BOOK REVIEW / Unorthodox yearnings of a renegade son: 'Roots Schmoots: Journeys Among Jews' - Howard Jacobson: Viking, 16.99

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SO WHAT is Jewishness? In a famous list, Lenny Bruce placed Jewish-born Eddie Cantor among the goyim and the black musicians Ray Charles and Count Basie among the Jews. He wasn't the first person to propose that Jewishness was a cast of mind rather than an accident of birth. Otto Weininger, the anti-Semitic and homophobic homosexual Jew whose 'thought' influenced the young Wittgenstein, used the word to denote a Platonic type, 'saturated with femininity', possessed of no sense of right or wrong or even a soul. Membership of this group was not restricted to the ethnically Jewish; they just happened to form an overwhelming majority.

Even when it's well-meant, though, the use of racial (or racist) terms as metaphors for some other condition is so imprecise that it ends up sounding vacuous. 'I think I may well be a Jew' claimed the gentile Sylvia Plath in a poem. A longing for honorary Jewish status was, as Germaine Greer has written of herself, a common way in which post-war youth sought to escape collective guilt for the Holocaust.

In Roots Schmoots, the novelist Howard Jacobson argues that it's a romantic 'envy for our homelessness' that has made so many artistic non-Jews try to pose as Jews this century - 'In peacetime, naturally'. The idea of a Jew making a journey 'in pursuit of loss' is therefore, he argues, no contradiction. Secular, sceptical, and spiky-charming, Jacobson sets off on his global travels in the full expectation of 'repossessing nothing'.

The Russian coup of August 1991 puts paid to his plan of heading straight for Lithuania, the birthplace of his great-grandparents, and so he travels there the long way round, via such places as Llandudno, New York, Los Angeles, Tombstone Arizona (to visit the grave of Wyatt Earp's Jewish mistress), Eilat, Jerusalem and Haifa. He finds that the question of who is and who isn't a Jew can take painfully non- philosophical forms.

Under Israeli civil law, for example, you're Jewish if you're mother was Jewish, by which token 60 per cent of the prisoners in the Nazi death camps would fail to qualify. For the Russian and Ethiopian olim (immigrants), this paranoid pedantry can be horribly invidious, with single-parent fathers unable to remain with their Jewish children, say, or corpses refused burial if they are not circumcised.

On a joint Israeli/Palestinian Peace Now march in Jerusalem against the eviction of Palestinians from their homes by 'settlers', Jacobson has the novel experience of being greeted with 'Fuck you, Nazi]' by an Orthodox zealot in yarmulka and flying fringes. The charge of fascism, we're left to feel, would be better directed in reverse. Do the Jews, after all they have undergone, possess 'no imagination for equivalence', he wonders. It's not something he himself lacks. At an olim site in Akko, he watches a wraith-like, freezing Ethiopian Jewess at a mobile greengrocer's, and learns that the Ethiopians aren't wanted on the kibbutzim. 'We mock the goyim, we Jews, for giving Jesus a blond wig and the looks of a Norwegian. But we are every bit as uncomfortable with the idea of a black Jew as they are.'

Not that Jacobson claims an above- it-all equanimity. He has an impatient but principled intolerance of the then projected (now opened) Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. And sentimental tourists, like the Palestinian- loving man from Tunbridge Wells he meets in East Jerusalem, are roundly excoriated for not being able to keep their righteousness in their rucksacks (with an aside admitting that this is rich coming from him).

Indeed, one of the main pleasures of the book is the honesty, wit and intellectual slapstick with which Jacobson dramatises his own stubborn attempts to resist false emotion. At a gay synagogue in New York, our heterosexual anti-rabbinical author finds himself feeling uncharacteristically at home in a house of worship and touches more people in a single hour 'than I have touched anywhere in 49 years'. After the service, though, the pedant in him starts to oust the impostor, and he has to rush off so as not to castigate the congregation for reducing 'the immemorial difficulties of being Jewish' to the single issue of sexuality.

This splendid book ends in a cold, darkling Lithuanian graveyard where Jacobson tells his buried ancestors that a visit from 'the least filial, the least loyal, the least nostalgic of Jews' is an irony such as might give the most friendless of the dead a hope of being remembered. If the ideal the author longs for seems to be Jewishness without the repressions of Orthodox Judaism, he proves, in this awkward, touching scene, that the undevout are not barred from all forms of due piety.