The Edot (Part I): The Pasty UK Years

If pushed to give my primary reason for, on a good day (i.e., when I haven’t been induced into spasm by some impudent native), preferring life in Israel to that in the UK, then pipping even the food, weather and women (in ascending order of hotness) would have to be the rich tapestry of Jewish life here. In spite of our many detractors (and, indeed, problems), the short history of Israel has been one of startling achievement in almost every field, not least of which has been the absorption of so many disparate edot (ethnic groups) – each with its own distinctive culture and traditions – into such a remarkably united (even if we wish it were more so) whole.

But whenever attempting to relate my experiences of, for instance, Moroccan or Yemenite Jews, and especially of their womenfolk, to an Anglo Jew, I am met with a blank expression (one that Part II will attempt to address). The vast majority of British Jews lack any frame of reference in this regard, hailing from or having their origins in Poland, Galicia (today straddling Poland and Ukraine), Russia, the Baltics, Germany, and, to a lesser extent, Hungary. And, growing up in North-West London, the very marginal differences between such Jews could only be discerned from their particular shuls or shtiebls (large and small synagogues) if they had them (most now don’t), from their Shabbos meals, though mainly from their own peculiar – in both senses – sense of identity.

So, in the Isaacson household, for example, my father, of Lithuanian extraction, always appeared to delight in highlighting (in good humour, mind) the intellectual and cultural inferiority of the Galicianer Reiss family into which he had married. The Litvak, he was certain, constituted the very “cream” of European Jewry. Indeed, my father’s claim has always seemed to me to be somewhat justified, the Litvak misnagdim appearing, on the one hand, more enlightened (almost by definition) than the hassidic Galicianers, whilst, on the other, somehow more human than the anally-challenged German Yekkes. (In contrast to most Jewish immigrants to the UK, who arrived immediately before and after the turn of the last century, the majority of Hungarian Jews did not escape the Holocaust and were perhaps, therefore, considered beyond, even light-hearted, stereotype.)

The sickening history of anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe, however, made the “Old Country” a delicate subject for all immigrants. Even though they escaped Lithuania and Galicia around two and three decades, respectively, before the rise of Hitler, my parents never heard their parents or grandparents talk about the pogroms and persecutions that they had suffered in their backward, Jew-hating hellholes. Anyway, there is far more that unites Ashkenazi (European) Jews than separates them. And the differences between them would be no more recognisable to the outsider – or even to most other Jews – than those between, for instance, British Muslims of Bangladeshi extraction and those from Pakistan.

United Colors of British Jewry: Board of Deputies honorary officers, 2009

United Colors of British Jewry: Board of Deputies honorary officers, 2009

A relatively small community of Sephardic Jews – of primarily Middle Eastern and North African descent – added some much-needed colour to the rather pallid complexion of Anglo-Jewish life. My exposure was to the, largely Indian, Sephardic community of Hendon, to the Adenites of Stamford Hill (many of whom attended Hasmonean Grammar School for Boys), and to a smattering of Moroccans, Egyptians, Iraqis and Persians (most of whom had escaped the 1979 Islamic Revolution, wisely with little more than their carpets).

And these Sephardim brought a lot to the table. Quite literally. Their mealtime plenty was quite an eye-opener for the Anglo Jew, in whose kitchen meticulous Shabbos potato allocation was carried out on a Thursday morning. Blessed with an Egyptian aunt, however, I was spared a childhood of exclusively (miserably bland) Ashkenazi fare (though even that was an improvement on traditional English grub). Wary not to injure his daughter’s (my mother’s) feelings, my grandfather would play months of  ‘chess’ with the food she had deposited in his freezer, while my aunt’s wasn’t even given time to ice over.

The door policy, too, operated in Sephardic households was significantly more relaxed, with strays wandering in and out without any requirement for advance written invitation. This was a real culture shock for the Anglo Jew, who ‘greeted’ every unexpected knock at the door – which, even after positive identification, still wasn’t always opened – with a suspicious glance through translucent curtains or a built-in, magnifying peephole.

Perhaps in their attempt to blend in, however, the differences between these various Sephardic ethnicities and cultures were rarely visible to, or experienced by, their Ashkenazi ‘hosts’. And, beyond the puerile mimicking of the ‘funny’ accents of our new Persian classmates, I was never aware of any racism towards, or even light-hearted stereotyping of, our darker brothers. Indeed, many of them easily assimilated into Raleigh Close, Hendon’s very traditional United Synagogue. Moreover, the fact that the biggest “lout/wretch” (to quote the Legendary Swansean) in our school year was Morocco born and bred was neither here nor there.

In Israel, however, the richness of Jewish multi-ethnicity is celebrated, nurtured, and flourishes. And the deliciously incorrect sense of humour enjoyed here, thriving on ethnic excess and eccentricity (this kinda thing), simply could not exist without the edot. Is there anything to the inevitable, resulting stereotypes? You betcha!! And don’t believe anyone who – serving his or, of course, her ‘god’ of political correctness – tells you otherwise.

[Next on melchett mikeThe Edot (Part II): Ethnic Yentzing in Palestine. If you are offended by generalisations, and un-PC ones at that, then give it a miss. Anyway, you are probably on the wrong blog . . .]

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11 responses to “The Edot (Part I): The Pasty UK Years

  1. “Ethnic Yentzing in Palestine” – PML! Can’t wait for Part II

  2. Machshova Levatolah

    Oh this is wonderful (in a wholly disreputable way).

    It also shows exactly why today’s American Jewry just does not get Anglo Jewry. There isn’t the same homogeneous background, It is one of the few areas which is the same in the US regardless of the color or shade of ones religious identificationaffiliatiion

    If you look at it from the other way round, it explains why ex-pat Anglo Jews will seek each other out with an almost magnetic attraction (There are pools of localized immunity in Isreal). Back home they would not be seen dead within a hundred yards (meters) of each other, but plonk them down in some foreign land, let them acclimatize for a few years and then introduce them to another ex-pat and they will happily yachna the night away.

    The corollary is however, that this affinity, which can transcend almost all boundaries and be both extremely strong and long lasting, is based firmly in chrono- and geo-nostalgia. Thus, it will invariably be platonic which can be very upsetting, especially to the party who would never have had a chance anyway!!

  3. And what about the Latvians?

  4. I don’t know. What about them?

  5. I don’t know either, it just struck me that you didn’t list them and they also looked down on the Galicianers – in a lighthearted fashion which was a good thing seeing as my maternal booba whose grandparents came from Riga (she was second generation Londoner as early as 1902) wed my maternal zaida who was born somewhere in Galicia.
    Anyhow, looking forward to part II…

  6. I was being disingenuous, Adam. Latvians are Litvaks, too. Found this for you.

  7. Booba always described herself as a Litvak then one day, long after she died I used the expression to so describe her to an acquaintance in Israel (an otherwise reliable source of information on all things Jewish) who soundly put me in my place. He informed me with great authority that only Lithuanians were Litvaks…Anyhow, thanks for putting me straight. Just goes to show; one should never question one’s booba!

  8. Jews, and especially Israelis, always think that they know better. But only some of us do. 😉

    PS Just wondering about that Board of Deps photo above: could it be that standing arrangements were made on fattist lines? As if we haven’t got enough tzores . .

  9. I’m not sure but if the two guys on the outside were on the inside it would look like a sort of double image of that wonderful Cleese, Barker and Corbett class sketch – except with more Barker. Also, such a configuration would create the illusion that the smaller guys were less significant, like one of those ancient Egyptian friezes where the Pharaoh is depicted as larger than everyone else …and by the way Mike, you should be aware that I am a confirmed, unabashed fattist – it just so happens that my aforementioned Israeli “Jewish expert” was on the corpulent side now I come to think of it – I hope that this doesn’t colour your opinion of me….

  10. The most sylphlike is, indeed, the most “significant”: Vivian Wineman, the President of the Board (with whom I have had the pleasure of cycling, for Norwood).

    Fatties are always the most opinionated.

  11. John Fisher

    “….the anally-challenged German Yekkes.”

    If I were a Yekke, I would probably take the spirit of your statement as a compliment. What would bother me is the terminology. “Anally-challenged”? “Anally-retentive” or, simply, “anal”, s’il vous plait. To paraphrase Churchill: This is English, up the backside of which, I will not put.

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