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I, Sea Jew

Jews and water don’t mix

Howard Jacobson
July 19, 2023

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

… now the Lord had prepared a great fish. …
Jonah and the Whale

I was warned as a boy that if I took a wife from among the gentiles, she would one day round on me and say Hitler was right. I married a gentile woman for all that, and the only person who ever mentioned Hitler in our 20-odd years of marriage was me. She didn’t mind. Someone must have told her that Jews had Hitler on the brain. She was less understanding, however, when I suddenly began invoking Yahweh. Because I was writing a biblical novel about Cain and Abel and was planning a Jewish travel book to be called Roots Schmoots, I had taken to reading the Talmud, though no Talmudist invoked Yahweh as often as I did. I was television critic for the short-lived Correspondent newspaper at the time, and Yahweh had begun to sneak into that. Hill Street Blues and Yahweh. Dynasty and the absence of Yahweh. It wasn’t only Ros who grew concerned. The editor wondered if I needed time off.

One Friday—Friday, notice—Ros asked if we could have a Yahweh moratorium that weekend, take a Sunday drive where Yahweh would not show himself and where no Jews would either.

Ah—Jews! Well, I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned.

“So just to be clear,” I said, “it’s not just Yahweh you want a break from.”

She shook her head. “It’s the whole caboodle.”

Poor Ros. She was Australian. A sailor, a swimmer, a water baby, and a gentile. I had always struck her as land-locked, airless, and marginally obsessive, but this latest Jew talk was beginning to strike her as the ravings of a madman. Possibly, I had it in me to be a prophet. But she didn’t have it in her to be a prophet’s wife.

So the next Sunday we got up early to drive to Lyme Regis, a town on England’s Dorset coast that we both liked, rich in Jane Austen associations, rich in The French Lieutenant’s Woman associations as well—but not, that I knew of, rich in Jew associations. “You won’t hear another word on the subject of Jews from me,” I promised as I opened the car door for her.

“Shh,” she said, putting her fingers to my lips. “That’s already too much.”

We wound the window down and enjoyed the country air. I started to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” as a joke. Ros didn’t find it funny. We had moved to London recently after a period in Cornwall, so the sight of the sea was doubly welcome. I took a detour via Swanage and swung onto a minor road so we could be closer still to the water. The salt spray stung our faces. A seagull screamed. I breathed in deeply. Ros wasn’t the only one who needed a mental clear-out. Suddenly she let out a little cry.

“What are those?”

“What are those what?”

“Those dark shapes on the beach.”

I slowed down. “They look like people to me,” I said.

“Why,” Ros asked, in great consternation, “would people be wearing black overcoats and homburgs to lie on a beach?”

I sped up, apologized, and told her to look away. I had promised her a Jew-free coastline, and here, if I was not mistaken, was a beach of Lubavitchers.

“On the beach?”

“Well, there is no religious reason that I know of why not.”

“But is there any reason why?”

“That’s a rather Australian question,” I said. “You don’t have to want to surf or play volleyball to visit a beach. Why can’t they just be seeking sun?”

“In those clothes? I reckon they’ve come here straight from synagogue.”

“Unlikely, on a Sunday.”

“Could it be some Jewish festival, then?”

I was the wrong one to ask. “Not that I’m aware of,” I said, “and I don’t know of any that stipulate a beach. We do cast our sins onto a lake or into the sea on Rosh Hashanah—I often did it in Cornwall when you weren’t looking—but it’s not that time of the year.”

We drove to Lyme Regis in silence. Walked the Cobb. Remembered Louisa Musgrove jumping off. And Meryl Streep in her hood. But all I could really think about were the Hasidim on the beach, maybe waiting for Moshiach. For all I knew, waiting for the perfect wave.

Before sleep, I decided it had been a mirage. Ros too. I was having visions for both of us.

I don’t know whether I’m the only Jew who, when looking out to sea, imagines a great fish—the one Yahweh “prepared” for Jonah—suddenly appearing on the beach, opening its mouth, regurgitating the prophet, and disappearing again under the waves. Since everything Jews do is not how others do it, turning up on a beach via the sea instead of going into the sea via a beach has an exquisite appropriateness.

Well, maybe not if you’re Mark Spitz. But it tells you something that Spitz remains the only go-to Jewish swimmer, the only one most Jews can name, 50 years after winning his seven Olympic medals. Jewish recalcitrance in the matter of sport is a tired old joke, no matter how many tired old Jews love telling it. In truth, we do all right on the field and the track and even the cricket pitch, considering our numbers and the time we must otherwise put into being a light unto nations. But the sea remains problematic.

The children of Israel do not appear to have been seafarers. Fishermen and farmers, yes; sailors, no. We cared for sheep and wandered 40 years in the desert. The habit of taking to water never formed in us. Possibly the Jewish imagination was seized too powerfully by the idea of Leviathan, breathing fire under the sea, or other fish big enough to accommodate a whole man in its belly, for Jews ever to wander far from the Judaean hills.

And then there’s Noah. The myth of the flood is not unique to the Hebrews. Dread of winter is surely enough to account for its ubiquity among other ancient people. But Noah did more than keep us going until the return of fair weather. Noah came between us and God, who was bent on undoing His own work and returning us to the original chaos before He separated the waters from the land. How often did He threaten us with water as punishment for our iniquities? Après moi le déluge.

More recently, the sinking of the Titanic, with Jews aboard, didn’t do much to reconcile us to seagoing. Joseph Hyman, who survived the sinking, gave thanks by opening a delicatessen in Manchester in 1913—Titanic’s—and no matter how good the chopped herring, going there always left me slightly queasy. You approached the counter and saw the ship going down in that cold, dark sea. I drew pictures of it as a child—the ocean the consistency of chicken soup, the life buoys bagels, the chimney stacks gherkins, the iceberg a giant kneidlach. That may or may not explain why I have never learned to swim.

For all that—or maybe because of that—once we could afford a family holiday, we chose proximity to the coast as Jews had been doing since Queen Victoria was alive. Gentile friends surprised me with stories of accompanying their parents to Snowdonia or the Peak District. For us, a holiday meant going to the sea, even if the nearest we got to it—because we certainly weren’t going in it—was a distant view through the rain from our hotel or boarding house window. I should be able to remember which, but I can’t.

Much as New York Jews fled the city heat by trooping off to the Catskills, so Northern Jews escaped the soot and smog of Manchester and Liverpool by driving the 50 miles or so to Southport, Blackpool, or Blackpool’s ever-so-slightly uppity neighbor, Lytham-St-Anne’s. Not to swim or surf but to breathe the air, order lemon sole, complain about the lemon sole, take in a show, and sit on the rocks.

What I remember most vividly about our holidays in Blackpool or Southport was how far out to sea the beaches stretched, how long it took before you could find a fringe of icy water for anyone under 50 to paddle in. Here was where piers came in handy. Without ever getting your feet wet, you could walk into the wind and imagine yourself to be at sea. Blackpool had, and still has, three piers. The northernmost, as I recall, had fewer slot machines and fortune tellers and more deck chairs for elderly Jews to snooze in and dream about the fish God would be preparing them that night.

As for that food, I am not a good witness as to how kosher it was. My family didn’t care about any of that once we were out of the house. We met kashrut halfway: no bacon in the fridge, but as much of it as we could consume when we hit Blackpool. A favorite ’50s Blackpool restaurant and meeting place for even moderately frum Mancunian Jews was The Lobster Pot. Perhaps the frummest gave the lobsters themselves a miss, but once you’ve got marine crustaceans running around a kitchen, the cuisine can’t be anything but uber treife.

I like to think the sea air relaxed the rules, though as early as the 1880s Blackpool had showed itself willing to be strict where strictness was desired. A notice in the Jewish Chronicle for June 1882 advertised “Apartments fronting the sea. Special arrangements for Jewish families. A Jewish cook kept.” And a Mr. David Morris wanted it to be known that a strictly orthodox table-de-hote (sic) was available for board or apartments daily from 2 p.m. onward. By my time, however, the keeping of a Jewish cook was less of a draw.

What Blackpool and Southport were for Northern Jews, Bournemouth was for Londoners. Jews by the Seaside by Pam Fox, the historian of Anglo-Jewry, is a wonderfully compendious, not to say enthralling, account of the evolution of Bournemouth as a town where Jews would go to perambulate, convalesce, recover—in the words of one visitor, “from the effects of vexation” (the town’s pine trees were said to be especially healthful)—eat kosher food, play cards (Kalooki by preference), and find a Jewish soulmate. In this you could say it resembled the Catskills, though when it came to matchmaking, I doubt that anyone in Bournemouth would ever have equalled the success of the Concord’s famed maitre-de-shidduch, Irving Cohen, who claimed thousands of successful marriages as a consequence of his table planning and who found me three highly suitable wives in the course of a weekend I spent at the Concord, regardless of my being already married.

But if Bournemouth didn’t have a shadchan-in-chief, it had the cachet of being fashionably “southern,” an elegant place to meet everyone you already knew, dance, talk loudly, and paddle in a sea warmer than Blackpool’s. Here, by all accounts, liberal Jews frolicked with sufficient inhibition to embarrass their more conservative brethren. Pam Fox notes the incongruity of the latter’s presence on the beach, dressed traditionally, willing to remove only their shoes—and even then only choosing times when few sunbathers were about. Eventually, as better-off, more secular Jews went in search of warmer weather and a more varied diet in Spain and Italy, or bought second homes in Israel, it grew harder to find a minyan for Kalooki. One by one, the grand hotels closed, and Bournemouth became a home-from-home for Charedim.

Which explained what Ros and I had seen on the drive into Lyme Regis.

After asking around the next day, we discovered that the Charedim on the beach had not been a Yahweh-driven hallucination. There was a Chabad Lubavitch Learning Centre nearby and Chabad hotels not far away in Bournemouth. Those we had seen were up early for modesty’s sake, taking the morning air as and when they wanted to take it but, like everybody else, enjoying the sound of the waves, the feel of water on their faces, and the sand between their toes—assuming they’d remembered to remove their shoes.

Did we have a problem with that?

None. Absolutely none.

People who like a story to have an ending might wonder whether my failure to provide Ros with a single Jew-free weekend was the reason our marriage failed and whether she went on to find a companion to whom Yahweh mattered less. I cannot answer either of those questions, but the last I heard of her, she was back in Australia, living by the sea in Edenic, pagan Perth, and messing about in boats.

Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.