I grew up in the 60s, in a Jewish neighbourhood in the Canadian Mid-West. I attended Hebrew School after regular school, had a Bar Mitzvah. It was like the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man but without the Jefferson Airplane-quoting Rabbi. Life was remarkably unthreatening in Winnipeg; I was only once called "kike". I've never been religious (if you don't count my worship of Bob Dylan). In fact, I've avoided synagogue since my official induction into The Tribe. I've always been ambivalent about The Jewish Thing.
Except - for the next few months, The Jewish Thing is my life. I'm the co-writer (with the play's director, Matthew Lloyd) of a new verbatim play for London's re-branded Jewish Community Centre, JW3. I will also be one of its four actors (others include Peep Show's Isy Suttie). The project has involved extensive interviews with dozens of Jewish Londoners about their families. So far, Listen, We're Family has been a surprising ride: funny and enlightening. But it's also made me uneasy all over again. A few of the interviewees remarked on the possibility of having to pack quickly. "You never know", they told me. OK, they were sort of joking. But in a country where The Daily Rag publishes lies about dead Jewish academics, the joke has a whiff of truth.
Our volunteers ranged from Aaron (the 91 year-old barber whose shop was trashed during the Tottenham riots) to David (a lecturer whose father organised popular suburban spanking parties in Ruislip). We spoke to Primo Levi's biographer about her mother ("an anti-Semite") and her son, now a practising Catholic. We spent an hour in the kitchen of a personable 25 year-old food researcher, proudly Jewish and gay, and another in the study of an Orthodox rabbi.
An elderly East Ender recounted a punch-up between her younger self and a well-dressed matron in the queue at Blooms restaurant ("you little bitch" "you old cow!"). There was the son of Communist parents who muttered darkly about JW3 being a prime terrorist target (complete with imagined Israeli security guards arresting a guy carrying a Sainsbury's shopping bag) and a retired kitchen designer who grumbled about its lack of designated parking ("Jews like to drive!").
Most of the interviewees were more than willing to reveal difficult secrets about their family life. There was sibling rivalry, mental illness and perverse threats ("If you become a rabbi, I will sit shiva"). A story about a Viennese psychoanalyst doing a Jackie Mason impersonation in a restaurant run by Nazis had us in stitches.
Of all the people we interviewed, only one echoed my queasiness about ticking the Jewish box. Having worked as an art historian in Venice and New York, she's bemused about moving back to Temple Fortune, the area where she grew up ("too many Jewish people and Volvo estates"). And yet she enjoys the experience of leading Yoga classes in the neighbouring synagogue. Go figure.
Something is happening here and I don't quite know what it is, to paraphrase my favourite Jewish poet. But I'm beginning to. We started working on this project in the early summer. As the autumn leaves fall, Matthew and I are finally organising the interviews into a stage play. The people we spoke to had roots in Poland and Russia, Austria and Algeria. But they had one thing in common. They were, I'm beginning to realise, kind of brave. They accept that there may always be something slightly whiffy in the British air, in the land of their birth. Yet they don't care. They are who they are.
Maybe it's time for me to be who I am, too. I've played hundreds of roles in my career. But, on reflection, it's the Jewish ones that have touched me most deeply: the Woody Allen part in Play It Again, Sam, a one-man stage version of The Prince of West End Avenue (octogenarians perform Hamlet in a Kosher retirement home) and a Jewish analyst having a mental breakdown in pre-War Berlin (C P Taylor's Good).
As I prepare to play Aaron and David and other Jewish Londoners, I'm breathing a bit more calmly. These are my people. What have I got to be afraid of? The Jewish Thing? What Jewish Thing?
Kerry Shale's Blog:Other Dog's Phone Calls