Guest post: London Jewish Book Week 2014 – a view from the sane left

This is another guest post by frequent commenter and contributor Brian Goldfarb. He has written two previous posts about London’s Jewish Book Week and I am sure you will appreciate this year’s excellent contribution about the 2014 London Jewish Book Week as well.

London Jewish Book Week

The title is for consistency: the words “the sane left” have been in the first two reports, so why change?

On reflection, I wish I’d booked for one or two things for the last day, Sunday, 2 March. Ah well, as we say to each other when forced to miss something, you can’t do everything. Though we don’t know why (beyond sheer human frailty) we can’t! This year, I didn’t buy any books and only one was already on my e-reader, of which more anon.

Be that as it may, I managed (my wife slightly less) 7 events, the same as two years ago and one less than last year (or is that the other way round? Not that it matters, just being a nit-picking Jewish academic!) First, though, a caveat. Two years ago, I praised Jeremy Ben-Ami of (the US lobby group J Street) for his book “A New Voice for Israel“. Given what J Street have been saying since the “talks” with Iran and the latest “peace negotiations” got under way, it looks as though they are heading for the no longer fresh-as-a-daisy end of the left spectrum. It would appear that some parts of the supposedly sane left are decidedly flaky.

An aside: although it’s not part of Jewish Book Week, we went this week to see “The Book Thief“. For those not aware of either the book or the film, Liesel is fostered by a childless couple in a small West German town in 1937-38. Her parents are communist and thus in danger. She cannot read, but learns to do so (thus, a clue as to the title). Her foster parents, like most of the townsfolk, are far from being “Hitler’s willing executioners”; indeed, they hide, most dangerously for all of them, a Jew, Max. You are heartedly urged to to read the book (written by  Markus Zusak – an Australian) and see the film (in whichever order they come your way, but, if you have an Amazon kindle, it’s 99p from their website to download).

The first event I attended (on the first day of the week) was Alain de Bouton on “The News: A User’s Manual“. De Bouton is a philosopher, and it shows. He is bidding to become a pubic intellectual, in the Simon Schama mould. This year, his argument is that we need guidance as to how to understand the news. Not least, this is because the news cycle, whether print (or even more rapidly) or on television, is so rapid and focuses so much on the lurid that we have little time to take it in, let alone understand it. This particular story hadn’t broken then, but take as an example the row about Harriet Harman (the UK Labour Party Deputy-Leader), the former National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL), the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) and the Daily Mail. Bear in mind that this took place 35 years ago. What has this to do with politics today? De Bouton’s argument is just that, plus we need clear signposts, especially from those who claim to be “neutral” and just reporting the facts, like the BBC. His example of how to do it was The Economist: a clear line or bias that shines through on every page, but at least the reader knows where they stand: they argue back at every step of the way. One lovely irony came up: the last question/comment came from a Guardian reporter (Kings Place is situated, literally, below The Guardian offices, and I have been told that the rent The Guardian pays subsidies otherwise unprofitable chamber music, etc). He claimed that The Guardian had no “line” (to incredulous laughs – just go to CiFWatch), to which de Bouton responded that that was why they’re losing £40 million a year. I just wish I’d been close enough to heckle the reporter.

Next up for both of us was “Nazi-Looted Art: A Time of Reckoning” (no book connected with this). The speakers were Lord David Neuberger, currently President of Britain’s Supreme Court, and Anne Webber, Co-Chair of the Commission for Looted Art in Europe (an organisation she helped to found in 1998). The chair was Hannah Rothschild (yes, one of those Rothschild’s!). Their discussion revolved around how far the battle for restitution of looted art was progressing (answer: not as far as it should have) and what the role of the law could or should be. Lord Neuberger’s position was that law could only do so much and we needed to be careful of how it was used. Not surprisingly, much attention was focussed on the recent cache of looted art discovered in Munich (over a 1000 items) and the more recent unearthing of a further 40+ items in Salzburg  and what (re Munich) the effect on the German Government might be. Both the debate and the response to questions was most instructive. An additional item to the Week’s programme was a film, produced by Anne Webber, entitled “Making a Killing“, which we went to a few days later (see below).

Then we went on to The Leonard Bernstein Letters, a session conducted by the editor of the letters, Nigel Simeone, with extracts read by the actor Michael Brandon. For many in the audience, there weren’t really too many surprises. Simeone confirmed that Bernstein (“Lenny” in most of his letters) was bisexual, which meant that as and when he cheated on his wife (who was aware of his bisexuality), it was with men, rather than with women. The talk did confirm that he was truly a musical polymath, expert in several musical fields: not just classical music, but also popular (the American musical), choral, liturgical…And he could write beautifully. He also got to know many of the musical greats of his time, starting, when he still a student, with Aaron Copland and going on from there.

My wife went home at this point, but I stayed on for two further sessions. The first was for Andrew Sachs’s talk on his autobiography “I Know Nothing“, which comes, of course, from his best-known (if not necessarily best) role as Manuel, the Spanish waiter with almost non-existent English in John Cleese’s fabulous “Fawlty Towers“. The alternative to this one of his lines would have been “Que?“, far too obscure to any but Fawlty fans. At least he didn’t invade Poland (inside Fawlty Towers joke). Sadly, Sachs is suffering from his age: he was born in about 1930 and came to the UK in 1938 or 39, escaping the Nazis (so that makes him 83+): his father was Jewish and politically active. Equally sadly, this fact of suffering from his age showed.

The final event for me that day was “Totally Unofficial: The Autobiography of Raphael Lemkin” by Donna-Lee Frieze, A.L. Kennedy and Philippe Sands. This turned out to be absolutely riveting: a real tour-de-force. For those who have no idea who Raphael Lemkin was, he was the person who, almost single-handedly, devised the definition of the term “genocide” (as distinct from “crimes against humanity”, under which the Nazi perpetrators were tried and judged) and forced it to become a United Nations Convention. He was not, in the conventional sense, a “nice” person. Why should he have been? He was born and raised (a Jew, which he remained in identity terms) in Lithuania, was educated (as a lawyer) in Poland and rose quite high in the Polish judicial system. After the Nazi invasion, he managed to get to Lithuania to say goodbye to his parents and then got to Sweden.

After a short stay in Sweden, he made his way to the USA, the long way round: Russia, China, Japan, Los Angeles, New York. He knew very well what was happening in Europe, which was why he spent the rest of his (relatively short – he died in 1959, aged 59) life forcing the concept of genocide on a reluctant world. Donna-Lee Frieze is an Australian genocide scholar, based in Melbourne, but working at Yale, where Lemkin’s papers are housed, and has formed his papers into an autobiography; A. (Alison) L. Kennedy is a British writer, journalist and stand-up comic who wrote a newspaper article about “My Hero Raphael Lemkin”, which caught the attention of Philippe Sands, a human rights lawyer. The vitally important difference between “crimes against humanity” and “genocide”, as the panel saw it, is that the former can be committed against one or a few people, the latter is against whole groups. The discussion could have gone on for hours.

We went back on the Wednesday for two further events: an originally unscheduled showing of a film “Making a Killing” (produced by Anne Webber in 1998 – see above – when she was working for the BBC) about the efforts of one family, The Gutmanns, to reclaim their looted possessions, looted from Holland. A very moving 50 minute film, which showed their partial success. The discussion afterwards showed, as had the previous Sunday’s talk, that, however slowly, things do appear to be changing, if slowly.

Finally, we went to the Jewish Quarterly/Wingate Literary Prize awards.  The six short-listed books were:

The Kulka won, but the only one that appealed to us was the first. Indeed, my wife may well present it to her book group as a possible read.

One event I couldn’t get to (it was sold out) was Irving Finkel (a curator at the British Museum) on “The Ark Before Noah“, which I’ve read on my e-reader. If you believe in the literal truth of Genesis – as opposed to it being an allegorical understanding of the universe’s beginning – then stay away from this book!

Anyone interested in the whole range of offerings can go to Jewish Book Week and click on past events on the top line. Or even get themselves on the email list, just to see what’s on offer next year.

Anne adds:

Brian, thank you so much for this wonderful review. You certainly stuffed in a huge amount even though you didn’t manage every event. (I don’t think that would have been physically possible!).  Many thanks too for the background information you provided about the various events, which give us a taste for more.

Every one of the events you attended sounds riveting. I would love to have attended the Alain de Bouton (or de Botton) event, if only to have been a fly on the wall when the Guardian reporter got what he deserved! As an aside, I had no idea de Bouton was Jewish.

I urge all our readers to read the book reviews of all the books mentioned here. there’s something here for everyone,  in particular the 6 short-listed books for the Wingate Prize.

I’m sure we all look forward to Brian’s next contribution!

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2 Responses to Guest post: London Jewish Book Week 2014 – a view from the sane left

  1. Brian Goldfarb says:

    Anne, I didn’t know for sure that de Botton was Jewish either, so I went to the net and found that his mother’s family name was Burgauer, and she was a Swiss born Ashkenazi Jew, whereas his father was an Egyptian born (Sephardi) Jew, born in Alexandria, and he was “expelled (along with the rest of the Jewish community) under Nasser” – presumably in 1967.

    Amazing what one cab learn from the net, some of it is even accurate!

    • anneinpt says:

      Sometimes his name is spelled Botton and sometimes Bouton. I wish he’d make up his mind!

      But seriously, thank you again for a fantastic review of the book week.

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