Why “We are Leeds” was a source of Jewish pride

Posted on 21 June 2012 - 2 Comments

In the mid-1970s my great-uncle, Louis Saipe wrote, in the Jewish Gazette: “I am proud and happy that I am a Jew, and even prouder and happier that I am an English Jew from Leeds.” It reminded me of the sign used to hang outside Leeds Station bearing the legend: “Leeds: The Promised Land Delivered.”

I have lived in exile down south for many years now but every time I come back to the city I look up at where the sign once was and I think about my Leedsness, my Jewishness and my Englishness – and how all three have interacted to form my identity. In the play ‘Promised Land’, which opens at Leeds Carriageworks this weekend, I have tried, with co-writer Nick Stimson, to examine the roots of this triple identity.

The play’s main theme is belonging. There is a big argument between a Jewish sweatshop owner and his rebellious daughter about how to deal with anti-semitism. The owner, Avrom Ber, believes in segregation and “keeping shtum” – if you hide, try not to cause a fuss, the anti-semites will go away. Rosa, his daughter, disagrees, arguing that Jews should openly integrate. I am with Rosa. Leeds was the home of Michael Marks, Montague Burton, Arnold Ziff and Manny Cussins – outsiders who helped transform the city’s fortunes. It was also the home of Karl Cohen, the “demolition man”, a council leader who knocked down the slums and had a vision for a new, regenerated and forward-looking city. They were all Leeds visionaries – and they were all Jewish.

The play, like my book, is based on the stories my dad, uncles and aunties told me about the great characters from the city’s past. Myer Kleinman came to Leeds in 1905 having fled from violent pogroms in Russia. He is helped by a charismatic Irishman called Jimmy Gilmour, a boxer who spoke Yiddish and, when drunk, fought lamp-posts with his bare fists. Jimmy is known in Leeds Jewish folklore as “Jimmy the Jew”. He took many bewildered immigrants on his handcart to the Leylands, a dirty, squalid, vibrant, slum on the edge of Leeds. It has long since vanished, knocked down like lots of other slums, but it still exists in my imagination. My grandparents loved Jimmy because he was tough, funny, playful and compassionate. He showed them the way. He was a cultural pathfinder. He was Leeds.

It took a long time, but Leeds was rebuilt and is today unrecognisable from the dirty old town of the late 19th century. I feel, have always felt, that I belong. But something changed in the city, and in Britain, back in the mid-1970s.

In my mind, the ‘Promised Land Delivered’ sign was taken down in 1975. Leeds began to turn inwards – and to turn on outsiders. Englishness – something my ancestors aspired to – became a dirty word. It was seen as imperialist, pro-establishment and reactionary; it failed to acknowledge the fact that our industrial and post-industrial society were both built on the labour of immigrants: the sweat of strangers.

Also, in the mid-70s, Leedsness became associated with a sinister darkness (it is no coincidence David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet is set in west Yorkshire) and Jewishness resurfaced – negatively – in the national conversation. As one of the characters says: “It’s the three R’s – racism, riots, the recession.” In recent years, these old divisions have returned. Post-war immigrant communities feel threatened – and the idea of an inclusive, multicultural meritocracy is, once again, in retreat.

I actually feel, however, that sport can be an antidote to contemporary division and despair. Despite the cynicism, the Olympics will be a great celebration of British diversity – and many different communities have coming together to follow England’s progress to the Euro 2012 quarter finals (and beyond?) Sport has much to tell us about who we are and about the world we live in. For me, supporting Leeds United has always been two things: a marker of my Leeds Jewish identity and a way of overcoming Jewish parochialism and promoting integration.

This is not to gloss over the fact that sport can be a hotbed of racial and religious prejudice. But, equally, at its best it is an equal opportunity employer. As the black Leeds writer Caryl Phillips wrote: “Leeds was the city that took us in, back in 1958. My parents and I were assimilated into cobbled streets around the corner from pubs that stilloperated a colour bar (but) Leeds was my city, and I slowly developed a great pride in it, a pride that was enhanced by the existence of Leeds United Football Club… a team who bestowed upon me, and tens of thousands of others, a reason to walk tall and declare ‘We are Leeds.’”

Author and playwright Anthony Clavane will take part in a British Future debate on Sunday June 24 at the Carriageworks Theatre, Leeds, about identity. The debate is chaired by British Future’s Matthew Rhodes, who is originally from Leeds. Watch a video where Matthew talks about his roots in Leeds below:

See here to read the transcript of Caryl Phillips interviewing Anthony about “The Promised Land”.




  • Comment by Stephen Smith at 23:50 on 21.06.12

    What a good article. Although it’s a shame it has to be about Leeds United 🙂

    (I’m assuming you’ve seen this piece by the way http://richardmillett.wordpress.com/2010/12/20/my-trip-to-the-promised-land/ )

    I’m from West Yorkshire & know Leeds well. Like you I live ‘down south’ now. I’ve no recollection at all of the ‘promised land’ sign – when was it there ? and for how long ?

    Your story rings lots of bells for me (except for the Leeds Utd link) – I had an Aunty who was a Latvian refugee, and have vivid memories of listening to her chain smoking mother when I was s small boy, telling horrific tales about travelling across Europe with her children strapped to the outside of a steam train. I think it was just after the war – I’m not sure. She often said “I voss in Moss-Kow”. She wasn’t Jewish, but many of her co-travellers were. Some of here children died on route to Leeds where they ended up in a refugee camp close to what was to become Quarry Hill flats (aka Queenie’s Castle) – and now the site of the DoH building. Oddly my Aunty (not Jewish remember) started following a Kosher diet in her later years. I could never really get my head round that.

    I recall after a German exchange trip in 1974 as a teenager I was picked up by my parents close to Quarry Hill flats on my return, when the flats were awaiting demolition. There was a large bit of old graffitti on the building proclaiming “Full bob or nowt” -a reference to the 1970 textile workers’ strike immortalised in Colin Welland’s 1974 Play for Today “Leeds, United !” – which by coincidence I’d watched with my Geerman hosts in Germany while I’d been away – standing so close to the site of the refugee camp they’d stayed at, seeing the evidence of the politics of the textile industry which many of those refugees had been involved in, and considering the role of Germany, in the fate of those refugees I was struck by the “circularity” of events. Leed’s recent defeat by Bayern Munchen in Paris was also very fresh in the mind.

    You missed off two notable Leeds Jews from your list – former Leeds chairman Leslie Silver – he of Leyland Paints,SPL & Kalon fame; and also Jonathan Silver (who may not have adhered to the Jewish religion – but was certainly of Jewish descent) – Jonathan was famed for his clothes shops, (I bought loads of his expensive shirts in the late 1970s), his work on Salts Mill Gallery in Bradford, and his partner David Hockney. By his name and trade he seemed to fulfil the “schmuck & schmutter” Yorkshire stereotype of Jewishness – but personality-wise I don’t think he fitted any such stereotype. Or any other.

    I’m not sure if you know but Huddersfield supporters routinely refer to Leeds United & their supporters as “Yids” – On supporters lists there are occasional spats when this term is used, as racist language is rarely tolerated. The thing is that many Town supporters don’t realise the meaning of the word Yids – they just think it’s a corruption of the word ‘Leeds’. I recall one person justifying his actions saying – I don’t mean to be offensive to Jews – I only mean to be offensive to Leeds fans.

    Growing up in the Don Revie years as a Huddersfield supporter engendered a fierce dislke of Leeds United. Obviously there’s the usual football rivalry, but what we really didn’t like was that the Leeds supporters were all Johnny come latelys – band wagon jumpers if you like, who wore the scarfs, adopted the brash vulgarity of the the Leeds team, without ever going to any games. Huddersfield supporters on the other hand supported their team largely because it was family thing – we were born into Huddersfield supporting families – In a very real way my family culture in the Heavy Woollen district was defined by football – by Huddersfield Town, and it’s not an understatment to say that this in many ways fulfilled the role of religion in our lives.

    As I grew older Leeds United became ever more racist – Nazi salutes were pretty much par for the course. There were racist incidents at Huddersfield as well – but not widespread. Black Caribbean supporters were often gang leaders amongst Huddersfield hooligan crews (the ultimate assimilation), and the supposed anti-semitism directed at Leeds was not really about race – it was about finding something to pin on Leeds and have a go at them about. Leeds United still represent for me, all that is bad about my West Yorkshire up bringing – especially in relation to racism, random violence, and coarse thuggery – which I think characterised the 70’s. The city of Leeds does no such thing though – which is why I enjoyed your article so much. I have a lot of nostalgia for the city and its history

    Glad I stopped by !