As a Jewish-American, I’m very interested in the experiences of Jews in other countries, past or present, factual or fictional. Andrew Sanger‘s debut novel, The J-Word, presents one such glimpse into 21st-century Jewish life–in England–by focusing on octogenarian Jack Silver and his family. (If Sanger’s name is familiar, that may be because you’ve seen him guest-blog right here on My Machberet.)
What I found here–apart from certain figures of speech, a pronounced recurrence of teatime, and a greater focus on “football” (soccer) than we tend to find in American literature–were many similarities with threads of Jewish experience in the United States. To be sure, Jack’s long-sustained quest to become truly “English” and fully assimilated is a situation quite familiar to readers of Jewish-American literature. The incorporation of prayer snippets and Yiddishims is another link (anyone needing refreshers or translations will find them in footnotes and a glossary). But the book also reflects newer aspects of Jewish contemporary experience that cannot fail to resonate in an American reader just as they might in an English one.
Take, for instance, these musings from Jack, shortly after he is attacked by a gang in what is clearly an anti-Semitic hate crime:
Maybe the answer is education. An intelligent, aware population. That, he realised, was an impossibility. Some of the best educated people hate Jews. So a liberal, tolerant society? He grimaced at the thought. In his mind he saw ranks of pale, thin-lipped English men and women saying ‘we’re not antisemitic,’ the readers and writers of the Guardian and the Independent, sympathising with suicide attackers, calling for boycotts and spreading hatred of Israel. He laughed bitterly. ‘Oh no, it’s only Israel and its supporters we hate,’ he said, ‘not Jews.’ The Guardian and the Independent and the BBC are leading us to the next Holocaust. Then they will be able to report on it with horrified condemnations. What about the Jews who take that side, too – Harold Pinter and the rest? Fools!
Now, I happen to be a reader who appreciates a good dose of politics in fiction, and I also happen to be someone who discerns with increasing frustration in some American media outlets much of the same content/opinion that Jack highlights here on the English side. In other words, I am sympathetic to Jack’s particular political views. I admire Sanger’s writing here very much. It takes bravery to write like this. It also takes skill. Whatever Sanger’s personal views might be, these few lines convey at least as much power and conviction as might a full-fledged op-ed. But undoubtedly, some readers may not share my enthusiasm on these points.
I haven’t done justice here to this novel, which merits a much more detailed examination, so I will send you to some other sources. Meantime, I’m quite glad that I’ve had the opportunity to read The J-Word, and (disclosure!) I’m grateful to the publisher for the review copy.