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)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game