Classic choice: David Herman celebrates Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. “Why are you so nasty?” Brenda asks Neil in Philip Roth’s first book, Goodbye, Columbus. Nasty? Neil was tame stuff compared to some of Roth’s later heroes and no one comes nastier than…
A visually intriguing gift from the late graphic designer Abram Games for the bard's 454th birthday. In 1975 Abram Games, one of Britain’s greatest graphic designers, was commissioned to make a Centenary Appeal poster for the Royal Shakespeare Company. His brilliant solution was to become known beyond…
It’s Dora Reisser’s ability to reinvent herself – from child refugee to prima ballerina, actor, screen star and fashion designer – and in such nail-biting circumstances, that makes her memoir, Dora’s Story, so gripping. Judi Herman visited Reisser at her remarkable London home (it used to be a railway station) to hear more of the stories behind her book, which begins with the little-known history of how Bulgaria’s Jews survived the Holocaust; and about her life in the UK and Israel, including an eye-opening account of how she started her Reisser fashion house – just one of the many new stories Reisser has that could fill a sequel.
Dora's Story by Dora Reisser is out on Troubador. £9.99. www.troubador.co.uk
“It became a very exotic place for me.” Simon Bent is talking about the Manchester of the 1950s, the setting of Howard Jacobson’s mighty tale of table tennis, teenage angst and Jewish family life. “What attracted me to the book is that it’s about a particular culture at a particular time which is gone. Part of the book is about the loss of that Manchester. It was Howard’s attempt to ‘get down’ that world before it got lost.”
So how has the playwright approached the equally mighty task of bringing Jacobson’s erstwhile Manchester to the stage?
In the novel, the eponymous Oliver Walzer looks back on his teenage days growing up in houseful of aunties, run by his complicated mother and dominated noisily by his larger-than-life father, a salesman of ‘swag’, chachkas (Yiddish for cheap trinkets), and anything he can sell off the back of his van. Bright and bookish Oliver’s great escape is table tennis, a game where he can become first among equals: that is, other nerdy teenage Jewish boys equally obsessed with their indoor sport – and sexual yearnings.
“The clear through line is Ollie, sometime in the future, remembering his past – the pull between the grandiose ambitions of his father and the more reserved character of his mother. The grip of his family is something he struggles to escape from. The story is about his awakening through ping pong and adolescence through to leaving home.”
Leeds-born actor Elliot Levey says he found his alter ego in Ollie when he first read the novel in 1999. “I fell in love, someone had written my life! Rereading it now, significantly older, I realised what I once thought was a coming-of-age story is actually a mid-life crisis story dressed up as a coming-of-age story. It’s about a man who’s spent his life rejecting the world he came from. Then he goes back home and suddenly realises all his life he’s been sitting on a rich seam of joy and love and something he’s always been searching for.”
In the book, narrator Ollie takes readers into his confidence. “Jacobson is such a nimble writer,” says Bent. “He suddenly goes from being light comedic to quite serious. It’s been a challenge to capture that on stage.” So between the slices of action, Bent has Ollie talk to the audience. “He poses a question to his chums in the audience who are our psyche – “Why am I? Where I am?” And he conjures up his mum and dad and people from his past. The thing that cracks it open is the chance of going back, not reliving it as you were, but reliving it as you are.”
Bent and director Jonathan Humphreys are not Jewish. “It means I’m not caught in it. I can look at it from the outside,” says Bent. But Levey is terrified of being too Jewish and turning off an audience. “I don’t want to launder in public. I know Howard has felt that way. So it’s terrific to have two of the prime creative forces in the ring who sense what it’s like when they are being alienated – or more often than not, they are excited and curious by something which most Jews in the room think is commonplace, because we’ve grown up with those sorts of arguments, that sort of language.”
Part of that language is the Yiddish that peppers the novel. “We’ve kept some in and removed other bits. This was a note from Howard actually – he was keen for it not to become stereotypical,” says Bent. “I don’t mind words I don’t know coming up because I get the meaning from the context. But it’s a balancing act. The characters speak with Manchester accents, then constantly speak with Yiddishisms. They slip in and out of them. It’s like the two cultures coming together.”
The almost entirely Jewish cast includes Tracy-Ann Oberman as matriarch Sadie and Jonathan Tafler as dad Joel, and some actors actually from the North West, so those accents should be authentic. “There’s a surfeit of Jews in the cast,” laughs Levey. ”One of the things that makes that joyous, is that you are not the ‘Jew in the room’. Because it’s about a Jewish family, and most of the characters are Jews, it makes you free. It’s about growing up, about mid-life, not about Jews.”
Half the cast of ten play Oliver’s Maccabi teammates, table-tennis nerds to a man, as Levey says, “these utter nerds playing the nerdiest of nerdy sports. The upper echelons of table tennis were Mittel and Eastern European Jews, Hungarians, Czechs. Howard said that in the 1950s, there were not many Jewish sporting heroes and suddenly there were these guys with slicked back hair, baggy trousers, looking great and these nerdy Jewish kids could identify with them.”
So will we see the strokes, hear the sound of bat on ball? The cast is being coached by David Hulme, Stockport Federation’s Head Coach and Levey hints that there might be a game at the end. “We’ve got a table tennis table in the rehearsal room, we’re playing nonstop. We’ve set up a little tournament. There are going to be tables outside the theatre,” he says.
I ask the duo about the lusty adolescent desires depicted in the book: Oliver drools after gorgeous blonde table tennis player Lorna Peachley. Is the play suitable for today’s 13-year-olds?
Levey, who has three sons around that age, is confident it is. “My youngest is 10 and this is perfect for him, partly because it looks at what it was to be a kid at a time perceived to be more innocent. And [it shows] what happens to young boys when sex is repressed… it becomes something that fuels his ping pong.”
Finally what does Jacobson think of it? “When I began the adaptation, I deliberately didn’t meet Howard,” says Bent. I left it till after he’d read the first draft. He had a few suggestions which were good, and I incorporated them. He came to the first day of rehearsal and the read through. He was quite pleased, I think.”
By Judi Herman
The Mighty Walzer runs until Saturday 30 July, 7.30pm & 2.30pm, £8-£16, at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, M2 7DH. www.royalexchange.co.uk
The Mighty Walzer Walking Tour runs Sunday 17 - Thursday 28 July, 10.30am, £7, at Manchester Jewish Museum, M8 8LW; 084 3208 0500. www.manchesterjewishmuseum.com
Howard Jacobson was writing J, a novel about a dystopic (non-) Jewish future, when publisher Hogarth invited him to join a relay team retelling Shakespeare in contemporary settings. He was assigned The Merchant of Venice – an inspired choice that allowed him to tell the story from Shylock’s perspective. But Jacobson’s blinder, proving again his extraordinary inventiveness, is to have Shylock slip into present-day Cheshire to share the narrative with his 21st-century counterpart Simon Strulovitch, and chew over his own story as told by Shakespeare. Shylock arrives without fanfare as the story opens, not in Venice but in a bleak Jewish cemetery in Manchester, the city where Jacobson was raised. He is communing with his long-dead wife Leah, “buried deep beneath the snow”. So Shylock engages the reader’s sympathy: within this take on the play is a meditation on loss, as well as scabrous satire on the materialistic celebrity denizens of Cheshire’s ‘Golden Triangle’.
For Jacobson, the beating heart of Shakespeare’s Shylock is not in the defiant speeches he throws in the faces of the Christians who bait him, but in his response to the news that his errant daughter Jessica has exchanged his ring for a monkey. “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.” Around these lines Jacobson builds his case for Shylock in love, bereaved – and the lone parent who cannot give his daughter what she needs.
Strulovitch, visiting his mother’s grave recognises Shylock and invites him home. And so begins their relationship, played out in a succession of conversations, the pair ensconced in armchairs, cradling brandy, comparing notes on errant daughters, discussing every move and motive and most of the dialogue that drives Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. They analyse the contradictions driving Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”, and the butt of antisemitism, above all from the effete aesthete D’Anton (Jacobson’s Antonio) a rival art collector,Strulovitch, visiting his mother’s grave, recognises Shylock and invites him home. And so begins their relationship, played out in a succession of conversations, the pair ensconced in armchairs, cradling brandy, comparing notes on errant daughters, discussing every move and motive and most of the dialogue that drives Shylock in Shakespeare’s play. They analyse the contradictions driving Strulovitch, “a rich, furious, easily hurt philanthropist with on-again off-again enthusiasms”, and the butt of antisemitism, above all from the effete aesthete D’Anton (Jacobson’s Antonio) a rival art collector who has made smiling sorrowfully at his own Weltschmerz into an art form.
As in the play, the Christians revel in their antisemitism, even vying to top each other’s ‘Jewpithets’ by referring to Strulovitch as “moneybags”, “thick-lips” and “hook-nose”. Strulovitch is arguably worse off than Shylock: his wife is trapped by a stroke in a useless body. His daughter Beatrice, of an age with Jessica, is vividly present, though her father dreads her frequent absences as she threatens to spend the night with a succession of unsuitable men – none of them Jewish, of course. Jessica is absent from the novel, because Jacobson has Shylock caught as if in aspic at the end of Shakespeare’s story. As Shylock says, for him there is no Act Five (his last appearance is leaving court in Act Four).
Jacobson’s gift for comedy glisters pure gold as he makes merciless fun of the self-obsessed celebs surrounding his Portia – a reality TV hostess and plastic surgery addict called Plurabelle, whose full name is Anna Livia Plurabelle Cleopatra A Thing of Beauty is a Joy Forever Christine. And there’s more fun with names. Enter Gratan Howsome, politically incorrect footballer of little brain with the hots for Jewesses, and hunky but vacuous arm-candy Barnaby, Plurabelle’s squeeze and D’Anton’s protégé.
If you know your Shakespeare you’ll hug yourself as you work out Jacobson’s deliciously witty reworking of his plot lines. In a twist on the casket scene, Plurabelle tests her suitors by having them choose between her three cars – a Merc, BMW or humble Beetle. And circumcision is central to an ingenious if potentially grisly plotline. Jacobson plunders his source text and other authors for quotes, sometimes bending their words, always putting them to great use. He grants Shylock his Act Five, calling his last chapter just that. But even this may not be his final act, for if he is Strulovitch’s Shylock, who is to say where he has appeared before or might appear again? Hogarth’s commission is a gripping addition to Jacobson’s writing on what it is to be Jewish.
By Judi Herman
Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson, Hogarth Shakespeare, £16.99. Read Judi Herman's interview with Howard Jacobson over on the JR website, first published in the January 2016 issue of Jewish Renaissance.
Howard Jacobson will talk about his book at Jewish Book Week on Sunday 28 February, 5pm, at King’s Place. www.jewishbookweek.com
In the October issue of Jewish Renaissance, Arthur Smith gives Judi Herman the not so sweet lowdown on his show, Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen, with which the gravel-voiced wit makes his debut at JW3 in December. Here you can hear an extended version of his conversation with Judi. The two share a love of Leonard Cohen and they compare notes on their mothers, both of whom are living with dementia – indeed Arthur’s mother Hazel has become a vital part of his show.
Keep reading to see Smith's poem about his mother and to listen to him reciting it.
Oh Hazel is Arthur Smith's moving poem about his mother's dementia, which you can read and listen to below. You can read more about Arthur Smith Sings Leonard Cohen – The Extended Remix, the show in which he recites the poem live, in the October 2015 edition of Jewish Renaissance.
Pulling up late after the party, they see her, their neighbour, standing in the street.
She is looking, she says, for a lift to London. She needs to get home. ‘Hazel,’ they tell her, ‘This is your home – ‘you live here, in this house. London is 30 miles away.’
The door is open. They take her in and see she has packed a bag (if a jumper and a packet of biscuits count as packing).
Oh Hazel, It is 35 years since you left London to live, as you liked to say, ‘in the shires’.
But there she still is that grammar school girl from Camberwell Green kissing sailors and dancing In Trafalgar Square. It is VE day and the rest of the century Is yours.
"I recently visited the Ben Uri exhibition at Somerset House and saw again the self-portrait of Lily Delissa Joseph. I had first seen it at a Ben Uri show 20 years before in Bristol, at the launch of DAVAR (the Jewish Cultural and Educational Institute in Bristol and the South West), and am sending the poem I wrote after that event. Clive Lawton gave the inaugural address." – Marlene Sutton
Out of Chaos: 100 Ben Uri Works for 100 Years runs until Sunday 26 February at Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, NE1 8AG. 0191 278 1611. https://laingartgallery.org.uk
It is Erev Rosh Hashana, and within an hour we will have 15 people at dinner. My wife, Deborah, is assured and organised, so there’s no frenzy in our household. Until, that is, just before logging off for the evening I received an email any writer would love.
It had been nine months of gestation for the results of Moment Magazine’s Jewish short story competition to emerge, and I’d been impatient to hear how I’d done. I didn't think my tale, Lecha Dodi, was going to win the competition. Though my great friend Rabbi Lewis Warshauer, who lives in New York, said that my story was “perfect” for Moment, which is a long-established journal of Jewish culture, politics and lifestyle.
Lewis had been right: my story had fitted and I was the first place winner of the 2014 Short Story Contest.
One of the books I cherish is James A Michener’s The Source, with a favourite chapter being 'The Saintly Men of Safed'. Michener brilliantly evokes the Kabbalists in that northern, hilltop city who went out in the fields to greet the Sabbath Queen. One of their number was Alkabetz, who penned the transcendent Lecha Dodi Friday night song. I had always wanted to do something with the notion of worshippers walking into the fields, and began writing my contest entry in the middle of December 2013 with this in mind. The deadline was the last day of the year.
I had been to Safed as a teenager. I remember its ancient streets; I can still picture the duck egg blue of synagogue walls – that colour being one to ward off evil.
As I wrote, I also researched the city online, looking at mikvahs (ritual baths), and came up with a central character, Rabbi Mordechai David, who used one particular mikvah before Shabbat, as some pious men do.
Unbidden, the image of a young woman, running across the male worshippers’ line of vision, inserted itself into my creative consciousness. My story coalesced: it would be about the vision of Miriam Levi, running heedlessly, ecstatically, in the fields. The men would wonder: "is that truly Miriam, and if so, why is she disturbing men at prayer?" Rabbi Davide tries to find out.
I arrived to a snowy New York and headed out with Lewis. New York’s 5th Avenue was ablaze with festive lights, throngs of shoppers, and ice skaters at the Rockefeller Center.
I was invigorated by the prospect of meeting the novelists scheduled for the awards ceremony the following evening. Sadly, Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, who had been the contest judge and had written thrilling words of praise for my story, was forced to cancel her appearance. Anita Diamant, of The Red Tent fame, would be appearing alongside novelist and academic Dara Horn.
At a dinner before the ceremony I was pleased to meet Danielle Leshaw, a rabbi and writer who had been placed second in the contest, and Courtney Sender, the third place winner. The conversation was all books and being Jewish.
At the ceremony, held at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side I read an extract from Lecha Dodi. The stage was then given over to a conversation between Anita and Dara. Their discourse was engaging and humorous.
I left New York on Saturday night, following a Shabbat morning at Habonim, a welcoming Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side. During my final New York hours, we enjoyed a bracing stroll in Central Park.
Back in England, my life has resumed, but I continue to write and submit short stories. I hope that in a future issue of Jewish Renaissance, you’ll be able to read about Tales of Freedom, my novel of storytelling and resistance, set in Prague and Poland in World War II, and ending up in the land of Israel.
By Paul B Cohen
Paul’s story Lecha Dodi can be read online at Moment Magazine.
This coming Tuesday 24 February Jewish Renaissance's editor Rebecca Taylor will be hosting a special event as part of Jewish Book Week. Taking place at London Jewish Museum, the afternoon will centre around the South African anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman (pictured above visiting Meadowlands high school, Soweto in 1977).
In the darkest days of apartheid Helen stood alone in parliament, confronted by a legion of (mostly) chauvinist male politicians. Despite constant antagonism and threats of violence, she forced into the global spotlight the injustices of the country's minority rule.
Rebecca will be speaking to Robin Renwick, a former ambassador to South Africa, and author of Bright Star in a Dark Chamber, which tells the story of Helen Suzman (you can also read Rebecca's interview with Robin Renwick in the current issue of JR magazine).
Helen's daughter, Frances Jowell, and niece, the actor Janet Suzman will also be speaking. But you need to be quick – there's not long left to get tickets and they're selling fast!
The event, also titled Bright Star in a Dark Chamber, is on Tuesday 24 February. 1-2pm. £6.50. Jewish Museum, 129-131 Albert St, NW1 7NB; 020 7284 7384. www.jewishbookweek.com
To book tickets, email email@example.com or phone 020 7446 8771. Alternatively you can pick up tickets at the venue on the day.