TELEVISION / Pick 'n' mix

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The Independent Culture
IN the televised Party-Pooping Championships, 1993, the writer Howard Jacobson rocketed to what looks like an unassailable lead last night, with an astonishing performance on Channel 4. Visiting Israel for the first episode of Roots Schmoots, Jacobson looked down on a courtyard bursting with partying Jews and declared, 'This abandon would be a liberation, were I in the business of wanting to be liberated.' Judges awarded him a perfect 10 for self-absorption and a strong showing of high nines for grievance and general curmudgeonliness.

Normally, Howard Jacobson only muscles on to our screens during the coverage of the Booker prize, where he can generally be relied upon to dislike everything in sight. He has serious suspicions about most things serious, which always makes for good viewing. During Roots Schmoots, though (a survey of Jewishness involving lots of nice expenses-paid trips to foreign places), one did occasionally wonder whether blanket wryness hadn't disqualified him in advance from the work in hand. It was perfectly in keeping with the Jacobson we know that he would directly dismiss the idea that these programmes amounted to 'a search for roots'. (He said he found that kind of thing 'too melodramatic . . . too horticultural'.) It was more alarming to realise you were in the company of someone who could envisage going to Israel to make a programme about Jewishness while secretly 'hoping to skip the politics'.

As it turned out, that hope was an early casualty; politics hung around for Jacobson on every corner, and particularly in the gloomy confines of a radio station where he sat alongside a right-wing Israeli DJ who was praying for the miracle which would clear the land of inconvenient things like rocks and Arabs. Jacobson chose to beat him up verbally by quoting one of the Bible's recommendations regarding the kindly treatment of strangers. He almost sounded committed at this point.

More generally, Jacobson brought to the topic a stash of uncertainties. At the prayer-wall, he could only lean into the masonry and think of Shakespeare: 'My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.' What was neat was the way his own scepticism rarely became the exclusive subject of the programme, a possibility which might have tempted less interesting programme-makers. Jacobson's theme is, above all, the diversity of Jewishness, and without the binding of a strict thesis, his programme was free to get across the extent of the mix-up.

Among last night's few personally specific discoveries, Jacobson was able to identify the presence of the Mediterranean in his own Jewishness, in the form of a fondness for loud jewellery which works in the sunshine, and a tendency to buy his wife 'rings that would not be out of place hammered through a camel's nose'. As cultural analysis, this was a bit like the jewellery - spectacular but trashy - and yet in a way it was more revealing than some of Jacobson's bolder metaphors. 'Mentally, we are always lost in the desert,' he said, a point mildly undermined by the fact that, at precisely this point, we could see that Jacobson was not lost in the desert at all, but rather motoring smoothly across it in a snazzy white jeep.

Next week's episode would be an entertainment, were you in the business of being entertained.