Jay Rayner speaks to Francine Wolfisz about his newly republished novel, his upbringing by atheist parents and his love for his mother Claire’s chicken soup
At first glance, the title of Jay Rayner’s second novel is something of an enigma. It’s called Day Of Atonement and yet the well-known author and food critic describes himself as “entirely Godless” and plans to spend this year’s High Holy Day meeting his deadlines for Observer Food Monthly. Not exactly what one would call “observing” Yom Kippur.
And yet for all his atheist leanings, The One Show broadcaster is keen to stress the book is a celebration of all things culturally Jewish and the community he embraced during his teenage years growing up in north London.
As he tells me: “You could say I am quite rabid in asserting my cultural Jewishness, without having any religiosity whatsoever.”
Day Of Atonement, which was nominated for the prestigious Jewish Quarterly Prize for Fiction when it was first published in 1998, is indeed so Jewishy in its references to chicken schmaltz, pickles and Yiddishkeit, that Jay’s own mother, the late, well-known agony aunt Claire Rayner, was taken aback by her first reading.
“Where the hell did that come from?” she asked, wondering how as a devout atheist herself, her son had suddenly bared his Jewish soul.
“Both my parents were in fact suspicious of all organised religion,” explains Rayner. “My father insisted that I have a barmitzvah on the very reasonable grounds that you only regret that which you haven’t done. So my family wasn’t very much into the community – but I inadvertently was. Most of my social life was formed as a teenager with Shemesh and that made a lasting impression upon me.”
Connecting with his inner-Jew, Rayner sought to write a novel that reflected not necessarily the religious aspects, but “that bit of Jewish culture that was fun and familiar”. He found it everywhere in the works of American greats such as Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Carl Reiner, but noticed overt Jewishness absent from the British literary canon.
“At the point of writing Day Of Atonement, I had to look to Jack Rosenthal’s Bar Mitzvah Boy and a bunch of BT adverts,” quips the 48-year-old. “What I actually wanted to do was write one long Jewish joke that would make me laugh and I wanted to write a novel that I would actually go out and buy myself. I had already written two that I don’t think I’d ever have bought – one in fact was never published, so nobody bought it!”
Day Of Atonement, which is republished as an e-book, tells the story of two boys, Mal Jones and Solly Princeton, who meet outside a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah during the 1960s. Solly has invented a machine to help speed along the process of making chicken soup, but it’s Mal who has the brains to turn it into a business. Together they take on the world, with Mal remembering in flashbacks their rise and fall as he prepares to observe Yom Kippur for the first time in years.
I ask Rayner what he feels is the main theme running through the book. “If it’s a meditation on anything, it’s the curse of ambition,” he responds. “These are ambitious guys who set out to do brilliant things and they did them with quite some ease. They navigate the rocky waters of business in the ‘70s and ‘80s and they get everything they want – and it leads them off in different directions. It’s that notion of being careful what you wish for.”
Just as important, too, is the notion of atoning for one’s sin which, after all, is reflected in the book’s title. “From a writer’s point of view, sin is much more interesting than virtue,” he says.
There are, of course, also the obvious – and copious – references to food throughout the novel – something of a happy accident according to Rayner, who wrote the book a full year before he became a food critic.
He explains: “I knew I was going to write a very domestic Jewish novel and it was not going to be about angst-ridden intellectuals afloat on the seas of the 20th century, but it would be much more about the suburbs and aspiration. It seemed logical to me that it would also be about food, which is a way into cultural identity.”
That was certainly the case for Rayner, who says of his mother Claire that, despite her protestations against organised religion, was in every other sense the quintessential Jewish mother and loved to make traditional Ashkenazi fayre. While best known for her agony aunt columns, her culinary skills were employed on ITV’s Kitchen Garden alongside Keith Fordyce in the 1970s, making her “one of the very early celeb chefs”.
“We were a noisy Jewish family and cooking enough for everyone meant not having cooked enough,” says Rayner of his late mother. “She lived a very busy working life and had to come up with a way by which to feed everyone. She was the queen of the casserole.
“My parents were both war babies and had come from tough East End backgrounds. They had both gone without and in adulthood they had done alright – and they were not going to have the privations of their experience revisited on us. So the table was always full. She made chopped liver, her casseroles – which were very similar to cholent – and gefilte fish, both boiled and fried – but I hated the boiled. And if I tried to eat the gefilte fish hot she would be furious!”
All this talk of food brings us back to chicken soup, which forms the very heart of his novel and was another favourite offering from his mother, as well as his great aunt Muriel. Indeed, her recipe for chicken soup is even featured at the book’s conclusion. Having dined at some of the country’s finest restaurants, I ask if any can match the quality of that chicken soup he tasted as a youngster.
“I think it’s entirely possible they can,” he guffaws. “Aunt Muriel was like a grandmother to me, a very important person in my life, but I’m not too much of a romantic to think no one else can make chicken soup as well as her!”
• Day Of Atonement by Jay Rayner is available as an e-book by Studio 28, via Amazon.co.uk, priced at £2.99