The essence of what makes a Jewish writer was distilled in a unique “Limmud Together” session on Sunday as more than 2,500 people from around the world took part in a day of on-line discussions, co-ordinated by Limmud’s team of volunteers.
Novelist Howard Jacobson and the Guardian journalist and thriller writer Jonathan Freedland went head to head to discuss Jewish writing, in a session joined on-line by more than 750 people, one of nearly 70 sessions which took place during the day. Besides serious sessions — many touching on Israeli politics or the Covid crisis — there was comedy, dance, and even a separate strand of programmes aimed at keeping children entertained.
Jacobson drew amusement from the crowd, despite their muted microphones, when he admitted to “enjoying the effects of lockdown”, and confessing that the isolation was allowing him to “write like the clappers” — he is working on his memoirs, having set aside the beginnings of a new novel.
His idea of what made a Jewish writer, he said, was “a deep, imaginative seriousness. We [Jews] take everything very seriously: and because of that, we expect serious, and disastrous, things to happen. Which is why a virus comes as no surprise. Of course, [we say], there’s a virus, of course there were Nazis… that’s what being human is”.
Jonathan Freedland agreed. One thing that all Jewish experience had in common, he said, was “a retelling of stories”, whatever one’s background. “Part of the furniture of the Jewish mind, early on, is that calamity does strike”.
Both men were struck by the point in the synagogue service in which the sefer Torah is raised in front of the congregation. “It’s a wonderful moment”, said Jacobson. “I never wanted to go to shul, but I always found that moment thrilling — because there was the word of God. It’s a wonderful conceit”.
He observed: “No-one has ever forced me to be Jewish, I have forced myself, and I sometimes wonder why — but I find it infinitely interesting.” Though he did not much like being called a Jewish novelist or a comic novelist, Jacobson said he would “go on plumbing and plumbing and plumbing” Jewishness — “because it is the most interesting thing to be”.