Image: Jamie Trecker
Around the corner from one of London’s flashiest shopping districts, full of green-haired punk kids and French tourists, is a small townhouse with a brushed aluminum door, kitty-corner to a notorious pub called the “Spread Eagle.” You have to buzz to be let in, but once you get past the foyer, a kindly old woman at the cloakroom, you’ll be in the guts of an old piano factory.
“They haven’t made pianos in London for years,” says the guard. “So, we got a nice place to put this mikveh.”
This is the Jewish Museum of London, currently hosting the cheekily-titled exhibit “Four Four Jew,” that celebrates the achievements of English Jews in football. I’d heard about it from my colleague Jonathan Wilson (his book is prominently displayed) and while it immediately made me think of that old Mel Brooks joke about a pamphlet being able to encompass the entirety of Jewish sporting prowess, we went and had a look.
It’s a small but well-curated show, one on the periphery of a number of exhibits around the FA’s 150th anniversary this year. Football was to emigrated Jews in London what basketball and baseball were to the Yiddish-speaking in New York a hundred years ago: a way to assimilate into an alien and, at times, hostile culture that became a passion. For some, football became a path to success. Represented at the exhibition are genuine household names such as David Pleat and Mark Lazarus, alongside barely remembered trailblazers like West Brom’s Louis Bookman, the first Jew to play in Britain’s top-flight.
Mark Lazarus was one of the most prominent English footballers of Jewish heritage (Getty Images)
Jews have been involved in English football for far longer than one might think: when Aston Villa won the double in 1896-97, their chair was Joshua Margoschis, a man who would pave the way for modern figures like David Gold and David Dein. That was a major reason the museum organized the exhibition: this is a largely unexplored history. Curator Joanne Rosenthal explained in prepared remarks that in the 1930s, Jewish youth organizations organized dozens of football teams. In part, this attempted to counter the “bookish” stereotype their community suffered from, but the Jewish community’s love and connection to the English sport has been enduring.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a video of the famous 1935 exhibition match between England and Germany, at the dawn of the Nazi era. Staged at White Hart Lane, a ground strongly identified with Jewish identity and culture in London, the match was initially greeted with outrage from the community. However, the game subsequently came off as a model of British sportsmanship: Jewish emigrants served as guides and interpreters for German fans, and attended the game in large numbers. England won, 3-0.
A sly undercurrent of humor runs through and alongside the mementos (Dein’s boyhood diary is one) that speak to a long and proud tradition of Jewish support for the game. Competing rabbinical opinions on whether or not the observant are allowed to watch football on the Sabbath (iffy) are placed side-by-side along with an opinion from that noted Talmudic scholar Herbert Chapman. (The former Arsenal manager felt that if you were a season-ticket holder, no money would change hands on game day and therefore it was all right to attend.) The official QPR photographer-turned-rabbi chattily discusses Loftus Road’s travails, dressed in her full regalia. And the skullcaps on display – showing affiliations with clubs from Tottenham to Celtic and beyond – brought to my mind New York bar mitvahs of the mid-80s: the cool kids wore custom New York Knicks yarmulkes.
Image: Jamie Trecker
What will surprise some visitors is how much Jewish support there is for a famously Catholic club in Scotland: Glasgow Celtic. Glasgow was a major port of call for Jewish emigrants at the turn of the century, and their devotion to Celtic is reflected in programs, news accounts, banners and ephemera that stretch for over a century. Fandom didn’t stop at the border.
Four Four Jew at the Jewish Museum of London runs through February 23, 2014.