'Finkler' Questions The Meaning Of Jewishness

October 11, 2010

David Sax

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In 2002, during my final semester of university, I went to the Caribbean on spring break. Settling into my seat on the airplane, the girl next to me introduced herself. Her name was Nalah, she proudly proclaimed, and she was Palestinian. "What's your background, David?"

There it was. The question. Who, or what, was I really? She knew I was Jewish. I knew she knew I was Jewish, but I was going to do everything in my power to avoid that answer. This was during the peak of the second Palestinian intifada, a time of suicide bombings and army airstrikes, and I'd seen enough shouting matches on campus that year to know I didn't want to be accused of war crimes in the cramped seat of a 737. "My family's from Eastern Europe," I told her, and when she prodded for more, I countered with "Romania, Lithuania, who knows, it was a long time ago." After a few minutes of ducking and weaving she saw I wasn't going to play the game, and we both turned to the in-flight movie. Thankfully it wasn't Munich.

What does it mean to be Jewish? To some it means sitting down at Katz's delicatessen with a pastrami sandwich. To others, it's setting up a hilltop outpost in the West Bank and waiting for the messiah. That essential uncertainty, pondered by everyone from rabbis and philosophers to Shakespeare and Sammy Davis Jr., is what Howard Jacobson tackles head on in The Finkler Question.

This unabashedly Jewish novel has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. The winner will be announced Tuesday and, for me, The Finkler Question should win the award.

The story revolves around Julian Treslove, a melancholy, lackluster London liberal. After Treslove is mugged one night, he believes, with increasing certainty, that his attacker called him a Jew. Though his best friends are Jewish, Treslove is not. Or at least he's fairly certain he isn't. But as a result of the incident, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the question of Jewishness.

Treslove doesn't approach his journey into Judaism from a religious standpoint. He takes no steps to learn Hebrew or convert. Instead, his obsession is cultural. He wishes to understand the mannerisms of Jewish life; the hidden code of Jewish sarcasm and the subtleties of Jewish body language.

As Treslove yearns to pass as a Jew, many of his Jewish contemporaries in the book do their best to pass as gentiles, including one pitiful character who spends his waking hours trying to reverse his circumcision, chronicling his efforts on a blog, photos and all.

Jacobson isn't the first writer to delve into the question of Jewish identity, and he surely won't be the last. But he is definitely one of the most fearless. Over much of the past three decades, he has established himself as the literary voice of the Jewish community in Britain; a country where Jews are a much smaller and less assimilated minority compared with America, and where the specter of anti-Semitism makes many British Jews wary of drawing attention to themselves. But Jacobson is unabashedly proud of being labeled a Jewish writer, and The Finkler Question tackles an uncomfortable issue with satire that is so biting, so pointed, that it pulls you along for 300 pages and leaves a battlefield of sacred cows in its wake.

The book's appeal to Jewish readers is obvious, but like all great Jewish art -- the paintings of Marc Chagall, the books of Saul Bellow, the films of Woody Allen -- it is Jacobson's use of the Jewish experience to explain the greater human one that sets it apart. Who among us is so certain of our identity? Who hasn't been asked, "What's your background" and hesitated, even for a split second, to answer their inquisitor? Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question forces us to ask that of ourselves, and that's why it's a must read, no matter what your background.

David Sax is the author of the book Save the Deli: In Search of Perfect Pastrami, Crusty Rye, and the Heart of Jewish Delicatessen. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.