Howard Jacobson Has Nothing to Fear From Me

I seem to be going through a Howard Jacobson period. I’m reading his latest book (Live a Little), found significant fodder for thought in a recent column of his published in Tablet (Writing Jewish) and now a JTA interview with him, published in The Jerusalem Post, has more or less decided things. Howard Jacobson, a smart and funny Jewish writer from Manchester, is trying to dybbuk me.

The reason is clear: Ever since I gave up my day job and retired into full-time writing, his monopoly of the English-Jewish novel (in the sad absence of Bellow, Roth etc.) is under threat. I’m not aware of his trolling me on Twitter, bad-mouthing me on Facebook or any of that stuff – yet. But it’s only a matter of time. The Jewish reading world (which unfortunately does not seem to include my children) is not large enough for two titans of the written word.

True, I’ve yet to publish a novel – or any type of book, for that matter (I don’t think self-publishing counts) – but we Jews don’t need written evidence for our competitive tentacles to quiver. This sort of thing gets around like pollen and our noses are big enough to hoover it up. Jacobson, I’m certain, has sensed me in the ether.

Don’t get me wrong. Howard Jacobson is one of my favorite writers and the last thing I would want is for his anxiety over the competition I pose to harden into some sort of writer’s block. That would be tragic for both of us, not to mention the literary world as a whole. It is with that in mind that I make this sincere attempt to put his mind at rest.

Jacobson and I are both Jewish writers, despite the lopsided nature of our relative productivity, renown, remuneration, creativity and everything else that is part of the writing experience, other than sitting at a desk and churning out words. Paul Auster, Michael Chabon, Amos Oz and David Grossman are also Jewish writers, yet I don’t feel the same affinity with them as I do with Jacobson; the sense that we’re in the same ghetto. It probably has a lot to do with style. Jacobson’s wit and irony speak to me in a way that the tortured earnestness of Oz never has. That’s not just a question of literary preference; the person Jacobson is as distilled from his novels (and I take it to be an accurate extract) is almost as familiar to me as the people I grew up with. I feel as if I know him well.

That insight came to me when I read about his own moment of insight during the writing of his first book, Coming from Behind. It was only when, after Sisyphean struggle, he settled on the name Sefton Goldberg for his lead character that the book began to write itself. In other words – and this is far too simplistic, I suggest you read the piece for yourself – it was only when he embraced the Jew inside him, that he “put my Jewish voice into an English world that located it, on account of its unfamiliarity, as American.”

He discovered that “the world I’d grown up in was the world it was time I wrote about. If there was a sense of duty involved, it wasn’t duty to Jewish Manchester or my father’s Jewish carnivalesque, it was duty to myself … It would seem that the Jew I once wouldn’t let in is now the Jew I cannot keep out.”

Like Jacobson, I can’t get the Jew out of my writing. He’s there whether I like it or not, commanding my attention, irritating me with his mannerisms, embarrassing and angering me with his swaggering hauteur. My Jew is not Jacobson’s. Or, to inch closer to the truth, the diaspora Jew with his Eastern European roots and his conspicuous otherness in the non-Jewish world – in short, Jacobson’s Jew – is only a fading photograph in mine. Like him, I grew up as a diaspora Jew in a community of diaspora Jews (Johannesburg), but I have spent the last close to half a century living in Israel. And that means living among an entirely different type of Jew.

I don’t think Howard Jacobson has written much about Israel in his novels (I’d have to go through them to make sure), but if he has I’m pretty sure Israel was tangential to the main theme or themes. Israel hasn’t been part of his life experience or that part of his experience from which he derives his novels. From his essays and columns (mainly in the Independent and Tablet) I infer that his views on Israel don’t differ much from those of most other diaspora Jews of his generation, though few of them are able to express theirs with his incomparable style and curmudgeonly wit.

Jacobson is generally pro-Israel and tends to see anti-Israel manifestations as being motivated by anti-Semitism, at least a large part of the time. If he has written anything condemning – or even expressing unease with – Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and its highly illiberal treatment of the Palestinians, I haven’t read it. (And would be grateful to be corrected.) In Jacobson’s universe, Jews are the outsiders and Israel is the mythical temple on the hill to which religious Jews pray. They are dislocated versions of Bashevis Singer’s quirky but lovable shtetl Jews.

My Jew, on the other hand, is not very lovable. He lives in a sovereign country and expresses a rabid patriotism that I find distasteful and dangerous. He is a racist, inflated with ethnic self-regard and contemptuous of others, particularly those who also lay claim to his land. He is as bullying and indifferent to the pain of others as the worst anti-Semite. He is devious in his dealings and mendacious in his politics.

Just as bad, from my perspective, is how Zionism has been allowed to circumscribe Jewishness, in Israel certainly but also in the diaspora. Today, there are only three types of Jew – religious, Zionist and treyf, the latter being Jews who intermarry and/or have little interest in Israel. Thousands of years of Jewish life and culture have become nothing more than a justification for Zionism – either because they presaged the re-establishment of the state in 1948 (the Zionist version of biblical history) or they were so uniformly horrendous that the Jews of Europe and elsewhere had no other recourse than to emigrate to Israel. For Zionism, the diaspora has nothing to offer, other than money and cannon fodder.

Jacobson’s fiction celebrates Jewish life in the diaspora, even when, as in his latest novel, there is little more than a thread of Jewishness. And he does it in a way that is quintessentially Jewish. That is an uncommon thing. Israel does not lack good writers, but few of them have Jacobson’s humor, his irony and his empathy. Those are rare commodities in contemporary Israel, a country that has elevated Zionist and martial qualities in their place. Jacobson retains a kernel of traditional diaspora Jewishness.

I too retain such a kernel, though mine has been battered and distorted by lengthy exposure to Zionist Jewishness. It is sufficient for me to appreciate Howard Jacobson, but not enough to power my own literary endeavors. My Jewish experience has begotten deep bitterness and antipathy. From there I attempt to write; more’s the pity.

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