21 June 2012

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

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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”.


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