LONDON — If you want to make the historical link between London’s Tottenham Hotspur soccer club and its famous Jewish following, a good place to start is Russia in 1881, the year Czar Alexander II was assassinated.
The political upheaval that followed resulted in the migration of 2 million Jews to the West, propelled by a wave of pogroms that swept across the Russian empire.
While the majority of these refugees went to America, a small proportion settled in the UK. In just 30 years, Britain’s Jewish population exploded, soaring from 46,000 to 250,000. Many settled near the Spitalfields Market in London’s East End, where a large Jewish community already existed.
Their next step, a new book says, was finding a soccer team to support.
In “Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?: The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe,” Anthony Clavane narrates a widely forgotten story: the history of Jewish involvement in British soccer.
Over 320 pages, Clavane, a Jewish sports journalist with the Sunday Mirror, examines how soccer became an important factor in helping Jews assimilate into British society, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. Along the way, he relates the stories of working-class heroes such as Louis Bookman — a Lithuanian-Irish émigré who was the first Jew to play in the English First Division — and explores the impact of more recent figures such as Roman Abramovich, the Russian-Jewish billionaire and chairman of the Chelsea Football Club.
Tottenham Hotspur, he explains, owes its Jewish following partly to its home field in the White Hart Lane stadium, in north London.
Reachable in just a few minutes by train, the facility proved a natural base for Jewish fans coming from the East End — even during games played on Shabbat.
“Jews have always had to face anti-Semitism in Britain,” Clavane says. “There was constantly this fear that we would be discriminated against. The idea that became ingrained in the Jewish community was that if you ‘became English,’ it would be hard to do that. By playing football, Jews could integrate into English life and protect themselves from discrimination.”
While soccer indeed provided common ground for Jews and their compatriots, there were also uneasy moments.
“The match that everybody remembers,” Clavane says, “is when the England team famously did a Nazi salute when they played Germany in Berlin in May 1938. But what’s less talked about is the match three years earlier at White Hart Lane.”
At that game, a “friendly” contest between England and Nazi Germany in December, 1935, Tottenham officials raised a swastika above the field before kickoff, leaving it in place for the duration of the game.
Controversial at the time, the episode has largely been forgotten, Clavane says.
“In those days, a third of the fans who went to see Tottenham were Jewish, so when the swastika was hoisted above the football stadium — given the persecution of the Jews in Germany, and elsewhere — it was a provocation, to say the least.”
Clavane says one of his reasons for writing the book was to dispel the stereotype of Jews as unathletic and bookish, with little interest in physical activity. He also disputes Freud’s claim that the “harmonious development of spiritual and bodily activity, as achieved by the Greeks, was denied to the Jews.”
“What Freud looked at,” Clavane says, “was Hellenism, which the Greeks saw as an integration of the body and the mind. But I believe there was an anti-Hellenism in early Jewish thought, where Jews saw a separation.”
“There has been a rich tradition of Jewish culture being intellectual and cerebral,” he continues, “but clearly, in the 20th century, Jews have shown that culture [can be] as much physical as it is intellectual.”
As evidence, he points to Israeli soccer stars such as Avi Cohen and Ronny Rosenthal; the English boxer Jack “Kid” Berg, who fought with a Star of David on his shorts; and stunt performer Harry Houdini, born Ehrich Weisz in Budapest.
“In the last century, I would argue that Jews have undermined the previous 500 years of Jewish cultural assumptions about not being involved in physical activity,” he says.
“The dichotomy which Freud identified as part of ancient Jewish tradition — I believe it’s no longer there.”
Clavane visited Israel in 1975 and has been back many times since. Nevertheless, he says, Israel can feel slightly alien — a feeling shared by Israeli soccer players in England.
‘The reason I wrote the book is because I wanted to show that there is a Jewish culture in England that is not wholly defined by the usual things associated with Jews’
“I do feel there is a huge cultural gap between Diaspora Jews and Israeli Jews,” he notes. “You always hear Israeli footballers who come to play in England professionally talking about this.
“The first Israeli to come to England to play football was Avi Cohen. He never really settled in at Liverpool — he didn’t feel accepted, even though the fans loved him.”
Clavane’s research gave him a greater understanding of his own roots. He was born in Leeds, but his grandfather came from Lithuania in the early part of the 20th century, changing his name from Clavinsky.
Probing his family history raised a key question: what does it mean to be an English Jew?
“The reason I wrote the book,” he says, “is because I wanted to show that there is a Jewish culture in England that is not wholly defined by the usual things associated with Jews: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Israel, the stereotype of the Shylock-type businessman, or religion.”
“There is a very strong secular Jewish tradition in Britain, which I feel I am part of, and proud of. Some of my own Jewish heroes include Karl Marx, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Woody Allen. None of these people were religious. Their art isn’t based on the dissection of the Torah. But they have a Jewish sensibility, which is very important, and revolutionary at times.”