Leopoldstadt by Tom Stoppard

Wyndhams Theatre, London

I HAVE WATCHED AND GREATLY enjoyed many plays by Tom Stoppard. So, it was with high expectations and great excitement that I booked good tickets for his latest play, “Leopoldstadt”, which is about a tragic period during Austria’s history, a time that interests me greatly. The play follows the history of a Jewish family living in Vienna between the late 19th century and about 1955. Like many Jewish families living in Germany and Austria, they were determined to appear increaslingly less Jewish and ever more like their gentile neighbours, a process known as ‘assimilation’. As Amos Elon demonstrates in his wonderful book, “The Pity of it All”, the more assimilated the Jewish people became, the less they were tolerated by their mostly anti-Semitic neighbours. Stoppard’s play attempts to portray this sad state of affairs in “Leopoldstadt”. His play was more like a history lesson than a compelling work of drama.

“Leopoldstadt” was being performed in London’s magnificent Wyndhams Theatre. Frankly, although there were a few wonderful scenes in the play, I was mostly disappointed. Although it was clearly a heartfelt and moving exploration of part of his family’s history, Stoppard has written far better and subtler plays in the past.

Preaching prejudice

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MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

The pencil and the peas

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I spent three years working on the experimental aspects of my PhD topic at University College London (‘UCL’) in a laboratory in the Physiology Department. Throughout that time there were always one or two other PhD students working in the same room. ‘Wink’, our supervisor’s wife, was a chemist. She often worked alongside us. Generally, the atmosphere in the laboratory was very congenial.

We were joined by a new PhD student sometime during my second year in the lab. Fortunately, I cannot recall her name, but let’s call her ‘June’.

One morning, June asked me whether she could borrow a pencil from me. As pencils were few and far between in our lab, I said to her: “Make sure you give it back, please.” To which she answered in an unfriendly tone: “Don’t be so Jewish.”

Now, it so happens that I am born Jewish. Although I am the least observant (in religious terms) Jewish person you are ever likely to meet, I am not happy when the word ‘Jewish’ or ‘Jew’ is used pejoratively. Wink must have seen my face flush, because she said to June: “That was unnecessary.”

Although it was almost innocuous, the pencil incident made me wary of June.

Some month’s later, Wink and her husband invited all their PhD students to be their guests at the annual Physiological Society Dinner, which was being held at UCL. I was seated beside Wink and opposite June. When the main course arrived, there were green peas on our plates. I do not like these small round spheres at all.

June noticed me pushing them aside on my plate, and said: “Is your religion also against peas? I must remember that when I invite you around to my place for dinner.” Feeling my face warming, I said to June: “Even if you were to beg me to come to eat at your place, I would have no hesitation in refusing.” Hearing that, June’s face turned bright red. She stood up and without saying anything, left the dining hall. Wink turned to me, and whispered: “Well said, Adam.”

June abandoned her PhD and our lab not long after this dinner.

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Now, many years later, I am still sensitive about anti-Semitic remarks, but also deeply curious as to why European people make them, often when they have had little or no contact with Jewish people. In India, which I visit often, although there have never been many Jewish people there, there is barely, if any, prejudice against them. Often Indian people extol the virtues of Jewish people.