INTERVIEW: DOMINIC BLISS
We speak to the award-winning author of Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here? about the historic significance of football to the British Jewish community, the unique issues faced by Jews in our national game and the London exhibition celebrating this often-overlooked cultural relationship…
Anthony, in your book you explain how your school teacher once told you that “football is not for a Yiddisher boy”. You presumably didn’t expect to end up playing an integral part in Four Four Jew, an exhibition about Jews and football?
It’s interesting because I never thought my book would have such an effect. On the face of it, it is quite a niche subject, but I have to say, it seems to have had a really wide appeal and there are a couple of reasons for that. First of all, people are interested in books about football that also discuss wider social issues, and also because there has been a lot of interest in the culture of the Jewish community recently.
I went to the London Jewish Museum and saw a brilliant exhibition called “Entertaining the Nation” that was about the Jewish influence on British entertainment, from the early immigrants through to Amy Winehouse, and I was discovering the story of Jews in British football at the time. I suggested to them while I was there that it would be a good topic for an exhibition.
At first there was a bit of skepticism, because there were concerns around the thought of getting into stereotypes about Jewish owners. That is something I came across when pitching my book as well, and I have to say to people, “Actually, it’s just as much about the players, fans and people involved in the grass roots game.”
When the museum decided to take it on, they did amazing things – Jo Rosenthal and the others working on it have followed up a lot of the leads I covered in the book and it is extremely exciting.
When I first set out, I was told that it would have limited appeal, but both the book and the exhibition are picking up interest in lots of newspapers and magazines in the last few weeks. That has surprised me, but at the same time made me feel very proud because it is great to see the work that Jo has done coming to fruition.
Overcoming reluctance seems to be a regular theme in the history of Jewish involvement in British football and wider culture. You touched upon it just now when saying there were some who initially hadn’t wanted to publicise the book and the exhibition. Where do you think this reluctance to embrace the Jewish contribution to British culture stems from and has a decision been made to take ownership of that influence?
The strategy of Anglo-Jewry, up until the last 20 or 30 years, has been to keep a low profile and not make a fuss or draw attention to the Jewish community.
That was a deliberate strategy and it was adopted for a number of different reasons. Partly because of a historic reluctance to raise your head above the parapet due to the history of anti-Semitism in Europe, although not necessarily in this country. Having said that, there is a folk memory here that Jews were expelled from Britain in the mid-13th Century until they were readmitted under Oliver Cromwell more than 300 years later.
I know that’s going back a long time and, in recent memory, this country has had a fantastic record in terms of welcoming Jews, but not far across the water in Europe, there has been a sense of, “Are we safe? Are we secure? Will we have to pack our suitcases and get moving again?”
In short, there is a folk memory of insecurity, and the feeling grew that if you don’t go on about being Jewish, you won’t give anyone an excuse to be anti-Semitic.
That meant that a lot of Jewish players, managers and directors in English football have been reluctant – as you put it – to own their identities, or to be identified. It has only been in the last two or three decades that there has been more openness in the Jewish community and in English football. I think the climate has changed where Jews have gone from being a reluctant community, at times hidden from history, to a more open, celebratory community saying, “Look, here we are!”
For the first time in my lifetime people seem quite happy to identify themselves as Jews and say that ours is a good story – we’ve integrated into Britain in a really successful way over the past 100 years or so, and we haven’t lost our identity. Let’s celebrate that.
David Pleat is an example of a high profile figure in football who many people didn’t even know was Jewish. His story is told in your book and it is a fascinating one, but did he have to be coaxed into discussing his identity?
I don’t want to go too far into it but it is fair to say that David was a little bit reluctant, and I think that is entirely understandable.
In the Sixties, one of Pleat’s contemporaries, Mark Lazarus – who was the opposite of reluctant – used to rub people’s noses in it a bit because he was a fighter, he came from a fighting background. But Pleat felt it was an era when you shouldn’t really identify yourself as Jewish because you didn’t know how people would react. There were examples of anti-Semitism which he suffered from and which Lazarus certainly suffered from, so why mention it? Just before him, in the Fifties, Micky Dulin played for Spurs and he never mentioned that he was Jewish – in fact, people thought he was Italian and he was quite happy for them to think that.
So, even now when I go around to do talks about the book, there are football fans who hear me mention David Pleat and say, “I didn’t know he was Jewish.”
But does that matter?
Well, it kind of does. If you look at his background, it is part of his make-up. I’m not arguing that Jews are more into football than anyone else, but because of their status as outsiders, the ones who have made it in the game had to have a certain drive to do so. They had to keep proving themselves and show that they belonged – which is not the case for my generation – but for David Pleat’s generation, they were still having to prove their “Englishness”, if you like.
My favourite part of the book was the section on Orient and their succession of Jewish owners in the Sixties and Seventies. We hear a lot about the East London Jewish community and the idea that there was a microcosm of this in the stands at Brisbane Road – the so-called “Kosher Corner” – really appealed to me, especially when you quoted the publisher Frank Cass saying of those Orient fans: “A Jew likes a hopeless cause”…
Mark Lazarus played for them, among many other clubs, and he said that although everyone says Spurs are the Jewish club, if you ask Spurs fans of his generation they will say Orient is a club they have a soft spot for. Certainly Londoners whose family have come from the East End of London, grow up hearing about this sort of “lost cause” – a club where they felt that at home, with its Kosher Corner, where they had salt-beef sandwiches and swore in Yiddish at the players. It was a micro-culture which a lot of people didn’t know about.
That wasn’t my generation, so it was really fascinating for me to hear people talking about it. Londoners, who moved out of the East End, kept Leyton Orient as their second team because their parents or their grandparents had gone there. There is this guy who has painted his house in Orient colours – red-and-white – but he is quite religious so he doesn’t actually go to matches on a Saturday. He goes to all the midweek games, but it is this uniquely Jewish contradiction – you follow a religion but you’re still passionate about your team.
Going right back to the first Jewish players in British football – like Louis Bookman in the 1910s, Harry Morris in the 1920s and, a little bit later, Leslie Goldberg. These guys were the first footballing role models for Jewish boys, many of whom were immigrants or sons of immigrants. How significant are their stories?
Exactly, a bit like Harold Abrahams in athletics and boxers like Jack Kid Berg. It wasn’t just footballers, although football and boxing were the two main sports in those working class Jewish communities. If someone made it, like Leslie Goldberg made it in Leeds, they were upgraded to become these ambassadors of Jewishness. The equivalent would be the black footballers breaking through in the Seventies and Eighties, who we acknowledge as pioneers.
Maybe it is because it goes back another 50 years, but we don’t really acknowledge the early Jewish footballers as pioneers in quite the same way. That is partly because of the reluctance that we discussed earlier, but also because we are stereotyped as being weak, effete and bookish, a bit like Woody Allen. There was this sense of wanting to point out that Jews have bodies as well as minds and that is another narrative of Anglo-Jewish history.
People haven’t quite understood that Jews have had a struggle to become accepted and feel that they belong and there is still that anxiety about proving that we belong, which is why it was so good for Jewish communities back then to see these Jewish sportsmen breaking through.
You discussed the possibility that the Jew’s status as an outsider at football has made for excellent analytical sports journalism, citing the examples of Brian Glanville, David Conn, David Winner and Willy Meisl, among others. Do you not think that is as much a middle class thing as a Jewish thing? I mean, don’t all middle class football men have moments where they feel uncomfortable – like outsiders – within British football culture?
That’s an interesting point actually, and it’s a complicated one. Is it a middle class thing? Yes it is, but I will give you an example.
Take central Europe between the wars, where you had a very middle class involvement in Austrian, German, Hungarian and Czech football development, certainly where you had the coffee house culture in Vienna, Budapest and Prague. It didn’t happen in England because football here – then as now- is a predominantly working class culture.
Willy Meisl and people like that weren’t outsiders in Austria, where it was the norm to be middle class and playing football, talking football. You had Jewish middle class players and teams, and a coffee house culture where you sat around and discussed tactics.
So it’s not just about Jews, it’s about the middle classes, and in Europe there has been a tradition of Jewish middle class involvement in the game, while Willy Meisl felt like an outsider when he came over here. And that made me think about why people like Glanville, Winner and Conn write so passionately about often-marginalised cultures within British football.
You could certainly argue that David Winner’s Brilliant Orange was an homage to the coffee house in its approach to intellectual football discussion…
Yes, you could, and I wanted to make that connection. I know many people would say they don’t care if a writer is Jewish or not, but I found that a lot of the football writers who consider themselves to be “thinkers” come from a Jewish background. Even David Pleat, with the way he set his teams up, was seen as having a level of tactical intelligence which – while it is the norm now – wasn’t normal back then. You only have to look at the surprise caused by the tactics of Gustav Sebes, the coach of the Hungary team who beat England so convincingly at Wembley in 1953, who was Jewish as well.
I suppose the middles class point that you raised is part of the same question really, and the reason for that is because football is a predominantly working class sport – not in terms of the people who watch it and write about it – but purely in terms of those who play the game professionally. A large percentage of British professional footballers are working class, and a similarly high percentage of British Jews are middle class. That wasn’t the case in David Pleat’s day, in Louis Bookman’s day, in Leslie Goldberg’s day, but with each generation the Jewish community has become increasingly middle class.
Let’s return to the title of the book, Does Your Rabbi Know Your Here? which refers to a chant that reminds us that football is traditionally and predominantly played on the Jewish sabbath in this country. How much of a hindrance was that to wider Jewish participation in the professional game in this country?
There was a crisis in Judaism after the Second World War, which wasn’t to do with the Nazi destruction of the Jews in Europe, but a quite separate crisis. Jews had become more secular and, up until then, the strategy was to assimilate through football and to become English, so that you wouldn’t get picked on for being unpatriotic or disloyal. Do what the English did, by playing football, playing cricket and learning Shakespeare off by heart.
That assimilation was leading to a perceived withering away of Jewishness because Jews were becoming more secular, marrying out and becoming more interested in football on a Saturday, thereby desecrating the Sabbath.
The Jewish community tried to reverse that and I grew up in an era when the Jewish schools would tell us we mustn’t play football. We had our ball confiscated, so we played with a tennis ball. That was confiscated, so we played with an apple core. That was confiscated, so we played with an orange peel or a stone. Football was being discouraged because it was seen as being “not for a Yiddisher boy.”
It is true that the Jewish community has diminished in numbers since the Forties and Fifties, so there was a real fear that assimilation would lead ultimately to non-existence. And things like football were seen as incompatible with being a good Jew. I find that, while there is a minority among the orthodox community who still hold that view, the majority don’t, and that majority – like me – think the Sabbath is made an even more special day by football’s place within it. We get to go to a place of worship in the morning, at the synagogue, and then to another place of worship in the afternoon, at a football ground. That makes Saturday a very special day.
Having said that, in the back of my mind, I’m still wary of the disapproval of my old headmaster and the orthodox rabbis I grew up with.