A few months ago, Charlotte Mendelson ran into the novelist Howard Jacobson at a party and told him that her third novel, When We Were Bad, was about a rabbi. “I said, ‘Howard, Howard, I’m writing this really Jewy book,’” Mendelson recounts. “And he said, ‘You’re a fool…. Don’t do it!’”
Jacobson may be the most vociferous decrier of Britain’s “philistine Jewish population” and the “cultural wasteland” that is Anglo-Jewish culture, but he’s certainly not the first (midcentury novelists like Brian Glanville and Frederic Raphael beat him to the punch), nor is he alone. British Jewish writers, in the words of Guardian columnist Anne Karpf, “can’t help but envy American Jews for the centrality they occupy in North American culture.”
And she has a point. Those novelists and dramatists who have dealt with explicitly Jewish themes—Gerda Charles, Emmanuel Litvinoff, Bernice Rubens, Bernard Kops and Arnold Wesker—have not had the same success as those whose work addresses Jewish themes only obliquely, as for example Harold Pinter. And while Jacobson is frequently referred to as the British Philip Roth, at home he’s never attained anything close to the canonical status that Roth occupies in American letters.