“Sorry,” he proffered, as he inadvertently passed between me and the bookshelf.
“Bloody hell” I thought, after doing a brief double take, “that would never happen in Steimatzky!”
I had been browsing the Travel Writing section of my favourite bookshop – Waterstone’s (formerly Dillons) on Gower Street – as the impeccably mannered Englishman momentarily obstructed my view. This seemingly insignificant episode, however, resonated with me, demonstrating as it did the huge contrast in attitudes and behaviour between my birthplace and my homeland.
There is something lovely and serene about many aspects of life in Blighty, including the manner in which (most) folk treat each other with common courtesy and respect (if not warmth).
After a week in London (following a year and a half without a visit), however, I was ready to come home (which I did a few days later, last Thursday). Whilst enjoying the ‘civilisation’ booster, I now experience considerable difficulty in readjusting to the English, and – oddly perhaps – to English Jews especially.
This has become very apparent to me on Anglo-Jewish charity bike rides overseas, when I find it extremely testing having to spend a week and a half with a hundred, primarily North-West London coreligionists. For my last ride, in the Far East, I made my own way from Tel Aviv to the group’s hotel in Saigon. On arrival, the first person I came across, from Stanmore, on hearing that I had come from Israel, felt compelled to assure me of his Zionist credentials:
“I would never sell my flat in Herzliya Pituach.”
Oh, Theodor would have been so proud!
At last Monday’s seder (Passover meal), which I enjoyed in Muswell Hill, the Manc sitting opposite me, finding an Anglo-Israeli at the table, laid into American Jewish settlers, who – even if I don’t always agree with them – have priorities considerably more weighty than the “French château that sleeps 19” which Manc informed us he is about to lose to his ex-wife. I liked her already.
Then, clearly trying to impress the new fiancée by his side – and more closely resembling the Haggadah’s (seder service’s) Wicked Son (who tries to distance himself from the Jewish people) with every ignorant word – he became a tad bolder:
“It might have been better if Israel had never existed.”
“Your life would be a lot more precarious if it didn’t,” I fired back as if he had just dissed my mum. In fact, if the Wicked Son hadn’t been my friend’s brother-in-law, the Isaac Son might have jeopardised any future invitation by following the Haggadah’s instruction to “smash his teeth”.
The purpose of my trip was to attend an Isaacson simcha (festivity). And whilst – following the bar mitzvah of my cousin’s twins – there are two fine new Isaacson men, the speeches (including that of the Rabbi), essentially on cricket and Arsenal FC, prompted even this once sports mad teenager to think that his Isaacsons (should he, one day, surprise everyone) will grow up here.
When in England, these days, I find myself acting like a member of the Israel Tourist Board. Wicked Son excepted, I offered Melchett hospitality to everyone I met. The obvious reluctance of some to accept it, however, saddened me.
“I am not visiting until there is peace,” declared a cousin on the other, Reiss side of the family, who spends his vacations in Dubai. “I wouldn’t feel safe there” (a curious statement, I thought, considering he has never been). And another (who has a box at Arsenal) hasn’t returned since receiving poor service at his hotel’s pool during his only visit, in the Seventies.
I also dropped in on an old friend from law school, whose seemingly delightful Hampstead Garden Suburb existence – replete with BMW jeep and designer Labrador – showed me what I could have had if I didn’t love this f*cked-up country so bloody much.
The only thing that I truly do miss about Blighty is the sound of leather on willow – one even more seductive than that, from the building opposite, of “Melchett Shabbes afternoon girl” (if you get my drift) – but the politeness, the châteaus, the Premier League boxes, the Suburb, the jeeps, even the ‘proper’ dogs (only joking, Stuey and Dexx!) . . . none of them held any real allure.
If you feel that you truly belong here, none of that “stuff” is any substitute.