“My attitude to sport is very simple – it’s something that Jews just don’t do,” quips author Howard Jacobson.
The Man Booker Prize winner appeared in conversation with sports journalist and author Anthony Clavane to mark the opening of JW3’s Ping Pong Festival last Sunday night.
The Finchley Road venue’s two week celebration of table tennis – which originated in Victorian England – coincided with the opening of this year’s Olympics in Rio.
On stage, a ping pong table stands resolutely beside Jacobson and Clavane, as they discuss the relationship between Jewishness and sport, as well as the author’s obsession with table tennis growing up in 1950s Manchester – a fanaticism that inspired his semi-autobiographical novel, The Mighty Walzer.
His 1999 novel, which won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing, was recently adapted for the stage and performed at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester.
Clavane, author of Does Your Rabbi Know You Are Here? The Story of English Football’s Forgotten Tribe, questioned Jacobson on how table tennis is perhaps the only exception to the stereotype that Jews can’t play sport.
Jacobson recalls: “I went to a grammar school in the north of England that was 15 percent Jewish. None of my Jewish friends played any sport, no football or rugby. “The whole business of playing games was a nightmare for me and I went through school with a note in my back pocket from my mother saying I was bilious.”
Conceding that sport did not come naturally to him and his peers, he adds: “If you fell over, you’d bleed and, unlike gentiles, Jewish boys did mind when they bled. So the minute I got interested in table tennis, my mother was excited, because she couldn’t see what harm I could come to.”
Jacobson describes table tennis as an unusually intellectual game and jokes: “You could play table tennis and still be a doctor – it’s like chess in shorts.”
However Clavane suggested it was a “myth” that Jewish boys were not into the physical side of the sport.
“Is it not to get out of the shell of the ghetto that Jews did get into sport, like football and boxing?” he asked.
Jacobson, in his light-hearted manner, remained unwavering in his position.
“Maybe it was just Manchester Jews, but I didn’t know a Jewish boxer, I never met a Jew that wanted to play a sport, and the only Jew I ever met who did was me and that sport was table tennis.”
The game is one, according to the 73-year-old writer, that appeals to the “Jewish imagination”, relying on having to use your wits and read your opponent on a psychological level.
Jacobson (and his character Oliver Walzer) excelled with the help of his now legendary forehand chop and back hand flip.
He won multiple awards, was the Manchester junior champion, played for the Lancashire juniors and was a Cambridge Blue.
But the sport changed when the bats altered from the original wooden version to a rubber one, thereby losing what Jacobson describes as their “plunk” sound – something he feels added a “music and wit” to the game.
Speaking about his formative years growing up in Manchester, Jacobson referred to this time as a golden age not just for Jews, but everyone.
“Nobody had much money and that was a good thing – the greed that was to characterise our society had not yet shown itself.”
The prizewinning writer, who has been married three times, added: “We also didn’t have the curse of the internet. One day the world will say the worst thing that ever happened to civilisation, worse even than the Jews, was the way social media enabled the mob to feel it has a voice.”
While to some degree he looks back at his younger years through rose-tinted glasses, Jacobson believes the Jewish community has always struggled for acceptance – and will continue to do so.
This theme is one that Jacobson touches upon in his most recently-published book, Shylock Is My Name, a reimagination of Shakespeare’s infamous character from The Merchant Of Venice.
“Is a Jew ever accepted?” he asks.
“I don’t feel I am accepted and even if this country suddenly became Jewish, I wouldn’t be accepted either, so non-acceptance is part of the deal. Can Jewishness ever be acceptable to the world now?”
With reference to the reoccurring ping pong nightmare that Jacobson often has, whereby he hits a ball but it keeps coming back, Clavane suggests this was a good metaphor for the anti-Semitic tropes that keep reoccurring, no matter how often the community beats them away.
Nodding in agreement, the author concludes: “I don’t think Jews can ever relax and I don’t think the world will ever be a safe place for Jews – but this is something that has kept us very agile and capable of producing marvellous things, because we know we always have to.”
• JW3’s Ping Pong Festival continues until 17 August. Details: jw3.org.uk/pingpong