist Islamist Omar Bakri, which managed to reduce a figure of hate into a figure of fun with barely any commentary at all. In one clip Omar catches a fish but is scared it will bite him. A fundamentalist colleague says ‘How will you fight jihad if you’re scared of a fish?’ A member of the audience asked ‘Are you suggesting that all Islamic fundamentalists are incompetent fools? ‘No’ said Ronson, ‘just Omar.’

Ronson talked about meetings with a Klu Klux Klan chief who was the white supremicist version of Woody Allen, denying he was Jewish whilst hanging out with neo-Nazis, following David Icke (not in a spiritual way), meeting ex-US military men who think they can stare goats to death and other ‘irrational bubbles in our world’. In fact he was supposed to have been at Jewish Book Week last year but he cancelled at the last minute because, as he explained, Robbie Williams called to ask him to attend a UFO convention in the US – an offer he just couldn’t refuse.

Last year Ronson’s session sold out before it was cancelled. This year he stepped in at the last minute, so the session was not in the printed programme. As a result the audience was small but it was also the youngest and probably coolest audience I’d seen at Jewish Book Week and everyone seemed to have fun in Ronson’s funny, nebbishy, neurotic, how-on-earth-did-he-manage-to hide-his-Jewishness? presence.

Towards the end of the session Ronson admitted to receiving Google alerts so that he knows when someone has written about him on the internet… Hello Jon! Great talk.

Posted by Claire Berliner. Claire is a writer, puppet-maker and director of the Arvon centre at Totleigh Barton.

The Struggle to Unpack

March 17, 2008

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The East End Now and Then

Sat 1st March

East London has always been a source of fascination to me. Having once lived in squeaky clean, ostentatious Canary Wharf, I would often marvel at how close by the grubby and vibrant market streets of Whitechapel or Green Street were.  The shoppers and shopkeepers in these colourful districts seemed to be so unassuming, and unashamed about holding on to their Asian roots. I love the east end for this. In a society that is constantly berating its minorities for not integrating or adapting enough to the British ideals of secularism and identity, these Britons were flaunting their rich cultural ethos and loving it.  The flip side of course to the area’s charming chaos is a desperately dire housing situation and social exclusion, not surprisingly leading to higher crime rates and unemployment. While these problems are not unique to areas populated largely by immigrants, they are particularly interesting in this case because of the extraordinary history of east London.  Bernard Kops delivered a touching nostalgia of the days when east London was desperately poor and teeming with ambitious Jewish immigrants. When visiting the area now, he feels “a sense of sadness at the one or two synagogues that are tiny, hardly ever open” – yet adds – “I feel much more at home with the Bangladeshi’s.”  

The discussion that followed between Bernard Kops, Monica Ali and Oona King was rich in anecdotal comparisons of the political, economic and generational experiences that Jews and Muslims have shared in this region. What was absent was any discussion of the perceived threat that alienated immigrants can have on society at large – or the political tensions that sometimes exist between these two communities. How incredibly refreshing it is to learn that religious differences truly mean nothing when you are new to a country. The struggle to mentally unpack is the same for everyone.

Shenaz Kermalli works for Al Jazeera English

meeting the audience

March 11, 2008

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I haven’t been a published author all that long but I’ve done a fair few appearances by now, and I’ve got used to how they work.  Jewish Book Week was a little different. Nice turnout – about forty people, I think.  I read a couple of chapters (one and four, if you’re interested) and discussed my novel – a humourous novel about Greek Gods living in modern London – in a reasonably straightforward way with the friendly compere.  Then we opened it to questions from the floor.First question – yes, from you, the older woman with the long grey hair.  Thank you. “Would you say that extreme orthodoxy in religion, Jewish or otherwise, is in fact a barrier to moral and ethical engagement with the world?”Well, it makes a change from “How did you get your publishing deal?”

Marie Philips is the author of Gods Behaving Badly

Homefronts

March 6, 2008

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Transformations: Photo-essay by Ricki Rosen; Homefront Sayed Kashua in conversation with Matt Rees 

Sunday 2nd March 

These two talks were, for me, exercises in stripping away naivety. In the first, most of the stripping was left to me in what was presented as above all a great success story. In Israel’s 1991 “Operation Solomon”, 15,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted from Addis Ababa to Israel in a space of 33 hours, crammed into 38 aeroplanes. They were escaping a situation of great danger and potential persecution, but they arrived in one where the dangers were more insidious.

Ricki Rosen talked us through a series of her own photographs, mostly in before-and-after pairs, switching or fading decoratively between the days of the airlift and her discovery of some of the same families living in Israel today. We saw Ethiopian families crouched in their single-room mud huts, followed by shots of them looking better fed, if not significantly better housed. Often younger children had become adolescents and embraced the world of fashion, hanging out in malls or even more often snapped in army uniform.

Rosen told us heart-warming stories about each family, about the babies born in mid-air, the new influx of superb Ethiopian sportsmen in the Israeli teams, about new inter-ethnic marriages between Ethiopian Israelis and Israelis from elsewhere. She only occasionally reflected on the dark side to this second ‘Escape from Egypt’, as she and others characterised it. She didn’t stop to ask how it must have felt to give birth in an aeroplane carrying more than twice the 500 people that was its designated maximum, except to repeat a quip about the pilot setting a new record. Towards the end of her talk, she did comment that malls and restaurants feature frequently in the ‘after’ images, partly because they employ many of the Ethiopian immigrants as security guards. This puts them on another front line as well as that in the army, that of terrorism.

I couldn’t escape the feeling that far bigger questions went entirely unexplored, in this undeniably fascinating talk: to what extent were the Ethiopian immigrants agents of or willing and informed participants in their own rescue? Would they have done it had they know they would encounter racism, unthinking ethnic and religious discrimination, a shocking fast-forward to life in a high-tech society and concomitant ruptures in their families and communities? Wasn’t this a mission every bit as crude as that attempted by earlier Christian missionaries in Africa, only disguised by the use of such shiny, persuasive equipment as aeroplanes? I left feeling educated and unsettled.

Sayed Kashua was, paradoxically, a more reassuring speaker. An Arab and a Muslim, Kashua lives in Jerusalem, writing novels and columns for popular newspaper Ha’aretz in Hebrew, and writing and producing a comedy series for national news channel TV2 – partly in subtitled Arabic. He was born in a Palestinian village in the Galilee region of Israel; he still has family in the West Bank and says that all his fiction so far takes place in that Palestinian village setting that is his enduring idea of home.

Fighting his way through a thicket of more-or-less inane labels (eg “Israel’s only great Jewish humourist”), Kashua was determined to handle the unavoidable questions about identity with down-to-earth logic. He explained that as a member of a minority, one doesn’t have the privilege of defining oneself – it’s done for you. More forthrightly, he rejected any claim that he should define himself – he is sufficiently under attack as a Muslim, a Palestinian and an Arab that there is no purpose in attacking him in addition as a confusing, border-blind anomaly. He joked bitterly that, in Israel, any Arab without a moustache and not carrying a bomb is called “an Arab with an identity crisis”. Yet he suggests that Israelis have a worse underlying identity crisis than he.

Kashua was also illuminating on the subject of working in Hebrew: he says many Israelis feel attacked by this. For them it is tantamount to an Arab invasion of their literary territory. He added, sadly, that he feels sorry for what both sides have done to their languages, that language was never meant to bear arms. For him, it is simply the language of his living, the one in which he is most expressive and the one in which he can get published. Yet  many Israelis have suspected him of working for Mossad, the Israeli security service – so rare is his accomplishment in Israeli daily life.

There were the usual questions about Kashua’s practice as a writer but the most moving moments came as bookends to the main talk. Before Kashua had said a word, his most recent column for Ha’aretz was read aloud by Matt Rees (http://www.mywire.com/pubs/HaaretzIsrael/%202008/02/29/5797961). This was charming and shocking, a potent illustration of why Israel still has far to go. Then, at the very end, came the question “Why are you not proud to be a citizen of Israel? What should Israel look like that would make you content to live there?”  – this in tones of outrage that Israel should be slighted by this privileged young Arab. At this there were mutterings in the audience, divisions became tangible, someone called out ‘you don’t have to answer’ but it became clear that Kashua was working out what to reply. After a long, tense hush, he responded: “What should Israel look like? … A little bit smaller”, to delighted applause and laughter. But he left the room, after this stroke of genius, looking pretty wiped out. If Israel has a way to go, so do we.

Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.

 

‘conversation’s greatest hits’ and other tips.

March 6, 2008

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Writing Workshop with Amy Bloom 

Sunday 2nd March

English people are terrible at sitting in a semi-circle and sharing.  This, I think, is what Amy Bloom will have taken away from her session on Sunday.  When she arrived, in jeans, immediately likeable and slightly late, she found her audience as tense as she was relaxed, as earnest as she was breezy.  I’m talking crossed legs.  Crossed arms. Handbags on laps.   Her face said “this is going to be a long session”.  I wanted to reply “it’s nothing personal – we like you, we’ll warm up”.
 
Except we didn’t warm up.  Why?  Because it was 11am on a Sunday morning.  And frankly, it’s a big ask to get 40 Jews in a room at that hour – sans bagels and coffee – and expect them to be in the mood to talk.  Happily, Amy Bloom is every bit as eloquent, funny and gigantically intelligent as her fiction would lead you to hope.  So we didn’t have to talk – we just listened as she discussed characterisation, plot, beginnings and why dialogue “is not conversation, it’s conversation’s greatest hits”.
 
Most people in the room had read Bloom’s latest novel
Away and when we finally progressed beyond “I can’t see the board” and “can you speak up”, most questions related in some way to how that masterpiece was realised. For me, Bloom’s early work – two collections of short stories and her first novel Love Invents Us – is what had got me up that early on a Sunday morning. Come to Me – her first book of short stories – occupies a special shelf in my psyche dedicated to the handful of works that made me want to become a writer.  So, being in the esteemed presence of the author, did I allow my 18 year old self to leap out of her seat and make such a declaration? Of course not.  Instead, I took notes.  Quietly.  And raised my hand right at the end, when there was no more time for questions.  Without making eye-contact.  A magnificent display of the national character in action there.
 
It was a weird day. We were weird.  And yet – Amy took it all in her stride and was rather dazzling.  Even at 11am. Even without coffee.  And you know what?  I actually think she liked us.

Nicole Taylor writes drama for television

Murder They Write

March 5, 2008

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Jonathan Freedland (Sam Bourne) and Matt ReesWednesday February 27th

When two journalists as established as Jonathan Freedland and Matt Rees – who wrote about the Middle East in Time magazine for a decade – turn to writing thrillers and mystery novels, one wonders what lures them aside from such successful careers. They both felt that a different genre enabled them to do important things that the journalistic treadmill doesn’t: to explore the day-to-day texture of individual lives, the subtexts lurking behind politicians’ official statements and the moral complexities of a world inevitably painted in shades of grey. Freedland, who has written two thrillers under the name Sam Bourne, says he deliberately ended them in a way that, he hopes, leaves readers reflecting that perhaps the villain had a point . . . Even the subtlest opinion piece needs to be a good deal more direct and unambiguous.  Freedland has decided to continue working as a journalist, partly because he loves it and partly because his “day job” keeps giving him stimulus and great material for into his fiction. Politicians who are keen to meet up with him as the Guardian’s lead columnist would be far less interested in someone researching his next bestseller. Rees, by contrast, writes standing up in his room in Jerusalem facing out towards Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives. Already surrounded by drama, he has no need to keep churning out articles to provide him with stories. Though he visited Gaza a good deal to write The Saladin Murders, he no longer wants or needs to go there – the balance of risks just isn’t worth it now it’s no longer essential for his research. Although he describes it as deliberately apolitical, his decision to try and portray ordinary life in Gaza and Bethlehem, a world where the Israelis impinge but are never really visible, could also be seen as highly political – a deliberate attempt to get people to look beyond sloganeering and simplistic headlines.  Writers successful in more “serious” often get a hard time when they try to write for the mass market. Freedland, in particular, has attracted some ferocious reviews, no doubt inspired by jealousy, but he seemed pretty cool about it – for this kind of book the only real question is whether readers beyond the chattering classes go out and buy it, and find it a page-turner.  Rees, on the other hand, got reviews back in the Middle East which reflect the political realities out there. One Arab newspaper, responding to an English edition (there are no Arabic translations as yet), had to devote most of the space coverage to explaining the strange, almost subversive notion of the political mystery novel. Since it is a genre where somebody, usually a private individual, goes around trying to uncover political secrets, it may well be an intrinsically democratic form, something the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world and elsewhere would never want to encourage.  The Israeli reaction was even more to the point. Rees is British, therefore antisemitic, and therefore had written a bad book.  

Mathew Reisz writes for the Times Higher Education Supplement and is the former editor of the Jewish Quarterly.

A Passion For Sheer Quirk?

March 5, 2008

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 Shlomo Avineri and Alan Ryan on Isiah Berlin 

This was an odd event, in several ways. The speakers declined to be introduced, leaving that tedious bit of background-giving until afterwards. It was also, emphatically, a conversation rather than a formal lecture or dialogue, yet the speakers’ styles were strikingly different and the act of talking in front of a large, silent audience always becomes something of a performance. So there was artifice but also passion and erudite improvisation. The images of a sparkling, desirable kaleidoscope of peoples and types versus a bland, homogeneous soup of mankind, that Alan Ryan invoked near the beginning, worked for me throughout: philosopher-historian Isaiah Berlin could only be viewed as through a kaleidoscope, showing many facets at once but never a simple, integrated person. Ryan spoke like a slightly comedic, avuncular professor (which he is), circling around his subject, inserting digressions and exclamations at leisure. Avineri was more direct but no less humorous. Both had a tough task winkling out what in Isaiah Berlin’s personality and views could be defined as his Jewishness. They touched on his suggestive interest in other great “borderline” Jews, including Marx and Disraeli, inferring that Berlin understood these men in a way few others could, both like him standing somewhat apart from the class they were born into. They touched on Berlin’s famous quip that “the Jews are like everybody else, only more so”, which Avineri inverted to apply to Berlin himself. For Avineri, Berlin was a “true enlightenment person”, which licensed his apparently complete indifference to spiritual questions. He was very interested in nationalism in general, as an advocate of auto-emancipation, but Zionism for him was fraught territory, and his negotiation of it was hard to follow – as both speakers confessed!Both men were more comfortable on the influence of Berlin’s two countries, the Russia of his early years and his adopted Britain. They saw Berlin admiring certain aspects of each – Russian fire and activism, and British ingrained liberal habits – that together might have embodied his dream of a liberal nation. Both also made much of Berlin’s tutorial style at Oxford, and thus his overall style as a philosopher. Ryan reminisced about being introduced to Machiavelli as if he were sitting in the room with him, and being obliged to engage him in argument. For him, the ‘Isaiah mode’ brought philosophy to life and into his life, though it risked allowing all other philosophers to merge with Berlin’s own philosophy. The exhilaration of having the great man concede affably “You’re probably right, I’m wrong” still moves the distinguished warden of New College, Oxford.

The hour’s conclusion was a hybrid of Desert Island Discs and an Oxford tutorial: each speaker nominated his favourite Berlin work to be saved from the waves (Berlin on Disraeli and Marx for Avineri; his essay on Herzen in A Marvellous Decade for Ryan); then Ryan made a steeple of his fingers and pronounced “good”, as if we had at any rate listened well, if not written a decent essay.

 Sophie Lewis is the first UK director of American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press, seeking out great literature to publish from all over the world. She also translates French literary fiction and prose into English.

God Wrestling

March 5, 2008

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God Wrestling; Shalom Auslander and A.L. Kennedy“There but for the grace of god go I,”is a common reaction from a Shalom Auslander audience as he tends to attract those whose psyches, like his, were shaped at an early age by fundamentalist religion.  Not that Shalom Auslander’s God reveals much in the way of grace.  It is wise to avoid attributing a gender to God but the deity dominating Foreskin’s Lament is inexorably male – male and in the image of Auslander’s abusive alcoholic father.    Car crashes, miscarriages, gruesome murders, congenital deformity – four topics hardly likely to elicit laughter from an audience yet Shalom Auslander’s reading, with imagined punishments meted out by the aforementioned vengeful God, achieved exactly that.  AL Kennedy, Calvinist, session-chair and two-times mail-order minister, engaged with Auslander in a bout of one-upmanship to establish whose childhood was more scarred as a result of their respective religious upbringings.  They say in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. If you’d asked before Thursday who’s the king between Shalom Auslander and A.L.Kennedy we’d have been hard-pressed to choose, being privileged to have heard each of them speak on multiple occasions in no-holds-barred displays of f**ked-upness.  Although A.L. Kennedy made reference to the psychiatric competition in her opening remarks she came across as sound of mind throughout the session possibly because she strategically left most of the talking to Shalom Auslander. “I was told that I’d be boiled for an eternity in the semen that I had wasted during my teenage years,” read Auslander; Kennedy countered with equivalent tales of torment to be meted out to lapsed Catholics.  The audience added their own riffs – one former orthodox Rabbi only recently expurgating the idea that his soul would be catapulted from one end of the firmament to the other on account of his homosexual peccadilloes.  In fact those in attendance mostly sympathised with Auslander’s predicament, unlike many possibly unhinged readers who have communicated their rage stirred by his view of God and religion on blogs and online book reviews. Auslander is a formerly ultra-orthodox Jew who just can’t seem to shake the last vestiges of belief. He’s tried everything – from psychotherapy to a diet of Dawkins, Hitchens and marijuana, yet a part of him can’t help feeling that a nasty end awaits all those with whom he comes into contact on account of his tendency to transgress.  

A.L.Kennedy and Shalom Auslander have given us prize-winning novels and non-fiction along with the priceless ability to feel relatively sane by comparison.

 

Rivka Isaacson is a biophysicist at Imperial College London and poet laureate for www.lablit.com

Danny Pine is a doctor who now works for Medical Futures – a company dedicated to helping other doctors develop their new medical technologies