The woman who could be London’s next mayor has just found out that she’s Jewish.
Political spring chicken Luisa Porritt, 33, the Liberal Democrats’ answer to Sadiq Khan, is the recent discoverer of a varied and vibrant Jewish family history stretching from Turkey to Kenya via Egypt, Bermuda, and Camden.
She is uneasy about calling herself ‘Jewish’ because she was not ‘brought up Jewish’, yet it is all there, on the maternal side, as she has been finding out gradually for a few years. Even now, new details keep coming to light.
Her family ends up being the star of the show in an hour long Zoom call (that could easily have been longer) with this cat-loving Europhile and proud standard bearer for London’s young who, she fears, will be hit harder by the pandemic’s fallout than she was in 2008, when she graduated out of history and into a recession.
“Oh, I’ve been there, scrabbling around for job opportunities [as a journalist], moving between different rental accommodation… The young today face more challenges than I as a millennial faced. I want to keep the City an attractive place for the young.”
Gunning for the mayoralty of a major trading hub in a post-Brexit world in a Covid-delayed election in May, she says “don’t write me off”. She has fought two elections (for the council and European Parliament) and won both “against the odds”.
The election was supposed to be in May of this year, which seems a very long time ago. She was only selected as candidate last month, after Geeta Sidhu-Robb dropped out when a video from 1997 surfaced which showed her baiting Jews.
Inspired into politics in her late 20s after Brits voted to leave the European Union, Porritt has since gained political experience locally (Camden) and internationally (as an MEP in Strasbourg), so now wants executive responsibility. But before we get to the ‘CV’ part, we need to work out the Jewish bit first. What a question.
“It’s been a bit of a late discovery for me,” she says. “I wasn’t raised with much consciousness of my Jewish roots, but I’m proud of them.”
What has she discovered? “My maternal great grandmother was Jewish Orthodox. She was half Spanish, half Turkish, so Sephardi, and she married my great grandfather, who was half Egyptian, half Austro-Hungarian, and lived in a French-speaking household – so a real blend!”
It was researching her family history that sparked both an interest and questions. “I’m not sure why some of the religious and cultural elements were dropped,” she says. “My grandmother now has Alzheimer’s so it’s difficult.
“Some of her memories are clear nods to that upbringing, but I can’t really question the detail. I know they left Egypt in part because it was becoming oppressive under [former president Gamal Abdel] Nasser, more antisemitic and intolerant.
“They moved to Kenya and it’s there that my great-grandparents are buried, in a Jewish cemetery in Nairobi. Very recently I found a photo of their gravestones, written in Hebrew, so I suppose there’s the proof.”
This interest “has only really come late in life”, says the 33-year old, making her interviewer feel very old indeed. Was her mother aware? “She was…” Awkward silence. “It doesn’t seem, from her upbringing, that any obviously Jewish practices or cultural references were part of her daily life.” No chicken soup, then.
My maternal great grandmother was Jewish Orthodox. She was half Spanish, half Turkish, so Sephardi, and she married my great grandfather, who was half Egyptian, half Austro-Hungarian, and lived in a French-speaking household – so a real blend
“She was born in Bermuda and grew up in Turkey – her father was in the Navy and posted there. I was never really told about my extended family, so it’s been a journey of self-discovery. It was only when I was 20 that I went to a family reunion and first met my grandmother’s side.”
She grew up in north London with lots of Jewish friends “but never made the link that it was part of my own heritage as well,” she says. “Likewise, I never understood the implications, because it comes down the mother’s side, however observant you are.”
Interestingly, she says it now affects her on a different level when she sees and hears instances of antisemitism, whether this be within the Labour Party, from grime artist Wiley, or from her former rival Sidhu-Robb.
“It really hit home, even though it wasn’t at me or about me. It felt personal, and that’s part of the journey I’ve been on as well. It just feels,” she pauses, “slightly different now. When hate is directed at any community of course it’s deeply upsetting and something we should all speak out against. But with Wiley’s tweets, it hurt.”
She keeps checking that I’m interested. I am. In fact, I’d much rather talk about this than her policies, but I’d better ask what she’d do whence she reins over us, so test her liberalism.
It really hit home, even though it wasn’t at me or about me. It felt personal, and that’s part of the journey I’ve been on as well. It just feels slightly different now
Decriminalise cannabis? Tick. Allow assisted dying with safeguards? Yes, sir. So far so good, so what’s her big plan for London? Turn empty offices into homes, she says, because Covid has changed everything – and they’re lying empty.
Finally, given that she is now Jewish (my description), can we end with an example of chutzpah? “When I pointed and shouted at Nigel Farage in the European Parliament. I said all he did was stamp his feet and collect his allowance.” She’ll go far.
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