How Jewish entertainers shaped the British identity
What do Mike Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Groucho Marx and Sam Mendes have in common? Don’t know? Well they’re all Jewish…
And you can find out more about these and their fellow Jewish entertainers in a new show opening this week at the Jewish Museum in London. The exhibition celebrates the significant role Jewish people have played in entertaining us for the last 125 years. Actors like Maureen Lipman and Sid James are included, as are singers like Marc Bolan and Amy Winehouse. Writers Harold Pinter and Stephen Poliakoff take their place alongside Brian Epstein, who masterminded the Beatles, and Jeremy Isaacs, who oversaw the launch of Channel 4. And, as you might expect, there’s a particularly strong section on Jewish comedy and humour. From Peter Sellers and Sacha Baron Cohen right up to the recent double whammy of sitcoms to hit our screens – Simon Amstell’s excellent Grandma’s House on BBC2 and Friday Night Dinner, starring Tamsin Greig and Simon Bird, on Channel 4.
And the exhibition’s small but great. It tells the largely untold story of Yiddish theatre and tracks how media representations of Jews have changed over time – and how they’ve shaped public perceptions. It might lack depth and analysis but it offers plenty of surprises – many of which I won’t spoil here. But did you know that Simon Cowell had Jewish ancestry? I certainly didn’t.
Looking around the show, I was particularly fascinated to find out about those Jewish entertainers whose work sets them up as ‘more British than the British’. Such as Michael Balcon, the son of Jewish immigrants, who produced the archetypally English Ealing film comedies of the post-war period. And brothers Gerald and Ralph Thomas, who directed all the Carry On films which for a few decades at least helped define British humour.
And being more British than the British is a theme which resonates with other immigrant communities. It calls to mind the Kapoors/Coopers characters in Goodness Gracious Me, and perhaps explains why so many Jewish people loved that TV show. And it also plays into the debate around assimilation. Much pressure to assimilate has been levelled at the Jewish community over the years; the argument is that they’re less likely to experience persecution the more they fit in. More recently, this pressure has morphed into something else – a questioning of just how relevant or even appropriate it is in our famously multi-cultural society to continue segregating comedy according to culture or ethnicity.
But one question jumps out at me more than any other whilst looking around this exhibition; just why is it so important for Jews to explore their culture and ethnicity through entertainment and the arts? It strikes me that a need for a strong identity has solidified under various waves of repression, from Tsarist Russia to the Holocaust. And how is this identity expressed and explored other than culturally? Particularly when traditional Jewish art forms such as Yiddish theatre were banned in Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century. Doesn’t it stand to reason that Jewish emigrants would want to keep these cultural traditions alive in their adopted countries?
Of course, the reasons why so many Jews have gravitated towards comedy as their favoured mode of expression is slightly more complicated. Perhaps the flip side to the need for a strong sense of identity is a slight kicking back against this which manifests itself in the self-deprecation characteristic of so much Jewish humour. At the same time, a need to bolster Jewish cultural identity in the face of events such as the Holocaust is a serious business – which might at least partly explain the desire of many Jews to lighten up this necessary self-expression and exploration, if only to soften the proverbial pill. As David Baddiel told me at the exhibition opening last night, ‘I don’t want to go on about it but Jews have had quite a lot of suffering in their lives. And the only way to deal with that is to laugh at it.’
And while the introspection and identity explored might be specifically Jewish, self-examination – and, quite simply, a focus on the self – is the hallmark of so much great comedy. Let’s be honest, we’re all self-obsessed. This might explain why so much specifically Jewish humour often connects with so many non-Jews and achieves a mainstream, crossover appeal. In the US in particular, and even more specifically in New York, Jewish comedy is very much THE prevailing comedy.
But this is where things start to get tricky for me. It’s become something of a cliché to say that Jews have entertaining, and particularly comedy, ingrained in their DNA. As far as I’m concerned, any kind of discussion of this sort of topic inevitably strays into dodgy territory – and the muddling up of cultural reasons for particular trends with ethnic reasons. There’s a real danger of straying into opinions about black people being good dancers for example. But by believing the so-called positives about particular ethnic groups, it’s hard not to also believe the negatives – that white people have no rhythm for example and black people can’t do ballet. And I certainly wouldn’t like to go there.
But thankfully, Entertaining the Nation at the Jewish Museum handles the subject matter sensitively. And perhaps its over-riding message is to reinforce our understanding of just how much of British culture in general has been influenced by the immigrant experience – and not just Jewish.