There is an old story about an American with typical Jewish features who stumbles upon a synagogue in China, and is greeted with scepticism when he tells the congregants that he shares their faith. "Funny, you don't look Jewish," he is told.
I was reminded of this during Strictly Kosher, Chris Malone's affectionate documentary about the 40,000-strong Jewish community in Manchester, because actually the word "community" is misleading. So, indeed, was the programme title. Some Jews in Manchester (and, of course, everywhere else) stick rigidly to Judaism's strict dietary laws, while others are less literal, eschewing only pork and shellfish, and yet others will tuck into a bacon sandwich without even the slightest pang of anxiety that they're letting the side down. Rather like that congregation in China, some Manchester Jews barely recognise the Jewishness of other Manchester Jews.
Equally, some Jews are passionate Zionists, some are lukewarm, and some – among them last night's narrator, Miriam Margolyes – are downright angry with Israel. In Strictly Kosher, however, the I-word was conspicuously absent. Unless I missed it, the strictly observant Bernette didn't refer to Israel, nor did Joel, the flamboyant rag-trade merchant, or Jack, the octogenarian Holocaust survivor. Whether this was deliberate I don't know, but it was a useful omission, because Manchester was the only Promised Land, or at least Land of Promise, that mattered here.
Whatever, on the understanding that talking about the Jewish community is in one sense rather like talking about the red-haired community, offering a somewhat false notion of a collective lifestyle, in Manchester it is expanding more quickly than any other Jewish community in Europe. This is not least because the city's ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews (in fact mainly based in Salford) don't go in much for birth control, which reminds me of another story – which sounds apocryphal but I'm pretty sure is true – that when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was running at a cinema close to the heavily Jewish London suburb of Golders Green, someone climbed a ladder and cheekily removed the letter T. Anyway, suffice to say that among the Haredis, breeding like rabbits or rabbis amounts to much the same thing.
The Haredis don't go in for camera crews, either, so the closest Malone got to ultra-orthodoxy was Bernette Clarke, so religious that she won't tear toilet paper on the Sabbath, and instead makes sure there's a stack of it, pre-torn. As in the case of most of the world's great religions, Judaism has degrees of observance that make you wonder how het up the Almighty would really get if they were flouted; in this case, it seems reasonable to wonder whether He hasn't got bigger gefilte fish to fry than worrying about loo paper on his big day of the week. But maybe that's missing the point. Judaism, as much as any religion and more than most, is about ritual and tradition. If that's a ritual that brings comfort to Bernette then fair enough – and another of Malone's subjects gave poignant expression to the importance of maintaining links with the past.
This was Jack Aizenberg, who survived Buchenwald but lost his mother, father and brother in the gas chambers. Born in Poland in 1928, he arrived penniless in Britain in 1945 and went into the luggage-production business, building a hugely successful company. Jack doesn't worry about toilet paper, though we did see his bathroom, a fabulous riot of kitsch that, he said proudly, "is a little bit better than Buchenwald".
We also saw him celebrating his grandson's bar mitzvah. "Hitler should have been here," he mused, meaning that nothing mocks the finality of the Final Solution like Jewish traditions enduringly passed from generation to generation. In 1941 Jack wasn't allowed a bar mitzvah of his own, yet has no axe to grind with God. "He made it up to me," he said, concluding that he had effectively lived two lives. "I've been in hell, and the last 60 years in paradise." It was a line to penetrate the flintiest heart, and also a line to dangle before those who would turn away all asylum seekers today. Manchester might not be everyone's idea of the Garden of Eden, but it is when you've seen the inside of a concentration camp.
It would be stretching things a bit – oh all right, make that a lot – to compare marine life around Britain's coastline 50 years ago with the richness of Jewish life in Germany before the Nazis. That's all Britain's beleagured trawlermen need. Nevertheless, The Truth About Wildlife showed that huge swathes of the sea bed have been stripped of life these past few decades.
Our guide was the ardent conservationist Chris Packham, an engaging fellow with a slightly unfortunate inability to roll his Rs, given the wichness of the wocks and the weefs off the Dorset coast, and the over-fishing that still wankles. Packham could possibly do with weeling in his enthusiasm for metaphors, telling us that looking for dolphins, nowhere near as abundant in our waters as they used to be, is like searching "for a few slippery needles in a giant wet haystack". While I was reflecting that soaking the notional haystack doesn't really work, Packham ploughed on, explaining that Britain's fishermen have had "the wough end of a wusty stick", but actually it was good to hear him say that fishermen are too often maligned, and conservationists too often self-righteous. With more understanding on both sides, the spiny seahorse might bounce back.Reuse content