‘The Legacy’ by Melanie Phillips

The Legacy is a book of passionate intensity. Like its author it is erudite and intelligent, brave and forthright. It is both a detective story and a rites-of-passage journey, as one assimilated Jew finds, in spite of himself, his true soul.” — Maureen Lipman, actor, author, and activist

The Legacy is a deeply personal novel.  We meet many characters in a landscape with many water courses which often join and then separate again as the story develops.  But the thread which kept this reader gripped is self-identity with coming of age.   At the outset we meet an ‘ASHamed Jew’ called Russell Wolfe (for the taxonomy of ASHamed Jews see  Howard Jacobson’s Booker Prize-winning book ‘The Finkler Question‘). Russell is a divorced, dissatisfied and morose Jewish TV producer who thinks the word ‘antisemitism’ is ‘so overused, as if the entire world was against them’.  But by the end of the book’s near 400 pages  he is a changed man, determined to find out more about his own legacy – his family history and the history of the Jewish People.

Why is it a deeply personal novel? Because Russell’s journey of self-identity mirrors not only that of the author but also my own (and no doubt that of many other British Jews born in the early 1950s). In her autobiographical book Guardian Angel (which I have yet to read – it’s on order) Melanie Phillips describes her journey from idealistic young liberal journalist on The Guardian to critic of the antisemitic left, identity politics and radical Islamism. My own coming-of-age journey has been very similar. Brought up in the ‘Age of Deference’ of British Jewry, believing that Britain would be good for us as long as we kept our heads down (I’ll never forget former Board of Deputies President Henry Grunwald admonishing my vocal activism in around 2008: “Jonathan, why shout when a whisper will do?”…….) I was blissfully unaware (mostly) of antisemitism for many years.  Now I’m an unintentional activist, like Michael Waxman in The Legacy (though I hope I wasn’t (like him) ‘an attention-seeker and exhibitionist at school’), regularly thrown out of antisemitic meetings at universities which should know better but don’t, horrified that young Jews are forced to make their UCAS choices according to the extent of antisemitism they will encounter and that the Metropolitan Police has been infiltrated by antisemitic Islamists (?Hizbut Tahrir?) and their sympathisers – and that the same applies to several other UK public institutions.

In other words, The Legacy struck more chords for me than a Bach Cantata.  Just one example: Around page 200 Russell takes his lovely new girlfriend Damia (born in Pakistan of a Hindu mother and Muslim father, educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and Bristol University) to a string quartet concert at the Wigmore Hall. As they approach the Hall, they see an anti-Israel demonstration outside – the  quartet is Israeli (it isn’t named but must be based on the Jerusalem Quartet). Russell is furious:  ‘Couldn’t he even take a woman out on a date without bloody Israel forcing itself into the picture? Couldn’t they have found another orchestra from anywhere else in the entire world…?’ Still in ASHamed Jew mode, he worries that if he goes through the hate demonstration it would be tantamount to supporting Israel and a fellow soi-disant might see him!  Here is the chord that is struck: there is a pro-Israel counter-demonstration as well (yes I was there to support the Jerusalem Quartet) and who should be holding the megaphone than his old schoolfriend Michael Waxman.  Then Waxman is assaulted by one of the Israel haters.  But the police accuse him of being the perpetrator!   It’s depressingly familiar……. As is the beautiful performance of the quartet and the rapturous applause at the end after Hatikvah (Israel’s national anthem).  But (Ms Phillips slips into Russell’s thought ) this benevolent audience ‘would also campaign against ritual slaughter and the circumcision of baby boys’ ……..

The Legacy is an outstanding work of literary scholarship, elegantly and seamlessly marrying fact –the Clifford’s Tower pogrom and mass suicide of 1190 and the 1941 massacre of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne in Poland – with fiction – the story of Russell Wolfe’s metamorphosis into someone who ‘could now see that his share in Britain had been conditional all along’ and that ‘The world, he realised with relief, wasn’t binary. There was good and bad everywhere’.

Russell’s initial Weltanschauung is disrupted and painfully questioned as a result of a chance meeting in synagogue after his father’s funeral. He meets an elderly Pole, Joe Kuchinsky, who asks him to translate an ancient manuscript, written in French but in Hebrew characters. It was written by Eliachim of Aborak. Aborak was the medieval Jewish transliteration into Hebrew of the Latin ‘Eboracum’ – the City of York in other words.

Not only do fact and fiction smoothly elide: the narrative layers often do the same. Thus Russell, whose parents had not welcomed his marriage to a non-Jew, Alice, empathises with Eliachim, who fell in love with the younger sister of the woman to whom he was betrothed and was caught by his father kissing her.  The story is mirrored in another fated relationship too …….. Spoiler Alert – you’ll have to read the book!

And Russell even envies the richness of Eliachim’s life, much to his embarrassment. And the young boy’s account rubs salt into the wound of guilt for Russell, the ASHamed Jew who never wanted to find out about his grandparents.

Many other parts of the book resonated with me – and will for you.  At one point Russell finds himself ‘on both sides of the barricade at the same time’ – that is, sympathising both with Israelis and Palestinians. This reminds me of an Al Quds Day in London maybe 15 years ago where we counter-demonstrated against vile hatred of Israel. We were joined by the gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. But then he left us – to march with the haters in sympathy with the Palestinians (they quickly disowned him though – for being gay!)

And there’s Ms Phillips’ most beautiful description of a Friday night meal with Rabbi Daniel and his wife Samantha (Russell only goes at the insistence of his teenage daughter Rosa): ‘Afterwards when he looked back on that meal the word that floated into his mind unbidden was joy’. It is at this point that the ASHamed Jew persona begins to change, in response to another guest, Sophie (married to a synagogue donor).  She opines ‘Israel’s behaviour does us Jews here enormous harm’. (Another chord struck, Jewdar off the scale yet again). Sternberg, a professor of molecular science, rebuts her with history. ‘This was the first time Russell heard it said, calmly and rationally, that the facts were simply not as Russell had always assumed them to be.’

Part of the book is set in Israel – where Ms Phillips now spends much of her time.  Her lyrical description of the land and its people strikes another chord for so many: the quality of the light, the chaos of the flight, the breathtaking simple beauty of Jerusalem, both ancient and modern. And the Israelis that Russell meets. His eyes are opened by the presence of Arab doctors in a hospital and by the care shown by Yael, an instructor at a stables for traumatised children  – even though she is an appalling (for him) ‘settler’.

Melanie Phillips tells us that the book took years to write.  All the more amazing that the narrative is seamless.  I noticed that the spelling of ‘Kuchinsky’ changes but it’s deliberate (you’ll have to read it to find out why). Ms Phillips has written a magnificent, beautifully written and gripping book which both addresses head-on (but very sensitively) issues of Jewish Identification and touches on aspects of antisemitism over the past 1000 years. Highly recommended.  (What a shame that it didn’t have launches at Jewish BookWeek or JW3, no doubt due to the absurd, totally unjustified cold-shouldering of Ms Phillips by the Jewish leadership in the UK.  Their and our loss – not hers).


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