Will Charlotte Mendelson’s new novel change the scope of British fiction?
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 has never addressed such themes, such as 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.
But perhaps things are changing. Last year, Naomi Alderman’s novel, Disobedience, set in Hendon’s Orthodox community—became an unlikely bestseller and won the prestigious Orange Prize. And this May, upon its British release, Mendelson’s When We Were Bad garnered raves—“a dazzling portrait of a family in crisis. Watchful, alert to details and insightful,” according to the Guardian—and secured the author a place on Waterstone’s list of “25 Authors for the Future,” a more populist (but no less buzz-generating) version of Granta’s “Best of Young British Novelists” list.
Mendelson, 35, says that she set out to explore “what it’s like to be Jewish in England—how weird it is, and how different to being Jewish in America or being not-Jewish in England. It’s a particularly odd experience.” Whatever kind of Jew you are—Orthodox, liberal, practicing, non-practicing—you are never quite fully English, even in multicultural, cosmopolitan 21st-century London. “England is the least Jewish country in the world,” says Mendelson. “Keep your head down about being clever.” That’s why I feel so comfortable in America. In New York everyone is like this”—she waves her hands around in an exaggerated way—“you can say schlep, buy a bagel, wave your hands around and that’s normal. Even outside New York America is mixed and open enough for things that Jews might do to be normal. In England, even in London”—she waves her hands around some more—“I wouldn’t necessarily be doing this if you were from the Financial Times. I edit myself all the time here.”
In When We Were Bad, Mendelson’s main character, Claudia Rubin, a rabbi with an influence far beyond her Belsize Park community, indeed beyond the Jewish community as a whole, is an earthy beauty, “a brilliant schtuppable pioneer,” with a forthcoming book on morality in the modern world. Charismatic and domineering, she has friends in high places, an obedient, scholarly husband, and four interesting adult children whom she has succeeded in keeping close to her. The Rubins are, in short, the most celebrated Jewish family in North London, a family that, “everybody agrees, seems doomed to happiness.”
Of course, no sooner has the novel opened with this wonderfully gloomy aphorism than the clan begins to unravel. Leo, her eldest son, leaves his bride at the bimah and runs off to Scotland with the wife of the officiating rabbi. His sister Frances, suffering from some kind of depression, finds herself unable to love her baby son (not to mention his dull father), and curiously drawn to her younger sister Emily’s cross-dressing girlfriend. Emily and Simeon, the youngest—both beautiful, feckless, and underachieving—cling to their mother with abject devotion, refusing to leave home. Faithful husband Norman has a surprise up his sleeve too. His book on the poet Cedric Vickers—which will reveal a whopping secret about Vickers—is due out at exactly the same time as Claudia’s, and might well eclipse hers. And Claudia herself, endlessly solicited by her famous friends and her congregation, “a woman-shaped septic tank, a jewelled repository of [others’] misfortune,” has her own terrible secret that she cannot share. For the Rubins, “noisy as they are…rarely emote together.”
English readers have seen in Claudia a resemblance to Julia Neuberger, Britain’s first—and still best-known—woman rabbi (no longer practising as a rabbi, she was recently named a special advisor to Prime Minister Gordon Brown). Neuberger, a close friend—and godmother—helped Mendelson develop Claudia’s character and put the author in touch with other women rabbis. Though Mendelson is quick to point out that Claudia—who can be a bit of a monster—is pure fiction.
Such research was needed. Like the heroine of her second novel, Daughters of Jerusalem, Mendelson grew up in an Oxford college, where her father taught international law. In person she comes across as very much a product of this environment, confident and articulate, with the plummy vowels of the privately educated (though she’s only a generation away from mitteleurope; her maternal grandparents left Prague in 1939). For Mendelson, being Jewish was more a question of feeling slightly different from her thoroughbred peers than a matter of active observance. “Culturally we felt very Jewish and proud of it; lots of Jewish jokes, un-English food, grandparents with accents, and a feeling of not quite fitting in.”
When We Were Bad comes as something of a shock in a country with a declining Jewish population (currently around 250,000), where even in London you can’t be sure that someone will know what a bagel is, let alone why you can’t use a ham bone for the seder plate (as Frances is forced to, the suburban butcher being out of lamb bones). “One of the pleasures of reading a book about ethnic groups other than our own is that you come across words you don’t know. If Philip Roth uses a terribly clever English word he doesn’t put it in a glossary at the back,” says Mendelson, explaining why she laced her novel with Yiddish and Hebrew phrases to rites and traditions. Words like seder and ketubah, cholent and aufruf go unitalicized and unexplained.
With or without a glossary, Mendelson has achieved something that Anglo-Jewish novelists have been striving for for generations: a mainstream novel that asserts, by its bold refusal both to divest itself of Jewish markers and to explain them, the right of Jewish culture to be considered part of the fabric of British culture. “I thought, why shouldn’t I write a book about Jews? And this helped me overcome my fear eventually—as though they are just another ethnic minority. We like reading books about Bengalis or Jamaicans in England. Why not Jews? Aren’t we just another ethnic group?”
Mendelson is both insistent on the novel’s particularly Jewish nature and keen to universalize her subject, saying that it is primarily “about family, and trying to escape your family” Her favorite reviews have been the ones that recognized this. “It’s not about ‘Ooh, who are these strange Jews,’” she says. “I do get annoyed with that.” She’s been equally annoyed by some of the responses from the British Jewish community. One of her few negative reviews ran in the Jewish Chronicle, the UK’s largest Jewish weekly newspaper, and was written by a female rabbi, who attacked the novel for purported inaccuracies.
Courage the underlying theme of all three of Mendelson’s novels—Daughters of Jerusalem and her first, Love in Idleness, both coming-of-age tales—the idea that it takes a deliberate choice, a moment of rebellion, to break free of expectation and thus to open up the possibility of joy. “It’s about the search for happiness, it’s about being brave enough to transgress if it will make you happy,” she says. Both of her earlier novels—warmly received in Britain—contain epiphanic moments where a woman discovers happiness in the embrace of another woman, much as Mendelson did, 10 years ago when she met novelist Joanna Briscoe at a party. “Arguably it’s the only rebellious thing I’ve ever done. Although writing novels is quite naughty too! ”The couple have two young children and live in the part of north London, right by Hampstead Heath, where When We Were Bad is set.
Critical success, and the Waterstone’s list, have thrust Mendelson into the public eye, but her new notoriety brings with it the risk of being pigeonholed; critics and reporters routinely label her a “lesbian Jewish writer.” At the party to celebrate the writers chosen by the Waterstone’s panel a large photograph of Mendelson was captioned along those lines. “I’m completely open about being a lesbian. And I’m completely open about being Jewish. They’re not things I’m ashamed of,” she says with good-humored exasperation. As an editor at the publishing house Hodder Headline she also understands the realities of selling authors to the media. “It’s realistic to acknowledge that people are interested. But there’s a point at which I think you know, shut up.” She gets irritated at being routinely lumped together with Alderman, in spite of the fact that their novels, apart from being about Jews, have almost nothing in common. “I’ve had a couple of incidents where major media bodies have said ‘Ooh, I don’t think we can do both of you.’ I mean, can you imagine someone saying we can’t have both Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison?”
It’s a reminder that British Jewish writers live outside the comfort zone inhabited by their Jewish American colleagues. The Anglo-Jewish novelist who decides to “put their head above the parapet”—a favorite phrase of Mendelson—still risks being stereotyped, and perhaps becoming Jacobson’s fool. But there is no doubt that a new generation of Anglo-Jewish novelists is finding not only a voice but also a community of readers whose boundaries are far more porous than those of the Jewish community itself. If it is a coming of age for the English Jewish novel, then it is also a coming of age for British Jews—and even perhaps Britain itself.