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Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here?, By Anthony Clavane
Jews were the first migrants to change English football, as this history of their contribution shows
Saturday 27 October 2012
The orthodox Jewish synagogue in north Manchester where I was barmitzvahed was always a noisy place during the Saturday morning services. The sounds of the prayers and the rhythm of the chanting were comfortingly familiar but difficult to understand if, like me, you were a poor student of Hebrew. However, during the gaps in the service, you could hear the unmistakable rumbling of a very different conversation. The words this time were only too familiar: "Denis… Bobby… never a penalty… Busby… two yards offside… If they beat Bolton they'll be two points clear… Lee… Summerbee… Amen!"
The travails of the Children of Israel were as nothing beside the prospect of Colin Bell being out for six weeks with a torn hamstring. Jews and football went together like bagels and chopped liver. Anthony Clavane wrote about his Jewish family background and their immigrant experience in Leeds, seen through the prism of their support for Leeds United, in Promised Land. Now he has set out to widen the brief to a history of Jews and English football.
He argues that the Jewish contribution to English football has been hitherto unrecognised, part of the classic Jewish pattern of immigration best achieved by adopting a low profile, keeping "schtum". There are certainly plenty of Jews in this account of whom few of us have heard - Louis Bookman, the Lithuanian Jewish Irishman who played for Bradford City, Harry Morris, a prolific goal scorer for Swindon Town, and Leslie Goldberg, an early right back for Leeds United.
Clavane makes the perfectly valid point that the visibility of Jews in football rose with the increasing sense of security they felt. Admittedly, their presence on the field remained miniscule – perhaps only Mark Lazarus of QPR made much of an impact before Liverpool signed Avi Cohen in 1979. But Cohen was an Israeli, not an Anglicised immigrant from Eastern Europe, and more a precursor of recent players Eyal Berkovic and Yossi Benayoun than the natural successor to Goldberg or Lazarus.
Where Jews have made their mark has been in support of their clubs. Clavane details the "superfans" like Morris Keston, whose success in the rag trade allowed him to throw lavish parties for the players of Tottenham Hotspur. Ironically, Tottenham - the club most openly identified as one for Jewish supporters - was run for most of its existence by uptight Gentiles. They fought hard to keep people like Keston out of the boardroom. In the end they lost, and the rise of Spurs has been the result of shrewd investment by Irving Scholar, Alan Sugar and now Daniel Levy. Indeed, Jews like David Dein at Arsenal and especially Roman Abramovich at Chelsea have been prime movers in the revival of their clubs' fortunes. The transition from the working-class game to the soulless money-obsessed global "entertainment" of today was, Clavane argues, the brainchild of the Jews. Such an argument makes me uncomfortable. Lord Triesman and David Bernstein, the first two Jews to chair the Football Association, have been admirably active in attacking racism, possibly because their backgrounds have made them sensitive to the presence of anti-Semitism.
But Clavane's larger claim for the primacy of Jews in football is not entirely persuasive. What he is describing is not a specifically Jewish journey but an immigrant journey. In 50 years' time, much the same book will be written about Britain's Asian and black communities. My uncle Laurence, who started all this sporting mischegass with me and my brother, took us to watch cricket at Old Trafford and Rugby League at Swinton and Salford. The son of a penniless immigrant from Galicia, uncle Laurence read the Manchester Guardian and went to Halle concerts but despised Orthodox Jews and hated football. Funny old game, isn't it?
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