‘Unchosen’ by Julie Burchill – Book Review

‘Unchosen’ by Julie Burchill is one of those delightful books that you devour like an addictive guilty pleasure. Like a whole pint tub of Ben & Jerry’s Chocolate Therapy, I picked it up intending to read a chapter before going to sleep, and before I knew where I was it was 2:30 am and I’d scarfed down the lot.
Critics may sneer that no commercial publisher would touch ‘Unchosen’ because it reads like a magazine article self-indulgently over-loaded until it topples over. They can fuck right off.
In language that is often intemperate but never half-arsed, Julie chronicles her abiding love of the Jewish people and everything about us, a love to which she has stayed faithful for over 40 years.
What I like about Julie’s approach is that she doesn’t go a bundle on the Jewish clichés – humour, chicken soup, family warmth etc. As she says: “The things I love about the Jews are the REAL things about them, the things that make lots of people uncomfortable and uncomprehending – their religion, their language and their ancient, re-claimed country.” To a large extent, the book is not so much the memoirs of a philosemite as of an anti-antsemite. Never dull, the book becomes absolutely turbocharged when ripping a new one for antisemites, mealy-mouthed antisemites masquerading as anti-Zionists, and – a species which puzzles and disturbs her as much as it does me – the self-hating Jews so memorably rubbished as ‘ASHamed Jews’ in Howard Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’.
There is so much with which I feel an instinctive kinship here. Like me, Julie despises the way that people of our generation and older paint themselves as ‘young’ and positively revels at having been born in the middle years of the last century. And I thought I was the only one who wanted to say to Muslim couples on Edgware Road: “Your wife is dressed so modestly – why are you got up like a little whore?” I also have a Bristol connection. In Chapter 2 Julie gives a well-researched history of the Jews in Bristol, including a fascinating glimpse into the tiny 16th-century community – the only one outside London between 1290 and 1660. What she doesn’t mention is my maternal grandmother’s family – Millet(t) – who, after a couple of years struggling, first in London and then in Dublin, found their feet in Bristol and from 1891 expanded from there to found the nationwide chains of Millet(t)s clothing & camping shops. Within three generations they’d managed to churn out several captains of industry – and a Law Lord.
I can also see why conversion – especially to Liberal Judaism – wouldn’t be for her. People brought up in Christian (and Muslim) traditions, where all the drive is to convert unbelievers, can’t grasp why we Jews make it so damn difficult. That’s because so many prospective converts to Judaism are just fucking Walts.
Let me explain. In the British Army, some of the greatest contempt is reserved for men who have never served their country but try to pass themselves off in the pub as veterans who served in 2 Para in the Falklands. This is how so many converts come across to us born Jews. They haven’t earned their chops. Even people like me who’ve led easy, comfortable middle-class lives have encountered ingrained, unthinking low-level casual antisemitism from early childhood. You’ve been spared that. The idea that anyone could try out being Jewish for a bit and then jack it in when they get tired of it is sickening. That’s why most Jews only really respect Orthodox Jewish converts. In Orthodoxy it is held that, when somebody genuinely converts to Judaism, they actually become a new person, and their previous persona is no more. It takes at least two years to get started, and carries on for a lifetime.
For me – and I suspect for Julie – Liberal & Progressive Judaism embodies the worst of both worlds. You have to turn the other cheek and be exaggeratedly right-on like a trendy C of E vicar, but you’re still part of the minority called Jew that has to know its place as only 0.5% of the population. You don’t even get the feeling of specialness that comes with learning Hebrew, because all the prayers are in anodyne New Revised English. What would suit Julie best would be ‘Jews on Bikes’ Judaism – eat & drink what you like, but if anyone has a go at Israel, clean their clock for them.
I only have one caveat – yes, I know, there’s always bloody something, isn’t there? We Jews are always a little nervous of gentiles who loudly proclaim their philosemitism. We’ve had too much experience of people like Tony Benn who were passionate Zionists when Israel looked like being strangled in its cradle, but as soon as it showed it could stick up for itself went over to the other side on the morally bankrupt principle that the underdog must always be right. At first I thought Hadley Freeman’s article in ‘The Guardian’ expressing her worries about Julie Burchill’s philosemitism was risibly masochistic; but, after reading ‘Unchosen’, reluctantly I have to concede she may have the faintest whisper of a point. Listen to Julie Burchill in Chapter 7: “If the man in the street can often become anti-Semitic because he fails to shine in comparison with this endlessly persecuted yet ceaselessly achieving group, how much more must the man on campus get even more paranoid as he sees the Jews do effortlessly what he must burn the midnight oil to do…”; and in Chapter 3: “It’s weird when you meet your first dumb Jew – like meeting a gay man who can’t dance –and I’ve never gotten used to it, right to this day.” Personally I bridle at the expectation of being homo superior. Well I do now that I’m old and tired. But it did get me laid once or twice when I was young, so on balance it was worth it.
Julie Burchill has a visceral understanding of Jews that many people, including many sympathetic to Jews, Judaism & Israel, just don’t get. There are insights and perspectives on la condition Anglo-Juive in this book that you will not find elsewhere. Read it.