Oh, to Be in England

June 1, 2016 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson.

As spring turns to summer, the United Kingdom continues to joyously commemorate two oh-so-British occasions: the Queen’s 90th birthday and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The yearlong festivities seem to have spilled over into the Jewish book world, producing several recent titles about British Jews. So as you nibble your strawberries and cream, also dip into Howard Jacobson’s satiric novel, Shylock is My Name, which sets Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in 21st century England. Prefer non-fiction? Try Sasha Abramsky’s The House of Twenty Thousand Books or Ian Buruma’s Their Promised Land: My Grandparents in Love and War; these books capture the vanished British-Jewish world of the authors’ grandparents.

Shylock Is My Name

shylockThis novel is part of a series in which contemporary authors reimagine Shakespeare’s plays. Not surprisingly, the series’ publisher commissioned Howard Jacobson, a celebrated British novelist who writes about modern Jewish identity, to redo The Merchant of Venice. Generations of scholars and playgoers have puzzled over this play. On one hand, the character of Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, embodies villainous anti-Semitic caricatures and yet, on the other hand, eloquently insists on Jews’ humanity (“Hath not a Jew eyes . . .”).

In Jacobson’s novel, the Shylock character is Simon Strulovitch, a wealthy British-Jewish philanthropist and art collector. But with a touch of magical realism, the Shylock of Shakespeare’s play also appears in the novel and becomes friendly with Strulovitch. The two men talk over Shylock’s motivations in The Merchant of Venice, leading to debates over Judaism, vengeance, and rebellious daughters. There are many funny bits – as when Strulovitch ponders whether Shakespeare’s original family name might have been “Shapiro” or quips while visiting Venice, “Oy gevalto, we’re back on the Rialto!”

The House of Twenty Thousand Books

house of 20k booksThis tribute to Jewish intellectual life in 20th century England centers on author Sasha Abramsky’s grandparents, Chimen (pronounced “Shimen”) and Miriam Abramsky. The Abramsky home in North London was crammed with valuable books and manuscripts, reflecting Chimen’s professions as a book dealer and expert on both Socialism and modern Jewish history. And thanks to Miriam’s over-the-top hospitality (she was a psychiatric social worker who loved people), the house overflowed with guests, typically left-wing intellectuals who argued vociferously while devouring Miriam’s multi-course meals.

For much of their adult lives, Chimen and Miriam were stalwart members of the Communist Party, even though Chimen’s father, a renowned Orthodox rabbi, served two years at hard labor in Siberia under the Soviets. The Abramskys forged a unique blend of Judaism and Communism; they famously hosted a “Communist Seder” every Passover.

Their Promised Land

their promised landLike Sasha Abramsky, Ian Buruma writes of his Jewish grandparents’ lives in England. But unlike the Communist Abramskys, Winifred (“Win”) and Bernard Schlesinger paid allegiance solely to England, the country Bernard served in both world wars. Win wrote that she felt “privileged to live in and for the most wonderful country in the world.”

Win and Bernard came from German Jewish families who immigrated to England in the 19th century. Both families prospered and cultivated upper-middle-class English tastes; they admired classical music and fine art, and educated their children at Oxford (Win) and Cambridge (Bernard). Nonetheless, Bernard’s Jewish surname limited his job prospects as a physician at London hospitals.

The Schlesingers’ correspondence reveals an ongoing concern with how fellow Jews comported themselves. Jews who lacked polished English manners embarrassed them. Nonetheless, at a time of Nazi peril, the Schlesingers heroically rescued 12 Jewish children from Berlin, housing and educating the children in England. To this day, descendants of those children credit the Schlesingers for their lives.