In ‘This is Europe,’ Ben Judah defies today’s landscape of books
On this week’s episode of JI's podcast, Rich and Jarrod are joined by author and journalist Ben Judah, for a conversation on his newest book, ‘This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now,’ and the continuous changes facing the region's Jewish communities
Alexandra Chan for the Jewish Chronicle
British-French author and journalist Ben Judah, who sat down with Jewish Insider last month to discuss the launch of his third book, This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now, joined JI podcast co-hosts Rich Goldberg and Jarrod Bernstein to delve deeper into his new book, which traces the impact of immigration throughout Europe, and discuss his writing process and the ever-changing landscape for Jews on the continent.
Below are excerpts of the conversation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rich Goldberg: Your new book, This Is Europe, a follow-up to a very similar genre, which was critically acclaimed, This Is London: Life and Death in the World City. I’m curious, how did you come to writing this kind of book, and especially this kind of series?
Ben Judah: I first decided to write my book on London when I had returned mentally and physically to the city after spending a lot of time working on Russia, and I felt that I didn’t recognize the London that I’d grown up in. The city had been so transformed by a giant influx of migration and money from the rest of the world, and I wanted to bring some of the techniques of a foreign correspondent to London, and the chief amongst them was the assumption that you don’t know what you’re facing, and that you approach things with an open mind. So my book, This Is London, it’s a journey around London with me, as a narrator… And when I wanted to write a follow-up book, I decided I wanted to write a book about Europe, and I decided that I wanted to push that technique one bit further, and that is by getting rid of the narrator. I felt that the narrator is the sort of old-fashioned European travel writer, this sort of great white male wandering around in tweed across Europe or the Middle East; it sort of got in the way of speaking and listening to the people I’ve met.
Jarrod Bernstein: It just strikes me that you must have an editor with a ton of confidence in you to let you go on this journey.
Goldberg: I think back in college to some of the sociology-type readings that we were assigned, and one that always stood out to me, because I’m from Chicago, was a very famous book, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in The Other America, by Alex Kotlowitz, where he really has a very similar style of bringing you into the story of these two kids growing up in the public housing of the city of Chicago. You, though, are taking that on to a whole new level with like 50 stories, you know, 20-some cities, I mean, this is a lot.
Judah: I wrote this book sort of in defiance of the fact that when I go into the bookshop these days, I’m just so depressed. I see all these incredibly thin books written in like two weekends in the Hamptons that are basically just campaigns, they were written by kind of grifting journalists in order to, you know, give talks, give speeches or do consultancy for x and y. And then when I look at the fiction table, I’m even more depressed, because it’s millennials writing these kind of MFA novels that are stuck in the dead-end of modernism…And I think that both this kind of decline in journalism, this decline in novel writing, has abandoned, the great social endeavor of nonfiction and fiction. You look at somebody like [Honoré de] Balzac, like La Comédie humaine, you know, it’s just very inspiring to me. The guy was just banging out novels that are a bit like journalism in the 19th century… I wanted to capture a bit of that. And also, you mentioned that great book about Chicago, like Americans are much better at nonfiction journalism than Europeans… And so I was really inspired by a lot of that American writing.
Bernstein: Do you think, given the kind of new and very deepening ties between the United States and Ukraine, there will be, following the war, a renaissance in the Ukrainian-Jewish community because of those ties?
Judah: It depends how the war ends. If it actually ends, there’s a chance that these communities could consolidate again…and that’s why the war ending well for Ukraine is also a Jewish cause, because this kind of indeterminate gray zone is terrible for Ukraine, because it can’t join NATO, can’t join the EU, it can’t rebuild, and it also kind of starts to wither the Jewish community.
Goldberg: What is the trajectory today for French Jews?
Judah: So the first thing is, that is a reasonably large Jewish community. That is, by some measures, the third-largest Jewish community in the world after Israel and the United States — it’s got scores of schools and synagogues, and per capita, like more kosher restaurants than the United States… So looking at this, what’s happened? You know, France has been in a cycle, where you get a cycle of people who don’t have any jobs in the suburbs, they’re angry and upset, they’ve been policed by people who are very violent and racist, you know, then you get explosions of anger, the police crack down even harder, this spirals up and up and up. In various of these spirals that have been going on since about 2005, various synagogues have been attacked and Jews have been accused or viewed as like metaphors for the state, for the elites, for money, for banking, you know, and whenever things go wrong in the Middle East, because you’ve got predominantly Sephardic Jewish communities in these areas very close to Israel, abutting North African, Arab Berber communities, you get a lot of tension that rises very quickly there. So that’s sort of the big thing that’s going on.
Bonus lightning round: Favorite Yiddish word or phrase? “I’m Baghdadi-Jewish on one side and I’m German-Jewish on the other, so Yiddish was not really very present in my family how I grew up. I do love the Yiddish language, there’s lots of, kind of, cool things about it. I guess the Yiddish phrase I like best is probably the phrase, “the schnorrer,” I think that the power of that phrase and evocativeness is just such a wonderful, I don’t think it could have existed in any other language in any other context, and it just feels like the most Jewish of words.” Favorite Jewish food? “I’ve got a theory here, which is that the Ashkenazim do the best desserts. Or there’s never really, I think, been a competitive Sephardic, kind of, Mizrachi kind of sugar glaze, sort of rugelach competitor, I guess. Rugelach and babka would be my favorite… I like all the traditional Iraqi Jewish foods best. The sambusaks and the soups and the kibbeh, and all of that, I think [are my] favorite.”