It’s October 1954 and I, along with thousands of other Mancunians, am standing in the rain waiting for the queen’s car to pass. The school has distributed flags for us to wave but I don’t wave mine. Waving a flag is like singing along and I am not a singalong sort of person. But that doesn’t mean I am a republican. Since she has taken the trouble to visit the North so early in her reign, I feel I am obliged to return her curiosity. And besides, this is history and I would like to be a small part of it. Who knows? One day it might interest my grandchildren to be told I was there and saw her. But I don’t have the confidence to push my way to the front of the crowd lining the pavement or ask the people blocking my view at least to lower their umbrellas, and so only know from the roars around me that her car has been spotted, that she is near, that she is here, and that she has gone.
Later, my grandmother and my aunty, who are royalists of sorts and have coronation mugs in their display cabinet, ask me what she looked like. Very pretty and very regal, I tell them. Every inch a queen. Not that I could see many inches of her in that big car. And, to be honest, I thought she looked a bit remote under her crown. Crown! Well, tiara then. And did she wave to me? I tell them I can’t be sure she waved to me in particular but I think she might have. What color were her gloves? Blue. Or black.
In fact, I thought it possible that she did glimpse me through the dripping thicket of umbrellas because I was the only boy not waving a flag. In all likelihood, the only boy not waving a flag in the whole of her kingdom. The following day I started to write a story about a queen who saw a boy not waving his flag as she drove past and fell in love with his independence of spirit. She sent her courtiers out to scour the land to find him but they never did. Little by little she sank into a depression that none of her physicians could diagnose or cure. I had read fairy tales about unsmiling princesses who are made to laugh again by the antics of uncouth, provincial lads. Sleeping Beauty is a variation on that very theme, even if, in some tellings, the uncouth provincial lad is replaced by a handsome prince. I didn’t ever finish writing the story because I couldn’t think of any way of ending it that wasn’t preposterous, but I do wonder if some of those intruders who have scaled the walls of Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace were likewise imagining themselves, if not as the provincial lad, then as the prince.
Ten years after the coronation, the then-Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies, who had already written of the profound and passionate feelings of devotion the queen inspired, embarrassed the entire nation by welcoming her to the state opening of parliament in Canberra with words taken from the 17th-century poet Thomas Ford: “I did but see her passing by / And yet I love her till I die.”
It might be going too far to say that it’s among the first functions of royalty in our great age of commoners to make us daydream, but there are too many myths and fables about kings and queens in the cellarage of our national psychologies for the few real monarchs that are left not to reawaken, even in the most republican-minded, some of the old awe and fantasy. Goodness knows what poem Menzies would have dredged up had he lived to see that fairy tale incarnate, Princess Diana, passing by. To her great credit, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor chose a more prosaic role for her reign, always allowing that a prosaic princess might still understand herself as divinely appointed to be queen.
Like the rest of the country, I’d watched the coronation on a small-screen black-and-white television. Today we carry screens that size on our wrists. But there was no diminution of the day’s gloriousness. The music sent shivers down our spines, the diamonds sparkled like the heavens, we smelled the incense and swooned. Our teachers had discussed the idea of the divine right of kings to better prepare us for the event, and now we could see exactly what they meant. If God wasn’t in that abbey making sure everything went according to His plan, he couldn’t have been very far away. The expression of a national religion, when it has the breath of the people in its sails, can overwhelm the senses. The soon-to-be queen herself, defender of the faith and supreme governor of the Church of England, seemed daunted by it. How much more intimidating and foreign, then, did it feel to the son of second-generation immigrants from Lithuania and Ukraine. And yet, as the service progressed, it became impossible, at least if one concentrated on the words, not to notice the Church of England’s—and therefore the queen’s—essential Jewish lineage.
As she entered the abbey, Elizabeth was received with Psalm 122, praying for the peace of Jerusalem and the plenteousness of its palaces. In the moment before the archbishop laid his hand upon the Ampulla, he called upon God to bless and sanctify his chosen servant Elizabeth as he had of old consecrated kings, priests, and prophets to teach and govern “thy people Israel.” Suddenly I was the bedrock on which this majestic edifice was built. Enter, soon after, with the assistance of Handel, Zadok the Priest. “And as Solomon was anointed King / by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet. / So be thou anointed, blessed, and consecrated Queen.” Thus, with all conceivable pomp, did Elizabeth become the recipient of her divine right to rule not only in language taken from the Jewish Bible, but with precise reference to the Jewish Bible’s understanding of the solemn not to say controversial negotiations entered into before God would entitle a monarch to serve in his place.
I am not, of course, saying that the coronation was just a bat mitzvah with more smoke. Or that all the Old Testament allusions were apparent to me at the time. But language penetrates the mind, just as ceremony permeates the soul, in unaccountable and long-lasting ways. Zadok and Nathan, to take a trivial example, would forever be the name I chose for a fictional firm of Jewish tailors.
It is the case, anyway, that English Jews repose great trust in the royal family and feel a respect indistinguishable at some points from affection for the queen.
Jonathan Romain, the rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, tells of how Princess Margaret, visiting the synagogue in 1990, was surprised to hear the prayer for the good health and wise counsel of the queen, which is read in every synagogue on the Sabbath, as it is in many a Jewish celebration. “How lovely,” Princess Margaret remarked. “They don’t do that for us in church. I’ll tell my sister.”
To explain why a synagogue might express more fulsome royalist sentiment than a church would take a lengthy excurse into Jewish history and the lessons which the Jewish people have learned in the course of their extended exile. But there’s a clue in the urgings of the prophet Jeremiah during the Babylonian captivity two and a half thousand years ago: “Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Yahweh for it; for in its peace you shall have peace.” And while that advice hasn’t, in all ages and in all countries worked to the advantage of Jews, they have by and large followed it, as much out of good manners as prudence. The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein reports his grandmother saying, “While the Queen is safe in Buckingham Palace, we’re safe in Hendon Central.” It’s Jeremiah brought up to date for Londoners.
But the practical advice of Jeremiah and the sweet optimism of Daniel Finkelstein’s granny won’t alone account for the enthusiasm with which Jews regarded the person of the queen.
Though I hadn’t been able to see her for umbrellas when her motorcade drove past my school in 1954, I think my description of her as remote wasn’t far off the mark. Going solely on newsreels of her greeting a rather sad and lonely looking Prince Charles after they’d been apart for months, I thought her formal to the point of coldness. I didn’t come from an indiscriminately huggy family myself, but those aloof handshakes made me feel I had never been out of my mother’s arms. And yet, yes, I got it. I understood that she would never be able to show all she actually felt—that’s if she did indeed feel more than she actually showed—because she wasn’t, and never could have been, “actual” in the way everyone else was.
With the entire world as witness, she had taken it on herself to “stand firm and hold fast from henceforth the seat and state of royal and imperial dignity which is this day delivered unto you in the Name and by the Authority of Almighty God.” No woman born of mortal could have risen from the coronation chair that day with such words vibrating through her and then got on with her day-to-day life, unless she considered the whole shebang to be one great theatrical imposture and her part in it to be frankly fraudulent; and while it is given to none of us penetrate the secrets of another person’s heart, the queen never for a single moment looked as though—or was described as though—she had been playing a role in which she didn’t believe.
Of her reputed spirituality it is impossible, not to say impertinent, for anyone who didn’t know her to speak, but the Christian sentiments she expressed in messages to the nation—her avowed submission to a higher authority than her own—seemed heartfelt. Even critics who thought her an expensive anachronism and reserved the word sacrifice for more heroic acts, agreed that she carried out her public duties with extraordinary conscientiousness, was tireless but not pettifogging in upholding protocol, was graceful in small-talk, patient with fool prime ministers, respectful to wise ones, never allowing the habituated gravity of her expression to decline into boredom or disrespect. How often must she have wanted to run away or at least tear up her diary for a year? How often, in silent communion with herself, must she have imagined another existence?
Whatever the truth of her personal life, she did not carry her face lightly. It might be fanciful to say that abstemiousness and renunciation were etched into it, but nothing in the way she looked out at us—her subjects, her people, the commonfolk, call us what you will—suggested that craven invitation to intimacy we have come to expect from those we call celebrities. The queen commanded more column inches than any of them but she wasn’t on an errand to be better known or loved.
I have no warrant to talk for other Jews, but if there was one thing about her comportment that spoke to me as a Jew it was precisely this seriousness. Life was not a lark to her.
When Jews speak of being chosen they are not asserting spiritual superiority. The covenant God made with them demanded a renunciation of frivolity and self-assertion in favor of the pursuit of ethical purpose. Call it a covenant of impersonality and disinterestedness. In 1954 the queen entered into a near identically sober and demanding covenant.
British Jews have had good reason to feel safe under the protection of the British royal family. It is well-known that the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg was honored by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for hiding Jewish children in her house during World War II. In accordance with her own wishes, she is buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. Prince Charles is a regular guest at Jewish charitable events and has spoken out often and eloquently against antisemitism in all its forms. Whether or not the interest the royal family takes in Jews extends to their knowing many or reading the books they write or trying the food they eat, I can’t pretend to know. But atmospherically, by virtue of its principled a-political lukewarmness, the royal family seems to promise refuge.
The queen herself had less to say, in public anyway, on these matters. But it served her well to be above the fray, not only above politics, which ends up muddying whoever it touches, but above definitiveness. Wasn’t it some such symbolic abstraction that was enjoined on her when she was anointed in quasi-Old Testament language? The God of the Jews is invisible, an idea, the more sacred for being impalpable and quite probably not there at all. Whenever I looked at a portrait of the queen, or heard her speak, I thought I saw, not indifference to the storms that shook the country, but the dispassionateness of someone who listened to a higher authority than parliament or the people.
Adapted from a talk originally delivered on BBC Radio 4
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.