Arsenal vs Spurs: Should the North London Derby Be a Jewish Holiday?

When Arsenal take on Spurs this Saturday, hordes of Jewish fans will break their sabbath to worship at the altar of football. Anthony Clavane, author of Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here: The Story of English Football's Forgotten Tribe gets that guilty pleasure...
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When Arsenal take on Spurs this Saturday, hordes of Jewish fans will break their sabbath to worship at the altar of football. Anthony Clavane, author of Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here: The Story of English Football's Forgotten Tribe gets that guilty pleasure...

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When Arsenal take on Spurs this Saturday, hordes of  Jewish fans will break their sabbath to worship at the altar of football. Anthony Clavane, author of Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here: The Story of English Football's Forgotten Tribe gets that guilty pleasure...

At the end of the 1970s, the Jewish Chronicle rang Bob Paisley to enquire whether his new signing, Avi Cohen, was orthodox. “Orthodox what?” the Liverpool boss replied. "Orthodox midfielder? Orthodox defender?" If Avi was an orthodox Jew, the journalist explained, he couldn’t play on a Saturday. "But I've got half a dozen like that already," quipped Paisley.

The Israeli defender was so unorthodox he actually turned out for Liverpool on Yom Kippur – to the great horror of his country’s media. Some Israeli writers even invoked the concept of divine retribution to explain the goal he gifted Southampton on the Day of Atonement with his badly-misjudged backpass. I have always felt bad about watching football on that day. In fact, despite not being religious, I still suffer slight pangs of guilt watching football on a Saturday. As my old headmaster once explained to me, Saturday is the Day of Rest, not the Day of the Match.

But maybe that’s part of the attraction. Like eating bacon, or sleeping with a Gentile, it’s a deliciously illicit activity. And, like driving to the synagogue on Shabbat, we all do it – but don’t like to talk about it. "It is virtually impossible in Britain,” David Baddiel once wrote, “to be Jewish and maleand notinterested in football.”

It didn’t matter if it was winter or summer – shabbas stopped at three O’Clock because they went to the match at Elland Road

Jews have been kicking balls around ever since Norwood Jews Orphanage thrashed Endearment 11-1 in January 1901, one of the first ever matches played in the Sunday Football League – a competition set up by the Jewish Athletic Association to increase interest in the game. And they have been following football, with a rare fervour, ever since thousands of Yiddisher boys caught the train from Whitechapel to White Hart Lane, to be greeted with the refrain: “Does your rabbi know you’re here?”

Two recent fascinating books about Manchester City, for example, were written by Jewish fans of the club: Colin Shindler and David Conn. For Shindler, the Blues were “a broad church, an open synagogue. Nobody cared what you did on Saturday morning if you were at Maine Road on Saturday afternoon.” The Jewish TV dramatist Jack Rosenthal frequently introduced football themes into his work. I remember, as a boy, being enthralled by his sitcom The Dustbinmen, whose central character was a Colin Bell nut. In one memorable episode, unable to get into the then-City ground at Maine Road, he gave a running commentary of the match to his gang whilst sitting on a wall outside; from the crowd noises he was able to identify players, free-kicks, corners and, of course, goals.

“Does your rabbi know you’re here?” used to be a song Spurs fans were taunted with. I even heard it aimed at Leeds supporters when I was growing up in the city. My rabbi certainly knew I was at Elland Road. Occasionally, at a midweek game, we would bump into each other in the car park. As a schoolfriend, who eventually became a cantor at one of the Leeds synagogues, said: “Our generation went to shul, came home, had a nice meal, and then – it didn’t matter if it was winter or summer – shabbas stopped at three O’Clock because they went to the match at Elland Road. It was that special day in the week. Maybe the fact that they went to Elland Road was part of the shabbas as well, as far as they were concerned.”

It could be argued that Arsenal have embraced the Jewish connection more enthusiastically than their rivals

In the Gentile mind, there is only one Jewish club of course. It is Tottenham Hotspur, not City, Leeds or even Arsenal, who are identified with yamulkahs, salt beef sandwiches and the Star of David. In the 1930s, according to a Manchester Guardian report, Jews made up a third of the average crowd at White Hart Lane – equal to about 11,000 supporters regularly attending. At a 1934 north London derby the Daily Express’s Trevor Wignall discovered he “was nearly entirely surrounded by them…the majority of my neighbours were partisans of the Spurs. They were vociferous to a degree but they were good losers in that they agreed that their team was outplayed.” But why did so many East End Jews support the club? They were, after all, closer to West Ham. The simple reason is that the public transport network made access to the stadium from the east and centre of London relatively easy; no other ground in Londonwas as easy to get to. For secular Jews who were happy to travel by train, the Stoke Newington and Edmonton Railway from Liverpool Street, near Spitalfields, allowed them to observe their new shabbat ritual of cheering on The Spurs.

Since the Second World War, most London Jews have lived in north London. It could be argued that Arsenal have embraced the Jewish connection more enthusiastically than their rivals. In 1965, for example, they moved forward a league match against Northampton Town, and delayed their original kick off time by over an hour, to avoid a clash with Yom Kippur.” By 1951, when Hapoel Tel-Aviv toured Britain, the club’s fan-base had grown considerably. Of the Israeli side’s three matches – against Manchester United, Rangers and Arsenal – it was the one at Highbury which created the most excitement. In his programme notes, Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker highlighted the “good relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of the club”.

Over the years, as the Jewish community has become increasingly secular and integrated, football has become – in some ways – its new religion. I’m not saying that Jews are more passionate than non-Jews. But, in Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, I argue that our obsession with the game is all about belonging. My great-uncle Louis Saipe, the Leeds Jewish community’s unofficial historian, once wrote: “I am proud and happy that I am a Jew, and even prouder and happier that I am an English Jew from Leeds.” I have lived in exile down south for many years now but every time I come back to the capital of God’s own country I think about this sentence. All three things – my Leedsness, my Jewishness and my Englishness – have interacted to form my identity. And all three came together in the form of Don Revie’s great Leeds side. When I first stood on the Elland Road Kop, I was aware of belonging to a minority culture, but that didn’t seem to matter. On the contrary, as a teenager, being Jewish and a football fan amounted to the same thing. Either way, Saturday remained the most important day of the week. It still is.

Does Your Rabbi Know You're Here: The Story of English Football's Forgotten Tribe, by Anthony Clavane, is out  now

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