A Jew In Cornwall

I have ghetto madness and I followed it all the way to west Cornwall. When I was 39 – some mothers would consider this number significant, but it is not – I married a high church Wiltshireman who had wanted to be a priest. He left the abbey for the sex. When I ask if he minds my publishing that, he says, “Publish and be damned. Quite literally.” He was raised in a silent village north of Salisbury Plain. They feed criminals to pigs in Wiltshire, and rake ponds looking for the moon, and they are always talking about the vicar. They burnt someone for not believing in transubstantiation in his village, but only a Jew would consider it recent. Even so, ghetto madness met matzah fever and we were set.  

I tried to live in the village but I was always sleeping, like Dorothy in the field of poppies. Strangers greeted me by name in the village shop and I reversed backwards. I felt like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, when he imagines himself as a Hassidic Jew while they are talking about ham. I didn’t like it. So this alien, wondrous man moved to north London, and he tried to like it.  

I watched him try to like it, and I was touched, but he couldn’t do it. We moved, initially, into a studio flat in Hampstead. I love Hampstead: cake shops and Sigmund Freud and a specialist nut shop. But he hated it. He would gaze up the curling street towards the pond and proclaim, “it’s full of cunts and it isn’t even as pretty as Marlborough”. He didn’t have an opinion on the nut shop.   

We had a Jewish son – he looks, and behaves, like a tiny Kirk Douglas – and a Jewish life in London. There was my family, of course, and we joined the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John’s Wood. We could be buried together. Now that is commitment, but I still think it is needy. The rabbi had the measure of him. “Are we good enough for you?” she asked. She didn’t mean the religion. She meant the denomination – Liberal. What a Haredi he would make! But he didn’t convert, which would have destroyed our relationship, for there is no thrill without transgression. Not for me.  

Our son grew. I went to the Liberal Synagogue twice a year, on Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidre. I loved that it is modernist, and spot-lit at night – we’re not going anywhere! His family found it soothing too, when they came for tiny Kirk Douglas’s baby blessing. It is opposite Lords Cricket Ground, and they can place that.  

Then I was fired from a highly-paid contract at a newspaper, and I learned, too late, the manifold miseries of the London state school system, which are too boring to detail here. I was weeping over the particulars of a foul flat in Muswell Hill and he recognised weakness and pounced. I moved to Cornwall for a utility room. 

I have always loved west Cornwall; the happiest memories of my childhood are here. It’s the conflict of ocean meeting granite, and I like the way that I feel close to New York City. There is almost no land between me and New York City, and that is how I like it.  

I am not the furthest west Jew in England. There are two in Mousehole, two miles west, and when my mother is at her house, which I fantasise she will open as a walkers’ hostel specialising in walkers who are very interested in Jewish history, I fall to only the fourth furthest west Jew in England. If my son is standing between me and Land’s End, I fall to fifth. 

There is a small Jewish community in Cornwall, and it is eclectic. It could hardly be anything else as we huddle together, as if for warmth. There are Liberal Jews and Reform Jews and Conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews. There are probably Pagan Jews, which, if I am very truthful, is my true denomination. I saw a huge magnolia tree in a Cornish garden and I liked this tree so much I decided it had a small god inside it.  

“The temperature dropped as I approached”, I told my husband, awed. He replied, as if monotheism was completely wasted on me: “It was the shade”. If I went more often to the services, which are at a school, or, during the high holidays, at a plushly renovated barn, I could tell you definitively that the Orthodox Jews know all the prayers. But I have only been once, to join for Rosh Hashanah, when I heard the shofar echoing through the fields. I wondered if the cows were surprised. It’s a long drive to the Jewish barn. 

“How do I join?”, I asked the man who seemed to be running things. “Usually people come a few times to see if it’s for them”, he replied. “It’s the only living Jewish community in Cornwall” I told him. “So it’s for me.” I feel exactly the same way about Alcoholics Anonymous. I can identify with fishermen if it’s in my spiritual interests – and sometimes when it is not.  

So, this is my community, whom I never see because of the drive, but I pay my fees, and I suppose I will be buried in the Jewish plot in Paul Cemetery on the hill behind Mousehole. I feel very odd when I think about this, but I apparently have a great-grandfather buried down here too. He ran away from his family. My mother says he married an aristocrat. I wonder if he would be happier in Golders Green Crematorium. I know I wouldn’t be happy in Bushey, where my grandparents are. It’s too cold. But we all have to end somewhere.  

What do I do that is Jewish in Cornwall? I have always believed that I don’t have to do anything to be Jewish, but, as I want to say to the Jewish Socialists but don’t because you can never win a fight with the Jewish Socialists, thinking you quite like Karl Marx because you never met him doesn’t keep an ancient tribe together for three thousand years. You need substantially more magic than that. I am Jewish, and I know my lack of active Jewish observance is arrogant, and lazy, even if it comes from an iconoclasm I accept is a luxury. But I studied history – what else do I have to do to annoy people other than be Jewish? I am worried about my son’s Jewish identity, I once told my mother’s friend. She is a Holocaust survivor and she told me: don’t worry. Someone will call him a fucking Jew at some point.  Curse me, but I was reassured. 

I think my husband disapproves of this. Can’t we do Jewish things that are fun, he once asked. I must have looked completely amazed, and I said (and I meant every word): “It’s. Not. Supposed. To. Be. Fun. It’s OK for you, you can say you’re sorry and be forgiven. You only need to believe that Jesus will redeem you. Read the Bible. They were having a lot of fun with the Golden Calf and then came Moses with the law, and goodbye fun. And I’m waiting for the next pogrom. I’m sitting here in this chair waiting for it. My ears are pricked up, like the dog’s. There hasn’t been one in England since 1947. We’re definitely due one, and then maybe those idiots at Jewish Voice for Labour will be sorry.”  

He only wanted to have a conversation about Purim, or Sukkot, poor man. But I can’t tell a five-year-old boy that I’m waiting for the next pogrom. Even if, when my husband gave me a Jewish cookbook full of happy Jews stuffing their faces, I sneered: “of course, they are happy. They are American Jews. What do they know about suffering?” So I go to my son’s primary school and light the chanukiah and throw chocolate coins down on the table and hope that the teaching staff don’t think I am inculcating children to tolerate – and at best support – Zionism by giving them sweets.  

Then I get very excited about Easter eggs and hot cross buns, partly because I like Christian ritual – it’s comparatively restful – and partly so local people will like me and won’t think I want Newlyn to become what Jewish Voice for Labour call a Jewish ethno-state that, in this case, and only this case, lands a hell of a lot of fish.  

I do many things in Cornwall that make me feel a stranger to myself, and I wonder if they are small betrayals. I am hardly the first Jew to fall in love with English culture – have you been to Hughenden, Disraeli’s house in Buckinghamshire? I may not have peacocks or battlements. But I do have a farmhouse and an AGA. I have a small dog and I wonder if he is Jewish. I sense he is not, and this saddens me. I garden too. I like the violence: Tanya versus the plant.  

Passover in Trelissick
A long way from Egypt: Passover seder in the barn at Trelissick

Cornwall is very welcoming to Jews. I wonder if it is the paganism? Antisemitism has never thrived in pagan lands and Cornish churches – granite, lichen – feel like shrines with a steeple as an afterthought. Or something to guide the fishing boats, so why not? There was a Jewish community in Penzance once, and another in Falmouth. They came down for the tin boom in the eighteenth century. There is a former synagogue at the back of the Star Inn on Market Jew Street – Fresh local food. Traditional Ales – that looks like a grim holiday cottage.  

The Penzance grandees were kind to the Jews.  The synagogue was built on land leased from the Branwell family, one of whom married Patrick Brontë and produced Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. There is also a Jewish cemetery in Penzance, near the station. It is tenderly cared for by the council and it is fascinating because it looks so improbable.  It isn’t, of course – a-wandering we go.  The Cornish seem to enjoy this history. I went to a talk about the Jews of Cornwall in the church in Madron once. My mother and I were the only Jews and everyone got a pasty at the end. It was deeply weird.  

When I toured Mousehole School, thinking I might send our son there, I saw a plaque in the playground noting that the Jewish Free School in London was evacuated here. I cried instantly, but I didn’t want to tell the headmaster why. Did he think I am frightened of signage? I cried because in Poland they went to Treblinka and Auschwitz. In England they came to Mousehole, and they learnt to sail and fish, and they were happy.   

In Newlyn we bought our farmhouse from a Jewish woman, who now lives in Penzance. (Tenth most westerly Jew, at best.) I almost wish it was called The Jew’s House. I would like a sign that would swing in the gales. I had the vicar for Friday night dinner. He said he wanted an authentic Jewish experience, so I cooked a chicken and had a fight with my mother. “Well”, my husband said, near horizontal with embarrassment, “You did want an authentic Jewish experience”.  

From my neighbours I have had nothing but kindness, and curiosity. The lady who owns the pasty shop I go to each day asked me, very kindly, about the progress of my article on antisemitism within Labour. Another neighbour, who is German, insists on telling me how much he abhors antisemitism every time I see him, which is often. I had to tell him to stop. A mother at the local school appeared on my doorstep at Rosh Hashanah with a challah in her arms. She had looked up a recipe and baked it for me, and that is, without doubt, the most beautiful act of solidarity I have ever witnessed. I could literally taste her solidarity. A Quaker lady gave me a painting of the Jewish cemetery in Penzance, which she had made herself. I considered throwing it away after the Quakers proudly endorsed BDS, but instead put on top of the Welsh Dresser. I live in a village now, and I must pick my fights carefully. 

I wonder if moving to Cornwall, was an act of self-hatred but I think that about everything. I’m Jewish, after all.    

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