The Jewish Quarterly: a story of survival

About the author
Vanora Bennett is a leader-writer for the London Times. She previously worked as Moscow correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

Half a century ago, in the cautious post-war years of rationing and refugees slowly piecing together a new life, Jacob Sonntag asked other immigrant Jewish writers and journalists to a poky flat in the East End of London to talk about setting up a magazine.

Sonntag’s dream - a journal “which would be Yiddish in English”, giving a home to “literary journalism in the best tradition of Central and Eastern Europe, and, in particular, in the best tradition of Eastern European Jewish writing” - was a radical one in 1953. The Holocaust had ruptured the goldene keyt (golden chain) of shared knowledge handed down through the generations. An age-old cycle of cultural renewal had been broken as millions of Jews were reduced to ashes.

Yet he persisted. His daughter Maya “remembers cowering terrified behind a large sofa as the writers, their hair shining and smelling of an overdose of Brylcreem, screamed at one another in Yiddish,” says Sonntag’s grand-daughter, the Israeli artist Sigalit Landau. “Apparently the argument was about whether to have a Yiddish magazine or an English one. Only (Jacob Sonntag) retained his usual calm. The result was that (he) went ahead with the Jewish Quarterly.”

Sonntag’s success can be measured by the fact that the Jewish Quarterly celebrates its 50th anniversary in autumn 2003 by honouring a brilliant and eclectic gathering of now famous contributors who were responsible for an explosion of Jewish culture in England from the 1950s onwards.

Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Emanual Litvinoff, George Steiner, Elaine Feinstein, and Linda Grant are among the greats whose work is reproduced in an anthology, The Golden Chain. Younger writers, scientists, intellectuals, poets and artists are still using the magazine’s pages to explore the world together.

Today, London’s Jewish community no longer huddles together in immigrant housing in the East End. Avrom Nuchem Stencl no longer walks the streets of Whitechapel, in his shabby coat and worn-out hat, peddling Yiddish pamphlets. Moishe, the dustman of music, no longer sells second-hand gramophone recordings of Fyodor Chaliapin in Petticoat Lane market. Herrings and cucumbers have given way to coffee and curry.

Reflecting the change of generations, the magazine’s intellectual focus has shifted too. The three subjects most often tackled in the early decades - the legacy of the Holocaust, Israel and Zionism, and the cultural heritage of Eastern Europe - have become part of a broader field of inquiry.

The current editor, Matthew Reisz says that the journal today is profoundly different than in Sonntag’s time: “There were hardly any women contributors in the first twenty years, for instance”. The annual Sonntag Memorial Lecture that the magazine’s editor organises was given this year by Zadie Smith an icon of British multiculturalism - although her subject, discussed with wit and aplomb, was that earlier icon of Central European thought, Franz Kafka.

Yet Reisz’s aim is still to cherish the humanistic values of the magazine’s founder. Reisz’s working conditions might not be all that comfortable - he puts the magazine together from a small, untidy part of his home - but, as the anniversary issue’s tribute to Sonntag himself shows, things were far more precarious in the past.

Sonntag, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, raised in Galicia, and domiciled in London from 1938, also worked at home, so obsessively that one daughter remembers him as “a rather absent father despite his continuous presence, beavering away in his nicotine-stained, smoke- and paper-filled study.”

The study was the only room apart from the sitting room to be heated. There, Jacob Sonntag played with little Maya and Ruth and showed them his pages (his Yiddish tongue never managed to master the “th” sound of Ruth’s name in English, and he called her “Root” or “Roos” instead, a constant reminder of her Central European heritage). The whole family would hold a consultation on the colour of the cover. They were in cold colours in the winter, and warm colours in the summer - if, as seldom happened, the issues came out on time.

His wife, Savta Batya, “a veritable human dynamo in her own right,” was, as their grand-daughter Sigalit Landau puts it, “ultimately a JQ victim. How do you feed, clothe and bring up a family on Jewish culture alone?”

Sonntag was not a practical man, and never interested in money. There is a story about how, whenever the bailiffs were about to call, he would come running, puffing and panting, schlepping his typewriter to a friend’s house for safe-keeping: “just not that, not my typewriter!” It was his livelihood: bulky but indispensable.

For all the Jewish Quarterly’s autonomy from Jewish institutions, and its stubborn, secular independence of spirit, this reverence for thought is rooted deep in a tradition that the Holocaust never broke. As the author Edmond Jabès said, “Judaism and writing are but the same waiting, the same hope, the same wearing out.” Long after the sound of Yiddish has vanished from the streets of London’s East End, Jewish voices continue to engage in vital dialogue.