One of the iconic experiences of my childhood was sitting round with my family on a Sunday afternoon and seeing the film, ‘A Kid for Two Farthings.’ It is almost impossible to describe the impact of this film on Jewish children growing up in London after the war. It was a time when Jews were rarely if ever depicted in the media and most of us were usually the only Jewish child at school. During assembly I sat out with the Catholics and the Mormon twins. I took matzo sandwiches to school on Passover which the other kids thought was bonkers and I was absent two days a year for religious holidays that absolutely no-one else had heard of.
So sitting at home, in our own living room, watching Jews on TV was a complete culture shock and so wonderful it became part of our family legend for ever after. Firstly, we knew exactly where the title of this film came from; our special Passover song in the Haggadah, a book we only read on Passover. The song is called Chad Gadya and it begins, “One kid, one kid, my father bought for two zuzim;” Every Jewish child knew what a zuzim was – a coin from the old country, the little Jewish villages in the Pale of Settlement which our grandparents had fled during the nineteenth century pogroms, “and thank God they did,” muttered the old people around the table every Passover.
Secondly the great Jewish actor, David Kossoff, had a starring role and he confirmed for us every stereotype our parents nurtured about the East End Jew. He even had the same accent as my Yiddish/Polish grandparents, so I was completely at home there.
Thirdly it was set in the Jewish East End, which my brothers and I knew nothing about and Mum didn’t know that much either. Only my Dad was born within the sound of Bow Bells and lived around Bethnal Green until he joined the RAF in the war. So we loved the depiction of the world that had almost disappeared in our life time and became nostalgic at a very young age.
Fourthly – gosh it just goes on and on, doesn’t it? – the story was an adaptation of the novella written by the famous Jewish writer, Wolf Mankowitz, who came from where we came from and had a background back in the old country, just like our grandparents and so he was like one of us, wasn’t he? Mankowitz knew all the boxes to tick to make us feel that this story belonged to us at a time when we felt very little in the surrounding culture could properly be called ours. This was before all that multi-cultural stuff in schools and the wider society and Jews were just expected to fit in and not make a fuss, so we did. But that didn’t mean we didn’t notice the gap.
Last month I went to a talk by Anthony Dunn about his new book ‘The Worlds of Wolf Mankowitz' at the Sandy’s Row Synagogue in the heart of the old Jewish East End. It was like stepping back into childhood.
I learnt Mankowitz was born in Fashion Street, grew up in poverty and ended up at Cambridge. He was a writer who was able to inhabit both elite and popular culture. Mankowitz wrote the screenplay for ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’, contributed to the script of Dr No, wrote musicals, novels and other screenplays and was an expert on Wedgewood china.
His idea of a great setting was “to be standing on a wet pavement in Soho at four in the morning.” He had homes in Ireland, Israel and the Caribbean and in the Cold War fifties, he was even suspected of being a Communist spy.
Bernard Kops, the Jewish poet and author, a contemporary of Mankowitz, also spoke at the event and spoke about how Mankowitz was one of the Jewish authors who broke through to a wider audience. “Mankowitz was not pretentious,” said Kops. “He was real.”
But for the post-war Jewish generation, trying to keep our heads down after the Holocaust and just fit in - because what hope did Jews have if they weren’t accepted by the indigenous population? - Wolf Mankowitz gave us pride and a shared public profile.
An inspiration for the reader and writer in me beginning to emerge.