A Fortnightly Review.
Jews Don’t Count
by David Baddiel.
TLS Books, | £9.99
The God Desire
by David Baddiel
TLS Books | £9.99
By MICHELENE WANDOR.
THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT is publishing an occasional series of short (10,000 words) books. Hardback, a decent size font, what’s not to like, especially when it gives a wordsmith a chance to sound off personally and polemically — and David Baddiel is no slouch when it comes to articulation as a comedian, a football pundit, a novelist, and a cultural commentator with a substantial Twitter presence.
One of the blurbs promises ‘A philosophical essay that utilises Baddiel’s trademark of comedy, storytelling and personal asides’, and the books deliver. His tone is direct, without selling the intellect short: philosophical speakeasies, you might say. These read-at-one-sitting disquisitions combine into two-tone manifestos: how antisemitism is manifest today, and what it is to be an atheist.
Both come from the perspective of Baddiel’s Judaism, although the discussion of atheism could apply to any religion-free person. As both Jewish and atheist (though female to Baddiel’s male), I have a vested interest in placing myself (not that I am a feline) amongst his fierce, witty and profoundly thoughtful pigeons.
Baddiel describes himself forthrightly as ‘a Jew’. I refer to myself as Jewish – ie, Jew-ish. For me, the single syllable is too harsh, too reminiscent of the spitting aggression of flinging antisemitism. It’s a unique religious attribution: people don’t say ‘I am Christianish’ or ‘Muslimish’. For me, as for Baddiel, it means a real, but not always comfortable, allegiance to this ethnicity.
The ‘ish’ suffix turns out to be useful for various benefits of doubt as well as definitions: for nationality or group – Scottish. Perhaps derogatory – prudish. Approximately – greenish. It can even be used on its own: ‘How are you?’ ‘Ish.’ In Hebrew ish means man. I’m not quite sure what conclusions can be drawn from all these, but nevertheless, I am still ‘Jew-ish’. More on that later.
In Jews Don’t Count, Baddiel’s central thesis is that Jews (Jewish people) are an ethnicity, rather than a nationality or a race. Jews ‘aren’t necessarily instantly recognisable as Jews’. This means that criticism of Israeli politics is not the same as criticising Jews — ie, such criticism is not antisemitic. The major political/cultural point made in this book is that Jews are left out of today’s identity politics. Baddiel quotes a view that Antisemitism is a second-class racism (his italics), and I write this at an ironically apt moment when Diane Abbott has been suspended from the Labour Party for saying exactly that.
Baddiel presents a list of persecuted minorities which doesn’t mention Jews: ‘Which suggests a hierarchy of offence: a hierarchy that exists even now…Yid is considered not as bad hate-speech as the P-word or the N-word.’ In keeping with this, he draws out an argument made against Black Lives Matter: what he calls ‘Whataboutery’, when the issue of racism/discrimination is evaded in favour of the generalisation that All Lives Matter. Which of course they do. But.
The cultural/political reasons for this are stark: ‘Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined – by the racists – as both low and high status…as lying, thieving, dirty, vile, stinking – but also as moneyed, privileged, powerful and secretly in control of the world. Jews are somehow both sub-human and humanity’s secret masters.’ This comes down to ‘passive antisemitism…for the absence: the absence, in this case, of concern.’
Baddiel is particularly concerned to point out antisemitism among ‘progressives’, noting that ‘between 2015 and 2019, the branding of the Corbyn Labour Party as antisemitic had the effect of politically mobilising, for the first time, the British Jewish community.’ This makes it possible to discuss in a new way whether or not Tottenham Hotspur fans had the right to ‘self-identify’ as ‘Yids’, one of their football chants. It is not, as he points out, really about football: ‘It was trying to question why there is not a level playing field around racism.’ This is a book for all those who think they count – whether they are Jewish or not.
The God Desire is more philosophical and theological/spiritual, and yet also more personal. The book’s subtitle: ‘notes on being a reluctant atheist’ already vexes the question, and enables an insight into some of the issues around Jewish ‘identity’, what it might mean to be Jewish for David Baddiel.
He was brought up in a practising Jewish family and went to an Orthodox Jewish primary school, where he learned Hebrew. Indeed, on p.43 of this book the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, is printed in Hebrew. Baddiel points out the rhythms and cadences of the language; he writes ‘I am moved by Judaism. There’s no getting round it.’ When he saw Tom Stoppard’s history play, Leopoldstadt, about a Jewish Viennese family, caught up in the Holocaust, he wept. He makes a fine distinction between religion and being Jewish: ‘To be a Jew, even a practising one, you don’t have to have much of a sense of God. What you need to have is a sense of ritual.’
And yet, for him, the desire for God is deeply there. Voltaire famously said – in French, of course – Si Dieu n’existait pas, it faudrait l’inventer. With chop-logic, this suggests that God does, indeed, exist. Baddiel, though, while acknowledging a profound desire for God, is a materialist, concerned with scientific evidence and truth. Stephen Hawking ‘said that …before the Big Bang there was nothing.’ There is no evidence for dark matter, Baddiel points out. It is ‘a conceit, invented by scientists to explain away the large parts of existence they can’t account for’.
So why keep hankering after something the existence of which cannot be proved? Perhaps most urgently, Baddiel wants God to exist because of the connection between God and death, for which his mother used sleep as an analogy when he was a child. Religion supplies ‘deep comfort’, ‘parentness’ as he puts it. Even though God may be all about ‘Jam Tomorrow’ (ie, heaven), God offers a reassuring narrative. There are many wonderful moments in this stand-up-sit-down secular sermon, passionate at every turn of the page, including a quote from Maeterlinck: ‘The living are just the dead on holiday’, and an anecdote about his buddy, Frank Skinner, who couldn’t take communion as a Catholic because he was divorced.
In the end, of course, Baddiel can’t give way to his desire to find or invent God; but he can find an intellectual way out, and that is to place himself: ‘for me Jewishness is about culture, and that includes comedy’.
Culture – which, of course, includes religion, is the key. So where do I, as a ‘good Jewish atheist’ (as I define myself) stand in relation to this? Paradoxically. My father was intermittently observant, having been brought up in a strictly Orthodox Jewish home (his father hid his shoes on the sabbath so that he couldn’t sneak out to play with other children, and he rebelled). I decided early on that I wanted to have nothing to do with religion. And yet.
The first time I ate ham in my early twenties, I waited to be struck down by the Lord. It didn’t happen. I married a New-York-Jewish man, and although we had a civil ceremony, we said, ‘for the sake of our parents’, that we would also have a religious ceremony. Which we did, in my parents’ Chingford back garden. I have the photos to prove it! Why?
My cultural formation is pretty well entirely in English literature. When I began writing, I had no conscious notion that Jewishness might play a part, until, after my mother died, I read my way through the Old Testament (in English) as bedtime reading. So much of it annoyed me that I wrote, over the course of a year, a sequence of poems, Gardens of Eden, in the voices of Eve (present in the beginning) and Lilith, Adam’s putative first wife who was banished way before the first apple was munched, and who doesn’t appear in the Old Testament.
Over the years since, elements from Jewish history have become part of my subject matter: two libretti, York about a medieval massacre, and The Mask of Esther, derived from the book of the same name. I wrote Music of the Prophets, a narrative poem-sequence on the resettlement of the Jews in England in the seventeenth century, and Three Sides of a Square, a play set in early twentieth-century Palestine, featuring Lawrence of Arabia and Gertrude Bell, as well as a Palestinian and a Jew, friends caught up in the turmoil of the British Mandate.
A paradox here, I think, is that while I am Jewish and a writer, I don’t have a sense that I ‘belong’, that I quite ‘fit’ in the literary world. I will have no part in writing about the Holocaust, as some other Jewish writers do. Other people can do that and should. For me it is too painful and I know too much. In terms of the literary world – well, despite my poetry and my considerable track record in that most British of media, radio drama, I am still not sure where I might be placed. In any case, that is for others to assess.
In the course of my cultural evolution I have come across a historic parallel with my own situation. This has a backstory. At school I was excused assembly because I was Jewish. I got fed up with being left out, so I joined the rest of the school in the hall. Here I sang the hymns, with tunes I love, but I left out the words Christ, God, any ‘Holy Ghost’ which popped up, and the word He when it had a capital letter.
Fast forward, and I am absorbed in the study and performance of early music. Its revival is led by devotional music – Catholic and Protestant, with sung devotional texts. I have no truck with these words, and so am more drawn to instrumental polyphony, and the beginnings of ‘pure’ instrumental music. Orthodox Judaism did not countenance music in synagogue. Largely since the nineteenth century music has become more acceptable in Reform Jewish worship, and in the course of my musical research, I came across Salamone Rossi, a Jewish musician and composer in Mantua, who worked with Monteverdi at the seventeenth-century Gonzaga court.
A meeting of paradoxes: Rossi was a pioneer in developing the trio sonata – two high voices over a bass line. He also set Biblical texts, in Hebrew, to Italianate polyphony. Radical in both musical and theological senses. These were published in 1622-23, and probably sung in Venice as well as in Mantua.
Across the centuries: insiders and outsiders. Belonging and not belonging. Using accepted conventions to make way and space for the outsider voice, being both marginal and central at the same time. Having it both ways? Perhaps this is true of Baddiel as well. He may desire God, knowing that he has to do without God, and yet he will still hold to the ritual. As I always say, I don’t believe in God but I’m glad others do.
Another French quotation comes to mind: Vivre? les serviteurs feront cela pour nous. As for living, our servants will do that for us. This comes from Axël, a play by Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam. A more uptodate version might be: as for believing in God, let others do that for us.
MICHELENE WANDOR is a playwright, poet, short story writer, reviewer, broadcaster, theatre historian and musician with degrees from Cambridge and Essex universities and from Trinity College / University of London. She has taught in Britain at the Guildhall School of Drama, London, the City Lit, London, London Metropolitan University and at various universities abroad. She has held a Royal Literary Fund Fellowship since 2004. Recipient of many awards and nominations, particularly for her radio dramatisations (see her ‘Dramatising Mrs Dalloway‘ in the Fortnightly). Michelene Wandor is also an accomplished musician, performing Renaissance and Baroque music with her early music group, The Siena Ensemble. Her latest poetry collection: Natural Chemistry (Arc Publications 2013). Her collection of very short stories, Four Times EightyOne: bespoke stories, was published by Odd Volumes in 2021.