BOOK REVIEW / Eats bagels, will travel: 'Roots Schmoots' - Howard Jacobson: Viking, 16.99 pounds - Jonathan Freedland on Howard Jacobson's light-hearted search for a true Jewish identity

MOST COOKS would be insulted if you told them their food gave you heartburn. Not Jews. In Jewish cuisine indigestion is a compliment. The tradition is that a meal needn't taste great, just so long as you feel full afterwards. Perhaps Jews have a similar approach to literature, seeking to finish a book like they finish dinner: staggering for a chair, gasping: 'That's it, I can't take anymore.' But in Roots Schmoots Howard Jacobson has served up a literary Lean Cuisine. It doesn't taste low calorie - on the contrary, it tastes great, there's a delicacy on every page. But in the end you still feel hungry. If Jacobson was a kosher restaurant, he'd have his licence removed.

The book is an account of his travels in America, Israel and Lithuania: a 'Jewjewjourney'. While Alex Haley was a time traveller, searching into the past for his black roots, Jacobson is a globe-trotter, journeying among today's Jewish communities looking for the source of his identity. He meets Jews of every type: aggressive yet lachrymose Jews in upstate New York's Borscht Belt; medieval yet warm ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn; Jewish yet Christian Jews, who recognise Jesus, in Los Angeles. He also finds fanatically right-wing Jews in West Jerusalem, committed left- wing Jews in East Jerusalem, and Israeli Jews who don't know they're Jews in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Finally, there are the shrunken, haunted, despised Jews of the Old Country, Lithuania.

Jacobson meets them, hears their stories and describes them artfully. When he meets a Nazi-hunter in California, he notes what he says as faithfully as a reporter, but observes him like a novelist: 'He has dark eyebrows which contradict each other. One is shaped comically into an interrogation mark. The other is an underscoring, heavy and final . . . His lips make a wet sound whenever they meet, so that his sentences are punctuated by a sort of moist percussion.'

He has sympathy for all of them, even those he hates. He lambasts the Torah-thumpers of the Israeli right, who advocate the death-penalty for Jews who do not observe the sabbath and who see the churches of the Holy Land as blasphemous blemishes fit only to be razed to the ground. Yet his heart sides with them when, that same evening, he meets a Gentile do- gooder from Tunbridge Wells, whose anti-Zionism has become anti-Semitism, making him one of the author's 'enemies of the soul'. In other words, Howard Jacobson has discovered that when it comes to gut instincts, his Jewishness is more important to him than either his Britishness or his politics, and perhaps even his principles.

He makes another, related discovery. As he travels he becomes less apologetic, not about his Jewishness in the company of non-Jews - an angst he worked over thoroughly in his first novel, Coming from Behind - but about the much less discussed emotion of shame among one's own. Jacobson shrugs off the ethnic cringe he once felt at seeing his people engage in the crass, the gauche, and the plain grob. And he banishes the old feeling of inadequacy prompted by his ignorance of Hebrew and religious custom, and his lack of faith.

By journey's end, having seen as many Judaic forms as Jews, he concludes that his atheistic brand of Judaism - defined by the pursuit of free thought, a constant desire to debate and dispute, a willing immersion in art made by Jews, if not in 'Jewish art', and the consumption of Jewish food - is legitimate. No longer out- jewed by the black-hatted and side-curled ultras of Stamford Hill, he declares himself kosher.

He goes further, explaining to a woman at a dance for LA Jewish singles that the still-religious Jews are a kind of proletariat, stoking the fires of Judaism's engine room, while 'the real aristocracy of the Jewish faith are its intellectuals and non-observant philosophers'. Take a wild guess who Howard has in mind.

These two realisations (which, in truth seem more like confirmed prejudices) are linked. The elements that make up his secular Jewish identity - the warmth, the almost obsessive sense of past, the humour soaked in tragedy - also make up the tribal glue that bond him to his fellow Jew. Even the Jew for Jesus has some of it when, incredibly, he asks the author for a donation, because, 'In the end, we're still Jews and we have to help one another.'

But, and this is where the book founders, Jacobson has confused roots with fruits. Those characteristics he identifies in himself and celebrates in others have different meanings for him and them. The author places them at the very root of his Jewish identity. For the people he encounters, however, those traits - of disputatiousness, of hospitality, of rudeness - are merely by-products. They are the fruits of something more fundamental: a sense of faith, culture and community.

Jacobson no longer has any of these things. All he has is the detritus of a time when he did. He can still go a few rounds with theological dogmatists only because of his childhood years in Hebrew school. He can laugh at Jewish refugee humour only because he still has the smells of his grandparents' house, the aromas of Vilna, in his nostrils.

This is an untenable identity. It is parasitical on his past and the past of others. The people he meets all have a current Judaism in their lives, and the manifestations of it spring from that. Howard Jacobson shows the same effects they do, but lacks their cause. He's all schmoots and no roots.

Which is why he can be buffeted all over the place, in a tirade against Jewish supremacism at one moment, confessing to sheer prejudice and distrust of the Arabs the next. With only a Woody-Allen-and-bagels Judaism to guide him, the only consistency he can achieve is emotional.

The form of the book suffers accordingly. It reads like an unedited diary. Jacobson's skill with the one-liner - 'Multitudinous children, uncertain whether they are themselves or their siblings', 'a rancid boy in shoes so filthy he must have sent them away to be filthied' - means it's always entertaining, but it is flabby. Amos Oz's In The Land of Israel is still the best Jewish travelogue because the Israeli's left-Zionist worldview lent it discipline. Jacobson's structure is built not by ideas or argument, but by geography and an airline timetable.

The clues for the leaner, tauter book Jacobson could have written are to be found in those passages, buried in all the reportage and anecdote, which show the author stepping back. These contain flashes of brilliant insight: his observation that Jesus's most non-Jewish act was to overturn the trading temples in the Temple, since Jews, never ascetics, 'believe there is no distinction between the world's business and the business of the spirit'; or his claim that Gerald Ratner's 'crap' remark was a peculiarly Jewish act of self-hatred: 'For whosoever makes or sells what he knows to be crap, what he wouldn't want for himself, admits his self-hate.'

I suspect that Roots Schmoots will not be the last we hear from Howard Jacobson on this subject. For one thing, there is a drama in this book, unspoken, but present throughout, which one senses is yet to be resolved. The author refers frequently to, and quotes from the diary of, his wife. She is Australian, and a Catholic. This is the issue Jacobson didn't dare touch, and yet it it goes right to the root of the roots he's unearthed. For children of marriages like his, where the mother is not Jewish, are not universally regarded as Jews. How does Howard Jacobson feel, knowing that he cannot pass on the culture which defines him? Is it perhaps that the secular Judaism that Jacobson personifies can never last beyond a generation? Might it not always require a traditional source to give it life?

Maybe this truly personal journey might make it as a future Jacobson offering, one in which Jacobson gets past the sauce, and onto the meat-and- potatoes substance. That, at least, should keep his kosher readers happy.

(Photograph omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future