A young punk with mohawk hair and the British flag splashed across his shirt is deep in conversation with a middle-aged man. According to the picture caption, they are at Klezmer Fest, a celebration of Jewish music, in London’s Regent’s Park. One might be forgiven for assuming that the Jew in the picture is the older man, who resembles a thin Ariel Sharon and is talking with his hands. In fact, his religious status is unknown, but the punk is a synagogue member who, since the picture was taken in 2009, has made aliya.
Confidence in asserting one’s Jewish identity in public and a strong pride in being British are themes that crop up repeatedly in No Place Like Home, an exhibition of photos of Anglo-Jewry in the 21st century on display at London’s Jewish Museum. Taken by acclaimed photographer Judah Passow, they capture a community which is, paradoxically, shrinking, ageing — and in many ways, coming into its own.
“There is an overriding fear in the British community that it is going to disappear,” says Passow. “The fact is that the British Jewish community’s biggest insurance policy is its incredible capacity to re-invent itself and adapt to the changing demands of the larger society of which it is part. The growing visibility of women in the pulpit, the growing strength of the non-Orthodox communities, the commitment to social justice in the wider community, and the growing need to build bridges with other faith communities — these are issues that Anglo-Jewry is addressing with real vigour.”
‘This generation of British Jews is filled with pride at being both British and Jewish. They have no identity problems’
Americans who think of British Jews as insecure and browbeaten by anti-Semitism have a “shallow and superficial understanding of Britain,” he says. “This generation of British Jews is filled with pride at being both British and Jewish. They have no identity problems.”
These are not the words of a defensive British Jew. Passow, 63, was born in Israel to American parents who in 1947 had joined Machal, the brigade of overseas volunteers in the Haganah. In 1955, they returned to New York City, where Passow grew up, until he returned to Israel after gaining a degree in broadcasting and film from Boston University. After seven years working as a staff photographer for The Jerusalem Post, he concluded that “if I didn’t leave what was essentially a small town paper, my photography was not going to grow”.
He has spent the past 30 years in London, mostly working for a variety of Sunday newspapers, and specialising in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Angola, Namibia, the former Yugoslavia, South Africa and large parts of the Middle East, including Israel/Palestine.
The project documenting Anglo-Jewry was first conceived of as a tribute to his father after he died.
“I started to develop an idea that would complement what he had devoted his life to — building the Jewish community,” says Passow.
He gradually narrowed the focus to his own, local Jewish community, which Passow says he knew “nothing” about.
“I had no familiarity. My only connection was the shul we belonged to, where we went for the High Holy Days and our son’s bar mitzva. But that was one of the reasons I was fascinated by the project. The photos I’m interested in involve voyages of discovery.”
Over a period of 18 months, he spent time in 12 cities, shooting over 30,000 images which were eventually whittled down to the 98 pictures in the exhibition.
Many of the black-and-white images could come from any major Diaspora community, such as the bearded butcher preparing to slaughter a chicken in a kosher abattoir, the young girls dressed up as brides for Purim, even the gay couple dancing together at the end of the Simchat Torah service in a West London liberal synagogue.
A large number, however, are identifiably British. There is, for example, the then- Lord Mayor of London, Sir Michael Bear, leaning out of a gilded carriage during his inauguration ceremony in 2010. Dressed in ceremonial robes, the Masorti Jew is waving a feathered hat at the crowds.
At a Burns Night celebration at the Glasgow Reform synagogue, an elderly, bow-tied gentleman proudly displays his tartan cap.
Then there is the scene in the changing room of the Maccabi Lions football team, after a game in the Jewish football league. One player is wrapped in a Union Jack towel, while another has the Hebrew word “Yisrael” — Israel — tattooed across his neck.
Israel is perhaps under-represented, given its centrality to Jewish identity nowadays. Several images show young girls singing along at a concert by an Israeli singer, and visitors to Israel Expo, an annual event encouraging aliya. There are also a couple of shots of anti-Israel protesters.
Perhaps the most striking Israel-related image, however, is that of an East Belfast man posing in front of a house bedecked with an Israeli flag. The Protestant loyalists have adopted the Israeli flag, in contrast to the Republicans in Catholic West Belfast, who display the Palestinian flag in support of Palestinian independence. The photo raises serious questions over whether all support of Israel is positive.
While the majority of Britain’s 280,000-odd Jews (down from 400,000 post-war) live in London, Passow went out of his way to portray Jews in the mostly dying communities outside the capital. Many of the subjects here are either elderly, or ultra-Orthodox — a constituency which did not always cooperate easily. In one humorous image, taken in a Manchester synagogue in 2010, an ultra Orthodox man sits with his arms folded defensively around his chest, staring grudgingly at the camera. Opposite him, a velvet cover is thrown over a shtender, embroidered with the saying: “Start your day the Torah way.”
There are shots of children celebrating bar mitzvas in Glasgow and Birmingham, but the real demographic story is apparent in the local school.
At Birmingham’s King David Primary, a girl in a Muslim head-covering marches across the playground, hand-in-hand with a bare-headed girl. Although the school has an Orthodox curriculum, only 20 per cent of its pupils are Jewish. Fifty-five percent are Muslim, and the remainder Christian, Sikh and Hindu.
The most surprising images, says Passow, were those where Judaism popped up in unexpected places. One shows a Jewish policeman in Liverpool challenging youth offenders in the street in connection with a robbery. Twenty minutes earlier, says Passow, back at his office desk, “he pulled out a siddur his father gave him and said, ‘I daven from this’.”
Another shows an officer cadet at the Sandhurst military academy staring down the barrel of a gun, preparing for deployment in Afghanistan. It took the Ministry of Defence over a year to find a Jewish soldier willing to be photographed, for security reasons.
“The officer cadet who agreed,” says Passow, “is making a sobering and courageous statement about both his British and Jewish identity. I think the expression on his face in the image reflects that remarkable self-awareness…
“The soldier is defending two things — his Britishness and all his achievements his faith community has been able to make because of the freedoms they enjoy because they are British. The notion of keeping their head below the parapet belongs to their parents’ generation. This generation of British Jewry is fully aware of the contributions Jews made to British society in every field — politics, sports, and entertainment. There is an overwhelming sense of pride in self.”
No Place Like Home is exhibited at London’s Jewish Museum in Camden until June 5.
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