London JW3 Jewish Center Aims for Bit of American ‘Exuberance’ (The Forward)

Flashy JCC-Style Spot Rises on Busy Finchley Road

New Look: An artist’s impression of the sprawling new Jewish community center rising in north London.

Finchley Road, which stretches across London’s northern suburbs, is one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. Day and night, cars crawl along it, passing supermarkets, furniture stores, a popular multiplex and, lately, a vast construction site for a new project now nearing completion.

What’s about to be unveiled here is broadcast loud and clear by the sign alongside the site. This is to be the home of “a new postcode for Jewish life,” the sign announces — the United Kingdom’s first Jewish Community Centre.

Known popularly as JW3 — a play on the well-known NW3 postal code in which it sits — the JCC takes up 35,000 square feet on four stories. Its opening, set for September 29, will mark a historic moment in British Jewry’s self-definition — and not just because British Jews will have a state-of-the-art, multidimensional cultural center. Unlike New York, where Jewishness seems almost an extension of the city’s identity, Anglo-Jewish life, up to now, has tended to be quieter and more understated.

But JW3, in the words of its outgoing chief executive, Nick Viner, who was in charge of the project’s development stage, is about giving Anglo-Jewry some of the “exuberance of our cousins across the Atlantic.”

For all the waves that Jews have made in Great Britain in entertainment, science and politics, Jewish communal institutions — synagogues, student centers and meeting places — remain broadly beyond the gaze of the wider population. This is partly for security, but it goes deeper. Perhaps as a legacy of Europe’s history, British Jews, as Jews, try to keep their heads down.

“One only has to study the British Jewish press throughout most of the 20th century to appreciate that Jewish leadership put a lot of energy into reminding Jews to be as British as possible,” said Raymond Simonson, the JCC’s new CEO. “I grew up understanding how English Jews mostly regarded U.S. Jews as a bit too loudly Jewish.”

Things have changed on that front lately. Nowadays there are public Hanukkah lightings, Israel rallies and yearly Jewish cultural festivals. But the opening of the JCC as a permanent fixture offering its cultural fare to all of London will mark a boost in the community’s profile by several orders of magnitude.

“It is fairly radical,” Simonson admitted. “I want JW3 to take Jewish life out of the history books and documentaries and exhibition cases, and offer it in full 3-D, surround sound, Technicolor.”

Some still question whether Jewish Londoners need another cultural venue, with the high-brow London Jewish Cultural Centre — which has decades of experience running a successful program — a few miles in one direction, and the thriving Jewish Museum a few miles in the other. With Jewish Book Week and UK Jewish Film, fundraising events, youth movement programs and synagogue-based educational courses, London Jewry already has a crammed calendar — for a community a fraction of the size of New York.

But until now, London has never seen a sprawling Jewish space that attempts to do everything, in the American style: film, dance, food, art, education, highbrow, lowbrow, kindergarten, office space and more, pitched to the affiliated and unaffiliated alike.

The seed for this historic departure from Jewish life in the British mode was planted a little more than a decade ago, when philanthropist Dame Vivien Duffield visited New York. Touring the JCC in Manhattan, on the borough’s Upper West Side, she realized that London had nothing to compare to it or to other institutions, like the 92nd Street Y.

On her return, she fought to convince British Jews that this should change, eventually bringing politicians and communal leaders round.

It wasn’t an easy sell. After the plans were unveiled, concerns about the project as it progressed were aired in the pages of the Jewish Chronicle, British Jewry’s newspaper of record.

“It’s a great idea,” enthused Andrew Gilbert, the chairman of Britain’s Reform movement as the project launched, in 2003. “But…my belief is that the Orthodox rabbinate in this country will destroy it. If it succeeds, it will have to fundamentally change the nature of cross-communal interaction in the community.”

A few years later, when the economic crisis led to a suspension of work on the project, Allan Morgenthau, then vice-president of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, commented, “A lot of donors feel that money is required for social services, which are under enormous pressure.”

But ten years and some $76 million of Duffield’s and other donors’ money later, such skepticism is, for now at least, in abeyance. Both supporters and those who have harbored doubts are waiting to see London’s response to the imminent unfolding of a strikingly rich inaugural program: 1,000 events over the first few months, bringing in art, drama, film and more.

Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey will be stopping by, as will Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, acclaimed author Edmund De Waal and myriad others. To attract those for whom participation comes via the stomach, there will be a kosher restaurant, helmed by chefs who previously worked for Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born master chef. “We will offer a chance to experience the very best of living Jewish arts, culture, learning, community and life,” Simonson said.

With a tree-lined piazza, a plush 60-seat screening room, an auditorium that converts into a function room, a kindergarten, a rehearsal space and offices, the London JCC is clearly different from anything the community has had before in scale and style — a reality evident to advance visitors on preview tours, even as construction workers in hard hats put together the finishing touches.

Duffield wants JW3 to become one of London’s key cultural landmarks for Jews and non-Jews alike. That includes especially “people who are Jewish but have forgotten,” she said at an invitation-only preview event in July. She expressed the hope that the center’s offerings will entice them to dip in again.

To encourage this, board members have been drawn from all backgrounds, including the historically unaffiliated. In a bid to challenge intra-communal divides, Duffield has also engaged as much with Orthodox leaders like Lord Jonathan Sacks, Great Britain’s outgoing chief rabbi, as with leaders of the more liberal Jewish streams, like Rabbi Julia Neuberger. There will be no religious services at JW3, enabling everyone, from the traditionally observant to those who are atheist, to take part.

Limmud, the annual festival of Jewish programs and learning that originated in the U.K., and to which some 2,500 U.K. Jews flocked last year, offers a model of the approach the London JCC will take, albeit in a permanent site, and all year round. It’s thus no coincidence that Simonson was recruited after serving as Limmud’s first full-time executive director, nor that other prime movers came via the organization – from the erstwhile creative director, Juliet Simmons (a onetime Limmud conference chair), to Clive Lawton, a board member and Limmud co-founder.

“I don’t think JW3 is really about uniting all shades of Jewish life, and don’t think it’s going to have a huge take-up from the Haredi communities,” said Richard Verber, co-chair of this year’s Limmud festival. “But with a kosher restaurant and sensitive Shabbat policy, it should be able to attract religious and secular Jews from mainstream Anglo-Jewry.”

This post was originally published by The Forward. Read the original here.

Gossip Girl recap: New York, I Love You XOXO (the finale)

gg-finale

So Georgina Sparks is now Blair Waldorf’s aunt. Or should that be Mrs Chuck Bass? After 121 episodes, six long series, nigh on a thousand parties and too many love triangles to count, Gossip Girl is at an end. Josh Schwartz’s series about the privileged and genetically blessed going about their fabulous business on the Upper East Side is now consigned to the dustbin of television history.

Although it never attracted as many viewers as Schwartz’s first outing into the lives of the rich and glamorous – airing as it did at the dawn of the democratisation of illegal television downloading – there’s no denying that Gossip Girl made an impact.

From its two fingers up response to groups concerned about its risqué content – including an advertising campaign based on their criticisms – to the regular tabloid appearances of its young stars, Gossip Girl was more than just a teen soap opera.

Of course, by the end, what started as an unashamedly campy drama that pushed boundaries with its scandalous storylines had become a shadow of its former self. Still, the double-bill finale sent the show – and Gossip Girl HIMself – out with a bang.

First, a few criticisms. Ok, so Serena has maintained her slutty behaviour throughout, identifying new targets as each old week melts into the next, and Nate remains the same loveable dolt, dimpled and clueless. But all the same, between the fourth and fifth series it was as if the scriptwriters decided to start with a blank canvas. Gone was Blair the conniving, tawdry mastermind, the woman for whom no scheme was too big, only to be replaced with a damsel, working at the whim of whichever male rescuer she was being saved by that episode.

Toward the end, she became a parody of her former self, portrayed as a petulant child in her campaign against Nelly Yuki. The old Blair would never have fallen for the wimpy, wearisome prince, nor made a pact with God or allowed duty and responsibility to obstruct her relationship with Chuck.

The old Blair was no shrinking wallflower; she dictated events but never let herself be dictated by them. She did not need saving, ever.

boys-ep6As for Dan, in the first series he was the heart of the story; the innocent, thrown without a hope into a very different world. He was sweet, boyish and sympathetic – you rooted for him to win Serena’s heart, to triumph over the bullies, to be the outsider who was never, to quote his book, seduced by the inside.

Unfortunately, Dan’s undercover adventures on the UES saw him sucked in, until he was just another selfish, vain and airheaded brat. Gossip Girl thrived on the attempts to corrupt the innocent, to sully the virtuous. But by the time his book was printed, he was tainted almost beyond the point of return.

Chuck’s trajectory, on the other hand, was better. Taking him from heartless capitalist to fighter for justice and all-round good egg was a risky move, but the reason it worked was because throughout, he maintained his smirk, his insouciance, his utter contempt for the irrelevant or unfortunate.

Despite the flaws of the final series – Sage, Sage’s dull dad, the vom-worthy Ivy and Rufus fake-romance, Bart’s Sudanese oil dealings – the finale was delicious; an homage to the fans who have stuck it out through thick and very much thin, an ode to all the ridiculous, frothy fun of the XoXo collective.

First, the big question. Who was Gossip Girl?

Unlike Lost, during which audiences were encouraged to play a guessing game from day one, the identity of the mysterious tattle-tale wasn’t oft addressed. The decision to make Kristen Bell the voice of Dan Humphrey’s delusions was frustrating – what about how GG ruined Little J’s life, or incessantly mocked his actions? – but ultimately the best option.

Dan was the ultimate outsider, ever desperate to claw his way into the lives and loves of the Upper East Siders. Only he would have had the access and the ambition to chronicle ever good, bad and downright ugly detail of the gang. Only he wouldn’t think twice about sacrificing his father, sister, romantic interests and best friends on the altar of his quest for popularity and acceptance. GOSSIP GIRL

The great reveal wasn’t really that, what with everyone basically just chuckling and rolling their eyes in an “aw, Daa-annn” kind of way when they found out. Never mind how he had at various points paved the way for characters to cheat, be jailed, nearly die, face social ruin and widespread embarrassment.

It was more, darn it gang, why didn’t we figure that out!

But of course, this show has never been about Gossip Girl. It’s been about the girls (and guys) gossiped about. So the finale had to wind up every loose end, with heartwarming flashbacks of Vanessa (hair still dreadful, still not permitted to return to Manhattan), Little J (inevitably, Sage’s idol) and Eric.

No return of Scott, nor stalker Juliette, Hillary – threesome with Dan and Vanessa – Duff, nor Carter. But Michael Bloomberg made a cameo, and there was plenty of Dorota (her survival secret? She’s been downing vodka this whole time). And Bell, and Rachel Bilson, appeared in a marvellous meta movie-of-Gossip-Girl-moment that had more than a little trace of the Dawson’s Creek finale about it.

As for our gang. Ivy got her comeuppance, albeit at the hands of someone only a tad less morally questionable than herself. Lily found herself a new-old husband again, after redoing Bart’s funeral (I’m shocked that she didn’t use it as an excuse to plan another fabulous society soiree!) Sage was dumped (obviously – in the 20 year reunion, Nate will still be picking up random floosies and ditching them after a month, while Chuck advises him of the joys of settling down).

In any case, Archibald has a successful media company (good to know journalism will still be going in five years time) and a possible electoral run to consider. So, in essence, he has become exactly the man his grandfather wanted to be. But with better dimples.

minionsBlair and Chuck (it was never going to be Dan, or Nate, or anyone) found their happy ever after, with a nostalgic wedding starting at the steps of the Met, and spawned a darling mini-Chuck to love and adore (although with Dorota there for the tough parenting).

And Dan and Serena – less beauty and the beast, more arrogance and the dimwit – finally tied the know, five years after they fell back in love (although presumably with myriad splits and hiccups in the meantime).

So that’s it. No more blonde with her boobs out at funerals and other inappropriate times (S), no more smug, dastardly and ever so well-coiffed (Chuck), no more adorably clueless (Nate) and social-climber bordering on stalker (Dan), and no more bitchy, queen of mean, ne-headbanded Queen B. Unless, of course, you fancy rewatching it all from the very beginning?

My week in writing

On Tuesday I was at Brent Town Hall for the resolution of a case that has dragged on for several years. The Van Colles, a couple whose son was killed by a former employee who he was due to testify against, have fought for a long time for Hertfordshire Police to acknowledge wrongdoing.

Their son had warned an officer that his killer was threatening him, yet nothing was done. Despite a High Court and Appeals Court win, the Law Lords found against the family, and this week their case finally went to the European Court of Human Rights. Sadly for the family, the judges did not find in their favour. As they told me shortly after finding out the result, “we had to do it”.

I also reported on the latest – perhaps the final – stage in the dispute over the future of Glasgow’s only Jewish school, after the chair of the Parents Council announced his resignation. What it will mean for the future of the school remains to be seen. And as the Batsheva tour continued, with protests at every stop, I reported on the arrest of a man for making an anti-Jewish slur.

Elsewhere, I rounded up the winners and losers among the Jewish candidates who stood for election and re-election in the US last week, noting that Rabbi Shmuley Boteach failed in his bid. And I filled our regular “My Week” slot with a look at my trip to New York during the election and after the hurricane hit.

On Wednesday, just a few hours before we went to press, news came that a senior Hamas military commander had been killed in an Israeli air strike. From the start of Operation Pillar of Defence, I have been part of the team keeping the JC website up to date, with video and news coverage. On press night, I looked in particular at the war of words that broke out on Twitter between the IDF account and that of the Al Qassam brigades – more than just your average Twitter feud.

My two weeks in writing

I’ve been abroad for a week, despite the best efforts of a superstorm to stop my flight from reaching the other side of the Atlantic. While I was in New York, I briefly covered the view on the street ahead of the presidential election, finding mainly that voters were somewhat disillusioned with Obama but not wildly keen on Romney either. In keeping with the spirit of the election, I also wrote a piece for Optima ahead of the vote, assessing the position of First Ladies in US political culture.

Elsewhere, I wrote about a shoe designer who truly is deserving of the label “fabulous” for his creations that resemble just about anything – anything, that is, except for shoes themselves. My personal favourite? The coffee cup stilettos; surely worth getting up and out for.

I reported on the protests against the Batsheva ensemble as the Israeli dancers began their national tour, and covered laughable comments from Lib Dem MP Sir Bob Russell, who professed his desire to see Israeli medicines labelled. But, he explained, he had no problem using them to make himself better, if need be. A coherent approach, that one.

And in an enjoyable interview with Dr Giles Fraser, the reverend told me about his agonising efforts to learn the Hebrew language; a skill I have not yet mastered to a level beyond very basic.

Delta’s fantastic Frankenstorm social networking

With tickets to New York to fly last Tuesday night, at the first reports of the Frankenstorm (or Hurricane Sandy, for those not on Twitter) I started to question whether I’d get there. By the Sunday afternoon, with flights being cancelled all over the shop, evacuations of huge areas of land and states of emergency declared in several states, getting there looked even less likely.

So I decided to tweet Delta, the airline I was due to fly with, to find out how to proceed if my flight was cancelled. Their account looked fairly active (plenty of companies have Twitter accounts that haven’t been touched for weeks or even months) and I thought it was worth a try. At this point, my flight was still set to depart as scheduled, but I wanted to know their policy on refunds and rescheduling.

So far, so impressive. First thing on the Monday I did as they asked. More flights were being cancelled and the news about the storm wasn’t good, but my flight was still supposed to go ahead.

So I got on with my day, until late afternoon – with the news out of the East Coast getting progressively worse – when I checked my flight. “Cancelled” it read, in glaring letters. I followed the steps showing me how to reschedule online, but inevitably that didn’t work. After a lengthy period on hold, we discovered that having booked through a travel provider, Delta’s UK staff were not prepared to help. But the provider claimed not to know of the cancellation (then closed for the day, with no option for an out-of-hours solution) leaving us in a Catch 22 situation.

So I sent a tweet.

After another 40 minutes on hold, I checked my phone. Delta had replied, and I couldn’t have asked for them to be more efficient. After asking for my confirmation number, they soon responded with an offer of a flight for Thursday, with a stopover in Boston. Not only that, but they offered to extend our flight free of charge a day later than we were originally due to fly back. I asked for them to email a confirmation, and within 15 minutes I had one in my inbox. I checked my reservation online, and voila – my new details were in there.

The fact that I was able to change my flights – during the worst storm to hit the East Coast in a century – is a credit to Delta. But if I’d only tried via the phone line, I’m fairly sure I’d still have been at square one after the storm hit. The fact that I did this via a set of Twitter messages is fantastic. This is exactly why social media is so important for companies. Delta should be congratulated on a job well done.

How a New York visit made me more aware of home (The JC)

In vain, we searched for the pickle shop. Wandering around New York’s historic Lower East Side, it seemed improbable, impossible even, that we wouldn’t encounter a Yiddish-speaking man selling barrels of flavoursome and juicy cucumbers and telling us we had chutzpah when we tried to negotiate a good deal.

We did eventually find some (delicious, too), although only in a trendy coffee shop on a run-down but fashionable street, where the clientele ate them ironically with one hand on their Apple computers or their chai lattes.

Pickles aside, finding traces of Jewish life and history in New York was not much of a challenge. A century from its peak, the Lower East Side is as empty of Jews as it once was full. In that respect, it’s like London’s East End, a thriving hub reduced to a whisper. But what used to be there is still clear, from shops bearing the names of their Jewish founders to delis that are, if now no longer kosher, still steeped in an unequivocally Jewish cuisine, and streets and buildings adorned with the names of Jewish impresarios.

The history is not dissimilar to our own. Many Jews from far flung lands ended up in New York, but many, too, my ancestors among them, ended up in Liverpool, Cardiff – and the East End.

As in New York, they built lives, set up shuls, schools and newspapers, became visionaries, wrote books and built industries.

Physically, there is more to see in New York than in our old Jewish hubs; many of the buildings that British Jews once inhabited have gone, destroyed during the Blitz or torn down, with perhaps a solitary blue plaque to denote their presence. But, beyond this, what struck me during my stay was the locals’ pride in the past – particularly pride in this very Jewish story of survival and success against the odds.

Down the road from the café was the Tenement museum, offering heritage tours of the area and a video history of the “huddled masses” – Italian, Chinese and of course Jewish – who arrived there in the late 19th century. A look inside the tenement itself we had a glimpse into the lives of the Jews who came to Ellis Island from shtetls, impoverished and not speaking the language, only to leave the factories and the slums for a better life just a generation or so later.

This comment piece was first published in the JC. Read the rest of it here

Gossip Girl recap: The Fasting and the Furious

So, the thing about writing an entire episode centred on a specific day in the Jewish calendar is, get the basic facts right.

Surely Josh Schwartz – the inventor of Chrismukkah – should know that Yom Kippur is a 25 hour fast, not a 24 hour one. Hello writers, ever heard of Wikipedia.

That said, Yom Kippur is all about forgiveness, and while they bastardised key aspects of Jewish life, it was a pretty decent episode.

In the circus that has become Dan “I’m an awesome celebrity writer” Humphrey’s life lately, it seems his book is the one every producer in Hollywood wants. Serena’s formidable boss – who, clearly, is a bit crap if she’s staking her career prospects on a now-notoriously slutty college dropout – is particularly desperate.

So despite still being mad that Dan wrote “Sabrina” exactly as her real life alter-ego is – dumb, ditzy, not overly concerned with clothes and rather self-centred – Serena goes on a breakfast bid to convince Dan to give her the rights to the book. It sort of works, until Dan realises just how much of a big shot he is, but in the end, after a dastardly media leak, Serena wins the day.

So, basically, she’s put her career on the line so that her trainwreck teenage years can come to a big screen near you, showing she’s every bit as bright as Dan wrote her to be.

Perhaps the high point of the episode was when her boss noted: “If something doesn’t fall right into your lap, you don’t have a clue what to do about it.” Never a truer word spoken about Serena. Although I’d add “someone” as well.

For Chuck, Yom Kippur turns out to be the day he finds Judaism, via an Asian-Jewish convert therapist who he meets walking his best friend dog. Discovering her religious identity – “probably a smart move in your line of work” he says, propagating the arguably–true stereotype that New York Jews are more neurotic than their non-Jewish citymates – he decides to pay a trip to Shul.

Well, sort of. Actually, he donates $100 dollars to Chabad then, when sexy-secretary therapists psycholanalyses him for the sad-case he is, has a moment of awakening about his life.

Chuck Bass at Chabad. Wow. Mostly they just ply people with sushi and alcohol (and, obvs, Jewish learning); this would be a sure-fire way to up their attendance.

In Nate and Ivy’s world of high-class muckraking, Liz Hurley is on the prowl. After some typically bizarre scenes involving him considering what JFK would do, Nate stays true to his moral compass, though Ivy hands over the secret incriminating files from the VdW safe.

What’s this we see? Liz Hurley in some kind of pre-season five Gossip Girl related scandal?

Perhaps it will be that she’s actually a fembot. It would explain her appalling acting.

Over at the Waldorf’s, Cyrus is back holding Yom Kippur (with kugel and, of course, champagne – the perfect remedy for more than a day of dehydration) and Blair’s baby secret is out.

After a big to-do with the royal witches, prince McDull chooses Blair over mummy. But with his discovery of Blair’s Secret Baby Daddy Envelope, it looks as if he’ll soon be regretting that decision.

Bring on the episode where the Prince is run out of town for daring to mess with the natural order of Gossip Girl.