Alec is an earnest kid, a helpless non-conformist living in digs somewhere in Whitechapel sometime just before Cable Street, and the protagonist (because these sort of books aren’t supposed to have heroes) of Simon Blumenfeld’s first novel, Jew Boy.
His story is that of the second generation immigrant. A tent dweller displaced, he searches the streets of East London for something that better explains his sense of identity than either his parents’ stories of the old country he’ll never see, or his contemporaries’ sentimental tales of ‘pet jews… with snotty beards and greasy kaftans… the vichs and vots and schadchans laid on with trowels.’
Blumenfeld, a market trader and amateur boxer, was at the vanguard of a movement of young working class writers, painters and social activists that grew out of East London during the 1930s. Informed by the Young Communist League, the anarchist clubs, and the workers’ circle classical concerts, as well as the Yiddish theatres that had helped preserve the culture of the shtetl around Stepney and Whitechapel, they mixed politics and religion like their ancestors had mixed beetroot and sour cream. But politics and religion pair are never such comfortable bedfellows, and it’s Alec’s attempts to strike a balance between the two that form the crux of Jew Boy.
Blumenfeld said his inspiration for his male lead was Sam Berks, an East London Communist who claimed to hanker after ‘Communism without the Communists,’ but it’s hard to imagine Alec ever being quite so waggish. While his friend Dave, a mummy’s boy with a wandering eye, seems to skate through life with a nod, a wink, and the happy-go-lucky thoughtlessness of the wealthy and spoilt, Alec is thoughtful, serious and honest.
His underlying decency does mean that Jew Boy lacks some of the snap and crackle that brings contemporaries and kindred spirits like Kersh or Baron’s writing to life, but you can’t help but warm to Alec’s lack of guile, and his habit of saying exactly what he feels, with little regard for the trouble it might land him in. Rather than schmoozing the celebrated writer, Leopold, he writes him off as a charlatan in front of his fawning admirers, pointedly noting that his flat poetry is only ‘making Palestine safe for the Anglo-Dutch oil kings.’ And when he joins his girlfriend, Sarah, on a visit to meet her sister in bourgeois Barnet, he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the way she has totally rejected her past to assimilate to the middle classes.
Like Sarah’s sister, Alec has turned his back on his family, and the claustrophobic confines of the Jewish community, eventually taking up with a ‘shiksa’, Olive. But whereas Sarah’s sister has bought contentment and respectability with a subscription to Encyclopaedia Britannica, Alec’s journey is destined to be slower and more painful, as he struggles to reconcile all the contradictions he sees about him. Jew Boy charts his uncertain steps into the world that exists beyond Whitechapel, and his realisation that, although he defies any narrow definition or labelling, he is not alone.