We were so sad to hear of the death of the pioneering historian David Cesarani on October 25. He contributed over the years to Jewish Renaissance, but here JR editor Rebecca Taylor recalls her first meeting with him at the legendary Kosher Luncheon Club in London's East End.
I first met David Cesarani in the late-1980s. I must have been about 20-years-old and was writing my final-year dissertation for my English degree at Cambridge University. I had chosen a geekily obscure area of literature to focus on – a body of work with political leanings that emerged from the Jewish East End in the 1930s. It focused on novels such as Simon Blumenfeld's Jew Boy and William Goldman's East End My Cradle, which grappled with relating the immigrant experience alongside experimenting with the new forms of modernist writing, and pitched all this against a background of political debate about how the 'working class' should best be represented artistically.
David suggested we meet at the Kosher Luncheon Club canteen on Whitechapel's Greatorex Street. With its mix of customers in cloth caps or kippah, brusque waiters and sky blue paper tablecloths, the canteen was an East End institution – and something of an eye-opener for a girl from the deepest depths of south London.
Over plates of fried fish I explained to David what I wanted to explore and he patiently and kindly listened. Already at the forefront of work with the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group that was investigating Nazis who had come to live in the UK, and a leading figure in Holocaust education, he was just about to take up the post of director of the Weiner Library. But he treated my half-formed theories and un-focused questionswith absolute seriousness.
He had already written an insightful essay on the East End background to Blumenfeld's Jew Boy, which had appeared in the London Journal, and he was a wealth of information on the period (his excellent book, The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry appeared soon after we met), but more than that he encouraged me to interview the writers – Willy Goldman was still alive at that time – and speak to others such as the historian Professor Bill Fishman who had also lived the period. He was generous with his ideas and contacts, afterwards sending memos and notes with follow up information. Looking through my old college folders recently I found a detailed list that David had carefully written up for me of books and archives that I should pursue, as well as contacts for historians such as Ken Worpole and Brian Cheyette.
And arranging the meeting in the canteen was genius – the perfect antidote to long days of locking myself away in the university library, picking through treatise on social realism in yellowing 1930s copies of the Left Review. Like all the best historians, David knew how to bring the past to life – and just in time – the canteen closed down a few years after our fried fish meal.
I only encountered David again years later when I became involved in JR in 2014. He had written for the magazine on a number of occasions on subjects such as funding for Jewish studies, and the Jewish involvement in World War I. But he was one of the first people I commissioned for the magazine, when I asked him to write about the rise of the far right in Europe in 2014. As ever he was the voice of reason and rationality, refusing to take the knee-jerk reaction that European antisemitism was unequivocally on the rise.
His last piece for us was an eloquent and affectionate obituary in April's issue following the death of Bill Fishman. I never imagined that I would soon be writing one for David. He will be sadly missed by the Jewish community and far beyond.
By Rebecca Taylor