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Friday, 24 June 2011

Michael Grade and Jew-ish food

I was reflecting to a friend earlier today that being a political activist is in one sense like being an actor. Not that I have ever actually been an actor, although my Zebedee (in a production of Dougal and the Blue Cat) was once noted on the Edinburgh Fringe, but being a political activist is like being an actor in that one can easily become typecast. Although I have, on the whole, managed to shrug off Zebedee, I have become very agreeably typecast politically because, although I lead what is pretty much an entirely non-religious lifestyle, I often seem to get involved in issues that involve religion. The deeper one digs into such issues, the more engrossing they become, so this has been one of politics' more interesting and enjoyable surprises.

So, upon reading today's Jewish Chronicle, and thinking about the interface between religious identity and the secular side of life, I was struck by a quote from Lord (Michael) Grade. Lord Grade, incidentally, remains blissfully unaware of an occasion on which I once borrowed his identity on the telephone. Back when I worked for a theatrical agency, one of our clients was owed money by a well-known satellite broadcaster. The chap in said broadcaster's accounts department was constantly promising to hire a motorbicyclist and so courier over the cheque in question, but this never happened, and he eventually stopped taking my calls. One day, without any particular degree of forethought, I told the satellite broadcaster's switchboard operator that it was a Mr Michael Grade (who at that time was famously Chief Executive of Channel 4) calling to speak to this elusive accountant. "He - he - hello," said a tremulous voice, sounding as if he imagined that Michael Grade had been told that a great TV talent was languishing in the accounts department of a rival broadcaster, and so was calling to rescue him from obscurity. "Hello, it's Matthew Harris," I said. "Oh," he said dolefully. "It's you." And he sent the cheque.

Anyway, at what sounds like a very successful fundraising dinner for Jewish Care, Lord Grade reportedly joked that, as all these people were at this dinner, "Harry Morgan's is empty tonight". And that fascinates me because having once eaten a very good meal (the lean salt beef) at Harry Morgan's, I guess I would call it a Jewish restaurant, in that it does excellent chicken soup, chopped liver and salt beef (lean or regular), those having been among the staples of the haimishe, ostjude, Anglo-Jewish diet before people started eating stuff that is more Mediterranean in its orientation. But...It's not a kosher restaurant. I mean, they might, for all I know, get some or all of their meat from a kosher butcher, and diners there can presumably choose kosher (or kosher-ish) options from the menu, but it's not certified kosher, which is what matters from the perspective of a religious Jew who keeps kosher. 

I am a non-religious Jew who in no way keeps kosher, so it bothers me not that this excellent restaurant is not kosher. What is wonderful, and what I am celebrating here, is that a non-kosher restaurant can be celebrated as a Jewish restaurant, because that's a reminder that being Jewish is about a great many things besides religious faith. I've been in other, similar, non-kosher-but-kosher-style restaurants, across North London, including some that are so irreligious as to be open on Friday nights, packed full of what are obviously Jewish families eating what is obviously Jewish food. Just as someone's Irish Catholic roots might have little do with Roman Catholicism, so being Jewish can, sometimes, have little to do with one's religious beliefs (or lack thereof). And that adds something to the rich tapestry of our increasingly diverse London, in which people's identities are no longer as simply defined as they might once have been.

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