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Artillery Row

Reflection in Advent

I am a half-Jewish product of artificial trees, bagels, White Hart Lane, and of two people who knew little of theology but everything of God’s love

The first time I was aware of my Jewishness was when I was quite a young child. It was the late 1960s and I’d met a boy in the local park in that era of innocence, and after playing football for an hour or two we walked to his home just a few minutes away. There was tea and cake, and then his father came home. He seemed angry and loud. There was a shouted question to my new friend, who seemed bewildered and sad. Pause. “Sorry”, said the boy. “You’ve got to leave.” The odd thing is that it took some time for me to realize what had been said. “Is he a Jew? Get him out of here!” I should have explained that I was only half-Jewish, so could I perhaps stay until lunch.

The half-Jewish part was my father, who if he had known what had happened would have taken direct and muscular action. Working-class Jews from Hackney who had boxed for the RAF did that sort of thing. But I allowed, perhaps sub-consciously, this ugly mingling of child abuse and race hatred to evaporate but not, obviously, disappear.

Anti-Semitism wasn’t common in late 60s and early 70s Essex. Most people were indifferent or even supportive – the death camps had been liberated only three decades earlier. There were always a few malicious comments, I recall the slightly dark giggles when in English class someone had to read Falstaff saying, “You jerk, we did tie them up, every single one of them, or I’m a Jew, a true Hebrew Jew”, and the occasional punch was thrown.

Then there was the football. I was Tottenham all through. How could I be otherwise? Dad was not only Jewish and from Hackney but he drove a cab too! Hard to ignore Chelsea fans, and those from a few other clubs, chanting, “I’ve never felt more like gassing a Jew”, displaying Nazi banners, and making hissing sounds when Spurs players ran on to the pitch. That was supposed to be the sound of the gas in the death camp chambers. Nice.

Why do Tottenham fans, the vast majority not Jewish of course, call themselves “Yids” and occasionally wave Israeli flags? It has nothing to do with the Middle East or religion. It’s about ownership, taking back the insult, throwing it in the faces of the little Nazis out there. Failure to grasp this reveals an emotional and intellectual density of the most concrete variety.

I am still a journalist but also someone who wears a collar and tries to tell people about Jesus

For me, it was all a lesson in ambiguity. Dad was Jewish but totally secular, mum from a mixed background with a mother, a Jones from Whitechapel, sufficiently blonde and blue-eyed to delight even a professional Jew-hater. I was Jewish enough for the anti-Semites, not Jewish enough for Jewish law. But life was good, my parents were love personified, and most of the time my life was as warm and reassuring as a Christmas TV ad. And it’s that time of year, the approach of Christmas, that always reminds me of the dynamic’s realities.

Advent is a word that as a child I only knew from the Blue Peter Advent crown that they made every year – do they still? Surely not, somebody would complain or be offended. I knew simply that it signified the proximity of school holidays and the certainty of presents. The old Christmas tree would be brought down from the loft and its branches – plastic sticks covered with tinsel – would be unfolded and decorated. There was nothing explicitly Christian about any of this, the tree is pagan anyway, but it did introduce mystery, perhaps magic, into the house.

Dad would work until the early hours of Christmas morning so as to take the rest of the day off to be with his family. I realize now – didn’t then – that he had little option. No paid holidays for cabbies. If he were alive now, God rest his soul, the pandemic would likely have bankrupted him.

Back then I’d be roaring around the house by 7am and could never understand why dad was so tired, even half-asleep, when I barged into my parents’ room. Truth be told, I think I resented him for not being as enthusiastic as I wanted him to be. I didn’t reflect on the fact that he’d worked so hard to buy the presents and the food in the first place. So much I wish I could say to him now.

I am a half-Jewish product of  two people who knew little of theology but everything of God’s love

Traditional Christmas meal, the usual telly, the Queen of course, and on the actual day or in the week before or after Christmas a film or two about Jesus – who always struck me as being oddly Jewish and at the centre of what was in so many ways a Jewish story, even in the earlier movies that made everybody involved appear Norwegian. Carol singers came to the door and dad always gave them money. The songs on the radio were often about Mary, although I wasn’t entirely sure what virginity meant back then so would have really struggled with defining the Immaculate Conception. No, it’s not the same as the Virgin Birth.

Something else. One year our teacher Miss Power, with whom I assume I was deeply in love, read us The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The Narnia story from C. S. Lewis is Christian metaphor wrapped in fantasy delight, and Father Christmas even appears in it. Lewis’s friend Tolkien detested that cameo but I adored it. C. S. Lewis, by the way, would later marry the poet and author Joy Davidman, a Jewish convert to Christianity; and I in years to come would write, if I say it myself, a rather successful biography of C. S. Lewis.

Fast forward to university, adulthood, questions, answers. I became a Christian in my mid-20s, journeyed around the faith for a number of years, and five years ago decided to enter seminary, spend three years working for a Masters in Divinity degree, and was then ordained in the Anglican Church.

So here I am, still a journalist but also someone who wears a collar, leads services, and tries in an entirely inadequate way to tell people about Jesus, show him, explain him, and spread the news of his message. To help, if you like, the cause of an entirely Jewish man, the gentle rabbi, who was the child of Jewish culture and belief, of Jewish ways and customs, and of Jewish hopes and dreams. Who was also, I believe, the Son of God sent to us, all of us, to expunge our sins and to offer eternal help and hope. Sent to finish the story.

I, a half-Jewish product of artificial trees, bagels, White Hart Lane, and of two good and honest people who knew little of theology but everything of God’s love, said yes to Yeshua Hamashiach. Have a safe and blessed Advent and, in these challenging and worrying times, a happy and healthy Christmas. Oh, and this time I do stay for lunch.

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