Interview with Devorah Baum

and Josh Appignanesi conducted by Eckart Voigts, Sarah J. Ablett, and Antonie Huff

London, March 2018; updated 31 May 2019

EV: We’re interested in the question of whether there is some kind of British-Jewish identity. 

DB: What a time to come here. This last week has been intense, I can’t quite remember a week like this. There’s been a massive demonstration of Jews in Parliament Square against antisemitism.

JA: And there has been one for antisemitism, too.

EV: When we talked to Ronald Harwood, he said England was the most welcoming country, that he has never experienced antisemitism. But then we’ve also heard other stories. So, that would be a question: Have you ever experienced antisemitism in London, either blatant, or low-level? 

DB: Yes, I have, plenty of times. Mostly low level but occasionally blatant. The low level or unconscious prejudices are the most common I’ve encountered, and the most interesting. I went to a school in South London. I was one of the only Jews around and I had a very strong sense of my Jewish identity for that reason. When we studied The Merchant of Venice, there was a strange atmosphere in the classroom. It was as if, in order to show solidarity with me, my classmates were claiming to understand why Shylock was acting in the horrible way he does [laughs]. And yet in saying that, they didn’t realise the awful implication of their words, which was that they took Shylock to be not an anti-Semitic representation of a Jew, but a realistic one. So as they saw it, their choice was between condemning him for being bad, or showing a liberal understanding of why he turned out so bad. It was left to me, therefore, to point out that Shakespeare’s Jew was an anti-Semitic stereotype and that Shylock was in fact not an accurate depiction of how I generally acted, nor how my family acted and nor how my ancestors acted, even when faced with persecution and prejudice. So that wasn’t a direct experience of aggressive, hostile antisemitism, but it was implicit in the acceptance of Shylock as staged Jew. I’ve had more direct experiences – and bruising ones, as well. But I’m also, you know, my own worst anti-Semite. 

EV: The point that you’re making in your book Feeling Jewish: A Book for Just About Anyone (2017), that Jewishness is kind of short-hand for urbanism, for modernity, in some kind of way. That’s also a part that’s maybe controversial, isn’t it? 

DB: I don’t want to deny specificities of history. There are all kinds of cultural manifestations of Jewishness that I’m not describing in my book. But the way I’m understanding the term ‘Jewish’ there is that it’s a kind of experience of being both inside and outside – at the same time. It’s a marginal position. There’s almost nobody I meet these days where I can’t very quickly detect the form their resentment takes – that is, the way in which they feel they’re not being heard, as if they’re being somehow silenced or marginalised, or as if their case isn’t permitted. I think there’s a tendency, when you use words like ‘resentment’, to adopt a severely moral, judgemental tone. But the way I’m diagnosing resentment is as a more or less unavoidable aspect of globalisation and its discontents. And so I’m suggesting that there may be, if everyone feels similarly silenced or shouted down, a problem with the way we’re communicating – or a problem with the way in which our discourses are operating, antagonistically. People are having to make a case for themselves, rather than participate in a more exploratory kind of —

EV: …tribalism. I read Tribes (2010) by Nina Raine, and I thought that’s exactly the kind of thing you describe – the Jewish family as an iconic description that you also have in your book. I think Christopher [non-Jewish main character in Tribes] is the most Jewish character in there. But tribalism is terrible, isn’t it? I don’t like this increasing focus on identity – to demarcate who you are, what you are… and that you can’t transcend these boundaries. 

DB: I think tribes don’t have to be viewed as a bad thing. 

EV: Everybody is in a community of sorts. 

DB: It really depends on how the tribe and those outside the tribe perceives those boundaries. Boundaries, as we know, are vital, and people who have none are not people you normally want to hang around with [laughs], but it depends on the extent to which you understand them as being both provisional and constructed, and as a creative act. I like my tribal moments – for me it’s about tuning into a kind of collective memory. And, actually, during a period in British politics – when the word ‘Jew’ is trending on Twitter and people are googling the word ‘Jew’ and looking probably in all sorts of insalubrious places to find out what Jews are up to –, you have a very strong wish and desire to speak to other people going through the same thing, in a somewhat contained and close setting. There are all kinds of closed spaces that I respect, but I also recognize that tribalism, in the way we’re seeing it at the moment, is so… toxic. 

EV: I think it’s really interesting, this idea of feeling different, but also belonging, in a way, this double-bind. Some of our correspondents have described this as ‘feeling European’ – because the dominant backgrounds are Ashkenazi. Is that also the case with you?

DB: I’m sure that’s topical. The feeling of being European has arisen, I think, in particular amongst Jews in this country, partly because some of them, since the Referendum, have discovered that they can go and get passports – from Germany, Poland. And also because, for Jews in particular, the idea of the EU often has less to do with a free-trade organisation than with keeping the peace in Europe, and the desire to just be able to move elsewhere if you ever need to. So, the notion – that we had 27 other countries we could go to, and now we don’t – feels absolutely existential for many Jews in this country. That feeling of a European identity has thus just come on for many of us very strongly. 

EV: In your book, all your reference points are American – Philip Roth, Woody Allen, etc. – and very rarely do we have a British reference point. So, I was wondering, what is the British-Jewish identity, as opposed to the American? 

DB: In the introduction to my book I’m interested in whether there’s much of a difference, really, between a word that you whisper – which tends to be the British way – and one that you’re required to shout out – in a declamatory, American way. I don’t see either of those as particularly palatable. I see them both as problematic.  For if the word ‘Jew’ is not fitting in comfortably with other words, if there’s a kind of pause before the word, a momentary decision about how to utter it exactly, then that tells us something. So, I don’t necessarily think that the American experience has solved what the English one hasn’t. But my case studies are predominantly American because Jews did really go for it there, culturally, in the post-war period – in a way that they never have here. But maybe on the stage it is different, what do you think?

EV: I think it’s probably a matter of numbers. 

DB: Number is key. The Jews cannot swing any kind of election in this country.

JA: In role, power, number, and money – all of those things are scaled. Many jokes have been made, that the real Zion, the Promised Land, is America. Because you see how Jews have prospered there, with that psychology that there is a chance to start anew. Whereas British-Jews, Europeans, they’ve been here a long time [laughs]. There’s a long history of being in and out and ejected. And the other thing that strikes most British-Jews is, obviously, that it’s a class society. Of course, Jews have done what they have done everywhere also in the UK – which is to transcend class. But they’re just a little more quiet about it, you know, than they would be in America. 

EV: In your generation, don’t you see maybe a kind of return to a sort of less assimilated rediscovery of practising Judaism – a little bit, at least?

DB: Absolutely, that’s what’s been going on. And you see this in the names of the children.

JA: But again, not as much as in America – the cool, young, sort of ‘hipster Judaism’ that is huge in America. 

EV: Can you maybe tell us a bit about your family background? These histories are really interesting. 

DB: Well, my family is from Poland and the Ukraine. My great-grandfather had a small grocery shop. They didn’t have any money and they weren’t doing very well. They were all Hassidic. He got a job offer to work for a local timber merchant, got very excited, showed the letter offering the job to everyone in the village, lost the letter, and then the timber merchant – who was also Hasidic and a cabbalist – said, ‘Well, this was a sign, you mustn’t have this job, if you lost the letter’. So, everyone thought he was such a loser… you know, the one good thing that ever happened to the family…. So, they moved the family to this country, and were the only ones who survived.

EV: That was obviously in the thirties?

DB: Just before the thirties. So, this is an extraordinary piece of family history – the survival of my family has to do with my ancestor being such a loser [laughs]. 

JA: You can’t have a more Jewish story…

DB: It’s like a Hassidic tale. A real life parable of luck and contingency, of fate… 

SJA: You wrote about all kinds of Jewish feelings in your book, mainly ‘ugly’ feelings. What would you say are good feelings, good Jewish feelings? 

DB: The book is an investigation into the nature of feelings. It’s an argument about feelings and a sort of warning, I think, as well – that to misread or misunderstand feelings can be a dangerous thing. And for me also it’s about the shared nature of feelings – they’re not private, and they shouldn’t be bound up with an ideology of privacy and property. I consider all feelings to have a potentially blocking, and a potentially motivating, or moving, impulse inside them. So, all the feelings I’ve selected are ones that have a kind of ‘bad’ reputation that I wanted to overturn: I don’t wish to say that they’re bad feelings, though I do admit that they are or can be painful. But even feelings of love, excitement – I find those unbearable, too [laughs]. All feelings are sort of unbearable. Because you feel out of control, and dispossessed, and you don’t know what you’re about to do, what you’re about to say. And I will certainly say that this is perhaps one of the reasons why, for all its faults, I think a kind of openness, fluency, and willingness to describe things is necessary. Feelings don’t have a pride of place here in Britain and are often shocking when they do come out. A big moment for that in the recent past was when Diana died. There was this sudden mass-hysteria, or outpouring, a kind of emotional release that was then oddly matched by the Queen and the stiff upper lip. That was one moment. Then after Brexit, and what we’re still seeing now, is another. But in terms of positive feelings to do with Jewishness, I’m a little shy of those [laughs], but I do have them. I have extreme and extraordinary shame if a Jew in the world behaves badly. I feel that that’s absolutely on me and in my name. And that’s not just a secular idea: that idea of sanctifying or desecrating the name of God through your behaviours in public really belongs to the religion, as well. But it’s structural. It’s just how discourse works, how identities work. Also, if a Jew does something that I admire or I think is good in the world, I have a secret pride. I have it, but I don’t respect it in myself. I think it’s a mistaken attempt to claim something that has nothing whatsoever to do with me. Yet pride, I suppose, is something people very often have a positive conception of, as a feeling. And I’ve also known how to access joy, how to access feelings of awe and humility – through the religion. But those aren’t the feelings that I’m so interested in, in the book. What I’m really interested in is the way in which all feelings split us – and how we cope with that, what we do with that. 

SJA: But I love how you describe envy – as basically a feeling which is initially a wish for justice. That really impressed me, because, you know, you read something about feelings, and that was a complete turn-over in my head. I really appreciated that.

DB: Feelings are contagious – you can be a winner in a society, and still be caught up in envious feelings. So, in other words, that gets shared out anyway. In my public events for the book, I’ve been talking quite a bit about envy because I consider it to be the feeling that is hardest to admit, hardest to share – it’s the most scandalous and the most morally disapproved of. The argument in the book is that envy is nearly always caught up with envy of expressivity, of another person’s ability to be creative, and to get their voice out. Actually, to speak about your envy is already a form of overcoming it in its pathological aspect. And I feel this is the case with all feelings – that they need to be admitted, even if only to yourself. As I understand it, feelings are extremely political – because they tell us a lot about power: who has it, and who doesn’t. But the answer isn’t that everybody gets to have power, but that everybody gets to feel the degree to which power is a fantasy. And that none of us are autonomous agents in the world, but that we’re dependent on each other. 

EV: We wondered if this idea of the joke in your book The Jewish Joke (2018) could be linked to theatre. Just because if you read, for example, Nina Raine’s Tribes, there are the most hilarious jokes in there. I’ve talked to Richard Bean, who’s a very successful comedy writer, and he said, ‘I’m really concerned that my plays are too funny. The funniness distracts from the things that I am trying to say’. I’ve never understood that… Because, isn’t the joking – isn’t that the message? Isn’t that a kind of attitude towards life? 

DB: Comedians don’t get taken seriously. And they feel very frustrated about that. They feel nobody sees the brilliance that goes into creating comedy, and how deep and wise what they’re saying is in comic form. But it’s an absurd result, right? Because in comedy you can only get away with it by virtue of the fact that everybody thinks you’re ‘only joking’. A joke doesn’t work if it’s taken too seriously. So, that’s this strange position that comedians have found themselves in again and again. Comedians are extraordinary people.  Often you find they’re very funny, and then the moment they’re not being funny, you find that they’re awfully serious – a little bit too serious. And that self-seriousness is very often a kind of annoyance that nobody notices, when they’re being funny, that they’re also being deep, that they’re also saying things nobody has ever thought or dared to say before. Which is why jokes were a critical category for Freud – one of the ways that taboos can get broken, and so they provide that kind of catharsis that you could say is a theatrical order of emotional experience. 

EV: It’s interesting, it’s a kind of artistic mode that stands for itself and rejects explanation. If you explain it, then the time is lost, joke’s gone. 

AH: It’s so funny, because what you just said, I was thinking about my generation, and it seems to be quite the opposite, they see all these stand-up comedians – Bill Burr, Louis C.K., or John Oliver – and take this as a proof, or ‘truth’, for controversial topics. 

DB: That’s very interesting… The notion that satire has somehow become the only plausible way of getting your news. Satire until recently was regarded as the language of the elite. But now it’s more democratised.  Now everybody has to be a satirist. You’re just not going to survive the internet age unless wit is one of your weapons. I think it implies that people feel there’s a danger in humourlessness, which shows just how much savagery there can be in humour.  Although there can be a savage edge to humourlessness too. And either way, the point is, humour, joking – again, like feelings – is very political. Particularly when it becomes tyrannical, when you really can’t afford not to be witty – then we know something must be up, right?  I don’t like the sense that nothing anyone says anymore can be taken straight.  That we live in a culture tyrannised by joking.  But I do also feel that a sense of humour is vital. Because when you’re feeling hopeless, really hopeless and despairing, if something manages to make you laugh, your gratitude for that is overwhelming – like a kind of prayer. If somebody tells you a joke well and fresh, and you get a laugh out of it, that’s a real relief – and it’s a strengthening moment, as well. You feel somehow that history is not going to defeat you. 

AH: Also, making fun of yourself… At the conference “Contemporary British-Jewish Cultures” at Bangor University this month (March 2018) many speakers described this idea as something inherently Jewish, too.  

DB: My book Feeling Jewish looks like a version of that. You want to know what it feels like to be Jewish?  It’s like a joke, right? Because it looks as though what I’m saying is that feeling Jewish means to feel: guilt, envy, self-hatred, paranoia – come and get it! [laughs].  It’s Jewish through and through. That idea of the self-deprecating Jewish comedian. I joke about it, in my Joke-book, it’s like Jews take tremendous pride in their self-deprecation. 

EV: In the humanities, people go around making jokes about themselves all the time. They monitor themselves; it has probably a lot to do with Freudian introspection and the idea that it’s a definition of what you do as a university person – particularly in Germany. Germany is trying hard to become funnier than it used to be. There is a strong influence of English humour, or Jewish humour, American humour, etc. And these things travel. I mean, it’s not exclusive to a particular culture.

DB: The humour that I’m describing is a response of people who feel language is slippery, because they feel both inside and outside the culture they live in and the language they speak.  Joking, then, is a form of common language that can also offer its speakers a degree of privacy, by creating a kind of outsider discourse within the dominant discourse, one that speaks for the jokers’ own lack of definition or certainty.  And both my books regard that situation as becoming increasingly common to all people who feel themselves the subjects of a globalised world.

EV: Henri Bergson and all these other humour theorists, they dive into that. Flexibility, sub-textuality, and slippery signifiers – that’s basically humour. We were so interested in the idea that this book, Feeling Jewish, at least for me, seems to say a lot of things about a kind of structure of feeling that might be British-Jewish. But then, on the other hand, in the way you dealt with these Americans… 

DB: I think perhaps one thing that I would say to that is that in the British culture, Jews are conspicuous by their kind of emotional incontinence.  

EV: Everybody says they are more emotional…

DB: More loquacious, more nervous – I’d say it’s a form of nervousness, in the first place. But nervousness, one has to understand, is the feeling that one’s borders are being pricked. Feeling pricked, or tickled somehow, produces, I think, humour and feeling. And that’s the familiar Jewish stereotype, but it’s also the product of a specific social situation, and I think it’s quite extreme in some ways, in a culture like this one – in particular where there’s a strong class system, where everybody knows their place, and you’re the people who don’t seem to have one. And so, you’re the people who are constantly out of place, trying, sometimes hysterically, to fit in. 

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