In Unchosen: Memoirs of a Philo-Semite (Unbound, £12.99), Julie Burchill quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was careful never to invite writers to his parties “because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can”. Burchill adds: “As with most things writers write about writers, this was a heads-up more than a put-down.” And trouble indeed she makes in this charming, personal, hilarious and stubborn memoir of her love and affection for the Jewish people, Judaism, the Hebrew language and the State of Israel.
Unchosen has been greeted with derisive reviews invariably missing what makes this book most interesting. The Jewish people have always been outsiders, both as a nation and in exile, and yet despite all the odds, Burchill’s fascination is not with minor cultural staples and bagels, but with the undefined struggle:
I am seeking an absence, a mystery, an unknowable something which happened centuries ago which resulted in a tribe of desert nomads surviving for four millennia — while every sucker, charlatan and Sadducee attempted to eradicate them — to basically build the modern world.
And for her too there is a constant urgency, in ambition and indulgence alike: a talented girl from Bristol broke away from modest surroundings by seizing a job opportunity at the New Musical Express:
. . . when you’re a super-bright working-class girl who knows that following one’s mater into the cardboard box factory is DEFINITELY not quite what one is dreaming of, you don’t have the luxury of taking decisions at leisure. Unlike the dreary, late-blooming offspring of the middling class, you don’t faff away your Fruit Salad chew days pissing around with ‘uni’ and gap years and sabbaticals until your mid-twenties. You see a ladder coming down from the ‘copter, and you CLIMB.
Stage-managing herself “even then”, at the NME she pretended to be Jewish and embraced drugs, sex, S&M and radical left-wing politics while beginning to make a name for herself as a writer. This account of her formative years is the best part of the book, moving from the NME to her marriage to Tony Parsons, who kept her away from London “because he didn’t want me running off with the first hot Jew who crossed my path” — a justified fear, as it turned out. “After five years he trusted me enough to let me go to a party in That There London — albeit accompanied by him — and I ran off with the first hot Jew who crossed my path.”
Burchill turns to two serious questions. First, anti-Semitism today, which is not considered a form of racism by the Left, because in addition to contempt it contains an ideology of envy and conspiracy. And second, her comical attempt to convert to Judaism in the most progressive synagogue in Brighton, where she encountered a disconnect between the substance of the prayer service and the sermons by “Rabbi Call-me-Elli” devoted to praising Islam and condemning Israel:
I don’t go to a synagogue . . . to be preached at about how Islam is the equal of Judaism . . . from a female, gay rabbi, already! I’d love to see her walk into a mosque and tell the worshippers that Judaism was the equal of Islam, that women should be just as able to be preachers as men and that homosexuality is every bit as valid a personal choice as heterosexuality. I wonder how many minutes she’d last?
The book isn’t flawless and dwells on some axe- and ex- grinding, but it does raise serious challenges for Jews and non-Jews alike.