Jul 07, 2020
In this essay, I situate Howard Jacobson within the distinct and oft-conflicting Jewish and English literary traditions. I analyze Jacobson’s unique Jewish voice, his use of Yiddish and ‘cod Yiddish’—a form of imitation Yiddish—as his expression of Anglo-Jewish identity, integration, social exclusion, generational change, and the globalization of Jewish culture. As he tests the limits and contours of a Jewish way of speaking, Jacobson has established himself as an authoritative figure at the forefront of the Anglo-Jewish dialogue within the post-imperial cultural landscape.
Click here for a PDF version of this article.
Howard Jacobson is England’s greatest living Jewish novelist. For the past three decades, he has deliberated on what it means to be a Jewish writer, an English Jewish writer, a comedic English Jewish writer and a comedic English Jewish writer for whom Yiddish is a vital recourse. According to Jacobson, this talking and writing feverishly about being Jewish is being Jewish. 1 1 Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010), 275. Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. It is as if Jacobson has re-coined Descartes’ dictum, “I schmooze therefore I am.”
Though Jacobson does not profess to be a Talmudic scholar, in his 50s he spent months in the British Library reading the Talmud and discovered, “I’ve been a Talmudist all along without knowing it.” 2 2 Judy Herman, “Meet Shylock—the Single Dad,” Jewish Renaissance, January 2016, 19. He enjoys mythologizing that Talmudic conversation runs in his blood and is refracted in the argy-bargy, “But” or “Yes-but” style of his writing. In his 2001 lecture, or so-called “Kvetchure,” entitled “Vay is mir – who’d be a Jewish writer?” he donned the mantle of an exegete, heir to a literary tradition of demurral, beginning with the Rabbis and continuing on in the hair-splitting, Spitzfindigkeit, or kopdreying (“to employ the sweeter cartoonery of Yiddish”) 3 3 Howard Jacobson, Kalooki Nights (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), 424. Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. later adopted by secular Jewish writers, such as Karl Marx and Freud.
The word I use more than any other word—except perhaps the word ‘Jewish’ itself—is ‘but’. Reading gentile writers, I am always astonished at how long they can go without using the word ‘but’… Not a ‘but’ in sight. But me—but me—I am constantly demurring…. But of course what my ‘buts’ are really taking exception to is whatever has gone before them in my sentence. I demur, grammatically, and as a matter of cultural necessity, from myself. 4 4 Natasha Lehrer, The Golden Chain: Fifty Years of the Jewish Quarterly (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003), 159-160.
Not only is Jacobson grammatically at odds with himself, but he is his own “congenital” adversary. He is a hybrid: a Misnagid on one side of his family, and a Hasid on his other side, a secular Hasid to boot. His origins are working-class, but he does not cultivate the vernacular of the common man, as does the American-Jewish playwright David Mamet, known for his “Mamet speak.” Jacobson simply grew up conversing in it.
Born in 1942, into the Manchester shtetl of Crumpsall, in England’s second largest Jewish city, Jacobson is distinctly third generation. His father and most of his friends’ fathers worked the markets. A hundred years earlier, they would have been peddlers in Kishinev or Kamenets-Podolski; their progress in England was thwarted by two World Wars.
Realizing readers would find the 1950s market life in northern England an obscure terrain, Jacobson produced an e-book manual:
Not a glossary exactly, just a handy colloquial phrase-book. How many of the following words are Yiddish or even Hebrew, how much leshon hakmah (the secret language of the Jews), how much parlari or fairground slang… I didn’t know at the time and am not sure I can distinguish, or want to distinguish, today. It was the lingua franca of the gaffs, that’s all I can say, gaffs meaning markets. 5 5 Howard Jacobson, The Swag Man (Tablet Magazine, 2013), Kindle.
For customers, this would have been their first encounter with Jewish comedians, let alone with Jews.
Jacobson talks constantly but ambivalently about his hometown: sometimes, he speaks with attachment, “Manchester is where it all happened. The past gets more vivid.” 7 7 Howard Jacobson, “Howard Jacobson in conversation with Peter Florence,” Jewish Book Week, London, March 4, 2007. On other occasions, he distances himself, “I don’t feel I am still part of Manchester… I will sometimes play the Mancunian card.” 8 8 Jason Holmes, “Howard Jacobson, A Serious Man,” Huffington Post, September 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jason-holmes/howard-jacobson-a-serious_b_950090.html. Acknowledging that the story at the heart of almost every novel is the hero’s removal from a place, the betrayal in that removal and the impossibility of return, Manchester is Jacobson’s Eden.
Rejecting parental advice to “stay shtum” and not speak about his Jewishness, Jacobson discovered that he “rather liked writing about Jews.” 9 9 Sarah Lyall, “Booker Prize Winner’s Jewish Question: Howard Jacobson on His Booker Prize,” New York Times, October 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/books/19jacobson.html. As one reviewer assessed, “Jacobson is an acute observer of the bottomless embarrassment of Jewish adolescents who are at home neither in their families nor in the wider culture.” 10 10 Bryan Chayette, “Wedded to the Umlaut,” The Guardian, July 2006, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jul/08/featuresreviews.guardianreview24. So Jewish are his books that his father feared he might become a rabbi. Israeli publishers reckoned, before he won the Booker Prize for The Finkler Question in 2010, that: “We can’t translate you. You’re too Jewish!” The idea of wearing a badge on his jacket, warning “I’m too Jewish for Israeli people,” tickles Jacobson’s fancy. 11 11 Maya Sela, “Sorry for my Chutzpah: How Howard Jacobson Dissected the British Jewish Condition,” Haaretz, May 2012, http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/culture/leisure/sorry-for-my-chutzpah-how-howard-jacobson-dissected-the-british-jewish-condition.premium-1.432477.
But, and here comes the biggest but of all: Jacobson is a Jewish writer totally ensconced in English literature. He read English at Cambridge and is the last disciple of the great literary critic, F. R. Leavis. He taught English literature at universities in Australia and England. The voices in his head are Shakespeare (“He’s who I hear all the time”), 12 12 Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson, Jeanette Winterson and Howard Jacobson on Retelling Shakespeare,” The Telegraph, September 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/jeanette-winterson-and-howard-jacobson-on-retelling-shakespeare-/. Dickens, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Gaskell, and D. H. Lawrence.
Aware that one does not expect a Jewish novelist to be English, Jacobson distinguishes the European literary tradition of American Jewish novelists from his own English literary tradition. This is why he insists that he is not the English Philip Roth, but the Jewish Jane Austen, or perhaps the Jewish Charles Dickens. He wants his words to come off the page, his books to be spoken and heard. “I write to deliver, to hear the voice. I like the declamatory novel. I’d love to be the Jewish Dickens because Dickens loved to travel around the country and read.” 13 13 “Howard Jacobson in Conversation.” Perhaps this is a sufficiently malleable construct to consider Jacobson the English Sholem Aleichem or, after his latest novel, Shylock is my Name (2016), the Jewish Shakespeare.
When not complaining about his shrinking audience of Jewish readers, Jacobson’s greatest self-perceived challenge has been to sell himself as a Jewish writer to the English: “Here’s Jane Austen’s world, I’ll beef it up a bit with some Yiddish expressions, with some Yiddish obscenities, even. But the real way in which this has expressed itself is through comedy.” There is of course the British tradition of comic writing in the vein of Dr. Johnson, Lawrence Sterne, P. G. Wodehouse, but “no one makes jokes like Jews.” 14 14 Ben Judah and Josh Glancy, “The Jewish Jane Austen, or England’s Jeremiah?” Tablet Magazine, February 2015, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/books/189204/a-polite-hatred-1-jacobson.
Jacobson’s speech pattern, therefore, comprises of Talmudic banter + a sense of Jewish embarrassment + “Jane Austen” + Performance Prose + Yiddish + Comedy. The nexus between all these elements constitutes Howard Jacobson’s original and profoundly Jewish way of saying things. In looking at four of his novels, Coming from Behind 15 15 Howard Jacobson, Coming from Behind (London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1983). Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. (1983), The Mighty Walzer 16 16 Howard Jacobson, The Mighty Walzer (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999). Subsequent references will be provided in parenthesis in the body of the text. (1999), Kalooki Nights (2007) and The Finkler Question (2010), my essay will examine his utterances in Yiddish and cod Yiddish, a form of imitation Yiddish, as the medium of his message about Anglo-Jewish identity.
The term “cod Yiddish” appears just once in Jacobson’s novels. In a dream sequence, Finkler (synonymous with Jew) is punching his father’s stomach. His mother is screaming for him to stop, but his father encourages him. “‘Los the boy allein,’ he told his wife. Which was cod Yiddish for ‘Leave the boy alone.’ In life, when his father spoke to him in cod Yiddish, Finkler turned his back on him.” Finkler could not understand why his father, university-educated and usually softly spoken, would gesticulate and yell in an immigrant tongue. Other people loved his father for these displays of Jewish excitability, but Finkler would walk away. In his dream, though, he would incessantly punch him until he saw the cancer in his stomach and awakened (Finkler Question, 40-41).
Jacobson’s use of (cod) Yiddish raises many questions. Is it just oy’s and vey’s, window-dressing, there to add authentic color and vitality, or does it serve some higher purpose? Is his usage a recidivist step, a nostalgie de la boue? Is Jacobson engaged in an act of creative reinvention or betrayal? Is his adoption and adaptation of Manchester-loshn an act of salubrious nostalgia, a reclaiming of a past that has slipped beyond reach? 17 17 See Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
Jeffrey Shandler has demonstrated that the use of “postvernacular Yiddish” is an elective act, but is this true for Jacobson? 18 18 See Jeffrey Shandler, Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 24. What compels Jacobson to lapse into Yiddish and to what extent can his characters control it? Is it perhaps a visceral spasm, a gut reflex as the image of Finkler punching his father’s stomach conveys and as the intestinal Yiddish of some of his characters suggest (such as Izzi Nagel schlepping his kishkes and gederem for his son Henry in The Making of Henry)? 19 19 Howard Jacobson, The Making of Henry (New York: Anchor Books, 2004), 329-330. If Jacobson’s Yiddishisms are, however, just colloquial imitations, can fluency in (cod) Yiddish be a rite of passage for a non-Jew? Finally, is Yiddishspeak part of Britain’s “imperial postscript,” and Jacobson’s way of globalizing English, by marrying it to a once thriving language, which now only exists in pastiche and jokes? 20 20 In conversation with Jay Winter.
Jacobson was forty years old when he debuted with his novel Coming From Behind in 1983. The title, itself British English [henceforth B.E.], applied as much to its author as its protagonist, Sefton Goldberg. Both were attempting to change their destiny by becoming successful novelists or academics. Facing the fact that he wasn’t living a Jamesian or Lawrentian life, stuck as he was in “Wolverhampton,” Jacobson produced “a prolonged ululation of despair and one of the funniest novels in the language.” 21 21 Allison Pearson, “Howard Jacobson.” The Telegraph, April 2003, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/3593433/Howard-Jacobson.html Sefton despairs of his chances both as a Jew teaching English novels and as an academic in a provincial polytechnic [B.E. for not quite a university 1960s-1992], which is about to be twinned with the local Football Club.
As a Jew, Sefton has a hard time connecting to English literature. When he first encountered Paul Morel, in Sons and Lovers, informing his mother that he saw a jay, Sefton recoiled, “What was he doing reading stuff like this? He, who didn’t know a jay from a jimmy and who wouldn’t have bothered to tell his mother if he’d seen either. ‘And we saw a jay.’ It was like a foreign language” (58-59).
If there is one thing a Jew is even more estranged from than the English countryside, it is, writes Howard Jacobson, the English obsession with football. According to Sefton, “there was nothing more un-Jewish” (61). Jewish schoolboys preferred verbal and mental sports to physical ones. Jewish spectators were too doom-laden to rejoice with other fans when a team scored early. Though the game was for goyim, the Football Club was to become his academic home. No wonder Sefton perpetually felt “so far from his natural habitat” (70).
We first meet Sefton writhing in discomfort on the floor in flagrante delicto with Lynne Shorthall, a married student, on her way to her graduation. The novel’s opening sentence has Lynne declaring her sexual satisfaction, not in Home Counties’ English, but in the heavily accented dialect of the West Midlands: “That’s eet, that’s eet! You’m found eet, yo’bugger! Yis, that’s eet!” (7). Amidst Lynne’s “Black Country familiarities,” authentic with their phonetic “eet” and “yis” and “yam yam” sounds, Sefton lies supine, fixated on his door and “the position of the little metal nipple on his Yale lock. Is it up or is it down?” He flashbacks to a time when he was caught in a similar position, with Helen Burns, a name straight out of Jane Eyre. This earlier indiscretion took place in the university of Woolloomooloo, in Australia, where the postman, “unflappable Frank, barged in on the visiting Pom, and had flapped” (9).
Inter alia, Jacobson’s readers need to be conversant with Monty Python, cult English humor, to recognize this fictitious University of Woolloomooloo. In the “Bruces’ Philosophers Song,” four identical Aussie Bruces [Australian English, henceforth A.E., for men] initiate the visiting Pom [A.E. for a Brit], as an adjunct Bruce, into their philosophy department. They instruct him in the Faculty rules; 1, 3, 5, and 7 of which counseled “No Poofters.” [Also A.E.]
Back in his polytechnic, in Wolverhampton, “Not being a poofter himself, but being Jewish, which is worse, Sefton Goldberg considers that he is already guilty enough without the added tsorris of being found on the floor of a polytechnic, in Wrottesley, in the Midlands, in England, with a woman who, quite frankly, would not make him the envy of all his friends” (11).
Welcome to Jacobson’s linguistic world! Amidst dialects from the West Midlands, North West England, Monty Python and Australian English, Sefton drops his first Yiddish bombshell: tsorris. It lands almost as a deus ex machina, bar the fact that it solves nothing. The accumulation of prepositional phrases defining the precise locale of this tsorris captures the depth of Sefton’s suffering: to be a Jew in Wrottesley Poly is more taboo than being a poofter in Woolloomooloo, and if you are going to be caught with a girl, she should at least be capable of making your friends jealous!
In The Mighty Walzer (1999), the volume of Jacobson’s Yiddish starts to crescendo from sotto voce to mezza voce, verging on mezzo forte. More brazenly, he begins to brandish Yiddish on practically every page. Expressions recur, such as “hob saichel” (3x), “geh gesunterheit” (4x), “shlemozzle” (3x), “schlemiel” (3x), “veh iz mir” (1x), “och un veh-ing” (2x), “chazzerei” (4x), “nebbish” (7x), “farkrimt” (2x), “loz aleyn” (1x), “shreier/shrais” (2x), “unserer” (9x) vs. “anderer” (3x), “fershimmelt” (3x), “oisgeriben” (2x), “oisgemisht” (2x), plus “oisgematert” “since we’re on the ois words.” (163) Dispensed are the italics, suggesting that Yiddish words, along with bagels, have become globalized.
Only one Yiddish word merits dictionary treatment in a virtual soliloquy at the end of the first chapter: tsatske. Whereas in Coming From Behind, gewgaws (Middle English, 189) sufficed, tsatske makes its appearance 36 times in The Mighty Walzer as a noun and 6 more times as a verb: “A tsatske is a toy or plaything, a shmondrie, a bauble, a whifflery, a nothing. It can also mean a nebbish, a nobody, and by extension, a tart… But no definition is able to render the charge of fatuousness and triviality, which I always heard in the word. A person who owned a tsatske was forever, it seemed to me, lost to seriousness and dignity” (14-15). To tsatske or not to tsatske is the question that lies at the heart of this novel.
The increased volubility of Yiddish in The Mighty Walzer reflects, in part, the greater centrality in the novel of Manchester’s “Bug and Dniester” (11x). Walzer’s maternal grandma “turned Cheetham Hill into a Polish shtetl for me. The street signs said Waterloo Road, Elizabeth Street, St James’s Road, but we were in Sowalki… She taught me to krich — to hobble along like a little old peasant with a back bent from years of carrying sacks of matzo meal. We kriched along together. Where she took me, no one spoke English” (41).
Yiddish was not, however, just old school, the language of first-generation immigrants, nor the language of the marketplace for second-generation Manchester Jews, but it was the language of the competitive ping-pong played by third generationers. Oliver, a character with Dickensian expectations, is determined to break free from his grandma’s shtetl, his father’s market tsatskes, as well as his tsatske involvement with ping-pong (which he felt deserved the name, piffling – Yiddish for trifling, 255).
Cambridge University fails as the antidote to Oliver’s childhood swag and tsatskes. This is, of course, captured linguistically, in the jarring juxtaposition of “Cambridge? Gevalt!” (292). On day one alone, Oliver knocked E.M. Forster (author of the famous English injunction “Only Connect”) into the gutter along Jesus Lane (296). His first visitor to his room, St. John Rivers (another name straight out of Jane Eyre), speaks such a different language, they fail to understand each other. In the middle of their conversation, Oliver pines for his ping-pong mate, Sheeny Waxman, wanting to share an “Oy a broch!” moment with him. (301)
In one of Jacobson’s most poignant passages, his grandma is at death’s door and her husband of almost fifty years, says to her “Ello, love, ‘ow are you? Want a pint?” It was not so much the absorption of glottal stop English as the absence of Yiddishisms that shocked Oliver here. Despite his earlier assimilationist aspirations, he anguished that his grandfather had betrayed his birthright for so pale a substitute as a lifetime of English beer. He had become a goy. “…Better we’d have stayed on the east bank of the Bug or the Vistula, pogroms or no pogroms. Snobbery? Only if you think I’m talking class. But I’m not talking class. I’m talking metaphysics – what you owe your soul. Your neshome, as we used to call it in days when we talked metaphysics” (201). Jewspeak here is Jacobson’s guarantee against a life squandered on goyish tsatske.
In Kalooki Nights (2007), Jacobson upped the ante by moving away from personal identity crises, and turning to collective memory and historical conscience. Reluctantly, he tackles the subject of the Holocaust and with it the whole gamut of Jewish suffering. Or, in Jacobson’s lingua, in contrast to Jane Austen, “This time I did the Napoleonic Wars.” Kalooki Nights is not a Holocaust novel per se, but about connections to the Holocaust. Its protagonist is neither the eponymous Kalooki, the card game which the narrator’s mother plays incessantly, nor even Max Glickman’s childhood friend, the devout Manny Washinsky, who gasses his parents to death. The protagonist is the word Jew, the J-word, appearing one hundred times. As always with Jacobson, it is not what happens, but what is said; it is not plot, but language.
Max’s father wanted his son to stay away from Judaism, which he censored as farshimelt, meaning moldy: “You can hear the maggots at work” (35). Ironically, he, the most “progressive” Jew in Manchester, still needed a Yiddish word to express his self-abnegation. Physically, he describes his father as resembling Einstein, but instead of calculating E = mc2, he tried to eradicate the burden of Jewishness: J ÷ J = j. Reducing J to its lowercase form, he sought to deliver his people from dwelling mentally in “the hellish malarial swamp shtetls of Eastern Europe” (7). Furthermore, “he tried to ditch the J-word as an abomination of suffering altogether… now that he was out of the puke of Novoropissik and safe in the North of England…” (17). Max, however, was a biblical-looking child, who chimed “Jew, Jew, Jew” instead of “choo, choo, choo.” Even before knowing about Auschwitz, Max – a precocious Hebrew prophet on his mother’s lap – heard Jew, Jew, Jew, in the commotion of a train. “Footfalls echo in the memory, and who’s to say what footfalls, past or future, a child’s memory contains?” (17).
The generation of Max’s father was “the in-between generation” (111), that shied away from “the gory details,” in spite of the fact that what happened in Germany belied their assimilationist project, their card playing, and their rearing of children indistinguishable from goyim. Max’s generation, by contrast, growing up in the 1950s, hungered for knowledge of the Holocaust. They represent the generation of Hamlet, which can find no refuge from the dead: “’Remember me,’ says Hamlet’s father’s ghost” (5).
Trading a bunch of comics for a copy of Lord Russell’s Scourge of the Swastika: A Short History of Nazi War Crimes (one of the first such publications in 1954), Max and Manny buried their heads in their text, hiding out in a Second World War air-raid shelter in Crumpsall. When Max detailed how his other friend, the profane Errol Tobias, “showed” him Holocaust photographs, he corrects himself. “Showed” is too feeble a verb; he revealed them like a modern Moses. This was their modern scripture or Torah. In and of itself, Lord Russell’s conclusion was not new; Max already understood that the murder of over five million European Jews was the greatest crime in world history. What electrified Max was that it was written down and illustrated with photos. Not only does Max remember each photo, but he also lists their order, in the manner of the weekly sedrot.
It is perhaps ironic that in his lengthiest novel, Kalooki Nights, the author addresses the limits of language after the Holocaust. He pays homage to Adorno, who averred that after the Holocaust, poetry was unacceptable. He lists certain words made unholy, words that ought to be removed from human vocabulary for a thousand years, such as “gassed,” “camp” and “train.” Silence, however, was never a moral alternative. He recalls the comedian Tommy Cooper, who in a sketch found himself opposite Hitler on a train. From time to time, Cooper would look up from his paper and hiss, “Ssss.” “I took this to be a profound exploration of the impossibility of ever expressing outrage sufficient to a monstrous crime” (210). Cartoons, not targeted by Adorno’s proscription, offered Max a similar opportunity for an expletory outlet. Beyond the statutory AARGH!s and SPLAT!s, no words featured in his epic graphic history, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness. Jacobson acknowledges that facing the Holocaust, Jewspeak or speech itself hits a wall.
The Jewish Question is no longer historical, but contemporary in The Finkler Question, written in the wake of Israel’s invasion of Gaza. A meditation on friendship and loyalty, two of three friends, Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler, mourn lost wives. The third, Julian Treslove, mourns them too (he had an affair with and loved Finkler’s wife), but he resembles a shadow. The odd one out in both bereavement and religion, he wants in: to connect to his friends’ mourning and “the whole Jewish gesheft.”
Treslove wants to become a Finkler. He is the victim of a mugging and thinks he heard his woman assailant mistake him for “You Jew.” He questions whether it might be one of a rising number of hate crimes and whether being a Finkler is “an open invitation to assault.” Obsessively, Julian studies to become a Jew. In many ways, he is the perfect candidate since he looks like everybody, but is nobody. He did a modular degree at university and is as bits and pieces a construct as his degree. Having left the BBC, he works as a body double for actors such as Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy. His girlfriends complain he’s more a chameleon than a rock.
Attaining Jewishness, in Julian’s eyes, is, however, an elusive, enigmatic, and possibly Sisyphean task. “You never know with Jews what was a joke and what wasn’t.” You never know whether they speak in mockery or self-mockery. Word virtuosos, capable of concocting verbal tricks and making even punctuation funny, Finklers keep changing the rules of the game. When you prepare yourself for a Finkler joke, you get Finkler scholarship (the mamzers!). Theirs is a secret language, possibly an undecipherable code.
Nu? Libor asked of Finkler.
Treslove wasn’t sure if that was the way to report it. Do you ask ‘Nu’ of? Or do you just ask, transitively? ‘Nu?’ he asked. And is it even a question in the accepted sense? Nu, he said. Would that have been better? Nu, meaning how are things with you, but also I know how things are with you.
So much to master. (177)
Finklerphile, adopted Finkler, and Finkler wannabe, Julian almost experiences the whole Jewish gamut. He stops eating treyf, contemplates training for the rabbinate, becomes assistant curator of the Museum (in progress) of Anglo-Jewish Culture, struggles through Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed and researches into the effects of circumcision. He buys a Yiddish dictionary, intent on learning 100 Yiddish words to woo his Jewish mistress, his feigeleh, his neshomeleh, his bubeleh. He recalls his father’s favorite expression, to be “in shtuck”, which sounds Yiddish, and might prove his Jewish credentials, if only he could find it in a Yiddish dictionary.
In the end, Julian does not pull off a conversion. In true Finkler style, Jacobson wordplays: “He wasn’t the real McCoy, that was what it came to. Not only wasn’t he a Jew, he was a jest to Jews. The real McGoy.” As so often in Jacobson, death proves the final arbitrator and divider. In the cemetery burying Libor, Finkler and Treslove lock arms. Treslove was aware of “the lack of statuary eloquence” (284). The cemetery is where Jewspeak seemingly ends. In the painful silence, Finkler harks back to their childhood game of quoting Hamlet, “To what base uses we may return,” he says, but Treslove apologizes that he cannot respond. “The Jews were good at making one occasion not like another, he thought. The protocol alarmed him but he admired it. Good to divide this from that. Why is this night different from all other nights. Or was it good? They pursued difference to the grave” (286).
The novel’s epilogue, in an unusually deadpan tone, deals the final blow to Treslove’s bid to belong. Jacobson adjudicates that, “As a non-Jew, Treslove was not permitted to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead and so had been excluded…” All his Yiddish proficiency came to no avail when denied “the ancient language of the Jews tolling for the dead.” Finkler, by contrast, recites the Kaddish beyond the thirty days required for a non-parent and even beyond the eleven months for a parent. Must this be so? The saying of kaddish is merely custom and not halacha. A Jew can say kaddish for a non-Jew, and the question of whether a non-Jew can say it for a Jew seems less taboo than going beyond the eleven months and perhaps even a moot point since the majority of Jews also need to learn how to pronounce the Aramaic benediction.
Jacobson’s insistence that there can be no starting point for Treslove’s Jewish mourning and no limits upon Finkler’s marks the author’s finite point where he calls for distinction. This is why the ceremony of “Habdalah” (separation) so appeals to him, a non-practicing Jew. In bidding farewell to the Sabbath with wine, a candle and a spice box, and in reciting the benediction, Jacobson appreciated that the Jew thanks the Almighty for distinguishing between the Sabbath and the week, between the holy and the profane, between light and darkness, between the six days of creation and the seventh day of rest. “And whether you light the candle and shake the spices or you don’t, you cannot call yourself a Jew unless the concept is written on your heart” (Kalooki Nights, 36). For Jacobson, Habdalah also serves as a distinction between the world of the living and the dead, of fact and the imagination, the justification for art and creativity, for his art and creativity. “Here is the tongue we are obliged as responsible citizens to mind, and there is the outlandish language we speak when we are otherwise possessed” (Kalooki Nights, 37). For Jacobson, Jewspeak is often a part of that “outlandish language” he speaks when creatively possessed.
The question still beckons whether Yiddish is for Jacobson anything more than a craft or magic trick. Both Jacobson’s strengths and limitations lie in his being third generation. His literary world is bound to the linguistics of his grandparents and parents. As such, he offers very little to sustain a future fourth generation, and it is no coincidence that his favorite topoi are the cemetery and graveyard. By paying homage to heritage without a commitment to inheritance, Jacobson is the quintessential post-imperial writer. Well-defined and potentially exclusive ethnic, national, religious and racial boundaries went out of fashion with the disintegration of empire. Jacobson himself has succeeded in attaining universal validity by creatively restoring the catch phrases of his youth, but how future English Jewish writers will achieve this remains extremely uncertain.
The U.K.’s vote to Brexit (6/23/16) – a retreat from the European Union and reassertion of an insular mentality – has made Britain’s future, literary included, all the more unknown. In his response to the referendum, Howard Jacobson reprimanded political and intellectual leaders for failing to attest that national identities come in hybrid forms and multiple guises. You can live here and think there, you can be an insider and an outsider, and you can live in a geographical place and inhabit another mental landscape. “You can, as D. H. Lawrence said of Connie Chatterley, be both ‘cosmopolitan and provincial’. The EU, for all its failures, gave tangible promise of cosmopolitan large-mindedness, as adventure out of oneself, to millions hitherto rooted in their provinces.” 22 22 Howard Jacobson, “Brexit: ‘things go bad after a divorce and often stay that way. A bitterness lingers.’” The Guardian, June 26, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/26/howard-jacobson-on-brexit-england-worse-than-week-ago. Surely, Howard Jacobson’s voice (cosmopolitan yet provincially Jewish) has never been more urgent. To borrow from the idiom – “dress British, think Yiddish,” he has always “spoken British, thought Jewish” or “thought British, spoken Jewish.”