Writing Jewish: Contemporary British-Jewish Literature (1990-the present)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Winchester
Department Name: Faculty of Arts


This research project contributes to the writing of, 'Writing Jewish: Contemporary British-Jewish Literature (1990-the present)', a 70,000 word monograph which is under contract with Palgrave (to be submitted by May, 2012).The project brings a new perspective to a developing area within literary studies by exploring the relationship between contemporary Jewish and British identities in ways which have not previously been addressed. These are, as Andrew Motion recently made clear in awarding Howard Jacobson the Man Booker prize, issues of increasing cultural and social relevance.

In fiction, memoirs and journalism, writers are addressing increasingly challenging questions about what it means to be both British and Jewish in the twenty-first century. Linda Grant has recently described herself as 'a category error' (2006, p.5) This ironic self-presentation is a recurring theme in recent British-Jewish memoirs and novels. Themes of disconnection run through many of these texts. As Howard Jacobson put it in 'Roots Schmoots', recalling his own childhood sense of split identity whilst growing up in 1950s Manchester, 'we faced in opposite directions, we were our own antithesis'(1993, p.3). Sometimes this sense of dislocation is expressed as a yearning for wholeness. But, the uncertainties associated with being a 'category error', and the awareness of not quite belonging, also generate a productive spirit of self-reflexive enquiry.

Throughout this project, I want to question this emphasis on ambiguity and tension to ask the following questions:

-In what ways is the theorisation of Jewishness as paradigmatic of instability within the shifting and unstable conditions of postmodernity challenged by a precise focus on the particularity of British Jewishness within contemporary writing?
-In what ways are British-Jewish writers interrogating, embracing or resisting the diverse and diffuse forms of identification present within British culture today?
-To what extent is it necessary to place this writing within a comparative framework in order to explore how it intersects with other aspects of contemporary British literature?
-Does a focus on the representation of British-Jewishness in particular reveal any wider preoccupations or anxieties within contemporary British culture?

My research in this area extends the existing work in the field to develop a sustained argument about the particularity of the British-Jewish context within contemporary writing. It will engage with current critical debates and also, emphasising the contemporary nature of the study, incorporate readings of key British-Jewish texts published within the two year period of writing the book. This research presents a new perspective that will contribute to the development of this field of literary criticism and intervene in debates about wider issues of religion, ethnicity and identity within contemporary British culture.

Planned Impact

The primary output of the project is a monograph which will benefit researchers and academics in the field of British-Jewish studies.

I shall also disseminate my research in a wider context within and beyond the British-Jewish community. The project will have impact in non-academic Jewish cultural life in Britain. Organisations such as the London Jewish Cultural Centre, the Jewish Community Centre and the Jewish Book Council would be interested in the way in which the project reflects on and interrogates the contemporary British-Jewish experience. My honorary fellowship with the Parkes Institute gives access to their well-established outreach programme. Specifically, I shall:

- Present a paper giving an overview of the project to the Parkes Institute, University of Southampton (as part of the Parkes' outreach work).
- Present a talk for a general audience on contemporary British-Jewish writing at Jewish Book Week (the key event in British-Jewish literary culture).
- Submit a journalistic article on Jewish masculinity in contemporary fiction to Jewish Quarterly (the leading British publication in contemporary Jewish arts).

'Writing Jewish' might also be of interest to social scientists and policy-makers engaged with issues of ethnic and religious identities in Britain. Alongside a socio-political project such as the recently published 'Turbulent Times' (Continuum 2010), a book such as 'Writing Jewish' has the potential to inform the wider public and policy-makers about the effect of the Anglo-Jewish history and particular issues facing British Jews today. This study of contemporary British-Jewish writing could, through literary analysis, provide a nuanced insight into the experience of one British ethnic immigrant group. It raises questions about the effects of history, migration, assimilation and acculturation that could contribute in a small way to significant debates about cultural identity in contemporary Britain.

As the historian Tony Kushner has argued 'by studying responses to minorities the identity and nature of majority society comes into focus' (Kushner, 1992, p.10).


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Description I have developed an in depth exploration of key themes relating to British Jewish identities as represented in contemporary literature.
Exploitation Route My book is useful to students and researchers in the field of British Jewish Studies, contemporary literature and multicultural studies. It is written in an accessible manner and therefore also available to a non-academic readership who are interested in issues of Jewishness and identity.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections